I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth." This opening line of the Apostle's Creed is familiar to us, yet what do we really mean when we use the word Almighty when referring to God our Father? Fearful (Ps. 1:1) or wonderful (Rom. 11:38) come close to describing what we mean, or perhaps even awesome (Eccles. 5:5). Other great creeds and rules of faith in the church use the phrase All Governing, which better establishes the Father's almightiness in relation to creation. The church bears witness to the almightiness of God as he is presented in Scripture as the Creator, his will as the ultimate cause of all things, and all things as belonging to him. As a result, Almighty God is proclaimed as King-in the most absolute sense-for all of creation is dependent upon him and subservient to him (Ps. 95:1-7). Because God the Father Almighty is our Maker, God is King, dominion belongs to the Lord, and he should be acknowledged as such. This truth is at the heart of the Christian story about God who is calling out from a disobedient and contrary humanity a people for himself, a people to whom God sovereignly chooses to make himself known and through whom God sovereignly chooses to manifest his Kingdom. It is as Charles Dickens narrates in the Christmas Carol concerning the fact that Jacob Marley was dead as a door-nail, "This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."
The story to be related is the gospel. It concerns first and foremost the God of the gospel who is the absolute King (not absolute in the sense of being self-insulated, static, and aloof, that would not be the God of the gospel). The God of the gospel is King in the absolute sense of being wholly distinct from us and thereby truly free to be our God, not only as Lord, but also as loving father, brother, and friend. While never diminishing the absoluteness of his divine kingship, God chooses to be God with us and for us (Isa. 57:15). "I will take you as my people and I will be your God" (Exod. 6:7a). Almighty God is willing and able to be compassionate, merciful, and gracious toward us whom he has claimed for his own; and in the freedom of God's self-revelation-presenting himself as God for us-he has made us free to respond in assured obedience to him. This truth is the theological thread woven throughout the Apostle Paul's Romans epistle, and in chapters 9 to 11 he clearly addresses the topics of election and assurance. For Paul understands that the Almighty God of the gospel is the free, sovereign, and electing God. We will also keep this distinctly in mind as we follow Paul's astounding argument in this passage in an effort to better understand-with fear and wonder-the key affirmation that our electing God faithfully calls forth his covenant people by the assuring power of his Word given in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Far from being a detached parenthesis in the middle of the letter, Romans 9 to 11 skillfully presents a consistent extension of the great doctrinal treatise of chapters 1 to 8. The section is grounded in Paul's declaration in the very first chapter: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (1:16). Paul devoted chapters 1 to 8 to an explication of this gospel-from an account of our desperate need, through the gracious gift of our justification in Jesus Christ, to the glorious sanctification of our victorious life in the Spirit. Through all of this, Paul is hinting at the way in which the power of God is working in connection with the gospel for the salvation of humanity, both by what God communicates in it and by what God accomplishes through it. In chapters 9 to 11, what has been implicit is made explicit. The loving and gracious God who has provided so great a salvation is also the Almighty God who faithfully works out this salvation in human history and in human lives.
Yet it is exactly the faithfulness of God that comes into question when one looks at the contrast between the success of Paul's Gentile mission and God's covenant people of Israel who failed to accept Christ, even though they were specifically prepared for his coming. Had God forsaken his covenant promises to Israel and extended them to others? While there is considerable debate over the precise theme of Romans 9 to 11, it is generally agreed that a key motive for Paul's writing is this question of Israel's unbelief and the concern over the faithfulness of God. Because Paul knows that any uncertainty about Israel's election as the covenant people of God would call into question the trustworthiness of God's promise to the Church, it is logical that he should now turn his attention to a defense of the faithfulness of God as the God of Israel, while at the same time offering an explanation of Jewish unbelief and Gentile inclusion in the hope of the promise. In the process, Paul also establishes the critical role that the gospel itself now plays in communicating assurance to the people of God.
Paul develops his apologetic of God's faithfulness by first contrasting the present unbelief of Israel with their historic privileges and their high destiny as God's chosen people (9:1-5). He then makes the important statement: "For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel" (9:6b). Here Paul is building on his earlier discussion of the relationship between the Jew and the law where he stated that a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly and real circumcision is spiritual and a matter of the heart (2:28-29). For Paul the true Jew is the child of faith who knows God truly and relationally (4:16; 5:1-5). Now Paul applies this distinction corporately to the Israel of God (9:6-8), and illustrates his point with an account of the distinctions in Israel's ancestral history. While Paul in this passage is referring specifically to the contrast between believing and unbelieving ethnic Jews, he also extends this prerequisite principle of inclusion in the covenant promise to Gentiles as well: "including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?" (9:24; cf. 4:13-17; 9:25-26, 30). Thus, in Romans 9 Paul is affirming the inclusiveness of the covenant promise (now manifested in the gospel of Jesus Christ) for Jews and Gentiles, but only received by believing Jews and Gentiles. And Paul argues that this distinction between unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, and believing Jews and Gentiles of the promise is made on an individual basis according to the sovereign electing grace of God alone.
