Directing Our Prayers to God

Directing Our Prayers to God

by Bob Burridge ©2012
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 100)
(Watch the Video)

Prayer in one form or another is part of nearly every religion. We are all created with a need to communicate with God. The problem is our fallen nature. Sin confuses things and prayer is no exception.

Some become enemies of prayer. They admit to no need for it. In trying to push God out of their conscience they would ban it from every public place if they could. They are not content to refuse to pray on their own, they do not want to see others doing it either.

Some confuse prayer by treating it as if it was little more than a magical incantation. They imagine that the speaking of certain words have a power of their own to make things happen the way they want.

Some think of prayer as a way to advise God about what they believe is really best. They think that if they could just get God to listen to their advice, things will work out better than if God decided on his own what was best.

Some pray to God just to get what they want. To them it’s like making a wish list. People register for wedding and shower gifts at their favorite stores and websites, so they figure that prayer works about the same way. They think of God as a business that dispenses blessings when ever they are applied for, as long as we ask in just the right way.

There are also those who approach God casually as if he was their equal, or someone who owes them a favor. However, that’s not at all what prayer is about. We need to know what God says it is, and how it should be done.

Jesus gave us a model to teach us the right way to pray.

In Matthew 6:9 Jesus introduced his model prayer by saying, “In this manner, therefore, pray: …” A good accurate translation of the first part of verse 9 is, “Therefore you should pray this way:” The Greek words are houtos oun proseuchesthe humeis (Οὕτως οὖν προσεύχεσθε ὑμεῖς·) .

The “therefore” [oun (οὖν)] builds upon the warnings against hypocrisy in the section just before this. Prayer is not a way to display piety, to impress people, or to draw attention to yourself. It’s a humble way to really communicate to God. It therefore needs to honor and please the one you are addressing in your prayer.

Here in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives us an example to teach us how to pray. We usually call it The Lord’s Prayer. The first part tells us about the one to whom we direct our prayers.

We come to God as “our Father”

The Bible tells us that God is not everybody’s Father in the same way. As Creator, all creatures owe their existence to him as their Father in the limited sense of giving them existence and life. Even those who are his most determined enemies, live and are cared for by his provisions. All our abilities and opportunities are his gifts. He sustains all of nature by upholding what we call natural laws. In this very limited sense God is the Father of all creation. It is this that all the more condemns the lost who fail to give him the glory for all they have.

There is yet another way he is the Father of some but not of others. He is specially the Father of his spiritually adopted children. Out of the unworthy human race, God chose some to be his spiritual family. He did not choose them because they were better in any way. They were chosen by grace alone. God promised by covenant to pay for their sins, and to adopt them as his own children. Throughout the Bible God is specially called the Father of his covenant people.

To Israel Moses said in Deuteronomy 32:6 “… Is He not your Father, who bought you? …” The prophet in Isaiah 63:16 cried out on behalf of Israel, “… You, O Lord, are our Father; …” In Isaiah 64:8 it was said, “But now, O Lord, You are our Father; …”

Paul wrote to the church in Romans 8:15 “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ ” And here in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray to God as our Father.

God is not the Father of all people in that special way. The sin of Adam and our own sins alienate us from God. Only those redeemed by the death of Jesus are adopted into his family. He did not pay the debt for all, but for only some chosen by grace. If you trust in Jesus alone for your salvation, and you are truly sorry for your sins, it is not your doing. There is no reason for pride. Your faith and conviction should make you humbly thankful for a blessing you could never deserve.

This is one of the most denied, most disliked, yet most clear messages of the Bible. In Ephesians 1:3-5 Paul explained it this way, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will,”

Jesus had a very different message than what the Pharisees believed about their relationship with God as their Father. In John 8:44 he told them, “You are of your father the devil, …”

In First John 3:1 it says, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.”

God’s special redeeming love is not universal according to the Bible. The Universalists reject the Bible because they are not able to accept that fact. They teach that all humans are God’s children in that special way. They deny that man is separated from God by sin. Their idea of the “Brotherhood of Men and the Fatherhood of God” appeals to the lost heart. The problem is, it’s simply not true. It’s like telling a seriously ill patient that he’s not really sick. He might like to hear that kind of news, but if it makes him ignore treatment the results are tragic. Jesus said in John 14:6, “… No one comes to the Father except through me.”

It is understandable that those still blinded by sin would prefer what is not true. This is exactly how Paul explained it in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, “And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie,” In the first chapter of Romans he said that they, “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” … and “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”

God’s people have a wonderful promise in calling God their Father. He is the perfect father no human could ever be. Even the best of human parents are imperfect. They could always learn to love and to care for their children with more patience, compassion, and skill. When human parents try to control all that happens to their children, it only leads to their own frustration, and to their children’s exasperation. But as God’s children we pray to a Father who cares for us perfectly. He knows what is really best for us, and he has the power to see that it happens. When he allows things into our lives that are painful or that we don’t understand, it’s not because he overlooked something or that he doesn’t love us. We must remember that we don’t yet understand how it all fits into his loving plan. In our uncertainties, we can still rest in his perfect love and power. God never fails us. He gave us life, redeems us, and provides peace, comfort and hope for his children. So we come to him with a deep sense of humble gratitude. We honor him and stand in awe of him.

This does not mean that all our prayers have to begin with the words “Our Father.” This is a model prayer. Jesus is not just giving us words to be repeated. It’s the meaning that’s important. There are many prayers in the Bible that do not begin that way. For example, in Acts 1:24 the prayer begins with “You, O Lord …”. In Acts 4:24 the people prayed, “Lord, you are God …”

The first Christians were students of the Bible. Their prayers usually follow the patterns in the Psalms. They understood that they were God’s children by grace through Christ, so they thought of God as their Father in that special sense. Sometimes Biblical prayers are directed to Jesus Christ as God the Son, our Mediator. In Revelation 22:20 John’s brief closing prayer is “Come, Lord Jesus!” The Holy Spirit is not the usual object of direct prayer. Mediating with God’s children is primarily the Son’s work. The Holy Spirit ministers as sent to us by the Father and the Son.

All our prayers are to be directed to God only. It is a horrible sin to pray to angels, or to or through dead humans, even specially saintly ones. Angels are spirit beings who may carry out the Father’s instructions, but they do not follow our instructions, and they never act on their own. No direct appeal to angels is ever approved in Scripture. Biblically, it is a serious sin against God and a violation of the First Commandment to pray to or through any created being, be they humans or angels.

When we pray to our Father we
understand that he is “… in heaven …”

The most literal reading is “… the one who is in the heavens” ho en tois ouranois (ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·)

The children’s catechism wisely tells us that “God is everywhere”. In 1 Kings 8:27 it says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” That means that God cannot be located in just one particular place. We call this his Ubiquity – “God is everywhere.”

He is never in one place more than he is in any other place. He is altogether completely everywhere. We call this God’s Immensity – “God fills all space”. Jeremiah 23:24 says, ” ‘Can anyone hide himself in secret places, so I shall not see him?’ says the Lord; ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the Lord.”

God is also what we call Omnipresent – “He is there in everyplace personally all the time.” Psalm 139:7-10 describes this amazing quality of God, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me.”

No one can escape the presence of God. That means that his children can never become lost from him. When we pray, he is right there by our side. When we are not praying, his is still completely there, even when we are not thinking about him, even when we do things that offend him.

Children might fool their parents for awhile by hiding stashes of junk food from them, or by keeping certain misbehaviors a secret. But nothing can be hidden from God our Heavenly Father. He not only sees, he is there. With modern technology people are so worried that “Big Brother is watching,” when they should be more aware that our Heavenly Father is watching, and always has been!

So then, if God is everywhere, why direct our prayers to God “in heaven”?

Thinking of heaven as a physical place is not very helpful. It cannot be located on star charts, or with coordinates in light years from some fixed spot in the universe. People point upwards as if heaven was above them. If someone in Australia is pointing up at the same time as someone in New York City, he’s pointing out into space in nearly the opposite direction. At noon you point up toward the sun. At midnight pointing up is away from the sun.

One of the early Russian Cosmonauts said he didn’t see God or heaven in space. That did not trouble real Christians because for us heaven is not a castle floating above the clouds.

There is good Scriptural evidence that heaven is best thought of as existing in a dimension other than what we perceive in our three dimensional world of space. Mathematical multidimensional models are common today in our attempts to understand the motion of objects in the universe our God created. Heaven may not be physical in the way we experience locations and places, but it is very real, as are the angels and God who have no physical bodies.

So why pray to God “in heaven” if he is everywhere? Heaven is where God specially shows his glory and majesty. When the Bible said that God is in his Temple, it meant that he showed his glory and majesty there, not that he was more there than in other places. When it says that God is with his people in worship, it means he specially shows himself there as their Redeemer and Lord. We do not mean that he exists more in worship than any place else. Similarly he is not in heaven more than his is in every other place in his creation.

When we pray to “our Father in heaven” we focus on his majesty and glory.

Your attitude and thoughts when
praying to God are very important.

Prayer should never be done without a sincere and solemn awareness that you are speaking to the one who made all things, rules all things, and who loved you so much though you were unworthy that he made you his own dear child. When you pray, remember that he made everything you enjoy, have, and hope for. Keep in mind that he provided a costly substitute for your sins in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Think of the wonders of his sovereign majesty and holy glory.

These high thoughts should drive you to constant and confident prayer, the pouring out of your heart to your Heavenly Father.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 100: What doth the preface of the Lord’s Prayer teach us?

Answer: The preface of the Lord’s Prayer, which is, Our Father which art in heaven, teacheth us to draw near to God with all holy reverence and confidence, as children to a father, able and ready to help us; and that we should pray with and for others.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

An Unexpected Deliverance

Lesson 39: Romans 10:12-17

An Unexpected Deliverance

by Bob Burridge ©2011

The way things really are may not be the way we expect them to be. Sometimes our strong but wrong expectations make the reality rather unwelcome.

For example, people have always watched the stars move across the night sky slowly toward the west making a complete trip across the sky every night. The next night each star rises about 4 minutes earlier than it did the night before. By the time a year has gone by, the stars movements would have completely cycled around to the same positions in the sky they had the year before.

Even in the most ancient of times people noticed the way the moon seems to move around the earth once a month. They saw five other lights in the sky that seemed to wander around us on unique paths. They called them planets, which means “wanderers”.

To explain it all, including such things as eclipses, became confusing. The problem was that they had it all worked out in the wrong way. They assumed that the earth was stationary,and that all the objects in the sky revolved around the earth. The stars were imagined as imbedded on a large celestial sphere which wrapped around everything else. The moon, sun, and planets were each thought to be attached to clear crystalline spheres within that outer celestial shell. They assumed that each layer rotated around the earth, each a little larger than the one it surrounded.

The movements of the planets were not fitting that model so to make the system work they came to believe that the planets were rotating on clear disks around points on the rotating spheres. That still didn’t solve the problem so more circles had to be added. Still some observations just could not be made to fit. The scheme became very complex and hard to handle. By 1538, just a short time after the Reformation, the system required 79 interconnected spheres.

The wrong starting point produced a complex system that was very impressive and somewhat convincing. There was only one problem — it was not the way things really were.

When the answer came it was most unexpected and unwelcome. Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus found evidence that the sun was at the center of the system. It was the earth and the 5 planets that moved around the sun. Very soon after that Kepler added the idea that the planets orbited in ellipses, not perfect circles.

Many like Tycho Brahe rejected the idea on philosophical grounds. They insisted that it could not be true. Brahe thought that the Bible itself demanded that everything revolved around the earth. Of course the Bible teaches no such thing. The truth was not liked at all. The Copernican idea was condemned as heretical foolishness.

However, once the basic structure was settled, the measurements started to fit much better. Without all the spheres and circles orbiting points on other circles with off-set centers, things were much simpler. In time even the skeptics had to admit that the unwanted truth was unavoidable.

Of course we are still measuring the light from stars and distant galaxies trying to answer many remaining questions. But we are making better progress now that we have the right foundation.

The most important issue of all has also been commonly misunderstood. There is that question that concerns those who come under conviction of sin, “How can I be forgiven and become accepted by God forever?”

Our fallen nature will not see or admit the problem as it really is. Therefore wrong answers are assumed. Spiritually dead souls imagine all sorts of abilities they don’t have, and imagine rules that don’t exist. Even God’s word is distorted to protect an assumed scheme of things.

People often assume that, “God loves everybody and could never punish anyone eternally.” Some say, “We are all really good deep inside, we are all God’s children.” Some propose that, “if we live a good charitable life God would have to bless us.” So they adopt mystical religions, impressive rituals, self-denying lists of taboos, and think of all the good things they have done that should impress God.

Since they build their ideas upon a wrong foundation, things cannot fit together well. If we are all good deep inside, how can we explain why so many violent crimes are committed? Why do people tend to lie so easily and ignore responsibilities? How can they justify punishing certain actions and behaviors while still trying to respect all views as right? Supposedly rehabilitated criminals are set free only to commit more crimes. Morals tend to evaporate away as cultures progress from their beginnings leaving a seething pool of raging humanity. Abortions of humans are championed as a right to be protected while they make laws protecting unborn sea turtles. To cope with frustrations they cannot explain people turn to drugs, suicide, multiple marriages, unrestrained and unsafe sexual habits, alcohol-abuse, over-eating, gossip, addiction to TV and computer games, and many more conscience blinding activities to avoid facing reality.

God’s answer comes unexpectedly to the fallen human heart. The truth had been confused from the beginning. The prophets were hated and persecuted when they declared what the Creator revealed to them. When Jesus was born fulfilling the prophesies, the Jews stumbled at it because it did not fit their scheme of things, and the Gentiles hated it because it did not fit with their philosophy either.

But there it was — the great promise was fulfilled in a suffering Messiah. Fallen humans, both Jews and Gentiles, expected a formula for earning blessings and rewards, but God sent Jesus to die in his people’s place to give undeserved life to all he called to believe in him.

Today it is no different. The secularists imagine that no Savior is needed. Religionists imagine that the Savior did not finish the job, so they hope in altar calls, emotional decisions, mystical rituals, and good deeds.

