The following are notes from a Reformation Sunday sermon (MP3) I preached last year on Romans 9:1-23 at a church in Santaquin, UT. I predict that what I will promote here is, for most of you, completely foreign to the worldview that you were brought up with. I only ask that you make a valiant effort at understanding the text itself before approaching the issues using traditional philosophy.
I also want you to know that I have an emotional and spiritual connection with this text, for a number of reasons. You see, Romans 9 and I have a history together. It was a source of controversy in my college days. It was something I originally vehemently disagreed with. It was something that, once it clicked, was hard for me to handle with maturity. But it was also something that, in the long-run, explosively enlarged my view of God and catapulted me forward with a confidence that God was far bigger than I ever imagined. A big reason why I am in Utah today (and not closer to family on the East Coast) is that I believe that the God of Romans 9 can effectively call people to himself, including Mormons.
My theology among evangelical Christianity: I am a 4.5 point Calvinist who maintains that God has a desire for all to be saved and that ethnic Israel still has a privileged future. Many Calvinists are confused over the former issue (or worse, are “hyper-Calvinistic”), and some Calvinists outright reject the latter claim. Calvinism (inasmuch as it refers to belief in unconditional election, etc.) has gone from being the dominant view in the Reformation to a minority position today in evangelicalism. See however a related book.
Unity of chapters 9-11. Since an understanding of the unity of chapters 9-11 shapes how one interprets the particulars in chapter 9 itself, I will offer a quick summary:
God has hardened corporate Israel, giving them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see, and ears that would not hear (11:7-10). But he has not only effectively called to himself a remnant of believing ethnic Israelites, he has also effectively called to himself Gentiles (11:1-6; 9:24-29). He has done this all on the basis of his unconditional electing freedom (9:11, 16), and none of his promises to historical, ethnic Israel—which entail glorious salvific privileges for the future—have failed (11:26-27; 9:6). God has an open offer to save anyone, Jews and Gentiles included, who would find their righteousness by faith alone in the Jesus Christ who rose from the dead (9:30-10:13). The Israelites have sufficiently heard this message and have rejected it (10:14-21). Us latecomer Gentiles unnaturally grafted into the olive tree should not get cocky over the unbelieving Jews, lest we be cut off (11:17-22). In fact, God’s unconditional election, temporary hardening of the Jews, and salvation of Gentiles are part of a long-term mysterious plan to—when the fullness of the Gentiles come in—-save end-time ethnic Israel by making them jealous of and angry at Gentiles (10:19; 11:11, 23-27). And all the wisdom and mystery in this plan show that all things are from God, through God, and to God. All to his glory, forever. Amen (11:36).
Preliminary observations. Paul was garnering financial support for his trip to Spain and wanted spiritual encouragement (Romans 1:11-12; 15:24). He also said he felt eager and obligated to preach the gospel to both Jews and Greeks, including those in Rome (1:14-15). Why would Paul include 9:1-23 in such a gospel-oriented, fellowship-desiring, and missionary-minded letter? Paul did not shrink from addressing difficult matters along with things of prior epistemological importance . Also, let us observe from 3:1-8 that Paul anticipated early on dealing with the subject matter of Romans 9.
- Why did Paul feel the need to make such a strong appeal? In chapters 1-8 Paul has deflated Jewish pride. His loyalty to Israel is under suspicion.
- That Paul uses the imperfect tense in verse 1 (translated, “I could wish”), and also considering the end of chapter 8, it is a wish impossible to fulfill. But it shows the salvific seriousness of the matter: individual Jews are accursed and cut off from Christ.
- Think about the family we most love in our life. Your grandmother. Your grandfather. Your uncle. Your aunt. Your cousin. Your brother. Your sister. Your son. Your daughter. Your spouse. How do you feel about them? What kind of emotions do you have for them? What kind of heartache do you have for them? Paul’s anguish wasn’t over mere abstract concepts. It was a family matter.
- I have family who are estranged from Christ, but I do not have unceasing anguish over them. It is a rhythm for me. Anguish over them comes and goes, ebbs and flows. I wish I was more like Paul.
- The items can be put in three pairs, adoption and giving of the law (refers to Exodus events), glory and worship (temple and the tabernacle), covenants and promises (includes the removal of sins; cf. 11:26-29).
