Friday, April 20, 2012

Another Perspective on Romans 9: Part I

Romans 9 has to be the most controversial chapter in the entire Bible among believing Christians. Generally, the issue that causes all the sparks and gets all the attention is election; however, when I read the chapter, I don’t see election, as generally understood, as the intent or the focus of the chapter. All the hullaballoo about election is misplaced, in my mind, the result of misinterpretation. Romans 9 is merely the opening salvo in explaining why Jews were not being saved in the Apostle Paul’s day (chapters 10 and 11 continue the explanation), and the determining issue in that problem is stated to be faith, not election.

The initial subject of chapter 9 (vs. 1-5) is the disheartening rejection of Christ amongst the Jews, who were supposedly God’s chosen people (the elect). The chapter goes on to explain how the benefaction of God’s promises cannot be understood according to arbitrary qualifications (who your daddy is) or by human efforts (what one does to make himself meritorious). The conclusion (vs. 30-33) is that the promises can only be pursued through the auspices of faith, and not by dependence upon one’s status in a group over which they had no control, nor by personal merit (works).

Paul's Argument
Though it is true that the Jews were the recipients of the promises concerning salvation, they were, in Paul’s day, not beneficiates of those promises. The fault, Paul explains, does not lie in the promises (God’s word), but in Israel’s unbelief; and the puzzle of it lies in their misapprehension of God’s choice (election). An arbitrary membership in a class of people was not a sufficient way to understand or define those chosen to be God’s beneficiates. Abraham and Isaac were used to illustrate the point: though Ishmael (and others) were the offspring of Abraham, they were not the result of promise nor the beneficiates of promise; though Esau was Isaac’s son, he was not the recipient of promise either.

Furthermore, that choice was not predicated upon the determination or effort of man--it was purely and simply a matter of God’s mercy and not human merit. God’s mercy cannot be tethered to deserts in the recipients but is solely according to the pleasure of God, otherwise it would be reward rather than mercy. God has mercy on who he wills, as Paul ably illustrates by the examples of Esau and Pharaoh. The bracing repercussion is that we have nothing to say to God to defend our worthiness, nor detract from his judgment which excludes us from his beneficence.

Mercy is not merely arbitrary, however. Although mercy is not extended on the basis of worthiness (which would seem to make it arbitrary), it is received on the basis of faith (which seems to make it anything but arbitrary). If this was not the intended point of Paul's dissertation from verses 1 through 29, he would never have brought up the pursuit of righteousness starting with verse 30. The long and short of it is that God extends mercy to whomever he wishes regardless of works or geneology, but that ultimate, saving mercy can only be received through the auspices of faith.

The force of the argument in Romans 9 is that Jews who thought they had the privileged position of being chosen by God because of their heritage and their works, were in fact missing the ultimate promise of that election. It is not that they were not chosen or even chosen no longer, as chapters 10 and 11 make abundantly clear. Their loss (hardening) revolves completely around their unwillingness to respond to God's mercy with faith. Instead, they endeavored to establish their own record of worthiness by the law and thereby missed out on God's mercy in Christ.

Parts II, III