Now, before you draws swords on me, please know that I tend to agree with much of John Calvin's theology to include the volumes he wrote that have nothing to do with his take on soteriology (although I tend not to pay much attention to his many tirades against papal rule, I disagree with his domineering approach to governmental law, and I'm saddened that he had no problem persecuting believers who didn't hold his theological views, even unto death.)
We'll get back to John Calvin in a moment.
Romans 9 gives us an amazing glimpse into Paul's emotions. He starts, much like Moses, seemingly ready to give himself up for the sake of his brothers. In Romans 9:1-5 he shows us his pain. Paul is greatly troubled by his people. Although Paul had a Greek background and was a Roman citizen, he was a Jew, and a well trained one at that. God intended the Israelites to be his chosen people for a purpose. "To them belong the adoption, the glory, and covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises" of God, according to Romans 9:4. They were to be priest's to the world. From their line came Christ. But they misunderstood why they were given so much blessing--to be blessing to the world--and they missed Jesus. Paul is sad here, and for good reason.
Their understanding of God, that is the theology of many of the Israelites, was more about building themselves up than it was about submitting to God. But good theology should cause us to have more love for God and people. It should drive us into a better understanding of who God is and what he desires of us. If we have a better understanding, we'll be humble people, submitted to the well-rounded will of God. The Israelites missed this and built a theology around their own desires, knowledge, and agenda.
I'm sure the Jews were shocked to read Romans 9 and hear Paul statement about missing the mark. But this raises a question. Was God wrong about his chosen people? In his commentary on Romans, Calvin identifies that Romans 9:1-4 almost presents an inconsistency. How could it be that God's chosen people, the Israelites, could have turned their back on the Lord or missed God in some way? Paul spends a good portion of the chapter answering this question.
First, Paul says "But it is not as though the word of God has failed." God's Word is not wrong. In this case, the Israelite's understanding was in error. See, they thought they could simply appeal to Abraham and all was good. But Paul says there's more to it. God has chosen a path from which his people, as well as Jesus would come, and that path followed God's promise. Sometimes God chose people that society would reject in this line to Jesus. But as Paul uses the rest of the chapter to point out, it's God's prerogative to do whatever God pleases.
Getting back to John Calvin for a moment, I'd like to share a story about some people I encountered in seminary. I believe they can probably be found on most seminary campuses and at one point or another most seminary students become them when they get puffed up with knowledge.
I have lived most of my life in Utah or Idaho. I can assure you that in Utah, there is way too much work to be done for the Kingdom to get overly concerned about debates that include theologians like John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. Honestly, I was shocked to learn that debates that started in the fifteenth and sixteenth century were still being fought (as if this would be the generation to put the issue to rest). But when I started seminary, I quickly learned that there are still people actually fighting with other Christians over the mechanics of salvation rather than giving their energy to being fishers of men and praying to see people saved.
But what really caught my attention was how much some of these individuals--"hypers" on both sides of the debate--had lost sight of God. Their take on theology had grown so significant that being humble, God-loving disciples of Jesus was actually less important then being able to win a debate that will mean very little in heaven. Theology had become an idol and they were excited to unleash their idol on the idols of other Christians. Like the Israelites, they were actually missing what was truly important.
How often do we act like the Israelites? Have you ever made a less-than-significant thing so important that you built your faith identity around it? Maybe a theological idea? A particular author or pastor or speaker? Have you ever made it more important to be so right about something that you were in jeopardy of failing to follow Jesus in all his other teachings? Maybe it's how we do church? Or worship style? Your favorite author? Big church vs. small church? Maybe it's something else?
It's easy to identify our idols by what we get overly defensive and argumentative about. We might frame it is super spiritual terms, but when we cut right through it, we have idols and bad theology we need to deal with.
The Israelites misunderstood God's purpose for them as a chosen people. Many have missed the great blessing God intended for them out of their own pride and arrogance. How do we miss God? Where do we have pride? What idols do we have that need to die? What mistakes lead us away from humbly following God? How do we get wrong ideas elevated so high that we could miss our Risen Lord? How can our own ego keep us from the blessings of the mission Christ has for us? What can we do to keep this from happening? How might we identify our idols? Are there gentle ways we can help one another see? How can our House Fellowships help prevent these puffed up problems?
I know I've slipped into these Israelite-like places in the past. I pray I don't fall that low again. I hope I'm not there now. I pray that we don't go there as a church. I am asking God that we will help one another see our idols so we don't miss the blessing God as for us as his chosen and loved people. Will you join me in this prayer?
Soli Deo gloria!
*"Snob" by Charles LaBlanc is registered under a Creative Commons License and is used by permission.