WE HAVE NO BUSINESS QUESTIONING GOD’S SOVEREIGN CHOICE IN SALVATION (EXERCISING HIS RIGHT TO SELECTIVELY FORGIVE SOME BUT TO CONDEMN MANY)
Douglas Moo: As we have noted elsewhere in Romans, Paul writes this letter as a seasoned teacher. He knows the questions people will have about his teaching and raises them himself in order to head off misunderstandings. He knows his teaching about the sovereignty of God in election will stir questions and objections. Indeed, the questions are easy to anticipate; they are the same ones we ask when confronted with the unconditional election of God: “Isn’t it unfair for God to act this way?” (cf. v. 14); and “How can God hold us responsible if he is the one who determines what happens?” (cf. v. 19). So before he goes on with his teaching about how God has selected only some Jews to be saved along with many Gentiles (vv. 24–29), he pauses to deal with them.
Spurgeon: If there is one doctrine in the world which reveals the enmity of the human heart more than another, it is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. When men hear the Lord’s voice saying, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” they gnash their teeth and call the preacher an Antinomian, a High Calvinist, or some other hard name. They do not love God except they can make him a little God. They cannot bear for him to be supreme. They would gladly take his will away from him and set up their own will as the first cause.
Robert Haldane: Here the general conclusion is drawn from all the Apostle had said in the three preceding verses, in denying that God was unrighteous in loving Jacob and hating Esau. It exhibits the ground of God’s dealings both with the elect and the reprobate. It concludes that His own sovereign pleasure is the rule both with respect to those whom He receives, and those whom He rejects. He pardons one and hardens another, without reference to anything but His own sovereign will, in accordance with His infinite wisdom, holiness, and justice. ‘Even so, Father,’ said our blessed Lord, ‘for so it seemed good in Thy sight.’ God is not chargeable with any injustice in electing some and not others; for this is an act of mere mercy and compassion, and that can be no violation of justice.
That mighty act of God in delivering Israel from bondage in Egypt demonstrated two great truths. He delivered Israel to exhibit His sovereign mercy on [those] whom He desires, and He raised up and destroyed Pharaoh to exhibit the corollary truth that He hardens those whom He desires. Only His divine desire determines which it will be.
Moses was a Jew, whereas Pharaoh was a Gentile; but both of them were sinners. Both were murderers, and both witnessed God’s miracles. Yet Moses was redeemed and Pharaoh was not. God raised up Pharaoh in order to reveal His own glory and power, and God had mercy on Moses in order to use him to deliver His people Israel. Pharaoh was a ruler, whereas Moses’ people were slaves under Pharaoh. But Moses received God’s mercy and compassion, because that was God’s will. The Lord’s work is sovereign, and He acts entirely according to His own will to accomplish His own purposes. The issue was not the presumed rights of either men but rather the sovereign will of God.
Denney: This interpretation of all human life, with all its diversities of character and experience, through the will of God alone, as if that will by itself explained everything, is not adequate to the facts. If Moses and Pharaoh alike are to be explained by reference to that will—that is, are to be explained in precisely the same way—then the difference between Moses and Pharaoh disappears. The moral interpretation of the world is annulled by the religious one. If God is equally behind the most opposite moral phenomena, then it is open to anyone to say, what Paul here anticipates will be said; why does He still find fault? For who withstands His resolve? To this objection there is really no answer, and it ought to be frankly admitted that the apostle does not answer it. The attempt to understand the relation between the human will and the divine seems to lead of necessity to an antinomy (the opposition of one law to another) which thought has not yet succeeded in transcending. To assert the absoluteness of God in the unexplained, unqualified sense of Ro 9:18 makes the moral life unintelligible; but to explain the moral life by ascribing to man a freedom over against God reduces the universe to anarchy. Up to this point Paul has been insisting on the former point of view, and he insists on it still as against the human presumption which would plead its rights against God; but in the very act of doing so he passes over (in Ro 9:22) to an intermediate standpoint, showing that God has not in point of fact acted arbitrarily, in a freedom uncontrolled by moral law; and from that again he advances in the following chapter to do full justice to the other side of the antinomy—the liberty and responsibility of man. The act of Israel, as well as the will of God, lies behind the painful situation he is trying to understand. [Expositor’s Greek Testament]
I. (:14-18) IS GOD UNJUST?
ELECTION IS CONSISTENT WITH GOD’S CHARACTER
God is always just, but salvation is mainly an issue of God’s right to exercise selective mercy.
