Here is our recording of the Valley Worship Service this Sunday
The children of the promise Romans 9
It’s so frustrating.
You have a friend or a relation or a neighbour, who you KNOW would hugely benefit from being a follower of Christ, from being a Christian. Their lives may be really tough; they feel that life is pointless and maybe that they are worthless; as so many people are feeling, as the roller coaster of Covid19 takes its toll on businesses, on family, on hope….
You may have explained the gospel to them, how God loves them and that he does have a plan for their lives, a plan which is of cosmic significance; something which only they can do…but it’s like water off a duck’s back. It seems that they just cannot see it….
Its like… you can see that they are desperately thirsty and that there is water, to share with them….just over there….but they won’t accept it
It defies all logic!
Paul grapples with this issue in the ninth chapter of Romans.
He is in anguish about his Israelite countrymen and their rejection of Jesus Christ. He recalls that the Israelites have had every spiritual benefit from the creator of the universe (verse 4), but they still didn’t get it. Perhaps God’s promises to the people of Israel had failed?
But Paul denies this. Searching through Scripture, he finds that the very first promise that God made to the people of Israel was to Abraham in Genesis 22. The promise was that Abraham’s descendants would grow into a vast nation with God’s blessing and that all nations on earth would be blessed through them.
He points out that that covenant was made not to all of those descended from Abraham (a descent of which the Jews were so proud) ‘Not all who were descended from Israel are Israel’ but to those who were the children of the promise: the promise that God had made to Sarah and Abraham that she would have a son in her old age; the promise God chose to make, God elected to make to their son Isaac that it would be through his children that Israel would be numbered and not to Ishmael, Abraham’s earlier son by his servant Hagar. He chose one and not the other.
Paul says that all Israelites are genetic Israel, but the children of the promise are the real spiritual Israel.
Again Paul points out (verse 10) that God chose, God elected, Jacob, the younger son of Isaac and Rebekah and not Esau his twin, even before either of them had done anything in their lives, so God’s decision was not about whether they had been good or bad and (verse 15) Paul points out that God says to Moses (in Exodus 33.19) ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’
Paul emphasises that God has always said that who is saved is entirely dependent on God’s decision, not on anyone else Verse 16 ‘It does not therefore depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy’.
What would your life, or my life, look like if every decision that I had taken or you had taken was pre-determined in some way; if it was governed by fate or if our Creator had really made us like automatons, so that all our decisions were not our own, but actually pre-determined, so that those who were going to become followers of Christ was set before our birth and those who were going to reject it all was set in advance?
If that was the case our lives really would have no more meaning than if we were playing a part in a perpetual version of the Hollow performed by the Southwood Players last week: the plot is set by the author, she knows who is going to be murdered and who is going to do it…even before she puts pen to paper…even before the first thesp..steps onto the stage, but we the audience don’t know it yet….
If everything is predetermined, pre-destined, there is no hope, there is no point in desperately wanting our spouse or parent or friend to become a follower of Christ; there is no point in wanting to speak to our neighbour about Jesus because it has all been decided already. They either will or they won’t….
Is that how God has set things up?
Alternatively, is everything governed by chance? Richard Dawkins would say so: ‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get lucky and you wont find any rhyme or reason in it or any justice’
Does that mean that some people are going to become followers of Christ and some not but really its all random?
Into this dilemma comes the Christian doctrine of election, which is what Paul is unpacking in Romans 9.
This is not at all easy because it challenges the ideas of free will that we receive from so many other passages of scripture. For example: the magnificent piece in Revelation 3:20 which is the inspiration for that great painting the Light of the World by Holman Hunt: ’Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and [chooses to] open the door I will come into him and eat with him and he with me’. The words ‘if anyone’ suggests its up to us, not pre-determined.
In the next chapter of Romans Chapter 10 Paul says ‘..if you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’.
So how do we put what Paul is saying in Romans 9, with what he is saying in Romans 10?
How do we match up God’s sovereign election of some, but not others? How do we match that up with our free will? Is it all pre determined or did God decide it all beforehand?
What is it? God’s predetermination our our free will?
