Paul nowhere writes a reasoned out treatise dealing with Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom, like the long and regularly integrated argument which forms the bulk of the Hebrews epistle. In truth, he could no more reason out these two important matters than we can. Paul simply avoids the effort to account for the antinomy. Instead he makes a number of short and decisive statements in ch. 9:14-24 to prove that God has full right to shew mercy to whomsoever He wishes, even upon Gentiles.
After Paul has made this matter quite clear, the other side of the matter takes up his attention. But many have made the mistake of thinking that verses 19 to 29 of ch. 9 throw light upon the ultimate fate of individuals. Taken alone, this passage seems to teach that certain human beings are foreordained to eonian life and certain to eonian destruction. But the passage needs not teach this.
The reason why Paul does not speculate on the relation between Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom is that he assumes man's complete freedom to welcome or reject salvation. He has already covered this ground in the epistle (2:4; 2:6-10; 6:12-13; also 1. Cor. 10:1-12; Col. 1:23).
Throughout ch. 9:30-33 and all ch. 10, the casting aside of Israel is explained, not by the impenetrable mystery of the Divine Will, but simply by the foolish and mistaken efforts of the Jews to establish their own righteousness and their fitness as God's special People. Their failure was not due to God's Will having caused them to differ, by withholding faith from the Jew, while giving it to the Gentile. It was due to the Jews choosing their own ways, instead of following the rules laid down in their own Scriptures, by faith.
The Israelite was culpably ignorant of the true righteousness, witnessed by the Law and the Prophets. He persisted in dosing his eyes and shutting up his ears from the truth. He kept up his ceremonious observances, which gave him a desirable appearance of respectability in the eyes of others, which was reckoned to him as righteousness. But though he might be righteous in the eyes of his associates, thus coming "up to standard," he failed to discover the righteousness which is through faith.
John H. Godwin, in his most original explanation of Romans (1873), says, "Moses never referred to the rightness of the Law as an impossibility, but the contrary." But the life promised by the Law was not the same as the life promised by the Gospel. He says there is nothing to justify the supposition that the requirement of the Law is greater than that of the Gospel, the one demanding perfection, and the other sincere obedience. Law says, Do this and live. But it does not say, If in any matter you fail in the least, I can do nothing for you. What it says is, If you do wrong in one thing, you must suffer, but do right in the future, and you will have my blessing, according to the measure of your obedience. But the Gospel presents Faith, and thus accomplishes what the Law could not do, and was never intended to do.
Godet has shewn that the Israelites failed to grasp that it was from God that their righteousness was to come. They failed also to see that their legal system and dispensation must come to an end when Messiah came. Israel thought, that because of their great privileges, "God was pledged to them beyond recall." Godet goes on to say, "Under the discipline of the law, the discernment of true righteousness, that which God grants to faith, should have been formed in them. For, on the one hand, the conscientious effort to observe the law would have brought them to feel their weakness, and, on the other, the profound study of the Scriptures would have taught them, by the example of Abraham (Gen. 15:5) and by sundry prophetic declarations (Isa. 50:8, 9; Hab. 2:4), that 'righteousness and strength come from the Lord.' But through not using the law in this spirit of sincerity and humility, they proved unfit to understand the final revelation; and their mind, carried in a false direction, stumbled at the divine truth manifested in the appearing of the Messiah."
Godet proceeds to shew how the selfishness of the Jews' religion and their exclusiveness caused them to compass sea and land in order to make proselytes. "The Messiah was simply to consummate this conquest of the world by Israel, destroying by judgment every Gentile who resisted. His reign was to be the perfect application of the legal institution to the whole world."
Thus Israel further failed to perceive that God intended the whole world to hear the Gospel. Through their ignorance and pride they were blocking the way for this, and it became imperative that Israel be cast aside for the time being. They had monopolized the Law for their own selfish advantage. The dear statements in their Bible regarding the call of the Gentiles failed to move Israel to carry the primitive Gospel to them. They would share their spiritual blessings with Gentiles provided only that the Gentiles accepted circumcision and the Mosaic dispensation as proselytes.
