Study On The Book Of Romans If you would like to comment on one of the lessons simply click on the title of the lesson and you will be take to the lesson page where you will find a comment section at the bottom.
*The material for these studies is from Jon Courson’s Commentary by Thomas Nelson Inc., R. Kent Hughes Preaching the Word series by Crossway, and Warren W. Wiersbe’s Commentary by Chariot Victor Publishing, and from James Montgomery Boice’s Expositional Commentary published by Baker Books, and from The Message of Romans, John R. W. Stott published by Inter Varsity Press, unless otherwise noted.
There are times in a study of Paul’s writings when it seems that the apostle has lost track of his argument. It is because his thought is so rich and because he has the habit of moving on quickly from one connected thought to another, We have found this in chapters 5 through 8 of this letter, and we see it in Paul’s other writings too. That seems to be the case in the verses we have been studying from Romans 9. Has Paul lost track of his argument? We are wrong if we think so. For at the very end of this section, in verse 24, Paul in a masterful way comes back to the point from which he started out, stating that salvation is for those whom God has chosen and called, “not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.”
Verse 24 is not only a return to the point at which Paul began, it is also a wrap-up of his first main argument showing why God has not been unfaithful to Israel or, to use the language he himself uses, why the Word or purposes of God have not failed. That means that verse 25, to which we come now, is beginning a new section of the argument. There are four quotations in verses 25-29, two from the minor prophet Hosea and two from the major prophet Isaiah. The passages from Hosea show the acceptability of the Gentiles. The passages from Isaiah show that the call to salvation has never included all Israel.
The Beatles once recorded a song called “Nowhere Man.” It grew out of a casual, dismissive remark one of them had made about somebody they’d just met. It was met as a scornful put-down, and if the person they were referring to had heard it, it would have hurt. The prophets knew all about giving people names and particularly about giving Israel names, names which reflected what God was thinking about them. The first two chapters of the prophet Hosea are full of this kind of thing, and Paul draws on two key promises from that passage. He quotes them in reverse order, beginning with Hosea 2:23, where the prophet declares to the Israelites that God will receive them back again after rejecting them. Then he quotes the earlier passage, Hosea 1:10.
What is Paul saying with these somewhat obscure, though clearly dramatic, quotations? Paul is continuing to tell the story of Israel, the story of Abraham and the other patriarchs, which continued through the Exodus, and which now reaches the period of the prophets. Paul’s point, made here in poetic fashion, is in essence quite simple: the prophets themselves promised that God would make Israel pass through a period of judgment in order then to come out into salvation. First Israel had to hear, and bear, the name “not My people,” before they could again be called “My people.”
Paul’s point, yet once more, is that God has indeed been faithful to His promises. He has not gone back on His Word. He said He would have to whittle Israel down to a remnant, and that’s what He has done. To imagine that Israel could be vindicated as it stood – that all Jews would automatically be classified as true “children of Abraham” – would be to ignore what Israel’s own Scriptures had been saying all along. The problem of Jewish unbelief is not, then, the problem of God failing to keep His Word, but the problem of Israel not hearing what that Word had been saying. All of this makes Paul’s chief point, namely, that God’s rejection of Israel as Israel and His election of the Gentiles should have taken nobody by surprise, particularly the Jews, since it was prophesied clearly in the Jewish Scriptures.
The point of the Hosea quotations is that God had announced in advance that He would save Gentiles. The point of the Isaiah quotations is that He had likewise announced that not all Jews, but only a remnant of Israel, would be converted. There is an interesting tie-in between Isaiah 10:22-23, the first of Paul’s quotations from Isaiah (v. 27), and Hosea 1:10, the second of his two quotations from Hosea, which was just given (v. 26). In chapter 1 of Hosea, verse 10 begins with the words “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand of the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted.” Paul does not quote those words in Romans 9:26, though he quotes the second half of the verse, because the words are about Israel explicitly and Paul wants to use the verse as a promise of God’s future blessing on the Gentiles. Those words remind Paul of the verse from Isaiah, which he cites next: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.” Do you see what this Isaiah verse is saying? Leaving the unbelief of the Gentiles aside for a moment, isn’t it true that Isaiah 10:22 describe the generally poor results and great difficulties of Jewish evangelism?
In Romans 9:27 the words “the remnant,” refer to the remnant of God’s electing choice, who will be saved. As for the rest, “The Lord will carry out His sentence on earth with speed and finality” (v. 28). That is, the rest will perish in God’s final judgments. Verse 29, the second of Paul’s two quotations from Isaiah, picks up from the second half of the first quotation, also referring to judgment. But this is a different kind of reference. The first quotation describes what is surely going to happen. This verse describes what is sometimes called “a condition contrary to fact.” It teaches that unless the Lord had left a remnant, the people would have been like those of Sodom and Gomorrah, that is, entirely wiped out. They would have ceased to exist. Yet this is not the case. If fact, God has left a remnant, which, as Paul is going to say in Romans 11, God has, “chosen by grace” (v. 5). Apart from the grace of God there will be destruction, fire from heaven! The only thing that keeps this from happening to all of us is the mercy and kindness of God. It is only because of the explicable grace of God that any of us are spared the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Romans 9:25-29 Reflection Questions:
How do verses 25-29 also emphasize Paul’s point that God is faithful to His promises to Israel?
How do these verses respond to the charge that God is not just?
God has to reshape Israel because of their failure to live out the purpose to which they had been called, just as a potter molds a lump of clay for his own ends. The church has also been called to a purpose in the world. What is that purpose and how well is the church living this out?
What needs to happen for your Christian community to live out its purpose more strongly?
Romans 9:22-24 speak of five of God’s attributes: wrath, power, patience, glory, and mercy. Two of these have just been mentioned: power in verse16 and mercy in verses 15, 16, and 18. Two others, wrath and glory, were introduced earlier in the letter. The new and unexpected attribute in these verses is patience, which Paul declares has been shown to “the objects of His wrath – prepared for destruction.” The verses teach that God’s treatment of the wicked is neither arbitrary nor meaningless, but is intended rather to make His wrath, power, and patience known, just as, on the other hand, His treatment of those who are chosen to be saved displays His mercy. In both cases the glory of God is achieved by God’s exercising or making known these attributes.
