Friday, October 30, 2020

"None seeks after God"

I've been thinking a lot about Romans 3:10–11 over the last few weeks. Those verses have long puzzled me, because it's self evident that there are men and women who are deeply interested in God. So there's an apparent contradiction between Scripture and what we actually experience.

It seems to me this conflict is resolved in Romans 1:21–23. When Romans 3:11 says that not one seeks after God, I take that to mean that not one seeks after God as He really is. Fallen men and women are entirely willing to worship gods they themselves imagine. They're deeply interested in a god who is out there somewhere, but doesn't have any real claim to their obedience and submission. What they're not willing to do, is to submit themselves to the God who created them.

I remember hearing Ellis Potter say in one of the L'Abri Ideas Library recordings that in the fall, man put himself at the center of the universe. That's not our only problem, but it's a huge problem. We find it impossible to relate to the God who really is the center of the universe, because we simply can't see that it is He – and not we – who is the center.

It's not in the nature of unregenerate man to acknowledge the God who is really there.

Friday, October 23, 2020


 Eisegesis sounds pretentious, but it's a real word. It means "reading in." It's adding something into the text because we expect it to be there, or we want it to be there. It's a hard trap to avoid, because it's hard to see and identify our own biases and preconceptions.

A few years ago, I read an article online where someone referenced the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3–9), calling it the "parable of the soils." That's not the first time I've heard that title, nor the last. But in this case, I commented on the article, asking why the person had called it "the parable of the soils" when the Lord called it "the parable of the sower" (Matthew 13:18). The author responded:

The reason why I (and I assume others also) have referred to it as the parable of the soils is to focus upon the main thrust of the passage – the ground on which the seed was thrown. The emphasis by the Lord leans heavily toward the condition of the soil where the seed was sown, representing the four different heart responses to the Gospel message. In no way (at least with me) is it meant to counter the words of our Lord or to redirect the teaching.

I didn't follow up on that response, because I wasn't interested in fight on a comment thread. But it's been more than five years since that exchange, and as I've thought it over, it hasn't gotten less troubling. 

Note: I'm not going to link to the article, nor to the comment thread, because I'm not trying to embarrass anyone. It shouldn't be too hard to find, if you want to fact-check me on it. If you can't find it, email me and I can send you a link. 

As far as I can tell, the Lord gave exactly one of His parables a title. He told many, many parables; but this appears to be the only one He titled. Since we agree that the title of the parable focuses our attention to a specific element of the story, it's self-evident that the emphasis by the Lord is not on the soils at all, but on the sower. That's why He called it "the parable of the sower."

And this is what I mean by reading something into a passage. Doing something as small as giving a parable a title seems to be harmless, but it's not. Does this person really think the Lord missed the main thrust of the passage? I'm sure he doesn't, but it's what he actually said in that response.

So we can think more highly of ourselves than we ought, or we can use this as a teachable moment for ourselves. We can ask, "where do I read things into the Scripture?"

For years I thought that the Lord taught we should do good works so that men and women would see them and believe. But that's not what the Lord said. He said, "Let your light thus shine before men, so that they may see your upright works, and glorify your Father who is in the heavens" (Matthew 5:16). Why did I think that verse was teaching that good works would lead someone to repent? It's not in the text, it was only there in my mind. To be fair, it was likely because I had heard others misquote that verse all my life; but we can fairly say that I misread that verse, because I thought I knew what it was supposed to say.

I wasn't allowing the Scripture to speak to me, I was trying to finish the Lord's sentences!

So where else am I doing this? I'm sure there are many places in Scripture where I am finishing the Lord's sentences. I'm sure there are many places where I just assume I know what the text is going to say. 


Friday, October 16, 2020

Except the Lord build the house

 Psalm 127:1–5


A friend asked me the difference between Dispensationalism and and Covenant Theology. My answer is that the one stresses discontinuities between the Old and New Testament, while the other stresses continuity. That's a pretty vague statement, but I think it's a good place to start. Obviously both are -isms, and so both are definitely wrong in at least some points. 

One of the effects of reading Darby extensively was that I began to back off a lot from the Dispensationalism I grew up with, as I began to see more and more continuities between the Old and New Testaments. That's not to say I dove into Covenant Theology, or anything like it. But reading Darby forced me to see and appreciate many continuities between the Old and New Testaments, which aren't really acknowledged among more mainstream Dispensationalists.

