Rescuing the Romans from the Reformers Again
Martin Foord, Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Trinity Theological College (Perth, Australia) recently replied to Jacob Michael’s article on the Book of Romans. Despite Jake’s fine rescue effort the first time, Mr. Foord did not hang on to the life preserver. In the selected pieces of the exchange below, Pacheco tries to throw Mr. Foord the life preserver again. Let’s hope this time that he hangs on! Mr. Foord’s comments will be in red. Michael’s original commentary will be in purple. Pacheco replies in blue.
A friend of mine who has converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism decided that in his fourth year of full time theological study he would write a thesis that was a critique of Bob Sungenis’ book Not by Faith Alone. At first sight the book looked impressive and imposing. However, as he started looking at the arguments he found that it contained so many errors of fact (e.g. basic repeated parsing errors), exegesis, and logic, ad hominem arguments, and historical omissions and misrepresentations that he wondered whether it actually warranted answering.
Of course he did. When one cannot even hope to overcome such a masterpiece like Not By Faith Alone, there must be some pretense for dismissing it. Robert Sungenis’ brilliant 700 page book is ostensibly wiped out in less than 50 words of boorish flippancy.
I start with this story because one such article that bears the same marks as Bob Sungenis’ book is Jacob Michael’s “Rescuing Romans from the Reformers.” There are lashings of OT quotations, statements about what any first century Jew would have believed, and words strewn about like: “inter textual echoes”. But on a closer evaluation Mr. Michael’s arguments are very disappointing.
Are they now? That is a rather curious statement since if that were true, a “Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Trinity Theological College” would not likely have the time to waste with amateurs like Mr. Michael. One has to wonder why Mr. Foord wants to engage Mr. Michael, and not pick on somebody his own academic size. It seems to me that Mr. Foord’s response is a pronounced compliment to Jake’s exegetical ability. Of all the theological clap trap going around on the internet between scholars and amateurs, Mr. Foord chooses to spend his time writing a rebuttal to Jake. Remarkable.
There are two issues I wish to raise from Mr. Michael’s article. The first is his unpleasant misrepresentation of the Protestant position. This is truly remarkable. He claims to be rescuing Romans from the reformers, but in fact we find none of the reformers quoted or referred to. Indeed what we find is the construction of a very shaky reformation straw man.
One of the continual frustrations I personally have had when listening to the converts from “anti-Catholicism” like Scott Hahn and Gerry Matatics is the persistent misrepresentation of the reformers and reformation theology. One only has to listen to the first tape of Scott Hahn’s series on sola scriptura. In it he purports to explicate the best possible defense of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. But it is quite clear he had no idea what it actually was.
Of course not. No one who really knew what sola scriptura actually was would really abandon it. Just like a person who once purported to be “saved” really wasn’t so after he apostatized. Everybody knows that!
1.There is No One Righteous
The first Romans passage Mr. Michael analyses is Rom. 3:10-18 and its relevance to the topic of total depravity. His opening comments are:
These verses are twisted by Reformers to support their doctrine that Man is totally depraved, incapable and uninterested in seeking after God.
Notice the ad hominem language: “twisted by Reformers”. But one looks in vain to find any quotations from the Reformers themselves, so as to see whether they have been faithfully represented. Mr. Michael then proceeds to show that when the list of OT quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah in Rom. 3:10-18, are placed in context, they do not prove that “Man is totally depraved, incapable and uninterested in seeking after God.” Let us look at Mr. Michael’s conclusions:
But what about the Reformers’ premise? Is [sic] is decidedly destroyed when one considers that in almost every Psalm quoted, there is some mention of “the just,” “the righteous,” “them that are right in heart,” and so on. How can the Psalmist be saying that there is literally no one who is righteous, who seeks after God, when he then goes on to use phrases like, “But as for the just, they shall give glory to thy name: and the upright shall dwell with thy countenance,” and “For the Lord is in the just generation?” The Reformer must concede that he has utterly missed the point of St. Paul’s argument, and that he has done what St. Paul would never do: wrenched Old Testament texts out of context.
Again no quotations from the reformers themselves, just wild accusations that they have “wrenched Old Testament texts out of context.” But what Mr. Michael may not realize is that:  the reformers were indeed aware of the context of the OT quotations;  Mr. Michael appears to have “wrenched” Rom. 3:10-18 from its context. Let us examine both points in reverse order
Firstly, Rom. 3:10-18 fits into a larger argument that spans from Rom. 1:18 – 3:20. Mr. Michael quotes freely from chapter 2, but this is only part of Paul’s argument, which began in 1:18. Paul’s argument does not start with the issue of Jewish boundary markers and national righteous (so the “New Perspective”) but the fact of God’s wrath upon sinful humans (1:18 “For the wrath of God is being revealed against all ungodliness …”).
In Rom. 3:10-18 Paul is concluding the argument about sin he began in 1:18. What is most devastating to Mr. Michael’s reading of this passage is that he ignores the very next verses that follow! Look at what Paul’s conclusion is:
Rom 3:19: Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. (NRSV, emphasis added)
Notice Paul’s clear conclusion: “so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (emphasis added). In other words Paul uses 3:10-18 to show that all humanity is sinful. From 1:18-3:20 Paul’s argument is that all people without exception (the “whole world”), both Jews and Gentiles, are under God’s law and have broken it. The Gentiles have the “works of the law” written on their hearts (2:14-15) and are thus responsible to God (1:32). Yet the Jews were under the much more clear expression of God’s law in the OT Torah. Hence they also are responsible for their sin before God (Rom. 2:1-24). Paul’s argument is this: whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, all are under sin and culpable before God. Paul’s point is seen a few verses later:
Rom 3:23: since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; (NRSV, emphasis added).
So far so good (for the most part). There is little disagreement here between Catholics and Protestants.
