Welcome miscreants to our much maligned study of Romans 9! : )
Just in case you are a Johnny-come-lately to the discussion I suggest you check out Part I and Part II (Romans 9:6-13) for proper background. In Part III we are going to pick up where we left off and follow Paul’s reasoning through verse 18:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he 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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 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.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:14-18)
Considering what Paul just explained about the election of individuals in Romans 9:6-13, he knows a natural question will arise out of his readers. If God freely chose Jacob over Esau regardless of how good or bad they would be, then is God “just” or “righteous” in choosing the eternal destiny of one over another? (Romans 9:14)
Ask yourself: Would this controversial question over God’s justice arise out of God’s choice of a nation, or out of God’s choice over individuals? Paul knows he is introducing a truth that will be scandalous to the natural mind of men, so he anticipates the heated objection that will come up.
In Romans 9:15, Paul answers the objection in a very peculiar way. He quotes God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33:19: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Theologians call this a “verbal theophany” which God concludes in similar language in Exodus 34:6, 7.
But how does this verse satisfactorily handle the objection brought up in Romans 9:14? It seems Paul is reasoning in an almost circular way, saying, “God can save whomever he pleases, because God can save whomever he pleases.” Paul may be saying that, for what it means to be God is that He is a Sovereign King who can decree what He wills when He wills according to His good pleasure. But Paul may be saying a little more than that when we look at Exodus 33:18-19 in context.
Moses is interceding on behalf of transgressing Israel when he asks God:
“Please, show me your glory.” And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:18-19)
Moses asks for God’s glory, and as a result what God proclaims to be a manifestation of His glory is His free sovereign prerogative to “show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” In other words God seems to respond: “Moses, if you want to see my glory, goodness, and name manifested, then observe my sovereignty in election.” We alluded to this in part II where we saw our election is clearly tied to God’s glory in the church. God’s glory is most clearly seen by us when we behold the mystery that He sovereignly bestows grace on sinful wretches who have no deserving of it.
Romans 3:23 directly ties “unrighteousness” with the “falling short of the glory of God”, not just law breaking (Romans 3:22-23). By deduction we can conclude that to be righteous would be to attain or display the glory of God. This confirms the great function of the law to display God’s glorious character, rather than a rulebook for legalists.
This is the heart of God in election: His glory.
God must act in defense of His own glory. He would cease to be God if He did not. In the election of persons, God has His highest glory in view and it would be unrighteous of Him to pursue anything less (Isaiah 48:11). As John Piper is fond of saying, “God is not an idolator. He puts no one above Himself.” So if God is acting in election for the full esteem of His name and glory then He is acting rightly, or righteously, according to His character. This reasoning is how Paul puts the charge of “unrighteousness with God” in Romans 9:14 to rest.
Along with this God centered revelation, comes a shocking bolt to any remnants of pride we may have for acquiring our gift of salvation in Christ.
Romans 9:16 is the death blow for any argument that would posit that a free will choice is the basis of one’s election in Christ. It was a devastating blow to my long held presuppositions when I began to study it. Romans 9:16 remained there, as an irritating thorn in my long held Arminian perspective until I began to grapple with it’s ordinary meaning.
The implications are clear. A person’s election for salvation is not based on any choice originating within their hidden will or any action of outward physical exertion. Saving faith does not naturally arise in the mind, heart, or affection of mere men any more than a diamond would naturally arise out of a sewage dump (Jeremiah 13:23).
Our election is God’s only prescribed medicine for the fallen Adam nature we all inherited (Romans 5:12).
We can’t get frustrated here and just throw our hands up and say, “In the end, what we believe about Romans 9 doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans!” No,the very eternal throne of God’s sovereignty and glory is what is at stake here with our intepretation of passages like Romans 9:16.
