“Propitiation: The Most Important Word Sinners Should Know” (Romans 3:25-26)

What is the most important passage in the Bible?  Now ask that question again, only substitute verse for passage.  Then consider whether any particular word stands out among all others.  Have you located the most important word in the Bible?

There will never be unanimity on the question of the Bible’s most important word, but people have argued for Romans 3:25-26 as its most meaningful passage.  I agree, and I think Murray Harris is right when he says propitiation is the most significant word in those verses.

On Sunday, March 18, 2012, I had the joy of preaching Romans 3:25-26.  Talking about propitiation (wrath-aversion-through-satisfaction) opens up the world of the Gospel.

Propitiation is the needed word-window to Jesus on the cross.  It tells us what happened on that rugged tree, and its reality is what makes the gospel good news.

We don’t use propitiation in everyday language, but that five-syllable term is glorious for reasons unfolded here (the sermon’s audio link).

May God’s kindness leave us amazed at the wonder of Christ, the Sinner’s Substitute, Merciful Propitiation, and Wrath-Averting Son of God.

7 Reflections After Preaching Through Romans

Last week I finished preaching through Paul’s letter to the Romans.  This verse-by-verse journey took me through 77 messages in order to thoroughly deal with each chapter. 

Here are 7 reflections after preaching through the letter:
(1) I am more astounded by the comprehensive sovereignty of God than I was before preaching Romans
(2) I am even more convinced of God’s predestination of sinners unto salvation than I was before preaching Romans
(3) I am more burdened for the hardened nation of Israel than I was before preaching Romans
(4) I am more grateful for Jesus’ role as our “propitiation” than I was before preaching Romans
(5) I am more burdened for evangelism and missions than I was before preaching Romans
(6) I am even more convinced of man’s total spiritual and moral inability than I was before preaching Romans
(7) I am more convinced of the necessity for every Christian to thoroughly understand Romans than I was before preaching Romans

Any Romans-lovers out there?  If any reader has devoted time to study, preach, or teach through part/all of Romans, what resolutions and convictions has the letter left you with?  If Romans is a favorite book of yours, why?  If not, why not? 

I want to recommend several “must-have” resources for studying and preaching through Romans, which sometimes come from varying perspectives, but are nonetheless insightful:
-Thomas Schreiner’s commentary
-Douglas Moo’s commentary
-Paul Jewett’s commentary
-Leon Morris’ commentary
-Ben Witherington’s commentary

May the Lord prosper the proclamation of His holy word, especially Paul’s masterful letter to the Romans!

God Revealing Himself to the Gentiles in Romans 10:20

In Romans 10:20 Paul quotes God’s words from Isaiah 65:1, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”  Displaying this verse in two parallel lines is most revealing:

“I was found                     by those         who did not seek me”
“I revealed myself              to those          who did not ask for me”

Starting at the end of the verse, God is speaking about those “who did not seek me” and “who did not ask for me.”  From the context of Romans 10, it is clear that Paul applies Isaiah 65:1 to Gentiles.  In fact, Gentiles must be the referent because Paul begins Romans 10:21 with the words, “But concerning Israel.”  So Romans 10:20 is about Gentiles, and Romans 10:21 is about Israel. 

Gentiles, then, are those “who did not seek” God nor “ask for” God.  Yet clearly there are Gentiles (e.g. me!) who are in the people of God by virtue of Christ’s new covenant work on the cross.  Or to say it how Paul says it, there are Gentiles who have “found” God.  Now here’s the apparent strangeness about the wording of this verse: normally finding something is the result of seeking after it (“I finally found my keys after two days of searching,” for instance).  But God said these Gentiles “found” Him without “seeking” or “asking for” Him! 

So how do you find something you’re not even looking for?  The key is the parallel phrase to “I was found,” which is “I revealed myself.”  God was “found,” then, not because the Gentiles were seeking Him but because He chose to reveal Himself!  In fact, unless God revealed Himself first, no duration or intensity of Gentile “seeking” would have ever led to God.  Why?  “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:11).  People may do a lot of seeking, but it’s not in God’s direction.  We seek the fulfillment of our own wicked desires, inevitably following the ways of the Evil One (see Eph 2:3). 