Let us now look at the next problem with Mr. Michael’s conclusion. What of the observation that the Psalms and Isaiah passages quoted in 3:10-18 make mention of the “righteous” alongside side of statements of universal sin like:
Rom 3:11 there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. (NRSV) [quote from Psalm 14:1]
Let me do something that Mr. Michael has not done: quote a Reformer. John Calvin in his early commentary on Romans did indeed notice the context of the OT quotations and drew conclusions that were sensitive to the NT interpretation of them:
“And that these testimonies [the OT quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah in Rom. 3:10-18] may not seem to any one to have been unfitly produced, let us consider each of them in connection with the passages from which they have been taken. David says in Psalm 14:1, that there was such perverseness in men, that God, when looking on them all in their different conditions, could not find a righteous man, no, not one. It then follows, that this evil pervaded mankind universally; for nothing is hid from the sight of God. He speaks indeed at the end of the Psalm of the redemption of Israel: but we shall presently show how men become holy, and how far they are exempt from this condition. In the other Psalms he speaks of the treachery of his enemies, while he was exhibiting in himself and in his descendants a type of the kingdom of Christ: hence we have in his adversaries the representatives of all those, who being alienated from Christ, are not led by his Spirit. Isaiah expressly mentions Israel; and therefore his charge applies with still greater force against the Gentiles. What, then? There is no doubt but that the character of men is described in those words, in order that we may see what man is when left to himself; for Scripture testifies that all men are in this state, who are not regenerated by the grace of God. The condition of the saints would be nothing better, were not this depravity corrected in them: and that they may still remember that they differ nothing from others by nature, they do find in the relics of their flesh (by which they are always encompassed) the seeds of those evils, which would constantly produce fruits, were they not prevented by being mortified; and for this mortification they are indebted to God’s mercy and not to their own nature. We may add, that though all the vices here enumerated are not found conspicuously in every individual, yet they may be justly and truly ascribed to human nature, as we have already observed on Romans 1:26. (Emphasis added)
Calvin argues that the statements found in the catena of OT texts are descriptions of what all people are like before God has intervened in their life.
I have a few problems with the above, but I am willing to grant most of it. Let’s continue…
It is true that the OT texts, like Psalm 14 mention the “righteous.” Calvin’s point is that the “righteous” in these OT passages are those whom God has had mercy upon in the context of the universal sinfulness of all humans. These OT texts were a reminder to the faithful Jew of what they once were, except for God’s mercy upon them.
OK. This is where we stop holding hands. First, Mr. Foord, is implicitly affirming that man has no participation in his salvation: that God has mercy on the sinner, changes the sinner’s behaviour without his consent and voila he is then considered “righteous”. This is why Mr. Foord (and Calvin) say the “righteous” in the Psalms are those “whom God had mercy upon”, meaning, God decided to make them righteous independently of their consent or will.
But let us see if that squares with the Psalm in question.
“All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Will evildoers never learn – those who devour my people as men eat bread and who do not call on the LORD? There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous. You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge. (Psalm 14:3-6)
Notice, for instance, how the corrupt are “evildoers” PRECISELY BECAUSE they “DO NOT CALL ON THE LORD”. What the Psalmist is recognizing is the freedom that each man has, and if he does not exercise that freedom in God’s service, he will remain an evildoer! In other words, while it is true that God might initiate righteousness in man, man participates by asking God for his intervention by, as the Psalmist says, “calling on the Lord”. That is why the marriage relationship between God (the Husband) and the Church, His Bride, is replete in the Old Testament and highlighted in the New (Cf. Revelation 19:7, 21:2, 21:9). The relationship is a heavenly marriage, and the Catholic notion of justification is much more in line with this imagery than the cold-robotic schema that Calvin had proposed five centuries ago.
Second, let us by seeing how Scripture defines “righteous”. Here are a few selections from the Gospel of Matthew.
- “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)
- “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness‘ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
- “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous.” (Matthew 13:49)
- “In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:38)
- “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.'” (Matthew 25:37-46)
As one can clearly see, “righteous(ness)” is always connected to, or a result of, good works. In fact, let’s recall Romans 3 again to set the context of how the Psalmist uses “righteousness”:
“What shall we conclude then? Are we any better ? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:9:12)
Now then, what do we see here? First we see St. Paul’s clear parallel between morality and righteousness. He says “Are we any better“. In other words, are the Jews more moral than the Gentiles? St. Paul says no, and then he goes quite naturally into speaking about righteousness, which serves as the connection to his opening preface charging all under sin – in other words, righteousness is under the auspices of morality. Furthermore, we clearly see the phrase “no one [being] righteous” being directly paralleled with “no one [doing] good”. Hence, being “righteous” is, by definition, doing good.
So “righteousness” in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament is more than God simply having mercy on sinners. (In truth, I don’t even know where that particular context is expressly manifested in the passage, and it is more probable that the notion is introduced gratuitously in order to form a basis for Calvin’s interpretation of Psalm 14. It is a ram-road imposition on the text.)
To read the OT passages in any other way leads to an obscuring of the actual words in them. For example, Psalm 14:1 “there no-one who seeks God”. What else could those words mean but that there is no one that seeks God? The “righteous” Jew was once dead in their sin but God in mercy made them alive spiritually.
Let’s cite the passage again:
“All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. Will evildoers never learn – those who devour my people as men eat bread and who do not call on the LORD? There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous. You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge. (Psalm 14:3-6 NIV)
The actual words of the Psalm, Mr. Foord, are more than verse 3. You need to keep reading the actual words of the next few verses to understand the actual words in context. The actual words of the subsequent verses speak of “my people” who are “righteous” and take “refuge in the Lord”. Does this sound to you like people who are “not seeking after God”? No, frankly it does not. The Psalmist is using a literary device when he uses “all” and “no” to capture the vast majority of Israel.
