The Letter of Paul to the Romans–6th book of the New Testament–A.D. 56-57

32. The Deepening of Christian “Theology”

We have followed Paul’s travels up to the point where, after a flurry of turbulent correspondence, he paid his final visit to Corinth, likely spending the winter of 56 there before returning to Palestine with the collection for the Jerusalem church. It is there that Paul writes to the church at Rome, to introduce himself and prepare for what he hopes will be a personal visit after his return to Jerusalem. At last the long conflict with the Corinthians is over and Paul has the leisure to write his longest and what is clearly his most theologically profound letter. Having never been to Rome, there is no occasion for many personal issues to be included. Nor did pressing problems have to be addressed as we have seen with the letters we have considered thus far. Paul’s letter to the Romans thus comes as a pure and thorough “treatise” on the Christian faith.

The last shall be first—Romans 15 and 16

The integrity and authenticity of most of Paul’s letters is not doubted except by the most skeptical of scholars. Yet textual study does uncover occasional fascinating details. We discovered in the case of the “two” Corinthian letters, there were probably actually four letters. We find a similar ambiguity with the letter to the Romans. The difficulty comes at the very end, with chapters 15 and 16. So in considering Romans, we will look at the last first.

If you were reading along and came to Romans 15:33—The God of peace be with you all. Amen—you would naturally assume that you had come to the end of the book. But you would be in for a surprise. Another whole chapter follows. And what follows is strange. Paul has never been to Rome and presumably knows few of the Christians there. Then what is this longest of all his lists of greetings doing here in chapter 16 of Romans?

Upon closer inspection…what are Priscilla and Aquila doing on this list? They didn’t live in Rome at all. They had been expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius and Paul had stayed with them for eighteen months in Corinth. After that they traveled with him to Ephesus. Paul also mentions Epenetus, a convert not in Rome but in Asia. Then he goes on to mention many others in terms of close affection as friends with whom he has obviously spent time.

Everything about chapter 16 has Ephesus written all over it. As a result, it is almost universally agreed that chapter 16 is part of, or perhaps a separate very brief letter to the church at Ephesus. The first verse about Phoebe from Cenchrea (outside Corinth) has led to the conjecture than this was the site of Paul’s writing. Whether from there or nearby Corinth, the proximity of the two locations adds yet more to the confusion about the destination of Romans 16. Of course it is possible that he wrote two letters about the same time from in and around Corinth, one to Rome and one introducing Phoebe to his friends at Ephesus.

There is a second difficulty with Romans 16. The final three verses—the closing doxology—in style and vocabulary do not fit with the writings of Paul. Most scholars believe he did not write them. It is a little like the inauthentic ending to Mark’s gospel, though obviously not so divergent in style. This three-verse doxology is a simple conclusionary statement that, to the untrained ear, sounds like something Paul might have said.

The probable solution to the riddle is this: When the first entire collections of Paul’s letters began to be assembled and copied and circulated after Paul’s death, the letter to the Romans came last. It is thought that these verses were added simply to provide a fit conclusion to the whole.

What is interesting, however, is that this little doxology appears in different places in different old manuscripts of Romans. Interestingly, most of those manuscripts place it at the end of chapter 14, where many editions of Romans ended. Some place it at the end of chapter 15, where, following after Romans 15:33, it seems to make most sense.

Why chapter 15 was not included in many ancient manuscripts is a mystery to which no scholars have been able to propose a reasonable hypothesis. None of them doubt its authenticity, and in fact it seems to follow logically and reasonably from chapter 14.

The seemingly obvious solution to this whole little conundrum is that Paul’s original letter ended at chapter 15, with Paul’s Amen. To this was added later the doxology of Romans 16:25-27. At some point Paul wrote the Ephesian portion of chapter 16 to his friends at Ephesus, which, in the gathering and collecting and assimilating process over the next three centuries, somehow became attached to the Roman letter, after which time the closing doxology was moved to the end of what then erroneously became chapter 16.

Did Paul plan out a “systematic theology”?

As we have progressed, I have myself wondering to what extent (if any) Paul planned, thought through, or even outlined what he intended to say ahead of time—not just in the case of Romans but for all his letters. Has that thought occurred to any of the rest of you? Writers are different in this regard. P.G. Wodehouse spent longer outlining than he did writing, mapping out every detail of his books in advance. I have never been able to do that. I just start writing with a germinal idea in my head, and let come what comes. All my best (at least from my perspective!) “theological” writings—whether embodied in the garb of fiction or non-fiction—have come spontaneously and without planning or foresight. Some of it I never saw coming until (literally) the words poured out onto the page as my fingers either wrote or typed them. When the internal creative “flow” is turned on and moving well, ideas simply come. I marvel every time it happens, and thank God for it.

Was it this way also for Paul? We can only wonder. Pertinent to this is the point made repeatedly by William Barclay that Paul was primarily a speaker, not a writer, and that his letters were actually penned, at his dictation, by a scribe or secretary, with Paul then adding the final authentication of his own signature. In this regard, it is interesting to recall that the gospel writer Mark was called a “scribe,” and by Paul’s comment concerning Mark in 2 Tim. 4:11 (“Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry,”) one wonders if Mark himself wrote some of Paul’s letters. This spoken feature of Paul’s letters adds a spontaneity to his words and progressions and trains of thought and digressions.

