Hard to Understand

The apostle Peter admitted that Paul’s letters “contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Readers of Paul’s letter to the Romans are not surprised by that. Trying to understand Romans chapter nine is like probing the deepest mysteries of God’s revelation. Because of that, some people prefer to avoid it altogether.

Romans 9-11 deal with God’s purposes for the Jews. Paul has been writing about the the gospel’s impact upon the Gentiles. Now he feels it necessary to address questions about God’s plan for Israel in light of her opposition to the message of Jesus. Has God forgotten his promises to Israel? Has he canceled his covenant with his chosen people?

While Romans nine contains some “hard to understand” truths, there are good reasons for us to read them. First, it is clear that Paul takes the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) seriously. He quotes from them to support his argument. We can learn much from Paul’s use of the Old Testament (Romans 15:4).

Second, What Paul says about nations and people groups, applies to individuals too. The theology of the chosen people carries forward into New Testament theology as a description of the people of God who are in Christ (Romans 8:29-30).

Third, the gospel is the same for Jews and for Gentiles (Romans 1:16, 9:24). Paul expresses a passionate concern for his own people, ethnic Israel. He desires and prays that they too will believe in Jesus as Savior and Messiah (Romans 9:1-3, 10:1). God has a plan to restore a remnant of Israel (Romans 9:27).

Fourth, we ought to read Romans nine because it emphasizes God’s attributes: his sovereignty, his faithfulness, his righteousness, his justice, and his grace. Among other things, these aspects of God’s character mean that he is good in all that he does. He is true to his promises to his people, Jews, as well as Gentiles.

Fifth, as we read Romans nine, we are led to the conclusion that there are some purposes of God that are mysterious and inexplicable. If this is humbling to our proud spirits, that’s a good thing. In fact, God is God and we are not. He does not owe us an explanation for why he does what he does (Romans 9:20-21).

This applies to the doctrine of election. Its is beyond my feeble capacity to understand or explain how we are commanded to believe the gospel, then, having believed, to learn that it was because we were chosen. But that is exactly what the book of Romans teaches (Romans 8:29-30). Believers discover that God had a plan all along which included them!

Romans 9:30-32 illustrate this. A right relationship with God (described as righteousness) comes only through faith in Christ, not by trying to keep the law. In Paul’s example, the pagans, who were not seeking righteousness, found it when they heard the gospel and believed in Jesus Christ. The Jews, who were seeking righteousness through pursuing the law, “have not attained their goal.” This was because they did not pursue it by faith.

This means that Romans nine also teaches human responsibility as well as sovereign election. Jesus taught both as well (John 13:18, 15:16, 3:16-18). These two doctrines are not contradictory, as some suppose. They are complementary like two oars on the same rowboat, two wings on the same bird, two flywheels on a machine, turning in opposite directions but working together with intersecting cogs.

How both can be true may indeed be hard to understand. But perhaps there are things we were not meant to understand, but simply to bow in reverent submission before an all-wise God who always does what is right.

Pastor Randy Faulkner


In my fifty year pastoral ministry I have had occasion to be with folks who lacked certainty about their relationship to God. Some of them were troubled emotionally about this and yearned for inner peace and assurance. Others lived in blithe indifference, happily unconcerned about their need for Christ, and unaware of their spiritual peril. They seemed to believe that certainty of eternal life was not even possible.

For those who really care to know, the book of Romans, chapter eight promises eternal security. It affirms the unshakable promise of God that those who belong to him through faith in Christ are given the hope (assurance) of glory. In this chapter, Paul, “the apostle soars to sublime heights unequalled elsewhere in the New Testament,” wrote John Stott. He said, “Romans 8 is without doubt one of the best-known, best-loved chapters of the Bible.”

It is not hard to understand why this is true. The inspired words of Romans eight promise the certainty of deliverance from eternal condemnation, the certainty of the resurrection of the dead, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, and the Spirit’s witness that they are God’s children.

Further, the eighth chapter of Romans describes how God works to achieve his good purposes in the lives of his children, even (especially) when they encounter hardship and suffering. It declares the certainty of God’s love and his eternal purpose in calling his own people to himself.

This chapter stands in shining contrast to the doubts, introspection, and discouragement that colored Paul’s mood in chapter seven. It provides a ringing answer to the plaintive, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24). Romans seven is about the work of the law in imposing death. Romans eight is about the power of the Holy Spirit in giving life through the gospel.