God’s chief end is to glorify God. Therefore, since God is all-powerful, this end will certainly be achieved. It will be achieved in every detail of history and in the destiny of every individual. Every person who has ever lived or will ever live must glorify God, either actively or passively, either willingly or unwillingly, either in heaven or in hell. Your will glorify God. Either you will glorify Him as the object of His mercy and glory, which will be seen in you. Or you will glorify Him in your rebellion and unbelief by being made the object of His wrath and power at the final judgment. In fact, if you are rebelling, you are glorifying Him even now, because even now His patience is displayed in you by His enduring your sin for a time, rather than sending you to hell immediately, which you deserve. These verses teach that the patience of God is seen in His toleration of the wicked for a time.
We might think that God shows patience to the wicked only to allow the sins of such persons to accumulate so that He might more fully display His wrath and power in judging them at last. True, that is one purpose. It is what has been said of Pharaoh. God raised him up (even hardened his heart) so that the full measure of the divine power might be displayed in him and God’s name might be proclaimed in all the earth. But that is not the only purpose. The patience of God is also displayed so that those whom God is calling to faith might have space to repent. Both purposes are good. The second purpose is gracious.
There is another text that needs to be drawn into this composite picture of God’s patience as discussed in Paul’s writings, and that is 1 Timothy 1:15-16, in which Paul speaks in a very moving way of God’s unlimited patience to himself. He calls it a trustworthy saying. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life.” What Paul is giving in these verses is a personal illustration of what he discusses doctrinally in Romans. Paul was aware that he had been chosen by God in Christ from before the foundation of the world. But he also remembered with sadness how he had been allowed to go his own self-righteous and wicked way for years until God called him.
Yet God was patient with Paul. Instead of striking him down, God suffered him to march along his own self-righteous path, heaping sin upon sin, until at last God called him to faith in the Jesus he was persecuting. God did it so the horror of Paul’s earlier conduct might form a more striking contrast to the grace, mercy, and glory of God that he afterward received. This isn’t just Paul’s story of course. It is the story of believers throughout history. How patient God was with Adam and Eve! Surely God was not willing for our first parents to perish but rather that they might come to repentance and find eternal life. In the New Testament, think of the believing thief who died on a cross at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The man was a murderer as well as a thief. But God was patient with him, sparing him throughout a very long life of sin so that in the very last hours of his life he might demonstrate that grace can come even to the worst of men and in their final moments. Surely, “our Lord’s patience means salvation” (2 Pet. 3:15), and “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance” (Rom. 2:4).
Has it led you toward repentance? Is it doing so now? Let us look at this matter through by these observations: (1) God is patient for a reason. If you are not in hell today, which you are not though you deserve to be, it is because God has been patient with you, and the purpose of His patience is to lead you to repentance. God’s patience is a great thing. We have explored some of its greatness in this study. But you must not abuse it. It is meant to do you good. The day of God’s patience is the day of His grace. (2) God will not be patient forever. Although God’s patience is great, it is not eternal. We are warned in Scripture that God’s wrath has been withheld by His patience, but that it is building up like waters behind a great dam and that it will one day be poured forth. God’s patience leads to repentance, but you must still repent. You must believe on Jesus. If you do not, you will face God’s judgment in the end, however much you may scoff at it now. (3) Because God is patient, we should be patient. The word patience is found in reference to God only three times. But here is the interesting thing: It is found as a virtue to be cultivated by Christians six times, that is twice as often as in reference to God. It is a fruit of the Spirit, and it is commended as a virtue in the Christian ministry. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, perhaps this is the application for you. We tend to be impatient with other people, especially with those we are trying to win to Christ. But God is patient, and we should be also.
There are four other attributes of God in verses 22-24. Wrath is one, but we are not called upon to show wrath. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Power is another, but God and not ourselves who must show power. Even glory is not for us to demonstrate. But we can show mercy. We are to be merciful people, remembering how God has been merciful to us. And above all, we can be patient. It is not easy to be patient, but let us try to be. And the God who is Himself patient may use our patience to draw many hurting people to the Savior.
Romans 9:22-24 Reflection Questions:
When was the last time you shared your personal testimony about God’s patience in your life?
What are some examples from the Old Testament and the New Testament of God’s patience?
Is there any way that God could have revealed the riches of His mercy and glory, exercised His sovereign choice in all this, and still leaves each of us responsible for his own decisions (free will) regarding God? Explain how man’s free will and God’s predestination could work together.
The human heart is a deceitful but very resourceful thing, and two ways it expresses these characteristics are by dismissing God, on the one hand, or blaming Him, on the other.
This is the kind of thinking Paul is dealing with in Romans 9:19-21, as he continues to teach about the sovereignty of God in salvation. In the first half of the chapter, he has been arguing that the matter of salvation God operates by the principles of election and reprobation, and he has answered the question: Is God just in so operating? He has shown that God is just, since God owes mankind nothing, salvation is by grace, and God rightly demonstrates all aspects of His glory, including His wrath and power as well as His mercy and grace, by so doing. But now the wicked resourcefulness of the human heart comes in. For, if a person cannot deny God’s sovereignty over human affairs and human destinies or even God’s right to save some and pass by others, as God does, the person will at least try to deny his or her own responsibility in the matter. So a new question arises: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists His will?” (v. 19).
This of course, is a major theological question: the relationship between the sovereignty of God and free will. It is a question that can be answered and has been, particularly by Jonathan Edwards in his treatise on “The Freedom of the Will.” But Paul doesn’t answer the question here, at least not directly. And the reason he doesn’t answer it is that he already has.
For this objection to have weight, the person making it must assume that God determines to condemn some persons without reference to what they are or do as sinners. It assumes that He creates some people only to damn them, to send them to hell, and that they are passive in the matter. But that is not what Paul has been saying. Reprobation means “passing by” or “choosing not to save.” And those whom God passes by chooses not to save are not innocent persons but sinners who are in rebellion against Him. God does not condemn innocent people. He condemns sinners only. But God does have the right to save or not to save sinners, as He chooses.
So the question is really an objection to God’s right to do what He does, which is what has been under consideration all along and which is why I have said that Paul has already answered it. Paul knows that the objection really rises out of the rebellion of the heart against God’s sovereignty. In fact, the very question is rebellion. For the query “Who resists His will?” is itself resistance. Human beings are sinners, are guilty, and they prove it even by the way they ask their questions. Therefore, Paul answers by reiterating once more that God has a right to do with His (sinful) creatures as He will.