I really do believe all -isms are wrong. Dispensationalism, Calvinism, Arminianism – they're all wrong by virtue of the fact they're -isms. Yes, even Darbyism (and that really is a thing). They're all wrong because none quite addresses the whole counsel of God. Further, it seems like we humans just can't resist moving from "working model" to "interpretive framework" to "replacement for Scripture." We just can't seem to avoid getting to the place where we disregard at least some part of Scripture because of our personal theology (Matthew 15:1–6).

Don't get me wrong! If the choice is between Calvinism and Arminianism, and I have to choose, I'll take Calvinism every time. As far as I can tell, it represents Scripture much more completely and honestly than the other... but it would be far better for me to stick to Scripture. Similarly, I think Dispensationalism is a much better -ism than Covenant Theology, but it's still an -ism, it's still lacking, and it still easily becomes a replacement for Scripture if we allow our vigilance to fail.

I've said it many times: the unique feature of Darby's writings is that he resists the temptation to develop a theology. I wish I could do the same.

One of the marks of the "dispensationalism" of Darby, Kelly, et al. was the teaching that a godly walk isn't the result of careful adherence to the Law, or careful self-discipline, but the result of our union with Christ in His death, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the work of God in us. Of course that's a mark of that era's Dispensationalism that was quick to disappear. Many who teach Dispensationalism today still mention our union with Christ, but they seem to think it's relegated to a "positional" truth, not something that really affects our lives. 

Of course there is the opposite error: an error that I easily fall into. We won't passively fall into godliness. It's easy for me (and some other people I know) to allow ourselves to fall into the error opposite legalism, which is an almost fatalistic "passivism." That's not what Scripture teaches.

So what does Scripture teach?

 Psalm 127:1–2 shows us what's happening behind the scenes. There are builders working on a house, but unless the Lord is the one actually building it, their labor is vain. There are watchmen watching over a city, but unless the Lord is keeping it, their waking is in vain. 

Vain labor is a thing. It's probably more common than we realize: time, effort, resources spent pursuing some end on our own, without the Lord being in it. Robert has commented that "without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5) is a promise we don't like to remember. We like to think we are capable of accomplishing things on our own, we don't like to remember that without the Lord, we might well do things, but we can't accomplish anything.

Well, we don't interpret Psalm 127:1–2 to mean that the city shouldn't post watchers, nor that the builder of a house shouldn't work hard. That's going beyond what the Scripture actually says. It's not an injunction against human effort, but it is an observation that we cannot control the outcome of our labors. The Lord accomplishes what He sets out to accomplish, and we work against Him in vain.

We like to speak out against laziness – and rightly so –, but Psalm 127:2 tells us that the Lord gives rest to His beloved. Now, I read "His beloved" to mean primarily Christ, but it seems to me there is an extension to us here as well. When we recognize that our work is really His work, then we realize the outcome isn't really our concern. We don't pour our lives into vain labor, we allow Him the end that He wants.

At the same time, I have come to believe that our work (work "of the Lord" 1 Corinthians 15:58) is real and significant. I confess that any number of times over the last twenty-five years, I've held to a view pretty close to fatalism. I have many times believed – in fact, if not in words – that we are more or less just to sit and wait for God to do the work. I was wrong. That's not what Scripture describes. Rodger mentioned to me that sonship implies a significant relationship, almost an uneven partnership. We have been called into a relationship with the Father and the Son where we have been freed and empowered to take part in the work the Lord is doing. 

But make no mistake, the partnership is definitely not an even one. That's what Psalm 127 is saying. Those who build the house are laboring: but it's the Lord who really builds the house. The watchmen are waking, but it's the Lord who is keeping the city. So we're not working to produce something for God. We're working with God, to be a very small part of what He's producing. That's really the idea of sonship: that we come into the family business and take part. But we don't delude ourselves into thinking the family business was struggling until we took part: God is and was getting precisely the outcome that He wants.


Friday, October 9, 2020

Romans 9

Having mentioned Romans 9, it seems like a good idea to spend a few minutes reading through that chapter. Not to give a real exegesis, but to give an overview of the argument in that chapter. 


vv. 1–5, the problem of Gentile belief and Jewish unbelief

Romans 9:1–5 sets out an apparent contradiction with Romans 8:29 ff. Israel "according to flesh" (Romans 9:3) has largely not believed in Christ, so they're excluded from the Romans 8 blessings. At the same time, gentiles who have believed are promised them. But there are eight blessings to Israel listed in Romans 9:4–5, including Christ Himself. So how can we understand this conundrum?