Thomas Schreiner: God’s faithfulness to his promises is assured, since it doesn’t depend on human beings but on himself alone. But the manner in which Paul establishes the thesis raises a serious question about God’s righteousness. If God calls apart from works and before people are born, then how can God be righteous? This issue occupies Paul in verses 14–23. Paul emphatically defends the righteousness of God in verse 14, repudiating out of hand any notion that God’s actions are blameworthy. In verse 15 Paul provides a reason (note γάρ, gar, for) why God is righteous: because he shows mercy to whomever he wishes. In the exegesis below, I will explain how this functions as a reason. A conclusion is drawn in verse 16: salvation is not obtained by human striving or by the human will. It depends solely on God’s mercy. Verse 17 constitutes a second reason why God is righteous, and thus it provides a reason for verse 14 rather than being related to verse 16. God’s righteousness is also displayed in evil that occurs. The example of Pharaoh verifies this, for God raised him up to display his power and name through the whole earth. A conclusion for the entire paragraph is articulated in verse 18. If God shows mercy to some and withholds it from others, we can conclude that he chooses to have mercy on some, and he chooses to harden others.
Douglas Moo: Determining right or wrong, what is just or unjust, demands a standard for measurement. That standard is ultimately nothing less than God’s own character. God, therefore, acts justly when he acts in accordance with his own person and plan. This is precisely the point Paul makes in 9:15–18. The argument falls into two parallel parts, each with a quotation from the Old Testament (vv. 15 and 17) and a conclusion drawn from the quotation (“therefore,” vv. 16, 18).
Steven Cole: Is God Unfair?
- As the righteous Sovereign over all, it is outrageous to think that God could treat anyone unjustly. . . to raise the question of fairness presupposes that you have rights and that your rights are being violated. If you have no rights, then you have no basis to claim that someone is treating you unfairly. Because we all have sinned without excuse thousands of times against God’s holy standards, we have no right to accuse Him of being unjust if He did not grant us mercy and salvation. His justice would only bring us what we deserved. (9:14) (Cf. parable of Matt. 20:1-16)
- As the righteous Sovereign over all, God is free to show mercy to whomever He wishes (9:15-16).
- As the righteous Sovereign over all, God is free to harden whom He wishes, to display His glory (9:17-18).
A. (:14) Thesis Statement
“What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!”
John Toews: The question is profoundly Jewish. The question is not, “is election unjust?” Jews believed in election; God had elected them as a people. Rather, the question is, is God unrighteous to the covenant by electing some within Israel and not all?
Frank Thielman: God’s refusal to allow any human quality to influence his choice of Isaac and Jacob over Ishmael and Esau may seem arbitrary and therefore unfair, but that impression cannot be right.
B. (:15-16) Example of God’s Sovereign Dealings with Moses
- (:15) God Does What He Purposes
“For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’”
Frank Thielman: The quotation comes word for word from Exodus 33:19b LXX, and both Paul and his audience must have known its wider context. That context emphasizes mercy as a primary characteristic of God’s nature (cf. Exod 3:14–15; 33:19a; 34:6–7), but also God’s refusal to acquit the guilty (Exod 34:7) and his right to choose the objects of his mercy (Exod 33:19b). Paul believed that God was abundantly merciful and extraordinarily patient with those who rebelled against him (Rom 9:22), desiring their repentance (2:4; 10:21). He also believed, however, that everyone who received God’s wrath justly deserved it (1:18–3:20, 23) and that whereas mercy was a primary and critically important aspect of God’s character, God was also just and would “by no means clear the guilty” (Exod 34:7). He is able to show mercy to some and remain a just God only because of the atoning death of Christ, as Paul has explained in 3:25–26.
Steven Cole: There is only a slight difference, if any, between mercy and compassion. Compassion focuses on the feelings of sympathy for those in misery, while mercy is the action to relieve their misery. Both words point to the underlying fact that all have sinned and thus all deserve judgment.
James Stifler: Mercy is the outward manifestation of the feeling of compassion.
