Persuading, Pleading, and Predestination: Human Means in the Miracle of Conversion

Together for the Gospel 2014

Louisville, KY

The ninth chapter of Romans is the fullest, most forthright and blunt chapter on the freedom and sovereignty of God in all the Bible. It contains statements like:

  • “My kinsmen, are accursed and cut off from Christ” (v. 3).

  • “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (v. 6).

  • Before Jacob and Esau were born or had done anything good or bad, in the same womb, with the same father, the younger Jacob was chosen to inherit the covenant, not Esau (vv. 10-12).

  • “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (v. 13).

  • “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (v. 15).

  • “It depends not on him who wills or him who runs, but on God who has mercy” (v. 16).

  • “I have raised you up, Pharaoh, that I might show my power in you, and my name be proclaimed in all the earth” (v. 17).

  • “God has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills” (v. 18).

  • “Why does he still find fault? Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (vv. 19–20).

Most people who read Romans 9 are shocked. Very few are so steeped in the biblical spirit of the majesty and freedom of God, that these words make sense. And there is a long line of scholarly effort to nullify the true implications of this chapter—claiming that it has nothing to do with individuals and nothing to do with eternal destinies, but has only to do with corporate peoples and historical roles. That will not stand scrutiny, as we will see shortly.

My main question is: Why is this here? Why did Paul even feel compelled to lead us into these things. I assume that this is holy Scripture—that it is inspired and infallible and, as Paul would say, “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Including the work of personal evangelism and world missions.

I assume that these words are here not to undermine but to strengthen our evangelism. I assume they are here to empower, and deepen, and stabilize, and advance, and make more fruitful the cause of world missions, and the cause of neighborhood evangelism. I assume that if the reality of Romans 9 were rightly understood and rightly felt, more people will be brought into the kingdom with white hot affection for God than if this were not in the Bible.

So I ask again my main question: Why is this here? Why did Paul feel compelled to lead us into these things at this point in the argument of Romans?

And once we’ve answered that, we will ask: And how does this answer affect Paul’s relationship with lost people? How does it affect his evangelism? And the three answers we will focus on are these: 1) In Romans 9:2, it sustains him in the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” of his heart for the lost. 2) In Romans 11:13-14 it empowers his labors to persuade the lost to be believe and be saved. 3) In Romans 10:1 it impels the earnestness of his prayer for the salvation of his kinsmen.

So let’s turn to the main question: Why is Romans 9, with these weighty teachings about the sovereignty of God in salvation, brought in to the argument of Romans just at this point?

Paul has just come to the end of the most magnificent eight chapters in the Bible. They reach a crescendo in Romans 8 with the most spectacular promises about our standing and our security in Christ with God forever.

  • “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1).

  • “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (v. 11).

  • “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (vv. 16–17).

  • “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (v. 18).

  • “The creation will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (v. 21).

  • “For those who love God all things work together for good” (v. 28).

  • “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (v. 30).

  • “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (v. 31).

  • “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (v. 32).

  • “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (v. 33).

  • “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (v. 35).

  • “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38–39).

The God of Israel has embraced the world. He has sent his Son, inaugurated a new covenant, set in motion a global mission to rescue sinners, and promised a glorious consummation for the universe and for the children of God.

And all of this is totally dependent on the faithfulness of God, the integrity of God, and the promise-keeping righteousness of God. If God does not keep his word, all of Romans 8, and all of salvation history, fall to the ground. And with it all our hope — every practical benefit, every sweet experience of the gospel fails, if the word of God fails.

And as Paul turns to Romans 9 that horrible possibility is precisely what he is dealing with. Israel, the chosen people of God, with untold privileges and blessings and promises from God, has rejected her Messiah. The kingdom has been taken away from them (Matthew 21:43). “Gentiles are streaming in from east and west to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom, while the sons of the kingdom are thrown into the outer darkness” (Matthew 8:11–12). So it seems that the promises to Israel have failed. God has not kept his word. His word has fallen. He was not faithful to his covenant. That’s what Paul is dealing with in Romans 9—indeed all of Romans 9-11.

