Pilgrims from Paradise:
In Romans 11, we find St. Paul expanding on the differentiation he has made in Chapter 9: the distinction between spiritual Israel and temporal Israel, between Israelites of faith and those who are merely “ethnic” Israelites. Just a note, I’m not going to read all of chapter 11 here, but I would strongly suggest you listeners take a moment to do that before you start trying to follow along with me. In verse 7, the apostle tells us that God’s grace has not fallen on the entire nation of Israel. The elect have obtained it, he declares, and the rest were blinded. He then draws on several Old Testament Scriptures, Deuteronomy 29:4, Isaiah 29:10, and Psalm 69:22-23 to explain how those blinded ones come to be in that condition. He quotes:
God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, to this very day… Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a recompense to them. Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see, and bow down their back always.
In the language of chapter 9, hardness has descended upon the hearts of those Israelites who have rejected Christ. Why? There can be no mistake, St. Paul says, it is God who has darkened their eyes and their souls. The big question for us is: do the apostle’s words then imply that God consigned these unfortunate ones to this state of stubborn blindness before they ever existed, predestining them to an eternity without grace? No, they don’t. Consider. A few verses later, St. Paul describes these lost ones as branches which have been “broken off” from the holy tree of Israel. That’s verse 17. As the apostle points out, God has graciously allowed Gentile believers to take their place. Like branches from a wild olive tree, he says, they have been grafted into the Israel of faith. But why were those initial branches torn from the tree trunk? In verse 20, St. Paul declares that it was because of their unbelief.
Once again, I know that someone who supports unconditional election will insist that these Israelites were unable to believe because God did not predestine them to receive the Divine grace to believe. But this view is dispelled by the warning St. Paul gives to those “grafted-in” Gentile Christians. He says:
You will say then, “Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.” Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.
That’s Romans 11:19-23. This Scripture comprehensively undermines the notion of unconditional election. Obviously, the Gentiles addressed here possess grace, for St. Paul says that they stand by faith, and one cannot stand by faith as Ephesians 2:8 tells us without grace. And yet, the apostle warns them that unless they continue in God’s goodness, they too could be severed from the tree of salvation into which they had been grafted. Equally revealing is what St. Paul says about the unbelieving Israelites. He tells us that God has made it so they can’t hear the words of truth. They are consigned by God to blindness. As verse 32 puts it, God has committed them all to disobedience. And yet, the apostle assures us that if they discontinue their unbelief, God will gladly graft the wayward of the Israelite nation back into the community of faith.
Suddenly, the doctrine of unconditional election becomes seriously complicated. If people are elected to receive grace before they ever exist, then according to this passage, God can predestine someone to receive grace, then un-predestine them, and then predestine them again. Those whom he initially condemns to unbelief, he can un-predestine and reelect for grace. So to reconcile these verses to the doctrine of predestination, one also must hold that God changes his mind about our eternal destinies. He can, at any time, make the grace he previously granted of no effect or make unbelief disappear in a sudden dispensing of grace, which he may at a later point decide to take back once again. And if predestination is true, this shifting back and forth from faith to unbelief can have nothing to do with us, with our own choices or attitudes or our acceptance or rejection of God.
Well, it may seem to us like it’s a matter of our own will. The writers of the New Testament might make it sound like it’s our decision, but if predestination is true, it can only be the result of conflicting arbitrary choices swirling about in the mind of the Divine. But as Christians, we know that our God is incapable of such waffling. “In him, there is no variation. There is not even the slightest shadow of turning” as St. James tells us in his epistle, 1:17. Again, the Creator speaks in Malachi 3:6, “For I am the Lord, I do not change.” In my relationship with God, there is only one party who is capable of change, and that is me. So this movement from belief to unbelief, or vice versa, which St. Paul describes, can only have its source within me, in the responses of my own will.
It’s time now to pull together what we’ve been learning and establish a comprehensive picture of our interrelationship with God when it comes to receiving or not receiving saving grace. The over-arching desire of God is, as Ephesians 1:10 tells us, that he might gather together, in one, all things in Christ. This self-denying, perfectly loving Creator longs for all of us to participate in his life, to enter into intimate communion with the Holy Trinity. And so, St. Paul’s words to St. Timothy come as no surprise, “God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). Through Christ, the unchanging Holy Trinity holds out to all men at all times the offer of the indwelling of the Spirit by whose transforming power they may all become one with God.
