Simplicity Series #31

The Gospel for the Nations

What of Those Who Have Never Heard?

“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise, so as much as is in me, I am ready to preach the gospel to you who are in Rome also.” Rom. 1:14–15

Please bear with me, as this post is of necessity a bit long. However, this section of Romans is critical to a clear understanding of the issues of election, predestination, and the plan of God.

Paul’s Intended Audience

Paul has the true heart of a shepherd and, as he writes, he has many potential listeners in mind. Later in the book (Romans chapters 14–15), he will be primarily addressing believers from both Greek and Jewish camps. Among these various house churches in Rome, some were strong believers, and others were weak (Rom. 14:1; 15:1). Some were weak due to recently coming to the faith. For others, the weakness stemmed from various scruples relating to the Law. There were those among the strong who were non-judgmental, but others who held the weak in contempt. Also, among the weak, some were non-judgmental, while others stood in judgment of fellow-believers. Paul will address these problems in due time.

However, here at the beginning of the book, Paul’s concern is far wider in scope. He is making a case for the “good news” for all mankind. Note that this also includes those in Rome who are already believers (Rom. 1:15). Paul’s conception of the Gospel message encompasses much more than just initial salvation, as we will see (Romans 6–8; 12–16). The apostle recognizes that in every human soul there are needs that can only be met by the revelation of truth and the reception of the grace of God. In the first three chapters, he throws his net wide enough to include all mankind.

Various Aspects of Election

Since the issue of election becomes such a battleground in Romans 9, it would be good to notice the “elections” mentioned or implied in chapter 1:

  1. The election of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:3–5). This is the election that makes sense of all other uses of the word. The first occurrence of the word “Elect” is found in Isa. 42:1:

“Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights!”

Since Jesus Christ is chosen by the Father to die for every member of the human race, this gives meaning to each and every use of the term “elect.”

  1. The election of Israel (Rom. 1:16), “for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” It is due to the election of Israel, and the purpose of that election, that rightly gives to the Jew the privilege of hearing the Gospel message first. This is why when Jesus sent out the twelve, He instructed them, “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles … but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mat. 10:5–6). This is also why Paul always went first to the synagogues (Acts 13:5; 14:1, etc.). This tells us that though they were part of the “elect nation,” they were unsaved—a point Paul brings up again in Romans 9.
  2. The election of Paul (Rom. 1:1, 5). Paul, like the other apostles, was chosen for a task, for which they were given special equipping and authority. Even though he was “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), he labored mightily for the conversion of his Jewish brethren (Rom. 9:1–5; 10:1–2).
  3. The election of the Church (Rom. 1:6, 15). While both Israel and the Church have an election from God, they are not the same. In Israel, all shared the national election, even if they were unbelievers (see Rom. 11:28). Not so in the Church, which is made up of “the election according to grace” (Rom. 11:5–7). Entrance into Israel was by physical lineage, but entrance into the Church is by spiritual birth (1 Pet. 1:23).
  4. The election of the nations (Rom. 1:5, 14–16). God chose His only begotten Son to die for the world, and chose every nation to hear the invitation to eternal life. It is this “election” that constitutes the “debt” of the Apostle Paul (Rom. 1:14). This is the foundation of what is called “The Great Commission” (Mat. 28:18–20).

When we get to Romans 9, we will find that every single issue Paul deals with in that chapter has already had its foundational parameters laid down earlier in the book. It is due to the failure to recognize this, that Romans 9 has been so abused historically. Paul now begins to address his audience. Bear in mind that throughout the book, he is contrasting those who “walk by faith” and those who “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:17–18).

To the Barbarian (Rom. 1:18–32)

Keep in mind that Paul does not mention the Gospel message until Rom. 3:21–26. Here, he is dealing, as it were, with all those who lived from the time of Adam to the coming of Christ. These were the “times of ignorance God overlooked, but now [with the coming of Christ] commands all men everywhere to repent …” (Acts 17:30). This “because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just [justified in the sight of all men] and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:25b–26). Remember that Romans is a vindication of “the power of God to [save]and the “righteousness of God” in making salvation available to all (Rom. 1:16–17).

From Rom. 1:18–32, Paul is dealing with what we might call the heathen. He begins by declaring that the wrath of God is revealed against their ungodliness, not because they do not know any better, but rather because they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b). Primitive superstition, idolatry, and demonic practices exist, not because men do not know better, but rather because they freely choose to suppress the truth that they have.

But how can they suppress a message they have never heard? To this issue, Paul declares that the evidence of creation itself is sufficient to lead them toward the truth (Rom. 1:19–20). In fact, so compelling is the revelation of nature, he declares that all men everywhere in the world, however remote their nation, stand before God “without excuse, because … they knew God [but] did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:20–21). It is worth noting that thankfulness to God for His many blessings is the first step toward glorifying Him (see Acts 14:17; 17:26–27).