The Psalmist, therefore, is presenting two sides of Israel: the “evil doers” (unrighteous who do not call on the Lord) vs. God’s people (the righteous who take refuge in the Lord). It is not, as Mr. Foord alleges, saying that all men, without exception, are unrighteous and would be so if God did not make them righteous despite their own will, but only that the vast majority of Israel is evil, and only the “remnant” remain in God’s love. One need not interpret “all have turned aside” as being every single person – any more than believing that St. Paul sought to exclude persons from the curse of Adam by using ‘many’ instead of ‘all’ in Romans 5:15:
“For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Romans 5:15)
Furthermore, the whole schema which Mr. Foord is defunct. He tells us that the “righteous” are indeed so, but it is only because God has had mercy on them, and has made them so. Very well then. Leaving aside the notion of free will for the moment, we can both agree that these people are righteous because of God’s mercy. But wait a minute. If one group is now “righteous” while the other group remains “unrighteous” (by God’s complete sovereignty under the Reformed conception), then how does Mr. Foord reconcile these two camps with the Psalmist’s first declaration: “no one is righteous”? Well, if Mr. Foord maintains that “no one is righteous” and he dismisses the Catholic view for declaring that someone can be, then I daresay that he must dismiss his own explanation of how someone can be righteous because of God’s mercy. He cannot have his cake and eat it too! Moreover, there is no hint in the whole text of Psalm 14 where the Psalmist intends to say, as Mr. Foord does (i.e. “a reminder to the faithful Jew of what they once were, except for God’s mercy upon them”) that the righteous ones were once “unrighteous”. There is no evidence of a graduation from unrighteousness to righteousness at all. All you have in the passage are two groups presented: the unrighteous “evildoers” and God’s people “the company of the righteous”. Any suggestion of a veiled election by God is totally foreign to the text and smacks of an obvious eisegesis.
Finally, if ‘no one seeks after God’, then please explain why:
1. There is a clear demarcation between the ‘evildoers’ and the ‘righteous’?
2. Why are “my people” called “righteous” as opposed to the “evildoers” who are clearly “unrighteous”?
3. How can “unrighteous” people take “refuge in the Lord”, especially considering Our Lord’s warning to his disciples:
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
Calvin wrote commentaries on almost all of the books in the Bible; he soaked himself in Scripture. Moreover he was, of course, one of the best Hebraists in his day. In Geneva he lectured primarily on the OT. He was a fallible human but to accuse him (a reformer) of “wrenching” the OT out of its context is gratuitous to say the least.
Given the perspicuous nature of Psalm 14, I do not think it is gratuitous to say that Calvin “wrenched” the text. In fact, he should go to jail for being so violent to God’s inspired word.
Anyway, if Mr. Michael wants clear proof that one cannot turn to God in their sinful state, it is clearly taught elsewhere in Romans. For example:
Rom 8:7: For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law–indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (NRSV, emphasis added)
The verse in question does not say what Mr. Foord thinks it says. It does not say that someone in a “sinful state” cannot turn to God. It says that a person’s “mind that is set on the flesh…cannot please God.” In other words, a person who does not seek after God and consumes himself with pleasures of the flesh (understood in the wide sense) is not God’s friend. However, when a person changes his mind and sets it on the spirit of Christ, this act will indeed please God. The story of the prodigal son is a wonderful example of this (Cf. Luke 15:11-32).
“Therefore tell the people: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the LORD Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Zechariah 1:3)
Let us move on to the next issue Mr. Michael raises.
2. By Faith Alone
Mr. Michael turns next to the topic of justification by faith alone and the locus classicus Rom. 3:28-4:8 (I don’t know why he doesn’t include 3:21-27 which are critical to Paul’s argument). He presents the “Reformers” position:
As proof of this [that works do not affect our standing before God according to the reformers], inevitably Romans 3 and 4 will be cited, with special emphasis on the case of Abraham and David, who are said to have had righteousness “reputed,” and sin not “imputed.” These are legal terms, so goes the argument, and so justification is something that is credited to our “account”, externally, though we ourselves remain essentially impure in our soul.
Again Mr. Michael does not quote the reformers, and again he conveys a caricature of their position. So, “repute” and “impute” are not legal terms. The Hebrew word for “repute” / “impute” (chashab) is actually taken from an accounting context. It is “justification” that is the legal term.
That Paul’s use of “justification” was forensic is now beyond doubt linguistically. Romans is enough to prove that. In 8:33-34 the verb “to justify” (dikaioo) is the antonym of the verb “to condemn” (katakrino). Furthermore in Romans 5:16 and 18 the nouns for “justification” (dikaioma and dikaiosis) are antonyms of the noun “condemnation” (katakrima). So whatever “justification” / “justify” means, it must be the opposite of “condemnation” / “condemn”. The “justification” language of Paul most likely comes from the OT Jewish legal setting (Deut. 25:1; 2 Sam. 15:4; 1 Kings 8:31-32; 2 Chron. 6:22-23; Psalm 132:3; Prov. 17:15). Both “justification” and “condemnation” (and their verb cognates) are forensic terms in that they are the declaration a judge makes upon a person. Hence “to condemn” was to pronounce or declare one guilty, and “to justify” (tzadaq) was to pronounce or declare one not guilty.
Here’s a point to consider. If justification is based on a righteousness that is only forensic and alien, having no basis in reality, then does the converse apply to condemnation? I mean, it’s Mr. Foord who is saying:
“…in Romans 5:16 and 18 the nouns for “justification” (dikaioma and dikaiosis) are antonyms of the noun “condemnation” (katakrima). So whatever “justification” / “justify” means, it must be the opposite of “condemnation” / “condemn”.”
Hence, not wanting to contradict Mr. Foord’s fine pretext, I shall only demand that he be consistent in applying his understading of “justification” to “condemnation”. If “justification” is forensically based (i.e righteousness being legal and not real), then that must mean, according to Mr. Foord, that the condemnation of God is also forensically and declaratively based on something which is also not real. But we know that God’s condemnation is indeed based on something real (i.e. serious sin, unbelief, etc). [If you aren’t saved, you go to hell, and that’s a very real experience.] So what does this revelation show us? It shows us that the Reformers view of justification is as fictitious and erroneous as their necessary and compulsory view of condemnation. Either both are based on something real or both are not real. In which realm do you think the great I AM operates? Does He condemn you on something which is legal only? No, you say, His condemnations have their basis in reality? Well, the same applies to “justification”, then. Its basis is on a real righteousness and not a mere declarative one.
