Two Perennial Objections Romans 9:14-29


Romans 9:14-29

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Remember, Paul is in the midst of dealing with an inevitable objection to his teaching in chapter 8 that the chosen people of God are safe and secure in their salvation, that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. And the objection is this: Israel was the chosen people of God but they rejected the Messiah and were rejected by God as a result. Paul began, as we saw last time, by reminding his readers that divine election has always had a double aspect or, as he put it in v. 6: “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” One can belong to the people of God in an outward way but not in the inward way of the new birth, living faith, and eternal life. Both Jacob and Esau were descendants of Abraham and sons of Isaac – they were both of the chosen people in that sense – but God loved Jacob and hated Esau. We ended with that thought last time. Now Paul takes up the nub of the issue: this discriminating love on God’s part, his choosing some and not others.

Today we read a text that seems quite straightforward and clear, but precisely for that reason is one of the most controversial passages in the entire Bible.

Text Comment

v.15     The quotation is taken from Exodus 33:19 and the Lord’s reply to Moses’ request to see the glory of God after his intercession for Israel because of their worship of the golden calf. The point is that God’s mercy to sinful men does not depend upon anything outside of himself and is not caused by anything other than his own will.

v.16     Man’s will and exertion are not, for this reason, of no consequence as we shall see, but they are not the cause of God’s mercy.

v.17     Note how Scripture is personified, as if it were God himself. That is the biblical view of the Bible, of course, that it is the very words of God. The point of the citation of God’s word to the Pharaoh of the exodus is to illustrate the point just made about God’s sovereignty lying beneath and behind the behavior of men. Pharaoh was definitely an actor in that great drama, he did what he pleased, his exertions were real but he also served the will of God in the entire affair. He served God’s purposes but he was not an object of God’s mercy.

v.18     A number of times in the exodus narrative we read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not release Israel from her captivity until God was ready to demonstrate his power and grace in the most dramatic and decisive way possible and in that way that would prefigure the atonement of Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

v.21     It is often argued that Paul means to contrast only people of greater and lesser usefulness, not people who are saved and people who are damned. But the following verses make perfectly clear that he is contrasting the saved and the lost.

v.24     Dr. Gordon Clark, a defender of God’s high sovereignty in the salvation of sinners was once accused of making men into mere puppets. He replied that it didn’t make men into puppets; it made them into lumps of clay.

v.26     In these texts from the prophet Hosea, Paul finds the principle of action that in his day  was transforming the world. God was showing mercy upon multitudes of people, Gentiles, who had not been God’s people before. God’s mercy was being bestowed according to the freedom that God reserves for himself to show mercy upon whom he wills.

v.29     In its context in Isaiah the text means that unless God had shown mercy to a remnant of his people Israel, she would have been wiped off the face of the earth. This theme of a remnant of Israel, chosen by God’s grace, will come up again in chapter 11. So even within Israel itself, God shows mercy on whom he shows mercy. The principle is as valid in Israel’s life as in the Gentile mission. And so we finish where we began: there is an election even within the election of Israel, the election of grace and of salvation. Those are saved whom God has chosen to save and they will be saved to the uttermost.

Paul anticipated an objection to what he had taught in Romans 8 about the security of the saints. Didn’t Israel’s history prove the opposite, that the people of God could fall away and lose their salvation? And he answers that objection by saying that it fails to reckon with the sovereignty of God’s saving grace. The people upon whom God pitches his mercy – whether Jews or Gentiles – are those who will be saved. Salvation depends ultimately upon God’s will not man’s, and even within the church of God this remains the case.

But that teaching creates its own problems and its own inevitable objections. And from the beginning those objections have reduced to the two that Paul anticipates here. If we say that God saves whom he wills and that any man or woman’s salvation is the result of God’s favor not the person’s will, then are we not saying that God is unjust, that he treats people unfairly, that he plays favorites, doing for some what he will not do for others even though they are equally undeserving? Is that not what Paul himself says: that God makes two kinds of vessels from the same lump of clay? The difference between the saved and the lost does not lie in them – they are the same lump of clay – but in the heart of the creator. Doesn’t that make God unjust?

