What Does Romans 9:17-24 Really Teach? (Series Part 12)

Romans 9: 17-18

Having given an example of God’s sovereign election for a “positive” cause, Paul is about to cite a different example—one that has proven very problematic:

“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore, God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”

Cautiously, Paul pronounces his verdict on the Jews of his day that God has hardened them like he did to Pharaoh. It is enormously important to keep in mind that, “I raised you up for this very purpose” does not mean “I created you for this very purpose.” The Bible does not give us much data about this Pharaoh’s life prior to his ascension to the throne of Egypt. But what we know about him is that he is more like his immediate predecessor (probably his father) than he is like the pharaoh under whom Joseph served. This king of Egypt’s predecessor observes that the Israelites were many in the land and might spell danger for the natives, but he “did not know about Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The king was right to want to do something about the number of foreigners in the land—this is much like the immigration problem plaguing many nations in the world right now. But how could he not be diligent enough to know the provenance and history of the Hebrews in the land? That he did not know about Joseph suggests that he did not know how they got to Egypt and what their record has been in the land. This plausibly xenophobic king assumes the worst and maltreated the Israelites to the point of requiring that every infant Hebrew boy be killed! When the new king came to power, he acted just like his predecessor and maintained the predecessor’s evil policies. (Notice that the Pharaoh who legalized the oppression of the Hebrews is not the same as the Pharaoh of the Exodus. See Exodus 2:23; 4:19.) Hence, it is likely that this king already hated righteousness, and that God raised him up afterwards allowing him to become the king so that God can rightly judge him while using him for some good: to spread God’s name on the earth, an emphatically effective way to spread God’s name given how many neighbors knew about this story.

In context, Paul is saying to his Jewish readers that they are experiencing a hardening of heart from God. But just as God’s sovereign choice in electing individuals for service need not be permanent (recall how God would start afresh with Moses) the act of God hardening hearts followed by judgement also does not have to be permanent or irrevocable (recall how Moses reasoned with God on the destruction of the idolatrous Israelites). Individuals can affect the outcomes. (This does not take away from God’s sovereignty. We owe all that we are to him by virtue of being his creatures.) Paul explicitly writes on the potential impermanence of the hardening of hearts later in Romans 11, “Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all!. . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (11,23). Notice how the grafting-in process partly depends on the Jews: if they do not persist in unbelief. Whatever hardening of heart means, at least in this case, it does not have to be permanent. It seems like it is within the ability of the unbelieving Israelites, at the minimum, to desire for God to “unharden” their hearts.

Romans 9:19

“One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’”

Theistic determinists often cite this verse as supporting evidence for determinism, seeing that Paul teaches that nobody can resist God’s will. But does he? Notice carefully that Paul is not asserting verse 19 as true. He merely puts these words in the mouth of his imaginary interlocutor. This interlocutor reasons that if God’s will be irresistible, then humans are merely pawns and cannot be meaningfully and morally said to be doing right or wrong. Hence the charge, “why does God still blame us?” John Lennox writes in Determined to Believe? (259) thus:

“There are only two possible logical responses to this. Either the premise (God’s will is irresistible) is correct, and the deduction (God has no right to find fault) is false; or the premise is incorrect and so the argument collapses. Scripture gives adequate support for the latter.” Professor Lennox quotes Matthew 23:37 and Acts 7:51-54 to support his conclusion:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him” – (Acts 7:51-54).

In both cases, we see that people resisted the will of God. Hence, it is not true that God’s will is irresistible. Of course, an omnipotent God could have made us such that we cannot resist his will. But this is not what we read in the book.

Romans 9: 20-24

“But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one 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 special purposes and some for common use? What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-prepared for destruction? What 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- even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”

First, Paul is not here saying that humans cannot talk back to God. We have already seen an instance of Moses conversing with God. He is more likely concerned about the attitude of the heart when talking back to God here. We must always humbly remember that we are his creatures when we talk about God and that we are ontologically inferior to him. Next, Paul brings up the imagery of pottery, which is familiar in Hebrew literature. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah use the imagery of pottery to condemn Israelites in their hypocrisy. In Jeremiah 18, for instance, God sends the prophet to a potter’s house. The prophet observes that “the pot [the potter] was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him” (18:4). Then, God says that just like the potter, he is willing to salvage Israel, the pot, in his hands if they will reform their ways.

Paul then applies the imagery of pottery to the two cases of God’s sovereignty that he has already considered: Israel and Pharaoh. He asks, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” Yes, the potter has the right so to do, and so does God. However, we should ensure that we do not read too much into this. “Special purposes” and “common use” have nothing to do with eternal destinies, even though some people take this passage to mean just that. Lennox comments on this thus (272):

There are some who take these texts to mean that in eternity God mysteriously or even arbitrarily chose who to be a vessel of wrath and who was to be a vessel of mercy; and that choice permanently and unconditionally fixes their destinies. There is a fundamental flaw in this reasoning, even apart from the fact that it makes no moral sense. The flaw is to assume that, if someone is a vessel of wrath, they can never become a vessel of mercy. But that is false, as Jeremiah’s use of the potter analogy indicates. Paul was a vessel of wrath who became a vessel of mercy. Also, in Ephesians, Paul describes the believers as having once been children of wrath, but because they had repented and trusted Christ as Saviour and Lord they had become vessels of mercy (Ephesians 2:3—4). The Gospel emphatically teaches (and Paul did also earlier in Romans) that we all were objects of God’s wrath. When we accepted Jesus, we received mercy and became objects of mercy. Most definitely, people have a role to play in the kind of vessel they will be. 1. It is worth noting that there are instances in Scripture where God sovereignly determines some things with no discernible human roles. But this is never in the context of salvation (or damnation). For instance, in the Body of Christ, God fits each member of the Body together as he sees fit. In the analogy of a human body, some members will appear to be for special uses like, say, the heart while other parts of the body may appear to be for common use such as the feet or skin. But it is God who fits believers where they belong in the Body. Furthermore, in the distribution of spiritual gifts, Paul writes that it is the Spirit who gives these gifts as he has determined (1 Corinthians 12:11) though Paul also encouraged the Corinthians to ask God for various gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Work Cited

Lennox, John C. Determined to Believe?: The Sovereignty of God, Freedom,    Faith, and Human Responsibility. Zondervan, 2017.

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