When God says, “I was found,” we are to understand those words in light of the parallel phrase “I revealed myself.”  Our knowing God depends entirely on a divinely initiated revelation of Himself to us.  Since, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17), Paul understands that God reveals Himself to Gentiles through the message of the gospel.  Knowing God depends on God revealing Himself to sinners through the proclamation of the gospel (see Rom 10:14-15).  Without God revealing Himself through the gospel, a sinner cannot know (or “find”) God. 

People don’t find God because they search for years and years and finally claim a victorious discovery.  People “find” God because (and only if) God first reveals Himself.  Perhaps Jesus’ words will best conclude our discussion: “All things have been committed to me by my Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27). 


The Glorious Truths of Romans 8:29-30 and Romans 10:14-15

Have you ever noticed the complementary truths expressed by two passages in Romans, namely, 8:29-30 and 10:14-15? 

Paul says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined…and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).  Paul asserts divine sovereignty over salvation.  God is in control of salvation from start to finish. 

Paul also says, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15).  Paul asserts human responsibility to believe the gospel message.  Preachers must proclaim the gospel so that people will hear and believe, or no one will be saved. 

There you have it, friends: divine sovereignty and human responsibility, written in the same letter by the same author about the same subject (salvation).  May we zealously uphold both truths, resting “comfortably” in the mystery of how they intersect.

Who Prepares the Vessels of Wrath and Vessels of Mercy?

In Romans 9:22-23, Paul mentions “vessels of wrath” that were “prepared for destruction” (9:22) and “vessels of mercy” that were “prepared for glory” (9:23). 

The question is: Who is the doing the “preparing”?  Is it the same person in both cases?  Or is there a different “preparer” in each case? 

Asking those questions are important, because some interpreters believe God prepares the vessels of mercy, but unbelievers prepare themselves for destruction.  The interpreter is then apparently relieved of an unwanted burden: the “burden” of viewing God as preparing a vessel for destruction.  To some, God preparing a vessel for destruction seems contrary to what is commonly believed about His love and kindness and desire for all to repent. 

The reason why two different “preparers” are often seen is due to a change in Greek voice.  In Romans 9:23, the word “prepared” is active, with God clearly the subject of the idea.  But in Romans 9:22, the word “prepared” is passive, and some believe Paul is deliberately changing tenses to avoid attributing a “preparing a vessel for destruction” act to God.

However, there are at least three contextual reasons why God must be understood as both the one who prepares vessels of mercy for glory and the one who prepares vessels of wrath for destruction.  Context must guide us. 

(1) The use of passive voice does not exclude God from being the actor in any case.  Context must have the last word.  The New Testament is full of instances when the passive voice is used as a “divine passive,” meaning that God is the implied subject.  Such is probably the case in Romans 9:22.  Simply noting a change in voice does not de facto eliminate God as the subject preparing the vessels of wrath for destruction. 

(2) The concepts of “vessels of mercy” and “vessels of wrath” parallel previous concepts in Romans 9.  For example, Romans 9:18 says, “Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills.”  Taken together, Romans 9:18 and 9:22-23 would mean, “Those on whom God has mercy are vessels of mercy prepared for glory, and those whom God hardens are vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.”  Paul is certainly not trying to hide the fact that God hardens whom he wills to harden.  There is no other competing subject in the sentence.  Only God’s sovereignty in hardening is in view.  If God does the hardening, surely God prepares a vessel of wrath for destruction. 

(3) The image of a “Potter” precedes the notions of preparing vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath.  Paul argues that the Potter has the right to do whatever he wants with a lump of clay, making some pottery for honorable purposes, and some for dishonorable purposes.  Such potter-rights parallel 9:22-23 also.  Pottery for noble purposes parallels vessels of mercy prepared for glory, and pottery for dishonorable use parallels vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.  And here is the key: there is only one potter–God!  If there were two potters, then perhaps the case could be made that God shapes vessels of mercy, but unbelievers shape themselves for destruction.  But, since there is one Potter, there is only one Vessel-Preparer as well.  The titles are synonymous. 