We have already looked at the question. The answer (v. 20) and the illustration (v. 21) provide contrasts that are intended to put the question in its proper perspective and ourselves in our proper place. There are three of them: (1) Man and God. You and I are mere men and women set over against the God who made not only us but all things. It is ludicrous for creatures as small, ignorant, impotent, and sinful as we are to question the propriety of God’s moral acts. We may not understand what God is doing in any particular case, in fact most of the time we will not (see Isa. 55:8). For us to suggest that He is wrong in what He does is patently absurd. (2) What is formed and He who formed it. The contrast between man and God, the first, stresses the insignificance of one and the greatness of the other. This second contrast brings in another matter, namely, that we are mere creatures – God is the Creator – and therefore everything we are and have comes from Him, including even our ability to ask such questions. (3) The clay and the potter. Each of these three contrasts says the same thing. But each also adds a new element, and the new element here is the authority of the Old Testament, since the illustration of the potter and clay is drawn from the Old Testament and shows that the principle involved is a point of revelation (Isa. 29:16, 45:9, 64:8; Jer. 18:1-11).
Paul doesn’t seem to be quoting specifically from any one of these texts. But the points in Romans are exactly what these verses in the Old Testament also say: (1) It is absurd for a mere man or woman to fault God. (2) God has absolute sovereignty over His creatures, saving whom He will and condemning whom He will. (3) This is not an arbitrary selection, since His judgments are based on His justice in condemning sin. (4) Therefore, “turn from your evil ways…and reform your ways and your actions.” Instead of objecting to God’s actions, we should fear them and allow our fear of judgment to drive us to the repentance we need.
God’s purpose is not solely to condemn. The demonstration of His power and justice in judging sinners is a true part of what God is doing in human history, but it is not the whole thing. God is also making known the riches of His glory in the salvation of some, as these verses, particularly the next verses, show. Why should you not be among those who are saved?
If all God wanted to do was send people to hell, He would not have needed to tell us these things or anything else. There would have been no need for a Bible, no need for preachers to preach or messengers to explain and teach it, no need for a Savior to be held forth as the heart of the Bible’s message. If all God wanted to do was let us go to hell, all He would have needed to have done is nothing. We are capable of rushing off to hell entirely by ourselves. But God has not done that. He has provided a Savior. He has given us a Bible. You cannot bring God under obligation to save you by anything you might do, and indeed you have not done anything significant. But the way He saves people is by the preaching and teaching of His Word, which is what you have just received, and by the power of His Spirit working through it.
If what you have heard has made sense to you, if you know that God does not owe you anything, that you have actually spurned what good He has shown you, and that all you actually deserve from Him is judgment, then God is already using His Word to bring about the needed transformation of your heart. Now, instead of trying to tell Him that what He does is unjust, you will wisely and rationally seek His mercy through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, where alone it may be found.
Romans 9:19-21 Reflection Questions:
Paul recalls the image of a potter and clay from Isaiah 29:16, 45:9 and Jeremiah 18:1-6, which tells of a stage in Israel’s history when God was struggling with rebellious Israel. How is the image of a potter and clay helpful in understanding God’s attitude toward sinful Israel and the purpose He had for it to be a means of blessing to others?
In what ways has the teaching of today’s study encouraged you to be able to answer any questions that may arise when you are sharing the gospel with others?
Again, we are examining the most difficult portion of the entire Bible. Not only because it deals with election, which troubles many, but even more because it deals with reprobation, the doctrine that God rejects or repudiates some persons to eternal condemnation in a way parallel but opposite to the way He ordains others to salvation. Reprobation is the teaching we come to specifically in Romans 9:13-18, which makes these verses an excessively difficult passage for many, if not most, people.
The doctrine is brought into our text by two Old Testament quotations; Malachi 1:2-3, and Exodus 9:16. Paul summarizes the teaching in these texts by concluding, “Therefore God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden” (v. 18). In the view of many people, the doctrine these verses express turns God into an indifferent deity who sits in heaven arbitrarily assigning human destinies, saying, as it were, “This one to heaven, and I don’t care. This one to hell, and I don’t care.”
This is a caricature, of course. But it is something we must deal with, since no one can seriously attempt to study or teach the Bible, as I am doing, without confronting it. More to the point, it is impossible to study election without also dealing with its negative counterpart. We can’t have the positive side of election which is predestination, without reprobation, which is the negative side. John Calvin recognized this, as have many others in the course of church history. He wrote, “Election [cannot] stand except as set over against reprobation.”* It is easy to distort this doctrine, of course, as the caricature shows. We must proceed slowly and humbly, recognizing our own limited understanding. Still we must try to see what the Bible does teach about reprobation, since the subject cannot be avoided.
The place to begin is with the fact of reprobation, is taught in the Bible, regardless of the questions we may have. In other words, we must follow the same procedure with reprobation as we followed in the last study with its positive counterpart, election. There are many texts that teach reprobation. Here are a few: Proverbs 16:4, John 12:39-40, John 13:18, John 17:12, 1 Peter 2:7-8, and Jude 4. There are many other texts along these lines, but the clearest are those in Romans 9, which we are studying, since they use the word “hate” of Esau and “harden” of Pharaoh. In fact, verses 1-29 are the most forceful statement of double predestination in the Bible.
There are two important distinctions between election and reprobation. The question we must ask is this: Does God determine the destinies of individuals in exactly the same way so that, without any consideration of what they do or might do, He assigns one to heaven and the other to hell? We know He does in the case of those who are being saved, because we have been told that election has no basis in any good seen or foreseen in those who are elected. In fact, we are told in Romans, for Paul’s point is that salvation is due entirely to God’s mercy and not to any good that could be imagined to reside in us. The question is whether this can be said of the reprobate, too, that God has consigned them to hell apart from anything they have done, apart from their deserving it.
Here, there is an important distinction to be made between election and reprobation, which has been the view of the majority of Reformed thinkers and is the teaching embodied in the great Reformed creeds like the Westminster Confession of Faith. The confession teaches that both election and reprobation flow from the eternal counsels or will of God, rather than the will of man and both are for the end of making the glory of God known. But there are two important points of difference.
First, the confession speaks of the reprobate being “passed by.” Some will argue that in its ultimate effect there is no difference between passing by and actively ordaining and individual to condemnation. But while that is true of the ultimate effect, there is nevertheless a major difference in the cause. The reason why some believe the gospel and are saved by it is that God intervenes in their lives to bring them to faith. He does it by the new birth or regeneration. But those who are lost are not made to disbelieve by God. They do that by themselves. To ordain their end, God needs only withhold the special grace of regeneration.