The chapter opens with the declaration that there is “no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The word “condemnation” is derived from the courts of law. It is a metaphor Paul uses to teach about the believer’s judicial (legal) acceptance before a holy God. It is different from the tone of self-condemnation in chapter seven. The words “no condemnation” reiterate the doctrine of justification which has been Paul’s theme in the opening chapters of Romans. It means the believer is declared “not guilty” on the basis of faith in Christ.

Romans eight also tells about the Spirit’s role in helping believers live life as God intended. The Old Testament law was powerless to make us right with God or to give us the ability to live righteous lives. God did what the law could not do through his Son’s sacrifice on the cross and through the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Right living is now possible through Spirit-enabled obedience to God’s will. The requirements of the moral law are thus fulfilled as we live under the guidance of the Spirit (Romans 8:4).

In this chapter the Holy Spirit is mentioned nineteen times. The Spirit supports the testimony of our human spirit that we believers are indeed God’s children (Romans 8:14-16). The Spirit helps us to pray as we ought to pray, even when we do not know how to frame our prayers (Romans 8:26-27). The Spirit enables us to call on God as a loving and compassionate Father (“Abba,” v. 15). The Holy Spirit is said to be the firstfruits of our future inheritance (Romans 8:23).

Paul does not sidestep the reality of suffering in this present life. There is no escapism in his description of living on earth. Yes, believers are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, but that does not mean that life will be free of trouble. In fact, Paul says that it is precisely because we are in Christ that we “share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17). 

Suffering is common to all humanity. All of creation groans in anticipation of its renewal. Like Jesus (Matthew 19:28), Peter (Acts 3:19,21), and John (Revelation 21, 22), the apostle Paul foresaw the liberation and restoration of the whole of creation. This, he says, will happen in conjunction with the future glorification of all of God’s children. For now, we who believe are to live in anticipation of the resurrection and the completion of our redemption (Romans 8:18-25).

As we live in this in-between time, we are given the rich assurance that God is for us and no power in the universe can stand against us. In a beautiful and powerful series of rhetorical questions Paul answers uncertainty with certainty, doubt with assurance, and fear, with a bold statement of the believer’s eternal security in Christ (Romans 8:28-39). In the words of Zane Hodges, we are given here “a superbly elegant paean of praise to the permanence of God’s love in Christ.”

Read these verses aloud to yourself and let them feed your certainty of God’s good purpose for you.

Pastor Randy Faulkner


The Struggle to Live as a Christian

The book of Romans is important for the guidance it gives for every day living. In the sixth chapter we read about the exalted  new privileges Christians are given. According to Paul, believers are enabled to live righteous lives because of their spiritual union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. A desirable new life is possible. But according to Romans seven, the Christian life is not always easy. To be frank, sometimes living for Christ feels like a struggle.

Romans seven contradicts the idea that a righteous life is achieved by rules, regulations, and resolutions (Romans 7:4). It further refutes the notion that human nature is essentially good. It exposes human weakness and the limits of our knowledge and ability. It reveals the fact that the Christian life sometimes feels like an internal battle.

Paul may not have been awash in the temptations of today’s social media culture (lies, hatred, violence, pornography) but he faced enough of the pressures of the world to admit, “For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19).

Who is the “I” in Paul’s statement? Is he writing about himself or someone else? If Paul is describing his own experience, is it his experience before he became a Christian or his experience as a Christian, struggling against sin? Does it matter? I believe it does. This gives us more reasons why it is helpful to read Romans. This is practical guidance on living as a Christian should live.

Christians are not under law (Romans 6:14) in the sense that they are not justified by keeping the law. It is not possible to keep the law. The purpose of the law is to reveal the will of God for his people and to make clear what sin really is in the sight of God (Romans 7:7, 13).

So who is the “I” in Paul’s discourse? He must be a real Christian because he says he delights in God’s law (Romans 7:22), which he says is holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12). He is a humble Christian, unlike the proud Pharisee Paul was in his pre-Christian days (Philippians 3:4-6). He is an honest Christian, bluntly admitting to the inner conflict going on inside himself between his old sinful nature and the new nature, who he really is in Christ (Galatians 5:16-17; 1 Timothy 1:15).

