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(This was written in response to a Facebook post by a friend of mine defending the Wesleyan interpretation of Romans 9)

 

About two weeks ago I was sitting in a Bible study when the minister brought up an issue that had come up in the news a while before that. It was the story of the pastry shop Greggs and their Christmas advertisement. This advertisement had caused a bit of offence and some people to be up in arms over its tasteless representation. The ad showed a typical nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary, donkeys, stable, etc., but in place of the baby Jesus lying in the manger, there sat a sausage roll. The minister then went on to make the point that these “Christians” were getting up in arms about a sausage roll whilst legions of people are starving in the world and they remain silent.
I point out first of all that there is absolutely no reason to believe that people either care about sausage rolls or the hungry but not both. That is a false dilemma. What is really meant by the minister’s objection is to point out the apparently absurdity of those who complain about a sausage roll in an advertisement.

I was reminded of American Christian speaker Tony Campolo, who in an address once made the point, “There are thousands of people in the world today who will die of starvation, and you don’t give a <rude word>. And what is shocking to me is that you care more that I just said <rude word> than that there are thousands dying of starvation.” Again, the attempt of Campolo was to point out the absurdity of those who would complain about the use of <rude word> more than starvation.

What struck me as I was listening to this minister was the sudden thought that these people who complained are perhaps not so absurd after all. Rather, what we see playing out again and again in many different forms is a battle which has taken place since the dawn of creation with Adam and Eve and the serpent and the garden. The lie of the serpent was, “[Gen 3:4-5 ESV] 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent is tempting the woman to place herself at the centre of the universe, instead of God. Essentially, she wanted to be like God – defining good and evil for herself. In that, she attempted to rob God of his place in the universe and be able to dictate what is right and good for herself. Ignoring what God said, she was tempted to consider the meanness and injustice of God’s restrictions placed upon her and she felt that her autonomy had to be respected and honoured and centralised and her natural inclination caused her to rebel.

The failure of Greggs, the failure of Campolo, the failure of Eve and Uzzah and Nadab and Abihu and Herod and Ananais and Sapphira was the refusal to acknowledge God’s place. Yes, God is love, but that is by no means the central motivation of God in scripture. The central motivation of God in scripture, the one transcendent characteristic he gives to himself, the one thing he will be revered and honoured for throughout eternity is that he is holy. Lest we start to think that the angels repeat day and night as they surround the throne, “Love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty.” (Isa 6:3, Rev 4:8). He is motivated by the reverence due to his name. It is the reason:
He showed mercy to Israel: Ezekiel 20:9
He leads us in righteousness: Psalm 23:3
He hardened Pharaoh’s heart: Exodus 14:4, 8
He forgives sin: Psalm 25:11
He made Israel great: 2 Sam 7:23
He did not let Israel be completely destroyed: Isaiah 48:9-11
Jesus does what he does: John 4:34, 7:4, 18
Jesus dies: John 12:27-28
We are saved: Ephesians 1:3-6
We are to do all things to the glory of God: 1 Cor 10:31

What Campolo, and Greggs, and you in your description of God’s characteristics of “love, justice and mercy” miss out is that God is a holy God. Such a central characteristic which is understandable from a secular organisation like Greggs, but for ministers of the gospel to omit it entirely is striking. What is worrying is that no one really has a problem with God being loving. No one has a problem with God being merciful. We love that stuff. Technically no one has a problem with God being just (so long as we get to define what justice is and isn’t). Everyone has a problem with God being holy.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:19

Those people who complained at the Greggs advertisement, or who balked at Campolo using the word <rude word> did so, not out of a sense of being ignorant or pernickety, but out of a desire to preserve the due reverence that ought to go to a holy God. This is why we see throughout scripture God’s command not only to be praised and adulated, but to be feared (Deut 6:2,24, 10:12,20, etc.). People are even killed for not fearing him (2 Kings 17:34, Malachi 2:2). We are met with examples of people who came into contact with God’s glory and their immediate reaction was one of terror (Isaiah 6:1-5, Matthew 17:1-6).

So why does God’s holiness fill us with a mix of hatred and terror? It is because a holy God must by nature detest sin. Yet we, by nature, love sin. That places us, not as the objects of God’s love, but of God’s wrath – and he is completely in the right:

[Jhn 3:36 ESV] 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
[Rom 1:18 ESV] 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
[Rom 2:5, 8 ESV] 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. … 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
[Eph 2:3 ESV] 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
[Col 3:6 ESV] 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
[Rev 6:16 ESV] 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.

