We believe, as Reformed churches, and emphatically, as Protestant Reformed Churches, in the truth of sovereign predestination, which, briefly, means to us that God sovereignly determines the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate. In short, that God is always the Lord of man. I say, emphatically, not because, as many allege that we do and accuse us of doing, we preach the doctrine of predestination exclusively; still less because we are hard and cruel and have no natural sympathy for mankind in general; but because, in many churches that sail under the Reformed flag, this most important and fundamental truth is forgotten and ignored, or camouflaged and corrupted. They have a copy of the Reformed confessions in the back of their Psalter, but that confession, the very heart of which is the truth of predestination, is scarcely known and certainly does not live in their hearts. Many a preacher carefully avoids in his sermons that truth; and, if he preaches it at all, usually concludes his sermon by contradicting it in the end, presenting the grace of God as a well-meaning offer on the part of God to all, and leaving the impression that salvation is, after all, up to him that willeth and to him that runneth. This we decline to do, first of all, because it concerns the Word of God, which may not, and dare not be corrupted. And secondly, because the truth of predestination is a basic and central truth, with which the Church of Christ stands or falls, as is plain from II Tim. 2:19: "Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." And therefore, we repeat, we teach the truth of predestination emphatically.
In our radio lectures we propose, the Lord willing, for a few weeks to call special attention to this truth on the basis of Romans 9 and in our present lecture we speak to you on the proper spiritual approach to this doctrine, on the basis of Romans 9:1-3, I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
In this ninth chapter the Word of God introduces, evidently, a new subject: The great question of the rejection of the Jewish nation, involving the exclusion from the Kingdom of God of many individual Israelites according to the flesh, and of the calling of the Gentiles. And the transition from the preceding to the present chapter appears rather abrupt. The connection with the preceding, however, must probably be found in the soul of the apostle Paul. In the eighth chapter of this epistle to the Romans he had been inspired to write a glorious song of triumph on the theme of the security of believers in Christ with respect to their final salvation and the great glory of that salvation which they possess in hope. And especially in the closing verses of that chapter he had ascended the heights of faith, whence he challenged life and death, angels and principalities and powers, heights and depths, things present and things to come, yea, all created things to separate the elect from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. And the very blessedness of believers of the new dispensation leads him to turn his attention to his kinsmen according to the flesh, the Jews, and causes him to contemplate their sorrowful plight. And thus he is led to write on this new subject of the rejection of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles in the light of God's absolutely sovereign dealings with both.
The first five verses of chapter nine are introductory. In them the apostle approaches the new problem; and the approach is evidently spiritual and psychological. The apostle reveals what is the attitude of his own soul, his personal sentiment, now he is about to write about the stupendous truth of the rejection and reprobation of his kinsmen according to the flesh. Solemnly he emphasizes that he speaks the truth in Christ, that he lies not, that his conscience in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, bears him witness that he really speaks the truth, when he declares that in the approach of this new theme he is reminded of a great heaviness of soul and of a continual sorrow in his heart. So great is this heaviness and so profound this sorrow, that he does not hesitate to say that he could wish himself to be accursed from Christ for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh.
What is the meaning of this astounding expression?
Various interpretations have been offered of this last expression, that weaken the true sense of the apostle's words. It has been suggested that a thing accursed is, after all, only a thing devoted to death, so that the apostle probably means nothing more than that he could wish to die for the sake of his brethren. Others have ventured the conjecture that the apostle uses the word accursed in an ecclesiastical sense, and that he only intended to declare that he could wish to be excommunicated from the church. Still others translate: "I did wish," and would explain the apostle's words as referring to the time before he was converted, when he persecuted the Church of Christ. However, all these interpretations are not the result of honest dealing with the exegesis of the text but rather of the objection that the apostle certainly could not wish to be accursed from Christ. Yet, this is exactly what he declares, and the words will have to remain as they stand here, in all their force. What the apostle means is: were I placed before the alternative that my brethren according to the flesh be saved, or I; were I permitted to choose between their salvation and my own, could I effect their salvation by my being accursed, I could indeed wish to be accursed from Christ in their behalf.
We must not, however, misunderstand this strong expression of Paul's. He cannot mean, of course, that as a Christian he could wish for any man's sake that he had no part with Christ, that he were still in his sin, that he were still a natural and wicked man, that he belonged to the enemies of Christ. That would be spiritually impossible. And that would imply a wicked desire. But, in the first place, he speaks according to the flesh to his brethren, who are his kinsmen according to the flesh. He is related to them, and his natural love and pity for them is expressed in these words. And secondly, the apostle is not considering the ethical and spiritual side of the matter, but is rather thinking of the joy of salvation and strongly desiring that all his brethren might share in that joy. He says that he could wish to lose it, to forfeit salvation from that viewpoint for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh.
And looking at it in this light, this passage is very important for us.
First of all, let us note that the apostle's attitude in approaching the tremendous subject of God's absolute sovereignty in election and reprobation is intended by the Word of God as an example for us. When, as children of God, we approach this subject, and speak of God's sovereign predestination, it is but proper that our attitude should be deeply spiritual. It may not be, it could not possibly be the attitude of pride and self-exaltation; for if it pleased God to ordain us unto salvation in distinction from others, it certainly is no cause for us to boast in self. One who really understands the truth of this point will humble himself deeply before God. Let no flesh glory in His Presence. And this also implies that one cannot very well speak of the subject of God's sovereign rejection of the reprobate, who in time are our fellow men, our kinsmen according to the flesh, without feeling to an extent the same heaviness, the same continual sorrow for them which the apostle here so emphatically declares to feel in his heart. No cold-blooded rejoicing in the damnation of our fellow men may characterize our contemplation of God's sovereign dealings with the children of men. The fact that God's predestinating purpose divides our race, makes separation between men of the same flesh and blood, always remains a matter of suffering as long as we are in this present time. And this leads me to another remark. From the viewpoint of our flesh, of our earthly, natural life and relationships, it is not so strange, - barring some theological objections, - to hear the apostle declare that he could wish to be accursed from Christ for his kinsmen according to the flesh. Without wishing to place ourselves on a par with the apostle, we may safely say that, in a degree, we can often repeat these words after him. Just imagine a parent who experiences the grief of seeing one or more of his children walk the way of sin and destruction. Just imagine a pastor, who, in the course of years becomes attached to his flock and earnestly desires their salvation, but who beholds many of them that are not the objects of God's electing love. And what is true of our own flesh and blood in the narrowest sense of the word and of the Church of Christ in the world in general can be applied to mankind as a whole. Out of one blood God has made the whole of the human race, and they are, according to the flesh, all our brethren. And we can understand a little, at least, of the attitude of the apostle when he speaks of the great heaviness that burdens his soul and says that he could wish to be accursed from Christ for his kinsmen according to the flesh. And in as far as we could wish in our present flesh and blood, we could indeed desire all men to be saved.
What then? Shall we hide and corrupt the truth of God's sovereign predestination from purely carnal and humanistic considerations? God forbid We believe the Word of God according to the Scriptures, and in them we trust. And that Word teaches us plainly that God is the Lord, even in regard to the salvation of His own and the damnation of the rest. Even though for a time this antithesis means suffering according to the flesh, by faith we are of the party of the living God, consecrated to Him and to His glory, and are confident that when all the suffering of this present time is past, God will justify Himself, and all flesh shall confess His everlasting righteousness in the damnation of the reprobate as well as in the salvation of the elect. Soli Deo Gloria!