Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado. The above article is the text of the Pre-synodical Sermon preached on June 7, 1999.
In the first five verses of Romans 9, Paul speaks of his interest in and concern about his kinsmen according to the flesh.
The rest of Romans 9 reveals that the Word of God has its proper effect. It is the chapter regularly quoted to prove the doctrine of predestination, including both election and reprobation. This doctrine the church has held ever dear and has maintained faithfully. We, with the church of God throughout the ages, insist that God has chosen a people in Jesus Christ our Lord from before the foundation of the earth. There are many, however, who deny this doctrine; who ignore this chapter or distort it; or claim that it has no relevancy for today. The Christian, on the contrary, finds in this chapter comfort, encouragement, and hope.
Many claim that those who maintain the doctrine of predestination (election and reprobation) cannot preach the gospel properly. The doctrine does not allow, it is claimed, for faithful mission work. Those who teach predestination are not concerned about lost souls. They are not interested in the gathering of the church. The argument, however, is false. The church of Jesus Christ that holds to the doctrines of God’s Word must be interested in and concerned about the salvation of God’s people. We, synod of 1999 of the Protestant Reformed Churches, must likewise show our concern for the salvation of sinners in our decisions through the coming week.
Two things we must remember as synod and as churches. We may never forsake the doctrines of the Word of God, and surely not the doctrine of predestination, which the late Herman Hoeksema called “the heart of the gospel.” And further, that doctrine of predestination ought not to leave us cold and uninterested with respect to the preaching of the gospel to sinners.
There are several matters coming up at our synod that should impress upon us the importance of the Word proclaimed. We must treat matters of the seminary, as we do annually. We must examine a graduate of that seminary and, the Lord willing, declare him to be a candidate for the ministry of the Word. That demonstrates interest not only in the doctrines of God’s Word, but also in the proclamation of those doctrines faithfully in the church.
We must decide many mission matters this year—more than in many former years. We have on the mission fields four men working in areas outside of our churches — and a fifth soon to begin his labors. One is in Singapore, laboring with sister churches there and, with them, in neighboring countries. He must preach the Word to those who are unbelievers and instruct those who would grow in their knowledge of the Word of God. We have a missionary in Northern Ireland. He proclaims the Word there, not only in a local congregation, but also in other places throughout the British Isles. He must remind his hearers of the departure from the truth that characterizes so many within the churches there, and call them to return to the old paths. We also have two men laboring in our own land, in Pittsburgh and in Spokane and neighboring areas. And, the Lord willing, Rev. Moore will soon leave, with his wife, for Ghana. There he begins a work that seems almost impossible to fulfill. All these are matters of missions — the proclamation of the Word of God. All require our prayers, our support, and our encouragement. We must show our concern not only for “kinsmen according to the flesh,” but for the lost from among the nations of the world.
The word that the apostle speaks in Romans 9 is therefore certainly a word that must influence and affect us as synod. “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have a 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: who are Israelites.” That great apostle Paul, who so powerfully expounded the glory and truth of predestination, was not hindered in the proclamation of the Word because of it. On the contrary, his heart was moved by the concern for the salvation of sinners to whom God would have His Word to go. And he was concerned especially about his brethren, the Israelites, who had forsaken that Word and had crucified the Lord of glory.
So this evening I would like to call your attention to Paul’s concern for his kinsmen.
The apostle Paul is speaking here of Israelites. He does so in connection with the context, the preceding verses, in which he declares that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord. The objection could, perhaps, be raised: What about those Jews who, though they called themselves children of Abraham and sons of God, had crucified the Christ?
The apostle in our text speaks of the glories of Israel. And he, as it were, piles up testimonies upon testimonies of these glories so that all who heard it could agree: Israel had a beautiful place in the purpose and plan of God. They were of the adoption. Sons of God they were called. Of all of the nations of the earth, God had chosen one nation, the seed of Abraham. He had continued His covenant in the line of their generations. The Israelites had the glory, a reference, no doubt, to the tabernacle and later the temple. There was the ark of God’s covenant. There was the law placed within the ark, but covered with the mercy seat upon which the blood of atonement must be sprinkled annually. They had the Shekinah, that cloud of glory that descended on the tabernacle when it was first erected, and later on the temple of Solomon. The visible evidence of the glory of God was right there in their midst. Israel had all of that.
They had the covenants (plural — not because there are many covenants, as some would teach, but because the covenant over the ages was revealed increasingly in all of its splendor and glory — first to Adam, then to Noah, to Abraham, later to Israel and through the prophets), so that God, gradually as it were, portrayed the wonders of His relationship with His people in Jesus Christ our Lord. That covenant is so filled with the riches and glory of God’s work that it can hardly be expressed adequately in the singular. Israel had the covenants.