Paul used this argument when he spoke to the people of Athens (Acts 17:23–31). In a very interesting twist, he will bring this exact accusation against unbelieving Israel (Rom. 10:16–21), condemning them for rejecting both the revelation of creation and that of their own prophets.

This section of Romans is crucial to many issues and arguments that come up later in the book. For example, the idea of the “wrath of God” is developed here (Rom. 1:18–32) as the righteous consequences of evil decisions. Also, the concept of God hardening the hearts of men, which comes up later with Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17–18), is clearly developed in this section.

Note that men choose to reject the light they are given, they then suppress the truth in unrighteousness, and finally they choose to worship the creation rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:18–23). It is only after men choose darkness rather than light, evil rather than good, and idols rather than God that God steps in to confirm the hardening process (Rom. 1:24–32).

The downward spiral of degeneracy is confirmed as “God gave them up to uncleanness in the lusts of their hearts …” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Later, when Paul says, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens” (Rom. 9:18), he does not need to explain the mechanics of how this happens. It has all been explained previously in Romans 1.

To the Greek (Rom. 2:1–16)

Paul now addresses the cultured Greek, in Rom. 2:1–16. Though he would sneer at the ignorance of the barbarian, Paul shows that his assumed superiority is false. In every nation or society, there are those who consider themselves the “elite” based on their education or polished lifestyle, yet they are guilty of the very sins they judge in others. Hypocrisy is their cloak.

Right off the bat, Paul declares him “inexcusable” as well (Rom. 2:1), because his very act of judging others shows that he has a sense of right and wrong, bringing him also under indictment before God.

Having experienced the “goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering” of God, which should “lead to repentance” (Rom. 2:4), the cultured Greek chose instead to assume his own superiority, while casting judgment on the uncultured world around him. Paul declares that “in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). Here, Paul is simply reinforcing the truth that God gives light to all men (John 1:9; 3:19), so that all men might believe, and all who refuse to believe are without excuse.

Here again, Paul addresses the issue of the hardening of the heart, showing that it is a direct result of rejecting the offered mercy of God. Repentance would imply turning from a sense of superiority to the humility that would lead to faith.

Ultimately, God will “render to each one according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6). This is not salvation by works by any means. Our deeds are the fruit of our choices, and our choices reflect either arrogance and independence, or humility and dependence on God. Those who respond to the light of creation (Rom. 1:18–20) and to the light of conscience (Rom. 2:14–16) with humility, will in due time come to faith in the One true God. They will seek for “glory, honor, and immortality” (Rom. 2:7), and God—in His grace—will meet them in that pursuit (James 4:8). For those who are “self-seeking” (Rom. 2:8–9), there will be only “indignation and wrath.”

Notice that Paul is holding men accountable for their own decisions, made without any coercion. And all the while he is laying the foundation for Romans 9–11. In the final analysis, all men will be judged according to the Gospel of Christ (Rom. 2:16, see Acts 17:30–31). This does not mean Old Testament believers knew the contents of the Gospel message as we know it. Surely Abraham did not (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3). Nor did Moses (Exo. 3:1-6) or Rahab the harlot (Jos. 2:8–11). Their faith was in the One true God as He was revealed to them at that time. They were “doers of the law” (Rom. 2:13) in the sense that they humbled themselves under the conviction of their sinful lives, and threw themselves on the mercy of God. I believe this is just as true for primitive people in remote places around the world, with the exception that—God knowing the hearts of all men—when anyone responds to the light they are given, God now brings the full Gospel message to them, as He guides missionaries to hungry souls.

To the Jew (Rom. 2:17–3:20)

In Rom. 2:17–3:20, Paul turns his attention to the unbelieving Jew. Here is the greatest cause for guilt, for the Jew had all three levels of revelation: creation (Rom. 1:18–20), conscience (Rom. 2:14–15), and the revelation of God in the Law (Rom. 2:17–18).

Although the unbelieving Jew was instructed in the Law, and assumed an attitude of superiority because of it, he was also a violator of the Law (Rom. 2:17–24). So much so that “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24).

The specific pride of the Jew was that he bore the sign of circumcision—the mark of the Abrahamic Covenant (Rom. 3:25–29; Genesis 17). Paul will later reveal that this “sign” was given to remind every Jewish male of the faith of Abraham (Rom. 4:9–12). In other words, it was a ritual designed to lead to a spiritual reality. Unfortunately, over the years, the ritual came to replace the reality, so that Jews assumed that due to their “elect” status—as Israel— salvation was automatically theirs.

Paul makes it clear that without the new birth resulting from faith, circumcision means nothing (Rom. 3:28–29). The prophet Jeremiah called on Israel to circumcise their hearts (Jer. 4:1–4), but to no avail.

What Advantage Has the Jew?