- Tom Schreiner writes, “The point is that the people upon whom God has lavished his favor in the past have also received saving promises with respect to the future. Thus the former gifts are not mere historical relics, for there is continuity between the past and the future. The God who chose Israel to be his children, gave them the law, manifested his glory among them, and to whom they had access in the cult promised them future salvation. Paul’s sorrow over his people, therefore, cannot be ascribed merely to a keen sense of ethnic identity with his people. He grieves because ethnic Israel has been the beneficiary of God’s goodness in the past and was promised a glorious future. These promises have not come to pass and thus they call into question God’s righteousness. To see these privileges as passed on to the church badly misconstrues Paul’s argument since his grief is due to the promises made to ethnic Israel… The present tense verb εἰσιν (eisin, they are) indicates that the Jews still ‘are’ Israelites and that all the blessings named still belong to them. It does not follow that all ethnic Jews without exception are saved because of the privileges itemized… Paul agonizes because many of his contemporaries are unsaved, even though God made saving promises to the nation as a whole.” (p. 485)
- Romans 11 confirms that Paul did not view these blessings as merely external or historical, but also as salvific and yet to be fulfilled. Paul is not merely concerned with existing Jewish Christians having distinct privileges as Jews, but also with the salvation of Jews who thus far have, in majority, been broken off the natural olive tree. God isn’t in the business anymore of electing new ethnic-historical nations, and Paul isn’t merely interested in the historical election of corporate Israel. Paul is passionately concerned with the election and calling and adoption of ethnic Israelites as a fulfillment of those old promises to corporate Israel. Present-day Israelites look like they are rejectors of the Messiah, and his argument in Romans 9 is an explanation of God’s righteousness and faithfulness in the face of that.
- Maintaining that ethnic Israel still has distinct privileges prompts us to qualify God’s impartiality. John Piper writes, “Both Rom 3:22 and 10:12 define and limit the sense in which ‘there is no difference between Jew and Greek.’ In 3:22 there is no difference in the sense that “all have sinned and lack the glory of God” (3:23). In 10:12 there is no difference in the sense that “the same Lord is over all, rich to all who call upon him” (10:12; cf 3:290.) Therefore, Michel (Roemer, 105) on 3:22 and Kuss (Roemerbfief, III, 767) on 10:12 go beyond what the text implies when they claim these verses abolish the privileged place of Israel. Sanday and Headlam (Romans, 84) are more careful. On 3:22 they say, ‘The Jew has (in this respect) no real advantage over the Gentile; both alike need a righteousness which is not their own; and to both it is offered on the same terms.’ Also Heinrich Schlier (Roemerbfief, 314) on 10:12 says, “Between Jew and Gentile there is no difference in reference to salvation through faith and confession” (my emphasis). Therefore Rom 3:22 and 10:12 cannot be played off against the privilege of Israel. They limit and help define it, but do not exclude it.“A willingness to qualify God’s impartiality using Paul’s explicit definitions also becomes important for taking the rest of Romans 9 seriously.
- Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
- In the context of guaranteeing future salvation of the presently rebellious Israel, Romans 11:28 reads, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”
- This does not mean the merits of the fathers benefit the descendants. Read the next verse: “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Schreiner observes, “[T]he saving of the end-time generation of Israel is a fulfillment of the promise first made to the patriarchs.”
- The reference to the patriarchs/fathers reminds us of the promise of the future salvation that awaits Israel.
- There are some scholarly arguments over whether this verse is basically saying, “Christ who is God over all, blessed forever.” or “Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever.”
- If Jesus is directly being referred to as God here, at one level it wouldn’t be surprising. In Philippians 2:6 Jesus is said by Paul to be “in the form of God” and “equal to God.” In Colossians 1:15, he speaks of Jesus as the “image of the invisible God”, and then as Creator of all things visible and invisible. In Colossians 2:9, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Also, in Romans 10:13 and Philippians 2:10-11, Paul applies Christ to Old Testament texts that refer to “Yahweh.” In Titus 2:13 Paul speaks of the “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
- But I’m not informed enough to give a good scholarly argument either way on the Greek grammar of this verse. It is at least clear that the “all” spoken of, whom Christ is over, includes Jew and Gentiles. And that, with all the other things Paul lists, gives us a sense of how ironic and surprising and shocking it is that Israel is estranged from Jesus Christ.
- 6a is the theme of 9:1-23. The promises of God have not failed.
- Salvation was never promised to every ethnic Israelite.