To that objection Paul answers: it is not a question of justice or fairness, but of mercy. Mercy implies a benefit one does not deserve. God would have been just had he saved no one, as he was just in leaving the fallen angels to their doom. God would have been just had he saved everyone, so long as he saved them justly. But the fact remains that no one has a claim on salvation because no one deserves it. The fact is, even if you had reason to believe that God had passed you by and would not show you his mercy – and no one can know that in this life – you still ought to be glad – even as you head to your own ruin – that God showed mercy to some, even if not to you. After all, you were deprived of nothing; you got your due. You were treated fairly, justly. Remember, that is the Bible’s doctrine of divine judgment. Everyone will get precisely what he or she is due. Some will be beaten with many stripes and some with few but everyone who is eventually condemned will get neither more nor less than he or she deserves. Salvation, on the other hand, is always mercy to the undeserving. For that reason there can be no attribution of injustice to God. He is free to be merciful as he pleases; all the more if in his mercy he sees to the satisfaction of every principle of his justice, as he did when he sent his Son to the cross for his people’s sins.

Work this out in your own minds, brothers and sisters. Is not Paul saying this: If you think that you have some claim on God’s salvation, some right to it, that there is some consideration that renders God obliged to be merciful to you, then you do not understand what mercy is. In the famous words of Anselm, “You have failed to consider the terrible weight of sin.” You are still thinking of yourself as if you were not really so bad, so guilty, so unworthy. Is this not why this text so angers so many readers of the Bible. They cannot imagine God passing them by! But let a man or woman honestly face his or her sin for the first time and, in a moment, all thought that he or she has some claim on the mercy of God vanishes.

We all can scorn the Pelagians, do-it-yourselfers, who imagine that we can build up merits and so come actually to deserve eternal life. They think we can pile up good works to the point that God has no choice but to reward us with heaven. We know that is not right. But in Christian circles the error is more subtle. As Luther put it,

“Our adversaries [and he was thinking of people in the Reformation movement]…declare that it is a mere trifle and practically nothing at all by which we merit grace.”

That “trifle” or “nothing at all” is, in various schemes of Christian theology, our faith, or even our willingness not to resist God’s grace. That is what separates us from the lost; that is what opens the way for God’s mercy. But in all such schemes the final decision is ours. We hold the trump card. We make the difference. It may be a little thing we offer to God, but it is the thing that makes the difference between heaven and hell. But then salvation is not a free gift, it is not God’s mercy. It is merely an opportunity of which some men and women are wise enough to avail themselves. The difference between those who are saved and those who are lost lies in us, not in God. In all such schemes, God does not do for those who are saved anything more than he does for those who are not. “No!” says Paul. If salvation is in some final and decisive respect our doing, then it is not God’s gift and in the end we cannot know that we are safe and secure. What we have done we might well undo. But God’s will never changes; God’s love never wanes; God’s mercy never fails.

But Paul’s answer to the first question about God’s injustice raises another question. If salvation is a result of God’s mercy pitched upon some and not upon others, then what difference does it make what we do? If we are the worst sort of sinner but God has decided to show mercy to us, we will be saved. If we are the best sort of sinner and God has not decided to show us mercy, we will be lost. Is this not plainly what Paul says in vv. 19-24? It is God’s decision to be merciful, not ours to seek his mercy that tells the tale.

And here I think we find Paul at his most surprising. We might have expected any number of answers to the question of v. 19. Paul might have said, “No, the human will is not nullified; there is still a vital role for the human will and for human decision.” He is going to say that with great emphasis in the next chapter. Or Paul might have said, “No, the human will is not nullified because God works through means and it is his will to save men through the exercise of their own wills.” He might have said these things or others. Instead, he quite peremptorily says, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” “You are merely a man, a pipsqueak. You are in no position to pass judgment upon what the Almighty does.” What Paul says is obviously true, but it is striking that he doesn’t make a greater effort to explain or to soften the blow. And I think the reason for that is that there needed to be some place in Holy Scripture where this was said; where we were put in our place, and where it was made perfectly obvious that sinful human beings have no standing to pass judgment on the decisions of Almighty God. He is under no obligation to explain himself to us, his creatures.

But more to the point, by putting the matter in a way almost calculated to offend, Paul has made unmistakably clear what he is actually saying. Salvation is God’s doing, the difference between the saved and the lost is to be found in the sovereign will of God. Whether we understand this or not, it is plainly what we are taught here and taught in language we cannot evade. Those are the two objections Paul anticipates people making to his teaching and those are his answers. Salvation is the gift of God. It rests in the discriminating and sovereign will and mercy of God.