Part of the answer to this conundrum is Providence.
Providence is the idea that because God has chosen in his love for us to give us free will, God does not have control of every event which happens in his world, but God works within events (even though they are messy and tragic and conflict with his will) to bring about his purposes. And indeed works through us, his hands and feet, to achieve those purposes.
But what are those purposes according to Paul?
Paul speaking to the Areopagas in Athens in Acts 17:27 says:
‘God…from one man made all the nations that they should inhabit the whole earth and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him though he is not far from any one of us’. His purpose is that man would seek him out and reach for him; in other words open the door on which he is knocking: so he wants everyone to come to know him. But God does not compel our response: He works through events to try and get us to search for him.
His way of working is individual and personal and moral. Paul in Romans 8:28 says ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him… so that we should be conformed to the likeness of his Son’. God won’t force us to accept him, but equally not everything that happens in a fallen world is his will…..
Also you and I can make a difference to how God works within his world by sharing the gospel with our friends, but when it falls flat, like water of a duck’s back, most importantly, we can pray, we can petition him to change his mind about particular people.
We won’t change his purposes, because those reflect who he is, and he is of unchangeable character, but providing we are praying consistently with his purposes, he may change his mind about individuals.
We see this in Jonah 4 where Jonah has been told by God that the city of Nineveh will be destroyed and he announces this to everyone but then (much to Jonah’s chagrin) the people repent and God relents.
In the same way as we pray for individuals to be saved, for them to become followers of Christ, then God may relent and change their hearts to incline them towards him, but we cannot predict or control how or when or if this will happen in any particular case. He is sovereign, not us.
As Jesus says in John 3:8 ‘the wind blows wherever it is pleases…so it is with with everyone born of the Spirit’. In other words whether an individual becomes a follower of Christ or not is totally up to the Holy Spirit, totally up to God; its his decision; its only by his grace, nothing we can do can deserve it; but we can help, we can be involved, we can pray that God relents and changes their hearts.
As theologian Mike Lloyd writes in his book Cafe Theology: ‘In Fate we make no difference to what is going to happen anyway. In Chance there is no overarching story, no purpose, no God. In Providence, not everything that happens is the will of God but the will of God will be worked out in and through (sometimes despite) everything that happens.There is an overarching story. There is a goal to which God is working that ultimately will not be denied and we are invited to play our part in realising that purpose, to contribute to that story to nudge the bits of creation for which we are responsible in the direction of the destiny for which they were designed’.
As I look back over 20 years of being a Christian, to that fateful weekend on a holiday in the Philippines (a holiday effectively in paradise) where everything was perfect, when we were in the middle of the Alpha Course when the Holy Spirit weekend was being carried on in Tokyo where we lived, a weekend when the penny dropped for both Lucy and I (astonishingly at the same time I have never heard of this happening to anyone else); when the penny dropped that what we had heard on Alpha was true, that it made more sense of the universe than anything else; that the cause of us arguing with each other wasn’t: our surroundings, my work, our children, the problem was us, was me, was Lucy; that it was each of our brokenness which was causing us so much heartache, no-one else no other circumstances, and that the answer lay in Jesus Christ, and we repented..
As I look back on that weekend, I know that in Tokyo 2000 miles away there were Christians praying for us….
I thank Father God now that in his Providential care for us that He changes his mindand that we mere human beings, as Abraham puts it in Genesis 18:27 ‘though we are nothingbut dust and ashes’, we can have a role in the way in which God works his purposes out.
Pete Greig tells the story of DL Moody a great preacher who carried a list of 100 non christians for whom he prayed daily over the years. When one of them gave his life to Christ Moody would cross the name off the list so that by the time of his death no fewer than 96 of those 100 people had become followers of Jesus; the remaining four surrendered their lives to Christ at Moody’s funeral.
All 100 were saved simply because of Moody’s dogged determination to pray for them come what may!
So let us not give up on our recalcitrant spouse or sibling or neighbour. They are our responsibility: its up to us to pray for them. Lets change God’s mind about them and lives will be transformed….
