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Sunday, April 09, 2017

Yet Another Rigged Election

Does God really prepare some people for destruction and others for glory?

It’s a good question.

Most Christians accept that God is, by definition, able to control all that he creates down to the last detail; it is difficult to read the Bible and come away with any other picture of him. But the question of how and to what extent his sovereignty is exercised within the human heart is what generally divides believers.

Some people believe the exercise of God’s sovereignty extends to his making the choice of each man and woman’s eternal destiny before they are born:
“If God chose some to salvation … then common sense teaches us that others were unchosen.”
— Milburn Cockrell
Romans 9 is one of the passages that can present a major problem for Christians struggling to build an accurate mental picture of God’s sovereignty. I believe it is often very much misunderstood.

What’s At Stake

An incorrect understanding of God’s character, whatever motivation may lie behind it, is crippling to our love and service for him. We must see him as he really is, not attempt to straitjacket him into our theological systems.

Here’s the problem with Milburn Cockrell’s version of God: He is not loving but arbitrarily cruel. His offer of salvation is inauthentic. The exercise of faith demanded of us actually changes nothing. Hell is inescapable for the “unchosen”. If the view is taken to its logical conclusion, the death of Christ is a mere symbol, a decoration on an already predetermined outcome; it isn’t the means to anything. If God is the only ultimately effective will in the universe, then he is the author of the very evil that he so violently condemns and destroys along with helpless, choiceless, Redeemer-less mankind.

Pick your poison. It’s all bad.

And it’s not taught in Romans 9, notwithstanding the fact that many, many verses from this chapter are regularly misemployed to arrive at that conclusion.

It is next to impossible to deal exhaustively with an issue as significant as God’s sovereignty in even a lengthy series of blog posts, so I’ll be less ambitious: I’d like to propose an understanding of Romans 9 that is, I trust, consistent with the teaching of the rest of scripture, but also solves a few of the problems believers often encounter in interpreting the passage.

The Subject

Paul’s subject, for the entire chapter — and if you don’t get this, you will get lost very quickly — is God’s dealings with human beings corporately, NOT his dealings with individuals. The chapter references six different groups: national Israel (“Israel”, “Jacob”), Edom (“Esau”), Egypt (“Pharaoh”), Gentiles generally, Sodom and Gomorrah. There are also more obscure references to groups of people in the terms “vessels of wrath”, “vessels of mercy” and the Church (“us whom he has called”).

I’d argue that at no point in Romans 9 is Paul concerned with God’s sovereign dealings in the hearts and minds of individuals. The subject of individual salvation, I believe, does not actually even arise until the very last verse of the chapter, and that only incidentally, since Paul is laying the ground for his argument in chapter 10 that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”.

When this is really understood, difficulties of interpretation that have often arisen concerning individuals “prepared for destruction” and other concepts with which we might reasonably feel uncomfortable are resolved without the necessity of explaining away anything in the chapter.

From the Top

Paul starts with his expression of concern for the nation of Israel, his own people. It is important to realize immediately that his concern, and in fact, his whole emphasis, is not about individual Jews. Why? Because Paul could not have failed to observe the makeup of the church that the Lord was building in Judea and throughout the known world, to which Paul’s own efforts contributed: it was, especially at first, comprised largely of converted Jews. He observed them over and over again professing faith, getting baptized, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit and carrying on in a faith more real and powerful than the religion of Judaism every year of his service for Christ. Though many rejected the truth that Jesus was the Messiah, by and large, individual Jews who repented were doing just fine.

No, Paul is expressing concern for the state of the nation of Israel corporately. This is what he stresses in the first few verses of the chapter:
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.”
It is “to Israelites”, “to them”, always plural, that all these precious privileges belong. It is “from their race” that the Christ came. Paul speaks nationally, always nationally.

All the Blessings That Attend

Individually, Jewish believers are now “in Christ”, with all the blessings that attend that status, and the promises believing Jews in the Church Age have to look forward to are characteristically heavenly rather than earthly. But national Israel was destined to be cut off from the blessing of God, to go from being publicly perceived as God’s people to being a “thing of horror”, a “byword among the nations” and a “laughingstock”. Paul knew it and was horrified at the prospect.

And there are greater things at stake than Israel becoming a laughingstock. If Israel is to be cut off by God forever, God’s word has failed. God’s reputation is staked on the nation of Israel. If he does not finish his work with them, how can we trust anything he says? How, for instance, can we be confident that he will finish his work in the lives of believers and bring us to glory?

In any case, it is evident that it was a national repentance and a national restoration for which Paul longed.

After expressing his concern, Paul goes on in verses 6-13 to tell us that all is not lost. God’s word has not failed after all. There is a subset of Jews who are children of God, despite the looming loss of Israel’s national status. Again, he is speaking of a group, not of individuals. He quotes the promise of God to Abraham, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” as evidence that while one group (the children of Abraham’s son Ishmael) was not to inherit God’s blessing, another group was (the children of Isaac).

And in fact, not all of the children of Isaac were selected for God’s blessing either.