- Who is the second Israel?
- One could make a good argument for it referring to the inclusive Church, composed of both Gentiles and Jews—the “true circumcision” and the true family of Abraham that Paul elsewhere speaks of (Galatians 3:7,14,29, 6:16; Romans 2:28-29, 4:9-25; Philippians 3:3). Gentiles are even grafted into the olive tree in 11:17-24, and Old Testament texts on Israel are applied to believing Gentiles in 9:24-26.
- However, the second use of “Israel” seems to refer to Christians who are ethnic Jews. The immediate issue that Paul is confronting is the fulfillment of promises to ethnic Israel, and the following verses appeal to a winnowing that has always happened within Israel.
- Genealogical descent from Abraham does not guarantee that one is a child of God.
- What does it mean for Paul to be a “child of God”? Paul is concerned here about the salvation of people. Being a child of God for Paul here wasn’t simply an external description of historical Israel. It goes deeper to the individual level. See Romans 8:14-17.
- Some might object that Paul’s argument is unhelpful, because Jews didn’t really believe that Ishmael was of the line of God’s promises; his mom Hagar was an Egyptian! So Paul goes on to use a more conclusive example.
- Jacob and Esau were not only from the same mother and father, they were twins.
- What is the point of saying that God promised to bless Jacob and curse Esau before they were born, or had done anything good or bad? The point is that God’s purpose of election was both prior to and not based on any of their works. Neither good nor bad works were contemplated as the reason for inclusion or exclusion. God’s calling is effective and irrevocable. Not by the human who works, but by the God who calls. Not by human will or exertion, but by God’s mercy (9:16).
- Notice that the difference is not between works and faith (a distinction made elsewhere in the book), but between works and God who calls. If Paul’s point here is to say that election comes by human willing to faith, he could have easily said so. Yes, justification is by faith, we learn that earlier from Paul, but that isn’t the point of the argument here. The point is that God is faithful and his promises are true because election is unconditional and ultimately based on the unstoppable purposes of God.
- His call is effective and his promise is guaranteed. It secures the inevitability of what it desires. He names and identifies his own and secures salvation for them.
- Compare the targeted nature of the call in Romans 8:28-30 and 9:24-25.
- Ironically, in the context of speaking of Abraham who was trusting God to provide a son (Isaac) in spite of Sarah’s barren womb, Paul uses the same Greek word: “[God] gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17)
- If I may detour from Paul’s literature for a moment, this reminds me of Jesus speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” (3,14) He goes on to say, “[B]ut you [unbelieving pharisees] do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:26-28)
- Follow the connection between verses 11, 12 and 13: Why did the older (Esau) serve the younger (Jacob)? “In order that God’s purpose of election might continue.” What was God’s unstoppable purpose of election here? Look at verse 13. To bless Jacob, and to curse Esau. What was the basis for Esau serving Jacob? God’s choosing of Jacob, and rejection of Esau. Where should one ultimately look to explain the electing love toward Jacob and the electing hatred toward Esau? The answer Paul gives is breathtaking: God himself and his purpose of election.
- Now, let us look at verse 13 again. Be shocked with me at the strong language. Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated. As far as Paul’s usage and application goes in context, what kind of love is he thinking of? What kind of hatred is he thinking of? There are a few ways people try to soften the meaning of this passage.
- One is to think of this as a mere literary device, a Semitic contrast that essentially reduces “hate” to “love less.” But turn to Malachi 1:2-5 to see if this kind of language really brings to mind such softness.