Barclay writes: “Paul did what most people did in his day…he dictated [his letters] to a secretary…We actually know the name of one of these people who did the writing for Paul. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end. In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, ‘This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me.’ (cp. Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17). This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and his sentences become involved. We must not think of Paul sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he wrote. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent of words, while his secretary raced to get them down. When Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind’s eye a vision of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help. Paul’s letters are not careful, academic products written in the seclusion of a scholar’s study; they are living, vital, torrents of words poured straight from his heart…” (The Letter to the Romans, p. xix-xx)

I find myself wondering further how much of Paul’s doctrinal foundations of the Christian faith he meant to be what we have made them. If he was speaking, as it were, off the cuff much of the time, did he intend his letters to become the theological basis of all Christian belief as they have? Yet…knowing Paul as we have come to know him, maybe he did! We certainly know that he did not take kindly to opposing views.

Doctrinal overview

If Paul was beginning to hit his stride with 1 Corinthians, he reaches the apex of his power with Romans. This is universally considered his most important work and representative of a thorough theological foundation of the Christian faith. Whereas his other letters address one or another particular aspect of it, Romans addresses the whole—beginning with a detailed analysis of Righteousness (“right” relationship to God) in chapters 1-8, to a discussion of Judaism and the Law in chapters 9-11, followed by specific and practical examples, questions, and instructions about Christian Living in chapters 12-15.

Romans is so dense and full, and has been the subject of so many studies and expositions and commentaries (I recall going through it years ago word by word, letter by letter, with Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life and, the longer three-volume version, The Spiritual Man) that perhaps the following overview will be helpful.

Paul begins by surveying the spiritual condition of all mankind. He finds Jews and Gentiles alike to be sinners and in need of salvation. That salvation has been provided by God through Jesus Christ and his redemptive work on the cross. It is a provision, however, that must be received by faith—a principle by which God has always dealt with mankind, as the example of Abraham shows. Since salvation is only the beginning of the Christian experience, Paul moves on to show how the believer is freed from sin, law and death—a provision made possible by his union with Christ in both death and resurrection and by the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Paul then shows that Israel too, though presently in a state of unbelief, has a place in God’s sovereign redemptive plan. Now she consists of only a remnant, allowing for the conversion of the Gentiles, but the time will come when “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). The letter concludes with an appeal to the readers to work out their Christian faith in practical ways, both in the church and in the world. None of Paul’s other letters states so profoundly the content of the gospel and its implications for both the present and the future. (NIV Study Bible, p. 1704)

Whether considering Romans as a cohesive document of “systematic theology” of Christianity, or taking it apart in isolated pieces, there is arguably more quotable and wonderfully insightful content here than in any other New Testament book outside the gospels. In Romans Paul establishes and articulates so many valuable points of Christian wisdom:

—That all mankind knows God through the revelation of the created universe: Chapter 1.

—The universality of sin: Chapter 3.

—The progressive work of suffering to produce character, hope, and maturity: Chapter 5.

—The ongoing internal battle between the two sides of our human nature: Chapter 7.

—God’s working all things for good: Chapter 8.

—The scriptural foundations for the enormously influential doctrine of predestination: Chapter 8.

—More than conquerors through Christ: Chapter 8.

—The living sacrifice and adjoining command not to be conformed to the world: Chapter 12.

—Spiritual gifts: Chapter 12.

—Submission to governing authorities: Chapter 13.

—The weak and the strong: Chapters 14-15.

And so much more! It is really an amazing book.

33. The Dilemma of God’s Wrath

There are problems raised by Romans too. Big problems. They are problems in which the misinterpretation of Paul’s words have caused doctrinal havoc within the Church, leading, in MacDonald’s words, to “all the horrors of a corrupt theology, so acceptable to those who love weak and beggarly hornbooks of religion.”

Such theologies, MacDonald goes on, “spring from the passion for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, not the fruit of the tree of life. Men would understand: they do not care to obey;—understand where it is impossible they should understand save by obeying. They would search into the work of the Lord instead of doing their part in it—thus making it impossible both for the Lord to go on with his work, and for themselves to become capable of seeing and understanding what he does. Instead of immediately obeying the Lord of life, the one condition upon which he can help them, and in itself the beginning of their deliverance, they set themselves to question their unenlightened intellects as to his plans for their deliverance…They delay setting their foot on the stair which alone can lead them to the house of wisdom, until they shall have determined the material and mode of its construction. For the sake of knowing, they postpone that which alone can enable them to know, and substitute…a false persuasion that they already understand. They will not accept, that is, act upon, their highest privilege, that of obeying the Son of God. It is on them that do his will, that the day dawns; to them the day-star arises in their hearts. Obedience is the soul of knowledge.” (“Salvation From Sin,” The Hope of the Gospel)

So whereas Romans has given us some of the richest treasure troves of Paul’s thought, it has also become the scriptural foundation for much mischief and doctrinal narrowness arising from what I would call a complete misinterpretation of Paul’s intended meaning.

You may have noticed that I am trying as we move along together not to venture too far into the diverse interpretive quagmires presented by every book of the Bible. I am not always as successful, and my bias and perspective and outlook and points of view cannot help showing through. Obviously you have a pretty good idea what I think about many of the issues raised by Genesis 1-3 and the Galatians controversy. I am trying to share enough out of my own thoughts and perspectives to stir the pot of your responses, and to challenge thought in perhaps some unexpected directions, but then leave you free to read the biblical texts as you see fit, and interpret their specifics as the Holy Spirit gives you light.