The answer takes three chapters to develop, but if we limit ourselves to this chapter, we'll see that it builds on "Divine sovereign individual election". That argument takes up basically all of this chapter.


vv. 6–7 The Word of God has not failed

The thesis is given in Romans 9:6 – the word of God has not failed. That's the central point, and the same verse tells us why: because "not all [are] Israel which [are] of Israel" (Romans 9:6).  This is the point that will be argued for the rest of the chapter, but it's the point that seems most frequently missed when I hear people discussing Romans 9.

The argument that the word of God hasn't failed is that not all of Israel's descendants are counted as the nation of Israel, nor are all of Abraham's descendants counted as children (Romans 9:6–7). It's possible that someone can be descended from Israel (Jacob), but not be part of the nation of Israel as far as God is concerned. It's possible for someone to be a descendant of Abraham, but not be included in God's reckoning of Abraham's children.


vv. 8–9 Isaac is a son, Ishmael is not

Let's pause here and say that this explains the strange and repeated assertion in Scripture that Isaac is Abraham's only son (Genesis 22:1–2, 15–19; Hebrews 11:17–19) even though we're explicitly told that Isaac had an older brother (Genesis 21:9) and several younger siblings (Genesis 25:1–6). We know for a fact that Isaac was not Abraham's only begotten son, but Scripture describes him that way.

So Romans 9:8–9 explains that Isaac is Abraham's only son as far as God is concerned, because he is the son of promise. Ishmael is Abraham's physical descendant, but God doesn't count him as a child of Abraham.


vv. 10–13 Jacob is chosen, Esau is not

Romans 9:10-13 applies this same principle to the next generation, saying that although Jacob and Esau were twins, having the same father and the same mother, Jacob is chosen but Esau is not. And here were have an amazing parenthesis that introduces a very important point (Romans 9:11), that it wasn't a matter of what they did. Indeed, we're explicitly told that God chose Jacob over Esau when neither of them had done either good or evil. And we're told why: "that the purpose of God according to election might stand." 


summary of vv. 6–13 election is individual

One interpretation of these verses is national election: the idea being that Ishmael, Esau, and Jacob all represent nations, and God was effectively choosing the nation of Jacob (Israel) as opposed to the nations of Esau (Edom) and Ishmael. I held that view for many years, but it doesn't stand up to the opening statement in Romans 9:6–7 – "not all are Israel who are of Israel, nor are all children who are seed." We know this is the point of these stories, because the text has already told us where the argument is going. The argument isn't to support national election (which is a real thing), it's the opposite: membership in an elect nation isn't an indication of individual election. That's the statement in Romans 9:6–7, and it's the argument that's being developed in Romans 9:8–13. Ishmael and Esau both had the right father, and Esau even had the right mother (notice that's explicitly mentioned in Romans 9:10), but they weren't themselves chosen. 

So we could stop right there and we have our answer to the conundrum of Romans 9:1–5. Being born into the [elect] nation of Israel doesn't mean that God considers you one of Abraham's descendants. It's brutal, it's harsh, but it's the argument of Romans 9.

v. 14 is God unrighteous?

But of course there's more, and now we get to the part that really angers the flesh. Romans 9:14 asks the question, is God unrighteous? And of course the answer is no. But the argument to establish it actually makes things "worse".

v. 15–16 what about Israel?

The thesis of our argument is that the word of God hasn't failed because, "they are not all Israel who are of Israel,  nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham" (Romans 9:6–7). vv. 8–13 has given us examples of the second statement – Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob are all descendants of Abraham, but only Jacob is the chosen. But we haven't seen a case where someone is of Israel, but not Israel. So now we come to an example from later in the story – from Israel.

Romans 9:15 takes us back to Exodus 33:19–23. The entire nation of Israel (except Moses and Joshua) had committed idolatry at the foot of Sinai, and God had threatened to wipe them all out. And in fact, Exodus 32:25–29 tells us that Moses had ordered the summary execution of three thousand of the people, right then and there; so not all the nation is shown mercy. So now Moses has been pleading with God for the people, and at the end, God says, "I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful."

