MESSAGE FOR JANUARY 23, 2000 FROM ROMANS 9:19-23
This week, we continue to navigate through the waters of Romans, the ninth chapter. Before we move any further, let’s summarize Paul’s argument in this text as it he has developed it so far. Chapter nine begins with Paul answering a question raised by his contemporary Jewish believers in Christ. They were questioning whether the word of God was true. This question was raised because they believed the Old Testament prophecies like Isaiah 45:17, which promised that “all Israel would be saved,” were false prophecies in light of their experience. Christ, the true Messiah had come and yet only a very small percentage of Jews had accepted him. How could those kind of promises about all Israel being saved be true in light of the massive rejection of Christ by the Jews?
Paul answers that question in verses 6-13. He goes back to the early history of the Jewish people to show that there was, so to speak, a select, spiritual Israel within the ethnic or national Israel. Paul argues that, just because someone could trace their family tree back to Abraham, that did not guarantee them a spot in heaven. He pointed to the examples of Ishmael and Esau. They were both descended from Abraham, yet they were not included in the eternal blessings of the old covenant. The reason they were not included, as Paul argues from the Old Testament texts, was because before they were born God sovereignly chose to save Isaac and Jacob, while rejecting Ishmael and Esau. The reason God chooses some and rejects others is, according to Paul in verse 11, so that “God’s sovereign purpose in election might stand.” That is, God has his own reasons for saving who He does which He has kept to Himself.
We know this is what Paul teaches in these verses, because beginning with verse 14 in the section we looked at last week, he raises another hypothetical question he anticipated would be raised in response to his teaching on election. In verse 14 Paul asks, in light of God choosing and rejecting people, is He unjust? That is, is God doing something in election that contradicts his basic character? Paul answers the question with a resounding, “No, may it never be.” He goes on to argue that God is not only NOT being unjust when He chooses some people while rejecting others, He is simply displaying an essential part of his character. This doctrine of election does not touch on the margin of God’s personality, it expresses something near the very center of who God is according to Paul.
Paul gives two reasons why God is not unjust in election. The first involves God’s interaction with Moses, taken from Exodus 33. Moses asks God to show him something He had shown to no other fallen human being. He asks to have a private showing of the very glory of God—a direct vision of God’s Person and God graciously agrees to do this. Paul quotes what God says in response to this request by Moses. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” That was God’s way of clarifying that Moses was given this special honor, not because Moses (or anyone else) could deserve it, but because He sovereignly chooses certain people to show special grace and mercy to and Moses was one of those people. Paul’s point in using Moses in this text is to say, that’s same the way God works when He saves someone. God has chosen to show mercy on His elect people. Therefore, it is not unjust for God to show mercy to only some people who deserve His wrath. That is just the way He is.
The second reason Paul gives to support that it is not unjust for God to choose some and reject others is seen in God’s dealings with Pharaoh during the Exodus. Paul reminds his readers that God raised up Pharaoh and hardened his heart for the express purpose of using Pharaoh’s opposition to show forth His power in the plagues, the parting of the Red sea and the other wonders he performed during the exodus. What a contrast between how God dealt with Moses on the one hand, and Pharaoh on the other? Pharaoh ultimately received no mercy, only the justice and wrath of God. That is, he got what his sinfulness and rebellion deserved. Moses, also a sinner deserving of God’s justice and wrath, was instead given a special degree of grace and mercy. Both received what they got because God intentionally purposed to give it to them. This is not unjust of God because He is under no obligation to show mercy to anyone. In His great love he shows mercy to some, like Moses and all true believers in Christ.
That is a broad overview of this text so far. If you want the complete messages with a more in-depth treatment, they are in the lobby in the literature rack. Also, if you want something that attempts to answer many of the questions raised by Paul’s teaching in Romans nine, there is a primer on Reformed theology on the lobby table. Please feel free to take any of these materials after the service. Let’s move on this morning to verses 19-23. If you were hoping that the bracing nature of these texts would diminish, or that Paul would suddenly say something that makes these truths more comfortable for us, you will be disappointed. Let’s read Romans 9:19-23. Paul once again begins the section with a question he anticipates would be asked in response to what he has said up to this point.