Romans 9 (NRSV)
9 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7 and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11 Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12 not by works but by his call) she was told, “The elder shall serve the younger.” 13 As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”
14 What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses,
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
16 So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.
19 You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; 23 and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 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.’ ”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they shall be called children of the living God.”
27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; 28 for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us,
we would have fared like Sodom
and been made like Gomorrah.”
30 What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31 but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 as it is written,
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ro 9:1–33). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Romans 9 (Message version)
God Is Calling His People
1–5 9 At the same time, you need to know that I carry with me at all times a huge sorrow. It’s an enormous pain deep within me, and I’m never free of it. I’m not exaggerating—Christ and the Holy Spirit are my witnesses. It’s the Israelites … If there were any way I could be cursed by the Messiah so they could be blessed by him, I’d do it in a minute. They’re my family. I grew up with them. They had everything going for them—family, glory, covenants, revelation, worship, promises, to say nothing of being the race that produced the Messiah, the Christ, who is God over everything, always. Oh, yes!
6–9 Don’t suppose for a moment, though, that God’s Word has malfunctioned in some way or other. The problem goes back a long way. From the outset, not all Israelites of the flesh were Israelites of the spirit. It wasn’t Abraham’s sperm that gave identity here, but God’s promise. Remember how it was put: “Your family will be defined by Isaac”? That means that Israelite identity was never racially determined by sexual transmission, but it was God-determined by promise. Remember that promise, “When I come back next year at this time, Sarah will have a son”?
10–13 And that’s not the only time. To Rebecca, also, a promise was made that took priority over genetics. When she became pregnant by our one-of-a-kind ancestor, Isaac, and her babies were still innocent in the womb—incapable of good or bad—she received a special assurance from God. What God did in this case made it perfectly plain that his purpose is not a hit-or-miss thing dependent on what we do or don’t do, but a sure thing determined by his decision, flowing steadily from his initiative. God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.”
14–18 Is that grounds for complaining that God is unfair? Not so fast, please. God told Moses, “I’m in charge of mercy. I’m in charge of compassion.” Compassion doesn’t originate in our bleeding hearts or moral sweat, but in God’s mercy. The same point was made when God said to Pharaoh, “I picked you as a bit player in this drama of my salvation power.” All we’re saying is that God has the first word, initiating the action in which we play our part for good or ill.
19 Are you going to object, “So how can God blame us for anything since he’s in charge of everything? If the big decisions are already made, what say do we have in it?”
20–33 Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? Do you for one moment suppose any of us knows enough to call God into question? Clay doesn’t talk back to the fingers that mold it, saying, “Why did you shape me like this?” Isn’t it obvious that a potter has a perfect right to shape one lump of clay into a vase for holding flowers and another into a pot for cooking beans? If God needs one style of pottery especially designed to show his angry displeasure and another style carefully crafted to show his glorious goodness, isn’t that all right? Either or both happens to Jews, but it also happens to the other people. Hosea put it well:
I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies;
I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved.
In the place where they yelled out, “You’re nobody!”
they’re calling you “God’s living children.”
Isaiah maintained this same emphasis:
If each grain of sand on the seashore were numbered
and the sum labeled “chosen of God,”
They’d be numbers still, not names;
salvation comes by personal selection.
God doesn’t count us; he calls us by name.
Arithmetic is not his focus.
Isaiah had looked ahead and spoken the truth:
If our powerful God
had not provided us a legacy of living children,
We would have ended up like ghost towns,
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
How can we sum this up? All those people who didn’t seem interested in what God was doing actually embraced what God was doing as he straightened out their lives. And Israel, who seemed so interested in reading and talking about what God was doing, missed it. How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing. They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them, like a huge rock in the middle of the road. And so they stumbled into him and went sprawling. Isaiah (again!) gives us the metaphor for pulling this together:
Careful! I’ve put a huge stone on the road to Mount Zion,
a stone you can’t get around.
But the stone is me! If you’re looking for me,
you’ll find me on the way, not in the way.
Peterson, E. H. (2005). The Message: the Bible in contemporary language (Ro 9:1–33). Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.