The primitive Gospel corresponded to what we find in Hab. 2:4 and Rom. 1:17, "Now the righteous one by faith shall go on living." More literally this might be read as "Now the righteous one out of faith will get himself a life." The verb is in the Middle Voice. Eonian life does not come into the Old Testament. The Hebrew who walked by faith, as did all the worthies in the Old Testament, found for himself a much better life than did Worldlings. It was through faith that the Prophets knew God as Jehovah Tzidqenu, "Jehovah our Righteousness," not through accomplishing the Law.
Any reverent and pious Israelite could therefore appropriate this righteousness by faith. But the bulk of the nation preferred to establish their own righteousness, by endeavouring to keep the Law, or by claiming that they kept it.
"For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God." (Rom. 10:3).
In other words, Israel made a wrong use of their Law. Godet says, "The law of Jehovah rightly understood was not given independently of His grace. The Law, taken in the full sense of the word, contained an entire provision of means of grace unceasingly offered to the pious Israelite. From the moment he sinned, he could have recourse humbly to the pardon of his God, either with or without sacrifice, as the case might be. . . . . The Law thus humbly understood and sincerely applied was certainly the way of salvation for the believing Jew; it led him to an ever closer communion with God. . . . ."
Godet points out however, another feature: "But, unfortunately, there was another way of understanding the Law and using it. It was possible to take the Law in a narrower sense, solely in the form of command, and to make this institution thus understood a means of self-righteousness, and of proud complacency in self-merit. Such was the spirit which reigned at the time when Paul wrote, and particularly that of the school in which he had been brought up. Pharisaism, separating the commandment from Grace deemed that its fulfilment, realized by man's own strength was the true title to divine favour. It is against this point of view that Paul here turns the Law itself."
Paul therefore contrasts the righteousness which is of the Law with the righteousness which is of faith, as if to say to the Jew, "You wish to be declared righteous by your own doing? In that case, then, let your doing be complete." If a man wishes to exhibit his own righteousness through works, let him take out every element of grace in the Law.
That is why Paul states that Moses is describing the righteousness which is out of Law—he who does it shall live by it (Rom. 10:5). But Moses never meant to urge anyone to this kind of righteousness.
Thus the Law might be regarded in two very different aspects. For the self-righteous man there was works. For the humble man, who trembled at God's word, there was something vastly better, simple faith. When all the People of Israel answered, first individually and together, then later collectively and as one voice (Ex. 19:8; 24:3), "All the words that Jehovah speaks, we shall go on doing," there must have been some saintly souls, including Moses, who knew the promise was impossible of fulfilment. Already Jehovah's Chosen Nation, revealed their vanity, one chief cause of their failure and apostacy. But vanity is One of the Laws of Nature, and the Laws of Nature, are, directly or indirectly, from God. Yet this does not mean that Jehovah ever "corrupted" His ancient People, an evil sense which has been extracted from Deut. 32:5, a verse the true meaning of which has long been lost. Somewhere I once saw the first word (shicheth) rendered as "He corrupts," meaning that God had directly corrupted His own chosen race. The word might mean, "he is corrupt," that is, Israel, or "it corrupts." The real sense may be something along the lines of the New World version, "They have acted ruinously on their own part." No potter deliberately mars or corrupts his own clay. Nor does Paul, in the Roman epistle, ever hint that Israel's fall was due to their own God having corrupted them. Such an idea would be devilish.
Might we then, say that one of the purposes of the Law was to direct or channel humble souls towards Jehovah's grace, those Israelites who saw clearly that they could never obtain true righteousness through doing the Law? This would be in line with Gal. 3:24.
Verses 6 and 7 have nothing to do with the Incarnation or the Resurrection, as commonly believed, yet never understood. There is a contrast between two extremes—that which is deepest and that which is highest: the condemnation where from we are rescued by Christ and the complete salvation to which He has raised us. Hades and heaven are taken as types of these two states. Moses could reassure the pious Jew by shewing that doing would follow easily from believing; Paul can reassure every man desirous of salvation by offering him a doing wrought by another, which his faith has only to lay hold of.