The Older Will Serve the Younger

Isaac fathered twin boys, Jacob and Esau. God’s purposes in history dictated that he chose, or “elected”, the descendants of Jacob rather than the descendants of Esau for his purposes, but it is important to notice that it is in Jacob’s and Esau’s children as a group, NOT individually, that God’s sovereignty in choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau is demonstrated.

When he says, “the older will serve the younger”, we need to ask how this prophecy has been fulfilled. The statement was never true of Esau and Jacob personally: at no time in their lives did Esau ever serve his brother. In fact, far from pressing Esau into servitude, Jacob characteristically feared and avoided him. He had a very reasonable concern that his brother might take revenge at some point for the wrongs Jacob had done to him. So Jacob became powerful and rich, as did Esau, and the twins lived well apart from each other. It was the children of Esau corporately, the nation of Edom, about whom the prophecy was made. History shows that it was Edom that served Israel many years after the fathers of both nations were dead and buried.

But it is not just the “who” of election in this passage that is open to being misunderstood; we ought also to ask the question Elect for what? Paul mentions God’s purpose of election in the same context:
“… 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 …”
As already mentioned, the prophecy that the older would serve the younger had nothing to do with the twins themselves and their individual relationships with God. The descendants of Jacob are elect to a “strategic role in human history”, as another writer has well put it. Paul says God’s purpose of election is “not because of works”. Some people take that and run with it, insisting it points to individual sovereign election on the basis of grace. But rather, I believe Paul’s point here is that God’s purposes in the sort of election under discussion here have nothing to do with the individual at all. They are corporate and historical in nature,

Those who interpret this or subsequent statements about election in Romans 9 as having to do with individual salvation are missing the point of the entire chapter.

Jacob I Loved, but Esau I Hated

Likewise, the statement “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is entirely national and corporate in its meaning. It is a direct quotation from Malachi that has nothing whatsoever to do with individuals, though the nations involved are personified in the names of their forefathers.

How do we know? Here’s how God’s hatred for “Esau” (Edom) was expressed:
“ ‘I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.’ If Edom says, ‘We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins’, the Lord of hosts says, ‘They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called “the wicked country”, and “the people with whom the Lord is angry forever”.’ ”
This had nothing to do with the relationship of God to individual Edomites or to Esau personally; it is stated more than a thousand years after Esau died. God is angry with the nation of Edom because of its mistreatment of Israel. But where individual Edomites are concerned, the Law had commanded, “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother … Children born to them in the third generation may enter the assembly of the Lord”.

The repentant sinner has always had a way into fellowship with God even under the Law regardless of his or her nation of birth. That way at times may not have been appealing to anyone who failed to exercise genuine faith, as it involved second-class citizenship in Israel and patient waiting for generations in order to receive full acceptance in the assembly.

Nonetheless the way has always existed. The “hatred” God expresses toward Esau has nothing to do with individuals and everything to do with national status.

Mercy On Whom I Have Mercy

Paul’s subject has never changed during the first thirteen verses of the chapter. It is appropriate therefore to interpret the following verses concerning election in the same way. When we read “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy”, it is no more a statement about individual salvation than anything that precedes it.

Likewise, when we read this statement:
“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ ”
we ought to read “Pharaoh” the same way we read “Jacob” and “Esau”. Again, God is speaking nationally. Pharaoh is the federal head of Egypt and thus its embodiment, just as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Claudius refers to himself as “Denmark”, and to the King of England as “England”. Not only that, Pharaoh was himself considered to be a god in the Egyptian list of gods, which is why God says, “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment”, when he is really striking Pharaoh and his people.

It is true that Pharoah had personally been “raised up”, but so had all Pharaohs. God’s statement is much more appropriately applied to Egypt, which had become a great nation. In destroying Egypt’s armies in the Red Sea, God made a statement that was heard throughout the entire world of its day.

He Hardens Whomever He Wills

The only difficulty with a national as opposed to an individual interpretation in the first eighteen verses arises with this last statement about God: “… he hardens whomever he wills”. But this statement, too, is better understood nationally than individually. Rather than referring back to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart earlier in Exodus, I’m convinced it refers to this:
“And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.”
That Egypt experienced a corporate “hardening” is not only demonstrable from scripture, it is more consistent with progression of the argument in Romans 9. God’s judgment on Egypt nationally culminated in the Red Sea. It was there that God’s name was “proclaimed through all the earth”. Again, the purpose of this “hardening” is with respect to God’s strategy for human history and his deliverance of Israel, not with respect to individual salvation at all.

If it is argued that God hardened Pharoah’s heart (presumably leading to his personal damnation, though that is neither the subject of the various references in Exodus, nor of Romans 9), it may equally be pointed out that the scripture tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart, and that he did so on multiple occasions. If these verses in Exodus affirm the sovereignty of God in man’s salvation, they equally affirm the responsibility of man and his ability to choose.

In any case, as with the rest of the chapter, it is not the individual who is in view with respect to the sovereignty of God.

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