Awesome Mercy [Part 1]
It is not as though the word of God has failed. —Romans 9:6
Why study Romans 9? Because here we see the awesome mercy of God. The key word in all of Romans 9-11 is “mercy.” The word “mercy” never appears in chapters 1-8, and then suddenly it pops up as the key word in chapters 9-11. Who doesn’t need God’s mercy? He comforts us. But it is the mercy of God. His mercy is awesome mercy. He humbles us. Paul writes in chapter eleven, verse 18, “Do not be arrogant.” In chapter 11, verse 20, he says, “Do not become proud, but fear.” When God shows us mercy, we should not feel superior; we should feel awe, because it’s all of God. The word translated “fear” in Romans 11:20 is the same word that we find in Acts 2:43 where it says of the early church that “awe came upon every soul.” Under the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, awe came down. It’s why the Bible says, “Rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). It isn’t either/or, it’s both/and – both rejoicing and trembling awe.
Bible Belt religion fails to awaken joy, and it fails to inspire awe. Bible Belt religion miniaturizes the Lord Jesus Christ and gets us thinking, “Sure, he loves me and forgives me. That’s his job.” That false Jesus is neither satisfying nor stunning. Remember how Mr. Beaver described Aslan, the Christ-figure in The Chronicles of Narnia: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Christ is good, but he is not tame. Charles Misner, a specialist in relativity theory, wrote this about Albert Einstein:
[The design of the universe is] very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion…. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing.
You’ve come to church today because you want the real Jesus. Good. He’ll give himself to you. The key to your future is Christ in all his majesty and glory and authority. Romans 9 will show all of us more of him than we’ve ever seen before. We will rejoice, and we will tremble. And as we accept more of who he really is, he will give us more of what he can really do. Our future is the real Christ and the real us coming together in his awesome mercy, so that we find out what the untamed Lion can do for us.
How does Romans 9 take us there? Romans 9 begins with human failure – the failure of God’s people in the Old Testament to fulfill their destiny. Failure is a good place to begin. It’s realistic. The Old Testament, which Paul draws from so that we can see ourselves, is realistic. It is mostly a tragedy. God made his people a magnificent promise – that through them he would lead the nations into a new world of peace – and God’s own people blew it. The failure was not out in the world; the breakdown was in among the people of God. He wanted his blessing to flow out through them, but they themselves were not flow-through-able. They clogged and hindered the blessing of God to the world. That’s the Old Testament, and Paul is going to show us the relevance of it and the hope of it for us today. But the first two-thirds of the Bible is a story of failure so massive that God eventually withdrew his blessing from his own people.
Now, fast-forward to Romans chapter 8. Paul tells us there that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God. But wait a minute. God made promises to Israel, and it didn’t work out for them. God has made promises to us. Will it work out any better? Can we embrace the promises of God with confidence? Romans 9 pushes the question all the way. It isn’t, “Will we fail God?” but “Will God fail us?” Might there be some point at which God becomes so exasperated that he says to us, “The deal’s off”? What can we absolutely believe about God? Romans 9 answers that question. The answer is summed up in verse 6: “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” Our sins do huge damage. But our sins cannot tame this Lion, because God has a mercy as big as God himself.
We see two things in our passage for today. First, in verses 1-5, we see outward privilege. Secondly, in verses 6-12, we see inward grace. God gives both. Outward privilege is a defeatable mercy of God. But inward grace is an undefeatable, awesome mercy. We can squander our outward privileges – and suffer for it. But inward grace changes us. Inward grace makes us want God. We must understand both outward privilege and inward grace in our own lives and in our church. Paul teaches us both from the history of God’s Old Testament people. Let me explain how this works.