The great law court scene that Paul had in mind was, of course, the last judgment (Rom. 2:13). Indeed Paul’s doctrine of justification is that the end time declaration of God in Christ on judgment day is now thrown into the present for the believer.
While it is true that Scripture might employ legal imagery from time to time, it is invariably done so in reference to final judgment. So while we are willing to concede that a certain legal dimension does exist in regards to justification, we are not willing to concede that that is all that it encompasses. On the contrary, there are many passages dealing with justification which are not in a court room setting but rather in a familial one (Cf. Rom 8:15-33, Gal 3:24-4:5, Eph 5:1). It does no good for Mr. Foord to trumpet the legal dimension of justification while muzzling the familial horn which needs to be heard as well. In fact, the “justification paradigms” used by Scripture really don’t see the courtroom at all. On the contrary, there are other personal relationship paradigms used to describe it:
- Friendship – Romans 5:9; James 2:23
- Marriage/Widowhood – Romans 7:1-4
- Bondwoman/Free woman – Galatians 4:21-31
- Legitimate/Bastard Son – Hebrews 12:8
- Jew/Gentile – Galatians 2:11-21
- Adoption – Romans 8:15,23;9:4; Galatians 4:5, Ephesians 1:5
In other words the believer knows in advance what God’s verdict will be.
Really? That’s not what St. Paul thinks:
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24-27)
“My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:4-5)
As a side issue, which we do not have time to go into, there are three meanings to the verb “to justify” (dikaioo) in the NT. What is disturbing for the Roman Catholic is that none of the three meanings concur with the classic Roman Catholic rendering “to make righteous by a conferral of righteousness.”
Sure it does, Mr. Foord. Here are but two examples of many:
“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” ( 1 Cor 6:11)
“…he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)
Sin is washed away: Psalm 51:2,7; Isaiah 1:16; Ezek. 36:35; Acts 22:16; Hebrews 1:3; 1 John 7.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.” (Psalm 51:1-4)
Here is a question for Mr. Foord: If we are to understand “justify” in a declarative and forensic sense so that we are “declared or pronounced righteous” without actually being so, then does that mean that God “being justified” is also only “declared or pronounced righteous” without being so? If He is truly righteous, then why does Scripture use dikaioo to describe God’s state if it is only a legal, forensic concept? Furthermore, how can God (who cannot lie or deceive us) declare something which is not? Can God say “the sky is green” when, in actuality, it is not? Can God say “you are righteous” when, in actuality, you are not?
But let us return to Mr. Michael’s argument. He says:
Now then, what about the Reformer’s use of this passage [Rom. 4:3 in particular] to prove that Man is justified apart from works, in a forensic, declarative manner? Once again, he is forced to admit a bit of misuse of these Old Testament texts, for we read:
“By faith he that is called Abraham obeyed to go out into a place which he was to receive for an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing whither he went.” (Heb. 11:8)
And the Lord said to Abram: Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father’s house, and come into the land which I shall shew thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and magnify thy name, and thou shalt be blessed. I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee, and in thee shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. So Abram went out as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him: Abram was seventy-five years old when he went forth from Haran.” (Gen. 12:1-4)
The issue of chronology which played so well into St. Paul’s hands is the same issue which confounds and frustrates the Reformer. If, as the Reformer claims, St. Paul is citing from Genesis 15:6 to show when Abraham was first “saved” by God, then he must answer the fact that Genesis 15 takes place many, many years after Genesis 12, in which account Abram obeys God and sets out on a journey to an unknown land. The inspired commentary in Hebrews informs us that this was, in fact, an act of faith and obedience on the part of Abram. Given that faith and obedience are the two key ingredients in the work of salvation, how can the Reformer posit that Abraham was not justified until Genesis 15:6, when clearly, he had faith in God and obeyed in Genesis 12?
The answer to this last sentence is, “Jacob the reformers do say that Abram was justified before Gen. 15:6!” Again, Mr. Michael provides no quotations from any reformer, and again he misrepresents their position. Luther, Calvin, Owen, Turretin, Edwards, and many others argued that Abraham was justified before Gen. 15:6!
Calvin made much of the fact that Abram was justified before Gen. 15:6 against Rome to show that works are excluded…
Really? That’s a curious statement. There are many, many Evangelicals tooting the horn that Genesis 15:6 is the fait de complit of Abraham’s spiritual life. We hear it ad nauseam. The opinion is no less shared by prominent Reformed theologians and apologists. Here’s one of the biggest ones. Note his reference to Abraham first obtaining faith in Genesis 15:6:
“Paul declares that Abraham was justified before he performed works. He was justified as soon as he had faith (in Gen. 15). Abraham is reckoned or counted as righteous (a forensic declaration) before and without a view to his works. Later Abraham demonstrated his faith by his works of obedience.” (Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, R.C. Sproul, Baker Book House Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995. p. 166)
Take it away, James….
“On what basis was Abraham made righteous – his works, or his faith? Read Romans chapter 4. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is that Abraham was made righteous by faith and not by works of the law, and he backs up his argument by pointing out that Genesis 15:6 took place hundreds of years before the law was given! Therefore, how could Abraham have received righteousness by works of the law when the law had not yet been given?! Now, what is the time relationship between Genesis 15:6 and the imputation of righteousness to Abraham, and his offering of Isaac on the altar? In other words, which came first – the proper relationship with God (i.e. righteousness) or the works that demonstrated Abraham’s faith in God? The answer is quite clear, as the story of the offering of Isaac is found in chapter 22 of Genesis, which would indicate that this event took place at least twenty, and possibly as long as forty years after Genesis 15:6. Hence, the Bible makes it clear that the act of faith recorded in Genesis 15:6 was the basis of Abraham’s salvation – he demonstrated that faith many years later in reference to Isaac….” (Emphasis added) (James White, http://aomin.org/MEMVER.html)
…even after one has begun the Christian life (see Institutes 3.11.14 and 3.14.11)! (One could only wish that many of the Romish epologists had read Calvin on justification in Institutes 3.11-18 because their well-worn arguments have been refuted long ago).