Look with me at verses 1-3: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

Paul lives with sorrow and anguish over the fact that his Jewish kinsmen, for the most part, have rejected the Messiah and are accursed—anathema—and cut off from the Redeemer. Verse 3: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” Paul stands ready, were it possible, to be damned for them. But God will not damn someone for loving others so much he is willing to be damned. So he is not damned. They are. “Cursed—anathema—cut off from Christ.”

Not all of them, of course. He himself is a Jew, as he is very aware, and he will make much of in chapter 11. But as a whole, the Jewish people turned away from the Messiah and are therefore accursed and cut off from the Savior. And this is true in spite of the spectacular benefits that belong to the Jewish people. Verse 4: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.” In spite of all that, they are eternally lost.

What can this mean but that God has failed his people? God is not faithful. His word of promise is not sure. We know this is the issue as Paul sees it, because of what he says next in verse 6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” He preempts the objection. No, he says. That is not what has happened. But the fact that he must say this shows that this is what some were saying: If God’s covenant people are perishing as a whole what good are all the covenant promises? And if the covenant promises to Israel are this uncertain, what becomes of all the promises of Romans 8? What good are all the gospel promises to the people of the new covenant,?

That’s the issue in Romans 9. Is God faithful? Is he trustworthy? Does he keep his promises? And the issue is not one of mere corporate peoples and their historical roles. The issue, that stands out with shocking vividness in verse 3 is that vast numbers of individual Israelites—particular kinsmen of Paul—are perishing. They are accursed. They are cut off from the Messiah, the Savior. And Paul has great sorrow and unceasing anguish over their doom.

That is the issue. Has God’s word failed in view of that? And the reason this issue is pressing just at this point in Romans is that, if the word of God falls then all of Romans 8 and all our hope falls.

To answer this Paul takes us into the deepest counsels of God concerning election and predestination. So the answer to my main questions as to why Romans 9 is here, and why Paul would lead us into these weighty matters, is that Paul believes we need to know the deepest foundation of God’s faithfulness in relation to who is saved and who is accursed. We need to know the deepest roots of his promise-keeping faithfulness.

The depths of Romans 9 exist just here to provide an unshakeable foundation for the heights of Romans 8. Paul takes us into the doctrine of unconditional election and predestination because it answers the destabilizing questions about the faithfulness of God in the failure of Israel. Or to say it more generally, Paul takes us into unconditional election as the deepest foundation for our assurance that nothing can thwart his saving purpose, and therefore nothing can compromise his faithfulness, and therefore nothing can undermine his word of promise, and therefore all of Romans 8 stands.

Now how does Paul show this?

His argument has three levels. First, the word of God has not fallen because the covenant promises were never intended to be valid for every ethnic Israelite, but only the true Israel. Second, the true Israel are brought into being not by human means but by God’s word of promise. Third, before that the true Israel were chosen by God unconditionally. The upshot of these three levels of argument is that the word of God’s promise will never fail, the security of the children of God rests ultimately not in anything they do or are, but in God who has mercy.

Consider level one of this argument.

In verses 6-8 Paul states the same premise three times in different words, namely, that the word of God’s promise has not fallen because the covenant promises were never intended to be valid for every ethnic Israelite, but only the true Israel. Verse 6: “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” There is Israel, and then there is Israel. There are the physical descendants, and then there is Israel—it seems suitable to call it “true Israel.”

So what’s the point? The point is that the word of promise has not fallen because it did not apply to all the ethnic descendants, but to the true Israel. It does not apply to those who are accursed and cut off from Christ (v. 3).

In verse 7 he says it again: “and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” There are physical offspring and there are children. And being a physical offspring doesn’t make you a “true child.”

