God is For Us

God is For Us

Romans 8:28-37

by Daniel Harrell

I’m wrapping up three weeks of sermons by request, grateful again for your suggestions, sorry I couldn’t get to them all before heading east to visit family tomorrow. One request was specifically for this morning’s passage from Romans 8, which is not only a wonderful passage, but part of a magnificent chapter of Scripture,  which I decided to preach in its entirety since it covered so many other requests: Sin and grace, love and the Holy Spirit, creation care, prayer and hope. 

This last part of Romans 8 crescendoes with the blessed assurance, confidence in verse 28 of “all things working together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.” Our personal experience doesn’t always prove this to be true, but that may be because we usually gloss over verses 29 and 30. I’m tempted to use a different translation than our NRSV here. That way I wouldn’t have to say the word predestination out loud. And yet here it is, verse 29 and 30: “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined… and those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” All things work together for good, but only for those who are “called according to God’s purpose.” The Lord’s got his thumb on the scales. The whole system’s a set up.

Dawn and I actually hosted a dinner this past spring to discuss this disputed doctrine. Sort of a predestination party, you might say. Some of you were there but obviously not everyone.

Predestination is as old as the Bible. God chose his own starting in Genesis, and kept playing favorites all the way through Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah. Jesus speaks of his sheep and his sheepfold given by God. Lost sheep aren’t lost by chance or their own choice, but because, Jesus says, the Lord “blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts.” The apostle Paul writes later in Romans, “the elect of God are saved, but the rest were hardened, as it was written.”

Mention of predestination unavoidably dredges up the notorious sixteenth century Reformer and captain of Congregationalism, John Calvin. Calvin understood Deuteronomy, Jesus and Paul in this fashion: “It is the election of God, undeserved, which alone saves any people. It follows that all others perish by a secret, though just, judgment of God. … Those whom God blinds will be found to deserve this condemnation.” Your merits, your good will and moral action don’t matter. And neither does your repentance because the reprobate don’t repent. They can’t.

In my sermon on cats a few Sundays back, I appalled a few of you by referring to myself as a Calvinist. What kind of monstrous minister am I? Do I spurn free will and fair play? What about God’s love and good manners? Do I have a choice? Maybe not. Science shows human behavior to be both predetermined and predictable. The conscious experience we associate with human free will appears to be a post hoc reconstruction of events after the brain has already set acts in motion involuntarily. Wired by our genes, neurons fire causing other neurons to fire, a running series of thoughts and deeds, moment by moment, one right after the other in sequence, stretching back to our birth and before. Understand any individual’s brain architecture and chemistry enough, goes the theory, and you could predict that person’s response to any given stimulus with 100 percent accuracy. This is not new.

To make sense of such determinism, modern secular scholars have ironically turned to John Calvin. Oxford philosopher William Wood, holds “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture.” UC Berkeley Professor Jonathan Sheehan actually assigns Calvin to his students. They read but then rise up in unison with utter outrage and bitter disgust: “How can so much arrogant misanthropy pass itself off as piety?” But of course they feel disgusted, Calvin would say. That’s how atheists always react! Is it any wonder Jesus got nailed to a cross? But believers hate it too. Professor Sheehan observed Christians in his classroom struggling to honor God’s sovereignty and all that follows logically from it. It’s hard when God comes off less loving than we are.

Severe and uncompromising, John Calvin practiced what he preached as pastor and prefect of Reformation Geneva. Calvin intended Geneva to be the kingdom of heaven on earth. He is reputed to have been the first major political thinker to model civic society in accordance with Biblical standards. Regrettably, his plan to catechize all Geneva and require coherence to a stern moral code met with the same enthusiasm shown by ancient Israelites when Moses rolled out Leviticus. Calvin did get a bit carried away. He persuaded the Geneva Town Council to adopt a confession of faith to which everyone was compelled to subscribe. Failure to do so got you excommunicated from church and society. According to the Town Council’s minute book, a man smiled during a baptism and was thrown in jail for three days. Another man was imprisoned for dozing off during a sermon. You can see why I like Calvin.

The apostle Paul, on the other hand, appears to vacillate. Here in Romans 8 he’s a hardcore Calvinist, but then two chapters later turns into a free-wheeling free-willer. He quotes the prophet Joel where “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” and ties it to Jesus as the name of Lord. In Romans 10:9, Paul concludes, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In my sermon on cats and John Calvin, you may remember Romans 10:9 as the name of the small boat which Dawn, Violet and I rode in Colombia. Packed full with people from every nationality, the boat zoomed over open Caribbean Sea doing fifty, crashing through waves six feet and more, a visible crack expanding in the boat’s floor at our feet. The Captain praised the Lord and just pushed the throttle. People freely converted to Jesus out of pure terror.

How can the Bible be both tight fisted and openhanded when it comes to salvation? Call it a paradox. Or if you prefer, a mystery. “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me,” Jesus said, “and I will never drive them away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing God has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” At the same time Jesus also said God so loved the world that he sent his only son to save it, “so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Reason cannot reconcile paradox. Because humans are sinners, we remain error prone and limited in our capacity to understand. But this too is grace. Reasoning itself needs to come to an end before humans can truly encounter mystery. “To you it has been given by God to know the mysteries of the kingdom,” Jesus said. Mystery cannot be taught, only revealed and discovered.

