Monday, May 21, 2012

Romans 9 and God's Sovereignty in Salvation (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 here)

The objection Paul was responding to in Romans 9 is two-fold:
  1. If none of God's elect will finally perish (as stated by Paul in Romans 8:29-39) and there are countless Israelites that deliberately reject the Savior and die in their unbelief, it seems God has already turned His back on His chosen nation, Israel. If that's the case, how can we have assurance that God will not also abandon us? 
  2. But if God never abandoned Israel, therefore God has failed in preserving the Israelites who die in their unbelief. If that's the case, how can we have assurance that God will not also fail in preserving us? 
Both objections have been answered by Paul in Romans 9:1-16 by proving that not all of Israel according to natural descent are actually among those whom God has chosen in eternity past to be saved (i.e. the spiritual Israel - v. 6). While Israel, as a nation, is truly chosen of God to be a channel of His revelations to mankind (v. 4-5), His eternal election for Salvation is not confined in this race alone (v. 7-8). God elects freely and gratuitously according to His sovereign pleasure and undeserved mercy (v. 9-16). Therefore, Israel's massive unbelief didn't and will never thwart what God has purposed to occur, namely, the salvation of all His elect (Php. 1:6). This conclusion is further defended by Paul in Romans 9:17-24, in which he emphasized God's sovereignty in reprobation.

IV. God's Sovereignty in Reprobation (v. 17-24)

What is reprobation? By reprobation, we mean "God's sovereign decree to leave a sinner in his natural sinful state of rebellion so that he may never attain to salvation." Essentially, reprobation is just a passive consequence of God's electing certain people to Salvation. By electing only some, He in effect has rejected or reprobated the rest. In Romans 9:17-18 we read (and keep in mind that divine predestination is still the main theme of this passage in connection to Romans 8:29-39 down to Romans 9:1-16):
[17]For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." [18]So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Rom. 9:17-18)
As we read the book of Exodus, we know that Pharaoh was blessed by God (though undeserving) with immense wealth and power. He was set up as king by God, but it was for the purpose of making him all the more prideful (hardened) so that God may display His power by sending different plagues in Egypt every time he (Pharaoh) rejects Moses's plea to free the Hebrews (see Exo. 4:21, 7:3). The reason why Pharaoh's case is mentioned by Paul is to provide a clear evidence that receiving material blessings from God does not make one automatically elect. Thus, just because the Israelites were blessed with many different privileges (mentioned in verses 4-5), doesn't mean all of them are "elect" unto Salvation. God "has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills." 

By adding "he hardens whomever he wills", Paul seems to suggest that Israel's massive rejection to the Gospel didn't confront God by surprise or finally defeat His purposes, because it is He himself who brought them to rebellion against the Gospel. Sounds harsh, but this interpretation is supported in chapter 11 where Paul says concerning Israel's hardening,
[7]What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, [8]as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day." (Rom. 11:7-8)
It is God who hardened the Israelites, but not in order to destroy Israel completely, but in order that "through their trespass salvation [may] come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous" (Rom. 11:11). Israel's massive rebellion against Christ is God's own doing for the sake of making the Gospel available to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:25). This is proven in the first eleven chapters of the book of Acts where we see how the disciples began preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles due to the hostility of the Jews. In the final analysis, God is never defeated because everything falls perfectly as He planned. 

At this point, Paul's critics may say: "Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?" (Rom. 9:19). Or in other words, how can God justly blame us on account of our sins if we can't help but sin in accordance to His plan? To this, Paul responds:
[19]You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" [20]But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" (Rom. 9:19-20)
Notice that Paul didn't right away give any direct explanation as to how God can justly make us accountable for the things which He Himself has foreordained we would do. Instead, Paul's initial response was to rebuke the spirit of the question, saying: "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" We can't argue with our Maker just because we can't fully comprehend His ways. As mere creatures, our prime business should be to glorify God and submit ourselves to Him in everything. This includes believing in everything He says in His Word, even when it teaches things which doesn't seem to make sense to our limited minds. For example, the Bible says we make uncoerced choices and we are fully responsible for the things that we do (cf. Lev. 22:18-23; Ezr. 3:4-5; 2 Cor. 9:7; Rev. 20:12). But the same Bible also teaches that God is fully in control of everything - human choices included (Prov. 16:33, 21:11; Ac. 4:26-28; Rom. 11:35; Eph. 1:11; Php. 2:13). So, is it "either/or" or both? We must affirm both, because both are truths taught in the holy Scriptures.

