The Question at Hand
In Romans 9, Paul begins a lengthy discussion concerning the salvation of God's elect nation, Israel. He has just written eight chapters decisively showing that Jesus Christ is God's one and only remedy for man's sin. Yet the leaders of Israel rejected that remedy. Doesn't this mean that God's promises to Israel failed to come true? Paul will show in many ways over the next three chapters that this is not the case, beginning with the statement, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants . . .” (Romans 9:6-7)
The Matter of Choosing
Paul shows that in Israel's history the chosen were divided from the unchosen according to God's sovereign choice (Romans 9:7-13):
Isaac and Ishmael were both sons of Abraham – but only Isaac was heir to the promises
Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac – but only Jacob was chosen to carry on the Jewish line
Significantly, in both examples the younger son was chosen, not the older. This reversal of tradition emphasizes God's sovereignty, since no one can say it was the “natural” choice that was made. It was SUPERnatural choice.
This picture has some bearing on the discussion, but don't take it the wrong way. Arminians would say that God chose first and now it is up to us. But Scripture teaches us that mankind universally chooses sin, that no one seeks God on his own, so it is GOD ALONE who can save us. Jesus Christ is the AUTHOR and the FINISHER of our faith.
In the passage we are examining (or is it examining us?), divine sovereignty is shown in the following phrases:
v. 5 “Christ ... who is over all”
v. 11 “So that God's purpose according to His choice would stand ... because of Him who calls”
v. 16 “So then, it does not depend on the man ... but on God ...”
v. 20 God is referred to as “the molder” and man as “the thing molded”
v. 21 God is referred to as “the potter” who has “a right over the clay ...”
v. 23 vessels of mercy are “prepared beforehand for glory”
These verses proclaim that God is completely sovereign over His creatures, and therefore He can choose to do as He sees fit with them.
The Issue of Justice
At this point, Paul preempts the logical leap of the fallen human mind, which immediately accuses God of injustice by asking, “If God is that powerful, why does He choose one over the other, and not choose BOTH?” In our sinful way of thinking, we believe that if we were God, we would choose both. We THINK we are smarter than God.
Paul proposes a different question and offers a decisive reply: “What shall we say, then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” The reason for the final outcome – some saved, some lost – cannot be injustice on the part of God. So it must be rooted in something else.
The main theme of the book of Romans is the justice of God (or “righteousness” of God – it's the same word in Greek). This justice is demonstrated in the Gospel, through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, where God poured the wrath we deserve down upon on His own Son, Who lovingly offered Himself as our substitute. Thus, God's justice was fulfilled and we were saved by grace. We aren't getting what we deserve – Jesus got our punishment. Instead, we have received GRACE. The the righteousness of God has been vindicated in Christ, and sinners can be saved (see Romans 3:21f). But is God's sovereign choice of some and not others unjust? If it is, this will undo all that Paul has said in the first eight chapters. How can a God who goes to such great lengths to prove His justice be involved in an inherently unjust transaction? Paul has proven God's justice in saving sinners, now he must demonstrate the justice of God in His sovereign work of election. To accomplish this, Paul calls Pharaoh as a key witness.
For He (God) says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then, it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then, He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Romans 9:15-18)
Notice Paul's theme in this paragraph: MERCY. With these words, the entire discussion is turned from a question of perceived injustice, in which some are not getting the chance they deserve, to a question of MERCY, in which we are receiving a salvation we most assuredly do NOT deserve.
This Wonderful Thing Called Mercy
Charles R. Erdman explains:
“The sovereignty of God is absolute; yet it is never exercised in condemning men who ought to be saved, but rather it has resulted in the salvation of men who deserved to be lost.” (Epistle of Paul to the Romans, 1925, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, pg. 109)
You and I have no place at all to call for justice for ourselves or to cry out for what we deserve. As sinners, the justice we deserve is death and hell. Early in the book of Romans, Paul lists a catalog of traits including “full of envy ... gossips ... arrogant, boastful ... disobedient to parents ... untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful,” and then he declares “... those who practice such things are worthy of death ...” (Romans 1:29-32). That is the sentence passed by God in Eden, when He said, “you will surely die.” The sentence remains upon all of Adam's children. Each one of us is guilty enough to go into the fiery hell (Matthew 5:22). We have exercised a stubborn self-will in turning against God, disobeying His commands, discounting His advice, and going a way we believe is better than His way. Isaiah calls it “our own way ... the iniquity of us all.”