Now we're looking at the whole question of election from the other side. In Romans 9:8–13, the argument has been about excluding individuals from the elect nation. Now we're discussing an entire nation that has sinned, that all deserves to be wiped out (Exodus 32:7–10). And God says that He will not treat them like they deserve: He will choose – not because of any merit on their part – to be merciful to them, because that's what He chooses. So now we're discussing God's choosing (election) in terms of inclusion: in terms of including people who have done nothing to deserve it. So Romans 9:16 reiterates the statement of Romans 9:11, that the issue is whom God chooses. God shows mercy to whom God chooses to show mercy, it's not an issue of what you do, nor even what you choose, but whether God chooses to show mercy.
vv. 17–18 Pharaoh

So now we hit the hardest verses: as soon as we find that God chooses to show mercy to some who don't deserve it (Romans 9:16), we find the story of Pharaoh. And here we find that God chose not to show mercy to someone. Indeed, God chose to harden Pharaoh's heart (Romans 9:17). God raised Pharaoh up – notice Romans 9:17–18 doesn't start the discussion with Pharaoh already on the throne, but with God raising him up – to show His power through Pharaoh. And Romans 9:18 tells us that God's choice to show mercy is mirrored in His choice to harden: He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.


summary of vv. 6–18 God chooses individuals

Before we look at Romans 9:19, let's remind ourselves of the context. The problem in Romans 9:1–5 is that Israel has been given promises that we just don't see fulfilled.  Gentiles are getting blessings in Christ (Romans 8:28 ff.), but Israel is not. And the answer given is that the word of God hasn't failed, because God chooses individuals. Not every person descended from Abraham is counted as a child of Abraham. Not every person born into Israel is counted as part of the chosen nation. There is national election, but Romans 9 is arguing that an individual's place in an elect nation is itself a choice of God. That God has the right to exclude individuals from their national election.

And Romans 9:18 answers directly to the conundrum of Romans 9:1–5. Why has Israel largely (not entirely! Romans 11:1–6) rejected Christ? The first answer is given in Romans 9:6–7, not all those individuals are in God's reckoning of Israel. The second answer is given in Romans 9:18, God has chosen to show mercy to some, and has chosen to harden others.


vv. 19–20 how can God judge, if His purpose is always fulfilled?

So now we see the reaction, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”  (Romans 9:19).  Let's remind ourselves that this is the test of whether we've been paying attention in the previous 18 verses. If we have, we'll also conclude that no one can resist God's purpose. He chooses to show mercy to some, and to harden others. So how can God judge them? Isn't that unfair? 

Paul's answer is brutal and direct, who are you to judge God? (Romans 9:20).

Romans 9 goes on to develop this idea, but it's worth pausing here to let this one sink in. God doesn't have to explain Himself to us. He has every right to harden Pharaoh's heart, and then destroy Pharaoh because he wouldn't humble himself. That's pretty much what God promised Moses He would do (Exodus 4:21–23). Before Moses returned to Egypt, before he stood before Pharaoh the first time, before he ever mentioned letting the children of Israel go, God said He'd make sure Pharaoh didn't obey, and then He'd punish Pharaoh for it.

God doesn't owe us an explanation: He has every right to make vessels of honor and vessels of dishonor. 


vv. 22–24 vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath

Romans 9:22–24 brings this whole discussion back to the opening conundrum of Romans 9:1–5. There are vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction (Romans 9:22). There are vessels of mercy prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:23). God has made both. The vessels of mercy are identified as "us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles" (Romans 9:24). Notice how it ties this back in with Romans 8:30. And notice that these vessels of mercy aren't defined by lineage or any form of national election: they are individuals, called from Israel and from the Gentile nations.

Romans 9:25–29 goes on to substantiate this claim quoting Hosea and Isaiah, which we'll skip for the sake of brevity.


vv. 30–33 righteousness by faith, not by law

We should mention Romans 9:30–33, though, because it carries the argument forward from Romans 9:1–5, and ties it into Romans 10:1–4. Here "Israel" refers to the nation, effectively the people who aren't considered children of Abraham in Romans 9:6–7. This is "Israel according to flesh" as in Romans 9:1–5. 

And what do we find? That gentiles (not all gentiles, surely) have attained righteousness through faith (Romans 9:30), while Israel (not all Israel, certainly) has failed to attain righteousness, attempting to earn it by law (Romans 9:31–32).

That "Israel" here doesn't mean the whole nation (i.e., God has a remnant in Israel) is clear both from context (cf. Romans 11:1–6) and from the preceding statement. We don't understand "the Gentiles... have attained to righteousness" (Romans 9:30) to mean that all the gentiles are believers. This isn't teaching a sort of a reverse national election! But the bulk of Israel – Abraham's and Jacob's physical descendants – have rejected Christ, and thus have rejected God's righteousness. Gentiles, who have no claim to blessing as descendants of Abraham, have found God's righteousness. This is developed more fully in Romans 10 and 11.