Now the first thing to be said about Paul’s assertion of the sovereignty of divine grace here in Romans 9 is, as I just said, that he has settled for ever the theological question. By raising these two objections to his teaching, he has told us what his teaching is beyond any shadow of a doubt. If your view of salvation, if your explanation of why one person is saved and another is not, is not subject to these two objections – that it seems to make God unfair or unjust and seems to nullify the human will – then your view is not the view of the Apostle Paul. Paul was a Calvinist; or, better, Calvin was a Paulinist. So was Augustine, so was Luther, and so almost all the great theological minds of the church. These objections tell us what Paul taught. He taught that God’s will is the ultimate explanation of anyone’s salvation; God’s mercy pitched on one person and not on another. We know that because it is only that doctrine that seems to people to make God unfair and only that doctrine that seems to people to nullify and make insignificant the exercise of the human will. You can’t object to free will views of salvation – such as Arminianism – on those grounds – no one ever has – because those views are not subject to those objections. Indeed, they are views of salvation devised precisely to avoid those objections. In those views God treats everyone the same and the final decision is left to the human will. But that is the proof that such views are not what Paul taught.

The second thing to be said about this assertion of naked sovereignty in the salvation of sinners is that the Bible has a great deal more to say about salvation than this and we must not forget that teaching either. The Bible rests a great deal on the will of man and the exercise of that will. The Bible lays the responsibility for the condemnation of sinful man not on God but on the man himself. The Bible says unmistakably that God desires the salvation of all men. That is very clear. We may not fully understand how God can be absolutely sovereign and man absolutely responsible, or how God can love universally and particularly, but both are true and the Bible says so times without number. There is more here than we can easily grasp.

The third thing to be said about this assertion of the sovereignty of God in salvation is that it alone explains what we observe everywhere we look. A person here becomes a Christian virtually out of the blue. Why? A person there who has every reason to be a Christian refuses to embrace the gospel? Why? We cannot satisfactorily explain this distinction of persons in any other way than as the working of God’s sovereign will, of his showing mercy to some and hardening others. The salvation of little children, the sudden conversion of people who had no thought of becoming Christians, the hardness that others show toward the gospel, only Romans 9 really explains this.

But there is a fourth thing to say about this doctrine and it is this: it has a use, a purpose. It should produce an effect in the believing heart. It may madden the unbeliever, it may provoke arguments, but it should have a very definite effect upon a Christian.

How then are we to respond to this exercise in polemical theology, for that is what Paul has written here: theological polemics? He has given us the critique of false theological thinking and the establishment of the truth. He knows the doctrine is controversial; that is why he defends it against objections. But what should this truth do for us and in us? Let’s be honest. We have known people who have been staunch defenders of sovereign grace, rock-ribbed Calvinists, some of us must confess that we have ourselves sometimes been such people, who have held the truth that Paul teaches here without feeling, arrogantly, and have communicated it to people in a way they found very unattractive.

Arminius, who effectively denied God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of sinners, who was, at last, unwilling to face the plain force of Paul’s words in Romans 9, was, in fact, a good man and an earnest Christian. He was genuinely concerned at just the points Paul identifies as the typical problems people have with the doctrine of sovereign grace. Surely no Christian should want others to think of God as capricious or unfeeling. The Bible teaches that he is not. Strange as it may be to read such statements after reading Romans 9, the Bible says emphatically that God desires the salvation of all men and is grieved by the judgment that must befall unbelievers. Arminius felt that problem keenly. And he was also concerned lest this doctrine render men careless and thoughtless about their lives and about the gospel, thinking that since it was God’s doing and not their own it must not matter whether they did anything themselves. He got it wrong; we firmly believe that. He did not do justice to the Bible’s teaching, or to Paul’s teaching here in Romans 9 and this failure was a serious error. But he was an earnest believer. Even his opponents spoke admiringly of his Christian character and of his learning. Arminius admired Calvin and recommended his Institutes as required reading for any serious theological student. He didn’t agree with Calvin on some important points, but knew a great mind when he encountered one. He said himself that the object of all his theological writing was that men might be led to Christ.

On the other hand, Arminius’ principal Calvinist opponent, Franciscus Gomarus, was a much less spiritually minded man. He got sovereign grace right; he didn’t attempt to evade the clear force of Paul’s words here in Romans 9, but he showed much less interest in the honor of God and the spiritual needs of human beings than Arminius did. He seemed much less sympathetic to the fact – the obvious fact that Paul himself does not deny – that people will struggle to understand how this teaching does not reflect poorly on the character and heart of God, the God whom we love and want all men to admire. It bothers us and should bother us if people come to believe that God has been unjust or unfair. We know how perfectly just God is and we want everyone to know that. Gomarus also didn’t seem to be nearly as worried that people might misunderstand the doctrine in that second way and, as a result, become spiritually listless and disinterested. Why bother, they might think. It’s all up to God after all.