In light of the above reasons, it seems to go against the flow of Paul’s argument to assert that God prepares vessels of mercy, but someone else (e.g. the unbeliever) prepares vessels of wrath for destruction.  After all, Paul has already explained that God has mercy on whom he wants, and he hardens whom he wants (Rom 9:18).  In fact, it is by the act of hardening that God prepares a vessel of wrath for destruction.  God has the right to do this, for he is the potter, and the potter can do whatever he wants with the lump of clay. 

Paul’s teaching that “God prepares vessels of wrath for destruction” is not as objectionable as it may first appear.  His purpose is threefold: (1) to show his wrath (9:22), (2) to make his power known (9:22), and (3) to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy (9:23).  Therefore, God purposefully prepares vessels of wrath for destruction.  His hardening is not arbitrary or unjust.  When God hardens, he hardens sinners, and sinners do not deserve his mercy. 

Paul even cited an Old Testament example of God raising up a vessel for destruction: Pharaoh!  God told Pharaoh, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom 9:17).  God can harden (=prepare a vessel for destruction=make pottery for dishonorable use) as he wishes (Rom 9:18), for none deserve his heart-softening, eye-opening, life-changing mercy. 

So, who prepares vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy?  God.  And He prepares them with purpose: to show his power, proclaim his name, display his righteous judgment, and exalt the precious nature of his mercy.  Soli Deo Gloria!

Paul’s Answers to Two Predestination Objections

Objections to predestination are nothing new.  While writing to the Romans, Paul brought up predestination in order to demonstrate how God’s promises did not fail when not every Israelite embraced the Messiah (9:3, 6, 11).  But the classrooms of seminaries and the foyers of church buildings often reverberate with comments like, “Well predestination can’t be true because then it would mean–” and then fill in the blank. 

In Rom 9:14 and 9:19, Paul mentions what are perhaps the main objections to divine predestination.  First, “What then shall we say?  Is God unjust?” (Rom 9:14a).  This is a character issue.  For some, predestination seems to go against God’s righteous character.  The charge would be: “To choose one person for salvation and not another is unjust; and since God never does anything unjust, He would never engage in Calvinistic predestination.”  But is that Paul’s conclusion?  Let’s read the entirety of Rom 9:14: “What then shall we say?  Is God unjust?  Not at all!”  Oh, really?  Not unjust?  How is that possible?  Paul explains: “For he [God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,'” quoting Exodus 33:19. 

Therefore, Calvinistic predestination is not unjust, because God claims the freedom to give mercy to whomever He wants.  Notice what Paul did not say: “What then shall we say?  Is God unjust?  Yes, predestination violates His righteous character.”  Paul says no such thing, but he certainly could have, if he felt it was a legitimate answer.   After all, initial exposure to predestination often provokes the “how-can-that-be-within-God’s-character” question.  But the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did not believe that divine predestination calls God’s character into question.  In fact, Paul reminds his readers of God’s own declaration: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.”  Since no one deserves God’s saving mercy, it is not unjust that He does not give it to everyone. 

Paul raises and answers a second objection to predestination: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us?  For who resists his will?'” (Rom 9:19).  This raises the issue of human culpability.  In other words, how can people be held responsible as sinners when God has chosen some and not others for salvation?  This seems to also raise the classic issue of man’s will: does predestination remove the possibility of genuine decisions?  Are we not simply robots fueled and guided by divine decrees? 

I think you’ll agree: Paul certainly raised a good question.  I know I’ve asked that question myself, and others have also raised that question in predestination discussions.  But Paul’s answer might surprise you, in that he doesn’t directly answer the question–he answers the question with another question: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom 9:20).  When I used to rant about how predestination would destroy God’s basis for condemning us since our choices would no longer be real, I never realized what thin ice I was skating on!  Talking back to God seems like a formidable and dangerous activity, yet Paul accuses the questioner of 9:19 with back-talk. 