Well it is true that Calvin did state that works are excluded even after Justification:
Moreover, we shall afterwards see, at the proper place, that the blessings of sanctification and justification, which we derive from Christ, are different. Hence it follows, that not even spiritual works are taken into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith. And, indeed, the passage above quoted, in which Paul declares that Abraham had no ground of glorying before God, because he was not justified by works, ought not to be confined to a literal and external form of virtue, or to the effort of free will. The meaning is, that though the life of the Patriarch had been spiritual and almost angelic, yet he could not by the merit of works have procured justification before God. (Institutes, 3:11:14)
…but Jake never said otherwise. What he said was that many evangelical and (well informed) reformed minded Protestants (not necessarily the first reformers) use Genesis 15:6 as the “justification moment” for Abraham, and he is quite right in that belief. Whether Calvin himself believed that, I can’t say. The fact that Mr. Foord and Mr. Sproul cannot agree on the matter seems to indicate that the question is far from certain.
Abram was justified, at least by Gen. 12:1 (because he had faith then according to Heb. 11:8), and yet in Gen. 15:6 we find that his faith was what “counted” for righteousness. What does this mean? Quite simply Gen. 15:6 is not a statement about Abram’s initial justification. It is a statement about what kept Abram in a justified state (or righteousness). Paul deploys Gen. 15:6 to show that faith is the key element that God “counts” (or takes into account) in establishing one’s righteousness (or righteous state). Faith itself is not the “righteousness”; the words cannot be construed that way (note the prepositional phrase eis dikaiosunen “for righteousness” or “aimed at righteousness”). Faith alone is the instrument that brings one into the justified state, and faith alone is the instrument that maintains one in the justified state (Phil. 3:8-9; Rom. 11:20; Col. 1:23).
#1 – Does the fact that the Reformed camp cannot agree on the occasion of Abraham’s justification mean that the whole “one-time justification” theory is out the window? I mean, you would think that if Abraham’s justification was just one-time, then they should be able to speak with one voice and tell us just exactly when that was. Up until now, I thought it was Genesis 15:6. Mr. Foord has enlightened us all that it was not. Fascinating.
#2 – Now that Mr. Foord has indicated initial justification occurred in Genesis 12, then we Catholics are very happy to accept his explanation of what was going on in Genesis 15:6. As he very ably explains:
“Quite simply Gen. 15:6 is not a statement about Abram’s initial justification. It is a statement about what kept Abram in a justified state (or righteousness).”
This is a very Catholic view of the verse. We are most indebted to Mr. Foord for it.
Indeed Paul proves justification by faith alone through using another OT verse that does not speak of initial justification but the ongoing maintenance of one’s justified state: Hab. 2:4, “the righteous will live by faith.” Heb. 10:37-39 shows us that Hab. 2:4 is to be interpreted, not “the righteous by faith, will live”, but that “the righteous, will live by faith” (then it launches into the magnificent ‘by faith’ chapter: Heb. 11).
Hey Martin! They mean the same thing! All you are doing is switching “will live” and “by faith”. Grammatically, one is passive and the other is active, but they have the same linguistic import. Read both statements carefully and honestly and you will see (just like everyone else sees) that they mean the same thing, and that you are desperately trying to split hairs in order to salvage a bad haircut. Quick, put a hat on before someone sees you!
In other words faith instrumentally (note the “by”) maintains one’s “righteous” or justified state before God. Therefore, Paul uses Hab. 2:4 in Rom. 1:17 to show that a believer’s faith from first to last maintains one’s righteousness before God:
Rom 1:17: For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (NRSV)
And Paul also uses Hab. 2:4 in Gal. 3:11 to prove justification by faith alone:
Gal 3:11: Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (NRSV)
St. Paul uses Habukkuk like he used Abraham: to show us how justification is wrought through faith TO faith; from one test to another. Both of these men were repeatedly tested by God their whole lives, and they LIVED (i.e. through actions) their faith from one moment of existence to another. There are trials that come up that must be faced and conquered. If Habakkuk or Abraham failed in the works leading from one faith test to another faith test, one could not say that they lived from faith to faith. They would have started out with “faith”, but a trial might have come upon one of them to make them lose the second moment of “faith”. If Abraham had refused to sacrifice Isaac, could St. Paul say that he lived from “faith to faith”? Quite evidently not since Abraham would not have trusted in God concerning his only son’s fate. You see, it’s quite simple, actually. You cannot really “believe in something” or have “faith in something” unless you are willing to put your body and soul on the line for it, and unless you are willing to sacrifice something for that belief. If you are not willing to do it, then you cannot be said to really believe in it. You see, works are required to bring faith to life. This is the reason St. James compares the faith without works to a body without a soul: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26). If you still maintain that you do have “faith” but insist on divorcing works from it (insofar as your justification is concerned) and therefore stopping its realization and actualization, then you have a dead faith, and a dead faith does not save.
It’s quite simple really. Mr. Michael says,
The issue of chronology [in Rom. 4:1-8] which played so well into St. Paul’s hands is the same issue which confounds and frustrates the Reformer.
In actual fact it is the reverse. Mr. Michael’s observation that Abram was justified before Gen. 15:6 devastates the Roman Catholic position. Abram had been justified at least since Gen. 12:1 (the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly when)…
…and had therefore brought forth many good works since then. But these still counted for nothing when it came to his justified or righteous state before God, because years later in Gen. 15:6 God still “counted” him for righteousness by faith and not “works”. Notice it is not “works of the law” here because the Jewish Torah had not yet been given to Israel.