- Another is to point out that Paul is employing Isaac, and Ishmael, and Jacob, and Easu typologically, as historical types, patterns, and models whose histories relate to God’s purposes. This is absolutely true here, but the argument usually goes further, to something like this: Since Paul is focused on explaining the condition of corporate Israel, Paul here is merely referring to groups and not to individuals. In other words, that Paul’s argument for unconditional election has entirely to do with descriptions of abstract groups and not at all also with individual people. Tom Schreiner writes, “[S]uch a dichotomy is logically and exegetically flawed, for groups are always composed of individuals, and one cannot have the former without including the latter. At this juncture I should note that the selection of a remnant out of Israel implies the selection of some individuals out of a larger group. Moreover, the unity of Rom. 9-11 indicates that individual election cannot be eliminated. In chapter 10 believing in Jesus is an individual decision, even though large groups of Gentiles are doing so. The individual and corporate dimensions cannot be sundered [or split] from one another in chapter 10, and the same principle applies to chapter 9. Those who insist that corporate election alone is intended in chapters 9 and 11 are inconsistent when they revert to individual decisions of faith in chapter 10. The three chapters must be interpreted together, yielding the conclusion that both corporate and individual election are involved.” (498)
- Another is to assume that it is only talking about the temporal and historical destinies of nations that the figures represent, and not at all talking about eternal, salvation-related destinies. But think about the context here. What is Paul so concerned with? Why is he so anguished? Why is he so willing to be accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his brethren? Why is he having to explain why some of the lineage of Abraham are not “children of the promise” or “children of God” (v. 8)? And why does he go on to appeal to God’s freedom in dispensing mercy, in being a Potter over clay, fashioning some vessels of mercy and some vessels of wrath? Paul is indeed employing Isaac, and Ishmael, and Jacob, and Easu typologically, as historical types, patterns, and models. But how is he doing that here? He is relating their histories to God’s purposes in salvation. I mean, good grief, it’s hard for our Gentile jaws to drop at this, but they should. Paul is identifying the unbelieving Jews with Esau and Ishmael. Not only that, but consider also the wider usage of Paul’s language: works, calling, election, purpose, these are terms in Romans 9 that in Paul’s letters almost always refer to salvation.
- Don’t domesticate the God of this text in order to exalt your preconceived notions of humanity. Sometimes you have to just let God… be God. To put your hand over your mouth, be still, and know that the Lord, he is God.
- What about the previous verses prompts this kind of question? Why is it that Paul can so quickly anticipate the accusation that God is unjust? Paul just taught that God’s unstoppable purpose in election is not by works, but by Him who calls, without consideration of someone having anything good or bad as the reason for the election. That naturally prompts the accusation.
- But Paul is adamant: there is zero injustice or unrighteousness on God’s part. The ground or the basis for this follows.
- How does this function as a reason or explanation for God being just in light of what Paul has already taught? Let us visit Exodus 33:18-19: “Moses said, ‘Please show me your glory.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.’” In the context of Exodus 33 this functions as a part of the revelation of the very name of God. Paul’s citation of Ex. 33:19 is of something that describes the nature and identity of God. He is the God characteristically who shows his sovereign freedom in showing mercy and withholding it. Tom Schreiner puts it this way: “God is righteous because he is committed to proclaiming His name and advertising His glory by showing his goodness, race, and mercy to people as he freely chooses. The righteousness of God is defended, then, by appealing to his freedom and sovereignty as the Creator… [T]he stunning thing for Paul was not that God rejected Ishmael and Esau but that he chose Isaac and Jacob, for they did not deserve to be included in his merciful and gracious purposes. Human beings are apt to criticize God for excluding anyone, but this betrays a theology that views salvation as something God ‘ought’ to bestow on all equally.” (407)
- What is fundamental about God’s righteousness is his commitment to reveal his glory and proclaim his name, and he does this by showing mercy and withholding it with sovereign freedom. What is fundamental about God’s righteousness, in other words, is God’s faithfulness to himself.
- Not only is this an inference from verse 15, it is also a restatement of verses 11 and 12.
- If there was any question of whether one could smuggle in human will or exertion into verses 11 and 12—thus making God’s election a response to the human will and not truly logically prior to any distinctives in people like Jacob or Esau—this verse clears it up. God’s unstoppable purpose of election is truly not based on anything good or bad in us, but rather in the calling of God, the sovereign freedom of God, and the grace of God. It ultimately depends on God who has mercy.
- This verse should make us feel very needy, very dependent, and very desperate. We are at the mercy of God.
- Look at the words, “raised you up.” Who is doing the raising, and who is being raised? God is the one who raised Pharaoh up. How did he do this? He did this by hardening his heart.