And he says it again in verse 8: “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” There are children of the flesh. And there are children of God. And they do not correspond. They are not identical.

So the first level of Paul’s answer to the charge that the word of God has fallen, is to say: No, the promise was never intended to apply to every ethnic Israelite. It was made to the true Israel (v. 6), the true children of Abraham (v. 7), the children of God, the true children of promise (v. 8). The word of God has not fallen. It stands unshakeable for the true Israel.

The second level of Paul’s argument is to show that this true Israel is brought into being not by human means but by God’s word of promise. At the end of verse 7 Paul cites Genesis 21:12 where God says to Abraham, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Abraham wanted Ishmael to be the heir of promise. He had taken matters into his own hands and produced an heir. Ishmael represents a child of the flesh, not a child of promise. A child that human means can bring about. Not a miracle child. Not child produced by the sovereign word of God. So God says No. He will not be the heir. “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”

And then in verse 9 Paul cites Genesis 18:10, and shows how the promise works: “For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah is barren. Sarah is 90 years old. Sarah cannot produce an heir. And that the point. The “word of promise” brings about the child. This is what it means to be a “child of promise” a “child of God”—a true Israelite whose status as an heir is not owing to anything man can do, but only what God can do.

So the word of God has not fallen, first because the covenant promises were never intended to be valid for every ethnic Israelite, but only the true Israel. And second, because that true Israel are brought into being not by everything so vulnerable and uncertain as human means but by God’s word of promise. This word is not so fragile as to depend on man-created children of the flesh. It stands as absolutely sure because it creates what it promises. Ishmael illustrates what can be brought into being by human ability. Isaac illustrates what is brought into being by divine sovereignty.

Which brings us now to level three in Paul’s argument, namely, this true Israel—these promise-created children of God—were chosen as heirs unconditionally.

Paul moves from the illustration of Isaac and Ishmael to the illustration of Jacob and Esau. Four things make Jacob and Esau a striking illustration of the point Paul wants to make. His point here is not the supernatural origin of the children of God. That was illustrated with Isaac, not here. The point here is the utter freedom of God in choosing the children of promise unconditionally. And for that Jacob and Esau are better illustration than Isaac and Ishmael.

First, they were twins in the same womb, but Isaac was born 13 years after Ishmael. Second, they had the same parents, while Ishmael had a gentile mother. Third, God chose the heir before they were born and had done good or bad while God had 13 years to watch Ishmael’s behavior. Fourth, against all convention and precedent, God chose the younger to be the heir, not the elder.

Why did God do it this way? Paul gives a vivid statement of the answer in the middle of verse 11: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.””

There’s the word, “election.” Election has been lying just beneath the surface from verse 6 on: God chose a true Israel (v. 6). God chose the true children of Abraham (v. 7). God created the children of promise, the children of God (v. 8). And now it is explicit. God was doing all this, all the way along, at every stage in the history of Israel, so that “his purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.”

Notice: almost everywhere else in Paul where “not because of works” is contrasted with something, the contrast is faith. Not because of works but because of faith. But not here. Because that is absolutely not the point. The point is: in the womb they had done nothing good or evil. They had not believed or disbelieved. They had not produced any conditions at all. That’s the point. This was unconditional. The only decisive cause in this affair was God—“not because of works but of him who calls.”

Which is why Paul underscores the point three more times:

  • Verse 15: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.”

  • Verse 16: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

  • Verse 18: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.”

So the answer to our main question is: Paul leads us into the doctrine of unconditional election at this point to show us that the word of God to Israel has not fallen. God’s word of promise from the beginning, has infallibly created a people for himself. This true Israel—the children of promise, the children of God—were chosen unconditionally, and therefore the saving promise of God for them cannot fail, because ultimately, decisively, it does not depend on them—at all. Therefore, fear not, all you new covenant children of God, that security, that assurance, that confidence is what the doctrine of unconditional election is for. And because of that, it is precious beyond words. The promises of Romans 8 stand forever.

