If there is a pinnacle to Paul’s epistle to the Romans, perhaps this is it. Surely this is the exclamation point on what has been revealed up to this point. Considering just the previous several chapters, who can hear of the doctrine of predestination and not praise God for his sovereign grace? Who can read of the gift of the gospel and the necessity of evangelism and not rejoice that God commissioned and mobilized his church into all the world? Who can learn of God’s kindness to Gentiles like you and me and not respond with humble gratitude that God grafted us in?
As defined, a mystery is “Something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.” To solve a mystery we look for clues, relying upon deductive reasoning. Some mysteries are more easier to solve than others. For example, when we consider the general revelation of the universe, when we look at the splendor of the heavens and earth, it is not difficult to deduce that it was designed and created by God: Indeed, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:20). It is not difficult to solve the mystery of creation’s origin, even a child can deduce it. It is only the fool who says in his heart, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1).
Paul’s question presumes our knowledge of his ongoing epistolary argument: “did [Israel] stumble in order that they might fall?” (11:11). Did Israel in fact stumble, and if so how? Indeed, they did; indeed they have, as Paul describes in the ninth chapter, “They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:32-33). Pursuing the righteousness of God by works not faith, they stumbled over Christ. Or, as Paul puts it in the tenth chapter, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3-4).
Like many catastrophes, the Fall came without warning, but unlike many catastrophes it came with deceptive subtlety. In the midst of the Garden, Satan in the form of a serpent deceived Eve, who sinned by eating the forbidden fruit and shared the temptation with Adam, who ate too. And so fell our ancestors, and the human race, “from their original righteousness and communion with God,” and as a result they “became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all parts and faculties of soul and body,” as our Confession of Faith puts it. In the history of human tragedies, the first was the worst.
The victorious Christian life then is one of perspective, preparation, and perseverance, “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain” (15:58). Ask yourself, how could our work be in vain knowing that we are not yet what we will be? How could our work be in vain knowing that our inheritance is not confined to the temporal vaults of this present darkness but is the very kingdom of God? For, a life lived unto the Lord is never in vain but a life of triumph, because God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although we read it as a book, it is important to remember that Romans is a letter, and we should read it as it was written. In substance, it is of course more than a letter—the very Word of God. And so, we read it and study it intently even intricately to glean from God’s special revelation, to know his will. So rich and deep is this divine truth that we dare not rush through it but study it diligently verse by verse. But none of this changes its form: It is a letter.
And this must inform our evangelism. We cannot make someone believe, even those we love most, but we must be faithful to give the gift of the gospel, praying that the Giver of all good things will give the gift of faith. For, God is glorified through the salvation of his people, and through the gift of the gospel “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Isa. 52:10). Amen.
God desires that all kinds of people be saved, including those with whom you disagree and differ, and “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4) of the gospel: “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved…For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (10:10, 13). This is the gospel, good news for you, good news for me, good news for our nation, good news for the world.
You may say, “If I pray believing the lost will be saved, am I not undermining the doctrine of God’s sovereign election? But what has that to do with you? Are you the Lord’s keeper? The mystery of predestination God is revealed in Scripture for the praise of his glorious grace not our decision making. We are called to pray, and we pray believing that God will save the lost, perhaps through us. This was Paul’s heart’s desire and prayer, and it should be ours too.
So, let us humbly give thanks as vessels of mercy that we who were not God’s people have become his people. Let us give thanks that in his mercy and eternal love for us, he calls us his beloved. Let us give thanks that while we did not pursue the righteousness of God, by his grace he justified us as righteous through faith. And let us give thanks that he who is a stumbling stone for many is our rock of salvation. So, let us rejoice, for “The LORD liveth; and blessed be [our] rock; and let the God of [our] salvation be exalted” (Ps. 18:46 KJV).