Friday, February 21
Romans 8:31-39: Paul speaks of Divine Providence, by which God brings mysterious influences to bear on the direction of history. Paul now inaugurates this theme. He will continue it through the rest of this chapter, and then in chapters 9-11 he will apply it directly to the historical situation that the early Christians were facing—namely, the rejection of the Gospel by the larger masses of the Jewish people. Why did that happen? Paul’s response will be: Because God had in mind some greater good that would ensue. God is the Lord of history. He knows everything ahead of time. Knowing everything ahead of time, He quietly and mysteriously arranges and prearranges circumstances in order to bring about the greater good.
Thus, Paul will continue the ancient theme of God’s providential ability to bring good out of evil. This thesis, which will form the substance of his argument in chapters 9-11, is a common one in the Old Testament. It is obvious, for instance, in the stories of Joseph. Paul will appeal to its presence in the stories of Esau and Pharaoh.
God’s knowledge of the future is the basis on which He is able to arrange for those circumstances which will influence the course of events. The English biblical word for this divine activity is “predestination,” which in context means “adjusting things ahead of time.” In Holy Scripture this category always refers to God’s historical adjustment (the word is chosen with some trepidation, for we have no idea how the Lord does these things), based on the divine foreknowledge. It never means an eternal decree that imposes itself on history. The latter concept, which is quite unbiblical, did not appear until fairly late in Christian history, and it is has been the source of endless theological confusion.
Those who love God (or however else verse 28 is to be interpreted, as we saw above) are the “predestined” (verse 29), “those who are called according to His purpose” (verse 28). These “predestined and called” are not a separate category of Christians. The terms refer to the body of those who constitute the Church, the Christians who have responded to God’s initiatory love and call (1:6; 1 Corinthians 1:12).
This statement of Paul has nothing to do with anyone’s alleged predestination to heaven or hell. It is not a statement of theodicy. Although God certainly knows all things ahead of time, including each person’s eternal destiny, He does not predetermine those actions that lie within the realm of human freedom. Men make their own choices, for which they alone are held responsible. God foreknows these actions, but He does not predetermine them. We do not understand how God influences the activities of history, but we do know that He never acts in such a way as to remove man’s freedom of choice.
What, then, does Holy Scripture mean when it asserts that God “predestines”? The verb itself, proorizo, means “to arrange ahead of time. In the biblical context, where this verb appears with “foreknow” (proginosko, “to know ahead of time”), the verb signifies the providential arrangements by which He brings people to the grace of the Gospel. That is to say, predestination embraces the mysterious influences that God brings to bear on history, so that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.
Saturday, February 22
Romans 9:1-13: Paul now commences the third part of this epistle, chapters 9-11, in which he applies the principle of the divine predestination to an actual theological problem addressed by the early Church: How can it be that the greater part of the Jewish people, whom over many centuries God had prepared with such persistent care for the coming of His Messiah, failed to recognize the Messiah when He came?
Several sources in the New Testament address this thorny question in some form. In most of these sources the New Testament writers recognized that Israel’s failure—its “falling away”—had itself been prophesied in the Old Testament, chiefly in Isaiah. This approach to the problem is clearest in John (12:37-41), but we find it in other authors as well (Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:23-28).
Paul goes further: Israel’s failure, he says, was not only prophesied but also providential. God, foreknowing Israel’s defection, made use of that defection; He prepared ahead of time to make it serve as the occasion and the impulse for the justification and salvation of the Gentiles. He did this by His mysterious, unfathomable, providential guidance of history. Such is the argument of Romans 9-11.
Although the verb “predestine” does not appear in these chapters (nor is the noun “predestination” to be found anywhere at all in the New Testament), the development of Paul’s thought here surely extends his teaching on the subject from the previous chapter. As we proceed through these next three chapters, therefore, it will be important to bear in mind our earlier reflections on divine predestination in chapter eight.
Otherwise we run the risk of regarding Paul’s historical illustrations, such as Esau and Pharaoh, as examples of eternal loss. This would be not only an unwarranted inference but also a mammoth distortion of Paul’s thought. It may be the case, of course, that both Esau and Pharaoh have been condemned to hell, but there is nothing about this question in Romans 9-11. Esau and Pharaoh serve as examples, rather, of God’s mysterious ability, based on His foreknowledge, to bring good out of evil in the course of history.
Thus, the moral obtuseness of Esau and the hardened heart of Pharaoh are predestined—in the sense of foreseen and adjusted ahead of time—to be the occasions of grace for Jacob and Israel, before any of these had been born or had performed any good or evil act (verse 11). Jacob and the Israelites are made vessels of elections, recipients and containers of God’s blessing, while Esau and Pharaoh become “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (verse 22). All of this, says Paul, was predestined, was arranged ahead of time, by God in His wisdom and mercy.