Due to this being such a difficult thing for people to hear, we want to ignore it entirely. The sinful heart of human beings loves the idea of a God who loves them because in their mind what is not to love? They love the idea of a God who is merciful because that means they can be excused from whatever pet sin they love to do. They love the idea of a God of justice because they also think certain others do not deserve mercy. They hate the idea of a holy God, because they are wretched sinners who, if God is holy, deserve his wrath for their wickedness.

So what do people do? They turn to idolatry. At the foot of Mount Sinai, once the Israelites saw the smoke and fire on the mountain we are told they were afraid. They felt like they couldn’t even touch the mountain, where God came down to meet with Moses, or they would be killed instantly. So what did they do? They formed a new god. A gentler god. A little calf that could be easily moulded and nurtured and could be shaped to fit what they wanted.

I can’t stress this enough: faced with the terrible reality of the presence of the holy, just God of the whole universe, they rejected it – preferring a gentle, pliable little golden calf instead. For that reason, God had 3,000 of them killed.
Therefore it is of no surprise to me that you echo the sentiments of Wesley when faced with this God as shown to us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9. “It looks like it means that, but it can’t mean that!” Because the God presented in Romans 9 seems terrible, seems harsh, seems horrible. So we create a little god who is all love, mercy and justice, but is incomplete from the God of the Bible – we ignore his holiness.

However, in doing so, we are also faced with the problem of what to do with the word of God. With texts that spell out God’s wrath of unbelievers, his hatred of those who do evil (Psalm 5:5), his tormenting the wicked forever in hell (Rev 14) and, in our context, with God’s sovereign election and reprobation in Romans 9. What people tend to do, what Wesley does, is places himself as arbiter over scripture, defining for himself who God is, what God means by ‘love’ and ‘justice’, and what passages like Romans 9 certainly do not mean. In essence, Wesley makes himself the voice of God, giving in to that lie of the devil that would seek to have us in the judgement seat instead of God. What usually happens then is that we carefully curate what we allow people to hear from the word of God, over-emphasising his mercy and compassion and (either implicitly or explicitly) ignoring those parts we disagree with. If that is untrue, then I invite you to tell me when was the last time you preached on Romans 9:13?

And so, because we are afraid that our God is a hard, unjust man, reaping where he has not sewn and gathering where he has not scattered seed, we bury the gift of his word he gave to us (or at least part of it). And what will the master of the vineyard say when he returns?

It is for this reason that I want to cling to the scripture, the whole scripture, even the parts that other people say are distasteful and insufferable, because I want to know him. At the foot of Sinai I don’t want to be the children of Israel cowering in fear and turning to their own created god. I want to be like Joshua, eagerly trying to edge up the mountain to get closer and closer to the God that I love and serve.

With that in mind, we must examine the text of Romans 9 objectively, as God’s revelation of his character to us without impeding our judgement based on preconceived notions of who we wish God to be. As CS Lewis wrote, he is not a tame lion, but he is good.

Romans 9 follows on from the Golden Chain of redemption at the end of chapter 8, and the great promise that there is no separation from God’s love for those who are the predestined mentioned in 8:29. The message is that God has chosen them, therefore they are secure. At the beginning of Romans 9, he addresses a possible objection to this teaching: that God made similar promises to the Jews, and later rejected them as his people. The accusation is that the word of God in electing a chosen people is not, in fact, secure and therefore Paul’s audience can have no assurance of their ongoing salvation. Paul’s response is:

[Rom 9:6 ESV] 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,

He points out that God’s promise wasn’t to the geographical nation of Israel, because not everyone who belonged to that nation by birth are ‘true Israel’. Instead, it was the children of the promise (v18). To illustrate this, Paul uses the story from Genesis 18 where God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah. Notice the two promises are linked here: the promise of God’s election and the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah. Paul is drawing a parallel between the two of them. By natural means, Abraham and Sarah, being 100 years old, had no way they could ever hope to reproduce. It was only through the miraculous intervention of God. God made the promise and God fulfilled it. Even so, by natural means it is impossible for us to be born again. God makes the promise and God fulfils it. Paul will come to this conclusion in a few verses’ time.

In verse 10, Paul uses a second illustration of the twins born to Isaac and Rebekah: Jacob and Esau.

