In this fascinating pericope, Saint Paul rhetorically suggests he would exchange, maybe even sell his soul, “…for the sake of my [Jewish] brothers, my kinsmen, according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Yes, it is hyperbole. Yes, it is an exaggeration, but do not miss the point: Paul speaks out of deep passion and great love for the salvation of all people, especially those bound to his ethnic heritage. Here we have Paul the evangelist. Paul is compelled by the love of Christ.
The notion of selling one’s soul was an intriguing motif even before Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus took up the German legend of Faust selling his soul to the evil spirit Mephistopheles. The preacher would do well to use rhetorical questioning and placard the gospel which drove Paul to say such things. What price for a human soul? How much is your soul worth?
Jesus has already answered this question. He did so with another question: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul” (Mark 8:36-37)?
Again, of course, it is a rhetorical question. If a person received the whole world in exchange for their soul it would be a bad deal. They have been robbed blind. In the Parable of the Sower (see Matthew 13), some seed fell into the thorn-infested ground, where its growth was choked by the cares of the world. It is as if Jesus portrays those enticements as a highwayman, demanding of us, “Your money or your life!” What does it profit a person if they keep their money, but lose their very life, their soul, the self, as the various translations put it? For the victim of the mugger who has given his life has no more chance to find pleasure in his goods.
Jesus was tested with this very question. The Devil took Him to a high place so He could display before Jesus the kingdoms of the world in a moment. Satan said to Him, “To you, I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours” (Luke 4:6-7). But Jesus firmly declined. “It is written,” he responded, “you shall worship the Lord your God and Him only you shall serve” (Luke 4:8). For Jesus knew no man can serve two masters. In other words, He would not give His soul even in exchange for the whole world.
It is a matter of simple mathematics. The whole world, especially for a fleeting time, can never be worth the sacrifice of eternity; of salvation times infinity, so to speak. But it is also a matter of quality of life, quantity of time, and quality of existence. The comparison proves infinitely disproportionate.
It is a matter of simple mathematics. The whole world, especially for a fleeting time, can never be worth the sacrifice of eternity; of salvation times infinity.
So, it comes as a complete surprise, to see Paul put a price on his soul. There is something, he says, for which he would be prepared to lose the great prize. One thing for which he says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ” (Romans 9:3).
What is this great price? Listen: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (9:3). That is to say, the one thing he would be prepared to trade his own eternal life and salvation for is the eternal life and salvation of his own, the ones he loves, his family, the Jews. Paul says this is the measure of how much I love my people. I would, if it were possible (though of course, it is not, but if it were possible) I would give up my place with God so they could take it. He was needing to prove he had not abandoned his people, nor the great treasures God had entrusted to them, like the Law and the promises of the prophets (9:4-5). More importantly, neither had God abandoned His people, although His love was passing also to other people (9:6). And, when Paul searched his conscience on the matter, he discovered this: He would die for them, forever.
When Paul said this, he was imitating his great example in all things: “For while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He gave His life for our life. That is the Gospel. And King Jesus did call us to an imitation of His sacrifice: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45). So, we are called to have the same attitude among us, as Christ who willingly humbled Himself to take on humanity, and its death, even death on a cross for us. Paul is not talking about violence. He is talking love. This is the love of God.
The second thing this does is to put an actual price on one’s soul. Here is the price: “You know you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19).
So often, people are lacking in self-esteem. Individuals feel worthless and unloved. They think they are not valued and find it hard to value themselves, to respect themselves, and to love themselves. But in truth, they are so far from being unloved or undervalued. The lifeblood of Christ is the treasury that defines personal worth – your worth, my worth. Preach that; the price tag on your soul. And then consider also the price tag on the soul of everyone else, and esteem them all, yourself included, as God has valued them.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Romans 9:1-5 (6-13).
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 9:1-5 (6-13).
God’s Greater Story-Check out this wonderful sermon series on Romans 6-14 by our own David Schmitt.