The prince of preachers, Baptist minister CH Spurgeon, said of this passage:
If it be as God wills, then Jehovah sits as sovereign upon his throne of glory, and all hosts obey him, and the world is safe; if not God, then you put man there, to say. “I will” or “I will not; if I will it I will enter heaven; if I will it I will despise the grace of God; if I will it I will conquer the Holy Sprit, for I am stronger than God, and stronger than omnipotence; if I will it I will make the blood of Christ of no effect, for I am mightier than that blood, mightier than the blood of the Son of God himself; though God make his purpose, yet will I laugh at his purpose; it shall be my purpose that shall make his purpose stand, or make it fall.” Why, sirs…I shrink with solemn awe and horror from that doctrine which makes the grandest of God’s works—the salvation man—to be dependent upon the will of his creature whether it shall be accomplished or not. Glory I can and must in my text in its fullest sense. “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
Dead men cannot muster up one inch of obedience and faith to warrant God’s grace, so it must be accomplished through God’s mercy and grace (Eph 2:3, 2:5, 2:8-10). We bring nothing to the table except a deep abiding need for mercy. Regarding our salvation, God’s perfect merciful will has the final say. This is a consistent thread in Scripture and is not confined to Romans 9 by any means (see John 1:12-13, Philippians 2:12-13).
Most importantly, consider the words of our own Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in John 6:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes I will never cast out (John 6:37)
No one can come to me unless the Father who sends me draws him (John 6:44)
No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father (John 6:65)
No human being in the world has the natural spiritual or moral ability to come to Christ on his own unless God Himself gives him an inclination to do so. If we think Romans 9:16 is still strange it is because we mistakenly think God owes us anything, and we forget we deserve a sinner’s hell even on our best days (Romans 3:11-18).
John Newton used to tell a humorous story of a good woman in his church who said, in order to prove the doctrine of election, “Ah! sir, the Lord must have loved me before I was born, or else He would not have seen anything in me to love afterwards.”
So it is with us. Unless God chose us, we would have never chosen Him.
In Romans 9:17, Paul brings up the OT arch enemy of God, Pharaoh, to display and preserve the free election of God on individuals.
Even in the midst of Pharaoh’s hardened heart God carried forth his purposes to make his name great. Paul’s quotation of Exodus 9:16 in Romans 9:17 brilliantly displays this. In mercy (Exodus 33:19) and in hardening (Exodus 9:16), God’s sovereign freedom is the means by which He declares the glory of His name. Pharaoh’s repeated insults of God inevitably set the stage for awesome displays of God’s power throughout the Exodus narrative.
Whether the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was a passive or active hardening by God is of little effect. The Reformed view holds that all men will ultimately harden their heart towards God’s purposes apart from the restraining grace of God. God didn’t work “fresh evil” in the heart of Pharaoh, for Pharaoh’s fallen heart was already manifestly evil. God did choose to not work grace or regeneration in the heart of Pharaoh though.
Here the Arminian usually constructs a straw man of the Reformed view in order to publically tear it down. They would opine that the Calvinist view would make God guilty of evil. What our precious free will friends fail to understand is that though God works all things according to His will (Ephesians 1:11), He does not work all things in the same exact way. He can work in man or around man to accomplish making His name great. Still, we can’t escape the fact that God promised Moses He would harden Pharaoh’s heart long before the evil ruler actually ever hardened his own heart in the narrative (Exodus 4:21). God’s own mysterious hand is indeed in the first act of resistance by Pharaoh in some way.
Men are not “merely pawns” as the Arminian intepretation of Calvinism would assert. They are really evil people who make really evil choices according to their nature (Romans 5:12-21).
To us, God’s election is a strange way to show there is no unrighteousness or injustice in God (Romans 9:14). But Paul’s view of God’s righteousness is this: God’s own commitment to preserve the honor of His name and display His glory (Ezekiel 36:22-27). God’s election of some and not others is righteous and just, for when God chooses unconditionally those who He will have mercy on He is acting out of full allegiance to His own name.
To keep the reader from assuming that such treatment by God was only relevant to Pharaoh’s day and age Paul draws the universal principle from his argument and applies it to all men: “(God) hardens whomever he wills, and he has mercy on whomever He wills.” (Romans 9:18)
We don’t deserve any better treatment than Pharaoh, but praise God for His mercy!
God’s election of individuals is indeed righteous because it is the way He intends to get the most glory for His name. If there were a better way to exalt Himself He would have done it.
Paul knows there is still some serious tension between man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty in all this election talk. In part IV, our final installment of the series covering Romans 9:19-24, Paul will attempt to answer a final objection. Namely, if God is in control of man’s destiny in such an absolute way why does He still find fault with man?
Keep it classy. Grace and peace!