Saturday, December 5, 2009

Isaac: The "faith child"

“The apostle is unambiguous: God chooses Jacob and rejects Esau before birth ‘in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call’ (Rom. 9:11)” (Robert A. Peterson, “Election and Free Will: God’s Gracious Choice and Our Responsibility (Explorations in Biblical Theology).” Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007, page 41).

I started reading Peterson’s book yesterday, and, as always, I’m fascinated at how many times Romans 9-11 is used in Calvinist literature to discuss the issue of God’s election. The use of Romans 9-11 is not a bad thing: after all, it is Scripture. The only down side to this is, as always, that the conflict occurs over how Scripture is to be interpreted. That is what Calvinists and Arminians have been fighting about since the beginning of human civilization (even before the times of Calvin and Arminius).

Although I’ve done a few posts on the subject of Romans 9-11, I will continue to examine these three chapters of the book of Romans from time to time. Whenever I read about the nature of God’s election, I am always motivated (whether by a Calvinist or Arminian author) to return to these three important chapters of Paul’s epistle. It seems that these chapters call me back again and again to the Word of God for answers. If no other good has surfaced from my study of Calvinism and Arminianism, I am glad to say that the debate has driven me more and more to the Word of God. And that zeal for more and more of God’s Word is not a bad thing at all...

Today, I will only deal with Isaac. These are Paul’s words regarding Isaac:

“But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, ‘IN ISAAC YOUR SEED SHALL BE CALLED.’ That is, THOSE WHO ARE CHILDREN OF THE FLESH, THESE ARE NOT THE CHILDREN OF GOD; BUT THE CHILDREN OF THE PROMISE ARE COUNTED AS THE SEED. For this is the word of promise: ‘At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son’” (Romans 9:6-9, NKJV).

At the beginning of Romans 9, Paul is expressing his anguish over his national brethren, Israel, because so many of them are not saved (Rom. 9:1-3).

However, I think there is something in verse 4 that is overlooked: and that is that the Israelites themselves have received “the promises.” The promises pertain to the nation of God’s choice (Israel)...and yet, so much of the nation is unsaved at the time of Paul’s letter. How can the promises belong to a nation that has yet to become “children of the promise”? Is this because of some “unconditional election” whereby God has chosen to reject most of His people? If we take the Calvinist stance, God has chosen to reject most of His people. But this directly contradicts Paul’s words later in Romans 11:2----“God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew”!

If God has not cast away His people, then the only other explanation for Israel’s current state in Paul’s letter is that the nation itself has rejected God (and not the other way around!).

This is why Paul writes in Romans 9:6, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” Spiritual Israel consists of more than just the Jew, but also the Gentile. And this shows, according to Paul, that God’s Word has not failed.

In verse 6 Paul distinguishes ethnic Israel from spiritual Israel; in verse 8, he distinguishes the children of the flesh from the children of the promise: “those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed.” Let me set up a syllogism (series of premises) for explanation:

Premise 1: the children of flesh are in opposition to the children of the promise.

Premise 2: the children of the flesh are not the children of God (v.8).

Premise 3: therefore, the children of the promise are the children of God.

Why then, are the children of the promise the children of God?

How is this demonstrated, that the children of God are the children of the promise? This is seen in Genesis, where God makes the promise to Abraham and Sarah:

“Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, THAT ISHMAEL MIGHT LIVE BEFORE YOU!’ Then God said, ‘NO, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him’” (Genesis 17:17-19, NKJV).

Here in Genesis 17, Abraham pleads for Ishmael to be the “promised seed,” but God refuses to grant Abraham’s wish. Why? Because Ishmael was a product of human planning, not the product of the plan of God (Gen. 16:1-3). God had promised a son to Abraham and Sarah, and they had to wait in faith for him. Abraham and Sarah were pass the age to bear children (Gen. 18:11), and to the couple, it seemed an impossible thing at first (Gen. 18:12); this is why the Lord responded, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14). What seemed to be an impossible thing with men would be not just possible with God, but certain...

Notice that God did not damn Ishmael: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you...behold, I HAVE BLESSED HIM, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Gen. 17:20). God honors Ishmael because he is a son of Abraham’s, although Ishmael was not the child God promised to the elderly couple.

Why is it that all of ethnic Israel is not spiritual Israel? Why are all of Abraham’s descendants not children of God? The answer lies in Paul’s conclusion to his argument in chapter 9:

“Why? Because they DID NOT SEEK IT[righteousness] BY FAITH, BUT AS IT WERE, BY THE WORKS OF THE LAW” (Rom. 9:32, NKJV).

When God selected Isaac instead of Ishmael, He does so because Isaac was “The Faith Child,” the one that it was impossible for Abraham and Sarah to physically conceive! Isaac was the child that Abraham and Sarah had to wait on God for. Ishmael was their decision---- but Isaac would be God’s! And when God chose Isaac, He was making the point that the only way the couple would please Him was by faith (not by human effort).

The example of Isaac, then, is one of faith. This echoes Paul’s later work in Galatians 3:

“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law...that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive THE PROMISE of the Spirit THROUGH FAITH” (Gal. 3:14).

The children of the promise (Gal. 4:8), then, are those who come to God by faith. The promise is administered “through faith” (Gal. 3:14).

Everyone knows that, when a promise is made, the recipients of the promise must keep the faith that the promise will be fulfilled. Thus, it is no different with the Lord (Gal. 3:7-9). The promise can be made; but “without faith, it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

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