- Again, what is fundamental about God’s righteousness is his commitment to reveal his glory and proclaim his name. Verse 17 is a continuation of the explanation for how God is righteous in light of unconditional election. Why did God raise Pharaoh up? That he might show his power in him, and that his name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
- This is also another place where some people try to domesticate the text by assuming the appeal to Pharaoh concerns only historical destiny of nations and not at all with individual salvation. But this is also an unnatural interpretation and unnecessary dichotomy. After quoting Exodus here on Pharaoh, Paul concludes, ”So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” It seems unlikely here that the mercy spoken of is unrelated to salvation.Not only was Pharaoh himself an individual unbeliever, he is also an analogy for the hardening of unbelieving individual Israelites. Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? He practically did it so that he would be so stubborn that Israel’s exit from Egypt would be a dramatic spectacle. The end-result is a reputation of Yahweh as great and mighty and powerful and redemptive. Just think of how Pharaoh functions as an analogy in the Romans 9-11 unit. Later in chapter 11, Paul says he wants us to understand a mystery: “A partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved” (25-26) Paul says in 11:11, “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.”Imagine Moses telling Pharaoh, “Pharaoh, you are just like what my own people will be when the Messiah comes.” Unthinkable and tragic. But it’s part of a beautiful mystery. As the hardening of the individual Pharaoh was a part of God’s unstoppable electing purpose to show off his glory in judging Egypt and dramatically redeeming Israel, the hardening of Israelite individuals led to the dramatic inclusion of Gentile individuals into the gospel of grace (cf. Acts 13:46-48), which, when fully completed, will somehow make Jews jealous and lead to the corporate repentance and salvation of Israel.
- To pile on some more evidence that Paul is not merely concerned with corporate entities, let us take notice of the singular forms of language Paul uses (Schreiner, 511). Look at back verse 15: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Look back at verse 16, using a more wooden translation from the Greek (which contains two singular genitives): “So then it depends not of him who wills or runs, but on God, who has mercy.” And then let’s look at verse 18 again, using NIV in this case: “Therefore God has mercy on whomhe wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Good grief, that’s a lot of singular forms for a text supposedly so exclusively interested in corporate entities!
- Back to Pharaoh. Another issue is the relationship between God’s hardening of Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s hardening of himself. If God’s hardening of Pharaoh is a response to Pharaoh’s self-hardening, then Paul’s use of the example seems misplaced. In the flow, Paul is defending the righteousness and sovereign freedom of God in unconditional election. It seems expected then that Paul would follow the previous claim, that God’s unstoppable purpose in election stands prior to and not based on anything good or bad a person does. Since God’s electing purpose and calling of Jacob and rejection of Esau wasn’t a response to anything good or bad they had done, Pharaoh would be an odd example to use here if God’s hardening of him was ultimately a response to something bad Pharaoh had done. There are a number of reasons to believe that “God’s hardening of Pharaoh precedes and undergirds Pharaoh’s self-hardening.” (Schreiner, 510) I will list a few of the big reasons expressed by John Piper:
- “1) The purpose of exalting Yahweh’s right and power over all the earth is achieved not only in the plagues themselves (9:14) but also in the removal of the plagues. Not just the act of final deliverance or the plagues themselves are the means by which God declares his name and shows his power, but the whole complex of events from Ex 4 through 14.”
- “2) In hardening his heart Pharaoh is said to sin… This prepares the way for the next question of Paul’s opponent in Rom 9:19, ‘Why then does God still find fault?’ The objector knew well that God did find fault with Pharaoh, because he finds fault with sin.”
- “3) In 9:35 we encounter for the last time (in these chapters) the phrase ‘as Yahweh had said.’ It has occurred six times since the predictions in 4:21 (‘I will harden his heart and he will not send the people away’) and in 7:3f (‘I will harden the heart of Pharaoh … and he will not listen to you’). The repeated reference back to these predictions has shown that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was understood by the narrator to be God’s work from the beginning. Thus behind the passive voice in 9:35 stands Yahweh, But since the hardening of 9:35 is parallel to the self-hardening in 9:34 we are shown again… that for the ancient writer these three events (self-hardening, being hardened, and God’s hardening) and not three, but one.”
- Piper later goes on: “After the eight plague (locusts) Pharaoh beseeches that his ‘sin be forgiven’ and that ‘this death’ be taken away (10:17). But when the locusts were gone, ‘Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not send away the children of Israel’ (10:20). After three days of darkness when Pharaoh was about to release the Israelites (10:24), ‘Yahweh hardened the heart of the Pharaoh and he was not willing to send them away’ (10:27). The final warning of the tenth plague (the death of all firstborn) is given by Moses in 11:4-8 and is followed by a word of God to Moses: ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you in order that I might multiply my miracles in the land of Egypt.’ And Moses and Aaron did all those miracles before Pharaoh, but Yahweh hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not send away the children of Israel from his land’ (11:9,10). The purpose of the hardening is the same as in 10:1 (‘I have hardened his heart … so that I may set these signs of mine in their midst’). But note that not just the tenth plague is in view here; the text functions as a summary: ‘Moses and Aaron did all these miracles…’ Both the vocabulary and the content of 11:9,10 recall the predictions at the beginning of our story (4:21; 7:3f).”