But notice that the issue in Romans 9:30–32 isn't some temporal blessing. The issue is righteousness before God. [Some] gentiles are righteous before God, having believed. [Some] Israelites are unrighteous before God, having not believed. So yes, the argument of Romans 9 is indeed an argument of election to salvation. It encompasses more than just salvation (the eight blessings to Israel in Romans 9:1–5), but any claim that Romans 9 isn't about salvation ignores vv. 22–32.


So that's my take on Romans 9. I apologize it was so long, but following my comments on the significance of Romans 9:19 earlier, it seemed worthwhile to write down. I've read too much on the chapter not to have picked up ideas from others on it, but I've deliberately avoided referring to commentaries to keep the flow of the text. So I'm sure there's nothing I could say that's not in one of Darby's expositions, or in Newell's Romans, Verse by Verse.


Friday, October 2, 2020

"You will say to me"

I'm having a prolonged conversation with two friends who disagree with me on election. I have no idea if they read this blog or not, but I'll try and keep things anonymous. I'm not interested in beating up on them behind their backs (so to speak), but some thoughts have come out of this that I want to share, and perhaps even develop more fully here.

I can think of several places in Romans (I'm sure there are more) where Paul stops the flow of the argument to anticipate a reaction from the reader:

  • Romans 6:1 "what shall we say then? shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" 
  • Romans 7:7 "What shall we say then? [is] the law sin?"
  • Romans 7:13 "Did then that which is good become death to me?"
  • Romans 9:14 "What shall we say then? [Is there] unrighteousness with God?"
  • Romans 9:19  "Thou wilt say to me then, Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose?"

These are very useful checkpoints in the book. While they serve a rhetorical purpose, they also serve an exegetical purpose: they tell us how the apostle expects us to react to what he has said. So, for example, in Romans 6:1, he anticipates that our reaction will be, "should we just keep sinning?" Alan Gamble says Romans 6:1 is the test for whether we're preaching the true Gospel, or just preaching good works. When Paul presents the Gospel, he expects the reaction to be "why not just keep sinning?" If people don't ask that after our Gospel messages, we're just preaching good works.

It was a turning point in my life when I realized that when I read Romans 9:1–18, I didn't react the way Paul expects. The expected reaction is in Romans 9:19. He expects we'll say, "why does God judge someone who doesn't have a choice?" So if I have a different reaction to the one Paul expects, maybe I'm not following his argument very well.

I realized that I had developed a theology of Romans 9 that no one would find offensive. If I explained Romans 9:1–18, no one would hear my explanation and conclude that God was judging someone who didn't have a choice. But when Paul taught Romans 9:1–18, that was exactly the conclusion. The fact that my understanding of Romans 9 wasn't offensive proved it was wrong, because Paul's is entirely offensive. If you read Romans 9:1–18 and don't react by saying, "how can God judge someone who doesn't have a choice?" then you have missed the point.

Interestingly, Romans 9:20 doesn't give an explanation for how God is just misunderstood. Paul doesn't say, "No, you misunderstood me, of course God is fair." On the contrary, he says, "how dare you judge God?" (Romans 9:20).  I can't think of very many places where the Scripture presents a difficulty and then doesn't answer it, but Romans 9:19–20 is one of those places. It tells us that our reaction to Romans 9:1–18 will be indignation, then it tells us we need to shut up and sit down. (OK, that's a pretty loose paraphrase.)

So yes, if we find Romans 9:18 offensive, then we probably understood it correctly. But of course we shouldn't stop there. William R Newell says, "a believer’s heart is not fully yielded to God until it accepts without question, and without demanding softening, this eighteenth verse [Romans 9:18]" (Romans, Verse by Verse, p. 369). 

There was a day I realized quite clearly that I very much demanded "softening" of Romans 9. I remember realizing that my problem with Romans 9:1–20 wasn't that I had difficulty understanding it, but that I had difficulty accepting it.

That was a humbling day.

Now, I'm not saying my friends don't have hearts yielded to God. My point is that I very clearly remember when God used these verses to show me that I wasn't submitting to Him. I needed to accept my place isn't to judge God, but to accept that He is my judge. God is God, I am just a man, and not a terribly remarkable man at that.

It think that's pretty close to a working definition of repentance (Job 42:1–6).

I thought that might be helpful to share.