Some would say that the we’re-in-you’re-out paradigm that some Jews carried in the first century carried over to the New Testament church. Now, instead of needing to be ethnically Jewish, the in-club grew a little bit to include some Gentiles. But, “don’t go too crazy with the idea, because the way is still narrow and the chosen are still few.” I don’t know about you, but that small-minded, exclusive notion of who’s in and who’s out never resonated with me. And come to find out, it doesn’t resonate with Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament, either. To see this, let’s go straight for the jugular and then back up to take a sweeping look at the letter to the Romans. Here’s the jugular:
Romans 8:29,30 “We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified.” (CEB)
At first glance, this verse seems to say, “God first chose you to be conformed to the image of Christ, then he called you, then he made you righteous and then he glorified you.” Chosen, called, saved, glorified—in that order—for each individual person. So, this proves that if Joe was not first chosen, then he cannot be called, saved and glorified. Right? Not quite.
The message of Romans chapter 8 is aimed at believers, and the thrust of this passage is summed up in these two verses: 1) “There is no condemnation for you who walk by the Spirit,” (Rom. 8:1) and, 2) “Nothing can separate you from God's love.” (Rom. 8:38, CEB) These verses in question (vs. 29, 30) are not an afterthought to say, “Oh, and by the way, I hand-picked you to go to Heaven.” If Paul had wanted to say this, he would have said so more clearly and in another context.
So, what are these verses trying to address? What question are they trying to answer? Until then, there were two kind of people in the world: the chosen Jews and the unchosen Gentiles. These were the ins and outs of God’s kingdom. There were only haves and have-nots of God’s favor. And it fell along ethnic lines. So, in light of this very current and deeply entrenched dualism in the minds of Jews (and new converts to Christianity at the time of Paul’s writing), the corporate who question is a very pertinent one. Who did God plan to be adopted into his family (“made brothers and sisters”)? Who does God intend to be conformed to the image of his Son? Paul’s answer to his Jewish and Gentile readers: You. You, who have believed the message. You, both Jews and Gentiles.
Now, let’s back up a bit and take a bird’s eye view of Romans. The Epistle to the Romans is the first of Paul’s writings that we encounter in the Bible. It is not the letter he wrote first chronologically, but it is ordered first because it is Paul at his finest in re-narrating and re-theologizing Israel’s history in light of the advent, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the time of the writing of the epistle to the Romans, the controversy of the Gentiles coming into the family of Abraham has still not stopped sending shockwaves through the Jewish and Greek world. The letters of Paul to the Romans, (and Galatians and Ephesians as we shall soon see) carefully explain the Father's adoption of the Gentiles into the same promises and covenants that have been treasured by the Jews for millennia. Let's catch Paul's golden thread by looking at an overview of Romans. See if you can catch it. (Taken from the Common English Bible, CEB. Emphases and bracketed clarifications are mine):
Romans 1: (5-7) This was to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name's sake. You who are called by Jesus Christ are also included among these Gentiles…(16) I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God's own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew…and also to the Gentile.
Romans 2: (28) It isn't the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn't people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside [which can include Gentiles], who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person's praise doesn't come from people but from God.
Romans 3: (9) So what are we saying? Are we [Jews] better off? Not at all. We have already stated the charge: both Jews and Gentiles are all under the power of sin. (22) God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him. There's no distinction. (29-30) Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn't God the God of Gentiles also? Yes, God is also the God of Gentiles. Since God is one…who makes the circumcised [Jews] righteous by faith will also make the one who isn't circumcised [Gentiles] righteous through faith.
Romans 4: (9) Is this state of happiness only for the circumcised [Jews] or is it also for those who aren't circumcised [Gentiles]? (11) It happened this way so that Abraham could be the father of all those people who aren't circumcised [Gentiles], who have faith in God, and so are counted as righteous. (17) I have appointed [Abraham] to be the father of many nations.
Romans 5: (18) So now the righteous requirements necessary for life are met for everyone through the righteous act of one person, just as judgment fell on everyone through the failure of one person.
Romans 6: (3) Or don't you know that all who were baptized [Gentiles, too] into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
Romans 8: (14) All who are led by God's Spirit are God's sons and daughters. (15)…you [Gentiles] received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children.
Romans 9: (8) That means it isn't the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children from the promise who are counted… (24) We are the ones God has called. We don't come only from the Jews but we also come from the Gentiles. As it says in Hosea, “I will call ‘my people’ those who aren't my people, the one who isn't well loved, I will call ‘loved one.’”
Romans 10: (4) Christ is the goal of the Law, which leads to righteousness for all who have faith in God.” (12) There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. (19) First, Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who aren't a people [the Gentiles], of a people without understanding.” And Isaiah even dares to say, “I was found by those who didn't look for me [the Gentiles]; I revealed myself to those who didn't ask for me.”
Romans 11: (12) But if their [the Jews] failure brings riches to the world, and their defeat brings riches to the Gentiles, how much more will come from the completion of their number!”
Romans 12: (5) In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.
Romans 13: (10) Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Romans 14: (11) It is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.”
Romans 15: (8) I’m saying that Christ became a servant of those who are circumcised [Jews] for the sake of God's truth, in order to confirm the promises given to the ancestors, and so that the Gentiles could glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Because of this, I will confess you among the Gentiles, and I will sing praises to your name.” And again it says, “Rejoice, Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and all the people should sing his praises.” And again, Isaiah says, “There will be a root of Jesse, who will also rise to rule the Gentiles. The Gentiles will place their hope in him.” (15) I'm writing to you in this way because of the grace that was given to me by God. It helps me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles. I'm working as a priest of God's gospel so that the offering of the Gentiles can be acceptable and made holy by the Holy Spirit.
Romans 16: (26) Now that the secret is revealed through what the prophets wrote. It is made known to the Gentiles in order to lead to their faithful obedience based on the command of the eternal God.
The verses are making the argument that God does not show favoritism, that the Jew should not be proud of their Jewishness as if it earned them more favor with God, that simple trust is God’s one requirement for righteousness, that faith from any person of any nation makes them a “child of Abraham.” Romans 8:29,30 are the crest of the wave of Paul’s thesis, which is all (effectively “Jews and Gentiles” included all human beings) are the who he decided in advance would be allowed in on the deal of becoming like Jesus. God had decided to invite everyone to the party.
Paul’s goal is clear: to show that the Gentiles were not a plan B, but that since the beginning God’s hope has been to reconcile all people with himself, with each other, with themselves, and with the Earth, through the power of an undying love that is willing to go through death for the beloved. The main theme of Romans, and arguably the entire New Testament, is the qualification (and inclusion) of non-Jewish Gentiles for all of the Jewish promises and inheritances.
We have to realize that this is what pumped through Paul's veins every single day after his conversion: “God loves the Gentiles. And He always has!” It is what charged his imagination. It is what burned in him and flowed out of him during his entire ministry. Therefore, it would be expected that this passion—this fascination of Jew and Gentile together in one family—would spill out all over the place throughout Paul's writings. In fact, that is exactly what we find. Paul concludes Romans by quoting many Old Testament verses regarding God’s original plan for the Gentiles coming into the family.
In my next post, we’ll look at Romans chapter 9 and we’ll see that predestination is not in Paul’s mind at all when he wrote about the potter and the clay. These posts come from my latest book, Catharsis. Click here to find it on your favorite store.