We have been working our way through the Book of Romans and the subject of election has come up. So, let me share some thoughts about election today along with a couple of other things. The doctrine of election is one of the most hotly debated mysteries of the Christian life. Theologians through the ages have pondered the meaning of 8:29, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” What exactly did Paul mean when he wrote this? There are two camps scholars align themselves with. The first are the Arminians who embrace the position of the 17th century Dutch pastor Jacobus Arminius. He understood foreknowledge to mean God’s knowledge in advance of those who would repent of their sin and believe the gospel. In other words, in eternity past, God looked down through the corridors of time to see all who would one day accept the offer of salvation through Christ. In this view those who accept salvation are the elect. The fact that they would eventually believe in Christ was the condition that prompted God to choose them “before the foundation of the world” or predestine them to eternal life. To bolster their position they point to verses that clearly state God’s desire for all people to be saved; verses like 2 Peter 3:9. They also argue the universal call for sinners to repent and believe the gospel is meaningless if salvation is determined solely by God apart from the free will of the person.
The second dominant viewpoint is Calvinism. Calvinists are named for the French reformer John Calvin. They see foreknowledge as a “relational” term. In other words, foreknowledge refers to God’s intimate knowledge of and love for His elect before they came into existence. From the Calvinist perspective, it is God’s sovereign choice, not a person’s exercised faith, that determines who the elect are. Simply put, Calvinists define election as the unconditional choice of God that is the cause of our faith. Arminians, on the other hand, would define it as the conditional choice of God that is the result of our faith. Calvinists defend their position with passages like 9:6-24 which describe why God hardened pharaoh’s heart. Moreover, they argue that depraved, spiritually dead people could not choose to believe and would not choose to believe. Martin Luther had this to say about the Calvinist position. “For this is what they say:’ if I am predestined, I shall be saved, whether I do good or evil. If I am not predestined, I shall be condemned regardless of my works. If the statements are true, as they, of course think, then the incarnation of the Son of God, His suffering and resurrection, and all that He did for the salvation of the world are done away with completely. What will the prophets and all Holy Scripture help?” Luther’s point? If salvation is dependent solely on God’s predestining us…His Sovereign will…then what is the point of the sacraments, the Word, or the sacrifice of Christ? Luther believed that this thinking gave people the idea that, if I am already predestined one way or the other, then nothing I do or believe can change that. He also wrote that “one must either debate about the hidden God or about the revealed God who was made known through Jesus Christ. With regard to God insofar as He has not been revealed, there is no faith, no knowledge, and no understanding. If God is only hidden then we have no knowledge about Him whatsoever. He continues; and here one must hold to the statement that what is above us is none of our concern. For thoughts of this kind, which investigate something more sublime above or outside the revelation of God, are altogether hellish. With them nothing more is achieved than we plunge ourselves into destruction. Doctrines such as double predestination, meaning some are predestined to be saved and others are predestined for damnation, built on reason and not scripture do nothing but increase doubt among faithful Christians.”
The scriptures do not teach that God has predestined to be damned those who will be damned. God tells us in His Word that He wills the salvation of all. (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, Matthew 23:37). That means God cannot simultaneously have willed that some will not be saved. The bottom line is that God’s ways are so much higher than our ways we do not and cannot fully understand them. Our call is to believe, trust, and be faithful.
The grace of God, His freely given gift of favor and blessing, is theological bedrock for Paul. He never tries to prove that God is gracious but he assumes it as a fact when presenting the Good News to the Romans. Paul rules out any idea that we merit our salvation because Gods acts by His grace. Our good works do not give us a right standing with God either. Our good works are the result of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. If our good works did earn us a right standing with God then He would be obliged to reward us for our efforts, like a worker earning their wage. Instead, He gives us salvation as a gift. The apostle John makes the same point: “The law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love, grace, and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ.” Neither John nor Paul meant that God’s Grace was not active in the Old Testament, because God has always dealt graciously with His people. But the overwhelming power of God’s Grace is displayed for us in and through Jesus Christ.
