The book of Romans begins with a presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—ending in chapter 8 with “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (8:1) and how we “overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (8:37). What a great salvation!
But with God’s great salvation in the background, the theme of chapter 9 changes to answer an urgent question asked by Jewish Christians of his day, “What about my unbelieving family? What about the nation of Israel? Will they be lost?” How could all these good, dear people “…to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh…” (Romans 9:4, 5) be lost for not believing in Jesus? Paul expressed his own deep concern, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). You can almost hear his great heart breaking.
Paul needed to answer this question compassionately—but truthfully. He started by assuring them that God’s promises about Israel will surely be fulfilled (v.6), but reminded them of a familiar set of Bible stories with applications that they probably hadn’t seen before. He pointed out in Romans 9 that although Abraham had several sons (e.g., Ishmael, Isaac, Zimram, Jokshan, Midian, etc.), only Isaac was the “son of promise”. Doubtlessly, Ishmael may have wondered, “What was wrong with me?”; nothing, but God’s choice was firm. Again, Paul reminded them of Isaac’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob; Jacob was chosen to be the father of the nation that finally became chosen Israel and the bloodline of the Messiah—but Esau was not. Paul then pointed to more familiar stories (Pharaoh: “He has mercy on whom He desires”), a parable (the potter’s prerogative), and a quote from the prophets (Hosea: “…I WILL CALL THOSE WHO WERE NOT MY PEOPLE, ‘MY PEOPLE…”) to make this crucially important point—it is God alone that makes the choices that sets the criteria about salvation and choseness. Salvation wasn’t going to be by Mosaic law, Temple sacrifice, or sincerity (Romans 10:2). Choseness wouldn’t be founded on bloodline. It would be by putting faith in Jesus Christ and all that this includes by choice and edict of the Lord. Paul is essentially saying—with great heartache and compassion to the Jews of his day—wish whatever you want to wish for Israel, with as much earnestness as you can muster, but God was choosing to include the Gentiles and salvation would be through Jesus. “But, but…!”—no, the standard of salvation and choseness is always God’s final, sovereign call—not ours. His promises will be fulfilled His way, not ours.
The principle still stands true today—and so does the problem, with a twist. The twist is that the problem is not Jewish in nature anymore, but Gentile. Many Christians are deeply concerned for their beloved family and friends. Many of us could say right along with Paul, “that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” (Romans 9:2) for their souls’ salvation. But the principle remains the same, the fulfillment of God’s promises remain as much His unilateral, royal prerogative as it was in Paul’s day. And the hard truth is that salvation will not be by the sinner’s prayer, not by “receiving Jesus into your heart”, and not by being a good person. Neither will it be by the religious traditions of persuasive preachers, by intellectual theologians, by decisions of religious convocations, by being married to a Christian, by being the child of a religious family, by church attendance, nor by any other human device. Choseness and salvation—forgiveness, grace, hope, inheritance, and glory—are God’s sovereign choices, on His terms, not ours.
As Paul continues through Romans 10 and 11 he teaches 1) that Jews who had not believed in Jesus had been pruned off of the cultivated “Olive Tree” of the Lord (11:17ff) in favor of believing Gentiles, 2) that it had actually been predicted by the Lord, but 3) that not all hope was lost. Jews could still place their faith and give obedience to Jesus Christ and be grafted back into God’s “Olive Tree” (11:23,24). So also with family and friends today. Hope—the only hope—continues to be in believing in and obeying Jesus, the sole Chooser of the conditions of salvation and choseness.
Today as we struggle with our personal feelings, fears, and hopes for family, friends, and good people of various religious persuasions, we must keep uppermost in our minds that…
- Jesus is the sovereign of the great Kingdom of Heaven, God’s chosen people
- the way of salvation isn’t open-ended or adjustable
- God alone is God, we are not
- reconciliation to Him is not on our own terms, but His alone
The Lord’s choice of criteria remains, as always, 1) hear the Gospel (Rom. 1:16), 2) believe in Jesus (John 3:16), 3) repent of sin (Acts 2:38), 4) confess faith (Romans 10:9,10), 5) be baptized for forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38), and 6) live a life of faithful discipleship (Luke 9:23). Anything else is a loser’s bet of our eternal soul, because only the King makes the rules.