Addressing Texts that “Contradict” Romans 9

John 3:16
1 Peter 3:9
1 Timothy 2:3,4

Some people do not have a problem with saying that the Scriptures contain contradictions. Some others believe in the traditional doctrines that they have been taught so much that they simply ignore or radically alter the meanings of texts that do not fit their particular beliefs. I, however, do not have the benefit of such convictions or their lack. I believe that every word, letter, and accent that was originally penned by the prophets and apostles are the very words of God and, being that God does not change and there are no contradictions in him, that which he inspires must possess his same attributes. Therefore, when I encounter a teacher who believes that contradictions exist in Scripture or one who values his traditions over the clear testimonies of Scripture, I react a little like Jesus did toward the Pharisees and Sadducees who did the very same things.

And being that it has been brought up (as it inevitably does) that the doctrines of Romans 9 “contradict” other doctrines in Scripture or that we who “interpret” Romans 9 interpret the text incorrectly (though the Apostle leaves little room for any interpretation in the chapter), I thought that it would be profitable to take a look at some of the texts that supposedly contradict the teachings of Romans 9.

1. John 3:16

For God thus loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

This text is a common starting point of those who object to the “vessels of mercy / vessels of wrath” statement that is made in Romans 9. They argue, “If God loved the world so much that he gave his Son for them, why then would he create some just so that he would destroy them for his glory?” This concern might be a valid one in this present understanding of John 3:16, but there are several underlying presuppositions that shape this understanding of this verse that are in fact contrary to the context.

First, is the idea that the term “world” means every single person who has ever lived since the Creation. If this is true, this is a very unique passage indeed for there is no other text in Scripture that refers to the world as such. We find elsewhere, especially in the Prophets, that God did indeed have a plan that was global, but the term was commonly “nations” instead of “world.” Perhaps the one that parallels Christ’s statement in John 3 the most is the prophetic statement by the psalmist: “The Lord said to me, ‘ You are my Son, today I have begotten you; ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession’” (Ps. 2:7, 8). We see the world with respect to Christ in this Psalm, but it has a very different meaning than “every person who has ever lived.”

To understand the use of the term “world” in John 3:16, we must also understand the context in which it is spoken. At the beginning of the chapter, we find that Christ is speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and therefore obviously a Jew. When Christ declares to Nicodemus, “God thus loved the world,” he was saying something quite extraordinary. First, contrary to popular Jewish belief, Yahweh is not merely the God of the Jews, but he is the God of the Nations. Therefore, the Messiah, who many believed was to conquer the Romans and establish Israel as a world power, was actually the Messiah of the world. Second, this statement places Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant to Abraham: “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). For it is through Christ and the Gospel that God has ordained that the Nations would come to him and be blessed.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there is this same agreement in the use of the term “world” or “kosmos” as parallel or synonymous to the “nations,” “gentiles,” or “ethnos.” The apostle Paul, in quite poetic fashion, writes in Romans 11 concerning the rejection of Israel:

Now if their trespass means riches for the world,
and if their failure means riches for the nations,
how much more will their full inclusion mean! (Rm. 11:12).

Here in this passage where Paul demonstrates his inclination toward Hebrew poesy, he creates in the Greek language what is often seen in Psalms and the Prophets, namely Semitic poetic parallelism. In this particular instance, Paul shows that in the least that it was not uncommon to equate the term “kosmos” with “ethnos,” i.e. the term “world” with “nations.” Therefore, given this testimony by the apostle Paul in the Greek, and the allusion of Christ in John 3 to Psalm 2, it is therefore most likely and sound to say that New Testament authors are reiterating the declarations of the Old Testament, namely that God is the God of the Nations and has ordained that the Christ of Abraham’s lineage would be bring the blessing of Righteousness to the Gentiles, just as the apostle testifies in Romans 3, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles (or nations) also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (vv. 3:28, 29).