The deliverance God provided was unexpected
both in Scope and Method

Romans 10:12-13, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For ‘whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.’ “

God’s work of salvation was unexpectedly large in its scope. The Jewish teachers in Paul’s time expected a Messiah to bless them specially because they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had become proud and bigoted in their customs and heritage. They were sure that salvation required everybody to first convert to Judaism. They imagined a revolutionary Messiah who would overthrow Rome, humiliate the Gentiles, and give the Jews advantages over them. To make that idea fit the words of Scripture, the Rabbis had completely re-interpreted Moses and the Prophets. As Jesus said in Matthew 22:29 “Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

In Christ the difference between Jew and Gentile was being done away. The truth of the gospel brings salvation to all believers without distinction. There are no more national privileges in the Gospel. There is only one Lord, no other God, no other Sovereign by which anyone is saved.

Many Jews were highly offended at the challenge being made by the Christians against the distorted view they had of their special standing. When God began to bring in Gentiles without first requiring them to become Jews, it was too much for the Rabbis and their blinded followers. It stirred hatred and persecutions to save a system that was unraveling in the light of truth.

God’s work of salvation was also unexpected in its method. The abounding riches promised by God were to be for all those who called upon Him. This had always been God’s plan. The symbolic rites of Judaism were to teach what was to come. They were never a means of salvation.

The quote here came from the Old Testament in Joel 2:32, “And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved. …” Joel was announcing the judgment of the Lord upon unbelief, and the salvation of his true people.

The same verse was quoted by Peter at Pentecost as a clear reference to the Messiah’s Coming. Peter also gave the context that shows that Joel was writing about the era of the New Testament. Joel 2:28-29, “And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; …”

Calling upon the name of the Lord as it is mentioned in these verses is equivalent with identifying ourselves with his work of redeeming his people. It is an exercise of a true saving faith. It is not just calling out with specific words. It is an expression of heart-trust, asking for deliverance and expecting it to come as God promised it would. That is what it means to be a believer, one who calls out to the Lord trusting in his promise.

Paul used the same quote in 1 Corinthians 1:2, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:”

There Paul substituted the name of Jesus for the word Jehovah in Joel. This calling out is a humbling confession that drives a person to the one true Deliverer.

Salvation is neither inherited nor earned as the Jews imagined. It came by what we call “vicarious atonement”. Atonement is the work of Jesus on the cross. There he removed the offense by paying the debt of sin for his people. It is vicarious because he does it in the sinner’s place as their representative.

Faith is the means God uses in applying our salvation. He implants confidence in the heart which then trusts in the true way of salvation as it is learned.

The Gospel was unexpected in both its scope and method. The free offer of the gospel to all nations had always been God’s promise. The Jewish leaders and teachers were wicked to have rejected what had been so plainly revealed. Therefore, Israel as a covenant nation was without excuse.

This unexpected deliverance
employed very ordinary means.

Romans 10:14-15, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!’ “

These obvious logical steps which God ordained involved his people in the process. If you call trustingly upon the Lord, you must first believe the truth of his gospel message. If you trust in him, you must first have heard about him. In order to hear the gospel, someone must have presented it to you. If you have been presented with it, some “proclaimer” must have been sent by God to deliver that message. That is how God planned that his work of redemption would be carried out.

The Greek word for “preacher” is the participle kaerus-sontos (κηρυσσοντος). It means one who “announces, tells, proclaims, publishes, makes something known”. This is not just the formal preaching that ordained ministers do. It includes that, but more broadly it is a promise to all those who tell the gospel truth to others. It includes those who translate and publish Bibles or write books, those who teach it in the worship services and Sunday Schools, those who take it to foreign countries and help establish new churches. It is also the work of us all as we talk with our children, friends, and co-workers. Every faithful believer becomes a link in this important chain.

The sending spoken of here is not only the commissioning and supporting of missionaries. This may be included, but unlike its common use in missions conferences, there is nothing in this verse that justifies limiting it to that one special application. God sends us all to bring his truth to others who have not yet understood it. By that proclaimed word, God gives people understanding, implants faith in them, and moves them to call out to Jesus showing the reality of the faith he put into their hearts. We who are sent on this mission by our Redeemer must obey, even though there will sometimes be strong opposition.

This was Israel’s job to declare the truth of God’s salvation to everyone, but she disobeyed, became arrogant and isolated. When the day came to expand to the Gentiles, the corrupted Rabbis became persecutors of those doing what they should have been doing all along.

When we explain the gospel truth to others, we speak with God’s authority because we are telling his words. Jesus said in Luke 10:16 “He who hears you hears Me, he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”

This is a wonderful duty to which God calls his people. Isaiah 52:7 says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings glad tidings of good things, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ ”

Isaiah was speaking of those bringing news of release from captivity to Israel. That event represented the future coming of the promised Messiah to set his people free from sin. Those who were the enemies of God will be humbled by the undeniable power of the King of kings. The promise of deliverance, embraced or not, will be laid out before the whole world. A close reading of Isaiah showed that this included the extending of the truth about deliverance to the Gentiles too. Isaiah 52:10 says, “The LORD has made bare His holy arm In the eyes of all the nations; And all the ends of the earth shall see The salvation of our God.” This is how Paul uses the verse here.

Joy ought to be attached to bringing of the gospel message. The Jews who were angered by it, and found no joy in taking the truth to the Gentiles, showed that they were aliens from the true spiritual nation of God. Their feet were not on the mountains. They were propped up before them in selfish comfort.

As we take the gospel to those who are not already believers, we should never fear how they might treat us or what they will think of us. There will be those who oppose us whatever we do. It is far better to be the enemy of those who hate God, than to join his enemies and contribute to the confusion and silencing of the gospel.

Though God’s deliverance was not what they expected,
it was not a new idea.

Romans 10:16-17, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘LORD, who has believed our report?’ So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”

God had foretold not only the bringing in of the Gentiles, but also the apostasy of Israel. When the Messiah came in the way he did, it was to most of the Jews an unbelievable series of events. They had so confused the message with their expectations that it seemed unacceptable.

Isaiah 53 foretold the coming of a Suffering Messiah. That is the chapter from which Paul was quoting here, “Who has believed our report?…” (Isaiah 53:1). Literally it means, “who would have believed the thing reported?” Isaiah was speaking of the unexpectedness of the Suffering Messiah which is described by the prophet in the verses that followed.

To the Jews it was a stumbling block. They assumed that salvation would have to be earned by keeping the law, by doing good works. They wanted a Messiah who would destroy Rome, and set up the Jews on an earthly throne. They wanted the Gentiles to be looked down upon as an inferior race of people. The truth was not what they expected or wanted to hear.

Like those who rejected the ideas of Copernicus, the truth about the Messiah was not appealing. It went against what they assumed was true. It meant that we humans are not as innocent or as powerful as it seems. The false ideas of of the fallen mind do not quite fit the reality we see around us, but in that spiritually blinded estate, the lies seem more appealing.

The gospel exposes what humans really need, but deny. It dashes the idea that someone could be redeemed by earning it through their efforts and choices. It shows that God is rightfully the judge of all who remain in their sins. It puts us all on the same level: Jew and Gentile alike, rich and poor, intelligent and slow of mind. This is a difficult message until the heart is changed by the inward work of the Holy Spirit.

So God sends us out as his people to tell the good news, even to those who do not see it as good. We are duty bound to bring it to as many as we can. It is not our duty to make them believe. It is our duty to tell them the facts as clearly as we can. It is our duty to pray for the Spirit to gather in all God calls to himself by grace.

God gives us a simple message, one that confounds expectations, but transforms the soul.

What is your mission field? It is where God puts you every day. It is made up of the people around you who are confused about the truth, those who cry out for answers but have a wrong system into which to fit everything.

How will you tell the message to those people? You can bring it up in your daily conversations with others as a caring friend. You can invite someone to coffee, lunch, or dinner where you can help them understand what it is like to trust in God’s promises.

When you have the opportunity, tell them the truth, not just what they want to hear. Speak humbly as one who knows he is as equally fallen in Adam as they are. Explain how salvation is promised by God himself, to all who call upon the true Christ in true faith.

It is by such simple obedience that Christ builds his kingdom. The right growth of a church is not found in attracting people to fancy architecture or entertaining programs. It is not found in social activities designed to appeal to every unique category in society. As helpful as these things may be, the real work of Kingdom growth is the gathering of each one who believes into a loving family in the Lord. There we each do our best to help one another. We should speak out when we can to spread the message about this wonderful truth.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

A Plan for Prayer

A Plan for Prayer

by Bob Burridge ©2012
(watch the video)
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 98-99)

Have you ever heard someone say, “One of these days I really need to get organized”? You might hear that after a long search for a recipe in the kitchen, for a tool in the garage, or for lost phone numbers and addresses. Sometimes it’s when homework or projects pile up, or the to-do-list gets to where it could be bound into a book. It might even be when closets are so full you have to post warning signs about falling objects for the unwary who dare to open the doors too fast. We know that the only answer is to get organized with a plan to handle things better as they come along.

Planning sessions are absolutely necessary for our military and for a successful business. War is never something we want to rush into without careful organization and planning. Companies that make things but never plan how to market them end up with serious storage problems and bills that can’t be paid. Even our vacation trips have to be planned so we don’t end up running out of gasoline in some desolate area with no motels, stores, or gas stations.

We need practical planning for our spiritual lives too. God tells us what we ought to be doing to grow in Christ and as a spiritual family. The means of his grace become neglected if there’s no plan for using them. Prayer gets postponed or completely neglected if it isn’t figured into our busy schedules. Bibles tend to remain unread if there is no plan to read and study them. We tend to be late for worship or not show up at all, if preparations wait until the last minute. If we respond to people’s needs without thinking ahead we might offend those we want to help. If we live in the world without a thought for our duties as God’s people, we will probably effect it very little for the Kingdom of Christ. We become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.

If the means of God’s grace are approached casually or in a disorderly manner they won’t benefit us or anyone else touched by our lives. When we have no plans, we generally accomplish little for our Lord’s glory.

Westminster Shorter Catechism questions 98-99 introduce us to the Lord’s Prayer. To make prayer an effective tool in our spiritual lives we need to follow the principles given to us in God’s word as we put together a good plan.

Question 98 asks, “What is prayer?” The answer is, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”

Prayer is vitally important for every Christian.

Prayer is needed for our growth and for our effective participation in God’s kingdom. The prayerful Christian is quite a contrast to the insecurities and anxieties of the world around us. In Philippians 4:6 the Apostle Paul writes, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;”

Our prayers are not made to change God’s plan. When we pray we are engaged in that plan. God uses the prayers of his children as he moves in grace and judgment. He uses them to help the needy and to comfort the grieving. By our prayers God holds back the flood of evil, and enables us to do our work skillfully. He uses our prayers to strengthen our children and other loved ones, and to give us peace even in the midst of our tensions and anxieties.

It is amazing that a duty so important and so useful for God’s people requires such simple and ordinary skills. The simplest believer with no special experience or training, even one who doesn’t communicate well, can be extremely helpful to the church by simple diligence, fervency, and sincerity in calling out to God on behalf of his spiritual family.

We have this assurance in James 5:16, “… The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Dr. Martin-Lloyd Jones has said, “Man is at his greatest and highest when upon his knees he comes face to face with God.”

Prayer is that means given to us from our loving and sovereign God by which we grow in grace, and participate in the daily unfolding of Divine providence, and in the work of redemptive grace.

It helps to have a regular plan for when to pray.

When we get busy, things without a set time on our daily agenda usually get overlooked or forgotten. We schedule time for our favorite TV shows, regular shopping for groceries, plan to be free for important football or basketball games, make sure we stop work when it’s time for lunch, or when it’s time to go home at night. Yet the same people often never put things God commands on their schedules.

If something is not placed on our calendar or schedule, it usually doesn’t happen. Of course we should pray during the day whenever the desire or need arises in our hearts. However, it should also take place regularly as God’s word shows us by its many examples.

It’s good to begin and end each day with prayer. There are many biblical references to regular morning prayer. Among them are some classic passages.

King David wrote In Psalm 5:1-3, “Give ear to my words, O LORD, Consider my meditation. Give heed to the voice of my cry, My King and my God, For to You I will pray. My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.”

In Psalm 88:13, Haman the Ezrahite wrote, “But to You I have cried out, O LORD, And in the morning my prayer comes before You.”

There are also examples of God’s people praying in the evening as the day ends. Jesus and others in Scripture show us that it is proper and right to pray before we receive meals, or when we leave our homes to go to conduct business or to travel. Certainly we should pray throughout every day, as we think about God’s blessings, or as needs come to our attention.

The Bible reminds us of the importance of prayer as we read or study God’s word. Psalm 119:18 is a helpful guide as we open the Scriptures, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”

It is important to pray as we prepare for worship, particularly as we ready ourselves to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Paul warns us to examine ourselves before we come to partake of that Sacrament. In 1 Corinthians 11:28 he wrote, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Psalm 139 shows us that this examination begins with prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”

Set these regular times of prayer on your daily schedule. Be aware of your need to pray as God brings needs and blessings to mind.

We keep records and files of our important business transactions, of good recipes or collections. It is reasonable to do the same with our prayers. Keep a list. Pray from it daily. Review it often and praise God when you see him at work and requests are completed. When you set aside times for prayer let nothing interfere with those times.

It’s good to have a plan for what to say when you pray.

Question 99 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?”
Answer: “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.”

The model prayer Jesus gave us in Matthew 6:9-13 is a valuable guide. The remaining questions of the Shorter Catechism are about each of the parts of that prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s name would be treated with the highest respect, that his kingship would be displayed in a greater way, that what he reveals as right would be done, that our daily needs will be provided, that we will be forgiven and kept from temptation and evil. We should praise God as Lord of his kingdom, the all-powerful God, as the one to whom glory is due forever.

In John 14:13 we are reminded that our prayers should be offered in the name of Christ, “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

This does not mean just adding the words “in Christ’s name” to our prayers. It means that we pray as those who trust in what Jesus Christ is, and who are resting their eternal hope upon all that he has done and promised to us. We pray as those clothed in his righteousness, not our own. Everyone resting in the work of Christ prays with that foundation, spoken or not. In fact, while it is a good practice to add those words, few New Testament prayers actually use those words. Yet all New Testament prayers are made through Christ. That is what it means.