While in Geneva a couple of years back with high school students and others from Colonial, we toured John Calvin’s church perched high on its hill. Austere and imposing, we saw Calvin’s high pulpit from whence he expounded the Word, and also his small modest chair where he sat when he was done. Christians worship there still, seeking to comprehend the mysteries of God even as they submit to them. Across town in Geneva sits another kind of temple, the Large Particle Accelerator at CERN where photons of light collide to reveal other mysteries of God. We visited there too, you’ll remember, awed by the capacity of modern science to delve so deeply into most basic reality. Physics teaches that light behaves paradoxically as both a particle and a wave, both as packet of energy and oscillating illumination, totally different yet existent in one single entity. We say the same about Jesus as the light of the world, his both fully human and son of God at the same time. And likewise with predestination and free will. The God who loves you chose you before you were born. Nothing you do can ever take you away from his tight, loving embrace. At the same time, God’s love does not force or coerce, like a dormant seed it can wait, and like light it beckons all people into God’s arms.

If you’ve ever shared your faith with somebody who doesn’t believe in God, I’m pretty sure you didn’t lead off with predestination, you know, “God loves you and you’d believe if you could, but oh well.” Whenever Scripture speaks about evangelism, about the church bearing witness to Jesus as God’s love to the world, it never uses election language. The shepherd chases after the lost sheep; he doesn’t lock the gate once he has the lambs he likes. The prodigal’s father scans the horizon hoping for his wayward son’s change of heart. Power can compel obedience, but only love can summon a response of love—which is the essence of relationship and the reason God created people rather than stopping once he made reptiles. If you’ve ever had your love rejected, you know how it hurts. But you also know that if you had the power to force somebody to love you back, you’d never use it because that’s not how love works.

At the same time, human love is so erratic. This is why the Bible dispenses with human love as an analogy for God’s love once we move from conversion to discipleship— once we move from becoming a Christian to being one. The enthusiasm felt when we first believed rarely sticks. The campfires dwindle and our conviction falters, we compromise and get complacent. “I do not understand my own actions,” the apostle Paul confessed, “I do not do what I want, but instead I do the very thing I hate.” Prayers go unanswered. Troubles come. Hardship happens that’s not even our fault. Paul tacks on  “distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword.” Lost sheep are found only to be led to the slaughter. Doubt settles in and before long you start feeling like somebody dressed up at a Star Wars convention starting to wonder if maybe the movies aren’t real.

You’ve heard me joke how the most fervent defenders of predestination always consider themselves to be among the elect. But I think that’s the point. Divine election provides deep assurance of salvation amidst struggle and trouble and doubt. “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us who are God’s elect, will he not with him also give us everything else?” God knew you and loved before you were known and called you by name. Made right by no right and no merit of your own, you’re nevertheless guaranteed glory. Paul uses the past tense to speak of a future so certain it’s already happened. Found sheep may be slaughtered, but no matter, because nothing can separate you from the love of Christ. Crosses mark our true identity as Christian—divine election is a death sentence, but with resurrection as its exclamation point—a reality so real we can start living it now.

Calvin’s critics argued that predestination was nothing but permission to do as you pleased. Like universalism at the opposing end, divine election operates like an eternal get out of jail free card, sapping away any motivation for morality and ethics. 

But just the opposite proved true. You can do nothing to earn God’s grace—but you must still do something to show you’re received it. Among the mysteries of Calvinist mystique was how such high predestinarian theology induced its adherents toward intense this-worldly activism. Calvinism shaped the contours of the modern world, including the rule of law, the limitation of state power, and a democratic approach to civil governance. Calvinist ideals such as thrift, hard work and personal responsibility all played a crucial role in the development of robust economies worldwide. New England and upstate New York, in their Calvinist era, were centers of great social and educational reform. Abraham Lincoln’s own Calvinism led him to endure the Civil War’s bloodbath and then resist any vengeance toward the South afterwards. While some Christians reject the world as a realm of darkness to be shunned, and others accept the world as a necessary evil, Calvin sought to overcome the world, to plow through and watch it transformed by the Word of the Lord. This earth in all of its squalor and sin was rightly seen as the “theater of God’s glory,” strange comfort, I think, in our own theater of national and global discontent. As President Lincoln submitted, “the Almighty has his own purposes.”

Calvinists get characterized as arrogant and prejudiced, Pharisaic know-it-alls who’ve got God all figured out. But according to Calvin, we must view ourselves in our utter perversity and alienation to enter fully into salvation’s benefits. “Sin is our only hope,” Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again. There is no repair for those who insist nothing is broken, no hope for transformation…” We may read Romans 8 and rise up in utter outrage and bitter disgust; but our rejection and anger only attests to the vast difference between God’s will and our own. The weight of glory presses down. Forgiveness sets free but also obligates. The tension between sin and grace excludes every pride. As Paul asked the Corinthians, “What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7). 

Jesus told the parable of that Pharisee and tax-collector who both went to pray. The good Pharisee stood and thanked God for making him so good while the despised tax-collector bowed low, bemoaned his sinfulness and pled only for mercy. The one who went home righteous knew he never deserved it. 

“Where are your accusers?” Jesus famously asked a despised adulteress caught in her sin. They’d dropped their rocks and left the woman alone once Jesus fingered their own stony pride. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus said. “Now go and sin no more.”

“Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?” “Who is left to condemn?” These questions set up Paul’s denouement: Christ Jesus who died and who rose and who alone sits in judgment intercedes and puts his thumb on the scales. The verdict is tipped; the whole system’s set up in our favor. More than conquerors, we run a race we’ve already won. It’s not fair and all grace, total gift and true love.

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