I believe Paul is telling his own story and making a universal application for every reader of his letter. In the seventh chapter he contrasts the old way of life with new life in Christ (Romans 7:4-7). The “old” Paul was married to law and controlled by the sinful nature. The “new” Paul is united to Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He still has the ability to sin, but now he has an appetite for a life lived to please and glorify God.

Romans seven is complex and not easy to understand. I believe Paul’s experience is mirrored in the experiences of many Christians who sometimes feel exhausted by the struggle against sin. Victory is possible through the Holy Spirit (Romans 7:6).

Pastor Randy Faulkner

If You Had One Book to Read…

For years I owned the complete 54-volume set of the Great Books of the Western World published by the Encyclopedia Britannica. On occasion I would read samplings from  some of the renowned poets or philosophers whose works are preserved in the collection. But not like I wanted to. And not like I intended to.

I am embarrassed to admit I neglected to discipline myself to undertake a systematic exploration of these volumes. One of the thoughts I had held in the back of my mind was that in retirement I would finally have time to use “The Syntopicon,” the topical index to the Great Books edited by Mortimer J. Adler. It is a guide and introduction to the entire collection, making the great ideas of Western thought accessible to people like me.

Alas, I gave the set away when we moved to Georgia. There simply is not room in our apartment for all the books I wish I could have kept. Before we moved I gave away over 15 boxes of treasures, books that have shaped and enriched my life. I also gave away my set of the Harvard Classics and the multi-volume set of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization. I miss them every day.

Sometimes as I scan the remnants of my library, looking for a particular volume, I remember that I had had to let it go. “Why didn’t I keep that one?” I ask myself. I am consoled by the knowledge that many of the books ended up in the libraries of churches, younger pastors, missionaries, and my adult children.

If I were going to keep only one book, which one would it be? I could enumerate here some of my favorite authors and their works, but let me cut to the chase. If I were marooned on a desert island, and could have only one book with me, I would want it to be the letter of Paul the apostle to the Romans.

The reason for this choice is the book’s supremely important subject. It is about the righteousness of God and how human beings may be given a right relationship to him. It is an exposition of the gospel of grace for all people, Jews as well as Gentiles. Its themes include guilt and forgiveness, justification by faith, living as a Christian, Israel’s ultimate restoration, the security of believers in Christ, and the priorities of missions and evangelism.

If it has been a while since you read Romans, I urge you to take it up again and read it thoughtfully. Please do not neglect it as I neglected the Great Books. Its subject is too important to ignore. It is (I say this seriously) a matter of life and death.

If you read Romans, you will see that the themes of death and life appear in Romans 6. Paul answers questions from an imaginary critic who misunderstands and distorts his teaching. Doesn’t Paul’s teaching on salvation by free grace promote sinful behavior? “Emphatically not!” the apostle answers.

A believer’s experience in Christ is a spiritual resurrection from death. Paul says we should conclude that in Christ we have died to the life we lived before conversion. And we are raised with Christ to a new life (Romans 6:1-14). Christ died to sin (Romans 6:10) in the sense that he bore sin’s penalty and condemnation on our behalf. God’s moral law is satisfied and we believers are the beneficiaries.

This truth obligates us to think of ourselves as servants (slaves) of God, not of sin. Grace liberates the believer from slavery to sin. That same grace prompts voluntary servitude to God (Romans 6:15-23). All humans are either slaves to sin, Paul says, or slaves to God. The service of God is the true freedom for which Paul erupts in praise and thanks to God (Romans 6:17).

This is practical. What Paul is talking about is how a believer is set apart for God. In theological language we call this sanctification, living to please God as we grow in grace and knowledge. Romans 6 has to do with how we may avoid doing wrong, especially since we live in bodies that are prone to sin, in a world that promotes sin, and against a spiritual enemy called the devil, the tempter, who pressures us to sin.

The answer in Romans 6 is the believer’s identification with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. For success in the Christian life we must “lean into” that truth every day. We may benefit from this daily attitude toward life: Recognizing that we died with Christ to the old way of life and we are raised with him to a new way of life; Relying or trusting in that truth; Releasing ourselves into the service of God, surrendering ourselves, not to law, not to rules, not to resolutions, but to his Holy Spirit.

Can you see why I say that Romans is an essential book? I think it is greater than all the Great Books put together. Read it again as if for the first time.

Pastor Randy Faulkner