Thomas Schreiner: These words occur in a context in which Moses intercedes for Israel, which has turned aside in worshiping the golden calf. Moses asks Yahweh to show mercy, to forgive, and to continue to dwell with his people (Exod. 32–34). The Lord relents as a result of Moses’s intercession, and then Moses prays to see God’s glory (33:18), for in seeing God’s goodness he will be assured that Yahweh will not withdraw his presence from his people. The words of 33:19 signify God’s sovereign freedom in dispensing mercy, and in the context of Exodus they function as part of the revelation of God’s name. The revelation of God’s glory consists in “all my goodness,” the proclamation of his “name,” and the dispensing of his mercy as he sovereignly determines (33:19). The substance of 33:19 is unpacked further in 34:6, where Yahweh reveals himself to be “gracious and merciful,” although this does not mean that he refuses to punish the wicked (34:7). The theme of God’s sovereign freedom has already been anticipated by the revelation of God’s name in 3:14. The citation of 33:19, therefore, represents a principle because it describes the very nature of God, the way he characteristically acts—in sovereign freedom in showing mercy and also withholding it.
How does this constitute an answer to the objection that God is unrighteous? God is righteous because he is committed to proclaiming his name and advertising his glory by showing his goodness, grace, 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 (cf. Murray 1965: 25; Käsemann 1980: 267; Hafemann 1988: 46).
- (:16) Mercy Does Not Depend on Man’s Will or Performance
“So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs,
but on God who has mercy.”
Thomas Schreiner: The reception of God’s saving promises is not ascribed to human choice or activity. . . Human works were excluded previously as the basis on which God elects and calls (vv. 11–12). Verse 16 restates and clarifies this theme by indicating that human choice and effort are not the basis on which God’s merciful promise is received. This verse excludes in the clearest possible terms the notion that free will is the fundamental factor in divine election (cf. Müller 1964: 80–81). The salvation of any, even of the Jewish remnant, is due to the mercy of God. Käsemann (1980: 267–68; cf. Müller 1964: 83–89; Stuhlmacher 1971: 558, 564) is on target in insisting that Paul’s doctrine of predestination is linked with his gospel of justification by faith.
Michael Bird: The currency that Paul gets from this [God’s interaction with Moses in Ex. 33 following sin of Ex. 32] is to imply that Israel, when left to its own devices, becomes unfaithful and apostate, just as they were in the golden calf incident in Exodus 32, needing Moses to ask for himself to be blotted out of God’s book so Israel would be spared. It is but for the mercy of God that any person in Israel is able to endure.
Hence Paul’s explanation: “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (v. 16). This shows that Israel’s covenant relationship with God has nothing to do with whether Israel intends to do what God wants or whether Israel intends to run on the right track. God opted to stay with Israel even after the golden calf incident. In the end, as far as Israel is concerned, divine justice is primarily a matter of mercy.
John Toews: The critical issue in election is the purpose of God—to create a people that brings glory to the name—and the nature of God—merciful and compassionate.
C. (:17-18) Example of God’s Sovereign Dealings with Pharaoh
- (:17) God Does What He Purposes
“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.’”
David Thompson: Now in Romans 9:17, we get a look at two important reasons why God does not elect to give His mercy to everyone:
- To demonstrate His power;
- To spread a testimony of His sovereign power to the whole world.
Thomas Schreiner: Thus both mercy and hardening depend wholly on God’s will (v. 18), and the freedom of God is heralded in a most stunning way. God has acted in mercy and judgment for the sake of his name so that it will be sounded forth and proclaimed in the entire world. God shows his mercy and judgment in the same event: he shows his mercy to Israel by freeing them from Pharaoh’s grip, and he reveals his justice in judging Pharaoh.
John Toews: A second Scripture citation, Exodus 9:16 in v. 17, further explains the righteousness of God. Pharaoh, who wished to destroy God’s people, is another example of God’s mercy. Pharaoh’s intent served God’s sovereign purpose of electing Israel. God demonstrated the divine, saving power of God (as in 1:16) so that the divine name would be proclaimed in the world. The focus here is not on the judgment of Pharaoh, but on God’s mercy toward Israel. God saved Israel from Pharaoh and in the process demonstrated saving power. The commentary in v. 18 reaffirms that God is a God of mercy; God has mercy on whom God chooses, in this case Israel.
James Stifler: God’s glory is promoted in the overthrow of a sinner as much as in saving one.
- (:18) Mercy or Hardening Depend Only on God’s Choice
“So then He has mercy on whom He desires,
and He hardens whom He desires.”
