You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
- An Introduction
- Augustine’s Two Cities
- Two Kingdoms in Luther
- The Reformed Confessions (Part I)
- The Reformed Confessions (Part II)
- The Reformed Confessions (Part III)
- Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper
- Redemption and Creation in Kuyper
- John the Baptist
- The Prophet Amos
- The Incarnate Lord (Part I)
- The Incarnate Lord (Part II)
- The Incarnate Lord (Part III)
- Introduction to the Book of Acts
- The Ministry of Peter and John in Acts
- The Ministry of Paul in Acts, Part I
- The Ministry of Paul in Acts, Part II
- The Pauline Epistles, Part I – Romans 1-8
As we mentioned in our last article, Paul’s desire to preach the gospel to the church at Rome was the impetus for the letter he wrote to the Romans. Scholars have even proposed that Paul’s mention of this desire in Romans 1:15-17 functions as the thesis statement of the letter:
“So, for my part, I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith,’” (Romans 1:15-17; NASB).
In the last article, we considered two themes that arise out of this thesis statement: the gospel preached to the church and the gospel as the power of God unto salvation. These two major themes help us to understand why Paul spends the first eight chapters of Romans explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being that these verses set the framework for all that follows, we are in our present study using them as the lens through which we examine the rest of the book of Romans. In this article, we will focus on principles found in this thesis statement that help us to understand why Paul teaches what he teaches in chapters 9-11.
Salvation to All without Distinction
First, the gospel proclamation began in Jerusalem and spread throughout all the known world (Acts 1:8; Col. 1:3-6). Not only is this true geographically, but Paul’s custom when he went from town to town was to preach the gospel first in the synagogues and, only after he was rejected by the Jews, he would turn and take the gospel the Gentiles (Acts 9:20; Acts 13:5, 13-52; 14:1-7; 17:1-9, 10-14, 16-17; 18:1-7, 19-21; 19:8-10).
Paul was not a Christian Zionist like many of the televangelists we see on TV today. He was not concerned with supporting his kinsmen with money, political power, and military might like so many politicians running for office today. Paul was concerned that his kinsmen according to the flesh be supported by the proclamation of the gospel, the planting of new churches, and the ministry of the Word. To bring the discussion home, a 21st century American Paul would not be so concerned to combat an intangible, unquantifiable notion of American systemic racism against his kinsmen according to the flesh as he would have been to see them saved from their sins and (as we will see in Romans 13) respect those whom God had put in authority over them so that they might lead quiet, peaceful lives..
Paul was so concerned to see his “kinsmen according to the flesh” come to salvation in their Messiah that he might have even wished himself “accursed, separated from Christ” for their sakes (Rom. 9:3; NASB). Paul loved the Jews, because ethnically-speaking he is a Jew. He had no desire, in the flesh, to see them forsaken on account of their disobedience for the eternal benefit of pagan Gentiles. To use modern American language, Paul was born into “covenant privilege,” and he did not feel the need to apologize for it in the least. He desired to see all, Jews and Gentiles, saved. Yet, he was willing to accept that the partial reprobation of Israel was the will of God for the salvation of all of God’s elect (Rom. 11:25-27).
One might expect that Paul’s love for his kinsmen according to the flesh would have derailed him on his mission as the apostle to the Gentiles. It did not. Paul was content with God’s sovereign decree, even if that decree meant that a large portion of the Jews would be broken off from the covenant tree. Afterall, who is he but a man (Rom. 9:19-20)?
This discussion of the Jews and Gentiles did not begin in Romans 9. Rather, Paul interweaves his discussion of this topic throughout his letter to the Romans, from chapter 2 all the way to chapter 11. From chapters 2 to 8, he addresses false notions Jews and Gentiles had of the law and the gospel. However, once he gets to chapter 9, he commits himself to addressing a very specific question regarding the application of the atonement:
In this Way
Second, the gospel spread as a result of a partial hardening of the Jews. If many of the Jews’ hearts were not hardened toward the gospel proclamation, the church might never have been persecuted, and the gospel might not have gone forth to the Gentiles (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19). It is this thread that weaves its way throughout the book of Romans. In addressing the gospel of Christ, Paul also sees fit to address the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and he does so from several different angles.
It is for the sake of the gospel, not social justice, that racial barriers needed to be broken down between believing Jews and believing Gentiles. Jews were considered the minority culture in ancient Rome. They were looked upon as insurrectionists and trouble-makers. The Jews, on the other hand, saw themselves as religiously privileged, the people of promise. From a religious standpoint, the Jews looked down upon the Gentiles. From a cultural standpoint, the Gentiles looked down upon the Jews.
The first century gospel preacher had to forget all of these social stigmas. The Gentile-born Christian could not rightly look down upon the Jews, even if they were of the hardened segment of the Jews, the broken off branches. Likewise, the Hebrew-born Christians had no right to look down upon the Gentiles. As Christians, they had to accept that they were now engrafted into one new tree. They were brothers in Christ, regardless of the earthly families, tribes, or ethnicities into which they were born.
It simply would not do for Jewish Christians to emphasize their Jewishness in relation to their Gentile brothers. Nor would the church function properly if the Gentile Christians had emphasized their pagan cultures over that of their Jewish brothers. They had to come to see themselves as something altogether new, and new wine is not fit for old wineskins (Mk. 2:21-22). Compare Paul’s teaching on the newness of the Christian identity with another notion prevalent in our culture today:
“Malcolm X was the prophet of black rage primarily because of his great love for black people. His love was neither abstract nor ephemeral. Rather, it was a concrete connection with a degraded and devalued people in need of a psychic conversion. This is why Malcolm X’s articulation of black rage was not directed first and foremost at white America. Rather, Malcolm believed that if black people felt the love that motivated that rage the love would produce a psychic conversion in black people; they would affirm themselves as human beings, no longer viewing their bodies, minds, and souls through white lenses, and believing themselves of taking control of their own destinies,” (Cornel West, Race Matters. Beacon Press, Boston, 1993, pp. 95-96).
Earlier in his book, West describes a Nihilism that is present in much of black culture. Anyone who is familiar with 20th century philosophical structures will recognize that, in promoting this view of Malcolm X, West has just promoted a form of ethnic Existentialism as the philosophical answer to ethnic Nihilism. If one’s view of ethnic strife leads one to have a bleak view of ethnic strife, the answer for West seems to be to adopt a carpe diem approach to ethnic strife. One must become the captain of one’s own destiny.
The Bible does not promote this “Take charge!” approach to ethnic strife. It does not present us as the masters of our own destinies. Rather, we are called to see our brothers and sisters in Christ as just that: brothers and sisters. This approach takes much more courage than West’s ethnic Existentialism. In this approach, God is the Master of our destinies. Our job is merely to trust and obey.
It was as a result of, and for the sake of, the gospel that many hard-hearted Jews (not all Jews, mind you) were broken off from God’s one covenant tree and Gentiles were grafted in (Rom. 11:11-24). This was not an easy pill for Paul to swallow. It was not easy for Paul to see Gentiles as being grafted into the one covenant tree of Israel at the expense of his kinsmen according to the flesh. In his weaker moments, perhaps he might have been tempted to succumb to a form of ethnic Existentialism rather than humbly receiving his “brothers from another mother.” This was not the way, though, that all Israel would be saved. The gospel of Jesus Christ broke down ethnic barriers between Jews and Gentiles so that they were no longer two but one new tree in Christ! So it is that, in this way, all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-27).
In our next installment, we will focus on principles found in Paul’s thesis statement that help us to understand why Paul teaches what he teaches in chapters 12, 14-16.