Second, the confession speaks of God ordaining the lost “to dishonor and wrath for their sin.” That is a very important observation, for it makes reprobation the exact opposite of an arbitrary action. The lost are not lost because God willy-nilly consigns them to it, but rather as a just judgment upon them for their sins. In these two respects election and reprobation are dissimilar.
Some at this point may be wondering, “If the doctrine of reprobation is as difficult as it seems to be, why we should speak about it at all?” The first answer to that is that the Bible itself does. It’s part of the revelation given to us. This is also the primary answer to a person who says, “I could never love a God like that.” Fair enough, we may say, but that is nevertheless the God with whom you have to deal. Nothing is to be gained by opposing reprobation. But this is not a very satisfying answer, and there are satisfying and meaningful things to say about reprobation. It’s a doctrine that, like all other parts of Scripture, has its “useful” aspects (2 Tim. 3:16).
(1) Reprobation assures us that God’s purpose has not failed. The first benefit of this doctrine is the very thing Paul is teaching in Romans 9, namely, that God’s Word has not failed (v. 6). “But am I one of the elect?” you ask. It is easy to know the answer to that question: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and begin to obey Him. Those who do are the elect. That is how we determine who those persons are. (2) Reprobation helps us deal with apostasy. We all know people who have seemed to believe at one time, but who have then fallen away. Does this mean that God has failed them? No. It means that if they continue in their unbelieving state, they are not among God’s elect people. Apostasy does not show that the plan of God has failed. Reprobation helps us understand it. (3) Reprobation keeps before us the important truth that salvation is entirely of grace and that no works of man contribute to it. If none were lost, we would assume that all are being saved because somehow God owes us salvation, that He must save us either because of who we are or because of who He is. This is not the situation. All are not saved. Therefore, the salvation of the elect is due to divine mercy only. We must never forget that. (4) Reprobation glorifies God. As soon as we begin to think that God owes us something or that God must do something, we limit Him and reduce His glory. Election and its twin, reprobation, glorify God, for they remind us that God is absolutely free and sovereign. We have no power over Him. On the contrary, “God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden” (v. 18). God does as He wants in His universe.
When we understand that we are in the hands of a just and holy God and that we are without any hope of salvation apart from His free and utterly sovereign intervention, we will call out for mercy, which is the only right response. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” says the Almighty. If we believe that, our cry will be the cry of the tax collector: “God have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:15). And who can fault that doctrine?
*John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 947.
Romans 9:13-18 Reflection Questions:
Paul is making the case that all the physical descendants of Abraham never automatically shared equally in the calling of Abraham. From the beginning that promise was narrowed down to the line of just one of two of Abraham’s sons (Isaac). The promise further narrowed to just one of two sons of Isaac (Jacob). This narrowing process is nothing new. It’s the way God has always worked, Paul says. Indeed in light of the overall failure of Israel, God has seen fit to continue this process by having the ultimate fulfillment narrowed down to just one descendant of Abraham – Jesus, the Messiah – through whom God’s promise to bless all nations would be accomplished. How does this make Paul’s case that God hasn’t changed His mind (or broken His Word) about the Jews but that, from the beginning, He has treated them (and His promise to them) the same way as always?
In verses 14-18 Paul continues his review of the whole history of Israel. He began in verses 6-13 with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now he references Mosses’ encounter with Pharaoh some four hundred years later and Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The story in Exodus 33 is where God declares to Moses that He will proceed with His plan for the exodus even though the people have made the golden calf, amounting to a declaration of independence from the true God. This is the setting for verse 15 in particular. Why is this story in Exodus significant to Paul’s argument in chapter 9?
What is your feeling on reprobation?
To the human eye there may be a time when some of the true children of God are almost indistinguishable from people who are merely behaving as believers or are circulating among believers. But the difference is there nevertheless. It has been put there by God. And in the end, since some of these people have the life of God within them and some do not, these who possess that life will show it by their spiritual growth. The distinction between those who seem to be spiritual children and those who actually are is critical to understanding the next section of Romans.
Paul is dealing with a troublesome problem faced by himself and the other early preachers of the gospel. The original Christians were Jews. Thus they naturally began obeying the Great Commission by witnessing to their Jewish family members, friends, and neighbors. Since the promises of the Messiah were to Israel and since Jesus of Nazareth was that Messiah, according to their belief and understanding, Israel should have been willing to embrace Jesus. But Israel as a whole did not, and as time went on the people who were becoming Christians and the largest number of emerging Christian churches were overwhelmingly Gentile.
This was a severe disappointment to the early evangelists, even a great sorrow, as Paul’s opening paragraph in Romans 9 makes clear. But even more than this, it was a theological dilemma. The promises of God were to Israel, and yet Israel as a whole was unresponsive. Did this mean that God’s promises to Israel had failed, that is, that God had Himself failed? That God was impotent in the face of unbelief? Or did it mean that the promises of God could not be trusted? That in the matter of salvation God was simply free to change His mind? This is the problem Paul wrestles with in the middle section of Romans, chapters 9 through 11. The first of these introduced in Romans 9:6, is that the promises of God were not made to all the physical descendants of Abraham, but only to those whom God had elected to salvation and in whom He had therefore implanted or was implanting life.
Paul states this by saying, “It is not as though God’s Word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” A little later and a similar way, he contrasts those who are Abraham’s “descendants” with those who are His true “children” (v. 7). At first glance this argument may seem to be merely a novel idea, perhaps even an “argument from desperation,” as some would have it. But it is nothing of the sort. That not all Israel was true Israel was already and Old Testament perception. Every Jew was aware of the contrast made by the prophets between the nation as a whole and the remnant. It was increasingly obvious that the nation as a whole was apostate and that only a few Jews gave any indication of being among God’s genuine people. It was the same at the coming of Christ. The nation as a whole was going about business with little true faith at all, just as most people, both Jew and Gentile, do today.
We come now to the doctrine of election. We begin exactly where the apostle begins in Romans, namely, with the fact of election itself. The reasons are obvious. First, there is no sense arguing over the justice of God in electing some to salvation and passing over others unless we are convinced that He does. If we do not believe this, we will not waste our time puzzling over it. Second, if we are convinced that God elects to salvation, as Paul is going to insist He does, we will approach even the theodicy question differently. We will approach it to find understanding, rather than arrogantly trying to prove that God cannot do what the Bible clearly teaches. To seek understanding is one thing. God encourages it. But to demand that God conform to our limited insights into what is just or right is another matter entirely. So let me begin by saying that as long as we believe that God exercises any control over history or the lives of His people, then we must come to terms with election one way or another. It is inescapable. Election is an inescapable fact of human history.