They had the giving of the law. God first gave that law as ten commandments at Mount Sinai. The ten commandments were spoken by Him from the Mount, so that Israel, hearing them, trembled. He then wrote them in tables of stone, so that Israel could have that law placed in the ark of the covenant. It reminded them: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength, and thy neighbor as thyself. That law had guided them as a nation. That law guided them in their family life. That law guided them in their worship.
Israel had all of that, in distinction from the many nations around them that dwelt in ignorance.
Israel had, too, the service or worship of God. They had the sacrifices of various sorts, but especially the burnt offering and the sin offering. These were presented daily before God. The priests would come to offer these in the sight of all Israel. Though it be in type and shadow, Israel beheld the wonder and the glory of the cross. They had also their feast days in which they commemorated regularly the work of God in the midst of His people.
All of that Israel had and, says Paul, in addition they had the promises (again, plural!). The promise is, of course, one. But when one views the promise in all of its riches, he finds that it is like a diamond ring with many facets. Each facet reflects the glory and wonder of God and His work with His people. They had all of these.
They had the fathers. In fact, they boasted oftentimes of their fathers: “We are of our father, Abraham,” say the Pharisees. But the church of Jesus Christ in Israel did have reason to rejoice that they were of these fathers. They were a continuation of that line of the covenant that God had established with Abraham and his seed after him.
Then, as a climax, according to their flesh Christ came. He came not from the Gentiles, not from some other land, but out of the land of Canaan, out of the line of David, in the town of Bethlehem. Christ was born in their midst.
What a glory, what an honor, that nation of Israel had! The church of Jesus Christ, as it studies that history of Israel, ought always to recall that truth too. Israel did not deserve any blessings of God. As Moses had also reminded them, they were not more numerous than other people, nor were they better than other people. Nevertheless, God had blessed them and provided for them so that they would continue the line of the covenant and maintain that word which God had given.It is a reminder of what benefits we have, too. Our situation is different. We live in the New Testament age. We have a history that differs from that of Israel of old. Yet, when we reflect upon the history of our own churches, we can only testify before God and to one another of the grace of God bestowed upon our churches. We can only thank Him for the wonders of the doctrines which He has revealed in us and through us. We can thank Him that from Sabbath to Sabbath we have the opportunity of fellowship and worship together under the preaching of His Word. We can thank Him for the opportunities given us to labor in the vineyard, even outside the established church.
There are other churches, whose history you know, which have departed from the Word. They have forsaken the truths that their forefathers held dear. They no longer teach the wonder of a creation in six literal days. They no longer emphasize the headship which God established in the creation of Adam and Eve. Some are no longer interested even in maintaining the truths of the atonement and truths of the incarnation. They rather proclaim a “social” gospel. They teach that their calling is to establish a glorious kingdom here on this earth. There is great apostasy today. Churches that have known the glories of God, and in their past generations have maintained these truths, for the most part faithfully, are now departing from those truths.
The faithful church of Jesus Christ today lives in the kind of situation of which the apostle speaks in our text as well. Israel had forsaken the Word of God, had crucified the Messiah. Today, too, much of that which is called church has likewise forsaken the Word and gone in its own willful way of disobedience.
Ought the apostle to be concerned about that? The Jews had shown great opposition to Christ and His cause. They knew the promises of the Old Testament. They had studied the Word of God. They knew what God had revealed. Yet, when Christ came, they rejected Him. They called Him the prince of devils, Beelzebub. They said that He did His mighty works through the power of the devil. They mocked His word. They made plans to crucify Him. Finally, with the cooperation of the Romans, they accomplished that evil deed. With wicked hands they took Him and crucified Him. They pursued after His people, imprisoned them, and killed many of them. They sought thus to squelch the spread of the gospel. All of these things the Jews had done.
In chapter 11 the apostle speaks of these Jews and compares them to branches that are cut off from the vine. That was the situation for Israel — a nation that had departed from the Word of God and crucified the promised Messiah.
What was Paul’s attitude toward them?
Paul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Did not that calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles imply that he had forsaken his own people, that he was a kind of a traitor to his nation? Doubtlessly the Jews considered him to be such.
Besides, there was his teaching concerning predestination — including election and reprobation. If the Jews were reprobate, why should Paul be concerned about them? Why should he be interested in their salvation? Why should he preach the Word to them if, as he maintained, there was this reprobation? The apostle Paul points out in the words of our text that this truth of predestination did not hinder his work. It did not prevent him from being deeply concerned with the salvation not only of the Gentiles but likewise of elect Jews.
The same holds true today. Many have departed from the faith. Should we simply shrug our shoulders and say, “What have we to do with those who have apostatized? What have we to do with proclaiming the Word outside of our own midst? Why should we go forth and preach the gospel even among the heathen? If God elects a people, surely they will be brought to glory whether we preach the Word to them or not. And if God reprobates a people, surely they will be damned no matter how much we preach the Word to them.”