First, the outward privilege:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. —Romans 9:1–3
Paul is thinking like Moses. After Israel worshiped the gospel calf, Moses prayed, “If you will forgive their sin – but if not, please blot me out of your book” (Exodus 32:32). He identified with his people. He cared so deeply. That was good. But only Jesus can be our substitute. And at the cross, he was blotted out for us. Still, we admire Paul’s broken heart here. He’s going to talk about God’s ultimacy over human failure. But he isn’t glib. He feels intensely about the people involved. They persecuted him, but he still calls them his brothers. He doesn’t look at them with a burning sense of wrong but with sorrow and anguish. Some of our hearts ache over children and parents and friends who are far from Christ, especially those who once followed him. How can we enjoy the mercy of God and feel nothing about those who don’t? We don’t deserve his mercy any more than they do. It’s especially hard when the person we care about once followed Christ, like the people Paul is thinking of. Here are their outward privileges:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
Look at how God favored the Jewish people, how he surrounded them with outward privilege. He adopted them alone as his children. His glory hovered over them alone through their wilderness journey. He made covenants with them alone through Abraham and Moses and David. He gave them alone his holy law. He gave them alone the custody of the Levitical worship at the temple. And he gave them alone promises of worldwide redemption. The Bible says, “God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16). But God so loved the Jewish people in special ways.
That’s why verse 3 highlights the problem: “cut off from Christ.” How does that make sense? Is the history of the Jewish people a case of “he loves me, he loves me not”? They even have the honor of being the nation through whom God himself entered the world, according to verse 5. What if God had so arranged history that your daughter was Mary, the mother of Jesus? Wouldn’t you be proud grandparents? And yet what if most of your family turned away from Jesus? So it is with Israel – much privilege, little responsiveness. Where is the triumph of God in that? It looks like failure.
But before we follow through on that problem, there is a warning here for us. Outward privilege guarantees nothing but exposure. It doesn’t guarantee personal reality within. Outward privilege is not the same as authenticity. But it does offer opportunity. For example, you don’t become smart by being accepted to Vanderbilt and getting a full scholarship and hanging out on campus and blending in with the students. You become smart by receiving that opportunity and throwing yourself into it, engaging with it. Outward privilege makes us responsible, but it doesn’t help us automatically. You and I must enter in and give Christ our hearts – in worship, in community, in mission. He’s putting so much right here within our reach, as he did with Israel. Let’s never read the Old Testament stories of their idolatry and murmuring and politics and all the rest and think, “What morons! If I’d been there, I wouldn’t have done that.” Really? Rather than judge them for squandering their opportunity, maybe it would be better for us to bring ourselves under the judgment of God’s Word and make sure we don’t blow our chance today. It’s not hard to do. When Jesus wept over Jerusalem, remember what he said? “You did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:44). They didn’t wake up the morning of Christ’s public rejection and trial and think, “I’ll reject God today.” They didn’t even know, because they weren’t engaged with God to begin with. They did not see every day as an opportunity with God, though he had drawn near to them. They were too busy making a living. God was offering them glory, and they settled for survival – and they forfeited even that. Let’s just say, they missed the train when it pulled out of the station.
They failed God. But did God fail them? Might God fail you? Secondly, then, Paul now shows us the difference between outward privilege and inward grace:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed.
Paul isn’t saying that because, as a preacher, he’s expected to. He’s saying it because he sees through surface appearances into deeper realities. What does Paul see, as he looks at the history of God’s Old Testament people? He looks at the promises of God – he sums up those promises as “the word of God” – and he sees what God intended by his promises. We can discern success or failure only according to intentions. What did God intend by his promises?
For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh [the people of Israel with outward privilege only] who are the children of God, but the children of the promise [the people of Israel with both outward privilege and inward grace] are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” —Romans 9:6–9
Do you see God making a distinction here? Think of two concentric circles, like a doughnut. The larger circle includes the entire Jewish nation, with all their outward privileges. The smaller circle within includes the true offspring of Abraham and the true heirs of the promises. That isn’t failure. God himself arranged it that way.
We’re seeing something about God. What’s important to God is not race but grace, and his grace is a miracle. God himself enters in through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it isn’t ultimately a matter of our choice but of God’s mercy. Let’s never think we have safety for ourselves and the ones we love just because we’re in church. Church is an outward privilege. It’s a huge, God-given opportunity, and he watches how we respond to it. But inward grace comes directly from God himself. It is God alone who can set us apart to God deep within where we actually change.