God's judgment against sinners is just. It is what we deserve, and since by our own choice we have rebelled against Him, it is in some sense giving us the very thing we WANT. Heaven would likely be far less comfortable than hell for an unredeemed soul who has rejected the grace of God. Hell itself may be one final mercy by which God spares sinners from having to suffer even more torment by dwelling IN HIS IMMEDIATE PRESENCE FOR ETERNITY. Instead, they go into the place prepared for the punishment of evil spirits, to outer darkness. No unrepentant sinner wants to live perpetually in the magnificent light of God's holy presence, in the shadow of an omnipotent being they do not trust. To the lost, hell would most likely be preferable to heaven (at least initially).
Mercy is not a matter of fairness, or justice, or deserving. If deserved, it would not be mercy. If merely just, it would not be amazing. If fair, no one could ever be saved. Mercy is undeserved kindness shown to depraved wretches who are headed headlong for hell.
In His mercy, God does not allow all of fallen humanity to perish. He sovereignly selects those who will be saved, and this is His absolute right as Creator. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” In doing this, He leaves the lost to their choice and the justice they deserve. The saved are brought to a point of choosing Him, and often they do not realize until much later that they were first chosen by Him. This is pure irony: God chooses us, therefore we choose Him, but we cannot know He chooses us until after we have chosen Him.
A Hint of Explanation
In view of this undeserved mercy, no one can accuse God of injustice in election. But the relentless logic of the human mind jumps to another question: if God is absolutely sovereign and exercises His right to choose some while allowing others to perish, how can He condemn those He does not save? (Romans 9:19)
Paul has already called us to an exalted view of God. Now he calls us to a less exalted view of ourselves, answering once again with a question: WHO ARE YOU? Who are YOU to “talk back” to God, to answer your Creator to His face, as if you were His equal? (Romans 9:20). Paul is going to address the question that has been asked, but only after our pride has been confronted and our attitude adjusted. He skillfully combines the explanation with a brilliant rebuke and question wrapped together. What good is it be to be full of knowledge about the ways of God if that knowledge inflates our pride?
Another question follows: WHAT IF? What if God is showing His great patience in the way He deals with man's depravity? What if He is doing this in order to magnify the glory of His saving work on behalf of the elect? The question is designed to be humbling, to stop us in our tracks and get us thinking in a new direction. It gently and purposefully leads us to think about a possibility we may never have considered. The previous verses have shocked our man-centered sensibilities, but now we get a bit of the divine rationale to ponder and digest - now that we have been firmly reminded of our creaturely status.
By leaving the lost in their condition, God makes grace shine brighter and clearer on the redeemed. In Exodus, Pharaoh's hardened heart led to Israel's first Passover celebration, and mercy was wondrously revealed to the Hebrew people. In our day, a believer looks around and wonders, “Why me? Why did God save me and not leave me as I was? There are so many still in their sins, but I, a mocker and rebel, have been saved by His grace.” The gratitude and joy flowing from this realization can be overwhelming at times. It is not a pride or arrogance of being among the “elect” – rather it is a profound appreciation for the mercies God has rained down on a being who is utterly undeserving.
The lost are “prepared” for destruction. A.T. Robertson notes, “Paul does not say here that God did it or that they did it.” (Word Pictures In The New Testament, note on Romans 9:22). According to Robertson, the Greek word means “to equip” and refers to a “state of readiness.”Some would argue that God actively works against the lost, bringing them to reprobation, but that is unlike God and also unnecessary. The lost are already on the path to destruction, and God is actually delaying it for a time. Sin is inherently self-destructive. The lost are, through their rebellious choice, in a state of readiness to be destroyed. God's response is to “endure with much patience” rather than making His power known by swift, active judgment. This is further evidence of His mercy.
The saved are “prepared beforehand” for glory. A completely different word is used here than in the case of the lost, and God is clearly the active agent. Only He can prepare us BEFOREHAND. Although we have “fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), He has planned our restoration and He is working to bring it to pass. Blessed be His name! This is far more amazing than the fact that God allows some sinners to go their way and remain hardened against Him.
I will go no further. After considering just this first part of Paul's discourse, it is no wonder that the apostle of grace is overflowing with praise by the end of chapter 11. “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33) His ways are unfathomable because they are laden with paradoxes too mysterious for human minds to fully grasp. In Paul's rather sharp mind, this was a good reason to worship the One Whose wisdom and knowledge vastly exceed our own. And a compelling motivation for humble service to his own people, Jews by birth, and also to Gentile "sinners" whom God has called out for faith in and obedience to His Son. All according to His great mercy!
Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be glory!
A few great books helped me with this post, most notably "Romans Verse By Verse" by William R. Newell and "Handbook On The Pentateuch" by Victor P. Hamilton. "IVP New Dictionary of Theology" also offered some helpful insight. In addition, my discussions with Tony Hayling at agonizomai concerning election and reprobation played a role.