I have always seen my role as a writer, not to tell people what they should believe, but to help them in the process of learning how to believe. If we are thinking boldly, imaginatively, creatively, open-mindedly, humbly, intelligently, submissively, fearlessly, non-doctrinally, personally, and (to coin a term) God-is-a-good-Father-directedly, then I don’t really care if you and I disagree on speaking in tongues, evolution, who was right at Antioch, the rapture, or the authorship of certain books of the Bible. If I can help anyone think more boldly about the things of faith, then I am content…no matter what different specifics we each arrive at. As MacDonald continually emphasized, we each must go individually to the Spirit of Truth and ask for light and insight and wisdom, and to be given the mind of Christ. No individual can dictate what another ought to believe. Guidelines from one to another about how to conduct that inquiry after truth, however, can be very helpful.

Referencing the following quote from C.S. Lewis’s acknowledged “master,” I can only hope that in my writings I am generally faithful to the same principle that guided MacDonald, seeking to encourage readers not toward agreement of ideas, but toward a direction of inquiry.

“I believe that to him who obeys, and thus opens the doors of his heart to receive the eternal gift, God gives the spirit of his son, the spirit of himself, to be in him, and lead him to the understanding of all truth; that the true disciple shall thus always know what he ought to do, though not necessarily what another ought to do; that the spirit of the father and the son enlightens by teaching righteousness. I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth, to the Master himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it. I believe that the inspiration of the Almighty alone gives understanding. I believe that to be the disciple of Christ is the end of being; that to persuade men to be his disciples is the end of teaching.” (George MacDonald, “Justice,” Unspoken Sermons, Third Series)

I feel compelled, however, to diverge from my overall general objective here and to offer the following brief discussion concerning certain doctrinal ideas originating in Romans that have been extremely troublesome. So much damage, in my opinion, has been done to an accurate understanding of God’s purposes by a wrong reading of these passages that my conscience simply will not allow silence at these points. If I offend by tramping on one of your prized and closely held doctrinal beliefs, I sincerely apologize and hope this digression will not prevent your benefiting from the rest of this reading.

Three major areas surface here about which I harbor the strongest of concerns on behalf of God’s infinitely (not “limited” or partially) loving, all-embracing, and eternally forgiving Fatherhood. They are: God’s wrath, predestination and the elect, and the future of Israel.

I will not go into great detail about any of the three, but feel I must set down a few thoughts for you to consider prayerfully as you embark upon your reading of this magnificent book.

God’s wrath

In Romans 1:18, Paul writes, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Paul goes on throughout the letter to amplify upon the theme of God’s wrath. It comes up in almost half the chapters, and is mentioned more times in Romans than in any other New Testament book other than Revelation. Those for whom “the wrath of God” is a pivotal undergirding element in their doctrinal creed find most of their New Testament scriptural support right here in Romans.

Clearly, the wrath of God is a troublesome aspect of the divine revelation for most thinking Christians (in contrast to automatons who take whatever they are taught and accept it blindly). Every one of us has found ourselves in discussions about the difficult passages of the Old Testament, and has wondered, “How could a loving God order the killing of innocent people?” Most of us are able to look beyond it with, “Well, that was in ancient times, and after Jesus came everything was different.”

But how different is it? Most fundamentalist Christians still maintain basically the same image of God. And Paul here seems to give scriptural validity to the view that God’s hatred of sin is so fierce and his wrath so holy that he will punish unrepentant sinners in hell forever. It is a continuation of the Old Testament God of wrath, and Paul himself apparently endorses such a characterization. All the elements of the theology associated with this general perspective are intertwined—God’s holiness, his hatred of sin, his wrath toward sin, therefore his fierce and eternal punishment of sin. The God of Sinai remains the God of Christian fundamentalism, a little kinder and gentler perhaps around the edges, but in his essential character the same God from whom the Israelites cowered in fear. He is the same God of course. He is unchanging. The point is, however…was the Old Testament portrayal accurate?

I have but one question. It is a simple question, really. It proceeds out of my own heart. I happen to be a father. I am a sinful, weak, frail, struggling man who made more mistakes as a father than I can count, and who regrets them every day. Sinful though I am, however, I love my sons. I love them beyond their capacity to grasp even a thousandth of how much I love them. I would do anything for them that I perceived was for their ultimate good and their ultimate sonship in God. I would give my life for any one of them if that’s what it took for Christlikeness to be achieved in them. I imagine most fathers would say the same. I doubt I am so very unusual as a father. Fathers love. That’s what they do.

There have been times when one or another of my sons have disobeyed me, hurt me, “sinned against” me when they were younger. It’s part of the human predicament. Sometimes they have repented and said they were sorry. Sometimes they haven’t. Sometimes they hurt me in ways they never knew.

What intrigues me more than their words or actions is my response. How do I react? Am I filled with anger and wrath toward their sin? Is my fatherhood so offended that I “cannot coexist” with their bad attitudes? Do I want to cut them off from my face? Do I say, “Until you repent, I can have nothing more to do with you?”

Good heavens no! Exactly the opposite. Far from anger, what I feel is the desire to take them in my arms and simply to love them. They could do nothing to me that would ever make me cut them off. I have never in my life felt an ounce of wrath toward one of them. Nor did my own father ever express even a hint of wrathful word toward me when I was young. I cannot even relate personally to the word “wrath.” I have never felt such a level of utter, unmitigated rage in my life.

My question is this: As all creation reflects its Creator, if my father-heart has been born in God’s Father-heart, how did we come up with a theology about God’s response toward the sin of his children that is completely opposite to what his own creation so clearly manifests, that is so completely opposite to what I as a father—made in the image of God—feel toward the sin of my own sons.

