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. 3 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. 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.
There is a sad irony in the seeming success of many Christian churches and schools. The irony is that the more you adjust obscure Biblical doctrines to make Christian reality more attractive to unbelievers, the less Christian reality there is when they arrive. Which means that what looks like success in the short run, may, in the long run, prove to be failure. If you alter or obscure the Biblical portrait of God in order to attract converts, you don’t get converts to God, you get converts to an illusion. This is not evangelism, but deception.
One of the results of this kind of "success" is that sooner or later the world wakes up to the fact that these so-called Christian churches look so much like them and the way they think that there is no reason to go there. If you adjust your doctrine to fit the world in order to attract the world, sooner or later the world realizes that they already have what the church offers. That was the story of much of mainline Protestantism in Europe and America in the 20th century. Adjust your doctrine – or just minimize doctrine – to attract the world, and in the very process of attracting them, lose the radical truth that alone can set them free.
Many observers today are making note that what the liberal mainline churches did 60 years ago, evangelical churches are doing today. For example, Steve Bruce writes in his book, God Is Dead: Secularization in the West,
The mainstream Christian Churches are declining in popularity, and the conservative Protestant churches are losing their doctrinal and behavioral distinctiveness. (Quoted in Philip Jenkins, "The Real Story of Secularization," in Books and Culture, 8/6 [Nov.-Dec., 2002]: 11)
There are thousands of pastors and churches today that do not think that clear, Biblical, doctrinal views are vital in the life of the church or the believer. They believe it is possible to grow a healthy church while leaving the people with few and fuzzy thoughts about what God is like. But ignorance about God is never a mere vacuum. The cavity created by ignorance fills up with something else.
Edward Norman, in his book, Secularization: New Century Theology, goes right to the heart of the problem when he describes what that something else is:
Christianity is not being rejected in modern society – what is causing the decline of public support for The Church is the insistence of church leaders themselves in representing secular enthusiasm for humanity as core Christianity. (Ibid, p. 10)
At first the world is drawn to a religious form of "enthusiasm for humanity," but then it wears thin and they realize that they can find it more excitingly on TV.
Romans 9 is a great antidote against such diseases in the church. This chapter is not rooted in "enthusiasm for humanity," but in the staggering, shocking, deeply satisfying sovereignty of God. My prayer is that we will see God for who he really is with his jagged peaks and fathomless deeps, and that, by his grace, many will come – not to celebrate themselves, but to worship God.
Our focus today is on verses 1-3, and specifically Paul’s sorrow and grief – his anguish over the fact that his kinsmen, the Jewish nation as a whole, are accursed and cut off from Christ.
We will look at four aspects of Paul’s anguish:
- the cause of his anguish;
- the intensity of his anguish;
- the authenticity of his anguish; and
- the fruit of his anguish.
The Cause of Paul’s Anguish
Let’s read verse 3: "I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." This means that Paul’s kinsmen are accursed and separated from Christ. He softens the statement of their loss by expressing it in relation to his own anguish. But the reality is unmistakable. They are accursed and cut off from Christ. They are lost. They are on their way to hell under the judgment of God. The word for "accursed" here is anathema and is used in 1 Corinthians 16:22 where Paul says, "If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed."
Now why are his kinsmen accursed and cut off from Christ? Paul gives two answers. One is that they have stumbled over Jesus Christ as the goal of the law, and rejected him as their curse bearer and their righteousness. And the other answer is that God has not chosen all ethnic Israel to be spiritual Israel.
Consider Romans 9:30ff.
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in him will not be disappointed.’
In other words, Paul pictures Christ as the righteousness that the law was pointing to. Gentiles saw it, believed, and were justified by faith – God imputed the righteousness of Christ to them through faith. But Israel stumbled over Christ. She did not see him as her Messiah or her righteousness or the one to whom the law was pointing all along. They saw the way to God’s righteousness as works, not faith. And so they failed to attain what the law was pointing to; they stumbled over Christ.
Paul describes this fall of Israel again in Romans 10:2-4.
For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. 3 For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. 4 For the goal of the law is Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes.
In other words, Israel as a whole missed the meaning of the law and missed the meaning of Christ. The law was to lead them to Christ, and Christ was to be their righteousness. And the way to be righteous with Christ’s righteousness was faith, not works. "The goal of the law is Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes." But they sought to establish their own righteousness by works rather than have the gift of God’s righteousness provided by Christ through faith.
So why are they accursed? Because they rejected the only one who could save them from the curse of the law. Galatians 3:13 relates Christ to the curse: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’" So Christ became our curse and Christ became our sin and Christ became our righteousness. But they would not have him. And so they are accursed and cut off from Christ.
This is the first answer for why Paul has grief and anguish in his heart.
There is another answer – a deeper answer – to why his kinsmen are accursed, explained in verses 6-29, namely, that God has not chosen all ethnic Israel to be spiritual Israel. We will look at this after Thanksgiving. But it will be relevant this morning when we get to the third point.