What Paul does is go back to the earliest moments in the history of the Jewish people, to the stories of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and show that election operated there. We remember, of course, that the apostle is trying to explain why not all Israel has been saved and why the fact that they have not been saved does not mean that God’s purpose or promises have failed. In the case of these three fathers of the nation, Paul is going to show that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob became what they were by election and that others were not granted this privilege.
The biblical doctrine of election does not exclude the choice of nations for specific purposes in history, the doctrine does nevertheless also and more fundamentally refer to the choice of individuals – and that it is on this basis alone, not on any supposed right of birth or by doing of works, that a person is brought into the covenant of salvation.
How could it be otherwise, if the condition of fallen humanity is as bad as the Bible declares it to be? When we were studying chapter three of Romans we saw that Paul’s summary of the fall was expressed in these words: “There is no on righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11). This is an expression that is referred to as total or radical depravity. It means that there is not a portion of our being that has not been ruined by sin. Sin pervades all our actions and darkens all our natural understanding, with the result that, rather than fleeing to God, who is our only reasonable object of worship and our only hope of blessing, we flee from Him.
How could a creature as depraved as that possibly come to God unless God should first set His saving choice upon him, regenerate him, and then call him to faith? How could a sinner like that believe the gospel unless God should first determine that he or she should believe it and then actually enable him or her to believe?
Of course, that is exactly what God does. In fact, we have already seen this action explained at length in Romans 8, where Paul spoke of a five-step process involving foreknowledge (or election), predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. Those five terms describe the very essence of salvation, and the significant thing is that God is the author of each one. It is He who foreknows, He who predestines, He who calls, He who justifies, and He who glorifies. The only thing Paul is adding in Romans 9 is that this is entirely apart from any supposed right of birth or good works. It is due entirely to the will and mercy of the sovereign God. Election means that salvation is of God. It is His idea and His work, and therefore it is as solid as God Himself is.
If salvation were up to me, I would blow it. Even if I could choose God savingly, which I can’t, I would soon unchoose Him and so fall away and be lost. But because God chooses me, I can know that I am secure because of His eternal and sovereign determination. God began this good work. And “He who began [this] good work…will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Romans 9:6-12 Reflection Questions:
How can we be sure we are Christians? There are a number of specific questions to be answered that pertain to the matter. Do I believe on Christ? Have I been touched by knowledge of Jesus’ death for me, and have I committed myself to Him? Am I serious about following after Jesus, obeying His commands, and pleasing Him?
Ask yourself: Has my life been redirected? Is there anything I am doing now that I did not do before or would not be doing were I not committed to Jesus? And are there things I have stopped doing? Is Jesus my very own Lord and Savior? Do you testify of Jesus?
Am I learning about Christ? I know people who claim to be Christians who never go to a Bible study, never take notes of a sermon and never study the Bible on their own. If you are one of them how can you think of yourself as a Christian when you have no interest in learning about the One who gave Himself for you? How can you consider yourself a believer when you really don’t care about Jesus?
What is your feeling about the doctrine of election?
The opening paragraph of Romans 9 lists the extraordinary privileges and advantages of the Jews, God’s ancient people. In the words of Paul, they have been given “the adoption as sons…the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship… the promises [and]…the patriarchs.” But to this extraordinary list of privileges Paul now adds the greatest privilege of all, namely, that they are those through whom the Redeemer of the human race has come. “…from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
This is a very striking statement. For Paul is not only saying that the Messiah was born of Israel, that is, that He was a Jew. He is also saying that this Jewish Messiah, born of Israel according to the flesh, is, in fact, God. And he is saying it in a stark language. If we substitute the name Jesus for Christ, which we can do, since Paul is obviously writing about Jesus, we have the statement: “Jesus, who is God over all, forever praised!” Or, to simplify it even further, “Jesus…is God over all.” The sentence means that Jesus is Himself the only and most high God.
Yet this is not all the passage teaches. It actually contains four very important teachings, including Jesus’ deity. (1) The humanity of Jesus. The first heresy in church history was the denial of the true humanity of Christ. It was called docetism, from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to seem.” It taught that Jesus only “seemed” to be a man. There is none of this in the New Testament. For here in Romans 9:5, as in other passages, the biblical writers are united in their insistence that Jesus was a true human being, a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh. This has a number of important implications, for it means that God not only fully understands but has also Himself likewise experienced all that we experience as human beings. The doctrine of Christ’s humanity is of great importance for us if we are to live a victorious Christian life.
(2) The deity of Jesus. As I said, the earliest heresy in the history of the church was the denial of Christ’s humanity. But today the case is the exact opposite. Few would deny His humanity since to our way of thinking Jesus was obviously a man, even an exemplary man. Instead there are strong, numerous, and popular attempts to deny His deity. Countless numbers of our contemporaries regard Jesus as having been nothing but a man. Far more is lost with this denial than in denying Christ’s humanity. What is lost is the value of His atonement for sin, for no mere man, however good, would be able to pay the infinite price required for our redemption. The combination of Christ’s humanity and deity, and the reason for it, makes Calvary the very center of the Christian faith. It is the reason the Son of God came to earth. There is no gospel without it.
(3) The supremacy of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t only die, humbling Himself for our salvation. He also rose again and has now ascended to heaven, where He is honored as God, having being given the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:8-11). If Jesus Christ is Lord, as these passages say He is, the supremacy of Christ described in Romans 9:5 (“who is God over all”) includes His rule over us, who are His people, and we are not His people if we fail to submit to that rule. There is a great deal of bad thinking and even error in this area at this present time. It has become customary in some places to think of Christianity as a two-stage commitment. In the first stage we come to Jesus as Savior, simply believing on Him as the one who died for sin. In the second we come to Him as Lord, thereby becoming serious about our Christianity and about being Christ’s disciples. But nothing like this is found in the New Testament. On the contrary, to become a Christian is to become a disciple and vise versa. Submitting to Christ’s lordship is the very essence of true faith, or Christianity.
(4) The rightness of praising Jesus. The fourth doctrine taught in Romans 9:5 is the rightness of praising Jesus, for the text reads, “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!” It raises two questions: “Do we praise Him?” and “Do we praise Him as we should?” The answer to the second question is obviously no, for no mere human or earthly words can be adequate for praising Christ properly. Yet we should do it, knowing that it will be our privilege, joy, and glory to praise Jesus Christ in heaven forever. The angels are doing it (Rev. 5:12). According to Revelation, one day we are going to join with them (Rev. 5:13). So let’s do it now! Let us praise our Savior, who is God over all, as best we know how – live for Him until He comes again.