Precisely. This is why St. Paul uses Genesis 15:6 to show the Jews that Abraham was justified before any law – ceremonial or moral – had been introduced. Abraham’s justification came before keeping any law. It came by works of faith. That is why the confrontation he presents is really between law vs. faith and not works of faith vs. “saving” faith. When St. Paul condemns “works” in Romans 4, it is under the context of the Law:
“For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless…” (Romans 4:14)
Notice how St. Paul naturally goes from speaking about “works” and “circumcision” to the “law” in verse 14? It’s because he is trying to draw a sharp line between what comes from the law and what comes from faith
“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.” (Romans 9:30-32)
Notice again, St. Paul’s clear association with the law and works:
Gentiles pursued righteousness by faith.
Israel pursued a law of righteousness by works.
Clearly Paul distinguishes the kind of righteousness which both groups sought: the Gentiles pursued “gracious” righteousness through faith while Israel pursued a “legal righteousness” through works. The former does not seek to obligate God; the latter most certainly does. But how can you pursue righteousness by faith? “Pursue” is a verb. “Righteousness” involves “goodness and truth”. To pursue goodness and truth, you inevitably must act. And action means works of faith. This is why St. Paul says in Galatians:
“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6 NIV)
It’s not just “faith” that counts; it’s “faith expressing itself through love.” Again, faith must work through love. It is a marriage of sorts. This is the reason why James says:
“Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (James 2:17)
Notice that faith by itself cannot be alive. It needs the other the lung to breathe.
According to Paul Abram’s “works” played no part in his righteous state before God.
“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is j-u-s-t-i-f-i-e-d by what he ***does*** and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)
Rom 4:3: For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as [for] righteousness.” 4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as [for] righteousness. (NRSV)
Precisely. All works (moral and ceremonial) performed under law, so as to obligate God, cannot justify. This is why St. Paul inserts words like “wages” and “due”, but clearly not all works are described by him as such:
“To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” (Romans 2:7)
Hence it is important to make the necessary distinction between works of law and works of faith.
Secondly, the context of the law spoken of in Romans 4 is clearly represented by “circumcision”. St. Paul is using circumcision as representative of the whole law given to Israel. Of Abraham, St. Paul says that ” he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” (Romans 4:11-12).
Notice that St. Paul is not trying to separate works from faith but works of law from works of faith. He states that Abraham is the father of those who walk in the footsteps of the faith. In other words, you are righteous if you “walk the talk” (so to speak) and perform the works of Abraham in faith. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. (John 8:39)
If works were included in Abram’s (or anyone’s) justification then Christ’s death would not be sufficient (Gal. 2:21; Gal. 5:4). Abram’s good works were the effect of his justified status before God not the cause.
Remember what I said earlier about works of law? Let me restate it again: “All works (moral and ceremonial) performed under law, so as to obligate God, cannot justify.” Now, let’s read Mr. Foord’s first citation above from Galatians:
“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21)
See what I mean? St. Paul says that Christ died for nothing if righteousness could be gained through the LAW. Does he even mention “works”? No. Does he mean “works of faith”? No. If anything, this verse confirms the Catholic view and completely obliterates Mr. Foord’s. The verse is quite simply pitting God’s grace (and faith as a corrolary to it) against the law. “Works” are present under both systems of justification. St. Paul’s intention could not be any clearer. Only Reformed coloured glasses insist on seeing something contrary to reality. But are we surprised? Any theology which extols a declarative righteousness over a real one is sure to have problems with the truth.
3. Eternally Secure
Maybe Mr. Michael doesn’t realize that the reformers taught that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6) but also that the way God does this is by not letting the believer fall into apostasy. Serious sin in the life of the “believer” should cause them to question whether they have truly had the experience of salvation. In other words, serious sin will separate us from the love of God, but the true believer will be spared from this. That is why believers are called upon to examine their lives in the NT to see if their faith is genuine:
2 Cor 13:5: Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?-unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! (NRSV)
Meet Jack. Jack is a professing reformed evangelical. If you ask Jack, he’ll tell you he got saved back in College, and, in truth, he may very well be “saved” – at least there is nothing on his conscience that does not meet the test that St. Paul has proposed. In fact, let’s say that Jack is as sure today as Mr. Foord is about his own salvation. But let us say that, for whatever reason, Jack falls into unrepentant serious sin tomorrow. Mr. Foord, in order to rationalize the “once saved always saved” doctrine, tells us that because Jack fell, it “should cause [Jack] to question whether [he has] truly had the experience of salvation.” But wait a minute. What causes Mr. Foord to even question whether Jack is saved or not? It is the falling into serious sin, just like he said, is it not? In other words, it’s works! Works are the instrument that Mr. Foord is using to judge whether someone is saved or not! Secondly, Jack has already passed the test today, so that means he’s saved today. If he fails the test tomorrow, then he won’t be saved tomorrow, but that is tomorrow – it’s not today. Today, he got a passing mark from his conscience. But if Mr. Foord says that Jack’s conscience is wrong today because of what happened tomorrow, then what kind of real assurance does Mr. Foord have today in his own salvation? Answer: none. He might have assurance tomorrow of his salvation today, but we are living in today and we need an answer today not tomorrow.
4. The Arbitrary Deity
Mr. Michael finally turns to Rom. 9:17-20 and says this:
The above passage is a favorite prooftext for Calvinist Reformers to support their view that God is arbitrary in His sovereign choice of who will and who will not be saved, and of who will and who will not be hardened.
Here Mr. Michael argues that “Calvinist Reformers” believe that God is “arbitrary.” Yet again (sigh), there are no references from the reformers themselves, and yet again (sigh) this is a radical misunderstanding of their position. The Reformers would never have said that God is “arbitrary” in his sovereignty; it is a gross distortion. They never argued that God’s nature was random. God’s sovereignty may appear random to us as finite humans, but God does everything according to his infinite wisdom. If he did not, he would cease to be God. God’s wisdom means his ways are not irrational, capricious, or arbitrary. God’s reason in electing some for salvation is not revealed to us in Scripture, except that it is not found in the believer. Let us now address two issues that arise from Mr. Michael’s comments.
