I’ve often heard people say that belief in the doctrine of election will diminish one’s love for the lost. Whenever I hear this, my mind turns immediately to something the apostle Paul said in Romans 9:1-5. What makes his comments especially poignant is that they appear immediately following his discussion of divine sovereignty in Romans 8:28-38 and immediately preceding a similar discussion in Romans 9:6-23. Here are Paul’s words.
“I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
Although Paul says some harsh things about those Jews who rejected the Messiah (2:9,17-29; 3:9,29; 4:9-18; 9:25-10:5,19-21; 11:1ff.), there can be no doubt about his deep and passionate love for his kinsmen according to the flesh. Note the five-fold nature of Paul's assertion, the cumulative force of which is to eliminate any doubt regarding the sincerity of his heart:
(1) "I am telling the truth" - We would naturally assume this to be true, but Paul anticipates that the nature of the assertion to follow might cause some to question his veracity.
(2) "I am telling the truth in Christ" - By this he means that "union with Christ is the orbit within which his emotions move and the spring from which they proceed. Thus the thing spoken of as 'the truth' derives its impulse and the guarantee of its propriety from this union” (Murray, 2.1). In other words, Paul's declaration of love for the Jews is made with all the veracity of Christ himself, i.e., as if it were Jesus Christ himself speaking. Jesus, says Paul, is the ultimate guarantor of the truth of my words.
(3) "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying" - This negative counterpart to the opening assertion ("I am telling the truth") is designed to emphasize again that his passion is not feigned (cf. 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:7).
(4) "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness" - "Conscience" in Paul's writings is an innate faculty that monitors a person's conformity to a moral standard (see Rom. 2:15). Paul declares that he has "a clear conscience" regarding what is to follow. He knows both theologically and intuitively that he is telling the truth as it is found in his heart.
(5) "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit." Just as "the certification of his earlier assertion is derived from union with Christ, so the veracity of the witness of his conscience is certified by the Holy Spirit. It is only as we are indwelt by the Spirit and live in the Spirit, only as our minds are governed by the Spirit may we be assured that the voice of conscience is in conformity with truth and right” (Murray, 2.2).
The connecting word "for" (v. 3) indicates this sentence will in some sense be an explanation of or given the reason for his anguish (v. 2). Several comments are in order.
The statement "I could wish" is probably a prayer, for three reasons: first, the parallel with Moses in Ex. 32:31ff.; second, of the other 6 occurrences of the verb in the NT, 5 refer to prayer (Acts 26:29; 2 Cor. 13:7,9; James 5:16; 3 John 2); and third, Gordon Wiles has shown that such wishes are in most cases prayers transposed for use in a letter. Consequently, a wish such as we find in Romans 9 is simply "the expression of a desire that God take action regarding the person(s) mentioned in the wish” (Gordon Wiles, Paul's Intercessory Prayers [London: Cambridge, 1974], p. 22). For other examples of "wish-prayers" see Rom. 15:5,13; 16:20; 1 Thess. 3:11-12; 5:23; 1 Cor. 1:8.
Paul appears, then, to be praying: "Lord, if sending me to hell will save the Jews, do it!" But can this be possible? Some argue that Paul used to pray for this, but then came to his senses and realized that such a petition is inappropriate for a Christian to pray. Others suggest that Paul only contemplated praying for this but never actually did so. Most likely Paul means to say that he would have prayed for this had it been permissible (the Greek imperfect tense, as is used here explains Moo, fills in for the optative and denotes "a present-time action that is potential or attempted but never carried out" 558).
Had the end in view been something genuinely attainable by a believer he would have prayed for it. But Paul knew all too well that it was, in fact, theologically impossible for him to be severed from Christ and condemned. Several verses earlier he had clearly affirmed this fact (Rom. 8:31-39).
The word translated “accursed” is literally anathema. It refers to something delivered over to God, either a) as a consecrated gift or offering (Lk. 21:5) or, b) as something or someone delivered over to divine wrath and eternal condemnation (1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9). In sum, it means to forfeit one's salvation and to be consigned to eternal wrath and perdition. The full extent of what it means to be anathema is defined as being "separated from Christ", i.e., to be eternally excluded from fellowship with Christ Jesus (Mt. 7:23; 25:41). The force of Paul's prayer is explained by John Piper:
"Our artificial chapter and verse divisions obscure the fact that, when Romans was read in the churches, 9:3 would have been heard only seconds after 8:35 which asks, 'Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Therefore, Paul's statement in 9:3 must be taken to mean that he 'could wish' to experience what 8:35-39 said the Christian never would experience: to be separated from the love of God in Christ and left under his eternal (2 Thess. 1:9) wrath (Rom. 5:9)” (29).
Here Paul appears to ponder the hypothetical possibility of a world in which such a thing might be possible. Piper explains the ramifications of this:
"Suppose there were a world in which an unconverted sinner and a man of faith could stand before the bar of God to receive judgment. And suppose that if the saint is willing, God would reverse their roles. If the saint is willing, God would withdraw his saving grace from the saint so he becomes fit for hell in unbelief and rebellion, and he would give converting grace to the unbeliever so that he trusts Christ and becomes fit for heaven.
In such a world, what would love require? It would require total self-sacrifice. . . . But mark well! This hypothetical world does not exist! God did not create a world in which a person could be eternally damned for an act of love.
In the real world God made, we are never asked to make such a choice: Are you willing to become damnable for the salvation of others? Instead, we are constantly told that doing good to others will bring us great reward, and that we should pursue that reward.
Paradoxically, Paul's willingness to reach for a hypothetical case of ultimate sacrifice is a deep and dramatic way of saying with as much force as he knows how, 'This, even this, is how much I delight in the prospect of Israel's salvation!' But immediately we see the impossibility of carrying through the wish: If their salvation were such a great delight to him, would hell really be hell? Could we really speak of hell as the place where Paul achieved his deepest and noblest desire of love? This is the sort of incongruity you run into in hypothetical worlds that do not exist.
Happiness would be impossible in any case in such a world. For if God gave a saint the option of becoming damnable to save another, such a saint could never live with himself if he said no. And he would suffer forever in hell if he said yes. He loses both ways” (Desiring God, 246-47).
Add to this yet another problem. The person who would be saved as a result of such incredible self-sacrifice on the part of another believer would then himself/herself be in a similar position: he/she would in turn ask God to be accursed for the person who before asked God to be accursed in the place of the person who is now saved by that sacrificial act. Such "sacrificial substitution" would go on endlessly and, obviously, absurdly.
To sum up: The suggestion that someone who believes strongly in the sovereignty of God in salvation could not passionately care for lost souls crumbles under the weight of Paul’s own declaration.