Paul is not contrasting belief and unbelief, but doing with believing. How could he have asked these questions of unbelievers? Paul is addressing believers who have accepted the supernatural facts of the Lord's history, but who do not yet realize the full saving efficacy of these facts. The subject in question is our present being declared righteous by faith.
Godet paraphrases the two verses thus: "O thou, who desirest to reach the heaven of communion with God, say not: How shall I ascend to it? as if it were necessary for thee thyself to accomplish this ascent on the steps of thine own obedience. That of which thou sayest: Who will do it (how shall I do it)? is a thing done; to ask such a question is to deny that Christ has really done it. It is to undo, at least so far as thou art concerned, what He has done. Thou whom thy sins torment, say not any more: Who shall descend into the abyss, there to undergo my punishment? That of which thou sayest: Who will do it (how shall I do it)? is a thing done. To ask such a question is to deny that Christ has done it; it is to undo, at least so far as thou art concerned, what He has done. Expiation is accomplished; thou canst have it by faith."
Godet then shews that it is quite wrong to read in vv. 6 and 7, "(that is, to bring Christ down. . .) . . . . (that is, to bring up Christ. . .)". Instead of "that is," he reads thus: "Say not: Who shall ascend? for that (speaking thus) is to bring down. . . or: Who shall descend? for that (speaking thus) is to bring up. . .." To say, Who shall ascend to open heaven for us? is to deny that Christ has already ascended for this purpose; it is logically to bring Him down again to this earth.
All the doing asked of man by the Law has been perfectly accomplished by Christ, and in order to be saved, man only needs now to believe in Christ's work, which man is told to do in verse 8 by the righteousness of faith.
All this proves that the course pursued by the mass of Israel was one of pride and folly. Had they truly tried to understand their whole Law, and keep it, they would surely have stumbled upon the Righteousness of Faith which it allowed for. But the truth was that they did not wish that kind of righteousness at all. What they wanted was some thing which gave them personal glory and worthiness.
If anyone cares to contend that throughout their long course the people of Israel have been "compelled to sin" by their God Jehovah, and that they could have followed no other course, I would ask two questions: Why did a small minority in Israel follow Jehovah, and refuse to follow any Baal? And why, when they look upon Him whom they pierced, should all the families of Israel wail and lament, unless they are altogether guilty of having crucified the Lord of Glory (Zech. 12)? Innocent people do not thus wail. You, yourself, reader, may "lay your sins" on Jesus, but do you lay the responsibility or the blame for your sins on Him or on God? If you do so, then you cannot be saved.
God had trained and educated and encouraged Israel for hundreds of years. They had been advised time after time not to harden their hearts. God's Law of Opportunity was ever before them. Rom. 10:13 makes it clear for all today that "Everyone whosoever may be invoking the name of the Lord shall be saved." Something similar was true in Israel of old. There was every encouragement to righteousness and a godly life. That grand word whosoever here proves that mankind is free to choose salvation, if they wish. No passage of Scripture can be found which disproves the apparent antinomy that while God is sovereign, mankind is free. Many passages prove the limited freedom of human beings. For example, any person who wishes may spontaneously "draw near to God" (James 4:8; Isa. 58:2), and if he does so in reality, God will draw near to him.
God chooses as His own those human beings who are willing to be so chosen. "Oh the happiness of the nation whose God is Jehovah; the people whom He chooses for His inheritance" (Ps. 33:12). Such a nation is one that chooses and wishes Him as their Deity. The choosing is mutual. Prov. 21:3 reads, literally, "One doing righteousness and judging is more choice (or choosable) than sacrifice." Ps. 65:4, "Oh the happiness of him whom Thou art choosing, and causing to approach (unto Thee)." Josh. 24:22, "For ye choose for you Jehovah." Judges 10:14, "the gods which ye choose." Sometimes this Hebrew verb (bachar) is followed, as here, by the word in (Hebrew, letter B), making the real meaning probably to "put the choice in." Prov. 1:29, "the fear of Jehovah they choose not." Isa. 66:3, "Moreover, they put their choice in their ways." Isa. 66:4, "and in what I delighted not they put their choice."