But first, point two:
The Intensity of Paul’s Anguish
Verses 2-3: "I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren." Notice the translation here: "I could wish" to be accursed. The point is that Paul’s grief is so great over the lostness of Israel that he stands on the brink of damnation, ready to throw himself in, if it were possible. But it is not possible. That’s why it says, "I could wish." The reason it’s not possible is found four verses earlier in Romans 8:38-39 – Nothing, absolutely nothing can separate God’s elect, Paul included, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In other words, God has not designed a world where a person can be damned because of Christ-exalting love. If there were such a world, then the Biblical standards of the world that exists would not apply, and Paul stands ready to take Israel’s place in hell. But he can’t. God does not send people to hell because they love others enough to sacrifice for them. So Paul cannot take the place of Israel; he can only grieve.
Oh, that we would have more of Paul’s spirit here! Do you grieve? Do you feel sorrow and anguish over your kinsmen, that they are accursed and cut off from Christ? I know that hundreds of you do. That’s good. Nurture that grief with Biblical truth. And remember, Jesus said that we should love not only those who love us, but also our enemies (Matt. 5:43-44). So may Bethlehem be a place of tears as well as joy. May we be Biblical Christian hedonists! As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:10, "Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing."
And if anyone should raise the legitimate question: Will we then be sad throughout eternity because of those who are accursed and cut off from Christ in hell? Will heaven be a place of eternal grief? – the answer is no. "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes . . . neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore" (Rev. 21:4). Why? Jonathan Edwards put it like this:
With respect to any affection that the godly have had to the finally reprobate, the love of God will wholly swallow it up. And cause it wholly to cease. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust], Vol. 2, p. 899)
Those who die in their sinful rebellion – we say it with tears now – will not have the power to hold heaven hostage with their own misery. Here we groan and weep. There we are consumed with the glory of Christ.
Let us learn from Paul. He knows that his kinsmen are lost and ready to be cast into outer darkness forever. But he does not say that with rage or fierceness. He says it with anguish.
The Authenticity of Paul’s Anguish
Verse 1: "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit." This is Paul’s introduction to the words in verse 2: "I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart." This is a remarkable plea in verse 1: Believe me. Believe me. I am telling the truth in Christ. I am not lying. He can’t prove it – how can you prove your grief? Tears can be manufactured. Trembling voices can be learned and artificial. He can’t prove it. He can only plead that his conscience is moved by the Holy Spirit and that his testimony is shaped by Christ.
But why is all this necessary? Because some doubted his love and the genuineness of his sorrow. Why? Because Paul has said things that could be taken as anti-Jewish. Back in Romans 2:24 he quoted the prophets, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you." In Romans 3:9 he said, "Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin." In the next verse (v. 3) he is about to say that Israel is accursed and cut off from Christ. And then, most amazingly, he is about to say in verse 6: Not all Israel is Israel. God’s covenant does not guarantee the salvation of every Jew. The ultimate reason why some are accursed and cut off from Christ is that they are not among the elect. He will say in Romans 11:7, "Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened."
This is the deepest reason why Paul must virtually take an oath that he is telling the truth that his anguish is real. There will always be this kind of objection that Paul was facing here: people will say, "You cannot feel real grief over the lost if God chooses freely and unconditionally whom he will save." Paul knows this is an objection, and all he can do here is say: I really grieve over Israel, and I really believe that God is sovereign over who is saved and who is not.
Beware of over-simplifying the heart of God and the hearts of loving saints. There are more emotional possibilities in this world than you may think. Paul set us an example to follow: He taught in verse 15 that God says, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." And he showed us how to grieve over those who do not receive mercy. Beware of the reasonings of man exalted against the word of God. Beware of making your present emotional possibilities the standard of God’s.
Finally, the Fruit of Paul’s Anguish
I find this in Romans 10:1, "Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation." The fruit of Paul’s anguish for his kinsmen who are accursed and cut off from Christ is to desire their salvation and to pray for them to be saved. Again, I say, don’t follow the reasonings of skeptical men here. Don’t say: There is no reason to pray for sinners if God is sovereign to save. Say instead, Because God is sovereign to save, I will pray for sinners with hope. Because Paul prayed for their salvation, I will pray. Because Christ prayed on the cross for their salvation, I will pray. Because I have grief and anguish in my heart, I will pray. And as it says in 2 Timothy 2:25, "God may perhaps grant them repentance." To that end let us pray for Israel and for the nations and for our kinsmen that they might be saved.
May the Lord do it even now. If you are still under the guilt of your sins and accursed and cut off from Christ, don’t stay there. Christ has become a curse for us. He has died for our sins and risen from the dead. Trust him as your only hope and your all-satisfying treasure. And you will be saved. Amen.