How to come to God
We all seem to suffer from a common problem: we want to come to God on our own terms. It seems to me that every false religion falls at the same hurdle – they demand that the person coming to God has to achieve some degree of goodness to have access to God; it has to be on their terms. Even atheists want to come to God on their terms: when asked if he met God what he would say to him, Stephen Fry launched into a tirade of abuse, calling God utterly evil, and when asked if he thought God would let him into heaven after his outburst, Stephen Fry rather tellingly said ‘I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms.’
In this 10th chapter of Romans, Paul continues his discussion on the failings of Israel. This theme is important for us to grasp if we are to properly understand the bible. The discussion concludes in chapter 11, but in this chapter we will see how Israel’s failure was one of ‘doing it their way’ and choosing to ignore God rather than God’s way. We will also see in this chapter the blue print for becoming a believer.
1. Israel’s failure
It seems that the failure of the Jews is most obvious in their rejection of Jesus. The one who was prophesied to them throughout the Old Testament and the one for whom John the Baptist prepared the way was utterly rejected by the nation. Their rejection was formal and official: it concerned the people who demanded ‘crucify him,’ the religious elite as well as the ruling class in the form of King Herod and the Roman governor. If that wasn’t enough, the nation once again rejected the message of the risen Lord in a formal way too: it was to the Sanhedrin (the religious ruling body) that Stephen gave a comprehensive account of Israel’s rejection of God down through the ages up to their murder of the Messiah. Their response was to murder Stephen too. This state of affairs affected Paul greatly – he said ‘my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.’ The question that Paul starts to grapple with is why Israel got itself into this mess and the answer is that it sought to come to God on its own terms rather than God’s. Paul says “3Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” At first glance this seems strange. Didn’t the Israelites prize the law which after all was something that God gave them? I think the reality was that they said they prized the law but they actually valued primarily the system of rules and procedures they had created around the law. In any event the law could never save them it could only ever bring sin into sharp focus (Paul’s earlier argument). The core issue was one of the attitude in their hearts. Stephen in his speech in Acts 7 said “You stiff necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised.” They would not listen to God’s way.
Paul quotes Leviticus to indicate that demands of the law are clear, ‘The person who does these things will live by them.’ But he goes on to quote Deuteronomy 30 verses 12 to 13. The context to the quotation is that Israel is about to enter the land that God had promised them. It is at this important point in their history that God makes and extraordinary promise; it is a frightening promise of utter disaster if they fail to follow the Lord. See Deuteronomy chapter 28 and 29 for the horrifying details. But there is a promise too of great success if they follow the Lord. Chapter 30 comes after the full description of both the curses and the blessings. It begins with these words of hope: “When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, 2and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” It’s a message of great encouragement because it sets out the final destiny of the people: re-gathered in the land God has given them forever, prosperous and in proper fellowship with God. Next in Deuteronomy 30 come the verses Paul quotes. The verses make it quite clear that God’s request of Israel is perfectly reasonable and attainable: “11Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” Israel’s destiny is in their hands and it is not difficult to do the right thing, God does not ask them to perform near impossible tasks, all that he asks is within close reach. Paul sums up his point by stating that this is the very message he is currently proclaiming: “if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” So what is Paul saying here? Remember the context in chapters 9-11 of Romans is about the demise of Israel. Paul is saying that they made a mess of things, but it was well within their reach to have taken a different course and I think it is without doubt that Paul is saying that this course remains open to them. The concept of availability of rescue is the same in the Old Testament as the New: it’s by faith and it’s not difficult – it’s just a breath and a heart-beat away. We should note in passing the difference in Romans from Deuteronomy is that it is now by faith in Jesus Christ, but it is, and always has been, by faith in God.
If Paul were living in East Grinstead today I wonder what he would say. I rather suspect that he would be delighted to note that God has been true to his promise the people begin to re-gather in the land, but would still be saddened that they remained in unbelief. But he would issue the same hope: salvation is available and accessible for Israel. Indeed if God’s word in Deuteronomy is true (and is surely is!), Israel will at last one day return to fellowship with the Lord.