Sunday, February 23
Romans 9:14-24: God’s “predestinations,” His predetermined adjustments to the unfolding of history, are not arbitrary. They are founded on divine foreknowledge. “Predetermination is the work of the divine command based on foreknowledge,” wrote John of Damascus in the eighth century (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30). God’s sovereignty over history, then, is no detriment to man’s ability to make moral choices. That divine sovereignty is chiefly manifest, rather, in God’s ability to bring good results out of man’s bad choices. God’s sovereignty is in no way challenged by man’s decisions.
For this reason, God’s election frees no man from his moral obligations. God’s ability to bring good out of evil does not warrant anyone to do evil. Nor should it lessen any man’s efforts to do good. “Now if men in their choices choose what is best,” said John Chrysostom, “much more does God. Moreover, the fact of their being chosen is both a sign of the loving kindness of God and of their own moral goodness. . . . God Himself has rendered us holy, but we must continue to be holy. A holy man is someone who partakes of the faith; a blameless man is someone who leads an irreproachable life” (Homilies on Ephesians 1).
The man whom God rejects, therefore, has no just case against God. God causes no man’s failure. Even though the Scriptures speak of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (verses 17-18; Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12), this is a metaphor describing God’s providential use of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Pharaoh himself is the only one responsible for his hard heart (Exodus 7:14,22; 8:5,19,32). Pharaoh’s sin cannot be ascribed to God, as though God had decreed that sin. God foreknew that sin and determined ahead of time—predestined—how to employ that sin to bring about His own deliverance of Israel from Egypt. There is no unrighteousness in God (verse 14).
Like Esau’s, Pharaoh’s role or place in salvation history is negative. It represents a resistance to grace that God employs to show even more grace. The resistance to grace, on the part of Esau and Pharaoh, is providentially subsumed into God’s plan of deliverance, being used as the opposing force (the “push backwards”) in a process of historical dialectic, much as when a man steps on a rock, the friction and resistance from it enable him to go forward. This is what Paul sees happening among the greater part of the Jewish people of his own day. Their resistance to God’s mercy has served only to enhance and extend that mercy, for God does nothing except in mercy.
Monday, February 24
Romans 9:25-33: In chapter eleven Paul will make two initial points about Israel’s defection with respect to Jesus: First, not all the Jews fell away from the faith. A remnant of them believed and became Christians, and these formed the original nucleus of the Christian Church.
A significant part of this original nucleus was formed by the “saints” in Jerusalem, for whom Paul manifested a singular solicitude, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, in this very epistle he wrote of the collection that he had organized for the financial relief of the saints at Jerusalem (15:25-27). These were a very important part of the remnant of which he will speak in Romans 11:4-5.
Second, the defection of the greater part of the Jewish people became the occasion of the evangelism and conversion of the Gentiles. We find this pattern everywhere in Luke’s description of Paul’s ministry in the Acts of the Apostles, and it is spelled out as a theorem near the end of that book (28:25-28). Paul will write of this theme in Romans 11:7-11.
Prior to dealing with either of these themes, however, Paul here lays the biblical foundations that support them, showing that both facts had already been prophesied eight hundred years earlier. The prophecy of Israel’s remnant he finds in the Book of Isaiah (verses 27-29), and the prophecy of the calling of the Gentiles in the Book of Hosea (verses 25-26).
Both of these prophets, delivering their oracles in the context of the downfall of Samaria to the Assyrians, faced a situation analogous to that addressed by Paul. That is to say, the crisis in Samaria, culminating in the tragic events of 722 B.C., brought to pass two things: First, the emergence of a faithful remnant, who resisted the apostasy of the Northern Kingdom. Second, a transferal of the heritage of the Northern traditions (Michaiah, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea) to the South, which then experienced a new spiritual vitality under Hezechiah.
In both of these particulars, that earlier situation, as interpreted by Hosea and Isaiah, found its parallel in Paul’s own time, when a remnant of the Jews remained faithful, and the former glories of the Hebrew people (9:4) would be preserved in the Christian Church.
In verses 30-33 Paul commences the case that he will pursue in chapter ten; namely, that Israel’s falling away was not caused by God but by Israel’s stubborn resolve to be justified by the works of the Law. We recall once more that Paul had experienced Israel’s crisis in his own life and vocation. Pursuing a righteousness according to the Law, Paul had been seduced by the sin that abode in his own heart, even in his own “members.” Driven by his zeal for the righteousness of the Law, Paul had hardened his heart against the beckoning Christ. In the dramatic circumstances of his conversion, he was made aware that the sin abiding within him had made use of the Law so that sin became exceedingly sinful (7:13). This was his own experience of the reign of death: “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me” (7:11). Endeavoring to be justified by the works of the Law, he found himself persecuting the Son of God (Acts 9:5).
