In 1792, at a Baptist Ministers’ Meeting in Northampton, England, William Carey proposed to discuss the topic of “The duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among heathen nations.” Then, John R. Ryland, the presiding minister, frowned and thundered, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine” (John Marshman, The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman, and Ward, p. 10).
This story succinctly illustrates the fear of many missions-minded believers that a robust belief in divine sovereignty and unconditional election would render missions obsolete. The converse is also true, and some believers fear that an anthropocentric approach to missions puts the burden of human salvation on the feeble shoulders of men.
Both of these parties find their most eloquent Scriptural substantiation in Romans. Those who defer to God’s unconditionally electing prerogative cling to Romans 9:1-29, while those who emphasize the human agency in salvation point to Romans 9:30-10:21. But are these mutually exclusive doctrines?
God Predestines Some People for Salvation
It says in Romans 9:11 that God chose Jacob over Esau “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand.” In other words, there was no objective reason for God to choose Jacob over Esau. It is explicitly denied that their good or bad works are the basis for their election or reprobation, respectively. The only criterion is God’s electing purpose.
“What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” Paul replies, “Not at all!” (9:14), “for,” God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (9:15; Ex. 33:19). The transitional “for” indicates that the following quotation from Exodus explains why God is not unjust in unconditionally choosing some while rejecting other.
However, it is not immediately clear just how Exodus 33:19 explains this. In fact, it seems merely to restate the problem. God is merciful to whom he wills, but the question is why he chooses to be merciful to some and not to others.
The answer lies in the fact that Exodus 33:19 is an interpretation of the name of God. The syntactical structure of the verse, which highlights the radical autonomy of God, parallels the revelation of God’s name in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.” The identical pair of words, “merciful” and “compassionate,” also appears in both passages, reinforcing the parallel. Thus dispensing mercy to whom he wills is part of God’s essential nature and character. That’s who God is, and therefore his sovereignty must be upheld.
Humans Are Still Responsible for Their Damnation
Interestingly, what is never questioned throughout Romans is that humans, who cannot resist God’s will, are nevertheless responsible for their own destruction (Rom. 9:19). Israel is responsible because they have not accepted the gospel even though they have heard the message (Rom. 10:16-18). Paul’s quotation from Isaiah 65:2 levels yet another indictment, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Rom. 10:21).
This means that election is unconditional, but one’s final salvation is conditional: “if you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Paul elaborates that since people cannot call on the one they have not believed in, nor believe in the one of whom they have not heard, nor hear without someone preaching to them, it is necessary to send missionaries (Rom. 10:14-15).
We Still Need Missions
Here’s the imperative for missions. In the divinely instituted order, missions necessarily precedes people’s salvation. This urgent conviction has been the overriding impulse of the missionary movement throughout history. Furthermore, “the thought that if [people] are not elect, they will not believe us … is true; but it is none of our business,” for “the non-elect in this world are faceless men as far as we are concerned … we do not and cannot know who they are, and it is as futile as it is impious for us to try and guess” (J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, pp. 98-99).
The Two Doctrines Constitute An Antinomy
Yet the question remains, if God’s electing purposes cannot be altered, what is the point of missions? How can missions be necessary in a universe operated by God’s sovereign and unimpeachable will? The relationship between unconditional election and missions is an antimony. “Antinomy,” as defined by J.I. Packer, is an “apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable” (Packer, pp. 18-19).
Our finite and fallible minds are incapable of reconciling unconditional election and missions. It is a mystery, whose apparent inconsistency finds reconciliation in the transcendent will of God. This, after all, was Paul’s response when his hypothetical critic objected, “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will” (Rom. 9:19)? He does not offer a philosophical apology, nor does he attempt to vindicate God by saying that divine election is based on God’s foreknowledge of who will or will not eventually resist him. He simply says, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God” (Rom. 9:20)? The “solution” par excellence is to let God be God because the potter knows better than the clay (Rom. 9:19-23).
Rather than prematurely resolving this tension, the Biblical response is to abide in this tension. We are called to be missionaries who respond to the pressing need for the gospel, while attributing all honor and glory to God and his electing purposes. We are comforted by the reality that it is God who elects and saves; yet we are convicted by the reality that we must proclaim the gospel.
Do you believe in predestination? Why or why not? What is your understanding of Romans 9-10?