Word, Spirit, Gospel and Mission (Part 11)

When modern Protestants study Romans, we tend to focus on justification by faith. Our eyes are drawn to Romans 1:17, which many have said is the key verse of the whole book. In light of church history, this is understandable. Children of the Reformation will read the Bible through Reformation goggles. Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the teachings of St. Augustine, and his resolution of his own personal struggle through Romans 1:17, was the spark that ignited renewal in the 16th century.

Reading Romans to learn about justification by faith is a useful exercise. But it is also helpful to take off those Reformation goggles to see what Paul was actually saying to Roman Christians in the first century. If we do so, then we may find that the central teaching of Romans is not justification by faith. Rather, I believe we will find that the key idea is divine election.

Allusions to election appear in the very first verse: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God…” (Ro 1:1). Notice the terms “called” and “set apart.” Paul’s status as an apostle and servant of Christ were not attained by virtue, dedication, hard work, values, character, etc. but were given to him as a gift of pure grace. It was God who called him and set him apart from his fellow Jews to serve the gospel rather than promoting Jewish law, custom and tradition.

Paul was writing to a church that he did not personally found. His letter was intended to give them a rich theological and historical perspective on the gospel, to help them better understand their identity as a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Comparisons and contrasts between Jews and Gentiles are made throughout the book, in virtually every chapter. Vast differences existed between these two groups with regard to history, culture, lifestyle and conscience. Paul did not want them to ignore those differences, but to pay attention to them, wrestle with them, and understand God’s purpose in bringing these polar opposites together in light of missio Dei.

The thesis of the first half of the book (Chapters 1-8) is that a divine message of salvation has now been revealed, a message that can save Jew and Gentile alike, and that both groups are saved in exactly the same way: through a righteousness that comes by faith (1:16-17). Both groups are sinful and deserving of God’s judgment, but in different ways and for different reasons. Gentiles have fallen into blatant godlessness evidenced by idolatry, sexual immorality, violence, and depravity (1:18-32). Jews have violated God’s covenant with them by breaking the laws that he gave them (2:17-29). Neither group has the right to point a finger of judgment at the other, because neither one is repentant (2:1-5). But Jesus Christ came to save both Jew and Gentile in the same way, granting them righteousness that comes by faith (3:21-26). God’s manner of salvation makes it impossible for anyone to boast (3:27). This gospel of righteousness is not new; it is found in the Old Testament, through the accounts of Abraham and David (chapter 4). Jesus is the new Adam who recreates the entire human race (chapter 5). Anyone who believes Christ is united with him in his death and resurrection, and the risen Christ comes alive in him, giving him a new life (chapter 6). Christians are not bound by law, but have been freed to live by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit accomplishes what the law was powerless to do: bring our dead souls to life, give us victory over sin (chapters 7-8).

Partway through this treatise on the gospel is a defense of the doctrine of election (3:1-8). Paul explains that even though the Jews failed to uphold their covenant, God’s purpose for them did not fail. He hints that human unfaithfulness is foreseen by God and is ultimately used for his glory, but that fact does not absolve anyone of genuine guilt. He picks up this theme again in chapters 9-11, where he wrestles with a subject that for him was intensely personal and painful: the Jews’ overwhelming rejection of the gospel.

If we look to Romans chapters 9-11 to answer all of our questions about Calvinism versus Arminianism, we will be disappointed. Paul was not constructing a theological system. His purpose was limited to making sense of what God had done, was doing, and will do with his chosen people, to help Jewish and Gentile Christians understand their respective positions in God’s redemptive history.

In chapter 9, Paul shares his deep anguish over the Israel’s rejection of the gospel. Despite their glorious spiritual heritage as God’s chosen people, they rejected God’s Messiah. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone,” because they pursued righteousness through the conditional, failed covenant of Mosaic law rather than the unconditional Abrahamic covenant of righteousness by faith. God foresaw all their failure and their future rejection of Christ, yet he patiently bore with them for many centuries because he had a different purpose for them. His purpose was to raise up through them a faithful remnant to carry the gospel to his elect among the Jews, and to use the Jews’ majority rejection of Christ to propel the gospel out to the Gentiles.

In the middle of chapter 9, Paul makes a startling claim. He says that underlying reason why the majority of Jews rejected the gospel is that God hardened their hearts. He compares the Israelites to Pharaoh, of whom it is said numerous times (I counted ten times in Exodus chapters 4-14) that God hardened his heart against the message of Moses. Paul repeats the claim in chapter 11, using references from Deuteronomy 29 and Isaiah 29 to show that “God gave them a spirit of stupor” so that they would reject the message.