Frank Thielman: The interplay in Exodus 4–14 between God’s initiative and Pharaoh’s initiative is helpful in understanding what Paul meant when he said that God “hardens” certain people such as Pharaoh. Paul believed that God punished people for their own sin, not that God forced people to sin and then punished them for it. Otherwise, God would be acting nonsensically when he endured the rebellions of the wicked “with much patience” and stretched out his hands in appeal to disobedient Israel (Rom 9:22; 10:21). No patience is necessary for enduring the behavior of people doing what one wants them to do, and a lengthy appeal to people not to do what one has designed them to do is obviously fruitless.
When Paul says here, then, that God “hardens” people he must mean that God justly punishes people who, like Pharaoh (Exod 8:15, 32; 9:34) and everyone else (Rom 1:18–3:20; 5:12–19), are already in rebellion against him. God punishes them by calcifying this rebellion, or, to put it another way, he further hardens resistant hearts. This second level of resistance, which God himself initiates, is Paul’s concern here, and it corresponds exactly to God’s judgment in 1:24, 26, and 28 when he hands people over to their lust, dishonorable passion, and worthless thoughts.
Michael Bird: If we place this passage in the wider context of 9:6 – 10:21, we see that the take-home point is that God’s plan for Israel is deliverance, despite all that they faced, despite pagan kings, and even despite their own rebellion. God’s purposes hold fast. Emphasized as well is that the single force that determines the future of Israel is not the whim of emperors, nor even the strength of Israel’s own faith, but the mercy of God.
Steven Cole: I agree with Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 670, 684-686) that it is better to refer to God’s foreordination of the wicked to judgment as reprobation, not double predestination, because the latter term implies that God carries out both election and damnation in the same way, which is not true. In predestining us to glory, God works directly on our hearts through His Spirit to impart new life, saving faith, and all the blessings of salvation. But in reprobation, God does not work immediately on the heart to infuse evil or force people to sin. Rather, He works through secondary causes to permit sin, so that sinners are justly condemned for their willful sins.
II. (:19-21) CAN MAN STILL BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE?
ELECTION IS CONSISTENT WITH MAN’S RESPONSIBILITY
As God’s creation, who are we to question God’s inalienable right to shape us as he sees fit!
Thomas Schreiner: Paul retorts that frail and finite human beings should not arrogantly question God’s justice and give him direction on how to run the world (v. 20a). God’s sovereign rights are defended with the illustration of the potter. God, like the potter, has sovereign rights to do what he wishes with his creation. It is unthinkable that the clay would protest against the potter (v. 20b). So too, God as the Creator has the right to make some vessels for honor (salvation) and others for dishonor (destruction, v. 21). Why has God made the world to function in this way? Verses 22–23 provide the answer. God makes some vessels that are destined for destruction because he wants to reveal his wrath and power against sin. The revelation of his righteous wrath, however, is not his ultimate purpose. Against the backdrop of his wrath, the immeasurable richness and preciousness of his mercy is emblazoned on the consciousness of the vessels of mercy whom he has from the beginning prepared for glory.
Douglas Moo: Paul’s reassertion of God’s sovereignty in salvation (v. 18) sparks another round of question and answer (the diatribe style again). Paul’s fictional sparring partner asks: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” Paul again does not answer as we might expect. He offers no logical explanation of how God’s determinative will and human responsibility cohere. Still less does he suggest that God’s will is but his response to human decisions—as we would have expected him to say if, indeed, God’s will to save were based on foreseen faith. No, rather than taking the defensive, Paul goes full speed ahead with yet further assertions of the freedom of God to do as he wants with his creatures.
A. (:19) Logical Question: Can Man Be Held Accountable
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’”
Thomas Schreiner: If human beings cannot ultimately resist God’s will, then how should we interpret Paul’s response to the complaint in verse 20? I have already shown that he does not deny the premise: no one can ultimately resist God’s will. What he denies is the conclusion: God therefore cannot find fault with human beings. In other words, Paul believes that God is absolutely sovereign and determines all things and at the same time posits that human beings are responsible for their choices and actions. We must observe that the objection doesn’t represent a humble attempt to puzzle out the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.7 The objection manifests a rebellious spirit that refuses to countenance a world in which God is absolutely sovereign and human beings are still responsible. The opponents dig in their feet by insisting that if God decides whom to harden and to whom to give mercy, then it is nonsense to hold human beings responsible for their actions.
