“Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who are thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, who he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?” Romans 9: 19-24
It is understandable that some folks take Romans 9 to be a discourse on the theology of predestination and the mysteries of personal determinism and freewill when we read about the calling of Abraham and the great promise made to him that his seed, his family would inherit the promise and furthermore God would use his family to bless all mankind and bring his will to pass in the world. Abraham was after all chosen and called by God. Abraham expels Hagar and her son from his family because Isaac, not Ishmael, is the promised seed. This is part of the story Paul retells in chapter 9. Furthermore in the next generation God declared his love for Jacob and his hatred of Esau that his purposes according to election might stand. The God of Israel is not negotiating with his own creation his final cause for creation. God raised up Pharaoh and hardened his heart in order to show his wrath and power and to proclaim his mighty name throughout the world. Again, the God of Israel is not negotiating with Abraham; he is not negotiating with his children, not with Jacob or Esau and not with Pharaoh or Moses. But Paul sums it up with the words:
“So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
It is easy to see how one might construct a doctrine of personal predestination, but that is a misunderstanding of this chapter of Romans. It is bad enough to get the chapter itself wrong but then to turn the belief in personal predestination into a hermeneutical principle for the interpretation of other books of the New Testament compounds the mistake and only leads to more theological error and the distortion of scripture. Take for example this simply verse everyone knows:
“So God loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
The word translated “world,” is the Greek word “kosmos,” and in the New Testament always means the world in which we live, the whole universe, the world order, worldly affairs or the people in the world. But Calvinists who believe that God has selected certain people to be saved, the elect, also believe that Jesus died exclusively for the elect, have spilt barrels of ink over centuries to argue that the word “kosmos” in the John 3:16 does not mean “the world,” but rather it actually means “the elect.” This is an example of the principle of the Procrustean Bed applied to the interpretation of the Bible; any texts that may challenge personal election are forced into exact conformity with the doctrine of election. Like Procreates’ visitors – if they were too short for the bed he just stretched them till they fit.
But as I have said Romans 9-11 is not about personal, individual election to salvation; rather it is about Paul’s reinterpretation of the election of Abraham, which is equivalent to the election of Israel. God Almighty has adorned this space-time creation with his own name and purpose and he has specifically adorned Abraham and his family. God has pledged his troth to Abraham. And God’s covenant promises intend that all the families of the earth may know and love their God through Abraham’s family. And according to Paul anyone in the world will have and hold, will love and cherish God and his promises when they come to know Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and are baptized – from that day forward and forever. That is true for Paul’s brethren according to the flesh, ethnic Israel and it is also true for the Gentile. God’s will, God’s purposes are revealed in the events of human history and those events display his “righteousness” and the path of life, the way to wisdom is to accept that this is the manner in which God has willed his ways to be known. God has declared, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion,” Paul says that right thing to do is to submit to God’s righteousness. This phrase, “God’s righteousness” recurs in Romans 9-11 and through out Romans and for St. Paul the action of submitting to “God’s righteousness” means believing the Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah and being baptized into his life:
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
What I want you to see is that Paul has told this same story throughout Romans yet once again, namely the narrative of the promise made to Abraham and his seed which is the covenant of Israel and how this story has unfolded in the last days in a way that is utterly surprising to Paul. The narrative of God’s promise to Abraham has been turned upside down through Jesus the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit to make Gentiles members of the covenant. The unbelieving Jew, Paul’s brethren according to the flesh, believed that the God of Israel established the status of righteousness, of rightness with God, covenant membership for themselves and for themselves only. This is important. St. Paul is not saying that what went wrong with the Jews according to the flesh was that they were proto-Pelagians believing that they were earning God’s favor by doing good works and keeping the Torah and thus earning righteousness. That is not what is going forward in Romans. What Paul is doing is revising, reconfiguring the Jewish doctrine of election in light of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Israel and the true meaning of the doctrine of election all along is and always will be that covenant renewal and covenant righteousness is in the Messiah Jesus. God’s finality for all that is resides bodily in Jesus the Messiah.