Rom. 3:1–20 is absolutely essential to our understanding of Romans 9. Unfortunately, few commentators make this connection. Paul asks three questions:

  1. What is the advantage of the Jew (Rom. 3:1)? This question he answers, “much in every way” due to the revelation “oracles” they received (Rom. 3:2). This question will be fully answered in Romans 9.
  2. “What if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect?” (Rom. 3:3). Paul forcefully denies this charge, quoting Psalm 51:4, declaring that God will be “justified” in His words (Scripture) and victorious when He is judged, that is, in the baseless charges of the ungodly. This sets the stage for Rom. 3:26, “that He might be just[ified].” Paul will expand on this in Romans 10.
  3. Finally, “Is God unjust who inflicts wrath?” (Rom. 3:5). If this were true, “then how [could] God judge the world?” (Rom. 3:6). This will be answered in Romans 11.

These questions had probably been cast in Paul’s face many times from synagogue leaders and critics as a rebuttal to his teaching on “by-grace-through-faith” justification. However, Paul uses them here to set up the indictment of unbelieving Israel, which are answered in full in Romans 9–11.

The “advantages” of Israel were great indeed! To her had been given the “oracles,” or revelations of the covenants (Rom. 3:2), the promises, the Law, and the temple service—not to mention the voice of her prophets, culminating in her greatest Light—the coming of the Messiah (see Rom. 9:1–5). But, as Jesus warned in Luke 12:48b, after He had taught a parable concerning stewardship, “For everyone to whom much is given [i.e., the great spiritual advantages of Israel], from him much will be required.” In the light of such great spiritual advantages, how did Israel as a whole respond?

Israel: No better than the Gentiles

Those of the Calvinist persuasion love to quote Rom. 3:9–20 as proof that no one can believe unless God first regenerates him or her—a position that contradicts the clear process laid down by both Peter and Paul in Acts 11:15–17 and Eph. 1:13–14.

However, what is too often missed, is that these eight quotes—primarily from Psalms with one each from Isaiah and Ecclesiastes—are used in the context here to prove the guilt of Israel as being equal to that of the Gentiles. His point is made in Rom. 3:9 and 3:19–20, that the Jews first, and also the Gentiles, stood condemned, and that possession of the Law, far from providing a way of salvation, had only increased the guilt of Israel for their unbelief (Rom. 3:3).

It should be pointed out that “there is none who seeks after God” (Rom. 3:11) is not a direct quote, but an adaptation from Psalm 14:2. In the context, this is a rebuke to the “fool” (Psalm14:1), who has hardened his heart against the Lord. Paul adapts and applies it to the Jewish nation of his generation. It certainly cannot mean that no one ever seeks for God.

In fact, seeking God is what Scripture says all men should do (Psalm 10:4; Acts 17:27), and specifically what Israel’s prophets exhorted the nation to do (Psalm 27:8; 34:10; Isa. 55:6; Jer. 29:13). In Heb.11:6, we read, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him(emphasis added). The act of seeking God is a faith-response to hearing and heeding His Word. As David said, “When You said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek’” (Psalm 27:8). To attempt to use Rom. 3:10 to say that it is impossible for anyone to seek God, as the Calvinists do, is clearly contrary to Scripture.

This section (Rom. 1:18–3:20) has set the stage for Paul to build his case for salvation—both in the sense of initial justification (Romans 4–5) and then for progressive sanctification (Romans 6–8). Both are achieved “by grace through faith” (see Rom. 4:16 with 11:6). So far in this section, Paul has not only brought the indictment of sinfulness on the heathen (Rom. 1:18–32), the cultured Greek (Rom. 2:1–16), and the Jew (Rom. 2:17–3:20), but he has also provided all the evidence necessary to show that all are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20; 2:1). But the chief question is: Without excuse for what? And the answer is: For failure to enter into a relationship with God by faith alone (Rom. 1:5, 16–17). Paul has now set the stage for Romans 4–5, the case for faith alone, apart from works.


Please bear in mind that Paul is building an argument which is very systematic. Everything that he will say in Romans 9–11 will have already had its foundation laid in Romans 1–8. Consider five things we have seen from Rom. 1:1–3:20 that are critical to the election, predestination, and plan of God scenario:

  1. We have seen five different aspects of election laid out in the first chapter. All have to do with divine purpose—not all involve salvation.
  2. The Gospel message committed to Paul was designed to bring “obedience to the faith among all nations” to the glory of Christ (Rom. 1:5).
  3. The entire epistle of Romans is a defense of God’s righteousness and justice, based on His power and willingness to save “everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:17). Paul’s use of “righteousness” in this sense is better understood by our words “justice” or “fairness.” God’s plan, rightly understood, leaves no human being any basis for saying God is not fair.
  4. Paul has made clear that God’s judicial hardening follows man’s repeated rejection of His revelation and grace (Rom. 1:18–32). This is crucial to understanding Rom. 9:15–18.
  5. Finally, Paul makes it clear that God’s patience and longsuffering are designed to lead each and every one to repentance from their rebelliousness to faith in Christ. This very point will be made in Rom. 10:20–21 regarding Israel.

This post has been exceptionally long. Thank you for bearing with me. However, it is necessary, because Paul is laying the foundation upon which his arguments of Romans 9–11 rest.


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