How do we know God works this way? From the Old Testament itself. Paul goes back all the way to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. God promised Abraham and Sarah they’d have a child, to carry on the blessing into the next generation. But they were both old, and God was taking his time. So they decided to help God out by Abraham fathering a child through Hagar, their servant (Genesis 16). Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael. But the blessing of God does not travel along blood lines; his blessing moves selectively along a spiritual line (Galatians 3:16). That is what God promised. And he kept his word. He gave Abraham and Sarah the miracle boy Isaac, through whom the next generation was blessed. Abraham had two sons, but God chose Isaac as the child of blessing. Verse 7: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Through Isaac, not Ishmael. God blessed selectively, not automatically. God always does exactly what he intends to do. His mercy is up to him.
Paul takes it still further. Abraham’s experience of God’s selective purpose wasn’t unusual. It was typical. The same thing happened in the next generation after Abraham:
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” —Romans 9:10–12
Isaac had two sons as well – Esau and Jacob – and this time by one woman, his wife Rebekah. And before the boys were even born, before either son had a chance to qualify or to disqualify himself – I would have liked Esau, he was a hunter, and Jacob was a mama’s boy – but God said, “Your older son Esau will serve, will come under and behind, in terms of God’s blessing, your younger son Jacob.” God was saying, “I’m going to do this my way.” When Jonathan Edwards was watching the blessing of God come down in power during the First Great Awakening, he wrote this: “God proceeded in this work in a way that was exceeding cross to their pride.” God’s mercy is not influenced by our works and what we think we deserve, which is pride; God shows mercy to the one God calls. He does keep his promises, but in ways to remind us that he is God and we are not. He has everything. We have nothing. It is all of his mercy, and it’s better that way. It means that we don’t have to deserve God. It means that God gives God irrespective of what we deserve. That is awesome mercy.
How do you see your life? How do you explain yourself to yourself? Did you make yourself what you are? Or are you compelled to say, “I am what I am by the grace of God” (1 Corinthians 15:10)? Every one of us needs mercy, and God’s mercy is awesome, because we don’t control him, we depend on him. If you are in Christ today, bow low before him. It was essential that you chose Christ. But deep, deep down beneath your choice, God had already chosen you. God set you apart to himself before you were born, in order that God might be displayed in you as a God of awesome mercy.
If your heart is not humbled before him, and your only response to this clear teaching in the Bible is to raise objections – we want to satisfy your objections, of course, but if raising objections is your only response, maybe this quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones will help you this morning:
Be careful how you treat God, my friends. You may say to yourself, “I can sin against God and then, of course, I can repent and go back and find God whenever I want him.” You try it. And you will sometimes find that not only can you not find God but that you do not even want to. You will be aware of a terrible hardness in your heart. And you can do nothing about it. And then you suddenly realize that it is God punishing you in order to reveal your sinfulness and your vileness to you. And there is only one thing to do. You turn back to him and you say, “O God, do not go on dealing with me judicially, though I deserve it. Soften my heart. Melt me. I cannot do it myself.” You cast yourself utterly upon his mercy and upon his compassion.
Everyone needs God to come down and get involved in our subjectivity and open us up even to his mercy. This is not a partnership. We need God to be God to us. And he is willing. The Bible is equally clear about that. He gives himself to unworthy, uncomprehending people for the sake of Christ. Knowing that is outward privilege. Cherishing it is inward grace, and God is able to give it to you today. Will you have him? Yesterday I found an old statement on my son’s blog:
Christ is precious, as being the Redeemer of precious souls. The promises are precious, giving this precious Christ to precious souls. Faith is precious, bringing a precious soul to a precious Christ, as he is held forth in the precious promises.
Oh, take heed that you are not found overvaluing other things, and undervaluing your soul. Shall your flesh, your beast, be loved, and shall your soul be slighted? Will you clothe and pamper your body and yet take no care of your soul? This is like a man feeding his dog, and starving his child…. Oh, let not a tottering, perishing carcass have all your time and care, as if the life and salvation of your soul were not worth the while.
What makes your life worth living is deeply inward. God is able to enter into your inmost interiority and love you and save you and free you. You don’t need to have a good heart. You need a sinful heart. Jesus died for sinners, to open every door into God’s awesome mercy. Will receive his grace inwardly and decisively? Do not settle for just listening to these words outwardly! Say to God now, “You have not failed me. I have failed you. And I cannot change myself. But you can change me. Set me apart to yourself with a mercy I cannot deserve or control. Be God to me, please.”