Divide the Word, Not Believers

So I just finished a debate – if you can call it that – with a man who forcefully argues for a hyper-Calvinism position on the atonement. We sat down to have coffee a couple of weeks ago and somehow got into a debate on Romans 9. Let me say upfront that there are many good Christians who are hyper-Calvinists; and there are many good Christians who are not. I belong to the latter category. The conclusion of the story, I assume, based on his comments on FB, is that he has broken fellowship with me. In our discussion on Romans nine, I presented a reading of the text that disagreed with his. On FB, without articulating what I actually said about Romans nine, he told anyone reading that I vehemently oppose God’s sovereignty in salvation, I dishonor God, and that I despise the sovereignty of God. When I called him a Calvinist he said I was disparaging him and that he does not accept such titles – he even said I was disparaging Calvin. I thought I was being accurate based on his argument. He thought I was being divisive. One of the things I took away from his comments where he accuses me of dishonoring God is that because I disagree with him, I am therefore dishonoring God. To dishonor God is a serious thing. It is to be living in sin and rebellion against God. To accuse someone of dishonoring God because of theological differences is a scary place to be. You might as well make the claim “To disagree with me is to disagree with God.” Where did we ever get the idea that disagreement over theological arguments is A. equivalent to attacking God; and B. grounds for accusing a brother in Christ for being in sin; and C. grounds for breaking fellowship? Friends this is not Christianity. This is insanity.

As far as my reading of Romans nine, in a nut-shell I believe Paul is explaining why God’s promises to the Jews have not failed. It seems that the point of contention comes from the verse that reads, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13). Hyper-Calvinists insists that this means God chooses who gets saved, and conversely, God chooses who goes to hell. I think that is a misreading of the text. That verse is a quote from Malachi 1:2. It is my contention that Paul quoted Malachi for a reason, and that he quoted that verse to reflect the thinking of Malachi. In context Jacob represents Israel and Esau represents the people of Edom. This is an important point. God is not saying that He chose Jacob to go to heaven and chose Esau to go to hell. Each person represents their respective people: Jacob = Israel, Esau = Edom. If that’s correct, then is it possible that there is another meaning to that text than the ones given by hyper-Calvinists? I think so. And I don’t think that puts me in the category of dishonoring God and vehemently opposing God’s sovereignty in election. If my reading is wrong, it does not make me a sinner, it simply means I am mistaken. And for the record this reading does not mean that I believe a person is saved by their own efforts. They are saved only by what Christ has done. Period.

Going back to Malachi: again, Paul is quoting Malachi for a reason. The opening verse of Malachi puts a question in the mouth of the prophet: how have you loved us? So God answers the question and tells them how. He explains that God’s favor is on Jacob, and therefore on all Israel and not on Esau, and therefore not on the peoples of Edom. The larger context is the sin and rebellion of Israel which the prophet goes on to address in detail. The message from God to Jacob is: I love Jacob (read all Israel) despite their sin. And while they certainly deserve the punishment of Edom, they will not receive it. At the end of Malachi, it is clear that despite their sin, and the pleading of their innocence not-withstanding (which is a sin), God is still going to bring about His purposes of salvation through them (Malachi 4:1-6). So, despite their sin, God’s promises given to them WILL NOT FAIL (Rom 9:6).  Paul incorporates this thinking in his letter to the Romans. He says plainly in verse 4 & 5 that all the promises of God have come to Israel, then in verse 6 makes it clear that, despite appearances to contrary (Israel falling under judgment because they reject the gospel, Rom 9:32, 10:1-3, 16) God’s promises to the Jewish people have not, and cannot fail.  He goes on to address this concern that apparently some people had; but he is careful to explain that the ones who reject it do so because they are not following God’s plan for salvation. In seeking to establish their own righteousness (Rom 10:3) they have gone off the reservation. Their cries of unfairness 9:14, 19 (incidentally the people in Malachi claimed God wasn’t being fair either) that God won’t accept their righteousness through the law become the context of what Paul address in the rest of chapter 9 and 10. Paul is saying that God is not being unfair because as the One who gives the promises, He is the one who guides how those promises are received – by faith, not by works. And He is the One who creates the boundaries of how salvation comes into the world (i.e. through Jacob and not Esau – and not even Pharaoh and the powerful Egyptian nation can thwart God working in history, vs. 9:17). The promises are received only through faith and based only on the work that God has done in bringing salvation into the world through the Jewish nation and ultimately through Christ.

In explaining this, Paul is also lamenting the fact that many Jews reject the Gospel (9:1-3, 10:1) and is essentially pleading with them to accept the work that God has done.[1] He is in effect pleading for them to place their faith and trust in what God has done.  Look at verse 11:23, “IF they do not continue in unbelief, God will graft them in.” – notice the IF, making the sentence a subjunctive clause and putting the responsibility on them – i.e., if they will believe what God has said and done, and accept the gift of righteousness that He gives through Christ, He will bring them into life. He is concerned that they come to saving faith. And he wants them to abandon any attempt to be saved outside of Christ. That is why in verse 9:3 Paul says that he is willing to sacrifice everything, even his own salvation, so that they might be saved. In the middle of Chapter 10 this thinking is elaborated on. He says in 10:9, “That IF you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In context this confession must be seen against those who seek to establish their own righteousness (10:3-8). But Paul argues that Christ, not our works, is our righteousness. Then in verse 10:10-13 he says in sum, whoever will come to Christ, gentile or Jew, and confess faith in Christ will be saved. That is explicitly stated in verse 11 as he quotes Isa 28:16. Faith in Jesus delivers God’s salvation to all (will not be put to shame). And in his turmoil for them to hear the gospel he makes it clear that to be saved THEY MUST HEAR THE WORD OF GOD (v. 10:14, 17). In that context verse 10:17 becomes so important: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing the Word of God.” In other words, faith is received and salvation imparted, when they hear the Word of God and believe it. There is no equivocation in these words. We cannot say, “Well, God may or may not save someone, that’s up to Him.” Paul’s answer is, sacrifice everything so they can hear and respond – plead, explain, persuade, beg, pray, and preach the Word – for without it, they have no hope of responding and therefore no hope of salvation.

So, in these chapters two important truths are on display. One, God’s sovereignty in bringing about our salvation through Jesus Christ, and fulfilling all His promises despite the sin of His people. We CAN be saved from judgement and wrath ONLY because of what God has done through Christ. We CANNOT establish our own righteousness. Second, through his pleading, and willingness to sacrifice, and urging that they hear the word, Paul reveals, to some degree, the responsibility for people to believe what God has done and accept through faith that it has been completed for them. So, I see God’s sovereignty and man’s free will side by side. I do not see particular, limited atonement in these verses. If you do, then God speed. But to claim that the above argument makes one a sinner and breaking fellowship over it is really an outrage – unworthy of the Savior who died for us that we might live for God, love God, and demonstrate that love by how believers love one another.

[1] That, incidentally does raise a question: if I’m wrong and Paul is in fact arguing that God chooses each individual for either salvation or damnation, why such emotional turmoil? He reveals that turmoil again in 10:1. If he is making the hyper-Calvinistic argument, then the pleading and turmoil seem out of place.

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