Prayer must be made for only those things that are pleasing to God. The Apostle John explains in 1 John 5:14-15, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”

Prayers for things God has not promised or approved have no foundation for confidence. This is why prayer must be informed by God’s word, and consistent with what it says is good. It should never be to get our personal wishes or ways. James 4:3 warns, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”

If we pray according to God’s revealed will (for things that fit within his promises and which promote his glory) then our prayers will be answered. This is what we do when we pray in the name of Christ. We pray as those united with him by God’s grace, and who therefore love and desire his ways. So in John 14:14 Jesus could say, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”

So our regular prayers should begin with God’s wonder. Praise him for his glory, his promises, and the blessings he gives. Then consider your need by repenting of your sins and failure to honor him as he deserves. Return again to praise God for your salvation in Christ. That he died in your place, forgives your sins, and enables you in your battle to become more like him in thought, word and deed. Then bring your needs to him; for yourself, your family, friends, church, those you work with, and for the world and its leaders. Learn from God’s word how to pray from the examples and teachings God has preserved for us there.

Put the plan into practice.

It is even good to pray about praying. Ask God to help you do it better.

Once your plan for prayer is worked out, make a copy of the plan and put it where you can see it, where it can remind you about it. You might put it in your daily planner, post the plan on your refrigerator door, or on a bulletin board where you keep your jobs listed. However you remember things, put your prayer plan there.

Encourage one another to pray. Bring it up with your family and friends in conversations. Remember to be kind, supportive, and tactful if someone keeps forgetting to pray. The goal is to help one another improve, not to catch each other doing something wrong. Paul warns us in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Prayer is a great responsibility and a wonderful privilege. If we expect to grow in Christ, we need the nourishment of all the means of grace. Prayer is one of those means. It is vitally important. If prayer is neglected, your whole spiritual life will suffer. We should not expect to grow spiritually without it.

Like a good meal that keeps your body healthy, your spirit grows healthy when you pray regularly. This is God’s promise to his children.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

Misdirected Zeal

Lesson 38: Romans 10:1-11

Misdirected Zeal

by Bob Burridge ©2011

People often take their religion very seriously. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a matter of eternity, and of their whole purpose in life.

People sometimes get excited about football games. They shout, jump around, paint their faces, or wear rubber cheese wedges on their heads. So we certainly should expect that some would have great zeal about issues of the soul.

A football game lasts just a short time and its over. Even a winning season is only for one year. But our eternal relationship with God is neither seasonal nor renegotiated now and then. A sports fan might feel a sense of deep loyalty to a school, or city, or to the team itself. How much more should be our fervent loyalty to our Creator! Some type of religious zeal is expected in all redeemed humans.

Of course not every football fan paints his face, wears strange hats, or waves a giant foam finger that says “We are number one”. People show their zeal in different ways according to their personalities. Religious zeal is that way too. Not all believers will express themselves in the same way, or be able to engage in the same types of service to our Redeemer. But in every true believer there is a zeal for Christ implanted into his heart by grace.

Not all religious zeal is good. James speaks of true Christianity as the “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27) This obviously stands in contrast with what Paul denounces as “self-imposed religion” (Colossians 2:23). Zeal for false religion both dishonors God and hurts those drawn along by irresponsible leaders.

In chapter 10 Paul continues the ideas he had just explained in Romans 9. The Jews had confused the outward form of God’s covenant with the reality it represented. Israel was chosen as God’s special covenant people to represent his election of some to salvation. However, they had come to think of themselves as better than the rest of the world. They looked down upon the Gentiles as less worthy. Some of them were behind the killing of the Messiah because he did not bring a message that specially exalted them as they expected.

God had not chosen the Israelites because of their special worth to begin with. He chose them who were unworthy so that he could demonstrate his attributes of undeserved mercy and grace. The Jews mistook God’s grace as if it was an earned reward. They imagined that their own efforts in keeping God’s law actually saved them. They thought that keeping the law sufficiently was still possible for fallen humans. She also thought that Israel was specially privileged eternally. Neither of these beliefs are consistent with what is revealed in Scripture.

Paul again makes his deep
concern for Israel very clear.

Romans 10:1, Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.

Paul was concerned about the Jews who were the outward representatives of God’s covenant. Theirs was a very special and important relationship. Tragically, their rebellion was confusing what God was demonstrating by choosing them. Paul warned them about the divine judgment from which they needed to be saved. He did not cater to their “felt needs” to win them over. He did not use focus groups to find out what they wanted to hear.
He boldly told them the dramatic truth about what God was about to do.
First, the Jews would no longer be outwardly blessed above all other nations. Second, God was about to redeem Gentiles into his church as equals in the Covenant Kingdom. By this it would be shown that effort and birthright are not the causes of redemption. It was a hard lesson, but a needed one.

Paul commended their zeal.

Romans 10:2, For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.

Though zeal can be a good thing, it doesn’t excuse the error their zeal was promoting. He already had made it clear that they needed to be saved. Zeal for the wrong things, no matter how sincere, is not a virtue. The value of zeal is in its object, not in its words, or actions. If God’s truth and glory are our goals, then our zeal in promoting those things is wonderful. But if the goal is something that obscures God’s truth or misdirects his glory then it is evil.

Many of the Jews at that time lived zealously by strict rules and rabbinic traditions. They fervently defended their religious heritage. They sometimes even gave their lives for the cause. But they were zealous for things contrary to what God had revealed as true and good.

Some tried to become righteous by
a way God said could never succeed.

Romans 10:3, For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.

Their zealous belief that effort could remove their guilt was a terrible error. We are righteous when we are innocent with respect to all that God’s holiness demands. As far back as those early days in Eden God made it clear that fallen man needed to have his righteousness provided by God. The same was proven throughout history to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and to Paul himself. Israel was missing that important point. She was seeking to establish her own righteousness by works, deeds, efforts, and an arrogant sense of privilege. This error produced human pride and bigotry. It redirected toward mere creatures, the glory due only to their Creator. In their blind self importance, they rejected and killed the Messiah himself. This was the final just cause that ended Israel’s place as the special Covenant People of God. It was time for what they prefigured to take place in the unfolding of history.

Jesus Christ is the center of the whole issue.

Romans 10:4, For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

But how is it that Christ is the “end of the law”? Did Jesus annul the law which God had given for all the ages past? Did he cancel the moral principles summarized in the 10 Commandments? Did he mean that now sin is not defined by God’s law anymore? Absolutely not!

Such an interpretation is contrary to the actual wording of this verse, and is absolutely impossible. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”

The word for “to fulfill” is plaerisai (πληρωσαι). It means to bring something to its full measure. Jesus brought the law to the fullness of what it was meant to be all along. He did not abolish it by fulfilling it (as some say to excuse us from the law). Jesus was making a contrast — instead of abolishing or destroying, he was fulfilling.

Here in Romans 10:4 the word translated “end” is telos (τελος). It means the end product of something, the goal to which something aims.

Jesus brought the law to its fullness by his life and death. He lived to keep the law in our place so that we can be counted as righteous in him. He died to satisfy the demands of the law in our place. He redeems individuals to enable them understand his moral principles, to love the attitudes and actions that please their Creator, and to humbly strive by Christ’s power to keep his moral principles to the greatest extent possible.

He did not do away with what the law says is moral and good. The moral law shows what God defines as good. Certainly that eternal standard never changes. It is what marks out those redeemed as having been made holy. We are called to “be holy even as the Lord our God is Holy”.

The ceremonial laws of Old Israel showed that our sin deserves death. Certainly that is still true. The symbolic sacrifices of the Old Testament ceremonies foreshadowed Christ’s death. Once the final sacrifice for his people was completed on the Cross, the symbolic sacrifices would be out of place. However, what was required by divine justice remained. The sinner must die (Romans 6:23), or a perfect Redeemer must die in his place. The only way this justice could be satisfied is by a redeemer who was also the infinite God, the one who was offended. It must be a righteousness provided by God.

So, how then is Jesus the end of the law? Peter uses the same word to describe what Jesus did regarding our faith. 1 Peter 1:9, “… receiving the end of your faith — the salvation of your souls.”

The word “end” is sometime translated here as “outcome”. It is the same word translated as “end” in Romans 10:4 [telos (τελος)] with regard to the law. Certainly Jesus did not abolish faith, destroy it, or put an end to it. He brought faith to its complete goal in our lives, just as he did with the law. He provides our ability to do what faith leads up to, to reach its goal, to produce its fruit. In the same way, what Christ provides in us is that toward which the law aims us.

On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) There Jesus used the same word again, telos (τελος). The verb form used there is tetelestai (τετελεσται) which carries the force of something “brought to its end, completed.” He accomplished, consummated, perfected the work he came to do. He did not annul or destroy all he had done. He brought it to its full end.

Jesus came to satisfy the demands of the law for his people, and to enable them to begin to live in a way that truly pleases God within the bounds of his moral principles revealed in the law. His children are only able to live those transformed lives by the Savior’s power at work in them.

That is why it says that Christ is the end of the law “for righteousness.” By the completed work of Jesus we are declared innocent of what God’s holiness forbids. The law shows us how much we need a Savior. It drives us to him in humble repentance. As Paul wrote in Galatians 3:24, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”

The law never had the power to remove guilt, or to produce obedience and holiness. Only Jesus could do that. So he brought the law to its goal, to its intended end, by making his people righteous. The whole point of the work of Christ was to make righteousness in us a reality. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul wrote, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Then in Philippians 3:8-9 he wrote, “… that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

Paul tells us directly here that Jesus does not produce this righteousness in everyone. He came to secure it only in those who believe.

If left to keeping the law,
we would have no hope.

Romans 10:5, For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.”

The Lord said through Moses in Leviticus 18:5, “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”

Certainly, if it was possible for any man to keep the law as God demanded, he would live. He would enjoy life in its fullest both now and forever in God’s holy presence. But Moses also showed that such living is impossible after the fall of Adam. Our attempts reveal our sin and inability. They ought to drive us in repentance before God to plead for his mercy. This is why the sacrifices were needed. They pointed ahead to Christ. The law serves the purpose of exposing our lostness as our efforts fail, and it points us to Christ who alone is our righteousness.

Even one single sin would justly condemn a person forever. As Paul said in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” In Galatians 3:10 Paul again quotes the Old Testament saying, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ ”

The Jews had ignored the part of God’s word about their inability, and about the unmerited mercies of God. They had turned the sacrifices into acts of merit, instead of confessions of need. They imagined that by zealously living by law they could make themselves right with God. The fallacy of their error is that it is the exact opposite of what God tells us in Scripture. They were striving for what was unattainable. In that zeal they offended God, and harmed themselves.

There is a way by which
we can become righteous.

Romans 10:6-10, But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ” ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

Paul bases these comments on another part of the writings of Moses. He uses the language of Deuteronomy 30 to show that our efforts are neither necessary nor helpful. They are not the cause of God’s mercies.

From Deuteronomy 30:12 he asks “Who will ascend into heaven?” Then Paul applies it to the fetching of the Messiah to come down to redeem us. Obviously he is demonstrating that no one needs to do this. No one would be able to do it.

Then he alludes to Deuteronomy 30:13 when he asks, “Who will descend into the abyss?” Again, applying this to fetching Christ, this time to bring him back from the dead. Once more it is obvious that this is impossible and unnecessary since it has been accomplished. It was not done by humans zealously securing for themselves what was needed. It was done by the grace of God alone through the provision of our Redeemer. Nothing remains for us to add, even if we could.

The righteousness which is based upon faith has a very different message. Paul then quotes from the next verse in that section of Deuteronomy 30. Verse 14 says, “But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”

The salvation which is impossible for fallen man to seek and to obtain is already with us. It is the word of the Gospel which the Christians were spreading, the word of faith. Right after Paul wrote that the wages of sin is death, he added … “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23b)

No effort on our part is needed to move the hand of God. In fact such efforts deny grace which is the heart of the gospel itself. It is the hand of God that moves us. It is his work alone that redeems the unworthy completely apart from their own efforts.

The gospel is clearly imbedded in the law. It is the whole purpose of the law. The Good News is that God has done everything needed to redeem his people. He also infallibly brings about the change in each heart that brings his people to him through the work of Christ as Redeemer.

Romans 10:9 promises salvation to the person who confesses with his mouth the Lordship of Jesus. The word “confess” means to “agree with God about something”, “to admit that it is true.” The redeemed are those who admit that Jesus is Sovereign Lord over all. In him is all authority on heaven and on earth.

But confession that is of the mouth only is meaningless. So this statement is coupled with the next evidence of God’s work in us. We must believe in our hearts that Jesus was raised up from the dead as a work of God. The confession must reflect honest belief and trust. Jesus said in Matthew 12:34 “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

To say “I believe”, then to live as if what you professed is not really trusted, is offensive to God. It is nothing less than blatant hypocrisy. John Calvin explained that true belief is “… not a mere naked notion of the head.” Those who dare to confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ should seek to stand firmly upon that conviction even in uncomfortable situations, through persecutions, and in the midst of temptations.

The resurrection of Jesus was not in the primary act that redeemed us or pays for our sins. That was accomplished in full by our Savior’s suffering and death on the cross. The resurrection was the ultimate and comprehensive evidence that death, sin’s penalty, had been beaten. It showed that the dominion of sin and its curse from Eden was overcome. Rightly believing in the resurrection of Christ summarizes that the rest of the gospel is believed as well.

God’s promise cannot fail.

Romans 10:11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Believers, will not be disappointed or put to shame. Paul is referencing the verse he used at the end of chapter 9. Isaiah 28:16, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; Whoever believes will not act hastily.”

There is a reason why Paul said believers will not be put to shame (or disappointed), while Isaiah says believers will not act hastily.

The word for “hastily” used by Isaiah is khush (חוש). It means to act quickly, to be hasty, or to be excited. The idea is that the one trusting in God’s promises will not hurry away as if fleeing in shame or disgrace. There will be no panicked retreat since they trust in God’s faithfulness.

When the Hebrew text of Isaiah was translated into Greek a couple hundred years before the New Testament was written, the word khush in Isaiah 9:16 was translated by the Greek word kataischuno (καταισχυνω), which means to be disappointed, or to be put to shame. That is why Paul used that Greek word in Romans 9:11.

The connection isn’t as obscure as it might seem at first. In God’s covenant in Deuteronomy 28 God warned Israel of all the curses he would pour out on them in the time when they would rebel against him. In verse 37 he warned particularly, “And you shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword among all nations where the LORD will drive you.”