“One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' " 21Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? 22What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? 23What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory”
In the text we studied last week, Paul claims that people are in two groups. Those who are saved by His mercy and second, those who, through His justice are condemned. And God determines who will be in each group. We know that this must be what Paul is saying because his next question in verse 19 would be meaningless if he had not been arguing that God elects people to be saved and lost. Paul asks, in light of God’s sovereign control over who is saved and who is rejected, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” In other words, “if I am one of those who has been predetermined to be rejected by God, how can He find ME responsible and condemn ME for something that is done in accordance with HIS will and purpose?”
Let’s make two points about this text as an introduction. First, its important to know that the words Paul uses in his response to that question indicate that this question is NOT being raised by an honest seeker of truth. The person Paul pictures asking this question is not exactly Mary, the Mother of Jesus. When she was told about her difficult role in the incarnation she did not “talk back” to God. In her curiosity she asked, “How are you going to do that?” The objector Paul portrays is NOT an innocent, curious inquirer. The person asking this question is like the teenager who fires a “smart-mouthed” question at their parents about why they have to be in on a Friday night at such an outrageously early hour. There is an “attitude” behind this question that indicates a rebellious heart. We know that is the spirit of the question from the word Paul uses which is translated in the NIV as “talk back.” That word in the New Testament is consistently used to indicate this kind of rebellious heart.
It is to that rebellious attitude that Paul responds in verse 20 where he says, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God.” Paul says in effect to that heart, “Let’s not forget who you are talking to. You are the creature and God is the Creator. He can question YOU about YOUR behavior, but you are not free to come to HIM thinking He OWES you an explanation for why He does what He does.” Paul answers this question directed AT God with a question FROM God. It is not unprecedented for God to respond this way when he is dealing with someone with “an attitude.” When Job, in the midst of intense suffering, questions God in such a way as to indicate that God owes him an explanation for his travail, God responds in chapter 38 of Job. His response is NOT to try to defend his actions, but instead He responds to Job’s questions with a series of His own questions which communicate to Job the message, “I am the infinite, omniscient, awesome Creator and you are the finite, uniformed creature. YOU are questioning ME?” And Job’s response (wisely) was to put his hand over his mouth and shut up.
Second, notice that Paul in his response does not try to eliminate the tension in the relationship between the free will of man and God’s sovereign election brought out in the question. The question raised in verse 19 is, “How can God, who sovereignly controls our eternal destiny, find fault in us for exercising our free wills when our free wills will always, in some way be inescapably predetermined by God?” Do you hear the tension between the free will of man and God’s sovereign control in salvation? Paul never even tries to resolve the tension between the free will of man and the sovereign control of God in salvation. He chooses to hold them both in divine tension. It is not a problem for Paul that God has sovereign control and man has free will and God will hold him responsible for his sin even though it is under His sovereign control. Paul simply accepts BOTH truths with a childlike faith.
One way we can get into real trouble in trying to interpret this text and this issue election is to try to resolve this tension. If we do this, we are almost certainly destined to come to the conclusion that man has no free will at all and that contradicts the entire bible. Or, we will conclude that God doesn’t really have sovereign control over our eternal destinies, it is ultimately up to the choice of each person and that too is a contradiction to everything Paul has written here in Romans nine. The response we should have to this tension should be the same as Paul. We should hold both of these truths in our minds and understand there is mystery here that is resolved only in the infinite mind of God. Trying to totally resolve the tension between the free will of man and the sovereign control of God in salvation is not a goal we should have and we certainly have no business getting saucy with God over the issue of election.
The rest of Paul’s treatment here can be divided up under three truths about God Paul gives here. The first truth is this: God, as the Creator has a right to do what He wants with His creatures. This is the over arching truth of this entire section. We briefly raised this point last week. Now we must put it under a microscope. We see clearly that throughout this whole section, Paul couches the relationship between humanity and God in the context of the Creator, creature relationship. We must never forget that this is what we are at the most basic level as God relates to us. This is not the ONLY way we relate to God. We relate to God on several fronts. We are his children if we are in Christ. We are His friends if we obey him. We are His body, His temple, His church, His bride. All those things are gloriously true, but not one of those aspects of our relationship to God does anything to change the fact that, at the most basic level, we and always will be creatures of our Creator God.