The concern of the child of God, as it ought to be the concern of our churches and of our synod, is the salvation of sinners. We do not know who are God’s elect among them. We can only judge by the fruit. On that basis, we see that God has truly turned the heart from darkness to light. When we observe the world today, we see so many who deny the Word of God and forsake the truth. These seem to be going the way of disobedience and rebellion to their destruction. Do we say of them, “There is no hope, there is no reason to proclaim the Word before such disobedient ones, they have departed from the faith”?
The man that comes to my mind in this connection is the thief on the cross next to Christ. He was a rebel, apparently from youth. He was a robber, and it may be that in his robbery he had also committed murder. He was a hopeless case. It would seem as though such a person could never be saved. Yet, while he hung on the cross, he heard the testimony of the Word. The Spirit applied that Word to his heart. And he cried out, not long before he died, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.”
The church of Jesus Christ and its preachers of the Word realize that God accomplishes His purpose through the preaching. Without doubt He will save those whom He has chosen in our Lord Jesus Christ. He accomplishes that through the preaching of the Word, through the faithful labors of the church of Jesus Christ.
That same word, of course, testifies to the reprobate. Again, the preacher cannot normally identify who each of these may be. That is not our concern. God determines that. But the preaching of the Word exposes their wicked ways and causes them to rise up in greater rebellion and disobedience to the Word. God, through His Word, accomplishes what He wills to do: “He has mercy on whom He will have mercy; and whom He will, He hardens.”
The apostle Paul, in that connection, shows his deep concern for the ministry of the Word. He says he has a great heaviness and continual sorrow in heart for his kinsmen, his brethren according to the flesh. There is great heaviness and deep pain. It concerned him by day and by night. He was interested in proclaiming the Word not just to the Gentiles. He was the apostle called to labor among the Gentiles, but in his labors he went first to the synagogue. He would bring the Word first to his brethren according to the flesh. He did not say, “They are all reprobates.” He did not say, “It doesn’t do any good to proclaim God’s Word there.” He spoke the Word, and God used that Word to turn some to repentance and to confession.
Then Paul would go to the Gentiles and proclaim to them the wonders of the gospel. But all of this burdened his soul. He was troubled in the very center of his being. This controlled his thoughts and his labors daily. He was oppressed by the very thought that his brethren, kinsmen according to the flesh, had turned from the Word. He was concerned about their salvation.
In fact, the apostle Paul makes it so strong as to say this: “I could wish myself accursed from Christ for my kinsmen, my brethren according to the flesh.” One would say, “How could he ever say that?” Wish himself accursed for the sake of the salvation of his kinsmen? The apostle Paul surely knew that this was an impossibility. God had chosen His people, including Paul, from before the foundation of the earth, in Jesus Christ our Lord. The counsel of God could not be changed, nor could it be frustrated. Nevertheless, Paul meant it when he said that if it were possible, he would even have himself accursed in order that his brethren according to the flesh could be saved. That was the sense of urgency demonstrated by the apostle Paul in this word of God.
It portrays the apostle, too, in a light in which we do not often see him. The apostle Paul is viewed, and correctly so, as a teacher of sound, deep doctrine. He was a person who could write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and who could testify concerning the truths of the Word. We could view his doctrine as cold and abstract. But we see here this great apostle of Jesus Christ, missionary to the Gentiles, as deeply affected by the labor he is to perform. He knows the terrible destiny of those who do not repent of their sins. He knows the terrible judgment of the Jews who crucified Christ. These were his kinsmen, of his own flesh. They had heard the Christ, had seen His miracles, but had denied Him. And they had crucified Him. Of them the apostle is deeply concerned.
His attitude clearly reveals that there is nothing cold or hard about the doctrine of predestination, including both election and reprobation. The contrary is often alleged. The claim is made that those who believe in eternal election have no incentive to preach to unbelievers. The elect, after all, will surely be saved whether one preaches to them or not. The reprobate will be lost no matter how many sermons are preached to them.
Yet from the very beginning of the chapter, Paul clearly shows that this kind of objection is false. Paul is deeply concerned with the position of the Jews who had received the promises. He desired to preach also to them. He was concerned about their salvation. When he saw their hardness and impenitence, it grieved him deeply.
We as synod and as churches must continue to confess the truths expressed in Romans 9. The chapter speaks of those precious truths of election and reprobation. Though many consider these hard doctrines, they are truly comforting and encouraging for the church. Many would deny them or adulterate them. But the church must continue to hold fast to this.
At the same time, and because of these very truths, we must be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. The synod deals with matters pertaining to our seminary. There the churches prepare young men for the preaching of the gospel. We have men who are laboring on the mission fields. There is, and there must be, a concern for souls. Earnestly we pray that God may save His people through the preaching of the gospel. We desire the gathering in of those given of God to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. In all of the actions of synod, this concern must show. We must maintain faithfully all the doctrines of Holy Scripture. We must also faithfully, fearlessly, and tirelessly preach the gospel wherever God will have it sent. May God grant that to our churches and to synod.