When Israel is finally rejected and the curses fall, the unbelieving nations will mock her saying, “where is her God?” The apostate Jewish nation will flee in shame. This is where the ideas of “shame” and “moving in haste” come together. Those who put their trust in God’s true promise in Christ will not have to be ashamed or flee in haste like those who receive God’s judgments. Shame follows apostasy. All those who by faith embrace Christ as their only true hope, will not be disappointed, or ashamed. They will be blessed and comforted by God in the judgment.

This is great news!
It is comforting and assuring.

Our salvation is not teetering upon our own ability to bring it about. Never be drawn away by the zeal of those who promote a different gospel than the one Paul has described here. Salvation is a free gift of God completely paid for by the work of Jesus Christ. There is nothing left undone that you must do to earn it. You cannot keep God’s law as a way to be made right with God. You cannot earn forgiveness simply by saying a right prayer or by making a personal decision. Those are good things to do. But the good you do is done because God has rescued you, not so that he will do so. You obey because God loved you eternally and transformed you through Christ. Obedience is not a formula to bring down God’s love.

Just as ancient Israel misrepresented God’s covenant to the world, so also the majority of those calling themselves Christians today present a warped message. The zeal of the theological liberals, of the cults, and of those who deny our total inability to earn God’s blessing by our own works, is the same futile effort that it was with Israel in the time of Jesus and Paul.

Those who blindly hold to those views are to be humbly pitied, and earnestly prayed for with sincere compassion. But they are not to be accommodated as if their zeal were a good thing in itself, and made up for changing the revealed truth of God. Satan too is zealous for his agenda, as are all his followers.

Paul displayed a right kind of zeal. He had compassion and concern, but without compromise of God’s truth. He told them the hard things because he cared for them. In the same way, we need to call neighbors, friends, and family to the truth of the gospel of Christ. It only offends those who will not turn and believe. But in those called of God, regenerating grace will produce righteousness in Christ and life eternal.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper

by Bob Burridge ©2011
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 96-97)
(watch our video & see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q96-97)

Taking part in the Lord’s Supper is a high privilege given by God to his children. By it God blesses them, and by it they declare how our Creator redeemed his people out of the fallen human race. The practice of this important Sacrament has often been confused. It has become divorced from the covenant of which it is a part. Some attribute magical powers to the elements used. Others reduce it to little more than an object lesson. It is worth our time and effort to restore this part of worship to what God ordained it to be.

The Lord’s Supper is a Sacrament.

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 96, “What is the Lord’s Supper?”
Answer: The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:I. Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body.

The Lord’s Supper was directly instituted by Jesus Christ as a continuing practice for the church during this era between his death and the final Judgment (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-25). This has been the universal understanding and practice of Bible-based churches.

It is the covenant meal which fulfills the promises signified in the feast of Passover. Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper while he partook of the Passover meal with his disciples on the night before his own sacrifice on the cross. He identified the bread as his body which was to be crucified on the cross the next day for the sins of his people. He also explained that the cup of wine represented the blood of the covenant in his own blood which was soon to be shed for them. Jesus is called “our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7), and “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).

The Mosaic Passover was prophetic in nature. The New Testament sacrament is not in every way the same as Passover. It fulfills what the covenant meal prefigured. Not all the particulars of it should be expected to apply to the fulfillment. Many of the details had to do with things that symbolized the coming of the Messiah as our sin bearer. Only what is specified by our Lord for the church applies to the Lord’s Supper. For example, we no longer celebrate this covenant meal in our own homes led by the head of the family unit just once each year. We don’t sacrifice a lamb. There is a requirement that all who partake now must discern the body of Christ, etc.

As a Sacrament, the Lord’s Supper is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It is a means by which true believers grow spiritually and are nourished when the elements are received in faith, and in the way God has specified in his covenant promises.

The benefits are not attached to the elements themselves apart from their proper use. When we rightly partake of this covenant meal we both receive God’s promised blessings and attest to our common commitments as believers and as members of Christ’s body, the church.

By partaking of the elements we come into union with Christ as a united covenant people. For this reason the Lord’s Supper is often called “Communion”.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.”

It is not an offering up of Christ as a sacrifice.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:II. In this sacrament, Christ is not offered up to his Father; nor any real sacrifice made at all, for remission of sins of the quick or dead; but only a commemoration of that one offering up of himself, by himself, upon the cross, once for all: and a spiritual oblation of all possible praise unto God, for the same: so that the popish sacrifice of the mass (as they call it) is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of his elect.

A common confusion arises from the Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper as the “Mass”. Contrary to that teaching, the Bible does not present this sacrament as a re-sacrificing of Jesus Christ. His once-for-all sacrifice is not to be repeated ritually. It is a sacramental practice to commemorate what has already been accomplished, and to seal its blessings upon proper recipients.

Its Appointed Administration

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:III. The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people; to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.
IV. Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone; as likewise, the denial of the cup to the people, worshiping the elements, the lifting them up, or carrying them about, for adoration, and the reserving them for any pretended religious use; are all contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.

The sacraments are to be administered only by those given the authority to do so by ordination to serve as shepherds of the people. The Elders are held responsible in Scripture for the right administration of all the elements of worship. They are the only ones recognized by God’s word to properly represent the gathered congregation before God in its times of convocational worship. Among the Elders, only those examined for their thorough understanding of the Biblical issues involved should lead in the Lord’s Supper. We commonly designate such Elders as Pastors or Teaching Elders. Most churches require them to complete seminary level training.

According to the institution given both by our Lord and the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11, certain things should always be present in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Prayer should be offered. The word of God is to be expounded. The elements are to be clearly set apart for this special use. The words of Jesus (usually those in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) are recited. The elements are distributed to and partaken of by the members of Christ’s true church.

Since this is a communion of the church as a body of Christ, and since it is to be accompanied by the teaching of the word and the words of Christ, this sacrament should not be administered outside the called worship of the church under the oversight of its Elders. It should never be distributed later to those not present in the worship time.

The practice of taking the Lord’s Supper to people in private settings, or the administering of it to only the bride and groom at weddings, are in direct violation of this biblical principle. It is therefore contrary to the teachings of the Westminster Confession of Faith and most importantly to the word of God in Scripture. This practice reflects either a superstitious view of the elements as if they have some power or quality infused into them, or a diminishing of their sacramental use as if they are mere object lessons, endearing ceremonial trappings, or signs, but not seals, of God’s Covenant of Grace.

The administration of the Lord’s Supper to shut-ins, or to those unable for physical reasons to attend the convocations of the church, should always include all the biblical elements of the Sacrament. To honor God’s word Pastors and the Elders of the church will sometimes call a worship time at the bedside of those who are disabled. The word is taught, other believers are present as a congregation, and all the things required for its rightful administration are included in the presence of those partaking. The details of this are far beyond the scope if this present lesson, and get into the portions of the Bible that teach about those God calls to minister to his people during this present era.

Other abuses of this sacrament such as limiting the cup to only those administering it, or the carrying around or venerating of the elements, are pure inventions of men and are contrary to the biblical practice instituted by our Lord and reported by the Apostles in Scripture. They are usually attached because of an improper understanding of how the elements of bread and wine convey the blessings promised in the Covenant.

The outward elements remain
unchanged in substance and nature

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:V. The outward elements in this sacrament, duly set apart to the uses ordained by Christ, have such relation to him crucified, as that, truly, yet sacramentally only, they are sometimes called by the name of the things they represent, to wit, the body and blood of Christ; albeit, in substance and nature, they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.
VI. That doctrine which maintains a change of the substance of bread and wine, into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (commonly called transubstantiation) by consecration of a priest, or by any other way, is repugnant, not to Scripture alone, but even to common sense, and reason; overthroweth the nature of the sacrament, and hath been, and is, the cause of manifold superstitions; yea, of gross idolatries.
VII. Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.

The physical elements of a Sacrament convey blessings due to the promise attached to them, rather than by any power or change in the actual elements themselves. They ought to be rightly received and administered, while leaving the blessing part to God who alone is the author of our every spiritual benefit.

When Jesus administered the bread and wine at his last Passover supper with his apostles, he explained that the bread was his body and the wine was the new covenant in his blood. There could have been no confusion in the minds of those present. In that context, nothing indicates that he was speaking of a physical transformation which would mean that what he called bread was no longer bread as they understood it, nor that what he gave them as wine was anything other than what God’s laws of Passover required it to be. There is nothing to make us expect that his command to continue the sacrament implied that the elements would be any different after his resurrection.

The medieval doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the whole substance of the bread is changed into the literal physical body of Jesus, and that the wine is changed in substance into the literal blood of Jesus. This view protects itself from the obvious objections by saying that they continue to have the outward characteristics of bread and wine, but they are no longer what they appear to be.

This view was taken up by the Roman church. It led to superstitions about the power and efficacy of the elements themselves. The bread is sometimes paraded around invoking followers to worship it and to expect actual blessings to flow from its mere presence. Extreme measures have been taken to keep the leftovers of the consecrated bread or wine from being treated with disrespect, since they are believed to remain the body and blood of Jesus even outside the context of the administration of the sacrament. The administration of the elements have been guarded so that no crumbs of the sacred body or drops of our Savior’s true blood would fall accidentally. A special wafer was designed to replace the bread so that it would be laid intact into the mouth of the participant and could not produce crumbs.

The Lutheran view was a modified form of the Roman doctrine. Their view is often called consubstantiation. Though they also believed that in consecration the actual physical body and blood of our Lord became present in, with, and under the elements, nevertheless the real bread and wine remain also.

Most of the confusion which led to these extreme positions has to do with a basic misunderstanding of the concept of the sacramental relationship which unites the outward forms with that which they represent. Those who hold to those views put a very unnatural reading upon the words of Jesus when he said, “this is my body”. Throughout Scripture figures of speech are used where the thing representing something is spoken of in terms of the thing it represents. Though Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are not transformed into photons or Sodium Chloride crystals. There are many classical discussions of this issue and we will not try to reproduce all the details of the arguments here.

In response to these abuses some have taken a view often called Memorialism. It reduces the entire Sacrament to an object lesson denying that the body and blood of Christ are received in any real sense at all.

The position of the Reformed churches differs from these other schools of theology. The classic Reformed symbols indicate that there is a real presence of Christ in the elements, but it is not a physical presence. By virtue of God’s promise we partake of Christ’s body and blood spiritually, receiving the benefits of his covenantal presence when those rightly partaking trust in God’s assurance that blessing will accompany this means of grace.

Unworthy Partakers

Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 97: What is required for the worthy receiving of the Lord’s Supper?
Answer: It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.

Westminster Confession of Faith 29:VIII. Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.

Those who receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper in ignorance or with a wicked intent cannot receive the blessing promised. God looks upon the heart and blesses only those who come as he specifies in his word.

Paul carefully instructed the church at Corinth about the right reception of the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11 he wrote,

23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread;
24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.
32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.
33 Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.
34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come.

Those who receive the elements without faith in, or awareness of what they represent, and of the church gathered as the body of Christ, are unworthy receivers. They bring condemnation upon themselves rather than blessing. For this reason most Reformed churches require communicants to be qualified by the examination of the Elders in order to be admitted to the Lord’s table. Children and new members must show that they are acting with understanding and a credible faith in Christ before they are welcomed to this Sacrament.

Some admit all baptized children on the basis of their covenantal union in the body of Christ. The admitting of children is called Paedo-Communion. Study committees in most Reformed bodies have not been convinced by the arguments offered to support this concept, but it is a worthy issue for study, and challenges us to improve our understanding of the Sacraments and of their Covenant nature.

The many detailed practices of the ancient celebration of the Passover are not brought over into the New Testament era without change. Most believe that the caution Paul presents in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 shows one of the ways in which the prefiguring of the Lord’s Supper changed as it came into its fulfilled form.

Since the Lord’s Supper is a means by which God extends his work of grace in the believer, those admitted to the Sacrament should not abstain from it. It is a good time for confessing sin and renewing commitments to the Lord. The idea that one must first have made full restitution for the effects of all his sins is neither biblical nor reasonable. Passages relating to the Levitical sacrificial system and its demands for outward purity should not be transposed into the New Testament era in a way that keeps a truly repentant believer from taking advantage of this important means of grace.

There are many issues which have engaged the church in the study of this Sacrament. Some say fermented wine should always be used, while others insist on the use of unfermented grape juice. Some demand that the bread be unleavened, while others prefer the ordinary leavened bread in common use. Some receive the elements while remaining seated as a congregation. Others come to the front of the church and kneel while receiving it. Some eat and drink each element as it is received while others wait until all have been served then partake as a congregation. Some administer the sacrament every Sunday, others monthly, some quarterly.

These are fascinating areas of discussion and have been used by God to provoke his people into studies that explore the depths of his word for answers. Great caution should be exercised regarding these differences lest things not directly addressed in God’s word should be used by the enemy of our faith to divide us and derail our joint efforts to preserve true biblical worship, individual spiritual maturity, and the declaration of the gospel to the world. The members of local churches should submit to the judgment of the Elders of the church in such matters as these, unless they find sound biblical cause to do otherwise.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

No Points for Effort

Lesson 37: Romans 9:24-33

No Points for Effort

by Bob Burridge ©2011

We like to see people put forth effort in their lives to accomplish noble goals, but effort alone is no virtue. People can be very diligent in accomplishing horrible things. Evil people in history such as Adolph Hitler, the heretic Pelagius, Communist Vladimir Lenin, and others were tirelessly busy and totally committed to things they sincerely believed in. However, we don’t commend them for their efforts. They set evil goals and used means that dishonored God. No godly person thinks of Hitler’s failed attempt at genocide and says, “Well, at least he tired.” Doing a wicked thing is not commended simply because there was a strong effort put forth.

In the not-so-distant past doctors thought they could cure certain diseases by cutting a patient to let out large amounts of blood. Since a fever reflects blood temperature, the process appeared to work. There was a problem though, the patients often died from the loss of blood, infections, or a reduced ability of the body to fight of the disease that was causing the fever. No one today would applaud a doctor’s efforts if he went back to the practice of bleeding his patients. We wouldn’t say, “Well at least he has good intentions, and he tries so hard!” Wrong practices are not justified simply because there is a good goal in mind.

