Friday 27 April 2018

Bible Book:

“It is by grace” (v. 6)

Romans 11:1-12 Friday 27 April 2018

Psalm: Psalm 48


Yesterday we read the start of Paul’s anguished reflections on his fellow-Jews’ unbelief in the opening verses of chapter 9; we now end the week with two sections of Romans 11.

It’s fair to say that the rest of chapter 9 and chapters 10 and 11 contain some of the densest, and occasionally opaque, thinking in the whole of Paul’s writings. Mind you, as is often the case, the most difficult problems can yield the most important insights. Ideas essential to Paul’s theology emerge from his painful struggle. In particular, it seems to have cemented his central argument that salvation is by trusting acceptance of the grace of God, that is faith, not through obedience to the law. He was facing up to the implications of the wonderful good news that, in terms of salvation, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (compare Galatians 3:28); Jewish exceptionalism had disappeared in the universal gospel of Jesus Christ. All are one in Christ. All are heirs, in God’s eyes the same as Abraham’s descendants.

So, as chapter 11 opens, Paul asks a key question: has God rejected his chosen people Israel? His resounding ’no’ is based on his personal position (he is a Jew through and through, and yet saved by grace through faith) and on the idea of a holy remnant, already mentioned in the sections of chapters 10 and 11 we have passed by. However, this is a problematic concept, as it again raises the issues of election and predestination. At verse 5 Paul says plainly that this remnant is “chosen by grace”, and he goes on, with proof-texts from Isaiah and the Psalms, to argue that God has deliberately programmed the bulk of Jewry to oppose the gospel (the good news of Jesus) in order that it may reach the Gentiles. Once that has been achieved, Paul goes on to argue, the Jews will in turn accept it out of jealousy.

It’s an ingenious piece of theological thinking. It attempts to address the painful fact that most Jews haven’t (yet) accepted the gospel. It also visits the perilous territory of divine providence and foreknowledge with its implications of predestination while still emphasising a universal grace in God’s dealing with humanity and the whole world. It’s something of a tour de force.

The wonderful Victorian hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (Singing the Faith 416) is a challenge to narrow theological thinking.

To Ponder

  • How do you react to Paul’s complex arguments? Is he trying to have his cake and eat it, or just getting hopelessly tangled?
  • What do you think of the idea that God might deliberately arrange for anyone not to accept Jesus as Lord, even temporarily, so as to achieve a greater purpose?
  • Read Psalm 48 and ponder God’s steadfast love (verse 9).
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