I often speak of men’s theologies as “contorted,” as twisting logic up in so many knots to manufacture some of our doctrines (in MacDonald’s words, “torturing them” out of various passages of Scripture) that they become impossible to rationalize with reason and common sense. Even this fact, however, is covered by the doctrine—for it is said that God’s ways aren’t supposed to make sense, thus justifying the most inverted of perversions with the claim that it is precisely because they don’t make sense to the “mind of man” (of necessity a carnal mind), that they must actually be true.

We are here presented with a perfect example.

I say, “God has created me in his image. I am his child. My limited human fatherhood is born in his infinite Fatherhood. I am able to love a little because he loves much. I am a poor reflection of him, but I am nevertheless a reflection of him. Therefore, my love for my sons mirrors to an infinitesimal degree his vast love for his children. That my response to the sin of my sons is love and forgiveness (to the small extent I am capable of) must indicate something far greater about God’s infinite love and forgiveness.”

Were I to present the above train of thought to one steeped in the Calvinist doctrine of holiness and wrath, I can already anticipate the response.

“Ah, but you are thinking with the mind of man. Man cannot understand God and his ways. Scripture says that God’s ways are higher than man’s ways, and that the ways of God are foolishness to man. It is only because you are finite and sinful that you love your sons without wrath. It is because God is perfect in love that he is also perfect in holiness and thus also perfect in wrath. Your sin is the foundation of what you only call love. But you don’t really love them with God’s love. God’s holiness is the foundation of a purity so pure that it hates sin more than you, being sinful, can possibly imagine. You don’t hate sinfulness enough, because you are sinful. Because he is holy, wrath is God’s only possible response to sin.”

Figure it out if you can:

What I call love is really a product of my sin. Because I am sinful, I am willing to forgive. My sin makes me unable to hate enough.

God’s anger is really love. Because he is holy, he has to be wrathful toward sin. He is perfect and pure, therefore he is able to hate sin enough and must therefore punish it to all eternity.

And they call their upside-down reasonings truth. What can one say in reply? It’s nonsensical double-talk.

A related question that flows out of it is: Who says that holiness cannot coexist, as the doctrine of God’s wrath has it, with sin? Where did that doctrine come from? What is it about holiness and sin that cannot coexist?

I am utterly baffled by the illogic of this doctrine.

I might take a piece of virgin white cloth, clean and never used, and, if I chose, throw it into a mud puddle. Nothing prohibits the perfect and the spoiled, the right and the wrong, black and white, from “coexisting.” Nothing in the nature of the universe prohibits clean and unclean, perfect and imperfect, being in the same room together. Moreover, we have the very example of Jesus before us, whom Paul calls the perfect image of God himself, coexisting with sin and eating with drunkards and prostitutes. Yet we never pause to reflect upon what this clear fact says about the ridiculous doctrine of God’s holiness not being able to coexist with sin.

What my father’s heart wants to do in the presence of the sin of my sons is run straight to them and embrace them and love the sin out of them! That is not always possible because usually the sin itself prevents an opening. But such is what dwells in my heart. The prohibition to intimacy lies not in my heart but in the barrier put up by the sin. And if I perceive an opening, I rush toward it even if there has been no repentance. I have done so numerous times. I am bound by no legalism that says I am prevented expressing my love and forgiveness until there has been repentance. I will forgive, I do forgive, even prior to repentance. My forgiveness is not conditional. It is full and complete whether there is repentance or not. In my heart is all love, nothing but love, ready, waiting, anxious to rush in the instant a crack of light presents itself. The image, expressing so perfectly what I have felt, comes from MacDonald: “For the spirit of God lies all about the spirit of man like a mighty sea, ready to rush in at the smallest chink in the walls that shut him out from his own.” (Robert Falconer)

Yet the “holiness doctrine” says that God is prevented feeling such toward his creatures, or, if he feels it, is prevented from acting upon it. In other words perfect purity and holiness have boundaries placed around them.

Where did such contorted ideas about God come from when we have Jesus before us, teaching us just the opposite? God loves, says the doctrine, but the purity of his holiness prevents his pouring out that love upon sinners.

Huh! Why? What is there in the intrinsic nature of pure holiness that would prevent love toward sinners until certain processes are gone through that are said to set the sin aside?

If we were paying attention, what the “holiness doctrine” of God’s wrath tells us is that here is a doctrine preserved and propped up and defended by those, ignoring what Jesus said, who desire to keep the Father infinitely removed from man…preserving his wrath intact…likewise preserving the doctrine of hell intact…preserving the eternal separation between the saved and the lost…thus preserving their quiet self-righteous assurance that they are themselves of God’s special, chosen elect.

I am convinced that the “holiness doctrine” of God’s wrath, exactly like the doctrine of predestination, is rooted and grounded in spiritual self-righteousness. Once admit that God truly loves everyone, and is truly the Father of all creation, and loves saints and sinners alike, then the basis for feeling that some are more specially chosen than others evaporates…and with it all basis for spiritual pride.

Thus, to keep spiritual pride intact, the doctrine is clung to almost viciously and against reason and against the clear intent of the gospel, and is willingly believed by those who want to feel that there is indeed a hierarchy in humanity…and they are of the upper echelons of it.