On an even higher scale, the same is true of righteousness. The world’s religions have many varied ideas about how to become “right with God.” Most of them have the same common element, human effort. For some that effort is directed toward doing charitable works and good deeds. Some turn to magical incantations and mystical ceremonies. Others make great personal sacrifices and endure self-inflicted pain. Some trust in the decisions they make or in certain prayers they recite. They all make the same mistake according to what God tells us in his word. Biblically, our efforts, even good efforts, cannot be the cause of our salvation. No one is able to do good until God produces new life in them. Good efforts are the effect of God already making a person right by grace. At the root, each of these false religions makes man out to be god over his own soul. They see human effort as what causes God to treat some with mercy and others with wrath.

That is directly against what we have seen so far in our study of Romans. God grants no points for effort!

In this 9th chapter Paul used Old Testament Scripture to prove directly that we are not saved by any desire of our own hearts, or by the work of our hands. We are chosen for eternal life by God’s eternal good pleasure alone. In verse 11 he wrote about God’s dealing with the sons of Isaac. He chose to redeem only one of them “… that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls.”

Paul then summarized his point in verse 18, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”

Here Paul is dealing with the objections of ancient Israel. They mistook their own efforts as the cause of God’s blessing. They had added complex details and customs to the law of God. Their man-made additions made them reject the promise of a Messiah who would satisfy justice for their guilt by his suffering in their place.

They came to rely upon their own Jewishness instead of resting in God’s provision of grace. They looked down upon the Gentiles, and took pride in their own efforts. However, God’s word says that all our efforts are worthless unless they are the fruit of a redeemed heart. The prophet said in Isaiah 64:6, “But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags …”

The prophets had warned that God would judge the nation for her corruption of the truth. Jesus said that God’s judgment would fall upon Israel while the generation he spoke to was still alive. When the Jewish Rabbi we know as the Apostle Paul become a follower of Christ, he also warned the Jews that their special time of blessing was about over.

God’s plan had not failed. Universal salvation of the Jews was never his plan. Just as he only made one of Abraham’s sons the heir of the promise, and only one of his Grandsons, it was only the chosen of Israel who were the true sons of God’s promise.

The time had come when God was not going to choose his people from Israel alone. Here our study continues in Romans 9:25-33.

God was going to add non-Jews to his covenant family!

Romans 9:25-26, “As He says also in Hosea: ‘I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved. And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,” There they shall be called sons of the living God.’ “

Again Paul builds his case by quoting from the Bible. This is his consistent way of reasoning: If it can be shown that God said it, that settles it. So he turned to the book of the prophet Hosea to show that he was not introducing a new idea.

Verse 25 is taken from Hosea 2:23 “… I will have mercy on her who had not obtained mercy; Then I will say to those who were not My people, ‘ You are My people!’ And they shall say, ‘You are my God!’ ”

Verse 26 is from Hosea 1:10, “… where it was said to them, ‘ You are not My people,’ There it shall be said to them, ‘ You are sons of the living God.’ ”

Hosea wrote to warn the Northern Kingdom of Israel about her unfaithfulness to God. She had compromised with unbelief and made alliances with heathen nations. But her strength was outward only. Inwardly she was weak and unfaithful. She had ignored the advice of God’s prophets. Most had abandoned the truth, so God was going to scatter them. He would let them be taken captive, led off into a heathen nation.

The life of Hosea teaches a memorable lesson that has taught us for thousands of years. God told this man to marry a prostitute by the name of Gomer. By her he had 3 children whom God named.

First he had a son and named him Jezreel [Yiz-re-EL (יזרעאל)]. Though Yiz-re-EL sounds similar to “Israel”, it is spelled very differently in Hebrew. The name means “scattered by God” in the sense of casting out seeds when planting so that they are spread out on the field. God said he would, “bring an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.” (Hosea 1:4)

Next he had a daughter whom God told him to name Lo-Ruhamah [Lo Ru-KHA-mah (לא רחמה)], which means “no compassion”. God said, “for I will no longer have mercy on the house of Israel …”

Then he had another son. God told him to name this son Lo-Ammi [Lo Am-MI (לא עמי)]– which means “not my people. And God said, “for you are not My people and I will not be your God.”

The names represented God’s relationship with his unfaithful nation. Though the Israelis were physical descendents of Abraham, members of his visible covenant family, they were to be scattered without compassion, and no longer to be called God’s people.

Then Hosea was told to seek a woman who had committed adultery. This illustrated how Israel had left her God and committed spiritual adultery. To show God’s mercy in saving some from among the unworthy and apostate nation, Hosea was told to go find this woman, redeem her with a price, and to care for her. The names of his children were used to illustrate God’s grace toward those he redeems. Instead of Lo-Ammi (not my people), he was to say, Ammi (my people). In stead of Lo-Ruhamah (no compassion), he was to say, Ruhamah (compassion).

Throughout the record in Scripture, we see that God divides mankind into categories. There are two main ways of making that division. First, some become members outwardly in God’s Covenant Family, and others do not. Before the time of the Apostles that visible church was the nation of Israel. In the time of the Apostles it took on the form of the Christian Church. The members of that Covenant Family are those out of all of fallen mankind who make a commitment to submit to God’s ways and teachings.

Within that outward form of the church there is a more important division of mankind. Some in this visible form of the church are also redeemed from their guilt and sin, and some are not. The redeemed are those who were eternally chosen by grace alone. We call the whole group of God’s elect the Invisible Church. These are the vessels of mercy chosen to display the glories of Christ (Romans 9:23). God elected them based upon his own pleasure, not based upon their own efforts.

Those left in their sin are justly condemned. It is what we all deserve. They are forever aliens from the true spiritual family of God. They are what Paul called God’s Vessels of Wrath in the last section of this chapter (9:22). They display God’s power and patience in administering justice in his good time.

Hosea wrote to the unfaithful tribes of Israel who had abandoned God’s covenant. This is why this portion of Hosea was so helpful to Paul in making his point. God’s promise to redeem was only made with the remnant he eternally planned to be his own. Salvation is not by effort or inherited advantage, it is by Sovereign Grace alone. Therefore God may bring in Jews who had abandoned the outward form of the church, and he could save Gentiles as well.

Peter used these verses form Hosea similarly in 1 Peter 2:9-10, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.”

God had promised to adopt the unworthy into His Kingdom. To make this election by sovereign grace absolutely clear, the Lord was about to build his church from among the Gentiles, those who were so despised and looked down upon by the Jews. Paul also explained this in Ephesians 2:12-13, “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

God promised to save only a remnant of Israel.

Romans 9:27-29, “Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.’ And as Isaiah said before: ‘Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.’ ”

Paul again turns to the then existing books of the Bible, this time to the Prophet Isaiah. This section of Romans is a perfect lesson in using God’s written word as its own interpreter. In just these 33 verses, Paul quotes from the Old Testament 34 times. He makes eight Old Testament references in just these last nine verses.

The Bible is clear. God’s salvation is only promised to a remnant of those who claim to be his people. Isaiah 10:20-23, “And it shall come to pass in that day That the remnant of Israel, And such as have escaped of the house of Jacob, Will never again depend on him who defeated them, But will depend on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. The remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, To the Mighty God. For though your people, O Israel, be as the sand of the sea, A remnant of them will return; The destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness. For the Lord GOD of hosts Will make a determined end In the midst of all the land.”

The great nation of Israel was going to be taken away by Assyrian invasion as a judgment of God. There, they will be reduced to a mere remnant. Only that remnant will return to the land in faith. It will be only those who “depend on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth.” (Isaiah 10:20)

Clearly Paul and Isaiah did not see this as a promise to just a remnant of outward National Israel. The remnant was made up of those changed inwardly by grace and given a true faith. Since only a remnant is returned in faith, the majority of the outward church remained corrupt, even into the time when Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem hundreds of years after the delivering of Isaiah’s prophesies.

Those who take comfort in the size of their church or in the large numbers who seem to agree should take heed. God does not bless by majorities. He blesses his remnant rescued by grace alone. Popular trends in the churches through all the ages are never a good test of what is pleasing to God. Our trends must be measured by comparison with the honestly and carefully studied word of Scripture.

What of those who are not called by God’s grace to be his remnant? The Lord will quickly, surely, execute His Word. His judgment falls quickly. Paul again turns to the Scriptures for his support. Isaiah 1:9, “Unless the LORD of hosts Had left to us a very small remnant, We would have become like Sodom, We would have been made like Gomorrah.”

Aside from his mercy, the just end of every human is like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities destroyed in terrifying judgment for their sin and unbelief.

On the other hand, God’s true Israel will always be delivered. Even though it will be only a remnant from the visible body of professing believers.

Finally, Paul exposes the error
of putting hope in our own efforts.

Romans 9:30-33, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’ “

“What is this?” the Jews were asking. “Has God given salvation to the unworthy Gentiles?” That’s exactly what he has done. “But, …” they might object, “… they weren’t even pursuing righteousness — and we were!”

So then, why did the Jews not attain salvation since they tried so hard? Paul’s answer hits right at the heart of all false religion, they thought they deserved it. They had so corrupted what Moses said, that they thought the law was a means of salvation. They thought that because they were so zealous in their religion, God would save them. But God gives no points for effort.

No human works are free from corruption. Sin distorts our every goal. Even our best efforts and intentions condemn us all the more as they are done arrogantly for our own glory rather than for the glory of our Creator.

In Galatians 2:21, Paul made it clear that if it was possible to be made right with God by means of our efforts or by keeping the law, then the death of the Messiah would have been unnecessary. “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”

Why send God the Son to suffer and to endure a cruel unjust death, if men were able to earn salvation by their deeds? if it could simply be deserved?

In Scripture Jesus is the Rock, the cornerstone of truth, and foundation of all hope. Upon the solid foundation of his holy life and atoning death his people stand with confidence that their guilt is removed. He is the cornerstone laid down first by the Master builder as a guide to how the rest of the building is to be oriented and constructed. As is says in Isaiah 28:16 “therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed.”

Ancient Israel did not like the shape of the building that Christ’s truth marked out. She abused the law thinking it was a way of salvation. God gave his statutes to humble his people to repentance, and to instil in them a trust in his provisions for the soul. His law was the way those redeemed by grace show their gratitude. It was never given as a means of removing sin or earning salvation by our own efforts.

The suffering Messiah exposed that false religion of works. They looked for a different kind of Messiah, a Jewish revolutionary. The cornerstone became for the Jews a stumbling stone that offended them. Isaiah 8:14, “He will be as a sanctuary, But a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense To both the houses of Israel, As a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”

Peter used this same Old Testament symbolism when he wrote 1 Peter 2:8, ” ‘A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense.’ They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.” In the next verses Peter used the reference from Hosea just as Paul did.

Dr. Haldane says, “A free salvation becomes an offense to men on account of their pride.” They will not admit their corruption due to sin, their guilt, their inability to merit God’s favor. They will not accept a God who is sovereign and just.

Israel in her unbelief stumbled at this. As a nation there was no evidence of a true faith. It exposed the spiritual aliens who lived among the true people of God. They who believe they can earn divine favor without the enablement of their Creator may take on the name of the Savior, but they are not part of the remnant redeemed by grace.

God shattered any glimmer of pride in the Israelite’s heart. He put faith into the hearts of the Gentiles considered by the Jews to be savage, pagan, and cursed. What grander demonstration of Sovereign Grace could be imagined? God saves sinners, not those who think they have earned the right to be called Son’s of God. The Gentiles had put forth no effort to come to Christ, or to discover God’s truth. Yet by grace alone they were grafted into the vine.

The effort we put forth in our lives is not done to merit God’s forgiveness. The cause of our alienation from him is not removed by good things we do or promise. Our efforts are the evidences of a forgiveness already granted. We strive toward holiness by the power of Christ at work in us, not to get him to work in us. By our obedience to God we express gratitude for blessings we know we do not deserve and could never earn.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Who Should be Baptized?

Who Should be Baptized?

by Bob Burridge ©2011
Part Three of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
(watch the video)

The Subjects of Baptism


The question of who should be baptized has caused a great deal of debate between some who equally love God’s word and who take it as the only standard in determining what we should believe and do. The differences are not because some are unaware of certain Bible verses. They all cite the same ones. The divergence takes place in the area of interpretation.

Those who have a more extensive understanding of the original languages admit that rigid dictionary definitions of the words, and narrowly interpreted grammatical structures of individual verses are not honest solutions to the problem. It comes down to how each passage fits together with other related passages and teachings of the inspired Scriptures. Scripture must interpret Scripture.

All those who sincerely profess faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord should be baptized into membership in a local congregation.

Historically Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore are also proper subjects of baptism. Those who do not baptize infants until they are able to make a credible profession of faith are classified as baptists. The term baptist does not identify particular denominations which may use that word in their name. The term is used here to identify a particular belief system concerning baptism.

The Westminster Standards summarize the understanding of the Reformed branch of Christianity about what the Bible says on this topic.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism
Q. 95. To whom is Baptism to be administered?
A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.

Westminster Confession of Faith 28

IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

Theologically conservative Christians all agree that the Bible is God’s infallible and inerrant word. Therefore it alone must be the final and authoritative test of what is to be believed. The primary divergence between the historic Reformed view and that of the Baptist position relates to how they understand changes in the administration of God’s promises to his people following the finished work of Christ. This impacts not only the question of who are the proper subjects of baptism, it also effects the meaning attached to baptism and its presumed efficacy.

The first and primary issue is the unity of God’s covenant with his people. The Baptist Confession of 1689 is largely based upon the Westminster Confession, but it differs in the section about baptism, and about the nature of the church. In chapter 26 it does not include the children of believers as members of a visible church. The explanation given by some falls short of defining the visible church concept accurately. The term “visible church” does not codify the admission of unbelievers into the church as some accuse. It merely admits that the church has the same basic type of composition as the symbolic church embodied in the nation of Israel by God’s own commandment. Some members are not true believers. Jesus himself mandates this same view as illustrated in his parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30).

We need to determine from Scripture what changes God made in the composition of his church. Does he now exclude infants of believers, and deny them the sign and seal of his covenant which they previously had received? The identifying sign of God’s people during the age from Abraham until the resurrection of Jesus Christ (which was then circumcision) was commanded to be administered to two groups of people.

1. Circumcision was to be performed upon those males outside the covenant community who come to make a credible profession of faith in God’s promises and salvation, and who demonstrate their sincerity by a desire to live by God’s principles and to submit to the God-appointed authority of the church.