[Rom 9:10-13 ESV] 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls– 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

Here Paul clearly lays out God’s divine election in sovereignly choosing individuals and rejecting others. Nothing would need to be added to these verses, we ought to close the discussion here and conclude that God’s divine election is Biblical fact. But, us being us, we need to object. Therefore it has been said of these verses that Jacob and Esau are not representative of individuals, but two separate nations. In Malachi (where Paul is quoting from) they are used as symbols of Israel (Jacob) and Edom (Esau). God, so the objection goes, uses these as symbols to show that he punishes Edom because of their wickedness and rewards Israel because of their righteousness. It is not an arbitrary election.

And the only problem is that that’s not the argument Paul makes.

Paul points out in verse 11 that God made the decision when “they were not yet born” and “had done nothing either good or evil”. This not only shows us that he is talking about the individuals and not the nations, but that God did not make the decision on the basis of either’s moral performance. Rather, he made the decision “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls”. Therefore we have a clear example of God choosing a particular individual and rejecting another before they were even born.

The second point to be made here is that Paul is directly referencing Malachi 1:2 in his judgements on the house of Israel. Within the context of the Old Testament, God makes abundantly clear that he has not chosen Israel because they are righteous, or because they have the right faith. In fact he explains right from the outset in Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5. In truth, both Jacob and Esau were sufficiently wicked for God to reject both. However, he chose, before the boys were even born, one over the other.

Genesis 25:23 And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.”

Finally, if we are to accept the Wesleyan interpretation of this verse (13) that it only refers to God’s punishment of the wicked and his preserving the righteous, then it makes sense to conclude that God fits with our conception of justice. We can easily accept that. We can rest easy, knowing that we believe God is fair to everyone.

So why then does Paul need to ask the question in verse 14?

[Rom 9:14 ESV] 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!

For if Paul only means that God rewards the righteous nation and punishes the wicked nation, why does he foresee the objection that God is unjust because of this? Paul anticipates the question because he knows the natural conclusion to God’s divine election is “This is unfair!” If we accept the Wesleyan interpretation, this objection is nonsensical. If we accept the Calvinist interpretation, then Wesley is the one making the objection in verse 14, to which Paul responds.

Notice what this means. It means that Wesley is not arguing with me. He’s not arguing with Calvin. He’s not arguing with Whitefield nor Spurgeon nor Augustine. He’s the one in verse 14 arguing with Paul.

Paul’s response is to go back to the Old Testament again (Exodus 33:18) and point out that God’s stance has always been to have mercy on whom he will have mercy and compassion on whom he will have compassion. Notice the pronoun ‘whom’ refers to a person, rather than an impersonal plural ‘those’ which would indicate a nation. God is talking about choosing individuals.

In verse 16 Paul comes to his conclusion:

[Rom 9:16 ESV] 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

The Greek uses the term ‘thelo’ to indicate that, in the context, Paul is talking about “the one who wills”, and ‘trecho’ as “the one who runs” – from which we can conclude that Paul is again referring to individuals. This fits with the rest of the verse, nations do not act with one “human will”, nor do they “run”. Only individual people do that. This is confirmed in verse 18 where we are told that God has mercy on *whomever* he wills, and hardens *whomever* he wills. The indicative “who” indicating not a nation, but a person.

So faced with this argument, we have a choice. We can either accept the divine election and sovereignty of God, made before any good or evil has taken place so that God’s purposes might be fulfilled, or we can be like the objector in verse 19 who still cries foul. But just like the last objector, they aren’t arguing with Calvin, they are arguing with Paul (and ultimately the word of God). The only fitting response to which it seems is:

[Rom 9:20 ESV] 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?”

 

And God is in the habit of doing this – he is very reluctant to be placed in the dock to answer for how he designs things to work. We see this at the end of Job where Job calls for God to answer him. God shows up and sets things straight:

[Job 38:1-7 ESV] 1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

…he goes on into the next chapter like this…and finishes with:

[Job 40:1-2 ESV] 1 And the LORD said to Job: 2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

Job interjects, and then God goes on in the same vein for yet another two chapters like this:

[Job 40:7-10 ESV] 7 “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? 9 Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? 10 “Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendour.

 

To which Job finally, like a rabbit caught in the crosshairs, replies:

 

[Job 42:1-6 ESV] 1 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

I pray you’ll do the same.

God bless, Ryan.

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