Tuesday, February 25
Romans 10:1-13: Like chapter nine, the present chapter begins with an expression of Paul’s sorrow over the contemporary falling away of Israel. These present verses indicate that that defection was not inevitable. In His merciful providence, God dealt with it, but He in no way caused it. On the contrary, God made easy the path to faith (verse 9).
Israel’s defection was not caused by God; it was caused by Israel. Paul still prays for the salvation of the Jews, nonetheless (verse 1; cf. 9:1-3). As Paul knows from his own experience (Galatians 1:13-14; Philippians 3:9), they are zealous for God (verse 2). Their failure has not been in zeal, but in knowledge, epignosis, for they have been “ignorant of God’s righteousness” (verse 3). Thus, they resist the Gospel, as Paul himself had done.
“Christ is the end of the Law” (verse 4) in two senses: First, as the historical moment in which the Law lost its obligatory nature (Galatians 3:23; Ephesians 2:15; John 1:17). The new dispensation in Christ accomplishes what the Law could not. In the sense that the Law is no longer binding, the era of the Law is over.
Second, “Christ is the end of the Law” in the sense of being its theological goal, or telos. The Law was given on Mount Sinai, only with a view to the coming of Christ, in whom it is fulfilled (3:31; 8:4; Matthew 5:17).
Whereas the Law is concerned with what man does, the Gospel is concerned with what God does. Faith is concerned, not with the Law, but with the Incarnation of God’s Son (“to bring Christ down”) and His Resurrection (“to bring Christ up from the dead”). These are the things that God does. Faith is concerned, then, not with what we can do for God, but with what God has done, and promises to do, for us. In the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ (and, of course, everything in-between), God has reconciled the heights and the depths. Man is required only to believe and to confess what God has done in Christ (verse 9).
In this confession of faith we observe the primacy of the Resurrection, by which Christ put death to death (4:25). Putting there our trust, says Paul, we will be saved (verses 9,10,13—We note again the future tense for salvation). This salvation will be complete when our own bodies are raised from the dead at Christ’s return: “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (6:5).
We observe also that faith is not restricted a mere internal assent. It is social in nature. It must also be spoken. It arises from the heart and issues through the mouth (verse 10). It is not simply an impulse or a disposition. It is dogmatic; it is creedal; it is propositional. Its earliest and most basic tenets are contained in the formulas “Abba, Father” (or “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty”) and “Jesus is Lord” (or “and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God”). From the very beginning some expression of this creedal confession has been required of Christians at baptism, the rite in which the believer sacramentally dies and rises with Christ.
Wednesday, February 26
Romans 10:14-21: Israel, says Paul, is without excuse. It was to Israel that the Gospel was first addressed, but they did not believe.
This assessment refers, not only to the preaching of Jesus and the first apostles, but also to Paul’s own experience. As the Acts of the Apostles describes it, Paul’s custom, on first arriving at any new city, was to take the Gospel first to the local synagogue (Acts 13:5,14; 14:1; 17:1-2,10,17; 18:4,19,26; 19:8). In a majority of the recorded instances, however, the message was rejected by most of the Jews who heard it.
By and large, Paul discovered, his more receptive audiences tended to be made up of Gentile seekers who had attached themselves, in varying degrees, to the synagogue. These, together with small remnants of Jews in each city, became the first members of the Christian Churches of Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and so on.
The proclamation of the Gospel is the ministry of preaching, and this involves the authority of the preacher who is “sent” (verses 14-15; Acts 13:1-4). This “sending” has to do with “apostolicity,” a word derived from the Greek verb, apostello, “to send.” The sending forth to preach is the commission of the Church, a commission the Apostles received from Christ (Matthew 10:5-15; 28:16-20; John 20:21).
The transmission of this authority through the appointed successors is known to Christian history as the “apostolic succession,” which means “the succession of those who have been sent.” It is the succession itself that transmits that authority, the singular identity of the apostolic ministry from one age to the next. The authoritative proclamation of the Gospel is derived from that historical succession, which is an essential component of the Church. All legitimate mission, therefore, is rooted in a proper historical succession. The Gospel authority is transmitted through the Spirit-guided handing-on of the being of the Church.
Paul indicates the social and ecclesiastical nature of faith by insisting that “faith comes by hearing” (verse 17). Even Paul himself, to whom Jesus had spoken directly, was obliged to go to the Church in order to submit himself to her authority and be instructed by Her Tradition: “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6).