What Jake meant was that the Reformers conception of God’s exercise of sovereignty is quite arbitrary (not that the Reformers believed it was). Obviously, the Reformers themselves would not make such a concession. In regards to Jake’s intended meaning, he’s right of course: the goid of Calvinism is arbitrary because it is dependant on a conception of Jesus which is foreign to the Gospels. The instances where Our Lord’s judgements are revealed are first, invariably based on works and second, just and right judgements which we share with Our Lord. More on this later.
i. A Prior Issue: God’s Transcendence
We begin with a personal problem Mr. Michael once had with Rom. 9:17-20:
Failure to do these things [miss the inter textual echoes] almost always leads, especially in the case of Romans 9, to an understanding of St. Paul that is diametrically opposed to his intended meaning.
This line of reasoning frustrated me to no end in years past, for while the plain meaning of the text seemed clear, this depiction of God simply didn’t seem to fit in with what I knew to be true from Scripture: that God is just, that God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4), that God is “slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6), and that God “desires all men to be saved.” (1 Tim. 2:4) I sought high and low for an answer to the question of how a just and merciful God could damn a soul to Hell for not repenting, when all the while the only way the soul could repent was if God empowered him to do so, but time and time again, I found myself running into the brick wall of St. Paul’s seemingly cop-out response: “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Emphasis added).
But it appears that the “plain meaning” of the text is not the real issue that worries Mr. Michael, there is something more basic. It is not hermeneutical (one of biblical interpretation) but theological. Mr. Michael says: “this depiction of God simply didn’t seem to fit in with what I knew to be true from Scripture.” The key phrase is “seem to fit in.” But how does Mr. Michael know what should “seem to fit in” with Scripture concerning God’s nature? Let me elucidate.
What Mr. Michael may not be aware of is the reformers’ (and early fathers’) understanding of the transcendence of God. To them the infinite God was well beyond human understanding. As Augustine mused, one cannot pour the ocean into a cup, and so we cannot pour all of God’s knowledge into our puny finite sized minds. Hence there will be teaching about God that appears contradictory (and maybe even arbitrary) to us but in reality it is not so to God. If God is beyond our understanding then who are we as finite beings to predict what the infinite God should be like? If we could understand God, we’d be God. Who are we to demand that what one part of Scripture says, should “fit in” according to our finite perspective, with another part of Scripture>?
But that is what the Reformers must ultimately do to Jesus – take His righteous judgements of human behaviour – good or bad – and banish them into the “incomprehensible” in order to prop up their fatalistic religion. When anyone else – who does not have the baggage of systematic theology to carry when reading Scripture – reads about a very Good, gentle, loving, merciful and above all JUST God, they simply do not accept a presupposition of warped sovereignty which detracts from revealed truths of Jesus’ character. Mr. Foord wants to suggest that God’s sense of justice (and mercy) is not the same or even similar to our own, but that is not true at all:
“Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said. ‘Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’ ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.” (Luke 7:41)
Jesus appeals to the Simon’s natural sense of justice, which He invokes in this passage. There is nothing “incomprehensible” about it. God is not beyond our understanding. We, at least Catholics at any rate, have a very good understanding of who Jesus was (even if we don’t know everything there is to know about Him) and the virtues He exuded. Jesus understood us, and we understand Him:
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…” (John 10:14)
The Biblical balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is seen very clearly in Phil. 2:12-13:
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (NRSV)
Here the believer is urged to actively “work out” (not work for!) their salvation. Why? It is because in the believer’s active responsible work, God is sovereignly working in them (“for is it God who is at work in you”). How can 100% my own work be 100% God’s own work simultaneously? It is not 20% God and 80% man (or some other combination) but 100% of both. This is beyond understanding but must be delicately held in balance.
Therefore, one must keep both divine sovereignty and human responsibility alongside of each other in a way that the Bible does.
You mean like this…
“God from eternity knew with certainty and immutably foreordained all future things…not however in such a way that all things happen from absolute necessity; but man remains free to do good with grace or to choose evil having rejected grace.” (Sources of Catholic Dogma, Denzinger, Systematic Index, 27)
Doesn’t that sound a lot like balancing these two statements…
“So then he has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” (Romans 9:18)
“This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4)
Unbelievers are completely responsible for their plight before God. God could not judge them if they weren’t! But, believers are saved wholly by God’s intervening grace.
You mean like this…
“God positively predestines all good works…and the glory of those to be saved…so that nevertheless ‘in the election of those to be saved the mercy of God precedes good merit’, but He has predestined no one to evil and as no one is saved unwillingly, likewise, whoever is to be lost ‘is condemned because of the merit of his own iniquity.'” (Sources of Catholic Dogma, Denzinger, Systematic Index, 28)
These two conclusions do not have a symmetric relationship, but both are true. [Because this is such a vital subject, let me recommend a helpful book that sheds further light on the subject by Don Carson, Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981). It examines the issues in a very penetrating manner.] There are many other doctrines that defy human understanding in the Bible (like original sin’s relationship to human responsibility, how Christ can be both 100% God and 100% human, the Trinity etc.). Our aim should be to speak where God’s word speaks, and be silent where God’s word is silent. We must not demand what we think the Bible should say.
Marvelous. When will you be abandoning your sixteenth century heresy?
Let us return to the question Paul is attempting to answer: why did the majority of God’s chosen people the Jews, reject Jesus?
“Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” (Romans 9:32)
The meaning couldn’t be clearer. God will go with Israel, the “stiff-necked people” not because she deserves it, but because God is merciful and slow to anger. He chooses to have mercy on whomever he wills. This point is crucial to answering the question Paul has been addressing: has God’s word failed in that the vast minority [sic] of Jews have not embraced Christ? Paul’s answer is that God’s chosen people were not the physical descendants of Abraham but those whom God has sovereignly chosen. Within the political nation of Israel there was a faithful remnant that God had chosen (cf. Rom. 11:1-4). Those who placed their faith in Christ when he came were the chosen remnant within Israel herself. Hence Paul is able to make sense of the large-scale rejection of Jesus by national Israel. Most of the Jews did not believe because most of them were not God’s chosen people.