I don’t intend to try to analyze all the ins and outs of what “God’s wrath” means beyond this, or analyze these passages in Romans to the nth degree. Having spoken my conviction and released my conscience concerning the abominable things that are said of Jesus’ Father, it is now time for me to back away and allow you to seek the Holy Spirit’s truth on your own. I do not ask anyone to agree with me, only that you give fair and open-minded hearing to one who has pondered on and prayed about and studied these things for some years.

I would simply put before us all that as we read, that perhaps we should hold God’s character up to the mirror of our own hearts and ask whether it is possible for him to be less loving and less eternally forgiving than we. Surely he must be infinitely more loving and forgiving. If we, in our sinfulness, are able to look beyond our own “wrath,” such creatures as we are, to see that our anger toward sin (real though it is, and even necessary as it is) will always fade in the glorious sunlight of redemption when love between father and child is restored. How much more must this progression apply in the case of God’s infinite Father-heart!

God does feel anger toward sin. There is a wrath of God. God is holy and pure. Indeed, he hates sin. There will be an accounting. There will be chastising and purifying punishment in the fires of hell. Neither hell nor its eternal purpose are imaginary. I should not be supposed to say that hell will not contain all the horrors we imagine, and more. Nor should I be supposed to say that the “wrath of God” is not all Paul says it is, or that it will not achieve it’s appointed eternal purpose. We have to discover how these attributes of God’s nature fit with his infinite love, and what role they play in his eternal Abba-purposes for the redemption of his universe.

Let us seek to discover what Paul really meant. Let us read of God’s wrath by placing in its proper perspective, not defining God’s character by it with a misplaced “holiness,” but recognizing it as but one element in a complex, progressive, eternally loving response which will result in the extirpation of sin from the universe.

34. The Controversy of A Predestined Elect

In Romans 8:29-30, Paul writes, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Other than in Ephesians 1, this is the only use of “predestine” in the New Testament. Thus Romans, as is the case of “God’s wrath,” serves as the foundation for the doctrine of predestination upon which, in large measure, Calvinism is based. Serving as supporting references, there are also several related allusions to “the elect” and those whom “God has chosen,” bolstering the notion that, through “no merit of their own” (a keystone of the doctrine) God chooses some for salvation, and not others.

Like so many of the ideas we have grown accustomed to over the years, we become anesthetized to the horrid implications of such a thing. It is a monstrous doctrine. The very thought of it should make us shudder. What it would say of God, if true, should be enough to make no one in his or her right mind want to worship such a being. Thank God, the Father of Jesus Christ cannot be a god like so many Calvinists through the years have portrayed him. I won’t speak for Calvin himself. Frankly I have no idea whether he believed God capable of such capriciously discriminatory basis for salvation or not. From all I can tell from my limited reading, I have the feeling that some of Calvin’s ideas were as badly misconstrued as many of Paul’s. I am certain Paul did not believe in a predestining “Calvinist” God. It is possible that John Calvin didn’t either.

Here too, let us seek to discover what Paul really meant.

Most are familiar with Calvinism’s well known acrostic T-U-L-I-P. “Predestination” as such does not appear in the Calvinist creed, but a brief review of the second two of the five elements shows that an exclusionary system of theocratic hierarchy (spiritualized and justified under the guise of God’s “sovereignty”) undergirds the whole system that will, by its very nature, appeal to the self-righteous spirit. It gives rise to what Francis Schaeffer called the “two exclusive humanities” view of the world—one lost, one saved.

Unconditional Election. God has chosen certain individuals for salvation (the “elect”) before the foundation of the world. His choice is based solely on his own purpose and desire. The word “predestination” is used to describe this election of some for salvation. God’s predestining of some to be saved and others to be lost is influenced by nothing whatever in man—not by goodness or disposition to believe or even upon God’s foreknowledge that one individual will come to believe and another will not. It is based solely upon his own good pleasure.

Limited Atonement. The death of Jesus Christ was intended from the beginning to effect the salvation of the predestined elect, and only that elect.  Jesus died for the elect alone. Also called “particular redemption,” this doctrine stands in opposition to the Arminian view that salvation is possible for all, but that the particular redemption of no one is certain. Arminianism holds that “free will” in responding to Christ’s atoning death is the sole determining factor in who will and who will not be saved, and that all men have equal opportunity to participate in that atonement and that salvation. In strict Calvinism, all men do not have such equal opportunity.

In the face of such blasphemy against the Father of Jesus Christ, I don’t even know what to say. The thing is so self-evidently false that there are no words strong enough to refute it. The very idea of God’s love being “limited” lies beyond my capacity to respond. Yet those who want to believe it, that their pride in their imagined status as of the elect may be preserved, will believe it. Refutation is thus pointless. We will each follow the inclinations of our hearts, and will believe of God what we want to believe of him, even if for some it means believing a lie.

How terribly, then, have the theologians misrepresented God…Nearly all of them represent him as a great King on a grand throne, thinking how grand he is, and making it the business of his being and the end of his universe to keep up his glory, wielding the bolts of a Jupiter against them that take his name in vain….Brothers, have you found our king? There he is, kissing little children and saying they are like God. There he is at table with the head of a fisherman lying on his bosom, and somewhat heavy at heart that even he, the beloved disciple, cannot yet understand him well. The simplest peasant who loves his children and his sheep were—no, not a truer, for the other is false, but—a true type of our God beside that monstrosity of a monarch. (George MacDonald, “The Child in the Midst,” Unspoken Sermons, First Series)

What offends me most highly is the altogether preposterous notion that predestining some to be forever lost and to suffer in hell to all eternity somehow originates in God’s “good pleasure” that it be so. To quote George MacDonald: Very God forbid!