2. Circumcision was to be performed upon the children of those already members of the covenant community. This sign was to be administered to all male children at the age of 8 days. This did not mean that they were also necessarily members of the invisible church which is the body of all those God actually regenerates by the promised future work of Christ. The election and regeneration of any person, adults as well as children, cannot be determined by the church, therefore it cannot be what the sign of the covenant represents. The circumcision of children indicates that God considered them to be members of the visible church, otherwise he would not have permitted them to receive its sign and seal.

The changes made in the covenant are well documented in the books of the New Testament. The narrowness of the church before Christ was expanded beyond Israel so that it would include people from all nations. The post-ascension church did not “replace” the pre-ascension church identified as Israel. The Church after the time of Christ is Israel in its fulfilled and completed form as promised by God throughout the Old Testament.

The sign marking members of the covenant was also enlarged so that both males and females were proper recipients. The reason for this change likely involved the symbolic federal headship of the husband and father which was fulfilled by the completion of the work of Christ who is the second Adam, the federal head representing all who believe. This was taken up earlier in this topic where we compared Baptism and Circumcision.

It would be contrary to God’s enlargement of the covenant community if all the children of believers who were not old enough to believe on their own were no longer to be included. Rather than enlarging the church, it would be a diminishing of its scope. Only God can announce changes resulting from the fulfillment of his previous commandments. Considering this, it would be unprecedented and contrary to sound biblical interpretation to presume such a change when nothing is said of it in the Bible. No where in any of the New Testament books is such a change announced, or shown by apostolic example.

Even a casual reading of the Epistles of the New Testament or the history of the early church in the book of Acts shows that the Inspired writers and the Apostles were diligent to advise the church about questions that would naturally arise among the Jewish believers as the covenantal changes took place. It would be astounding that no Jewish family in the decades covered by those books ever raised the question of their children’s inclusion in the covenant community. For thousands of years obedient parents placed the sign of the covenant upon their male children on the 8th day of their lives. If suddenly children were to be excluded, their godly parents would have been informed. That no controversy or issue is recorded for the churches then, or for the churches using the New Testament as their guide in the years to come, it is indicative that no such dramatic change took place. For lack of evidence to the contrary, God’s already revealed word must stand.

On the positive side of the issue, there is abundant evidence in the New Testament that the same practice of God’s people continued regarding the children of believing members of the covenant community, and regarding the families of those who come to believe and who join the church.

The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament were directly applied to the New Testament church.

Acts 2:38-39 reports the words of Peter at Pentecost. He applied to the church the ancient promises made to Abraham and his descendants, “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’ ”

It connects the covenant promise made to Abraham and to his seed, with the New Testament church as the proper heirs of the covenant. That promise includes both the forgiveness of sin and the reception of the Holy Spirit. These are both central in the meaning of baptism as we have demonstrated in a previous heading in this lesson.

However, some confuse the Covenantal position by misrepresenting the identity it makes between circumcision and baptism. The Reformed view actually limits this identity between the prefiguring and the fulfillment of it. It recognizes changes clearly explained in the teachings of the New Testament.

For example, the pre-messianic shedding of blood in sacrifices and in circumcision is no longer appropriate after the shedding of our Savior’s blood completed what was signified. Blood is replaced by water, which was also an Old Testament symbol for purification, for the washing away of the pollution of sin.

Also, the sign is no longer limited to the male as representative for his entire family. The death of Jesus as the representative for his church, the bridegroom dying to redeem his bride, is what that male headship representation was about.

The New Testament church and pre-messianic Israel are the same olive tree in Romans 11:16-17. Their unity does not deny basic changes directly explained by God himself. But the removal of children from the covenant community is no where commanded as part of this change.

To see how the New Testament church both understood and carried out the promise mentioned by Peter at Pentecost, we need to examine the examples of baptism in Scripture after the resurrection of Christ. There are only nine examples of baptism recorded in the book of Acts.

The first is the baptism of 3,000 at Pentecost. There are four baptisms where individual men were received into the church but families were not present. This leaves four baptisms where it expressly mentions the baptism of households along with the adult who became a believer. As Dr. Gregg Strawbridge observes, “… virtually every person who had a household had it baptized!”

If a person presumes that only adults who make a credible profession of faith can be members of the church and therefore can be baptized, he must also presume in all these cases that all the members of each household were not only old enough to understand the gospel, but they each also believed, and voluntarily and knowledgeably submitted to baptism at the same moment. This is certainly possible. But it has nothing to do with the issue. We do not know the ages of any children present in these families. We do know that they were received as families without any qualifying comments being made about those families in the biblical record.

If we set aside the presumptions, we would see these passages as a continuation of the practice commanded by God long ago for his covenant people. The including of the children was the common understanding every Jew would already have had. The Apostles who were sent out to baptize, and the families to whom the gospel first came, would have known God’s instruction to mark out their children as members of the covenant community.

At this point the reader is directed to the excellent article by Dr. Gregg Strawbridge, Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It? It would be redundant to reproduce here all the careful work he has done in reviewing the passages and arguments from Scripture that support the continuation of the inclusion of the children of believers in both the visible church, and as proper subjects of the sign and seal of that membership.

The baptism of the infant children of believers does not save them, nor does it contradict the fact that babies are not able to believe before they are baptized. The question does not fall down upon the fact that covenant children are commonly excluded from the Lord’s Table in most Reformed churches. We will take that up in the study of the Lord’s Supper.

The Efficacious Nature of Baptism

Westminster Confession of Faith 28

V. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
VI. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
VII. The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.

It confuses the sign with what it represents if we believe that Baptism itself produces all that it represents and seals upon the recipients. The act of baptizing does not mean that the person receiving the sacrament is actually among the elect and therefore a member of the invisible church. As with circumcision in the time before Christ, it assures for every person being baptized only that he is a member of the visible church, and is subject to the blessings or cursings of God’s promises.

The grace represented is truly granted to those qualified by the work of Christ under God’s covenant. Others receiving the sacrament who prove never to be regenerated by their lack of profession of faith and disobedience to God, receive rightfully all the curses of that same covenant. This applies to adults as well as to infants who are baptized. The Reformed view is therefore completely distinct from the view of Sacerdotalism as held for example by the Roman Catholic Church.

Similarly, if we look upon this act as merely an outward ritual or object lesson, we deny the promises God’s word attaches to Baptism. The Reformed view therefore directly denies the limited symbolic view of the Memorialists.

Since infants may not evidence the work of regeneration until later in life we say that the efficacy of baptism, the actual conveying of the graces signified, may not take place at the moment when the Sacrament is administered.

Since baptism represents the cleansing of sin and engrafting into the covenant body of the church it is rightly administered only once. There is no biblical justification or example of multiple baptisms of the same person. To do so would be a direct rejection of the meaning of Baptism and would obscure what God intends it to reveal about himself and his work of cleansing the guilty sinner of the stains of his sin.

The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament are directly applied in Scripture to the New Testament church. Historically Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore proper subjects of baptism. Baptism does not regenerate a person. It acts as a sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

summary:
The covenant promises which included the children of believers in the Old Testament are directly applied in Scripture to the New Testament church. Reformed Christianity recognizes the children of believers as members of the visible church, and therefore proper subjects of baptism. Baptism does not regenerate a person. It acts as a sign and seal of God’s Covenant of Grace.

Is God Fair?

Lesson 36: Romans 9:19-24

Is God Fair?

by Bob Burridge ©2011

We grow up with strong ideas about fairness. From the time we learn to play with other children in our back yard, to the time we become adults, we are taught that there is a set of rules that should apply equally to everybody.

We also learn that not everybody is really equal. Some are more gifted physically. They become great athletes, or tireless skilled laborers. Some are more gifted intellectually and become inventors, or expert professionals. Some have deep compassion and become our encouragers. Some work hard and earn what they have and more to be able to help those truly in need. Others are lazy and become an unnecessary burden to others. Some break the law and forfeit certain rights so that the state can protect others in society. Some are the victims of prejudice, or become victims of life changing tragedies. People have different abilities, experiences, opportunities, and interests.

These realities show that God neither makes us the same to start with, nor wants us to all be the same in every way. It would be a sad, boring and unproductive society if people tried to be identical, and did not believe they needed others with different skills and abilities to survive.

There is a philosophy called egalitarianism that sees all inequality as evil. It is plainly anti-biblical. Egalitarians favor laws that force its own view of equality upon everyone. To make it work out in practice it means passing laws respecting only certain groups of people to remove their advantages. It is a self-contradiction. It results in unequal laws to force upon some what certain individuals in another group perceive as equality. God has obviously not purposed that everyone can be or should be equal in everything.

But there is a right idea of equality that is part of God’s creation. God imposes basic moral principles and civil liberties upon everybody. The 10 commandments show us that we all should respect the property, spouses and lives of others. We should all respect truth, rightful authority, and not covet what God gives to others. Everyone is called upon to worship the one true God in the ways he commands. No one has the right to bypass these standards, or to limit them to just some people.

The idea of human fairness is possible because there are universal principles which apply to us all. God is the one who has given these principles, and obligates us all to respect them.

However, we make a serious mistake if we imagine that God also has laws above him. That is why it is wrong to ask if “God is fair?” However, since that question often comes up naturally in our fallen minds, it is important to answer it biblically. It was a question that was bound to be in people’s minds as Paul wrote to the Romans.

God was about to judge Israel for her corrupted worship and sins. In Romans 9:6 Paul explained that God was not being unfaithful to Israel in judging her. The promise of God had not failed. It explained, “they are not all Israel who are descended of Israel.”

Israel had failed to understand that God’s covenant with Abraham and his seed was never made as a promise to all his descendants. On the physical side, only Isaac, then only his son Jacob were chosen. On the spiritual side, only the children of the promise are actually redeemed. God said he loved Jacob and hated Esau. That was not based upon anything they had done or would do (Romans 9:11). It was God’s sovereign choice alone that set his love upon the undeserving.

In 9:14 Paul showed that God is not unjust in just choosing some and not others. It said, “Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!”

Paul used Scripture to show that on the one hand God does not choose everyone. Clearly the Bible had said that God loved Jacob, but hated Esau. On the other hand, the Bible says that God is not unjust in choosing only some. God shows mercy upon whom he will, and he hardens whom he will. Though we may not see how all this fits together, we must accept what God’s word says.

Now we come to Romans 9:19-24.

Paul anticipates the next question that
naturally comes to the fallen heart

Romans 9:19, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ “

The temptation is to ask, “How can God find fault, and condemn the sinner, if no one can resist his will?” Is God fair to condemn those who are not able to come to him? Was God fair to reject Israel for her unbelief when it is God alone who implants faith?

This question was anticipated as a possible objection to Paul’s teachings. Two facts had already been proven directly from Scripture, and are assumed by this question.
1. God is totally Sovereign over all that comes to pass.
2. God holds the sinner and unbeliever responsible for his sin and unbelief. He finds fault with them.

If either of these was not true, then Paul’s easiest answer to this question would be to say so. But Paul does not answer by saying, “God is not so absolutely Sovereign.” Nor does he say that, “Man is not really held at fault for his moral actions.” And he doesn’t answer by saying, “Sure we can resist the will of God.” He did not answer like that because those answers are simply not true.

The Apostle chose rather to tell the hard truth. God is sovereign, yet he holds individuals responsible for sin. Nothing could be more plain from God’s word than these facts.

The God of Scripture is Lord over all things. For example it says in Psalm 135:6 , “Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.” And in Ephesians 1:11 the Bible says, “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will”

Since he is sovereign, no one can resist what God wills. A few sample verses make this point absolutely clear.

Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

Jeremiah 10:23, “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.”

Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

God’s word also directly states that he finds fault with the sinner for his sins.

Romans 2:5, “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,”

Numbers 32:23, “But if you do not do so, then take note, you have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out.”

These points have already been proven from the Bible. So Paul moves on to the real issue.

Paul’s basic answer is given in one direct statement.

Romans 9:20a, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? … “

What right does man have to call into question what God has clearly said is so? Does the mere creature call the Creator into judgment? Does he really think he knows so much that he can say what God cannot be?

Such a question is inexcusably arrogant coming from a mere creature who took thousands of years to figure out that the earth rotates around the sun, who was so proud in his pronouncement that the atom was the smallest thing possible, but he was wrong.

I once owned an encyclopedia that said a human could not survive travelling at speeds over 60 miles per hour for very long. No one can speak all the languages that exist on earth even in just this one brief moment of history. No one can explain completely how planets bend space to produce gravitational fields. No one can describe the exact nature of light, the first thing God created. In mathematical physics no one can solve the most fundamental questions about the universe and the things of which it is made.

No one can even know what the next moment will bring. And no one can account for how all things got to be the way they are. Expert meteorologists are unable to consistently predict tomorrow’s weather accurately. Yet some dare to say that God cannot be both sovereign, yet still be fair in finding fault.

Even a human’s ability to question what might be, is a God given ability. Yet fallen man abuses his God-given faculties in such ways that only condemn him more.

The facts are plain. Sinners are under God’s control and serve his purpose, but they are not released from blame.

How can we reconcile God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s moral responsibility? Our finite and sin-corrupted minds should not expect to comprehend the infinite and complex ways of God. God’s will is not like anything we have experienced or seen.

Unlike our preferences and choices, God does not think in steps. He does not reason from one idea to derive the next. He does not have to gather facts, analyze them, and draw conclusions to decided a course of action. God is eternally unchangeable as he is described in Scripture. He eternally knows all things, and all the means that produce them. He knows the causes of everything. All the causes and circumstances are planned by him. That is too hard for us creatures to even begin to consider. The fallen heart cannot begin to see this aside from the Holy Spirit by grace giving the ability to submit to such a concept.

I remember a tragic account of a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard. It cost the lives of three people. When I read the report no one knew for sure the cause of that incident. Some experienced pilots were speculating about how disorienting it is to fly with limited visibility. We hear a lot about the merits of flying by instruments over flying by sight. Visual flying is fine under clear conditions and in ordinary circumstances. But when visibility is low, or conditions are difficult, a pilot may easily become confused. Have you ever been parked at a light and when you glance at a car moving forward slowly next to you, you get the sensation that your car is rolling backwards so you push on the brake? Similarly in an air plane your body is not a good indicator of the attitude of the plane. A pilot may have the sensation he is flying level and headed safely toward the horizon when in reality he is flying directly into the water or his plane is at a dangerous angle making him likely to stall. These are conditions about which pilots need to be trained so that they ignore their feelings, and trust what the instruments are telling them.