There is one last thought as we return to the paragraph in Romans from which our text is taken (Rom. 9:1-5). We have seen that Paul is expressing sorrow over the fact that the ancient nation of Israel had as a whole rejected Jesus and that, in that context, the ascription of deity to Jesus is appropriate as conveying the full tragedy of the Jews’ rejection. It’s bad enough that the nation should have missed the full value of the other privileges listed: the adoption, the divine glory, the covenants, the law, the temple worship, the promises, and the patriarchs. But it’s a tragedy beyond description that they should have rejected Jesus as the Messiah whom God had promised. Yet we also need to say more. However tragic the Jews’ rejection of Jesus may have been (and is), the rejection of Jesus by others, both Jews and Gentiles, is equally tragic today, perhaps even more so, since the gospel has been so widely proclaimed and been so amply defended in the many centuries of subsequent church history.
It would be especially tragic is you yourself should reject Him, either forcefully (“I will not have this man to rule over me”) or by neglect (“Speak to me about it again, some other time”). If you are doing either of those two things, how can we who know Jesus have anything other than “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in our hearts for you? To reject our words is nothing, but to reject Him is a loss of cosmic proportions. So we say, “Do not reject Him. Believe on Him. God is making His appeal through us as we say with Paul, “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) and remind you that “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (v. 21). That is the gospel. Do not allow the opportunity to respond to that wonderful message pass you by.
Romans 9:5 Reflection Questions:
What is the cause of Paul’s emotions in verses 1-5?
Why is Paul so upset about the Jews’ lack of response to the gospel?
Paul seems to be searching for possible explanations for this troubling problem. What are some of the solutions he explores?
It is difficult for any of to receive a hard truth, however necessary it may be to hear it. But there is always a much better chance of hearing it if it is told to us in love. At the end of chapter eight, Paul was riding an emotional high as he declared that there is nothing in all creation that can separate a believer from the love of God in Christ Jesus. But suddenly we come to chapter 9, and we find Paul exclaiming in a very different mood (vv. 1-2). What has happened? The answer is that he is now suddenly thinking of the members of his own race, the Jewish people, and he is grieving because for the most part they have rejected the gospel of God’s grace in Christ that he has been expounding. Paul is in such anguish for them that he could wish – these are his very words – “that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (vv. 3-4a).
This would be an unacceptable and nearly incomprehensible claim to most Jews who might hear him, for in their sight Paul was the worst of all possible enemies. He was a Jew himself, first of all. But he had become a believer in the one they would have called “that blaspheming imposter,” and now he was going about trying to convert both Gentiles and Jews to this religion. From their perspective, Paul was not only dreadfully wrong; he was also a traitor, a man who was trying to destroy the Judaism he had once affirmed.
Paul wasn’t doing this of course, at least not according to his understanding of the prophets. He was proclaiming Jesus as Israel’s true Messiah. But he was aware of the hostility that existed, which is why he is so anxious to declare his love for his people in this chapter. But notice: The truly remarkable thing is not that the Jews hated Paul, which was natural. The remarkable thing was Paul’s overwhelming love for those who were his enemies. Nowhere in his writings or anywhere else is there ever found (or is there ever imputed to his) the shadow of personal offense, matching retaliation, or lingering bitterness against the Jews for the abuses they gave him. Not once. Nowhere!
On the contrary, Paul’s spirit was the spirit of his Master, who wept over the city of Jerusalem even though He knew He was about to be crucified by the nation’s hostile leaders (see Luke 19:41-44). It was the tragic contrast between the Jews” fierce unbelief and the joys of the gospel that brought tears to the eyes of both Jesus of Nazareth and the apostle Paul. But we have not fully sounded the depths of Paul’s great love and sorrow for his people even yet. He says that he could wish himself “cut off from Christ” for the sake of his Jewish brothers. The text actually says that Paul would be willing to be “accursed from Christ” (that is, “damned”) for the sake of the Jewish people.
Now that really is remarkable! “Cut off from Christ”? From the very man who has reveled far beyond any of the other New Testament writers on the glories of being “in Christ” or being “joined to Him”? “Accursed”? From the very teacher who has so passionately affirmed that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Paul knows he cannot actually be separated from Christ. That is what the previous chapter has proclaimed so forcefully. Paul’s words in chapter 9 are only hypothetical. But they are genuine nevertheless. For he is saying that, if it were possible, he could wish himself accursed from Christ if only his condemnation could achieve the salvation of the people he so fervently loved.
Paul could not be a substitute for his people. He could not die for them because he was a sinner. But there was One who could. Thus, “when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). This was the only adequate substitute for sinners, the Son of God Himself. And Jesus’ future, yet foreseen death was the reason God did not destroy the people in Moses’ day (Exodus 32) and why He does not destroy people who believe on Jesus Christ today. Paul knew this, which is why he speaks hypothetically and not exactly as Mosses did, though he echoes his words. He knew that Jesus died to receive the full outpouring of God’s wrath against sin so that those who come to God through faith in Him might not experience God’s wrath but rather grace. He knew it was the only way God saves anyone.
The spirit that was in Jesus, Paul, and Moses should be in each of us – if we would be soul-winners. No one can die for another person’s salvation. Jesus is the only one who could, and He did. But we can love as He loved, and we can point others to Him.
Paul was a great preacher of election. He will preach it again even in these verses. But his knowledge of the need for the electing grace of God in salvation did not prohibit him from sorrowing over those who were lost. I commend the heart of the great apostle to you. Let the sins of others grieve you. Let the fate that hangs over them be often on your mind. For, if it is, you will work for their salvation in exactly the same proportion, and you will speak often of Jesus who actually was accursed for those who should afterward believe on Him.
Romans 9:1-4 Reflection Questions:
Do you anguish over others? Do you anguish over those closest to you, the members of your own family?
Do you anguish over those who are your enemies? Do you anguish over those who are great sinners?
Do you anguish over those who have great privileges?
What can be learned from Paul’s attitude in verses 1-5 about how we’re to respond to the Jewish people today?
In the ninth, tenth, and eleventh chapters of Romans, we are dealing with a Christian philosophy of history. It’s a philosophy that we can ask as a question: “What in the world is God doing?” Or, “What is God doing in world history?” Or even: “What is He doing with me? Where have I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going when I die?” There has never been a more important moment in which to ask these questions, because in our day people have lost, not only the Christian answers to them but even the hope of finding them. The classic carnival man’s cry as the moving wheel of fortune turns: “Round and round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows.”