- What is it about the preceding verses that would lead one to believe that no one can resist his will? Paul has argued that God’s unstoppable purpose in election stands, and is prior to and independent of anything good or bad that a person does. It does not depend on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy. It does not depend on him who works but on God who calls. God’s righteousness is upheld by appeal to God’s relentless commitment to the revealing of his glory and declaration of his name by showing his sovereign freedom in having mercy on whomever he wills, and hardening whomever he wills. The cumulative argument lands hard. God’s will and purpose in election, including his sovereign freedom in softening and hardening whomever he wills, rightly seems unstoppable. Hence the anticipated objection.
- Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves, are we interpreting Romans 9 so as to prompt the same sort of questions that Paul himself anticipated? Or are we philosophically finessing it and gymnastically domesticating it such that the questions Paul anticipates aren’t even likely questions? Paul preached in such a way that he knew to expect these questions. Are we in good company with Paul, or are we in good company with the philosophers at the local university?
- Notice as we proceed that Paul does not reject the premise of the question, that no one can ultimately resist God’s sovereign will. The premise sticks. What Paul goes after is not the premise, but the objector’s conclusion and attitude.
- For those of you with genuine questions to difficult issues here, be comforted. Keep asking God humble questions. The Greek here indicates an attitude of disputation and resistance. Paul is responding to the attitude of an audacious and presumptuous objector.
- Paul’s response to the arrogance of the objector is essentially—and excuse me as I translate Paul’s passion into vernacular: Who the hell do you think you are? What about God’s rights? God’s authority? God’s prerogatives? God’s freedom? God as Potter can do with the clay as he pleases. “Who do we think we are that we presume to call God to account and pass judgment on him?” (Schreiner)
- Paul also rejects the objector’s implicit conclusion (that God cannot find fault). God can still find fault, even though no one can ultimately resist his sovereign will. God still blames human beings for their sins. Paul keeps the tension suspended in a state of mystery: God’s unstoppable purpose in election and ultimately irresistible will are compatible with meaningful decision-making and human responsibility. But Paul is far more interested in us submitting our hearts to the Potter than he is in us making philosophical sense out of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
- The metaphor of God as Potter is found in other places in the Bible and in other literature of Paul’s day, but he adapts the metaphor to his own purposes. Jewish use of the metaphor is varied, so we are especially dependent on the flow of Paul’s argument to understand its meaning. The Potter has complete freedom and authority to do as he pleases with the clay. He can “raise up” a Pharaoh, he can harden a heart, and he can give mercy on whom he wills. It doesn’t depend on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy. It isn’t ultimately based on anything good or bad a person does, but on God’s purpose in election. It isn’t based on works, but on God who calls.
- What these two vessels here correspond to is already made evident by the preceding context, but Paul makes sure to explain in the next verse.
- Paul is not reversing his explanation, but continuing it and building upon it. 22 is “continuative” and not “adversative.” Note also that “vessel” is used twice in 21, and then used again both in 22 and 23.
- Here we have a climatic, humbling statement of God’s ultimate purposes. This is one place where, if you haven’t been reading the actual text of the verses, you should do so closely. Schreiner summarizes: “God defers his immediate judgment of vessels of wrath so that he can unveil the full extent of his power and wrath on those who continually resist his offer of repentance… When the vessels of mercy perceive the fearsome wrath of God upon the disobedient and reflect on the fact that they deserve the same, then they appreciate in a deeper way the riches of God’s glory and the grace lavished upon them. The mercy of God is set forth in clarity against the backdrop of his wrath. Thereby God displays the full range of his attributes: both his powerful wrath and the sunshine of his mercy. The mercy of God would not be impressed on the consciousness of human beings apart from the exercise of God’s wrath, just as one delights more richly in the warmth, beauty, and tenderness of spring after one has experienced the cold blast of winter… God’s ultimate purpose is to display his glory to all people. His glory is exhibited through both wrath and mercy, but especially through mercy.” (Schreiner, 521, 523)
- Those “called” (those vessels whom the Potter mercifully makes for honorable use) include both Jews and even Gentiles.