How does this reality affect Paul’s relationship with lost people? How does it affect his evangelism? How should it affect ours? Three brief observations.

1) It sustains him in the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” of his heart for his kinsmen.

Verses 1-2: “I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

When Paul looks on a sea of Jewish faces, all them drowning in an ocean of unbelief, and he remembers himself snatched, by an invisible hand, out of that sea, and gasping helplessly for breath in the house of Judas in Damascus, and a man named Ananias opening his eyes, and when he asks, Why me? there is no answer but this: “It is a gift of God’s grace” (Ephesians 3:7); “You are my chosen elect instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles” (Acts 9:15)—when Paul pondered this, the effect it had was to make him feel great sorrow and ceaseless anguish for his kinsmen who were still perishing in the sea of unbelief, where he deserved to be.

The doctrine of unconditional election destroys every sense of superiority. It leaves us weeping with the sheer wonder of thankfulness, and this weeping flows over into great sorrow for the lost. If we don’t feel this, the problem is not that we believe in unconditional election, but that the truth of it has not been believed and therefore has not broken us.

2. This doctrine empowers his labors to persuade the lost to be believe and be saved.

Romans 11: 13-14, “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.” Paul knows that the sovereign, electing God, uses human means. You are my “elect instrument” (Acts 9:15). My chosen means. And so are you.

This is how God saves his elect. He uses planning, preaching, writing, loving, caring, pursing, pleading people. Verse 14: “In order somehow I might make my fellow Jews jealous” of the gentile enjoyment of their inheritance. “Somehow!” Here’s Paul the evangelistic strategist: Somehow! Somehow! I must find a way. O grant me to find a way to awaken desire in the lost!

The next time you are sitting across the table from an unbeliever who is willing to listen, tell him the gospel, and then plead with him. “God making his appeal through [me]. I plead with you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). He may have never heard anybody say: “I want you.” God said that to you, before you were born or had done anything to deserve it.

3) The doctrine of unconditional election impels the earnestness of Paul’s prayer for the salvation of his kinsmen.

Romans 10:1, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Don’t miss this: his heart is aching and his prayers are rising. “My heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Not only do we persuade and plead, but we pray. God saves his elect through the prayers of his elect.

Let me close with a real illustration that moved me deeply in this matter of pleading and praying.

My father was an evangelist. A faithful and fruitful herald of the gospel of grace for over 60 years. In his old traditional way he would give invitations at the end of every meeting, every night. One of the songs he used over and over was Softly and Tenderly.

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, 
 Calling for you and for me; 
 See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching, 
 Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home, 
 You who are weary, come home; 
 Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, 
 Calling, O sinner, come home!

Can a lover of unconditional election use that song? Is Jesus just waiting and watching for sinners to come home? The song doesn’t he just waiting and watching.

Picture my father. He is now standing on the floor not in the pulpit. There are about 300 people in the room. He had just preached a glorious message of gospel truth. Now he looking the people in the eye, “Would you come? Come to Jesus, he will have you. He will not reject you. Come.”

And then picture him saying between the verses of the song, “Every head bowed. Every eyes closed. Every saint praying.” And back about ten pews there is mother standing beside her college age son who is a hardened, angry unbeliever. She asked him to come, and to make her happy he came. And now every saint is praying. What is she praying?

She is praying, “O God, please, in the name of Jesus, pour out your Holy Spirit. Open the blind eyes of my son. Take out his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh. Grant him to see this waiting, watching Jesus as true and beautiful and irresistibly compelling. Overcome his rebellion. Save him, O sovereign God.” And as she prays, her son moves past her and walks to the front and collapses into the arms of my father, into the arms of Jesus.

And God Almighty, through his own unconditional election, and through the crucified, risen, waiting, watching Christ, and through our tears and preaching and pleading and praying, and through the all-conquering Holy Spirit saves sinners.

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.

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