This however, is not the Christian view, nor is it the teaching of Romans. The Christian view is not negative, because it sees God at the beginning of history (taking charge of it), the cross of Jesus Christ at the center of history (giving it meaning), and the return of Christ at the end of history (bringing it to a triumphant conclusion). For the Christian, time and history are pregnant with eternal meaning. In one sense that is the theme of the next great section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 9 through 11. But these chapters are not introduced into a vacuum. They are linked to what has already been written.
Thus far, Paul has discoursed largely on the justification and sanctification of believers. In following through on these themes, Paul introduces some of the most profound and mind-stretching material to be found anywhere in the Bible. We will see, as we study these chapters: (1) the historical advantages of Judaism; (2) the importance and biblical proof of election; (3) the doctrine of reprobation; (4) the justice of God in saving some and passing by others; (5) the glory of God displayed in His judgments; (6) the reason for Jewish failure to believe on Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah; (7) the place and power of gospel preaching in God’s plan; (8) the importance of Christian missions; (9) what God is doing in the present age, and why; (10) the eventual salvation of the Jews as a nation; and (11) the great and indescribable knowledge and wisdom of God that guides it all. All those themes will occupy us in due course.
But, as we begin, it is important to see the overall outline of these chapters as they apply to the central question Paul is raising, namely: Has God’s saving purpose toward the Jewish nation failed? It is the question he raises implicitly in verse 6. Paul’s answer is a firm “No,” for the following seven reasons: (1) God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because all whom God has elected to salvation are or will be saved (Rom. 9:6-24). (2) God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because God had previously revealed that not all Israel would be saved and that some Gentiles would be (Rom. 9:25-29). (3) God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because the failure of the Jews to believe was their own fault, not God’s (Rom. 9:30-10:21). (4) God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because some Jews (Paul himself was an example) have believed and have been saved (Rom. 11:1). (5) God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because it has always been the case that not all Jews but only a remnant has been saved (Rom. 11:2-10). (6) God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because the salvation of the Gentiles, which is now occurring, is meant to arouse Israel to envy and thus be the means of saving some of them (Rom. 11:11-24). (7) Finally, God’s historical purpose toward the Jewish nation has not failed, because in the end all Israel will be saved, and thus God will fulfill His promises to Israel nationally (Rom. 11:25-32).
We are going to be studying all these points in detail as we move through these great but sadly neglected chapters of Romans. Yet even here it is possible to see something of the vast scope of Paul’s plan. The apostle is showing what God is doing in the flow of human history from the very earliest moments in which He began to save our fallen race, through the period in which He began to work in a special way through the nation of Israel, to the coming of the Messiah, the rejection of Jesus for the most part by His own people, the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles, and the eventual conversion of the masses of Israel so that the two great religious portions of the human race may be saved and joined together as one people in Him. And in all this, Paul is providing what theologians call theodicy, a justification of the ways of God to human beings. In other words, he is not only showing what God is doing but also that He is right in so operating.
The question before us as we begin this section is: “How do we fit in?” What is God doing in your life? If you are a Christian, He is forming Jesus Christ in you so that at the end of time there will be a vast host of believers who will stand before Him as sisters and brothers of His beloved Son. Our problem is that we forget that this is what God is doing. Or we don’t think about this enough for it to matter. Instead, we are caught up in our own little plans, most of which have nothing to do with this purpose and will prove meaningless in the end. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you must know that you are here to be like Christ and to strive to win others to Christ so that they as well as yourself might have a share in this great blessing. What is God doing in history? That is what He is doing. That is a true understanding of historical events.
Romans 9-11 Reflection Questions:
Before you became a Christian, where did you look for meaning and purpose in life?
What kept you from turning to Christ sooner?
Think of something you have made with your hands (a work of art, a meal, a piece of furniture, etc.). What was your purpose in making it? How did you feel about it once it was done?
There are times in every Christian’s life when what is called for is a clear and ringing testimony, and there are times when what is most needed is a careful and persuasive argument supporting Christian truth. Overall, both are essential, for a personal testimony is no adequate substitute for an argument, when that is needed, and vise versa. In today’s wishy-washy, subjective Christian climate we need arguments especially. But, and this is the point I am making, we need personal testimonies, too.
I say this because of the final verses of chapter 8. Paul has been offering arguments for why we who believe in Christ can consider ourselves eternally secure. In fact, he seems to have brought out every possible argument he can think of in verses 28-37. They are basic to Christianity itself. But there is also a time for testimony and that is why, in verses 38 and 39, he once again writes in the first person. What a glorious testimony! There is no false optimism here, for what Paul says is based upon the sound arguments of the preceding verses. In this testimony Paul faces all possible “separators” of Christians from the love of God in Christ he can think of and then dismisses each one.
For most people today as also in the past, the most fearful of all adversaries is death – and rightly so. Apart from what we are told about death and the afterlife in Scripture, death is an unknown, except that it ends our existence here and is inescapable. Moreover, death is the greatest of all separators. Obviously it separates us from life itself. But it also separates the soul and the spirit from the body, and separates both from God if the individual is not saved. But for the believer in Christ this is not the final word. Death does separate us from things of the world, including people. But it can never separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. How do we know this? We know because Christ has conquered death. He triumphed over it. As a matter of fact, death, far from separating believers from the love of God in Christ Jesus, actually ushers them into an even closer relationship with Him.
The second possible separator that Paul mentions is “life,” this may seem strange until we remember that life sometimes seems even more cruel than death. Life brings separations, just as death does. The political aftermaths of wars sometimes separate members of families from one another. Sometimes poverty forces people to move away from loved ones if they have to leave their homes to find jobs. And consider sickness or the encroaching limitations of old age. In these things we experience separation from the simple pleasures the world once offered us. But there is no separation from God’s love.
When Paul mentions “angels” and “demons” as his next pair of possible separators, he is not thinking so much in rationally exclusive terms as he is simply sweeping over all creation to deny that anything or anyone anywhere could ever succeed in destroying our eternal security in Christ. In the first pair of possible separators Paul has looked at our most immediate experiences: life and death. In the second he looks to the realm of spirit beings and declares that not one of them, whatever that being may be like can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Having addressed the experiences of life and death and expanded his circle of possible separators to include angelic forces, both good and evil, Paul now thinks in terms of time, arguing that neither present things nor future things can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Time is powerless against believers. Paul is saying that the hard things that are pressing in on us at this very moment and any things to come in the future cannot separate us from Christ. Jesus is equal to them.