The Calvinistic theologic system as a whole is deviously clever. Under the great umbrella of God’s infinite Sovereignty—so right, so scriptural, so spiritual—over all the universe, over mankind, and over every individual, it masquerades as being founded in God’s greatness and man’s fallen and sinful lowliness. It seems to have God and man perfectly positioned in relationship with one another. God is sovereign, man is utterly dependent upon him. Perfectly true…every word. Under the system, man seems to be properly related to God in utter humility, submission, and gratitude. Again, it is perfectly true that our only proper response to God lies in humility, submission, and gratitude. This is what makes the system so appealing—it contains great truth. But herein also lies its invisibly devious component: For reasons that continually puzzle me, the Calvinist system as a whole thrives most effectively in the spiritual soil of self-righteousness.

At its lowest, Calvinism believes: We are right on the doctrines. We possess the truth. No other perspective of scriptural interpretation and Christian discipleship understands truth so fully. We possess the only complete revelation of the life of Christ. Our Catechism interprets and explains every belief according to Scripture.

Calvinism has no questions to ask, it harbors no uncertainties. Ask anything, the answer and scriptural proof-texts will be forthcoming. Calvinism knows all.

By its absolute assurance at every point of Christian doctrine and thought, Calvinism actually breeds spiritual vanity and conceit with staggering effectiveness, and these qualities are passed on generation after generation. By its very nature, Calvinism requires the very antithesis of meekness. Paying doctrinal heed to man’s humility toward God, personal humility is the last of the virtues it attempts to inculcate in its adherents. Possessing so much of the truth, the Calvinist system is thus also the chief repository of spiritual pride in the church. Calvinism is thus also one of the chief obstructions to the growth of unity among God’s people, which unity will be the most significant hallmark of the revelation of God’s true Church in preparation for the Lord’s return.

George MacDonald writes of this theologic system in connection with young Robert Falconer:

For now arose within him, not without ultimate good, the evil phantasms of a theology which would explain all God’s doings by low conceptions, low I mean for humanity even, of right, and law, and justice, then only taking refuge in the fact of the incapacity of the human understanding when its own inventions are impugned as undivine. In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. Hence, as foundations must be laid in the deepest, the system is founded in hell, and the first article in the creed that Robert Falconer learned was, ‘I believe in hell.’ Practically, I mean, it was so; else how should it be that as often as a thought of religious duty arose in his mind, it appeared in the form of escaping hell, of fleeing from the wrath to come?…And he must believe, too, that God was just, awfully just, punishing with fearful pains those who did not go through a certain process of mind which it was utterly impossible they should go through without a help which he would give to some, and withhold from others, the reason of the difference not being such, to say the least of it, as to come within the reach of the persons concerned. And this God they said was love. It was logically absurd, of course, yet, thank God, they did say that God was love; and many of them succeeded in believing it, too, and in ordering their ways as if the first article of their creed had been ‘I believe in God’…Still the former article was the one they brought chiefly to bear upon their children. This mortar, probably they thought, threw the shell straighter than any of the other field-pieces of the church-militant…No one dreamed of saying…that, while nobody can do without the help of the Father any more than a new-born babe could of itself live and grow to a man, yet that in the giving of that help the very fatherhood of the Father finds its one gladsome labour; that for that the Lord came; for that the world was made; for that we were born into it; for that God lives and loves like the most loving man or woman on earth, only infinitely more, and in other ways and kinds besides, which we cannot understand; and that therefore to be a man is the soul of eternal jubilation. (Robert Falconer, chapter 12)

Let us seek to discover again what Paul really meant. It just may be that many of the conundrums raised in the letter to the Romans are answered by the “mystery” of the gospel, which Paul refers to a number of times in his letters—which is the glorious mystery that in the end God predestines all to enter into the salvation of the chosen, both those who came first and those who came later, both those first sons and those who were later grafted in, both old Israel and new Israel. But I only speculate. For now, much indeed does remain a mystery.

35. The Debate Over the Future of Israel

In Romans 11:26, Paul writes, “all Israel will be saved.”

The preoccupation of modern evangelicalism with the ultimate salvation of the modern, temporal, political nation of Israel represents one of the truly curious dichotomies in all Christendom. Emerging out of predestination, the fact of God’s having “chosen” the Old Testament nation of Israel, in the minds of many qualifies it also under the new covenant for universal inclusion in salvation. Though in all other respects in the New Testament, salvation is entirely individual and personal, in this one instance, those of this view interpret salvation on an en masse national basis. Paul’s words in Romans 11, of course, read superficially, seem to lend support to such a view.

But only when they are read one-dimensionally. Digging beyond the surface, however, such a simplistic interpretation just won’t do.

We are clearly and repeatedly told in Scripture that the old covenant passed away to give rise to the new. ( 2 Cor. 5:17). You can’t have it both ways. Those who would read Paul’s words here as implying that the entire physical nation of Israel will ultimately be saved on the basis of its “old covenantal” relationship with God are trying to mix the old wineskins with the new. If the new has come, the old is passed away. Period.

It is here in Romans that Paul makes abundantly clear what he means and what he does not mean by “Israel.” In Romans 9: 6, 8, he writes: For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel…It is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.

The persistent clinging to the salvation of the physical temporal nation of Israel, ignoring Paul’s own words in Romans 9, has led to enormous misunderstandings and entire end-times theologies built on sand that continue to sidetrack evangelicalism from God’s true purposes for his people in the days ahead.