But this relationship that God seeks with us is a union of love, and love, by definition, is a free exchanging of souls. A relationship in which one party manipulates, coerces, pre-empts or in any way controls the response of the other cannot be called love. And that is the ultimate tragedy of the doctrine of predestination. It makes the possibility of a genuine love relationship with God to disappear. So, while God holds out his promise of transforming grace to all, love requires that he leave it to us to decide whether or not we will receive it. That’s not to say that he doesn’t do everything he can to convince us to embrace him. My own experience has taught me just how relentless God can be in pursuing me with his deep and holy affection. But as we learned, in Romans 1 and Romans 11, God is free to honor our desires if we choose to reject him. If we will not believe and we refuse his offer of life, then he may cease to strive with us. He may stop pursuing us. He may, as St. Paul says in chapter 1, “give us up.” The result is that we fall into all kinds of vileness and impurity, a stupor, a blindness envelops us, and our hearts congeal into spiritual hardness. But that’s not because God has predestined us to live under some dark spell of divine indignation. No, it’s because he has humbly done exactly what we demanded of him. He has taken his light and his goodness and moved away from us.
But as we see in Romans 11, specifically from verse 11 onward, God’s desire to save is limitless. It is so unstoppable that he even uses those who reject him to draw others to him. Israel’s rebuff of Christ opened the way for the Gentiles to become joined to the holy tree of faith. As St. Paul reminds the Gentile believers in verse 25.
For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.
Through the unbelief of some Israelites, the joy of loving union with God spread to the rest of the world. But the wonder, the goodness, and the all-encompassing scope of God’s love does not end with his mercy to the Gentiles. For according to St. Paul here, God’s final goal in this process of saving the Gentiles is to provoke those Israelites who had rejected Christ to jealousy, a jealousy that may lead them out of their blindness and hardness back to their loving God. As the apostle says to the Gentile Christians “For as you were once disobedient to God, yet have now obtained mercy through their disobedience” that is Israel’s disobedience, ” even so these also have now been disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also may obtain mercy” (Romans 11:30-31). Just as we read in verse 23, by turning from their unbelief, those who were broken off from the tree of Israel, could be grafted back in. The beauty and glory of the undying, unchanging, unconditional love that God offers to all humanity, including those who reject him, causes St. Paul to cry out in verse 33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”
The teaching of this chapter is clear. Even when God gives up on people, that is even when he consigns them to the disobedience they choose and lets them fall into the stupor of faithlessness and permits them to experience the hardness of heart that is the natural result of rejecting him, he does so in the hope that the darkness of their lives will make even the tiniest glimmer of his love overwhelmingly bright and irresistibly attractive.
Now, let’s go back to Romans 9:14-21. But as we look at those verses, remember that as St. Paul writes them, he has in mind what he taught in Romans 1, along with what he’s just said here in Romans 9, as well as what he’s going to teach in Romans 11. It all must fit together. So, let’s start with verses 14-16.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
“What shall we say then?” The apostle tells us by these words that he’s about to draw a conclusion from what he has written thus far in the chapter. He has shown that those who are of the blood of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not true Israelites unless they enter by faith into the promises on which their nation was founded: unnatural promises, spiritual promises, promises that find their fulfillment only in the work of Jesus Christ. In the story of Jacob and Esau, the apostle has elaborated on this, showing that natural inheritance cannot buy the promises of God. They come to those who, like Jacob, and unlike Esau, willing open their hearts to God. Plainly, the conclusion St. Paul wants to draw from his previous remarks is an answer to the question “is there unrighteousness with God?” In other words, is God wrong in acting this way? Is it wrong for him to show mercy and compassion to those who respond to him while allowing those who do not receive him to suffer in their self-imposed exile from God, regardless of their human birthright or their possession perhaps of a chosen ethnic pedigree? From what we’ve learned in Romans 1 and Romans 11, the answer is a resounding no.
First of all, what God desires is an intimate love-relationship with every single human being. But the only way that can happen, given the state of separation from God, which we inherited from Adam and Eve, is through an act of mercy and compassion on his part. It follows that the only people who can enter into that loving union with God are those who freely accept his mercy and compassion and willingly respond to him with love. And so, it is perfectly right that these souls should be granted citizenship in his kingdom rather than those who might appeal to some other criterion like their chosen ethnic heritage or even their own ethical virtues.
Secondly, we saw in Romans 11 that even God’s withholding of mercy is ultimately an act of mercy. In St. Paul’s story of the faithless Israelites, we discovered that God intends to have mercy and compassion on all. That is true even of those whom he has, for the time, given up to spiritual darkness and hardheartedness. Yet, at all times, we must remember that we can meet God only on his terms. We can’t have his salvation without him. It is up to all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, to give ourselves up to his mercy. Everything starts and ends with his mercy. Thus, St. Paul says in verse 16, that “salvation is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” No, there is no unrighteousness in God, and the apostle drives that point home in verses 17 and 18. We’ll examine that passage and the rest of Romans 9 next time.