Where Comfortable Theology Goes to Die

This is Part 5 of a series about my effort to memorize the entire book of Romans. Read the rest of the series here.

Romans chapters 9-11. It’s the section of Romans that nobody likes to talk about, at least in its entirety. Sure, everyone loves “we have been justified by faith” in chapter 5, and “all things work together for good” in chapter 8. Chapter 6’s questions (“Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!”) are thoroughly quoted and preached. And of course, chapter 12’s practical exhortations like “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” are well-worn and well-loved. I’m even down with the wrath of God in chapter 1.

But chapters 9-11? It’s like a mysterious cave, occasionally yielding nuggets that I understand, but more often presenting a baffling and foreign view of God that sticks like a splinter in my theological categories. Different theological camps pick and choose the parts of these chapters to hang their hat on. Are you Reformed? Oh, you’re gonna love Romans 9. Arminian? Let me introduce you to Romans 10:9. Dispensationalist? Romans 11 is for you. But the whole thing, Paul’s entire argument? Nobody quite knows what to do with it. No matter what theological system you bring into the cave, you inevitably leave limping and bruised. It wins and you lose, every time.

Romans 9-11 is where comfortable theology goes to die. I have learned this from repeated experience. About a decade ago, my comfortable Lutheran categories were blown up by the immovable mountain of free sovereignty that is Romans chapter 9. These days, as I’m memorizing Romans, it’s chapter 11 that is challenging my comfortable Reformed sensibilities with God’s plan for ethnic Israel. Whether it’s then or now, it’s the same: Romans 9-11 won’t leave me alone.

Take Romans 9, for example. Romans 9 has been shattering people’s safe, man-centered theology since… well, since Paul wrote it. You simply can’t get around it; there are no escape routes available. It you want to deal with the God of Romans, eventually you’ve got to reckon with Romans 9 and Paul’s insistence that God’s free will is utterly unfettered.

He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills, Paul says bluntly. God is free and sovereign in his mercy, unrestrained by our supposed “free will.”

You will say to me, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Paul anticipates the objections, but then smacks them down as presumptuous drivel:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me this way?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?

Dang, Paul.

Ten years ago, my assumptions about free will and the nature of salvation and the character of God ran smack into the brick wall of Romans 9:14-23 and crumpled like the flimsy cardboard caricatures that they were. There were no end runs to be had around this impregnable fortress of divine sovereignty. Creator rights trumped human rights. Divine free will superseded human free will. He’s the potter, I’m the clay, the end. I may not like it, to this day I may not understand it, but there it is. I had to deal with the God who is, not the comfortable God I would prefer.

My current progress in memorizing Romans

These days, a Reformed understanding of Scripture has won the day in my mind and heart– thanks in no small part to Romans 9– and yet these chapters still won’t let me be. For the past two months I’ve been memorizing the book of Romans (read more about that journey here), and all the while chapters 9-11 have been looming on the horizon, mysterious, wonderful, and intimidating. These are the chapters I am least familiar with in the whole book of Romans, which means that memorizing them has been harder work. I’m currently about half way through chapter 11, wading my way slowly through Paul’s densely argued sentences and his firehose of Old Testament quotations. It is proving to be challenging. But it’s also thrilling (and, yes, a bit frustrating) to discover things I didn’t know before.

Romans 9 still takes my breath away. Even though I’ve signed on with sovereignty and have drunk the Calvinist Kool-Aid, verses 20-23 still boggle my mind. I still rebel against the Sovereign in this text, asking with baffled resentment, “Who do you think you are?” (and then remembering, “Oh, that’s right, you’re God!“)

Romans 10 still confuses me. I confess to having no idea how Paul’s Deuteronomy quotations in verses 5-8 support his argument, or (to be honest) what in the world he’s even arguing. When I was Lutheran, this was the chapter that always poked me where it hurts. Even now, I still don’t get it all. I guess there are still mysteries to be uncovered here, riches yet to be mined. I throw up my hands and resign myself to not knowing everything.

But in particular, Romans 11 has been challenging me most this time around. Over the past year or two, I’ve been doing deep dives into covenantal theology, preterism, and the overarching storyline of the Bible. I thought I had a pretty good handle on it. I even wrote a book about it. And then Romans 11 happened. And now my easy assumptions about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments– “Israel is fulfilled in Jesus!” “The church is the new Israel!” etc– keep tripping over Paul’s seeming insistence that God is not done with ethnic Israel. Not that my previous assumptions or understandings were wrong; I stand by those, and by what I wrote in King & Country. But God’s plan turns out to be bigger and more complicated than I had thought.

Dang it, Paul. You’re doing it again.

In the face of the wild and free and glorious God of Romans 9-11, nobody is safe. God keeps bursting out of the boxes I construct for him. I can’t get around him. Instead, I have to deal with him.

And therein is the glory and joy of memorizing an entire book of the Bible. I don’t get to pick and choose the parts I like, the ideas I’m familiar with, the comfortable and comforting bits. Instead, I get to wrestle with the majestic and merciful, tender and terrifying God of Romans. It turns out that the untraceable, mysterious cave of Romans 9-11 is the only path to the wide open vistas of knowing God just a little bit better.

So come down into the cave with me. There are riches down here, waiting to wreck your comfortable theology and make you fall in love with the God who is bigger and better than the categories we plan for him. As Paul himself puts it at the end of chapter 11:

Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.
-Romans 11:33-36

Next: in Part 6, I revel in the ordinary glories of Romans 12.

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