Similarly we fallen creatures have hearts and minds that can fool us, and confuse reality. We may think something is quite reasonable and logical, when it is not. We may presume things as fact which are really only perceptions and assumptions.

We need to have something more accurate than our own feelings and limited understanding. We have such a guide in God’s word as preserved for us in the Bible. Living by the revealed word is similar to trusting the instruments of a plane. When God says he is Sovereign and yet holds men accountable, we must trust that it is true, just, and fair. We need to resist how we feel about it as mere fallen humans who are easily deceived.

Luther corrected his rival Erasmus telling him he had created: “… a god of your own fancy, who hardens nobody, condemns nobody, pities everyone. You cannot comprehend how a just God can condemn those who are born in sin … the answer is, God is incomprehensible throughout, and therefore his justice, as well as his other attributes, must be incomprehensible.” (Haldane 482)

Then Paul used a biblical example which
all the Jews would already know from Scripture.

Romans 9:20b-21, “… Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”

The example of the potter and the clay was used several times by the Old Testament prophets. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah use it to illustrate God’s Sovereign Lordship. Isaiah 64:8 speaks to Jehovah as “our Father”, and as “our potter.” It says to him, “all we are the work of Your hand.”

Jeremiah was sent by Jehovah to the house of a potter for a lesson: Jeremiah 18:3-6 says, “Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?’ says the LORD. ‘Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!’ ”

The thing made has no right to complain, as if his Creator had made an error.

Isaiah 45:9 , “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’?”

Isaiah 29:16, “Surely you have things turned around! Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay; For shall the thing made say of him who made it, ‘He did not make me’? Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?”

The rebellious heart questions even God’s right to be God.

Paul here, just like the prophets of ancient Israel, rebukes the attitude that prompted the question. Only a foolishly ignorant and irreverent heart would dare such a complaint.

Our limited minds cannot understand the infinite mind of God. It is hard not to think that God reasons and works one step at a time as we do. But it is not the way his mind works. Every thought and idea of God is eternally there. He never sees sin appear, then decides what to do with it. He does not wait to decide to allow sin until after he considers the consequences of not doing so. Our little human theories fall far short of understanding a mind that is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

The clear teaching of these Scripture references shows that the Maker has full authority over the things he formed to do with them whatever he wills. He made each part of his creation to be as it is to serve his eternal purpose.

We are reminded that we are not formed from different things. All are made from the same lump. We do not emerge in this life from a neutral glob of humanity. We are all created by the One True God, and all are fallen in Adam who represented the whole human race in Eden.

Romans 3:22-23, “… For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

Mankind as a whole race is fallen in Adam. Both those God saves, and those he leaves guilty, are from that same clay. From fallen mankind God sovereignly molds one to honor, and another to dishonor. Therefore, God would be fully just and fair if he threw out all the clay and left all mankind condemned.

The fact that God says so is enough, but Paul goes on to tell us more. He shows us something of why God has formed both kinds of people. In Romans 9:22-23 he writes, “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,”

Paul applied the Potter Principle to God to show the ultimate right of the Potter. The potter’s purpose is what ultimately counts in what he makes. In spite of what the world around us reasons in rejecting this principle, humanity’s highest good is not each person’s own happiness, prosperity, and ease. The thing formed is to fulfill the plan of the one who formed it. This is, from the time he is made, his highest good. It is not required that man understands how everything fits together. He cannot. But it is required of him to accept God’s word, and to promote his Creator’s glory.

God made two groups of humans so that his nature will be more fully known. God leaves some sinners in their deserved guilt. By them God says he makes known his wrath, and his amazing power.

He does not just destroy evil right away. He endures it patiently to supply a continuing lesson in them. He endures them all the way to old age to expose man’s depravity. No greater testimony could be given to the truth of the Bible than to look around at what flows from the heart of our neighbors and our nation’s children. Do you doubt depravity? Then read the daily news, talk about hell with your neighbor, let an unbeliever know that without Christ he is without hope. Until the Holy Spirit redeems someone, they will quickly show their dislike for what our Creator reveals as the truth. By his infinite and all wise power God endures such arrogance for his ultimate glory. How dangerous for anyone to take comfort in God’s longsuffering! How short-sighted of them.

God also makes himself known by those who become the objects of his mercy. In them he shows the riches of his glory, undeserved blessing through a suffering Savior.

Without both vessels of wrath and mercy, these truths about God would remain a secret. Dr. Haldane writes: “the awful ruin of the wicked is necessary for the full display of the riches of Divine mercy in saving the elect.”

The guilty have no right to complain that they are appointed to wrath. Judgment for sin is what all humans deserve. Only by grace is justice met by the Messiah for some. But no one is condemned aside from true personal guilt, for which the sinner is held fully responsible.

So then, how does God condemn those he does not call by grace? Paul does not get into that here. He just states the fact that it is so, and proves it from Scripture. Later, in Chapter 11 we will see more of the ways of God explained. For now, Paul has shown that it is not the will of a person, or his works, that makes him a Christian. It is God’s mercy alone, his undeserved blessing, that makes redeemed children out of lost sinners. God, the Maker, is at perfect liberty to do as he pleases with his fallen creatures.

Of course this is not a popular concept. Fallen man hates to hear about grace unless it is a message of the hope of salvation for everybody. The idea that God is just and holy offends the sinner because it condemns him. Jesus faced the same response when he spoke of election in John 6:65-66, “And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”

It is not as if men want to come to Christ but cannot simply because they are not on some divine list. Unless they are redeemed by grace, they will not want to come to the true Christ of Scripture. It is that conviction and concern in knowing that this is true which shows a heart touched by mercy.

The whole issue is brought back
to the original question

Romans 9:24, “even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

God’s plan had not failed to redeem all of the physical nation of Israel. That was never his plan. Israel had been called from among the other nations to represent God’s mercy outwardly. From within Israel God called some to be his true children of promise. These were the vessels of mercy chosen to display the glories of Christ.

When Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, the time had come when not only some from Israel, but some from all nations would display that they had been chosen as vessels of mercy. Since all humans are fallen in Adam and deserve God’s eternal wrath, there would be no injustice or unfairness if God left all to be condemned forever. Though we cannot fully understand how this all fits together, we must never dare to question what God has made clear in his word.

Man is not an accidental animal. He is an “on purpose” creation. He is made to display the glories of his Creator — which he does, like it or not. Either he honors God by showing evidences of mercy and grace, or his arrogance honors God as he boldly reveals the truth of his fallen nature and he takes his place as an eternal lesson showing God’s just wrath. Complaining and finding fault against his Creator is an unnatural business for the creature. But fallen man prefers to busy himself with finding fault in God, rather than admitting his own moral depravity, which is so much easier to prove.

Have you remembered to thank God for his undeserved redemption every day? Let this be a strong reminder that it should be our life and breath to live in that gratitude. While we all deserve the eternal terrors our sin justly brings with it, Paul reminded the believers in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11 that contrary to what we deserve, “… God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.”

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

The Significance of Baptism

The Significance of Baptism

by Bob Burridge ©2011
Part Two of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
(watch the video)

The Significance of Christian Baptism

In this era of the history of God’s people, believers in Christ are marked out by Baptism. When people come to believe the gospel, they should be Baptized with water in the name of the Triune God. This is one of the things Jesus commanded his disciples to do in the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines baptism in its answer to Question 94:

Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

God has always marked out his people by an outward sign ever since he constituted them as a covenant people in the time of Abraham. The sign he commanded in that era was circumcision. That practice continued until the Apostolic age when the New Testament church became established as the earthly representative of God’s continuing covenant people. The continuity of God’s church in both eras was dealt with in detail in previous studies. (See our syllabus notes on chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession about God’s Covenant With Man, and chapter 25 of the confession about the nature of The Church.)

The changes that took place in the covenant community after the coming of the Messiah were massive and dramatic. The old symbols of redemption were fulfilled and replaced by a new system of practices that looked back upon the finished work which the earlier system prefigured. The change is well documented in the New Testament so that the church would have an authoritative record of them. God alone has the right to direct his people to stop doing what he had formerly commanded, and then begin doing something different. The new system does not indicate a change in God’s plan of redemption. It reflects a completion of many of the promises made in his continuing covenant.

A major change was how members of the covenant community are to be marked out as belonging to the people of God. Circumcision was no longer to be required. Instead the ancient concept of baptism would be used, but with deeper meaning attached. Yet its root meaning continued the primary symbolism it always carried. The practice of baptism would still illustrate washing and purification from moral impurity.

Obviously such a dramatic change would have to be explained. It is not surprising that the New Testament addresses this issue in several places. It was important that the church in its new form should understand this revised requirement. The change of initiatory practice impacted the life of every family among God’s people.

The change in the sign and seal of the covenant involved fulfillment of what the old sign and seal prefigured. The finished work of Jesus Christ as Savior by his death in the sinner’s place changed the practices that represented God’s dealing with the guilt and pollution of sin. The new sign also shows how the redemptive benefit of the atonement is applied by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner to regenerate him, to bestow upon him a righteousness that was not his own, and to give him spiritual life where before there was death.

The change from circumcision to baptism is much more than just modifying the outward practice. It represents the change brought about by the ending of the era of symbols where the physical nation of Israel represented the church of Christ. To understand this change it is important to briefly review the significance of circumcision.

1. Circumcision was a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community. It marked out the visible church of God at that time. It did not mean that every person circumcised, or every family member represented in the circumcision of the male head of the home, was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marked the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.

2. Circumcision was a bloody ritual representing the cutting away of sin and its pollution in the soul. Before the shedding of the blood of the Messiah God used bloody rituals to prefigure what had not yet taken place. It was still future by his promise.

3. Circumcision could only be administered to those outside the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ circumcision was mandated in Israel. A person could only receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders believed his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was informed and unfeigned.

4. Circumcision was a representation of an invisible and spiritual reality. Moses and the prophets repeatedly told the people they need to be circumcised in their hearts, not just in their bodies (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, etc.). The church was never to be imagined as being made up exclusively of the truly redeemed. There were provisions for removal from Israel of those circumcised members who showed by their rebellion or unbelief that they were not circumcised in the heart.

To see the changes in the New Testament along with the continuity of the underlying meanings, baptism can be described by similar statements.

1. Baptism is a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community, the visible church in this era. It does not mean that every person baptized was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marks the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.

God’s earthly representation of his kingdom was expanded after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It no longer would be seen in just one nation, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That nation prefigured the New Testament church (Galatians 3:14,16, Ephesians 1:12, etc.). The male representation of the family prefigured the federal headship of Christ. This is what male headship over the home was designed to communicate (Ephesians 5:25-31). This limitation of the initiatory ordinance was eliminated in Christ’s fulfillment so that wives and female children would receive the sign and seal of the covenant also.

2. Baptism is a non-bloody ritual representing the washing away of sin and its pollution in the soul. After the shedding of the Messiah’s blood God rescinded the use of all bloody rituals. What they prefigured had been fulfilled.

3. Baptism is only to be administered to those outside of the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ baptism is mandated for all those becoming members of the New Testament form of the church. A person could only receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders believed his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was informed and unfeigned.

4. Baptism represents an invisible and spiritual reality. Jesus warned that in the New Testament church the tares and wheat are to grow together without attempts to judge the heart.

Excommunication recognizes that the visible church includes some baptized members who come to show no evidences that they are regenerated members of the invisible church of the redeemed. We cannot judge the heart. We only remove those who openly deny the grounds upon which they were admitted in the first place. Baptized believers are reminded that it is the purifying of the heart, not of the body that is important in the eyes of God.

The spiritual import of the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace continued even though the form of the initiatory rite changed. The connection is clearly referenced in Colossians 2:11-14.

11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,
14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

The outward acts of circumcision and baptism are not the issue here. Paul shows that they both relate to an inner change by which we are identified with Christ as our Sin-bearer. This atonement and its application to the believer is what the physical signs and seals represented in both eras.

Many clear references in the New Testament show that membership in the church after the time of Christ is a continuation of the same covenant and promises made to Abraham (see Acts 2:38-39; Romans 3:21; 11:16-17; Galatians 3:14,16,29; Acts 26:6,7; etc.).

Baptism represents the union of the believer in Christ’s victory over sin and its judicial effects. Since the true believer is identified with Christ who is his substitute, he is considered to be free from the penalty of sin which is death, the separation of the offending soul from the presence of God (see notes on the Work of Christ section of our syllabus notes on Jesus Christ, the Mediator, from the Westminster Confession chapter 8).

Sadly, many have missed the main point of Paul’s argument in the previous passage of Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:3-5 to hijack the words “buried with Him in baptism” as an argument to support the mode of total immersion in baptism. A reading of the context shows that the manner of how water is applied neither supports that view, nor does it have any place in the Apostle’s line of reasoning. In reality the Apostle presents baptism in a sense that is most consistent with the covenantal view presented here.

The reference to being baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3), and to being buried with him in baptism (Romans 6:4) is certainly not represented in immersion under water. Jesus was laid in a tomb, not buried in the ground. The concept that submerging a person under water and his emerging up as if coming out of a grave does not picture at all what Jesus did in his being laid in a tomb with a rock over the door and his coming forth from that tomb. The argument falsely imposes our modern idea of burial upon the actual facts of how the body of Jesus was handled upon his death.

Another serious problem with that argument is that it isolates one image from other similar images in the New Testament. We are also said to be “crucified with Christ” and to “put on Christ”. Neither of these images supports immersion under water and emersion from it. They are not promoting a mode of baptism. This is an inconsistent approach to exegesis and is transparently invalid.

The point the Apostle is making here is that by our baptism into Christ we show our identity with his full and complete work as our Savior. Primarily that work is the purifying of the soul from sin and its pollution. Baptism represents the washing away of the offense of sin, and the removing of the penalty of sin which is death. That debt was paid for in our place by the Savior. His resurrection ensures that we will be raised with him to walk in newness of life. The passage in Romans deals with the results of the applied work of Christ as the believer is given spiritual life in him by purification from sin. It has nothing to do with how water is to be applied to the believer when he is physically baptized into the church.

Water baptism is a symbolic act which in itself washes away nothing. It is a ritual cleansing with promises and conditions attached by God in his Covenant. Ritual cleansings all through the history of God’s people up through the time of the New Testament were commanded in the law of Moses to be done by sprinkling or by pouring.

