This is the third part of a fairly extensive review of John Piper’s The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23.
If there is one thing that you absolutely must respect about John Piper, it is the fact that he is very thorough and not unwilling to face his opponents head-on. In the third chapter of The Justification of God, Piper does just this: he re-iterates much of what he has said before, makes his point, deals with dissenters, and moves on to address those dissenters. The evidence that he marshals is impressive in terms of breadth. He is comfortable talking about modern scholars, ancient exegetes, apocryphal literature, and exclusivist sects (i.e., the Qumran community).
Orientation and Romans 9:6a
Piper begins by reorienting the reader to the problem. According to texts and tradition, Israel was the beneficiary of a promise from God. However, due to their unbelief, certain members of the state of Israel stand in condemnation. If this is the case, then has God given up on his promise? The rest of the text is Paul’s argument for why God’s promise still stands.
Therefore, Piper properly reminds us that this is the context of Romans 9:6–13. In fact, much of his work in this chapter is quoting dissenting opinions and then showing how they fail to take Romans 9:1–5 into account.
Predestination of Whom to What?
So, what is Paul’s solution to this problem? How does Paul get around the fact that some Israelites are condemned? Paul states very plainly: “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6b).
This section is dedicated to:
- showing exactly who is and who isn’t Israel,
- showing that we are talking about eternal salvation rather than historical purpose.
A further point that runs throughout Piper’s argument is that this predestination has nothing to do with human influence, it is all God’s doing.
Who Is and Who Isn’t Israel?
This is really the crux of the matter. If we are to understand Paul’s statement in Romans 9:6b, then we must understand who is and who isn’t Israel. How is it that some folks from Israel do not really belong to Israel?
Through various means and various Pauline texts, Piper shows that the phraseology here is parallel to other phrases in the New Testament. The equation that is drawn is this:
TRUE ISRAEL = CHILDREN OF GOD = BORN OF THE PROMISE/SPIRIT
NOT TRUE ISRAEL = CHILDREN OF THE FLESH = BORN OF THE FLESH
Therefore, in Paul’s world, one can be an Israelite according to the flesh, but not a true Israelite, i.e., a child of God born of the promise. According to Piper, this means that God’s predestination of some and not others is totally dependent upon his decision and not according to anything human, including birthright or status.
Historical Purpose vs. Eternal Salvation
Many commentators cleverly note that the Old Testament passages that Paul uses in this section point to instances of predestination that deal with theocratic or historical tasks, namely, the creation of the state of Israel through Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons. These commentators take this to show that Paul cannot mean that this predestination had anything to do with an eternal salvation.
The value of Piper’s argument here is to show that historical exegesis of the Old Testament does not always illuminate our understanding of the New Testament. Paul is re-interpreting these passages and using them to describe individual, eternal salvation. This is clear enough when we consider that only some of Paul’s kinsmen are accursed.
Finally, Piper shows that Paul’s notion of predestination as for the individual to eternal salvation is totally consistent with Jewish thought at the time. Through the eyes of Dinkler and Maier, Piper builds on texts such as Isaiah, Sirach, and Qumran documents (aka Dead Sea Scroll).
Again, I must tip my hat to Dr. Piper. He argues thoroughly and well. That God is interested in electing some to his purpose and others not is quite clear to me. I think that this is most certainly clear from the Old Testament texts that Paul quotes without even going into Paul’s elaboration on and illumination of those texts, not to mention his reinterpretation of them.
The only big question mark that I wrote in my notes occurred in pp. 65–67 where Piper takes this principle that Paul has created and turns it into a “general principle.” I don’t understand the evidence for that. Piper seems to be saying that there are only two groups of people: elect and not elect. He is basing that on this text in Romans. I’m just not sure I see that.