Part of why this text is so hard for many people is because they much prefer thinking of themselves within one of these other contexts as they relate to God. To be considered as a creature over which God, as Creator, can exercise absolute control is not exactly going to boost our self-esteem. It is our most humble station. It is very humbling to think about yourself as a creature, owing even your existence to your Creator. Yet, the language of this text couldn’t be more clear. Notice the three ways Paul refers to humanity in this text. In verse 20, we are referred to as “what is formed.” At one level, we must see ourselves before God as simply “what He has formed.” In verse 21 we are referred to as part of “a lump of clay.” We must see ourselves before God, at one level, as being part of one large lump out of which God formed humanity. Now, we are more than that, but that IS what we are. Third, in verses 22-23 we are referred to as “objects” or a better translation is “vessels.” We are vessels—that which carries something or, that which is used by someone else. We must think of ourselves as that which is used by someone else. More humbling than that, we are vessels formed from a larger lump of common clay, not gold or titanium. Some vessels are used for noble purposes—perhaps to contain a bouquet of flowers. Other vessels are used for common purposes—perhaps to hold dirty dishwater. The same is true for human vessels. Some vessels are selected by God to be vessels of His wrath, others are vessels of God’s mercy.
For those who in any measure walk humbly before God, thinking of yourself as a creature is actually a great blessing for at least two reasons. First, wasn’t it uncommonly good of Him to would bring us into existence in the first place? We weren’t even there to ask Him to do that and He did it anyway. He gave us the priceless gift of life. Second, what a wonder to know that we were fashioned by a Creator so gracious and humble as to actually share His image with us and create us with such a marvelous blend of simplicity and complexity. “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.” To be a creature created by God is ALONE a wonder for the humble in heart. But to those who are uncomfortable being a creature made by a Creator who has sovereign control over them and/or their loved ones, the doctrines of election and predestination will always be a bitter pill to swallow.
“Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common us.” To those whose heart is right with God, that text will cause them to bow before their Creator in the humble submission of a creature, acknowledging that He can do with them whatever He wants. Is that where you are, or do you chafe against this basic element of who we are before God?
The second truth Paul brings out here is: God’s primary agenda is to show His glory, not save sinners. Again, we mentioned this last week, but Paul drives the point home here. Paul makes it clear that God is glorified in both groups of people—those who receive His wrath and those who receive his mercy. Those who receive or have been “prepared” for wrath or destruction, (meaning hell) glorify God in at least four ways according to this text. First, the second half of verse 22 tells us that God bears “with great patience the objects of his wrath prepared for destruction.” The parallel in verses 22-23 is verse 17, where he speaks of God’s dealings with Pharaoh. God is glorified in Pharaoh’s life in one respect in that God had a right to wipe him off the face of the earth much earlier than he eventually did bring judgement. He was so patient with Pharaoh and the display of that patience glorifies God.
This is true of any sinner. Think about those people who have thumbed their nose at God in vile and arrogant ways for decades, yet many of these people live to be in their eighties and nineties and never repent. Think about it. Here is someone who breathes out blasphemies against God for decades, all the while enjoying the great material blessings HE has given them. Talk about NERVE! But God lets them act this way year in, year out, decade in, decade out before allowing the curse of death to finally do its work on them. God is glorified in that through the display of his incredible patience.
But God is glorified in this group of people a second way. Verse 22, speaking of this group says, “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known…” We may not think about this very much, but every unredeemed sinner who dies and goes to hell glorifies God. Because every time a person goes to hell to suffer eternal torment, that proves a holy God is serious about punishing sin because He is perfectly just. We said last week that justice is seen when the offender gets what they deserve and when the sinner goes to hell, they are getting what their sins deserve. Third, God is glorified in his faithfulness in this respect as well. He says in His word, “the soul who sins shall die” and “the wages of sin is death.” Every time that eternal death sentence is carried out, God shows that He does not make idle threats. He is utterly faithful to his word. Those who live in sin thinking they will be able to talk God out of hell like a motorist talks a policeman out of a speeding ticket are sorely deceived. God is a just God who punishes sin and He is a faithful God who always keeps his promises. In sending condemned unredeemed sinners to hell, He is magnifying his holy justice and His faithfulness.
One reason the idea that God would actually receive glory by sending people to hell is repulsive to some people is because many people, self centered as we are, harbor a lie in our hearts. That lie is this; that the destiny of humanity and their eternal well being is more important to God than His glory. If we believe that in our hearts, we will get a headache thinking about God receiving glory from people going to hell. The truth is, God prizes his glory above all else and that means he will be glorified in ALL his dealings with humanity, even spending his wrath on them. God is glorified a fourth way in his wrath by showing that He is powerful enough to execute his wrath against those who resist. People, according to Jesus, don’t want to go to hell but when the time comes, not one sinner so sentenced will ever be able to escape God’s wrath. No one is strong enough to overcome God’s power in judgement. All those apart from Christ WILL suffer because He is powerful enough to completely punish everyone, from Satan on down.
