A reflection I shared with my Sunday School class this past Sunday:
I sent an email early this week encouraging you to read all of Romans 9-11 because not doing so could lead to lots of confusion later on. I really think this section lends itself to all sorts of potential for trouble if we isolate verses or small passages in our quest to address our topical questions (which, as we’ll see, the text isn’t really asking). I even listened this week to a talk by a highly respected American reformed theologian wherein he attempted to dissect the topic of predestination in 30 minutes. He used exactly one verse, granted, of several possible options, to discuss the topic. It became glaringly obvious to me that he had in mind certain topics he assumes or has always heard a certain text deals with before he let the text be the text. Let the text speak what the text wants to speak. Only after we do that should we seek to apply it in our own western modern framework, and even then, we should do so with humility as we are dealing with old old texts written at very different time periods, and they aren’t written necessarily in the same manner in which we might write them today. So after listening to this theologian’s talk about predestination and freewill, it struck me that he was relying primarily on later western logic and modern assumptions. The guys he referenced mostly came from the same time period and were addressing the same questions which they had thought needed to be addressed by the church at that time. In other words, if you approach a chapter or verse looking for a particular answer, you usually get what you’re looking for. Now there are no innocent interpretations. Nobody comes to the Bible completely objectively. I actually think non-Christians could probably do this better than we can because when we hear a word like predestination, we have many assumptions about what that word means in the biblical context, and most of our minds turn to God’s choice to save some people and damn the rest to eternal punishment. So what I want you to see today is the questions Paul is asking and how those relate to the very important questions about salvation and predestination’s role within that.
I want to say first that I believe God is a choosing, electing, predestining God who calls and draws and then expects accountability from those He’s elected. I think it’s important that we affirm God in this way, and I do think this is something to be celebrated. Our God has plans and purposes for which we have been created. They are His plans and His purposes, and He has asked us to play roles within the long story that He’s been telling. I do not, however, think that God is capricious or arbitrary, so any notion that leads one to believe that He chooses people that He kind of likes in order to save them and then He doesn’t like other groups so He chooses to not save them is cheap and untrue. I don’t believe all are saved as the Bible teaches that there will be those who are ill-prepared to meet Him when He returns, and the prospects for those people are not bright. But, I think in Romans 9-11 we get yet another retelling of Israel’s plight in which we see—following the Old Testament’s pattern of covenant, disobedience, judgment, and restoration—how God is a God who expects His chosen people to act in accordance with His will and when they don’t, He judges them with primarily restorative judgment designed to call them back to Himself so that He might have mercy on them. Romans 9-11 even shows God as One who really wants to demolish His chosen people but relents. So we see God very well for all that He might be in Romans 9-11. The overriding conclusion that we can draw once again though is that God’s covenant faithfulness is His righteousness. In other words, God made a covenant with Abraham among other patriarchs, and He risks the perception of His righteousness or we might call it His reputation or in biblical terms, He risks His name or the trustworthiness of His Word in order to stay truthful to the promises He’s made.
So as usual, a primary question we should constantly be asking as we read Romans is: “What’s God up to? Where are we on His map? And in particular in Romans 9-11, it’s, hey, wait a minute, what of Ethnic Israel, the chosen people of God? What is God doing with them, if anything, any more?