Second, the phrasing, “So whoever believes in him shall not perish,” has been taken to mean that God through Christ has made it so that every person who has ever lived has an opportunity to consider the case of Jesus Christ and then believe or not believe. This, as well, is clearly not true in the context. At the beginning of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, we find that Jesus tells Nicodemus (without his asking, mind you) that a person cannot see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again. Perplexed, Nicodemus asks in response the questions that has had him knocked about in Sunday School classes for centuries: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

We have laughed at Nicodemus for his ridiculous response, but are we any less ridiculous with our responses? Clearly the picture of birth that Christ gives is to demonstrate that something outside of ourselves and without respect to our wills must happen in order for us to be born again, but we in our stubbornness choose not to see that. We say instead, “Accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and then you will be born again.” But is that really how our salvation happens? No, it is not, and we are no different than Nicodemus who looks to see what work he must do to be born again. We, like Nicodemus, in our folly try to make the new birth something that we cause, but in reality we do not cause it, for Jesus’ response to Nicodemus is not, “Accept me as your Savior,” nor is it do this and do that, but it is, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Therefore, in the context, he who believes in Christ in v. 3:16 is he who has been born again by the will of the Spirit in v. 3:8. It is in this same thought that Peter writes, “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope” (1Pet. 1:3) and that the Evangelist writes later in his Gospel, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Seeing this, we see that not only is the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 is in accord with Jesus Christ in John 3:16, but he is in accord with the Apostles John and Peter thereby defeating the misperceived contradiction in John 3:16.

2 Peter 3:9

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, now wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2Pet. 3:9).

Please allow me to skip my typical rambling and jump straight in (though if you would like an introduction, feel free to read the introduction to yesterday’s post and then come here).

The typical interpretation of this passage from the second letter of Peter is that God is not willing that anyone in the world who has ever lived should perish apart from Christ but that every person in the world should come to repentance. If this is true, this text is nestled quite precariously in a hostile context.

Before we come to this verse, we find the apostle exhorting the Church not to be discouraged by the seeming delay of the Lord’s Coming. We know that he is speaking to the Church because he calls them “beloved” in v. 3:1 and because he exhorts them to remember the predictions of the prophets and the commandment of their Lord and Savior (v. 3:2). He warns them that scoffers will come that will point out that the world in spite of Christ has continued just as it has since the Creation, but they deliberately ignore the fact that the world was destroyed by water in the days of Noah and that it will happen again, except this time it will be fire that destroys the ungodly (v. 3:4-6).

In the immediate context of v. 3:9, we find the apostle speaking of the Lord’s Return and how, to the Church, it seems a long time. Again the apostle demonstrates that he is speaking to the Church by calling them “beloved” in v. 3:8 and comforts them by telling them that the Lord is not slow to fulfill his Promise, for one day is as a thousand years to him and a thousand years is as one day. He then gives us phenomenal picture of the Coming of Christ:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (v. 3:10).

It is within this context that we find the statement: “The Lord is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.” As we have already seen from the context, this “you” to whom he is speaking is the Church that is awaiting the Return of the Lord. The Lord’s patience towards the Church is manifested in his delayed Coming in order that none should perish but that all should reach repentance. This “none” and this “all” can be taken one of two ways—it can either be taken as none and all in the entire world at every point in time, or it can be taken as none and all in the Church. In the text it is quite clear that the latter option is the one that is to be taken.

What does it mean, then, that God delays his Return so that none in the Church should perish but that all should come to repentance? It means that God has a sovereign plan over the history of the world that has his saints providentially scattered all over its timeline. If the Lord were (this is theory, mind you) to return in the days of the Apostles, those who were elected by God before the foundation of the world in Christ Jesus who were to be born after this return would never exist though God had ordained that they exist (cf. Eph. 1). Also, if God were to Return before the fullness of his Church had come in, one who was ordained to come to repentance by the will of the Spirit the next day, would not come to repentance and would perish because of the Lord’s early return. Therefore, the apostle encourages the Church to be patient, for God has a sovereign plan over history and will not allow any of his saints to perish but will cause them all to come to repentance.

This text also demonstrates quite clearly that the Lord is willing that some should perish. The apostle mentions in v. 3:5 the event of the Great Flood in which many died and perished by the will of God apart from an opportunity to repent. Even now, God is willing that some should perish, for the apostle writes, “But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (v. 3:7). Within two verses of the text that supposedly demonstrates that God is not willing that anyone on earth should perish is the declaration that the heavens and earth are being kept for that very purpose.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1Tim. 2:3, 4).