I remember being told by an expert in that generation of Reformed theologians that if you search Gomarus’ Works – hard to do because they have never been translated from their original Latin – you will find no expressions of concern for the spiritual state of the church and its need for renewal, such as you often find in Arminius’ writings; for the church of that day in Holland was in great need of renewal and was about to experience it in what is called the Nadere Reformatie or the Dutch Second Reformation.

My point is that there is a way to hold Paul’s doctrine here that enters into Paul’s heart and God’s heart and there is a way to hold it that does not. Paul’s doctrine in Romans 9 can chill a heart instead of warm it. We’ve seen it do so; perhaps we have felt the chill in our own hearts. How do we make sure it warms our hearts and does not chill them? There is, to be sure, a polemical cast to Paul’s writing here. He is clearly making an argument and he is clearly rejecting some false thinking about God and salvation. But Paul is chiefly interested in our grasping the glory of God and the greatness of the gift he has given to us in Jesus Christ. That will become clearer still as the argument proceeds. But, for now, remember Paul is talking about your salvation, about the glory of it, about the love of God in it, and about the certainty of it.

Listen to this piece of autobiography by a Canadian scientist and theologian.

“In the very worst period of the great depression in Canada, I found myself in the fall of 1933 in the province of Saskatchewan, which was perhaps the hardest hit of all the provinces. And I found myself in the worst possible position in terms of survival, since I had no resources and no job, and at that time there was no such thing as relief or welfare for transients. I was some miles north of Prince Albert, facing the winter months in a tiny little shack about twelve by sixteen feet in an area where coal was not available and wood was scarce. The temperature in this part of Canada can be bitterly cold, so cold in fact that the tiny stove I had would not keep itself going much of the time, and the temperature would drop to about -25 degrees F. inside. On one occasion a hot water bottle froze in the bed during the night!

Yet it was marvelously quiet, and since I had come to know the Lord only about a year before, the Bible was largely an unknown book to me and I had a wonderful opportunity to study it. That winter I went eight times through the entire Bible and worked out, almost entirely on my own, a personal systematic theology. I shall never regret the cold or the isolation It was a golden period of my life in many ways, and an enormous privilege.

One afternoon that stands out in my memory as a time of glorious apprehension, I knelt down on a small rug which a friend had made for me out of overcoat samples, and I opened my Bible that lay on the bed before me at John 15. I have always loved to study on my knees. … I read meditatively with pencil in hand, marking things as I went, and in due time I came to John 15:16: ‘Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you.’ The words seemed to stand out from the page and this tremendous truth flooded my soul. I seemed to be kneeling in the silence of an eternity and hearing the words inwardly for the first time, though it was by no means the first time I had read them. I was quite simply overwhelmed. He, the Lord Jesus Christ, had chosen me; not I Him! I had always assumed myself to be the one who had acted. … But here, suddenly, I was jolted into the realization that it was not I who had decided for the Lord; the Lord had decided for me!

As I knelt before the Lord after hearing these wonderful words, in a manner of speaking, for the first time, there was instantly born in my mind a first real intimation of man’s true nature and of the sovereignty of God’s grace. … This became the rock upon which over a period of some forty years I thereafter built the edifice of my theology. [Arthur Custance, The Sovereignty of Grace, xiii-xiv]

How many Christians could tell a similar story! The glory of God’s grace, the greatness of God’s rule, the majesty of his divine life came flooding into their hearts when they realized that they owed their very life to him and to him alone. And then they never thought of themselves or of God or of the world in the same way again. This doctrine, this teaching of God’s absolute sovereignty gave them, they would say, “new eyes,” through which they have continued to view all things ever since. It humbled them. It made them very small before God, just as a Christian ought to be. And it made God very great to them, just as God ought to be. It made them think of him as the fount of everything good in their lives as he indeed is. And it made them want to honor him with their lives as is only right.

That and that alone is what Romans 9 ought to do for us, brothers and sisters. It ought to make us love to give glory to God, for whom and through whom are all things! And to give glory to him above all for this: that he loved us and gave himself to us.