Prayer, Passion, and the Sovereignty of God in Salvation
Paul's Epistle to the Romans has been a source of profound blessing to the church. Many of us, perhaps, know of the instrumental means Romans 1:16-17 was to Martin Luther's conversion, which ultimately was a catalyst to the Protestant Reformation. I have been meticulously studying through the book of Romans with my church over the last number of years. Indeed, the book of Romans is a treasure trove of theology that provides balm to soul. One of the things that has increasingly surprised and impressed me about the book of Romans is the pastoral demeanor of the apostle Paul. It is an unfortunate misconception that if one is theologically astute then they cannot be pastoral or if one is pastoral then one cannot be theologically astute. Granted, there are some examples that can be given that seem to lend support to this misconception. I would submit that theological acumen and a pastoral demeanor are necessarily connected. One of the surprising places I found this was in Romans 9 and 10.
Typically, when one thinks of Romans 9 it is with reference to the difficult, and yet profound, explanation of God's sovereignty in salvation. Indeed, Romans 9 is a high water mark, theologically speaking, in the book of Romans. However, I have been drawn to what Paul states on both sides of his treatise on God's sovereignty in salvation. It is for this reason that I have entitled this entry "Prayer, Passion, and the Sovereignty of God."
Chapter 9:6-32 is the unpacking of the sovereign election of God in salvation; for both Jew and Gentile, though the emphasis lies on the Jews in this part simply because Paul is addressing the question as to whether or not God's word had failed. To summarize the argument in these verses would look something like this: First, not everyone who is of physical descent of Israel belongs to the promise nor are those who are the physical offspring of Abraham included in the promise. In other words, physical birth does not merit anything when it comes to salvation. Paul cites the example of Isaac over Ishmael as a historical example that it is not simply by the physical descent of Abraham that people are accounted as having salvation. Furthermore, Paul makes the point that salvation is a work of the Lord by quoting from Genesis 18:12, "About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son." Then further emphasizes this by referencing Jacob and Esau and the election of the one over the other irrespective of works. In response to this, Paul assumes the rebuttal will be this is not fair to which Paul is quick to rebuff any thoughts that there is injustice with God. God is free to show mercy to whomever he will show mercy. This includes both Jew and Gentile as "those who were not my people I will call 'my people.'"
I briefly examine this theological argument in the midst of chapter 9 in order to highlight that which surrounds this theological treatise. My premise is that divine sovereignty ought never suppress our passion for the lost, nor our diligent prayer for the lost. I am not writing this as a corrective to any particular misconception, though it may be in the providence of God.
Let us attend to the opening verses that bracket the theological portion of Romans 9. How does Paul begin? He begins by noting the anguish he has for those Jews who had not come to saving faith in Christ. He, speaking in hyperbole, would wish himself cut off for the sake of his kinsmen according to the flesh. Could there be any more Christ-like attitude? Consider Isaiah 53 as it speaks of the Servant of the Lord who was "...cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people" (Is. 53:8). The sovereignty of God in election did not curtail the passion of the apostle for those who had not come to faith. The sovereignty of God in salvation is not an excuse for indifference for the lost, nor ought we be fatalists either. It is worth noting also, that Paul's zeal for the salvation of his kinsmen did not cause him to jettison the God appointed means by which one comes to faith. It is through the means of preaching that people come to faith and thus that is what he does (see Rom. 10:14-15). His zeal does not lead him to unbiblical practice. This ought to reenforce our commitment to the biblical means of grace and seeing that those whom we know have yet to come to faith have opportunity to come into contact with the primary means of grace which is preaching. Preaching, according to the Heidelberg Catechism, is the means by which the Holy Spirit produces faith in our hearts (HC Q&A #65).
On the other side of this passage is the prayer of the apostle Paul in which he reenforces his passion for the lost as well as demonstrates his diligent prayer for their salvation. He understands that based on sovereign election all will not be saved, but that does not stop him from praying; because God is sovereign and because this salvation in Christ is a sovereign work of God there is every reason to be praying to God that he would accomplish the work in his people that he purposed to do in the eternal council of the Triune God. Divine sovereignty does not discourage prayer, it is the very foundation of prayer. It is the foundation of prayer because we know that God appoints the ends as well as the means. Thus, Paul prays for the Jews and thus we ought also pray.
Let us not allow the doctrines of grace to become an excuse for indifference and prayerlessness for the salvation of sinners. Let us not allow our theology and practice to be more strict than the apostle Paul's. It was not as if he didn't know what he wrote. He holds divine sovereignty not in a fatalistic way, but in a way that embraces it as the foundation and hope of his ministry and his prayers. The Lord himself desired to show mercy and save sinners by sending his Son Jesus Christ. Should not the people of God embrace the same zeal? The Lord Jesus Christ prayed for those who would come to believe through the message of the apostles (John 17). Should we not pray that those who in mercy have been given to the Son would come to believe as it has been appointed through the means of the gospel of grace? It is okay to be passionate and prayerful concerning the lost; Paul was. And it is okay to be both of those things and fully embrace the sovereignty of God in salvation; Paul did.
The apostle Paul as he writes in Romans gives us a remarkable blend of theology and pastoral insight. We would do well to see the example of the apostle Paul as the church engages the world with the gospel for the glory of Christ.