Now devout Jews like Saul of Tarsus and the Pharisees would have found no fault in most of Paul narrative of Israel in Romans 9. Paul is taking this from the well-known story of Israel in the Old Testament as well as what we know as the intertestamental period that produced the stories of the Biblical Apocrypha. Even as Paul retells the story adding characters and historic events along the way, the devout Jew or even the Pharisee would have gone along with the narrative. No pious Jew of Paul’s day would have argued that Abraham’s seed was continued just as well and just as fully through Ishmael as through Isaac. And no one would have thought for a moment that Esau shared in Abraham’s election and promise just as much as did Jacob. And all devout Jews of Paul’s day would agree that God had every right to use the bully Pharaoh as a means to make his name and power known through out the whole world. Furthermore no Israelite would have argued with Paul that God had every right to show mercy and to do whatever he pleased when Israel fashioned and worshiped the golden calf. And they would have agreed that in light of the failure of the monarchy and the exile, God had every right to remold Israel just as a potter would remold his clay pots. The Jewish listener would agree with all that Paul has to say here. This is the Jewish narrative. But then we come upon a piece of the story that Saul of Tarsus and his fellow devout Jews, his kinsmen according to the flesh, would not have expected and would have essentially brought the whole thing down around their ears:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” Romans 9:22-25
This is the word that turns Saul’s world upside down. The promise, the filiation of Abraham is not exclusively for Jews according to the flesh. Covenant membership, being a member of Abraham’s family is for believing Jews and for believing Gentiles as well. But I want to emphasize that this is the only element of the narrative that a devout Jew would have objected to, although I admit that a bit like having a philosophical discussion with a drowning man.
But there is one last thing I wish to do and that is to identify the interlocutor that opens up our texts for today:
“Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who are thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”
In light of God’s dealing with humanity, with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Esau, Hagar and Ishmael, and even Pharaoh – in light of God’s sovereign and non-negotiable actions in history someone it seems raises the question of God’s justice and fairness in finding fault in humanity at all. I want to suggest that Romans 9-11 is in fact addressed to this interlocutor. “Is God unjust in his love for Jacob?” Is God biased, one-sided and unfair for hardening those who are already hardened? I submit to you that Gentiles and probably Gentile Christians, not Jews, were the ones who raised this question. Gentiles probably would have experienced the narrative of Israel as utterly bewildering; the very thought that Israel is God’s elect nation, his chosen people, would have raised questions about what sort of God would behave in such an amoral manner. The story of Abraham and his wife is not the way of life that any one would recommend as a model of wholesomeness much less holiness. Jacob and his mother behaved deceptively and their trickery drove a wedge between her own children. It is easy to see how Gentiles Christians would wonder why this old story about Abraham and Israel is at all important. After all Jesus the Messiah was crucified by the Jews, he was resurrected from the dead and that is what matters. Nothing else. Paul said it himself: “Behold all things have become new. The old has passed away.” So, that is the sort of thing we might hear from a Gentile Christian who has a little philosophical education, a little moral teaching from the Romans and in their popular culture. And this is the potentially destructive matter that Romans 9-11 is intended to settle. Israel is not just a stepping-stone on the way to the new creation, but for St. Paul and for the Old Testament, Israel was and is the people through whom God has determined to bless and save the world. He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy. It is not of him that willeth… The narrative of the Church of Christ does not begin with the birth of Jesus, but it is grounded, rooted irreversibly, forever in the narrative of Israel in the Law and the Prophets. Such was the very point of the story of the Emmaus disciples, a story that Paul probably well knew since Luke was one of his most trusted traveling companions and collaborators. If you will recall, one of the chief points made toward the end of that story was the resurrected Lord’s instruction of the disciples that his story was grounded in the Old Testament:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Luke 24:27
Paul is directing the argument of Romans 9-11 to Gentile Christians in Rome and elsewhere and saying, “By all means do not think that your inheritance of Israel’s promises through Jesus means that you may now disregard her, disregard her history, and disregard her Scriptures. No, Israel story is part of God’s story and you have been read into her story.” This is the very point that Paul wanted the Gentile Christians to grasp and to understand and the same goes for us today: God has read our story into the story of Israel.
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” I Corinthians 10: 1-4
This story of redemption begins with a man named Abraham, a man who believed God and that belief was counted as righteousness and God made great and wonderful promises. This is Israel’s story and we should count ourselves fortunate indeed, to have this lavish and unexpected blessing to come upon us.