With the idea of choice, we must ask, “Is it only a matter of my choice?” Where does the sovereignty of God and His will come into play? Is He simply the victim here of man’s choice? Not as a game-master, but instead as a nail-biting victim held to Fate’s destiny? Paul in Romans chapter nine deals with these very difficult questions in view of faith but which has become the topic of much controversy among Christianity.
In order to explore the full nature of God as our helper, let’s not avoid the question of God’s sovereignty. God’s favor with Abel is similar to God’s favor with Jacob. In Romans nine Paul uses the latter example explaining how God loved Jacob but Esau he hated, and the same could be said of Cain and Abel. In order to properly appreciate what Paul is speaking to it is good to take a few steps back in the life of Paul and consider the nature of his calling in Acts nine.
Paul, before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, went by the name Saul. As a religious idolater, parallels can be drawn between Saul and another false-worshiper, Cain. When Jesus came preaching and teaching among the Jews, the religious leaders failed to recognize Him as their promised messiah. They were looking for a political and military hero, a physical conqueror, who would overcome their oppressors and restore their prior glory as a great nation upon the earth. They failed to understand the ministry of Christ and the Gospel Jesus came proclaiming, and so they failed to see their own need for Him. In their anger of Jesus’ rejection to serve them as an earthly king and hatred for Jesus’ rejection of their self-righteous works, they killed Him.
Then following Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of the Holy Spirit, as the Gospel of Christ began to spread throughout Judea in the first days of the church, the same religious leaders began to burn with new jealousy and blind contempt. As they observed the growth of this new movement they called The Way, they began looking for means to squelch it.
As tension between the infant church and the religious leaders built, it quickly turned to bloodshed with the stoning of Stephen, the first recorded martyr. His bold preaching to the religious leaders and the crowd of on-lookers turned these men against him, and they murdered him. This takes us back to the two brothers in Genesis, and yet it takes us to the crucifixion of Christ even more. Stephen’s words in the midst of being stoned, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” echoes those of his Lord, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This story in Acts ends by giving us one important detail among hundreds of details not provided; a young man, Saul, stood by as a witness to the whole event involving Stephen.
Now, we’re told, “Saul agreed with putting him to death,” so we know Saul was no innocent bystander to the murder of Stephen. In the darkness of his idolatrous heart, he was in full agreement with the slaying of this innocent man; and this event begins a wave of persecution against the church as Saul, no longer content to be a passive bystander, becomes a leader of a defiant, frontal assault against God’s people. Though his intentions are pure in seeking to cleanse the land of this supposed scourge, Christianity; in his idolatry looking for a false messiah, Saul becomes responsible not for one brother’s death but for the genocide of countless brothers, his religious enemies, the followers of Christ. Like Cain, Saul and the religious leaders were looking for a different savior, and their anger burned from God’s rejection of their proud, self-centered deeds.
Then, suddenly, something spectacular and unexpected happens to Saul in Acts chapter nine! As he’s traveling the road to Damascus, a trip taken with the intent of expanding the authority of his reach as champion of the cause against this Christ and this Way, he has an encounter with God that we could call anything but free choice. I believe it is this life-changing encounter which serves as the catalyst for Paul all his life. The catalyst for his ministry as an apostle, and the catalyst for his heartfelt discourse in Romans and elsewhere.
On the road to Damascus, some while after the stoning of Stephen, Saul is met with a blinding light!
“Falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’
‘Who are You, Lord’ he said.
‘I am Jesus, the One you are persecuting,’ He replied. ‘But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’
Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” (Acts 9:4-6)
Now shortly after Saul is struck with blindness, Ananias, a faithful follower of Christ, receives a vision. In Ananias’ vision, the Lord instructs him to find Saul of Tarsus in the city. The Lord reveals to Ananias the house where Saul is staying, the name of the street where he can be found, Straight; a reminder of Isaiah’s words, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Saul is literally turned to the straight road to prepare the way of the Lord. In this preparation for the Lord to have his way with Saul, it is further revealed to Ananias that Saul, struck with blindness, has also been given a vision. In his vision the Lord is revealing to Saul that Ananias will be coming to lay hands on him and heal him! But how does the Lord presume to know Ananias is a willing participant? The Lord hadn’t bothered to wait for Ananias to agree to anything.