Two observations stand out in Paul’s response.  First, Paul addresses the questioner as “O man” and explains that he/she is talking back to “God.”  In other words, we need to remember who is God and who is not!  We are but man.  So are we in any position to accuse God of anything?  If predestination is true, can we legitimately charge God with any wrongdoing?  The answer is clear from the text: No, we cannot.  Second, Paul’s thoughts on the matter center on the issue of God’s rights as the Divine Potter: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (9:21).  It all boils down to whether Scripture affirms God’s right to elect whom He wants.  And Paul thinks that God has the right to do anything, and that whatever God does will never be unjust.  Who are we to ever give advice, instructions, or rebukes to the Potter?  We are the clay. 

Romans 9:14-21 affirms powerful and controversial statements about God’s election of some, but not others, to salvation.  The section affirms that divine election does not contradict God’s righteous character (9:14-18), and divine election does not prevent God from holding unbelievers responsible for their unrighteousness (9:19-21).  So during a discusson of divine election, if someone says, “It’s outside God’s character for him to predestine some to salvation,” or, “If Calvinistic predestination is true, people don’t make real choices and thus cannot be held responsible for their sins,” gently point them to Rom 9:14-21.  Paul raised those objections and then dismissed them! 

Paul affirmed God’s freedom to give mercy to whomever He wants (9:15, 18), and the apostle affirmed God’s rights as the Divine Potter to do whatever He wants with the clay (9:21).  If Paul says God has a right to do something (even if the action seems initially objectionable to us), shouldn’t the apostle’s reasoning be sufficient for us?

The Greater Weight of Glory

Paul said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” 

2 questions strike me from this verse: (1) what are the “present sufferings,” and (2) what is “the glory that will be revealed in us”? 

First, identifying the “present sufferings” is quite easy from the context.  First of all, the word for “sufferings” does not denote any particular kind of suffering, but rather suffering in general.  Later in Romans 8, Paul asks whether hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword can separate us from Christ’s love for us.  “Present sufferings” includes anything endured as a Christian in this life–spiritual, emotional, or physical trials.  Everyone suffers, in different areas and in different degrees.  The “present” nature of the sufferings is probably related to Paul’s view of God’s kingdom as an already-inaugurated-but-not-yet-consummated reality.  Though the victory of Christ impacts believers in this world, the “present age” is still one of suffering.  Christians get sick, get hurt, and die. 

Second, the “glory that will be revealed in us” has a particular location “in us.”  So whatever this future glory is, it has to do with us.  But I think the coming “glory” is identified later in Romans 8.  In 8:19-22, Paul talks about the groanings of creation itself for redemption, as creation waits for the sons of God “to be revealed” (8:19).  That is more “revealed” language.  How will the sons of God be revealed to creation?  “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).  What believers wait for is what creation is waiting for.  For, when believers are raised, the transformation of all creation follows. 

In Romans 8:17, Paul previously connected “suffering” and “glory”: “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”  The “glory” of Christ in which believers share is glorification, the transformation of our bodies and the conformance of our character to the likeness of Jesus.  Also, “Those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom 8:30c).  Our future glorification is certain.  A parallel text is Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”  Paul connects “suffering” with the “resurrection from the dead.”  Paul gladly suffers in the present, in view of the future “glory” of the bodily resurrection. 

Let’s put all this together.  Believers endure “present sufferings” in the body right now.  Physical and emotional frustrations and trials dominate the realm of “this present age.”  BUT!  There is coming a day when the effects of sin are abolished and eradicated.  At the resurrection, Christians will “share” in the “glory” of Christ when they are raised and glorified. 

In the meantime, any sufferings Christian face are worth it.  Every broken bone, every loss of vision, every amputated limb, every crippled leg, every crooked back, every deformed hand, every arthritic disease, every loss of blood, every cut, every bruise, every clotted artery, every weak heart, every failed organ…When you weigh all the “present sufferings” on a scale with the “glory that will be revealed in us” (the resurrected body), every suffering is worth it.  That’s how gloriously bright and amazingly hopeful the believer’s future is.  And that perspective gives us sufficient hope for this day’s trouble.