God is glorified even more by those who receive His mercy. These are people who deserve punishment from a holy God, yet who, because of God’s manifold mercy, receive instead of God’s eternal wrath, eternal bliss. Think of just some of the mercy necessary to save just one sinner. First, before the foundation of the world, God has to plan to create you and to share His own image with you. Just THAT is merciful—no one deserves to be created, especially not in such a way that would make our lives sacred—it is pure grace. Beyond that, He plans to send His perfect, sinless Son to die for you—to suffer a unique level of pain and anguish as He receives a holy God’s wrath so that you, born a rebel against Him, will not have to taste it. Beyond that, He has to send His Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity to take up residence within you—to live in you constantly. He has to sovereignly superintend your life and miraculously give you and new heart to transform you and He has to oversee the details of your life so that you are introduced to the gospel and become part of His Son’s bride. All that and much more is mercy and each expression of God’s merciful plan in our lives brings Him glory because He doesn’t have to do one bit of it. He owes salvation to NO ONE and he owes NO ONE all the work that are necessary to redeem a rebel and make Him His child and friend and ambassador. That is all mercy.
A third truth of this text is related to this one is this: God works in a such a way to as to intensify the glory of mercy in a most profound way. God not only glorifies Himself in His mercy, but this entire plan of His is orchestrated in such a way so that as much of the full measure of His mercy as possible is manifest. He makes sure that we see His tremendous mercy at maximum exposure. How does he do that? Look at verse 22 and 23. Paul says one reason God “bore with great patience the objects of his wrath prepared for destruction” was” (verses 23) “to make the riches of his glory know to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.” The fact that many receive the wrath of God in his justice provides a backdrop to highlight the wonder of being a recipient of God’s mercy. One of my New Testament professors put it this way in his commentary, “When the vessels of mercy perceive the fearsome wrath of God upon the disobedient and reflect on the fact that they deserve the same, then they appreciate in a deeper way the riches of God glory and the grace lavished upon them.”
In other words if God’s wrath were simply an idle threat and only the Adolph Hitler’s of this world truly tasted His wrath (as many people think today) then His mercy, given out without a backdrop of his holy wrath would evoke nothing but yawns to those who received it. Paul says that those who receive mercy will powerfully experience and appreciate the wonder of it for the very reason that God created other vessels to whom He has NOT shown mercy, but His holy wrath. Implicit in Paul here is the fact that each one of those people who receive God’s wrath should cause us to say with utter astonishment, “There by the grace and mercy of God, go I.” Or, “God, why did you save ME!?” God has a right show His wrath because they are ALL his creatures and he does this because He wants to show forth the riches of his glory to those who have received mercy.
This section of Romans nine we have examined the past three weeks represents some of the most important truth about God in the New Testament. This text provides a correction to some of the most prevalent and dangerous problems in the church. This text corrects the legalism in the church which strives to be pleasing to God by what we can crank out for Him in our works. This God Paul shows us would never be pleased with anything we could do to try to earn His favor. That’s simply not who He is. HE gives grace and mercy to those who have seen their emptiness and He gets all the glory for everything He enables us to do.
The truths in Romans nine provide a much needed corrective to the syrupy, sentimental, warm, fuzzy, user-friendly god so prevalently seen in church today. This God is not tame and cannot be coerced or compelled by anyone to act in a way that is not HIS will and does not conform to HIS eternal purposes. This text places GOD and His glory firmly at the center of the universe, not humanity and their wants and desires. This God does not exist to serve humanity, but humanity exists for Him. This text issues an indictment against the cheap grace preached today which teaches that all you have to do is pray a prayer and you’re in the kingdom. This text teaches that salvation is a God-initiated miracle sent by HIS will, not something the sinner gets by pushing the right button on God, forcing Him to deliver His saving grace.
In so many ways, this text rightly turns the church upside down for the simple reason that the church HAS BEEN upside down and needs to be set right side up again. The biblical alignment is this: the Creator God on His throne and His creatures bowing in humble adoration before Him in awe of His sovereign power and glorious grace and mercy. That is the biblical picture and to the true worshipper of God, this is the most natural and most blessed place to be. May God place within each heart this glorious vision of Him in His sovereign authority issuing His just wrath and even more so, lavishing on us His unspeakable mercy.
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