It’s hard to know what Paul is thinking of when he speaks of “powers,” particularly since he adds it as a freestanding term, without linking it to a matching word, as he has done with the other possible separators thus far. The word in Greek can refer to miraculous signs or miracles, though here it would seem to mean heavenly or spiritual forces. The only problem is that we find it hard to think of spiritual powers that are not already included in the phrase “neither angels nor demons.” Paul might be meaning it in a summary fashion that there are no powers anywhere that can divide us from Christ.
In the fourth (and last) of his matched pairs, Paul turns from human experience, spiritual powers, and time and considers space, saying that “neither height nor depth” will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This means that the love of God is everywhere, and may be an expression of the thought found in the well-known verses Psalm 139:7-10. On the other hand it may be significant that the Greek words translated “height” and “depth” were used in the ancient world in astrology to describe a point directly overhead, above the horizon, and a point directly downward, below the horizon. These points were used in forecasting horoscopes. If this is correct, the teaching is that even so-called astrological powers cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
After the sweeping terms of the first part of these verses the closing single item is “nor anything else in all creation. It’s as if Paul has run out of words in his verbal search for possible “separators” and ends up saying, “nor anything else, anything else at all.” What does “anything else in all creation” include? The answer is that it includes everything that exists except God, since God has created all these other things. Thus, if God is for us and if God controls everything else, since He has made it, then absolutely nothing anywhere will be able to separate us from His love for us in Christ Jesus.
This is Paul’s personal testimony which is based on the soundest evidence, evidence that had persuaded Paul, and should persuade us also. Paul’s conviction is not based on the intensity of his feelings or a belief that harsh circumstances of life are bound to improve or that any of these separating factors will somehow be dissolved or go away. Rather it is based on the greatness of God’s love for us in Christ, and that awesome love has been made known in that God sent His Son to die in our place. There is nothing in all the universe greater or more steadfast than that love. Therefore, nothing in all the universe can separate us from it.
I don’t know of anything greater than that. And I don’t know of any better way of ending our studies of Romans 8 than to say again that this is Paul’s testimony, born out of his own careful study of the Scriptures and his own personal experience of the love and grace of God. So I ask you: is this your testimony? Have you been persuaded of these truths, as Paul was? Can you say, “I no longer have any doubts. I know that salvation is entirely of God and that He will keep me safe until the very end”? If you are not certain of these truths, it is because you are still looking at yourself. You are thinking of your own feeble powers and not of God and His omnipotence.
Romans 8:38-39 Reflection Questions:
Can anything you are facing personally today (pandemic, unable to worship together) keep you from the love of God in Christ Jesus? How are you showing this love to the world today?
What reasons does Paul give for rejoicing and triumphing over suffering in Romans 8:31-39?
What specific evidence of God’s love do you have in your life?
Anyone who has studied the Bible with care knows that there are times when we come to some soaring pinnacle of revelation and are left nearly breathless by the view. This is what happens when we come to the last great paragraph of Romans 8. This is a mountaintop paragraph. It’s the Everest of the letter and thus the highest peak in the highest Himalayan range of Scripture. We have made our way up the steep ascent of doctrine in the first half of this great letter. We are able to look out over the beautiful but somewhat lower vistas of the book’s second half. Yet now, for the time being, we are on the peak, and the experience is glorious. We have looked at the undeniable affirmations and they are: foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. We will now look at the five unanswerable questions. These questions alone make this a mountaintop paragraph.
The first question is in verse 31: If God is for us, who can be against us?” The second half of this question is not at all unanswerable. Who can be against us? Why of course, many people and many things. Yes, there are plenty of enemies out there who are against us, and there is even an enemy within. But what are these when they are put into a sentence containing the verse’s first half, “If God is for us…”? Who can stand against God? The answer is “nobody.” Nothing can defeat us if the Almighty God of the universe is on our side.
“But what if God should grow weary of us, forget about us, and move on to something else?” Paul deals with this speculation in verse 32, asking, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all – how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” Paul is challenging us to look at the cross and reason as follows: If God did that for us, sending His own Son, Jesus, to die in our place, is there anything He can possibly be imagined to withhold? Clearly, if God gave us Jesus, the greatest of all possible gifts, He can be counted on to give us all the lesser gifts. The cross proves God’s generosity.
The third of these questions moves into the legal area, as if we were now in a court of law, asking whether someone might exist somewhere to accuse us and thus bring us into final spiritual condemnation. The question is in verse 33, “Who will bring any charges against those whom God has chosen?” Who could do that, Paul asks, since “it is God who justifies”? Apart from the work of God in Christ there would be many to condemn us – the devil, of course, and others, even our own hearts. But consider Paul’s counter: “It is God who justifies,” indeed, has justified us (see v. 30). Who could possibly secure our condemnation when we have already been acquitted by the highest court of all?
The fourth question is so closely related to the third that some have considered them to be asking the same thing. Yet there is a difference. Verse 34 asks the question: “Who is he that condemns?” It answers, “Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” The Bible teaches this truth in a striking image, using the word paraclete (or lawyer) for both the Holy Spirit and Jesus. A paraclete is “one called alongside another to help,” which is also the exact meaning of the word advocate, the only difference being that one is derived from Greek and the other from Latin. This is a picture of a divine law firm with two branches, a heavenly office and an earthly one. On earth the Holy Spirit pleads for us, interpreting our petitions correctly. In heaven the Lord Jesus Christ pleads the efficacy of His shed blood to show that we are saved persons and that nothing can rise up to cause our condemnation by God.
The final, all-embracing, and climactic question is in verse 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul does what we have been trying to do with his other four questions. He looks around for a possible answer. He brings forward all adversaries he can think of, which might be thought to separate us from Christ’s love. They are real sufferings, painful and perilous and hard to bear. But can they separate us from the love of Christ? No! Verse 37: far from separating us from Christ’s love, “in all these things” – in these very sufferings, in the experience and endurance of them – “we are more than conquerors.”
Jesus was the prototype – the true sheep fit only “to be slaughtered.” He was “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). But He was also a super-conqueror, and we are more than conquerors through Him.
Romans 8:31-36 Reflection Questions:
What do you say to “these things”? What is your response?
Do you see these verses the pinnacle of Scripture? Why?
How do these verses encourage you in your Christian walk?