Jews in Paul’s day perceived a contrast between the present evil age and a glorious age to come. Throughout chapters 5-8 Paul uses these contrasting realms to help conceptualize our experience of salvation. The old realm is ruled by death, sin, the law, and sinful nature. The new realm is characterized by life, righteous living, grace, and the Holy Spirit. Each realm is headed by a man who represents its constituents. The old realm of sin and death is headed by Adam, the first man. The new realm of forgiveness and life is headed by Christ. By nature all human beings are in the old realm of sin and death and are represented by Adam, the first man whose sin and death control the destiny of all people. But, those who put their faith in God through Christ are transferred by faith into the new realm of life. God appointed Jesus Christ as the second Adam. By obeying God and fulfilling God’s will, Jesus won a decisive victory over the realm of sin that Adam had inaugurated. By receiving God’s gift of grace, people accept Jesus as their head and look forward to eternal life. Those who are in the new realm are identified with Christ and enjoy the benefits of union with Him. They have “died with Christ”, they have been “buried with Christ”, and their present new life with Christ is an anticipation of the day when they will live with Him forever.
The founding of the church in Rome is not known with certainty. There was a large Jewish population in Rome and some Jews from Rome were present in the day of Pentecost at the birth of the church. The most likely explanation is that some of these Jews converted to Christianity and took the good News about Jesus to Rome , where a Christian community was born from within the synagogues of Rome. It is fairly unlikely that Peter founded this church or that he was present in Rome by the time Paul wrote to the Roman church in 57 AD, otherwise Paul would have certainly greeted him. Consequently Paul wrote this letter to help ensure that the Roman church had apostolic involvement in their faith. He never wrote to the churches of Judea, founded by the other apostles, but only to churches that he either had founded like Corinth and Galatia, or to those who had no direct apostolic involvement, like Colosse and Rome. In time, Jewish Christians in Rome would have been pushed out of the synagogues by the non Christian Jews. This happened most places. By the time Paul wrote to the Roman church they were meeting as separate house churches in private homes. There were no centralized buildings and it is uncertain when or if the whole body of believers met together. When Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome is 49 AD, the Jewish Christians were also forced to leave, among them Priscilla and Aquila. In the absence of Jews the Roman church would have become Gentiles in character. When the Jews returned after the death of Claudius in 54 AD there were no doubt questions, if not conflicts among the Jewish and Gentile Christians. It was most likely to settle such differences that Paul chose to write. When we look at chapter 16 it is clear Paul already had many friends in the Roman church.
And then this. Nero became emperor of Rome in 54AD at the age of 17, after his mother poisoned her husband, the emperor Claudius. Nero enjoyed performing in the limelight and he was a sexually depraved and profligate man. Nero’s debauched character would have been well known when Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome. Asking the Romans to submit to governing authorities as having been placed there by God would have been a stretch for the believers; even non believers would have struggled here. Yet the early years of Nero’s reign were stable and competent, administered by his advisors the prefect Burris and the stoic philosopher Seneca. Nero’s worst actions came after he had arranged his mother murder in 59 AD. In 62AD he banished and then executed his wife, married his lover, and forced Burris and Seneca into retirement. In 64AD a fire, which most believe Nero set, devastated a large area of Rome. Not willing to accept responsibility for his actions, Nero blamed the Christians and charged them with the crime. Christians were widely seen as hostile to civil society and thus deserving of punishment, even if few believed that they had started the fire. They were convicted not so much of arson as of hatred of the human race. The persecution of Christians in Rome was intense and it is likely that both Peter and Paul were executed in Rome at this time. In 66AD a Jewish revolt broke out in Caesarea. Nero dispatched his general, Vespasian to squelch the revolt, taking no interest in the affairs of state. Nero spent the next two years doing performances in Greece, leaving the responsibility of governing to a Roman prefect. Because of the opposition he encountered from leading governors in France, Spain, and Africa on his return to Rome in 68 AD, Nero committed suicide. As he died Nero exclaimed “What an artist dies with me!” He was the last and worst emperor of the line of Julius Caesar.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W