Therefore, what does Paul mean by “all Israel”?

It seems to me that there are three legitimate ways to interpret Romans 11:26:

—Paul was simply mistaken. If he is referring to the physical, temporal “nation” of Israel, in the same way that he was mistaken about Jesus returning in the first century, he was also mistaken in thinking that all Israel would embrace Christianity.

—In speaking of “Israel,” Paul was not referring to a physical, temporal old covenantal Israel that can be located on a map at all. He was speaking of new Israel—the Church. This is why he calls it a “mystery.” If by “Israel” Paul means all those who have been “saved” by the new covenant in Christ, then obviously “all Israel” will be saved.

—Finally, Paul may be hinting at the truth, the “mystery” of the gospel, of universal salvation. He is much more pointed in his view that all men will one day come to repentance in Philippians. But here he calls it a “mystery,” which it still remains. If this is what he is hinting at, obviously, then, if all men will ultimately one day repent, and bow the knee at the name of Jesus and confess him as Lord (Philippians 2:10-11), obviously that will include Israel. Thus, all Israel, along with everyone else, will be saved.

This final possibility does have perhaps the soundest scriptural basis of all three. In the Greek text, the implication is that God will bring in all the nations of the world (in other words, all people), following which he will also bring in all Israel. If you consider the entire passage, there appears to be the effect of a therefore between the two cause-and-effect clauses. Because he will bring in the whole world, all Israel, too, will be saved. These nuances, of course, are lost in most translations. The Concordant Literal New Testament captures it, however, with the translation: And thus all Israel shall be saved. The “And thus” links Israel’s salvation as emerging out of what has come before—the salvation of “the nations.”

The Greek literally reads: until the fullness of the nations comes in, and so all israel will be saved.

Let us once again seek to discover what Paul really meant. Perhaps there exist other possible interpretations you know of. But as I read this verse, all I see is that Paul means either that all temporal (old) Israel will be saved, all spiritual (new) Israel will be saved, or that all mankind (Israel included) will be saved.

36. The Apostle Paul—A Man of His Time

The foundation of Christian theology is not Romans

Not only with respect to the above three doctrines, but in the matter of the entire theology of fundamentalist Christianity which is extracted out of Romans, what I find concerning is the extent to which Paul’s ideas have become, not one man’s view of the gospel, or one particular explanatory commentary on the gospel, but have become themselves the gospel of the Christian faith.

It is easy to mistake my perspective about Paul and his ideas. But with MacDonald I must continue to insist in the strongest language, whatever misunderstandings and criticisms come my way, that the writings of Paul, do not represent the theological foundations of our Christian belief. All of Scripture may be inspired, but when Paul wrote those words to Timothy he was not referring to his own letters. All parts of the Bible are not of equal importance, and Paul’s letters do not rise to the first rank. Only the words and teachings of Jesus can be considered inviolate and foundational.

I take great exception to the fact that in the Church, more analysis and commentary and study has been devoted to Romans and Paul’s letters than to the Sermon on the Mount. The true gospel has been relegated to secondary status behind a “systematic theology” derived out of Paul’s spontaneous, free-flowing letters, far in excess of his intent or God’s.

Paul is not to blame. Those who have made Romans “the gospel” rather than the red letters of Jesus in their Bibles are to blame. I was once such a one, with my Romans and my Watchman Nee far more underlined and marked up and annotated than my Matthew 5-7. I speak as one who has been there, who has succumbed to this lethal obsession with Pauline doctrine and who now recognizes the misdirected focus of such an outlook. With all I have written in this paragraph, I firmly believe that Paul himself (especially now!) would agree wholeheartedly.

I reemphasize this point in such strong terms because it is so vitally imperative. As we read Romans, we must read it properly—as a historic document addressing difficult and confusing questions facing the Christians of the first century as they tried to place the new Christian faith into a perspective vis-à-vis the Jewish faith out of which it (and many of them) had emerged. It is important in that sense. But it is not a replacement document for the real gospel. That essential gospel will come in the next book we will read together—Matthew. Romans and all the rest of the letters are mere supplements. I use the word “mere” intentionally. They are lesser documents, and can only be read properly when seen in this subordinate role.

If the question was put to a vote to Christian “theologians” worldwide (it is of course a ridiculous thing to imagine, but sometimes such alternatives help us focus priorities) whether to omit Romans from the New Testament, or the three chapters of Matthew 5-7, what do you suppose the outcome would be? Fortunately we do not have to make such a choice. But the mere fact that the vote would probably be close may indicate a great deal about the state of Christian “theology” through the centuries. Calvinist and fundamentalist theologians, in particular, would be loath to relegate Romans 8:29 to a subordinate position behind John 12:32. Indeed, much within Calvinist (and Catholic…and Pentecostal…and Anglican…and Presbyterian…etc.) theology does ignore very clear gospel perspectives and places weightier import upon certain isolated passages of Acts and the epistles than words of the red letters which should overshadow them.

People often ask us what is so unique about George MacDonald. Some think that we tend to put him on too high a pedestal. Explaining why we revere so highly his perspectives of God’s nature and his insights into God’s practical purposes and work among men is always difficult to one who has not actually read MacDonald for themselves. It is impossible to grasp the clarity of MacDonald Spirit-inspired vision of God’s purposes and work until the clarity of that vision begins to get inside you for yourself. It cannot be “explained,” that vision has to be felt and experienced.