2. Salvation for all
In the midst of this discussion about Israel, Paul makes important statements that go beyond the discussion about Israel – in verse 12: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13for, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
This of course addresses the very phenomenon that precipitated the three chapters (9-11) concerning the fate of Israel. God had moved his focus away from Israel and currently says Paul, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. Wonderful benefits in the gospel are available to both groups, there is absolutely no restriction: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Before we go any further we need to clarify what Paul means by saying that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile. When I travel within the European Union, at my destination I pass through the blue EU customs channel – the single market makes this possible. I pass through this channel with people from all the other EU countries (actually it’s with all other people who have travelled from an EU country to be precise): I can say with all those other passengers, whether they be German, French or whatever that “there is no difference.” We all enter by the same route with the same customs status. Now imagine that I’m with the same passengers at the Euro football finals (currently in full swing at the time of writing!), is there a difference now? Absolutely! The Germans support Germany, the French support France and the English support England (hopefully along with the Scots who are without a team at the finals) – our nations have an equal standing in terms of EU customs but we have different histories, different destinies (especially after the Brexit vote!). It’s the same with Paul’s statements about Jews and Gentiles. In terms of salvation it’s on an equal basis: faith in Christ for all – there is no difference, but history and destiny is a very different thing and to deny this is to deny much of the scriptures. God clearly has a plan for Israel as made clear in both the Old and News Testaments. Many Christians extrapolate Paul’s statements about Jews and Gentile to every feature of ethnic identity, they might say that there is absolutely no difference of any kind, but this creates an inconsistency in much of the Old and New Testament. God has separate plans for the two groups, that much is very clear. Good Christians would never deny scripture, but I notice that the tension created by failing to recognise distinctions between Jews and Gentiles is often relieved by adopting a method of re-interpretation: God’s statements about Israel are no longer valid and need to be re-interpreted etc. If you find yourself doing this, be careful, messing with God’s words is not just playing with words, it’s doubting what God actually said.
To come back to the point: in terms of rescue from sin there is no difference for Gentiles and Jews: it’s by faith in Christ, but how? Paul is about to give a crystal clear description of the process for becoming a Christian, it’s simple and makes perfect sense. Here it is: First someone needs to be sent to preach the gospel, second the gospel needs to be preached, third, the gospel needs to be heard, fourth people become Christians by believing what they hear and fifth they call on God. Send: Preach: Hear: Believe: Call. As the meerkats would say: Simples!
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this process complicated to a point of absurdity I would be a very wealthy man! Paul keeps it simple because it is simple. The simplicity of this process however places responsibility on all of us. If we are Christians don’t we have a responsibility to bring the gospel with us wherever we go? And as hearers of the gospel everyone has a responsibility to believe by calling on the name of the Lord. As Paul says “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” No one is left out, all may come.
This raises a question. Is it possible for people to refuse to call on God?
3. Refusing God
The answer to the question about refusing God is depressingly simple: yes it is entirely possible to resist the message of the gospel. Common sense as well as bitter experience tells us this, and Paul agrees. He says: “16But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Many Israelites form a tragic example of refusal of God’s offer to be saved. They simply would not believe. But faith can only come by hearing the message preached by on who is sent. For the generation of Israel that Paul was concerned with a messenger had been sent who for sure preached the gospel. But perhaps they didn’t or couldn’t hear the message? After all, some might say that when we are dead in our sins we are not capable of hearing? No, this is not the case. We can be quite sure that they heard perfectly well: Paul says, “Did they not hear? Of course they did: ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.’” OK, maybe they heard but couldn’t understand? Again no, they could understand perfectly well. Paul says: “Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, ‘I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.’ 20And Isaiah boldly says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.’” Paul seems to be saying, Israel understood perfectly well, and was even given an example of people who had little or no understanding but who nevertheless sought God because they understood the message.
Paul closes with a sad picture of the Israelites’ stubborn refusal: All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people. Israel’s demise is a self-made demise. The messenger was sent, the message was preached, the message was heard, the message was understood but the message was not believed. In spite of this, God waits with his hands out waiting for a response. This tells us a lot about God’s patient and loving character.
God holds his hands out to you too. I have no doubt that someone has been sent to you to bring you the message, and no doubt the message has been preached, and no doubt you have heard. But will you respond, will you believe, will you call on God? Eternal destiny lies in your hands.