At our bible study we’ve been looking at Romans 9-11 over the past three weeks. Instead of doing individual posts on each study, I decided to do just one summarizing the whole content.
The chapter are rather famous for many controversial lessons that can be derived from them. However, most of these lessons have nothing to do with the Paul’s actual intent. Paul is trying to address an apparent contradiction in the fact that Jews, a chosen people of God, fail to respond to God’s message. On the other hand, Gentiles, not a chosen people, appear to accept it. Does it imply a failure of God’s plan or his change of mind? Can we trust such a God then?
Here is Paul’s logic:
God’s word did not fail – God did promise eternal blessings to Israel, but indeed these were really meant only for spiritual Israel, a state within state, a remnant of God’s chosen people (Rom 9:6). And don’t think this is unjust, because:
1) Based on justice alone we are all destined to death, so only by mercy we can stand. God is free to distribute this mercy as he pleases, without being unjust (Rom 9:14-29).
2) Jews themselves are partially responsible, because they pursued righteousness by works, not by faith.
3) And the reason why Jews failed to pursue righteousness by faith is not because it was not clearly presented to them. The message descended and lived among them. It was later preached to them (Rom 10:18).
Everything that was and still happening is there for a good reason, to bring Israel and the whole world back to God.
Now, to controversies. In developing his train of thoughts, Paul (intentionally or not?) highlights several tensions. For example, from chapter 9 it appears that it is only up to God to decide to who will be saved. Yet chapter 10 blames Jews for not accepting the message. Here is another tension: Rom 11:17-22 seems to suggest that a Christian (a shoot grafted in the olive tree) can be cut off if he does not continue in God’s kindness. This stands in contrast with what we saw earlier in Rom 5:9 and Rom 8:29, which seem to imply that God is surely planning to accomplish his work in us and bring us to salvation.
So it is not surprising that this passage has become a “battleground zone” between Calvinistic and Arminian doctrines, particularly on the issue of election and perseverance of the saints. In summary, the argument goes around the following question: Who is responsible for a person’s conversion and the following sanctification? God alone (Calvinistic view) or both God and man (Arminian view)?
The truth is, both doctrines have substantial support in some parts of Romans and there are also some parts they cannot properly explain (they try, of course). So whatever view we decide to keep, we should not be too sure (and often too proud) to think that the other view is total nonsense. It is not.
Another important point is that while the Calvinistic view is quiet narrow (it is all God), the Arminian one actually allows for a spectrum of personal involvement, some of which lie really somewhere in between the two views. For example, some believe that while God needs to open our eyes to understand his message, we are free to close them, because of God’s given freedom of choice. Other may believe that God in some cases may choose to do the whole work himself, while in other cases expect some personal responsibility.
There is difference in attitude between churches that follow Calvinistic or Arminian doctrine. The members of Calvinistic churches (most Presbyterian, some Baptist) often characterize themselves in being sure that God will save them, since they have been elected. They may look down on other people who claim to be Christians but are not as sure. They stress the need to do good works, but not to earn God’s favor or to cooperate in their salvation, but as a gratitude to what God has done, or to become more sure of their election, or simply out of desire to change. They live out their lives out of continued dependence on God, understanding that all good that they have (or will have) comes from Him.
The members of Arminian churches (mostly Methodist, some Baptist) are less sure. They do hope they will be saved and do everything they can to make it more certain. No, they don’t try to earn God’s favor by doing good works, they do understand that no one can make God save them. They simply do not want to presume too much on God. They live out their lives out of continued dependence on God, afraid that they might lose him through their disobedience.