In Romans 9:21, Paul somehow advanced his solution to the question on how God can justly mold us according to His good pelasure while making us responsible for our choices at the same time. The text reads:
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? (Rom. 9:21)
The "lump" of clay, out of which God molds the elect and the reprobate, signifies the sinful mass of fallen mankind. This means that both the elect and the reprobate are by nature sinners and spiritually dead in their trespasses and sin (Rom. 3:9; Eph. 2:1). We are "by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:3), having born with a depraved heart that would not seek after God (Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10-12). This being said, God has full right to execute judgment on all of us, which includes recompensing our sins with even more greater sins in order to increase our guilt. "But it sounds completely strange that a holy God would punish sin with sin," some will say. Yet the Bible says:
[21]For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. [22]Claiming to be wise, they became fools, [23]and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. [24]Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, [25]because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. [26]For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature... (Rom. 1:21-24)
In the above passage, we see how God recompenses rebellion with a more sinful rebellion. How is this done by God? First, by giving sinners temporal benefits (by His providence) out of His goodness, and then by leaving them in their depraved condition so that they would willfully abuse what God gave them. This is clearly seen in the life of Pharaoh whom God has raised to be king over Egypt, endowing him with great political power and wealth, which in turn made his heart all the more prideful. Note that it wasn't God who infused pride in Pharaoh's heart (otherwise, God would be the author of sin). Instead, pride was in Pharaoh's heart by birth (Psa. 58:3), but it was greatly aggravated when he was made king under God's providence. God could have taken away Pharaoh's pride from the beginning, but He didn't do anything in order that He may display His power through his (Pharaoh's) persistent hostility. Therefore, when we encounter biblical passages saying that God hardens people, we should understand them to mean as God doing nothing to convert their naturally prideful hearts. The Bible says it is in God's power to convert sinners according to His mercy (2 Tim. 2:25-26), but when He refuses to grant this great gift to certain people as a recompense for their sins/sinfulness, it is said that He hardens them. The clay hardens when left to its own devices.

Here we see God's justice in molding us the way He intends us to be. As sinful humans, illustrated as a "lump" of dirty clay in Romans 9:21, our destiny lies in God's hands alone. He is the Potter, we are the clay (Isa. 64:8). If, out of His great mercy and love, He has chosen some unworthy sinners to be converted and be saved, He is proven to be gracious (Eph. 1:4-5, 11). If, on the other hand, He hardens some as recompense for their sinfulness, He is proven to be just (Rom. 1:21-26). Thus, Paul wrote in Romans 9:21-24:
[21]Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? [22]What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, [23]in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—[24]even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:21-24)
Notice the apostle didn't say that the Potter asks the permission/consent of the clay before He can mold it by His hands. Such is the height of absurdity. What Paul taught concerning God's sovereignty in determining the destinies of His creatures agrees perfectly with Psalms 139:16 which says, "Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them." So, what was God's purpose in reprobating sinners? Paul says it is because God desires "to show his wrath and make known his power" (i.e., in order to display His justice towards Sin, as it is written in Proverbs 16:4: "The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble"). But why didn't He consume them right away? It is because God wants to "make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory" (just like Pharaoh who had been used by God as an instrument to display His glorious power before the eyes of the Hebrews). 


Predestination is a biblical doctrine. Biblical doctrines must not be feared or avoided by the Christian, but he should believe and cherish them with all his heart. The Bible says left to ourselves, we will never believe the Gospel of Christ for Salvation. Imagine if God didn't predestine anyone, all of us would have shared this common misery:
[9]What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 
[10]as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; [11]
no one understands; no one seeks for God. [12]All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." (Rom. 3:9-12) 
"For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Rom. 8:7).  
"The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14).
Our rebellion against God is so deep that we all merit His wrath and condemnation (Eph. 2:1-3). But instead of throwing us all in hell (which is indeed most righteous), In love He has predestined certain people "for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:5), not according to anything foreseen in them (Rom. 9:16), but according to His mere mercy in Christ.

Romans 9:1-24, I believe, is the clearest presentation in the Bible concerning God's gratuitous election and just reprobation. People may deny that this text refers to these glorious doctrines, but its clear connection with Romans 8:29-39 (which talks about God's sovereignty in preserving those whom He has predestined to Salvation) is simply irrefutable.

To God alone be the glory! Amen!


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