Yet how does Almighty God work out his electing grace in human history and in human lives in a way that demonstrates faithfulness to his covenant promises to Israel? Paul argues that it is God's saving gift of faith that ultimately creates this distinction between the children of God and the children of the flesh (10:1-17; 5:1-5; cf. Eph. 2:8; Phil. 1:29). He describes those Jews who have this faith as true Israel, those whom God foreknew (11:2, referring back to 8:29), and the remnant chosen by grace (11:5). The important point here is that God has indeed proven faithful to his covenant promise to Israel in that he has maintained an Israel with which he may remain in a covenant relationship; and insofar as it is the covenant of promise, it must have always been with the true Israel of faith. Thus God has remained faithful to (true) Israel as evidenced by the very fact that Israel, the covenant, and the promise continue to exist through faith, which according to Paul's gospel is now clearly faith in Jesus Christ who is the fulfillment of the promise. Furthermore, Paul points out that this is the case even though the number of believing Israel might be as small in the present time as it had been at other key periods of Jewish history (11:2-5; cf. 9:27; 11:7).
Paul maintains that this diminutive Jewish remnant is due not to God's rejection of the covenant but because, in the mystery of God's own will, God has chosen to bestow the gift of faith on Gentiles and to incorporate them into this same covenant with believing Israel (9:24-26; 10:20; 11:17-20). Israel of the covenant has not been rejected by God, but rather God has chosen at the present time to allow the number of his Israel to decrease for his own purposes in salvation history (9:22-25; 10:19; 11:7-10, 25-27). The historic root of anti-Semitism that sees Israel as rejected by God has no interpretive support in this section of Romans. Rather, Paul affirms the primacy of covenant Israel throughout his argument here. He confirms their historic privileges and their high destiny as God's special people (9:4-5), and argues that the continued inclusion of believing Israel in the covenant promise will bring great blessings to the world (11:12, 15). For Paul, true believing Israel is the root and support of the covenant people that makes the entire community holy (11:16-18).
The important point here is that, according to Paul, it is not believing Israel that is incorporated into a new Gentile covenant community, but it is the elected, believing Gentiles who are incorporated into and supported by the true covenant Israel of God. Far from leading to pride, schism, and anti-Semitism, Paul admonishes the Gentiles to recognize this mysterious work of God and appropriately honor the covenant Jew to whom God has faithfully and graciously given the gift of faith. For Paul, Gentiles who become prideful against Jews are in danger of revealing the hardness and unbelief of their own heart, which would disqualify them from the promises of the covenant (11:19-22). In the same way, the unbelieving Jew may come to manifest the electing grace of God with faith in Christ and thus be revealed as part of true covenant Israel. Paul uses himself as an example of the truth of this contention (11:1, 23-24). He states that even though the unbelieving Jew may appear to be an enemy of the children of God and the gospel of Christ, nevertheless the calling of God is irrevocable, and if they have been foreknown by God they will yet be revealed as Israel of the covenant. For, as Paul declares, all Jews and Gentiles who have now been shown mercy were necessarily at one time imprisoned in disobedience (11:32). Therefore, the sovereignty and faithfulness of God is clearly established for both Israel and the Church. God has gathered together through faith one holy people into the glorious covenant of promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The mystery of God's electing and saving will can only lead the entire covenant community of faith to respond obediently with humility, awe, gratitude, and praise before the wise and gracious triune God who is King-the architect, initiator, sustainer, and consummator of so great a salvation.