Paul’s claim is difficult for us to swallow, because it deeply conflicts with our modernistic notions of fairness, freedom, and autonomy of the individual human person. It was also confusing for Christians in the first century, but for different reasons. It conflicted with their understanding of the Old Testament. How could they reconcile this reasoning with God’s numerous promises to Israel? Had God changed his mind and rejected those whom he had chosen? Paul offered some clarifications to help his readers, and it is useful to examine them even if they do not put to rest all the questions and concerns of 21st century evangelicals. First, Paul notes that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6). It is not the physical descendents of Abraham who are reckoned as God’s children, but those among them who accepted his promise of blessing. Second, he says that even if God hardens someone’s heart, it does not absolve them of personal responsibility (9:19-21). Third, even though most of the Jews had at present rejected God’s offer, they had not stumbled beyond recovery (11:11). All of God’s promises throughout the Old Testament still stood; his gifts and promises were irrevocable, which led Paul to believe that the hardening of their hearts was temporary. He still hoped that at some point in the future, many of them would eventually come back into a saving relationship with God, because God’s desire was to show mercy to all (11:25-32). Realizing that this is still very difficult to understand, that we do not at present see exactly what God is doing but must trust his judgments, Paul consigns these teachings to the realm of mystery and exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (11:33-36).

Editors of the NIV placed Romans 11:25-32 under a section title, “All Israel Will Be Saved.” Some evangelicals believe that all Jews will ultimately receive salvation, and this is tied to various beliefs about the future of the nation of Israel. Although I do not dismiss these theories, I remain skeptical because I do not know the extent to which Paul’s use of the term “Israel” relates to any modern-day ethnic or religious group or geopolitical entity. Like Paul, I am happy to place this in a file cabinet under “mysterious teachings of the Bible.” I don’t know what the future holds for Israel, but I suspect that however it pans out, everyone will be surprised. (That’s why I call myself a pan-millennialist.)

Although Paul doesn’t answer many of our questions about predestination, he does give us a definitive understanding of God’s overall purpose in election, and he does present a “practical application” of this teaching to his first-century readers. He tells them that, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, their acceptance of the gospel did not “depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (9:16). The historic covenant of law had to fail prior to the coming of the gospel; if it did not, it would have undermined God’s plan to grant people righteousness by faith alone (9:30-33). If the people of Israel had not rejected Christ, then Jewish missionaries who carried the gospel to the Gentiles could still claim ethnic or religious superiority over the people they were evangelizing. The rejection of the gospel by the Jews underscored the fact that the minority, the remnant who accepted the gospel, were chosen not because of their superior character or effort or achievements but by the grace of God alone (11:1-6). And the Gentiles who received the gospel from the Jewish remnant had no right to boast either, because they too were chosen by grace alone (11:13-21). At no point should anyone in Christ feel smug or self-assured in their salvation. No one in the church has achieved standing before God on the basis any decision they have made or any action that they have taken; their standing has always been by grace alone, and if they deny that, they themselves will be cut off (11:22).

The principle of election should foster in everyone a deep, heartfelt gratitude toward God and humility before other people, as Paul says in the next chapter: “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (12:3). Although we have been saved by faith, the faith itself is a gift from God. Whether we think of ourselves as having weak faith, strong faith, or no faith, no Christian individual or group at any time has any basis for pride over anyone else, because whatever faith they have was distributed to them by God as an undeserved gift.

This understanding of election leads us inevitably to a rule of love, not a rule of law, as the sole ethic of the Christian life. A Christian must not by driven by desire to achieve a superior status or blessing from God on the basis of anything he is or does; such motivations are incompatible with the gospel. The sole motivation for everything we do must be love for God, for our neighbor, and for our enemy (12:9-21). Love is the fulfillment of the law (13:8-10). Christians who understand election will not pass judgment on one another. Those who seem to be “strong” will never judge those who seem “weak,” or vice-versa, because God accepts all regardless of strength or weakness (14:1-22).

And in a stunning reversal of common sense, Paul uses the term “weak” in chapter 14 to refer to Jewish Christians who, because of their consciences, felt compelled to adhere to dietary and religious laws. I’ll bet that those believers did not consider themselves to be weak. From childhood, they had been trained to think of adhering to their laws (which, by the way, were biblically based) as a sign of holiness, discipline and purity. Paul characterized their reliance upon those disciplines as a weakness and freedom from those laws as strength. But he warned those who were free to be mindful of those who were not. He urged everyone not to impose their moral scruples upon one another, but to respect one another’s consciences, to love one another and live in peace as demonstrated by unity-in-diversity.