But something of MacDonald’s uniquely Christ-focused vision of Father-life may be communicated by stating that he is not of the theologic bent to mistake the doctrine of Paul, or any other “doctrine” as being more than it is. MacDonald’s vision and purpose is always crystal clear. He knows exactly where the Christian life is founded, upon what it is based, and out of what truth it is lived. He never wavers. He never wanders from the bull’s-eye of what is the Christ-life that we are commanded, and that is our privilege to live.

MacDonald understands what is the true, what is the only, gospel. That gospel he preaches boldly and without compromise.

All the many doctrinal and theologic points in Romans that have so consumed theologians and writers and preachers through the years…they just weren’t that interesting to MacDonald. He based but two of his published “unspoken sermons” on texts from Romans, and a mere four more on the entire rest of Paul’s New Testament corpus. Paul’s “theology” was simply not central for MacDonald. He saw the writings of Paul in perspective. He knew that his own faith was established elsewhere.

Statistics do not always tell a story in full. But they often shed light in ways that help us see things we might not otherwise see.

There are a total of 1,188 chapters in the Bible (without the Apocryphal books). It is a meaningless number since chapter and verse notations are completely artificial anyway. Nevertheless, it gives us a useful measuring guide.

Of those 1,188 chapters (928 OT, 260 NT), if we were to throw open such a question for discussion…upon the content of how many of those chapters might we suppose various theologies or mini-theologies have been founded? Certainly nearly every chapter of every one of Paul’s letters would be included, many of the chapters of the book of Acts, certainly most of Revelation, and of course much of the Old Testament as well. Mini-theologies and doctrines have sprung up literally from hundreds upon hundreds of passages from Scripture.

Yet when we analyze the didactic, non-fiction, teaching writings of George MacDonald—a man who knew the entire Bible intimately, who read the New Testament in its original Greek, who could have written and preached on any or all of it—we discover a positively astonishing fact. Of his 48 published teachings, or “sermons,” and with this vast scriptural array of 1,188 chapters before him, he touches but lightly on the entirety of Paul’s writings and takes his text most often from a single chapter out of the entire Bible.

One chapter out of 1,188 is MacDonald’s constant foundation stone. He does not waver. Over forty years of writing, to this one chapter he always returned. The fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

Of MacDonald’s 48 published sermons, 37 focus on the gospels (a fourth of these from the Sermon on the Mount)…a mere 6 on Paul’s letters. George MacDonald, as I say, understood where the true gospel was to be found. (He has also written a volume of studies on the miracles. These, too, are entirely based on the gospels, emphasizing the point of MacDonald’s priority yet the more strongly.)

The point here isn’t to extol MacDonald (though neither do I shrink from doing so), but to remind us of a priority too easily lost sight of amid the swirling doctrinal sea of Christendom which constantly tries to overwhelm us with tangential ideas that are not central to our faith.

There is only one gospel. It was not written by Paul.

Toward a realistic view of Paul and his thought—A man and doctrine for the times

Paul, then, as I continue to stress, has to be viewed in perspective. He was a man of the times, of the first century. Likewise, his ideas, the doctrines he developed, his “theology,” as it were, these also were ideas, doctrines, and theologies that helped first century Christians grapple with what had come upon them (and the world) like a whirlwind. But they are perhaps not so universally and eternally transcendent as ideas and doctrines as to be worthy of the status of unchanging infallibility that the church has accorded them. They represent a snapshot of a Church in its infancy. They do not tell the whole story. As towering a document as it is, even Romans does not tell the whole story. Romans, too, is but a momentary snapshot of an ongoing and developing theology of what it means to be a Christian that—dare I say it!—will progress in time even beyond Paul’s first century incunabular perspectives.

As I emphasized in the Introduction to Leviticus, God’s revelation is a developing and evolving and expanding one. That is not merely true in antiquity, it is true of first century Christian thought as well. The ideas of the first century (including Paul’s, including his writings in Romans) are ideas that exist along a progressively expanding continuum of revelation. They are not static ideas. God is always on the move. Truth expands. Revelation deepens.

Paul was a product of his times, a Jew and a Roman. His theology is Jewish and Roman. In spite of his protestations about no longer being under bondage to the Law, his theology is doctrinal, often legalistic, and at times not perfectly in sync with the spirit of Christ portrayed in the gospels. We have to see Paul, as well as his theology, as “works in progress.” We are works in progress too. Our ideas and viewpoints (and my thoughts as I share them with you) are all works in progress. God’s revelation continued after Paul, and it will continue after us.

For all these reasons, I consider George MacDonald’s sermon “Justice” to represent a major expansion on the revelation of what the work of the cross truly means, another chapter on that continuum following Romans. Whereas some read MacDonald’s elucidation of the atonement in “Justice” and other of MacDonald’s controversial ideas as in conflict with certain portions of Scripture (not taking into account how much of Paul’s writing at the time was also contrary to Scripture), I read these as wonderful new revelations of the Holy Spirit to amplify on what Paul (by his own admission) saw through a glass darkly. (MacDonald’s sermon on the doctrine of “adoption,” which we will encounter in Romans 8, is also of note. It is entitled “Abba, Father.”)

Nor are George MacDonald’s many insights the final word on truth either. He too was a product of his times, as am I, as are all of us. Humility about human insight and wisdom is the only proper standing ground for the discovery of truth.

We have much to think about as we embark on Romans. Let us be in prayer that the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth, the mind of Christ, will be the clarifier of all controversies, the revealer of all insights, and the source of all wisdom.