Friday, September 26, 2008

A Question of Divine Mercy

Rom. 9:1-5, 30-10:4[1]

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul goes to great lengths to elaborate on the Gospel of new life in Jesus the Christ. He makes it clear that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we all have new life, a life that truly is life. And yet, in the midst of this wonderful elaboration on the good news, Paul faces an inevitable question —what about God’s own “people”? The fact of the matter is that God’s “chosen people” had essentially rejected Jesus and the good news that Paul and others were preaching. Paul says that it personally caused him “great grief and constant pain” (Rom. 9:2, Inclusive Bible). But it also constitutes an argument that could potentially refute Paul’s message.

Think about it—if this is what God is up to in the world, why is it that God’s own “chosen people” have not embraced it? Or perhaps we could ask it this way—if God is so “faithful” and “loving,” why has God’s project seemingly by-passed the people God promised to bless? It would seem that either the “gospel” is a massive misrepresentation, or that God is after all unfaithful, untrustworthy, and “the promise of God has failed” (Rom. 9:6, TEV).

For Paul, this raises a serious question about God’s intentions on our behalf—and it relates to an issue that defines our understanding of God and salvation throughout the Bible. It is the issue of “election.” In the Bible, election is the idea that God chose to bless the descendants of Abraham. The promises to the ancestors, the Exodus, the feast of Passover, and the covenant are all part of one great act of God in choosing the people of Israel to be God’s people. Of course, in our minds, “choosing” anyone means rejecting someone else—or perhaps everyone else! I think one of the great sources of confusion about God is the idea that God is “out there” picking and choosing who will be saved and who will be rejected. If that’s the case, then Paul’s “good news” really isn’t so good after all!

That’s why Paul takes great pains to address this question. Of course, from our perspective, he seems to talk in circles about Jacob and Esau, about vessels for honor and for dishonor, and it’s easy to get lost in the process! Though Paul’s language hints at the idea that God has chosen some but rejected others, the main idea is that when it comes to our salvation—as well as anyone else’s—“everything depends on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16, CEV). Or as another version puts it, “It is obviously not a question of human will or human effort, but of divine mercy” (Rom. 9:16, Phillips).

At first glance, that might not satisfy most of us. Most people seem to be stuck in thinking that “election,” or “predestination”—or whatever you want to call it—means that God is arbitrary about who gets to have eternal life and who perishes in the flames! Nothing could be further from the truth! When the Bible addresses God’s “plan of salvation,” it presents a God who is always taking the first step toward us all.[2]

What this means is that, instead of viewing election as picking some and rejecting others, if we follow the Scriptures, we will view it as God’s decision from all eternity to be the God who justifies the godless (Rom. 4:5), who has mercy on us all (Rom. 11:32), who takes all notion of rejection away because God takes it on himself (Rom. 8:1; cf. Gal. 3:13).[3] At the end of the day what must be said about the Bible’s witness is that what God elects, what God chooses from all eternity, what God “predestines,” if you will, is our salvation—and the salvation of all humankind![4] This is true even in the case of those who apparently reject God’s love now, of those who seemingly want to be destroyed, of those who have hardened themselves![5]

In this chapter Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea as a reminder that even when God’s own people strayed so far as to be considered “not my people,” God acted to restore them in mercy and love (Rom. 9:25-26, quoting Hos. 1:10; 2:23). Even when they said “No” to God’s love, God said “Yes” to them. And Paul insists that God says a great “Yes” to us all, and does so “without any if or but, without any afterthought or reservation, not temporarily but definitively, with a fidelity that is … total and eternal.”[6]

Though Paul is perhaps not entirely successful in his attempt to plumb the depths of God’s eternal purpose and will, the substance of what he is trying to say is that God’s purpose in Christ Jesus is to show mercy and compassion to everyone.[7] The basis for this is that God’s mercy is the essential, defining facet of God’s very being. Paul alludes to this in quoting from the book of Exodus, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15, quoting Exod. 33:19). In a real sense, one could say that mercy is God’s very name![8] If God “predestines” anything, it is to be the one who extends mercy to us all; if God “elects” anything, it is to be the one who restores those who are wayward; if God chooses anything, it is to be the one who is the Savior of all who are lost!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/3/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See, for example, Luke 19:10, John 3:16, Romans 5:6-8, 2 Corinthians 5:14-17, Ephesians 1:3-14, 2:4-5, Titus 3:5, 1 John 4:9, 19; cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2: 15, 26, 54, 60, 101-103, 161-62, 176-78

[3] Barth, CD 2.2: 123-24; cf. also 162-65, 167-68; “He elected our rejection. He made it His own. … That is how God loved the world” [164-65]; “Predestination means that from all eternity God has determined upon man’s acquittal at His own cost” [167].

[4] cf. Barth, CD 2.2: 28-29, 54; esp. cf. p. 29: God’s sovereignty consists in the fact that “God Himself in His freedom has decided that [man] shall stand, that he shall be saved and not lost, that he shall live and not die.”

[5] Barth, CD 2.2: 34: “God does not acquiesce in the creature’s self-destruction.”

[6] Barth, CD 2.2.31; see also ibid., 29: God “elects the fulfillment and not the non-fulfillment of the purpose and meaning of love.” See further J├╝rgen Moltmann, “Surviving with Noah,” in The Power of the Powerless, 10-11.

[7] Barth, CD 2.2:15.

[8] Barth, CD 2.2.53-54, 218-19, 221, 223: “God’s nature” consists in the fact that “He freely shows mercy”; also J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 53, 151.

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