Historians have called the early Church “a sociological impossibility.” This description is very accurate. There was no human way for Jews and Gentiles, who in so many ways were polar opposites, to come together as friends and form a loving community. But it happened in the first century, and the reason why it happened is found in the book of Romans. Understanding the doctrine of divine election enabled the Jewish and Gentile Christians to embrace their differences and see why God had put them together in the same church.


  1. david bychkov

    Thank you Joe for the nice outline of Romans. God’s election is really great doctrine which makes anyone before God nothing just humble. And what about those, who accepted it and understand it correctly (like Paul did), it makes them nothing but humble before all the people as well. There is nothing to be proud about, just God’s grace and all. If someone is pride because of his election his understanding of it is really wrong. What about me I really love this doctrine because it brings glory just to God.

  2. Thanks, Joe. Your posts are quite addicting, but in a good sense. I just want more and more of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and to somehow communicate and appropriate His Beauty in my heart and in this world of woe and troubles and ugliness, including troubles and conflicts in the church.

    Surely, to deeply realize God’s divine election humbles us to the very depths (because I’m so horribly bad), and gives us unbelievable boldness and confidence (because Jesus still loves me!) at the very same time.

    The problem of Jew and Gentile seems to be the perpetual problem of moral and immoral, disciplined and lazy, conservative and liberal, senior and junior, older and younger, older brother and younger brother (Luke 15), who came first and who came later, missionary and indigenous people, etc.

    For some reason, the “Jew” always feels superior to those “lawless disgusting free style Gentiles,” while the Gentiles can’t stand those “smug and bigoted self-righteous Jews.” Surely, only the grace of Jesus can enable us to love each other in the church, that will always have both “Jews and Gentiles.”

    Thanks again for a short and sweet and sweeping overview of Romans, which is quite refreshing.

  3. Ben, thanks for your kind words. It’s good to know that some people are addicted to reading these, because I am addicted to writing them.

    When I discussed this with someone in our church, she told me that whenever she hears “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT, her mind immediately associates them with “Korean” and “American.” That may be a useful comparison, but I would strongly caution anyone from making too strong an association there. It’s more accurate to say that Koreans and Americans are two different types of Gentiles with radically different history, language, values, culture understanding and conscience. Either one could point a finger at the other and say, “I’m strong, you’re weak.” Either one could say to the other, “You’re being legalistic; I’m being true to the gospel.”

    What we should mainly take away from this, I believe, are Paul’s admonitions to love one another, to refrain from judging one another, and to understand that neither one has the right to dominate the other, because every single one of us is here only by grace. We have to stringently avoid any tendency to think that we, either individually or as a group, are any better than any other Christians or any nonbelievers; the moment we think we are better is the moment we ourselves risk being cut off (11:22).

  4. Yup, I agree. If a free style younger brother, regardess of American or Korean, criticizes a legalistic older brother, whether American or Korean, then the free style younger brother immediately becomes the legalistic older brother exactly! Yikes. How desperately do we always need Jesus, and Jesus only.

    • I was walking down the street yesterday thinking about Romans 14 when I had the same thought! And I realized that in wanting to do things differently I’m becoming the very thing I’m criticizing. Lord have mercy.

  5. James Kim

    Thanks Joe for another wonderful blog. It is amazing to know that God’s desire to show mercy to all (Rom 11:32). I like an analogy that a man is hanging in the cliff by a string of iron chains. How many loosened string of chains (how many sins) are required for this man to fall down the cliff? Obviously the answer is either one string or many loosened strings at the same time. Before the holy God, both the Jews and the Gentiles fall short of the glory of God and they are under the righteous judgment of God. But only by the grace of God, he opened a way for anyone to come to the cross of Jesus and be saved.
    Galatians 6:13 says, “Not even those who are circumcised obey the law—” As you said, those who rely on the laws are weak, but those who have true freedom in Jesus is strong. In other words, those who tried to keep many rules and laws (before people) and then feel safe (before God) are weak because these things are relatively easy. But those who live by the Spirit and obey the leading of the Spirit (I am exaggerating let’s say 24 hours seven days a week) is much harder.
    Because God’s desire was to show mercy to all, (all men of all nations, billions of people in the world), those who have privilege (all Christians) also have responsibility for our neighbors in a humble and loving way.