- To support this idea, Paul uses two verses from Hosea that were originally addressed to the northern tribes of Israel, and applies them to Gentiles. The point is that “those who were originally considered to be outside the realm of God’s people will be called the children of the living God.” (Schreiner, 527)
- This kind of usage shows that Gentiles are included in the people of God, but this need not imply there is no future salvation for ethnic Israel, especially given the way Paul goes on to argue in chapter 11.
- Paul also continues the theme of 6a by showing that God’s word has planned the situation all along. “The OT itself prepares us for the idea that God would show mercy to those who were least expected to receive it and would save only a remnant from Israel.” (Schreiner, 526)
- Paul then roughly cites Isaiah 10:22-23 in a way conflated with Hosea 1:10, to emphasize that only a remnant minority of Israel is saved, and to emphasize that God is swift and thorough in carrying out his word.
- Finally here, Paul cites Isaiah 1:9 to show that even the salvation of a small remnant of Israel is a gracious miracle and that such a preservation is the work of God. Left to itself, all of Israel would go down the path of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Relevance. If God doesn’t keep his promises to Israel, then we can’t trust him to keep his promises to Gentiles. But you can trust God to keep his promises in your Gentile life because his promises, including those to Israel, have not failed and are still in effect. God is faithful and sovereign. Don’t dismiss Romans 9 as irrelevant to your life. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16) It can enlarge your view of God, plant your roots in Christ deeper, give you a long-term passion for spreading his name, and give you a sense of security when unexplainable suffering comes.
Sobering implications for your family. God has an unstoppable purpose of election in your family’s life. I don’t know what that is. It might be that the next three generations of your family tree are unbelieving, only to bring the fourth generation to a place of despair and desperation and then repentance. It might be that the next three generations of your family grow stronger, and stronger, and then stronger roots in Jesus, to then carry on a strong lineage of faithful believers until the return of Christ himself.
What I do know is that it ultimately has nothing to do with a human distinction. There is nothing so bad about you or a family member that would make you unsaveable. And there is nothing so good about you or a family member that would make you especially worthy of being saved. God didn’t elect ethnic-historical Israel and pledge her a special future because there was anything in her that positively distinguished her from the nations. And God doesn’t elect any of you individual believers because of anything in positively distinguishable in you.
Remember Paul’s emotions. Those who use Romans 9 to break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick (to be a jerk to broken people), should emotionally respond to and spiritually internalize Romans 9-11 like the brokenhearted apostle does. Paul is hardcore in his defense of God as the Potter with rights over the clay, but remember:
- He begins chapter 9 in tears, with great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart over people he loves.
- He soars with great happiness in the gospel in Romans 10.
- He is overwhelmed with a sense of depth and mystery at the end of 11.
- And much like David in the Psalms, he ends his section with overflowing worship.
- This same Paul goes on in chapter 12 to teach, “Love one another with brotherly affection… Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality… Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep… Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight… If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Objectors. To those who simply disagree with me, I extend a warning and a challenge.
My warning is this: do not relegate the authority of God’s word under the wisdom of man’s philosophy. Here is a practical application. Before you use any books or articles on a controversial topic, first become basically familiar with the primary passages of scripture in question, and wrestle with them. Internalize the scriptures in question before you utilize commentary and philosophy. My point is this: If you spend hours upon hours debating, speculating, and philosophizing on an issue, but can’t even call to mind (in a general way) the primary relevant scriptures in question, then consider yourself caught with your pants down.
My challenge is this: if you have a good argument from scripture, particularly from the text of Romans itself, that chapter 9 should not be read to support the unstoppable purpose of God’s unconditional election, then please bless me with a good argument for your position. Give me a run for my money. I won’t guarantee a response but I will promise to try to take other textual arguments seriously.
To those confused. For those who are totally confused, who don’t understand the message of Romans 9, I pray that you would ask the Holy Spirit to take you by the hand and help you love the book of Romans in baby-steps, starting with chapter 1.
Grace and peace in Jesus be with you!
- Romans 9-11 as Varied Layers of Explanation for Israel’s Unbelief, by me
- Jesus explains the unbelief of Judas by implying that he wasn’t drawn by the Father or granted to come to the Son, by me
- Twelve Reasons Why Romans 9 is About Individual Election, Not Corporate Election, by C. Michael Patton
- Corporate Election, by Daniel Wallace