Baptism then is an initiatory rite of membership in the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood. It is also God’s covenantal seal upon all who rightly receive it. It does not certify their election and certain salvation. It seals them as part of the covenant community, and as recipients of the promised blessings or cursings of that covenant depending upon the disposition of God’s redeeming grace.

Water baptism also represents another kind of baptism mentioned in the New Testament, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This shows the coming of the Spirit upon a person to apply the work of Christ in cleansing them from sin. The presence of the Spirit imparts the life which is restored when our separation from God is repaired by the removal of the barrier of our offenses.

This was the promise of John the baptist (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:26, Acts 1:5). In Titus 3:5 Paul mentions this as “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Again, the mode is in most proper agreement with sprinkling and pouring since these are the terms that describe what this baptism of the Holy Spirit represents. It is the coming of the Spirit upon the believer. He is said to be “poured out,” “shed forth,” to have “fallen upon” God’s people. Even the symbolism of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is that of flames coming upon the people, not of immersing them in fire.

For such reasons we say that baptism, considering its import and meaning, is best represented by sprinkling and pouring rather than immersion under water.

This important topic will continue in one more installment. The next lesson will be about who should be baptized, and how baptism becomes effective.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Index of Lessons in the Westminster Shorter Catechism

summary:
Baptism is the initiatory rite into the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood. It is also God’s covenantal seal upon all who rightly receive it. It does not certify their election and certain salvation. It seals them as part of the covenant community, and as recipients of the promised blessings or cursings of that covenant depending upon the disposition of God’s redeeming grace.

Is God Unjust?

Lesson 35: Romans 9:14-18

Is God Unjust?

by Bob Burridge ©2011

In the Book of Romans the Apostle Paul explains some hard, but important truths. For 2,000 years before Christ, God had specially blessed the Jews. He had given them many advantages, and charged them with safely keeping his word.

Sadly, for the most part, what God gave them was abused, and his word was confused. Jesus had warned that the glory of the Jewish people was about to be ended in judgment. Their temple would be destroyed, and their corrupted worship stopped. Paul too had taught that the coming of Messiah marked the end of their unique privilege. As a Jew himself, the Apostle Paul deeply grieved for their unbelief.

Did this mean that God was not keeping his promise to ancient Israel? Certainly that cannot be possible. God had never promised to save all of the physical descendents of Jacob. God gave his covenant promises to Adam, and later to Noah. But he never intended all humans descended from them to be his redeemed people. From the descendants of Adam and Noah, he chose the family of Abraham and his descendants to represent God’s blessings. From the children of Abraham God only chose Isaac to continue the advantaged line. And of Isaac’s twins, God loved Jacob but hated Esau as we saw in the previous part of this chapter of Romans.

Not all of the Jews by natural birth are the spiritual children of God’s promise. Of all those outwardly associated with the Covenant People, only a remnant of them are redeemed by the Savior. In that sense, within the Visible Church there is God’s Invisible Church, those chosen by God’s grace, those upon whom God set his love.

This is not an easy truth for the fallen mind. The spiritually dead heart does not want to admit its own guilt and its inability to change its own basic nature. He wants to be free to do what he wants to do. He wonders that if God chooses only some to be redeemed and to become his true children, is there injustice in God? Is he unfair?

In Romans 9:14-18 Paul deals with the justice of God in choosing some only. In 9:19-24 he handles more directly the fairness issue which we will take up in our next study.

Is God unjust?

Romans 9:14, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!”

Justice is one of God’s eternal attributes. It is part of what he is. When he created all things, he built justice into the universe as a moral principle. When he made mankind in his image, God put it into the heart of humans to love justice. The fallen heart corrupts that idea as it does all the qualities that are in God.

Justice describes what happens to lawbreakers. First is assumes that there is a rule, a law, that ought to be obeyed. It assumes that there is a penalty attached to breaking that rule. Whenever the rule is broken, justice demands that the penalty will be paid. Fairness means that the rule, and its penalty, are applied consistently.

Is God unjust or unfair when he rejects Israel as a whole, yet saves some? Is it unjust that he loves Jacob, but hates Esau (Romans 9:13, Malachi 1:2-3)?

Paul dismisses the objection immediately. He says, “Certainly not!” He uses strong words to deny to the very idea that God could be unjust. The Greek phrase here is mae genoito (μη γενοιτο), which literally means, “Let it not be!” It’s like when we say, “Don’t even think such a thing!” One of my Greek teachers used to bring this over into our day by using the American idiom, “Perish the thought.”

Since Romans is an inspired book of Scripture, if no more was said this would be enough. The Bible says here that God is not unjust. Paul had just shown from Old Testament Scripture that God loves some and hates others, that not all descendents of Jacob are the true Israel of God’s promise. Yet God is just. It says so here. That is all we really need.

God in his desire to show us more about this wonder, does not stop there. He explains beyond just telling us the fact. There is a great comfort here for God’s people when they understand this truth. There is a promise here that helps us through hard times and those moments of doubt.

The First Point of Doctrine in the Canons of Dordt, Article 14 on Election and Reprobation, states, “Just as, by God’s wise plan, this teaching concerning divine election has been proclaimed through the prophets, Christ himself, and the apostles, in Old and New Testament times, and has subsequently been committed to writing in the Holy Scriptures, so also today in God’s church, for which it was specifically intended, this teaching must be set forth–with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people.” (translated from the original Latin manuscript, adopted in 1986 by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church)

To explain his answer more completely,
Paul again turns to Scripture.

Romans 9:15, “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ “

If God has stated this in his word, it is therefore true and must be accepted. The New Testament regularly cites Old Testament authority to prove its case. The Bible does not engage in abstract philosophical arguments to give authority to its teachings. Neither should we.

God spoke to Moses telling him about his divine prerogative in Exodus 33:19, “Then He said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ ”

This is the verse Paul quotes here in Romans to support the point he is making. Mercy and compassion are shown toward those to whom God desires to show it. It is hard to imagine anything being more clear. God does not treat all humans in the same way. This is directly stated by God himself.

Also, God is just. The idea of justice itself comes from what God is. While he selects those to whom he will be merciful and show compassion, he never neglects the demands of justice in so doing. As Paul had also written about God, “He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13).

So then, if all humans deserve eternal damnation and separation from God, how can any be shown compassion and be mercifully delivered without violating justice?

Today we know more than Moses knew about how God justly displays his compassion. Jesus was God in human flesh. He came as the promised Messiah. Only he, as the infinite and perfect God, and as perfect man, could represent those chosen by God, to live and die in their place to satisfy justice for all those to whom God intended to show his compassion.

There can be no principles that limit God other than that which flows from his own nature. Nothing more absolute or eternal than him can possibly exist. Any concept of justice or fairness must come from God himself, not from things external to him. There can be no law that binds the hand of God. A principle that binds must be sovereign over its subjects. If something compels, it is in itself Lord over that which is under it. The highest principle above which is nothing else, is Lord of lords. The Bible tells us that this is the Creator who has revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God incarnate in the person of Jesus. Since God defines justice and fairness, the thought of him being unjust or unfair not only denies that God is God, it makes nonsense out of the idea of the words themselves.

God has compassion upon whom he will. Whatever he desires is by definition right and just. God’s word has established that it is so. There is no need to explain further. The facts of Exodus 33:19 stands by themselves. No more needs to be said. Our inability to reconcile statements, or to comprehend them, is not a valid objection to their being true. The final test is to determine what God’s word says. That is the final word.

What then determines who the
object of mercy will be?

Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

This is a partial conclusion in Paul’s argument. Since it is God alone who decides who will receive his mercy, then it cannot depend upon man. Man cannot be the cause of the mercy he receives if its cause is in God.

First: This mercy cannot be caused by man’s will. It is not by a human’s decision, choice, determination, or receiving that he is saved. It is caused by God alone who has mercy upon whom he will.

Then also he shows that mercy is not caused by man’s efforts. Running is a favorite metaphor Paul uses in several other letters (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Galatians 2:2, 5:7, Philippians 2:16). It stands for the busy work of man in what he sets his mind to want and to do. But all his efforts cannot be the cause of mercy. It is God alone who makes that determination.

Dr. Haldane suggests that Paul might be thinking back to Jacob, the Father of Israel. He desired the blessing that appeared to belong to Esau. He willed it. He wanted it. He ran off to get the venison, disguise himself and deceive his father. Yet in all this, his desires and actions were not the cause of his being chosen. God had chosen that rascal Jacob before he was even born. Before he had done good or evil. If anyone was undeserving of blessing it was that deceiver Jacob. How clear an example God gives us showing that mercy comes by God’s grace, not by man’s choice or effort (Romans 9:11-13).

The Apostle John tells us why some believe and receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. In John 1:12-13 he says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Of course it is also true that those God truly redeems will both will and run. They exercise faith. They receive Jesus as Lord. They do run to him. However, the point is that these are the effects, not the causes, of God’s mercy. He puts that love and faith into their otherwise dead and foolish hearts. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

There is always a divine purpose for some
being left in their evil dispositions.

Romans 9:17, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’ “

Paul again uses the Bible. He quotes the example of how God used Pharaoh. Instead of complex philosophical ideas being introduced, Paul looks to what God has said. Man is often tempted to try to explain the existence of evil beyond what God reveals. Some imagine that God is bound by some abstract idea of human freedom. Others imagine that God lays aside some of his sovereign ability to do his own will. But none of these theories come from God’s word. They are the products of the fallen human mind that creatively wants to be in control.

John Calvin wisely cautions us “… never to feel the least desire to attain any other knowledge concerning this doctrine save what is taught us in Scripture. When the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, let us also stop our thoughts from advancing one step further in our inquiries.”

Unwarranted speculation is dangerous, and it is blasphemous to the revealed nature of God. We are not required to comprehend how a thing is done, or how it all fits together. Our duty, which is not possible in yet fallen hearts, is to accept what God plainly says.

How did this part of Israel’s history come to happen as it did? This man who became the Pharaoh was born into the royal family of Egypt. He was raised to develop the dispositions he displayed toward God and the Israelites. It was this man who came to rule Egypt at just that right time. Only one answer is possible. Israel’s history, even her Egyptian captivity, was the decreed providence of God. All that Pharaoh was, made him the perfect tool for displaying God’s mercy toward Israel. It was God who raised him up to be the person disposed to act exactly as he did. It was not Pharaoh who determined that the Exodus would take place as history records. It was the eternal and unchangeable sovereign good pleasure of God.

God tells us that there was a divine purpose in it all. When six of the plagues had been sent upon Egypt, and four more were yet to come, God gave these words to Moses to say to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16, “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”

God could have removed Pharaoh long before the first plague was sent. But God later explained in Exodus 33:19 to Moses, that Pharaoh’s stubborn and evil heart became the means by which God would show his power in delivering his people who could not deliver themselves. God would declare the glory of his divine nature, his holy name. This would be a testimony to all the earth, not just to the Jews but to us gentiles thousands of years later. Children even today learn of God’s power by hearing the story of the plagues, the passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and God’s deliverance.

The verse Paul had quoted just a moment ago from Exodus 33:19 said the same thing. It was all done to display the glory of God’s name, that he has mercy upon whom he will. This is the revealed fact Paul appeals to. This is what God himself explained.

Next, Paul adds the negative side.

Romans 9:18, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”

Here Paul concludes his reasoning from Scripture explaining God’s rejection of Israel. He repeats for a third time, God’s prerogative to show mercy on whom he will, but to this he adds the negative side. He eliminates any possible misunderstanding. If God has mercy upon whom he will, then there are those upon whom he does not show mercy. Those become hardened by the absence of God’s restraint upon their hearts. Being left to hardness, they are used to demonstrate God’s power and holy name. This has been proven already in the verses Paul has quoted.

By hardening, Paul does not mean that God made an innocent Pharaoh become wicked. He left him to the disposition of his own fallen soul. Pharaoh received nothing that was not justly deserved.

Dr. Charles Hodge explained about God’s work in the heart of this Egyptian leader, “He did not make him wicked; he only forebore to make him good…”

God is not obligated to bestow his mercy upon anyone. God’s nature demands that he must always be just. This is why a Savior was necessary to redeem us who are all unworthy in Adam. God’s nature involves a mercy that is a prerogative of his good pleasure. His redeeming grace does not apply to all fallen humans. We do not know this by implication or by the constructions of Theology. The Bible directly tells us.

Oh how this infinite nature of the Creator is so far above us! It is beyond our comprehension. In Psalm 139:6 we read, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.”

Of course we could look into many more cases in Scripture about how wicked hearts are hardened. We could study more into the details of Pharaoh’s heart and of the sovereign workings of God. We could examine how God hardens the hearts of those who are left in sin. Paul does not go into all that here. That would detract from the simplicity of his argument. He has quoted Scripture, and by this his point has been made. It is clearly true because God in his inspired word says so.

God’s dealings with Israel are not unjust. He would be a “Just God” if he had left us all in the condemnation of sin which we deserve. He may exercise his prerogative and show mercy and compassion upon whom he will.

How tragically foolish when men blame God when they sin. They reason as if it is the Lord’s fault for not stopping them. They assume that if God had a good purpose in their rebellion, then they cannot be held responsible. However, here God tells us that he held Israel responsible for her rebellion and blasphemy.

Paul’s reasoning is beyond objection. He uses God’s inspired word. God is not unjust in hardening Pharaoh, or the hearts of the apostate nation of Israel, or of the apostate modern Christian church. God is not unjust in saving some who deserve eternal damnation, because Jesus settled the debt of justice in the place of them according to that eternal plan. He has mercy upon whom he will, and whom he will he hardens. All are used in his plan to declare his power and glory.

Have you been touched by the mercy of God? Has he made you aware of the offense of your sin before his holy eyes? Has he made you see the wonder of the Cross of Christ? Has he made you hungry for righteousness. Do you desire to obey his moral principles in every way you can? Has he humbled you to repentance when you fail? The Eternal God did not have to do that. It was his divine prerogative to show mercy. You deserve as did Pharaoh, Esau, and all those not redeemed in Christ, to be justly left with your deserved guilt, and to be hardened in your heart against God.

What marvelous grace rescues us, and will not let us go! What comfort and hope is ours, who in Christ learn to rest in God’s compassion rather than in our own devices. Take time to thank God for his undeserved grace.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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