1 Timothy 2:3,4

As promised, I am continuing my survey of texts that supposedly contradict the doctrines taught in Romans 8-11, et al. Several weeks ago, we dealt with the texts of John 3:16 and 2 Peter 3:9 and how those classic texts supposedly portray God as a God who is, respectively, desperately in love with the world and is wringing his hands at the thought that any person on this planet should have to perish. We demonstrated through these texts’ context and through biblical theology that this is not the God that is portrayed in these verses, but instead we find a God who is quite the opposite.

Despite this clarity in context, we must realize that we live in a reader response society and among Christians who use the Bible as a reference book rather than the meat upon which they feast daily. Thus we find not Christians who read the Scriptures through and thoroughly in its own context, but we find Christians who google, “Why Calvinism is evil,” and find a website of some other person who also only uses his Bible as reference book and then compiled a list of verses and spouted the infamous lie that Calvinists do not believe in evangelism and missions, despite the fact that the greatest preachers and evangelists (e.g. George Whitefield, C. H. Spurgeon, etc.), the leaders of great revivals (e.g. Jonathan Edwards), and the one who is called the father of modern missions–William Carey–were all Calvinists.

It is in this context that we teach the ignorant. Most people who fill our churches have not been, as the apostle commanded, “transformed by the renewal of their minds,” but instead attempt to conform Scripture to their minds. For this reason, people hold to such doctrines as free will, not because Scripture teaches that men are free, but because they believe that they are free because their experience teaches them that they are free. They have no categories for being dead in their trespasses, enslaved to sin and death, blind and deaf to the truth, etc.–all of which Scripture declares of those apart from Christ. Thus, people in our churches presumptuously believe that if men are commanded to do something by God that they by their nature and strength have the ability to do it, and they strive, like foolish Nicodemus, to crawl back into their mothers’ wombs because God commanded them to be born again.

Please forgive me for the lengthy introduction, but I believe that it is necessary to understand the nature of the beast with which we have to deal. And now we come to 1 Timothy 2:4, where the apostle writes, “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” This text seems to be straightforward on the surface, and it seems pretty safe by its declaration to do what Sunday School literature has done for decades, viz. cut out Romans 9-11 from their literature. But again, therein lies the assumption that we saw in John 3:16’s kosmos, namely that “all” means every person who has ever lived since Adam to the telos despite class, race, etc. But let us step back a couple of verses in 1 Timothy 2 just to make sure this interpretation is the apostle’s intention.

In 1 Timothy 2:1, the apostle writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” Given that this verse is in the context of the “all people” in verse 2:4, it is probably safe to say and destructive not to say that Paul is speaking of the same persons in verse 1 as he is in verse 4. Now, let us add verse 2 to verse 1, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, etc. … be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Did you see what the apostle did? He clarified all people with “kings and all who are in high positions.” Why? So that Christians might live peaceful and godly lives in the state where they live.

As in John 3:16, where Nicodemus the devout Jewish Pharisee was told that Jesus the Messiah came not merely for the Jews but for all the Nations, so the impoverished Christians who are being addressed through the apostle’s letter to young Timothy are learning that Jesus did not merely come for the poor, but he came for all classes of men, even for kings and those who are in authority. Here in 1 Timothy 2:1-4, we find reinforcement that the Gospel is not a social gospel, nor is it a racial Gospel as Nicodemus thought in John 3, but it is a universal Gospel. Jesus came to redeem men from all tribes, tongues, social classes, and skin colors. Indeed, we find that this is the apostle’s intentions in this text for he writes in v. 2:7, “For this I [a Pharisaical Jew] was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher to the Gentiles in faith and truth.” In other words, God appointed Paul, a Jew of Jews, to be the preacher to the Gentiles to demonstrate that God’s Gospel is not for a single people, but for the whole world.

Is not this a better understanding of the text than a cheap proof text? I implore you, no matter your theological tendencies, read God’s Word as God intended for it to be read. The devil knows the Scriptures much better than you or I do, and he has twisted them from the beginning of time to serve his purposes. Please do not be like him.

Categories: Theology

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