Have you ever tried to follow a map and gotten lost, perhaps to the point having to retrace your steps and start over? In Romans 9 (the text for Sunday morning’s sermon is verses 6-18) Paul is dealing with the problem of the unbelief of his fellow countrymen, the Israelites. As we saw last week in verses 1-5, they had been given great privileges, but, as a whole, had refused to come to Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah. Paul’s concern is not only sorrow for his kinsmen who were in danger of perishing (he could wish himself cut off from Christ for their sake!), but an even more important question rises in verse 6: has the word of God failed? If God’s promises to Israel have come to nothing, what confidence can you have in the gospel, the good news that comes to all who believe, first to the Jews, then also to the Greek, or Gentiles (Romans 1:16)? God’s trustworthiness is at stake.
Paul’s countrymen were confident that God had chosen them because they were Israelites. They were the descendants of Abraham. God’s promises had to belong to them, they believed, because they could call Abraham their father (see John 8:39). In Romans 9 Paul retraces the map of their history, pointing out from the Old Testament Scriptures that the blessing of God depends, not on physical ancestry, but on God’s choice. He makes that point by referring to God’s promise to chose Isaac, not his older brother (at a time when it was ridiculously impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have a child). He underscores God’s gracious, improbable choice, as he points to God choosing Jacob over his older twin, Esau.
Is God unjust in the way he chooses one person and not another? Paul takes you into difficult territory as he shows you something of the way that God reveals his character: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” He shows his sovereign will in Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to display God’s power and so that his name might be proclaimed in the earth (Romans 9:17; Exodus 916).
Bud Powell, pastor of Trinity Covenant Reformed Church in Colorado Springs, wrote on Facebook earlier this week: “If my understanding of Calvinism does not drive me to prayer, then I understand neither Calvinism nor prayer.” As Mr. Powell indicated in discussion that followed that comment, he is not a blind follower of Calvin. But he reflects the profoundly biblical determination of that reformer to go as far as Scripture goes in describing the sovereign power of God to choose to show mercy and yet to condemn sin, but to go no further than Scripture by speculating in areas that God has not revealed himself. As Calvin comments on this passage: “The predestination of God is indeed in reality a labyrinth, from which the mind of man can by no means extricate itself. . . . Let this then be our sacred rule, to seek to know nothing concerning it, except what Scripture teaches us: when the Lord closes his holy mouth, let us also stop the way, that we may not go farther.”
Those of us who have benefited from Calvin’s emphasis on God’s sovereign grace are not free of the danger of a prideful presumption such as Paul condemns. The more you understand the character of the God who chooses you (make sure you hear Paul’s emphasis on his mercy and compassion), the more you ought to be driven to your knees in thanksgiving and praise, along with the request that he will mercifully use you to make his name known.
Because God is God and you are a limited, sinful human, you will never fully understand God’s choice. But do take hold, take hold with both hands, of that wonderful truth that your redemption rests ultimately not with your whims, but with God graciously choosing you in his Son, Jesus Christ, to be his child. That is the direction of the map along which Paul is leading you in Romans 9.