This word in all its forms occurs about 228 times, very often used of God choosing. Thus the Bible tells of choice made by both God and human beings.
God's choice of human beings is unfettered, but it is a certain kind of human being whom he chooses and calls for His purposes. God does not choose men because of what they have done, but because of what they are. When a human being desires to know God, humbly, he becomes choosable. The Hebrew noun bachir, a chosen one, which occurs 36 times, is always in the Greek O.T. rendered by eklektos, which means, not merely "chosen," but rather choosable.
God can never close His heart to one who yearns for Him. What He longs for is human fellowship. In human friendship there is mutual choice, one chooses the other because of what he or she is. The same is true of God and human beings.
It is absurd to think that God chooses us in Christ at random, as though we were drawn by lot. Before the human race was created, God chose us, because He knew that we would yearn for Him in due course.
This grand thought ought to encourage us greatly. There was a time when we did not want God. Then came a time when we felt our need of Him, and began to grope for Him. Finally came the point of decision and clear choice, and just then, we found we were among God's choosable ones.
The Lord Jesus chose no disciples at random, even Judas. He knew what was in men. He chose men who would suit His purposes. Nor did He receive all who came to Him, indiscriminately. Sometimes He made conditions (see Mark 8:34; Luke 9:57-62).
God has decided or chosen that His mercy should fall upon those who have faith, not on those who ignorantly imagine they are righteous.
Even though God chose Isaac and Jacob, and rejected Ishmael and Esau, before birth (Rom. 9:8-13), Paul could have replied to an objector that God foresaw that at Bethel, Jacob would enter into the Covenant, and would do so because, like Abraham at Hebron, "he believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness." God's choice of him was conditioned by his choice of the True God.
For many years I was plagued by the false teaching that implies that God chooses the members of the Body of Christ without any discrimination. But God always has respect to man's freedom. God must be pleased to observe any human being "change his mind" in the right direction, just as there is joy in heaven when that happens. God's response to man's change of attitude is to reveal to him that he is among the chosen. Only those who love and desire God are the elect.
In the April and June issues of The Differentiator for the year 1952 there were two articles entitled "Beloved or Loveable?" dealing with a group of verb-adjectival terms in Greek which end in -tos. About a dozen years ago I had been coming to the conclusion that these forms must bear a meaning somewhat different from verb-participle forms. To take one prominent example, why should both the forms EgaPEmenos and agapEtos be rendered, universally, "beloved"? Both forms derive from the noun agaPE, which means "love." Lovers of strict concordance insist on each Greek and Hebrew form of expression being accorded a distinct meaning of its own. A great mass of research did not prove fruitless. There is a difference between the longer form, which means "having been loved" and the shorter form, "loveable." Of course, those who make discoveries must be sneered at by someone, and I was sneered at. That I should suggest that eklektos, chosen or elect, should really signify choosable, was an unforgivable offence.
But now God has raised up another powerful witness to these facts. Professor C. Ryder Smith, D.D., in "The Bible Doctrine of Grace" (1956) adopts the same meanings as I do for the Verbal Adjectives. Says he, "Christians love one another because fellow-believers are ipso facto 'love-able.' All believers are "beloved" of God, but can we say they are all equally loveable humanly? Again," It will be noticed that all the verbal adjectives here examined imply that God chooses or selects or 'elects' a certain kind of man." His conclusion is that "God chooses men because they are for some reason 'choos-able'—that is, His choice is not arbitrary." There is, of course, no suggestion of works or worthiness.
In our next chapter on Romans 9 and 10 we must deal with the very important matter of Human Freedom and Human, Choice, a subject which has been grossly mishandled in some quarters.
ALEXANDER THOMSON. Last updated 8.3.2006