The fact is, Ananias seeks an appeal with the Lord, very poignantly reminding Him that this Saul is the same guy responsible for ravaging the church. We know from a report in Acts that Saul was dragging men and women from their homes to have them put into prison. The Lord directly sets Ananias’ inquisitive yet obedient heart at ease.
“Go! For this man is My chosen instrument to take My name to Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name!” (Act 9:15-16)
Ananias is faithful to obey the Lord’s command, goes to find Saul and lays hands on him. Then look at the extra-mile of kindness Ananias walks with these words. “Brother Saul…” what grace! Were the scales over Saul’s eyes not simply melting away with these two words? The flow of warm tears streaming down his face, like a baptism of mercy and kindness, melted the heart of Saul that day. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road you were traveling, has sent me so that you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Here Saul had now witnessed true love and grace, the miraculous act of healing, yes, but even more, the miraculous measure of grace found in the kindness of a stranger meeting him, his former oppressor, for the very first time. This type of kindness he had only encountered one other time when he witnessed the killing of that innocent man Stephen. “Do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen had uttered over all those present as he lay dying. Was this detail not given to us for a very significant reason? Had this seed of love and grace of the Lord Jesus, through Stephen, not made an impact on the hardened, dark heart of Saul, who had been seeking merely to “serve” God and restore the name of his religion with zeal? The Lord’s preparation had begun with Stephen’s sowing and the work continued through Ananias’ watering; yet the Lord brought the harvest in Paul.
Saul was baptized into the faith, began growing in the faith and eventually, after a period of time receiving the revelation of the gospel message the Lord intended him to take to the world, he returned as Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ.
Bitter Waters Sweet
It is my belief that in Paul’s letter to the Romans he is writing from the heart. The danger of writing this way is that heartfelt words can sometimes be misunderstood. Paul seems not as much concerned with laying out doctrine here as he is with speaking from the heart as a Jew, saved by grace, made to walk in new life, but who feels understandable grief for his countrymen. As the apostle for the Gentiles, he also has a very important thing to remind them concerning the nature of faith.
“I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen.” (Romans 9:1-5)
What strong words from Paul! He isn’t teaching doctrine here so much as he is speaking with an intercessor’s heart that somehow he wishes he could make himself cursed, that he could lay down his own life in Christ, for the sake of his brethren. What a beautiful sentiment, and we can hardly doubt that Paul means what he says here. He admittedly is grieved knowing that through the Jewish people came all the things of God, including Christ Himself!
We know from the teachings of Paul and elsewhere in the New Testament that all the things he speaks of; the covenants, the law, the service of God, etc., were all pointing to the need of and coming of Christ. Some of Israel recognized Him when He came; many did not. Paul is grieving from the personal knowledge that many of his kinsmen, as he says later, “Stumbled at that stumbling stone.”
In his grief, Paul is not losing sight of what is the reason some are accepted and some are not, and it is at this point that Paul does let us in on the ways of God. As he continues his discourse Paul declares, “But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called.’”
Paul, still grieving for his kinsmen, brings everything back around to what he has learned as a true worshiper God finds acceptable. It isn’t the entitlement that some men feel based on their own birth rights (Enoch), the good fortune they’re born into (Pharaoh), or the nature of their “works” (the Jews) which matters to God. Paul explains very clearly that no matter how much God loves your father (Abraham) being his son will get you nowhere (Ishmael) without one thing. This one thing is what Paul has been pointing to the whole way through Romans: faith.