First of all, since Mr. Foord avails himself of Romans 11, so will I:
“You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.” (Romans 11:19-21)
So much for the theory of irrevocable election.
What then are Catholics to do with Romans 9? Well, first admit that it is one of those few places in Scripture which seem to favour the Calvinist side, but which, in reality, does not – especially when considered within the entire Pauline corpus. Here is a good summary of Romans 9 from the Catholic viewpoint on predestination
“By this example of these twins, and the preference of the younger to the elder, the drift of the apostle is, to show that God, in his election, mercy and grace, is not tied to any particular nation, as the Jews imagined; not to any prerogative of birth, or any foregoing merits. For as, antecedently, to his grace, he sees no merits in any, but finds all involved in sin, in the common mass of condemnation; and all children of wrath: there is no one whom he might not justly leave in that mass; so that whomsoever he delivers from it, he delivers in his mercy: and whomsoever he leaves in it, he leaves in his justice. As when, of two equally criminal, the king is pleased out of pure mercy to pardon one, whilst he suffers justice to take place in the execution of the other.” (Douay Rheims Bible, Commentary on Romans 9:11)
What we must first understand is that God already knows whether we are saved or not. At this moment, in God’s omniscient foreknowledge, He already has rendered judgement on our souls based on our current and future acceptance or rejection of Him. The only thing left for us to do is find out what that judgement is. Since therefore God already knows what we will do and whether we do, in fact, accept Him, He has ordered creation under that foreknowledge with the understanding that even with our acceptance of His love, we cannot obligate God to save us. Anything that God gives us is pure gift. This then is the proper context in which we can understand Romans 9. St. Paul’s central point in Romans 9 is to establish the total sovereignty of God. God is free and completely unencumbered in granting His mercy. Nothing can obligate Him to do so – whether that be man’s faith or his works. In short, He has complete sovereignty in all of His decisions. Although He is not obligated to even offer His mercy to anyone, He does so from his own gracious benevolence.
Now for some strange and selective reason, our Reformed brethren believe that St. Paul is teaching some kind of irrevocable and unconditional election in this chapter. And while it is true that God is completely sovereign in his decisions and does what He likes, it is also true that he is moved to “change” His decision based on what we do. Anyone who has read the Old Testament knows this. In fact, it is the history of Israel itself, for goodness sake! While it is outside of the scope of my response to give a detailed exegesis of Romans 9, I want to draw my reader’s attention to the text which invariably gets a lot of mileage from the Reformed camp in Romans 9. I am speaking, of course, about St. Paul’s imagery of the potter and the clay:
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:19-21)
So that’s it. One of the most popular passages in Scripture that is used to prop up the error of absolute predestination. One has to wonder if the proponents of this view ever considered the possibility that God could smash that pottery – whether made for “noble” or “common” purposes – and begin again? I should say that He could. In fact, to say to God that once that pottery has been set, it cannot be reformed in the image of its opposite is really to provoke St. Paul’s rebuttal above: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” Indeed, ironically enough, it begins to undermine the pure sovereignty which the Reformed camp purports to defend. And not only that, it presupposes that the lump of clay cannot turn back to God or turn away from Him – even if it were originally chosen for a “noble” or “common” purpose. In the Old Testament, the imagery of a potter and clay certainly supports this contention:
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD : “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD . “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ” (Jeremiah 18:1-12)
This is why St. Paul goes on to say at the end of the chapter:
“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 9:30-33)
In other words, we see Jeremiah’s words fulfilled in the above verses: the Gentiles pursued righteousness by faith while the Jews pursued it by law, and as a result, they stumbled and fell. And we see St. Paul returning to the fate of the two peoples in Romans 11. Verse 7 says this:
“What then? What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did. The others were hardened…”
Notice St. Paul’s mention of the “elect” above, but later on this chapter, this is what he has to say to the “elect”:
“Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” (Romans 11:20-22)
Hardly a glowing endorsement of a “conditionless election”, wouldn’t you agree?
And what about being “hardened”? Well, St. Paul tells us that the Jews were “hardened” in verse 7 above, and we find out precisely why they were hardened in verse 20:
“…they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith…”(Romans 11:20).
And furthermore, we learn that this hardening of Israel can be loosed by God:
“And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” (Romans 11:23)
So the bottom line here, folks, is that while God may indeed harden and have mercy on whom He pleases to demonstrate His sovereignty over us, He is also attentive to those who follow his commandments and abide in His love as the above verses clearly demonstrate. God “hardens” not necessarily to condemn, but to bring the person back to God and show them mercy:
“Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you.” (Romans 11:30-31)
Catholicism’s God is a merciful one who wishes all to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved. Our God is a being whose purpose in creating us was to love us and share His glory with us – all of us. Our God does not create in order to destroy.
Thus we have seen that Romans 9 does address the issue of God’s unconditional election. But it must be said that the reality of human responsibility is also present and crucial to the argument of Rom. 9-11, particularly 9:30-32 and 11:11-24. Let me say again, human responsibility does not logically coalesce in our minds with the issue of God’s sovereign election. However we formulate God’s election, we must not destroy the reality that people are responsible creatures who make significant decisions for which they will be judged. The two must be held together in tension. Emphasis on only one will distort the Biblical balance.
Precisely. That’s why it’s only the Catholic Church which correctly teaches both truths in Scripture: that God is truly sovereignty and that Man truly has a free will. Mr. Foord’s “human responsibility” is a myth under the Reformed conception. There is no such thing as “human responsibility” when God has already predestined you to hell. You can try and be as responsible as you like. You can try and emulate Christ as best you can. Heck, you might even qualify as a saint under the Catholic rubric. None of that is going to help you. You are going to hell, and there is literally nothing you can do about it. It’s all been predestined and programmed for you. All you have to do is hit the fast forward button on your VCR and watch the ending. There is no editing this tape.
The Catholic Legate
February 20, 2003