What the Church preaches is “the word of Christ” This expression seems to have a twofold meaning: First, it signifies the word received from Jesus through the Tradition preached in the Church (and in due course transmitted into Holy Scripture in the form of Gospels and Epistles). Second, it means that word of which Christ is the very content. These two meanings appear to be but aspects of one reality.
Small wonder, says Paul, if many of the Jews rejected Christ; they had already rejected Isaiah (verse 16). Indeed, they had already rejected Moses (verse 19; John 5:46).
In verse 18 Paul saying that the Gospel is as cosmic as the cosmos. He sees in God’s revelation in nature a foreshadowing of His revelation in the Gospel, for the universality of God’s witness in the works of Creation is to be matched in the universal character of the Gospel’s proclamation.
The citation from Deuteronomy in verse 19 introduces the motif that will dominate the end of the next chapter: Israel’s providential “jealousy.”
Thursday, February 27
Romans 11:1-10: Paul has already suggested two considerations that qualify Israel’s rejection of the Gospel. First, the rejection was not complete, because a remnant of Israel remained faithful. Second, Israel’s defection proved to be a blessing for the Gentiles (much as Esau’s defection had proved a blessing for Jacob). The second of these considerations will receive a more ample treatment in the present chapter, as Paul subsumes it into an elaborate dialectic of history.
First, Israel’s falling away is only partial (verses 4-5), and Paul counts himself among the faithful remnant (verse 1; Philippians 3:5; Acts 13:21). Even during the ninth century before Christ, when all Israel seemed to have become devotees of Baal (“I alone am left, and they seek to take my life!” — 1 Kings 19:14), a remnant had been spared (verses 2-4). Even now Paul was no more alone than Elijah had been. God had not abandoned Israel in those days; He would not abandon Israel now, because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (verse 29).
A sign of that irrevocable call, Paul says, is the Jewish remnant in the Christian Church (verse 5; once again, the “eschatological now”). Not even this remnant, however, is justified by the Law but by grace (verse 6).
The irrevocable nature of God’s election leads to Paul’s second consideration; namely, that the falling away of Israel is only temporary. God has future plans for Israel. For the moment, however, Israel is acting in blindness (verses 7-8), which is the source of Paul’s sadness (9:1-2; 10:1). He observes that Israel’s blindness had been commented on by others before himself, such as Isaiah (verse 8) and David (verses 9-10). That is to say, Israel’s current defection has had no shortage of precedents in the past. If God remained faithful to Israel in former times, He surely remains faithful to Israel now and will manifest that fidelity in days to come. The course of history will prove the Jews to be God’s elect and predestined people.
We should remark that in Paul’s entire treatment of election and predestination, these terms refer to social entities—not individuals. Nowhere in Romans, or elsewhere, does Paul show any concern for individual predestination. It is simply outside his scope of interest, and none of his statements on the subject of predestination and election have any relevance to such a concern.
Friday, February 28
Romans 11:11-21: Here Paul introduces his metaphor of the olive tree in order to illustrate how it is that non-Jews find themselves as members the ancient plant of Israel. That is to say, how is it that “Abraham is the father of us all”?
The failure of most Jews to recognize Jesus as the Messiah is described by Paul as the lopping off of branches from the olive tree of Israel, and the entry of the Gentiles into the Christian Church he portrays as an engrafting of alien branches into the earlier stock. The tree, however, remains the same.
The ancient calling of the Israelites has not been abrogated. It remains the root-work of the whole plant. How should Christians react to this crucial development of salvation history? What should be their relationship to the Jews? Paul mentions two things, one negative and the other positive:
Negatively, Christians must not be boasters and smart alecks. They must avoid pride about their own engrafting into the ancient tree (verse 18). After all, it was by grace through faith that they were engrafted; they had done nothing to deserve it. Divine grace should be received with reverence, not with smug self-satisfaction. The Christian must not look down on the Jew or give himself airs. If the native branches themselves were lopped off of the tree, then the engrafted branches should be especially cautious, lest they too suffer the same fate (verse 21). Nothing is less attractive than a smirking Christian, and the Christian who boasts against the Jews, or contemns the Jews, or speaks of the Jews with disdain, is a moral abomination.
Positively, Christians should endeavor to make the Jews “jealous” (verse 14). Here is what Paul means: The first Gentiles joined the Christian Church because they were “jealous” of the blessings enjoyed by the Jews and were looking for an opportunity to share those blessings (verse 11). Now it is time for the process to work the other way: It is time for the Christians to make the Jews themselves jealous!
That is to say, Christians should live in such a way that the Jews will want to share in the blessings of the life in Christ, because the life in Christ is meant to be, in fact, their own inheritance. Christ is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s deepest longings, and if Jews see Christians sharing blessings that properly belong to themselves, they too will become jealous and crave what is rightly theirs.