But the question remains, How can I be assured that I am a child of the promise and included as one of the true people of God? We saw how Paul identifies God's saving gift of faith as that which distinguishes the believing children of God from the unbelieving children of the flesh, and that through the operation of his electing grace God causes this faith to become manifest as that which binds the community of believing Jews and Gentiles to the covenant promise fulfilled in Christ. Throughout the whole of the epistle Paul has argued that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means by which righteousness is obtained and thereby the great gift of salvation. The same for both Jew and Gentile, this faith is described by Paul as a response that includes both true confession that Jesus is Lord and heartfelt belief that God raised him from the dead (10:8-12). For, according to Paul, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord with this sort of faith will be saved (10:13). He then links our response of faith to the indispensable ministry of preaching and finally to the twofold hearing associated with the proclamation of the gospel message itself: "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ" (10:17). This important point is discussed by John Calvin in his Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans:
And this is a remarkable passage with regard to the efficacy of preaching; for [Paul] testifies, that by it faith is produced. He had indeed before declared, that of itself it is of no avail; but that when it pleases the Lord to work, it becomes the instrument of his power. And indeed the voice of man can by no means penetrate into the soul; and mortal man would be too much exalted, were he said to have the power to regenerate us; the light also of faith is something sublimer than what can be conveyed by man: but all these things are no hindrances, that God should not work effectually through the voice of man, so as to create faith in us through his ministry.The reformers sought to follow Paul in linking together the preacher or messenger of the gospel, the proclamation or message of the gospel, and the sovereign, life-giving Word of God. In fact, it was Paul's teaching here on the twofold hearing-that we "hear" God's own free and sovereign voice by the power of the Spirit in and through our hearing the proclamation of the message of the gospel-which played a key role in the Reformation's breakthrough thinking about the intrinsic authority of God's self-revelation. The reformers taught that unless the hearer of the gospel message came "face to face" with Jesus Christ through his Word made living and powerful by the Holy Spirit, the hearer would not respond in faith and true Christian life could not begin. They understood that it is only by the faith-creating ministry of the Spirit working in and through the gospel that we hear and respond to God's call with a true assurance of mind and heart. As Martin Luther argued, the gospel gives us what it promises-Christ "for me" means that Christ is given to our minds and hearts through a faith that hears his voice in the gospel. For this reason, Luther quipped that the ears are the most important organ of a Christian! Thus, fides ex auditu (faith by means of hearing) maintains an important place in traditional Reformation theology.
Paul goes on to qualify this principle of twofold hearing in the four verses following Romans 10:17. He sets out the guilt of Israel in that they did hear and should have understood the proclaimed word of Christ, yet did not believe. In light of this, Romans 10:18 should be interpreted as countering the possible misunderstanding that hearing the gospel message inevitably produces faith. Israel did in fact hear and understand the message, but instead of responding in faith, they responded with the disobedience and contrariness of unbelief. The spiritual condition of Israel does not come from a lack of opportunity to hear the gospel or a lack of understanding of its content and prophetic context, but must be traced to a dullness of mind, and a stubborn and rebellious spirit such as seen in the times of Moses and the prophets and as described by Paul in the first three chapters of Romans. It is evident that for Paul saving faith originates in the gospel proclaimed, yet not all the hearers of the message respond in faith. The ultimate reason why one hearer will come under the faith-creating and assuring ministry of the Holy Spirit in association with the proclamation while another remains unaffected is in the secret council of God's own sovereign electing will. This seems to be Paul's intention for placing this discussion of faith in the context of Romans 9 to 11 that deals specifically with the sovereignty and faithfulness of God over the history of salvation. The difficult teaching of Paul here is most profitably understood against the theological background of the absolute kingship of God. Trusting in God's almighty and faithful character, we can lay aside our efforts to make this teaching more acceptable as we expect the eschatological vindication of God's profound and perfect justice. As Martin Luther argued, the seemingly unjust "hidden God" whom we now see working in the world by the light of grace, will ultimately by the light of glory be shown to be the same as the "revealed God" in Jesus Christ. Our faithful God calls us in and through the gospel to believe and take comfort in this promise now.
Thus Paul calls the word of Christ, or the message of the gospel, the "power of God for salvation" (1:16), which is the power of his Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5). It is by the sovereign ministry of God's Spirit that God's Word is "at work" producing faith in a believer and making her or him assuredly live by it (1 Thess. 2:13, cf. Rom. 8:14-16; 1 Cor. 2:4-5). According to Paul, the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed by the preacher and heard in a twofold way because of "the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). The assuring manifestation of individual election is established by this word of divine power alone-by which Almighty God calls into being the things that do not exist and works what he commands (Rom. 4:17; 9:11, 25; 1 Thess. 5:24).
Keeping it distinctly understood that God is the Almighty King, we read Romans 9 to 11 with fear and wonder. For our electing God faithfully calls forth his covenant people by the assuring power of his Word given in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our Lord declared, "I know my sheep and my sheep know me" (John 10:14). We truly are his sheep. We are fallen, confused, and even fearful; but the voice of our Shepherd, the voice of the King, can neither be muted nor mistaken (John 10:2-5). In the midst of our need, our confusion, and our fear (in spite of it!) we search for his voice and we hear it in the preaching of the gospel . This is our assurance, we hear his voice. He speaks life to us, without which our lives make no sense at all. Something wonderful indeed comes from this story: the faithful King speaks to us, and what he speaks saves us, leads and teaches us, and assures us. Paul was right to conclude this great section of his Romans epistle with praise: "O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen" (11:33, 36). n
Peter Anders (MA, Wheaton Graduate School; MAR, Yale Divinity School; DPhil candidate, Oxford University) is lecturer of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts).
Issue: "Has God Failed?" Sept./Oct. 2006 Vol. 15 No. 5 Page number(s): 24-27
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