What God accepts from His people is only faith in the promise of His Word, trusting in Him to provide the help of which we are so desperately in need. His point in light of “those who are of Israel,” the actual Jewish descendants of Abraham; is that they are not all his children in faith, believing in the promised son of God. Paul is speaking of the true son, Jesus Christ.
As Paul continues he makes statements that, isolated by themselves, become the arguments of doctrine that seeks to do the very thing Paul is arguing against… separating those “accepted” and “rejected” by God on the basis of outer works! Often the terms “elect” and “non-elect” are exchanged accordingly, and I do not ignore that scripture and Paul himself speak abundantly of the prosperity of the elect. However, Romans 9:10-18 do not negate what Paul has been pointing us to, the need for faith, in the previous chapters. He is simply stating that our lot in life, the nature of our first birth, does not counter what God has chosen to do in those who simply believe His promises. The question becomes one of the nature of our heart before Him. God will be seen by those of a poor and broken heart.
Paul continues his argument for faith, and not man’s works, by asking the rather obvious question in light of God’s sovereign choosing.
“You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9:19-20)
It is not my intention for a minute to suggest that God has no sovereign choice over His creation. As the Master over His creation we cannot in our position as finite men and women “talk back to God.” Paul raises the question for us so we don’t have to, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?”
Paul knew all too well the nature of this question. Had he not pondered the mystery of God’s choosing him; why he had been so special in Jesus’ eyes to deserve the type of preparation and calling the Lord had bestowed upon him? Paul was on the way to Damascus with the intent to persecute more innocent people in the name of the righteous God he believed he was serving. Why had he been chosen by Jesus to be subjected to the blinding light of grace and not the countrymen who Paul begins this chapter grieving for?
Let’s press on, though, into the most difficult three (and a half) verses to receive mentally as humans in all of scripture…
“Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory—on us, the ones He also called…” (Romans 9:21-24a)
To understand these verses one must understand the calling and ministry of Paul. What was Saul before he was Paul? Was he an object of God’s wrath or an object of God’s mercy? When he was ravaging the church, dragging innocent men and women from their homes was he an object of God’s wrath or an object of God’s mercy? We would likely answer, “An object of mercy.” That is understandable, but when Saul received a blinding light on the road to Damascus was Paul an object of God’s mercy or an object of God’s wrath? Blinding light is a bit “wrathful,” yet of course it was an agent of mercy we know only because we can see the full scope of Paul’s life. But let’s not stop here…
In speaking of Paul’s salvation we must always speak of Stephen. There would be no Paul if there was no Stephen. However, was Stephen an object of wrath or mercy? In Stephen, was God enduring with much patience the object of wrath ready for destruction to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy? Stephen certainly made known the riches of God’s mercy. Stephen’s mercy had worked effectively on the object of wrath found in the heart of Saul.
If we mention Stephen we must certainly speak of Jesus Christ. Hanging on the cross, was Jesus Christ the object of God’s wrath or the object of God’s mercy? Jesus Christ was the expression of the fullest extent of God’s mercy, and yet bore the full measure of God’s wrath making known the riches of His grace and love for humanity.
In one sense, God’s purpose for our lives will always come to fruition. Paul cites the words God gave Moses for Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this reason so that I may display My power in you and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Do you see any mention here of how God would choose to display His power in Pharaoh? Had Pharaoh repented and believed in the God for whom Moses had come as a witness, could God have not displayed His power in him in similar fashion to another Gentile king later? Nebuchadnezzar repented and believed, and he served as a testimony to God’s greatness.
The question always comes back to one of faith. To whom do we look for our help? From whom do we seek an identity? In the name of Jesus we find both, and by God’s sovereign choice in Christ we have all been called. Like Saul, the fact is, we are in need of a new identity. Somehow Saul found a completely new identity, in a new name and a new calling, Paul the apostle.
Jesus explained to Ananias that Saul would eventually come to know the suffering he must endure for the sake of his new identity. Paul found his identity in the name of Jesus and would later come to pen these words.
“My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” (Philippians 3:10)