Grant Osborne: Occasionally these questions are asked by those who are genuinely seeking to understand God and his ways with people. Usually, however, they are used to excuse certain behavior—“It’s not my fault, God; it’s your fault!” In either case, as Paul explains, the answer is the same. We ourselves are to blame because we are guilty of trying to reject or resist God. And even this questioning of God is an attempt to bring him down to our level. It is impossible for finite beings to totally understand an infinite God and how he works. We do know, however, that we have made choices to do what we know is wrong, to disobey God. Therefore, we are guilty. In fact, our consciousness of blame is practically an admission of blame. We ask why God blames us, while inside our consciences are blaming us. We may sincerely wonder just how much freedom we have to act within God’s sovereignty, but there is little doubt that we use the freedom we do have to sin.
B. (:20-21) Answer from Creation
- (:20) Creator Cannot Be Questioned
“On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it?”
Frank Thielman: The absurd image of a handmade object talking back to the artisan who made it comes from Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9 where, as with Paul, the image portrays the folly of asserting one’s independence from God’s intentions for the unfolding of history. Beyond that general correspondence, however, Paul uses the image in his own way. The question, “Why did you make me this way [οὕτως]?” focuses attention on the function of the thing that the artisan has made and betrays the questioner’s dissatisfaction with the role God has assigned him or her. Since the questioner here represents Paul’s fictional portrayal of an unbelieving Jew, the question expresses dissatisfaction with the idea that God has freely hardened unbelieving Jews in their unbelief for his own purposes.
James Stifler: God is free to do as He will; He is a sovereign; and what is the idea of absolute sovereignty but that he who has it is under no obligation to give a reason for anything which He does? If He must give a reason for his actions He is no longer sovereign, but the reason given enjoys that distinction, not to say the persons to whom it must be given.
- (:21) Creator Can Do What He Pleases
“Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use?”
III. (:22-23) WHY DOES GOD DELAY HIS WRATH?
GOD’S PATIENCE MAGNIFIES HIS SELECTIVE MERCY
A. (:22) God’s Purpose for Vessels of Wrath
“What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”
Michael Bird: While God’s choice remains mysterious, his dealings with Israel have always been marked by patience.
Frank Thielman: Moreover, the passive voice of the expression “fitted out” (κατηρτισμένα) is not insignificant. It stands in contrast to the active voice verb that Paul uses when he says that God “prepared beforehand [προητοίμασεν]” vessels of mercy for glory. God’s punishment of sinners is not as characteristic of his nature and identity as his mercy and grace to the sinful, and so the passive voice in the expression “fitted out for destruction” contains an element of reserve, ambiguity, and mystery that is appropriate to this element of God’s activity.
Thomas Schreiner: Since “vessels of wrath” (σκεύη ὀργῆς) refers to eschatological judgment and “vessels of mercy” (σκεύη ἐλέους) to eschatological glory, and since no evident adversative sense can be found between verses 21 and 22–23, it follows that the vessels for honor (τιμήν, timēn) and dishonor (ἀτιμίαν, atimian) most naturally denote the saved and the perishing, respectively. The word τιμή (timē, honor) designates eternal life in 2:7, 10, where it parallels the term δόξα (glory). The phrase ἐκ τοῦ αὐτοῦ φυράματος (ek tou autou phyramatos, from the same lump) recalls 9:11, where the choice of Jacob over Esau was before birth and not based on any of their works (Piper 1993: 203; cf. Sanday and Headlam 1902: 260). Similarly, the choice of one for eschatological honor and the other for judgment from the same lump indicates that those chosen had no special merits or distinctiveness that accounted for their being chosen. Those who were chosen for salvation were selected on the basis of God’s sovereign and free good pleasure.
B. (:23) God’s Purpose for Vessels of Mercy
“And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory
upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,”
Thomas Schreiner: 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. As we have observed before in Romans, 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.
(:24) TRANSITION – INCLUSION OF THE CALLED GENTILES
“even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only,
but also from among Gentiles.”
Michael Bird: The switch from v. 23 to v. 24 is seamless, and yet there is a discernible change in direction as Paul mounts an intertextual argument to demonstrate the identity of the “objects of mercy,” the “us,” as consisting of Christ-believing Gentiles and Jews (v. 24). God’s choice of Israel and the preservation of a remnant to be objects of his mercy and patience always had in mind a wider purpose to show mercy to Jews and Gentiles alike. God is not replacing Israel with the church. Instead, God is preserving a remnant within Israel and then expanding it to include Gentiles as well.