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How are we to understand Romans 9 (some vessels predestined for wrath and others for mercy) in relationship to God's love for people and our motivation to serve?

How are we to understand Romans 9 (some vessels predestined for wrath and others for mercy) in relationship to God's love for people and our motivation to serve? I have really struggled with this issue, and even wondered if God would discipline me for my questioning. I find my motivation to continue loving and serving failing. Can you please help me understand this issue?

Thanks for sharing your concerns with me. When I read the Psalms I find the psalmists crying out to God honestly with their doubts and questions. He is not shocked by them.

I would not want to serve a God who is not sovereign, who therefore is not in complete control of what is going on in this world. His sovereignty is what guarantees that He can and will fulfill His promises.

But having said this I would also point out these texts:

Exodus 34:5-9 (NET) 5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the LORD by name. 6 The LORD passed by before him and proclaimed: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” 8 Moses quickly bowed to the ground and worshiped 9 and said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, let my Lord go among us, for we are a stiff-necked people; pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

Notice here that God’s mercy and loving-kindness is what is emphasized in God’s revelation of Himself to Moses. There is also judgment for the wicked, but it is his mercy that is most prominent. Later, this declaration will be the basis for future petitions for God’s forgiveness and grace (see, for example, Nehemiah 9; Psalm 86:14-17). This is God’s declaration of who He is, of His character. A holy God cannot stand by helplessly while sinners mock Him, and harm others. He must judge sin in order to be righteous. (You not think well of a policeman who stood by idly as he observes a robber knocking down an old woman to take her purse.)

Another text which talks about God’s mercy and judgment is found in the Book of Jeremiah:

Isa 28:21 (NIV) The LORD will rise up as he did at Mount Perazim, he will rouse himself as in the Valley of Gibeon-- to do his work, his strange work, and perform his task, his alien task.

Notice in the context that God is speaking of coming judgment, and this is called His “strange work,” His “alien task.” The point here is that judgment is unusual, infrequent (and the corollary to this is that mercy is His “usual” task).

Consider God’s words to Jonah, who is angry because God won’t bring down fire on the city of Nineveh:

Jonah 4:2-11 (NET) 2 He prayed to the LORD and said, “Oh, LORD, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish! — because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, LORD, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” 4 The LORD said, “Are you really so very angry?” 5 Jonah left the city and sat down east of it. He made a shelter for himself there and sat down under it in the shade to see what would happen to the city. 6 The LORD God appointed a little plant and caused it to grow up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to rescue him from his misery. Now Jonah was very delighted about the little plant. 7 So God sent a worm at dawn the next day, and it attacked the little plant so that it dried up. 8 When the sun began to shine, God sent a hot east wind. So the sun beat down on Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. So he despaired of life, and said, “I would rather die than live!” 9 God said to Jonah, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant?” And he said, “I am as angry as I could possibly be!” 10 The LORD said, “You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. 11 Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

It was Jonah who was eager for judgment, not God. He would have delighted in the destruction of innocent children and cattle. But God was merciful.

Here are some additional verses to consider regarding God’s character:

Psalm 5:4 (NET) 4 Certainly you are not a God who approves of evil; evil people cannot dwell with you.

Psalm 5:4 (NKJ) For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, Nor shall evil dwell with You.

Ezekiel 18:30-32 (NET) 30 “Therefore I will judge each person according to his conduct, O house of Israel, declares the sovereign LORD. Repent and turn from all your wickedness; then it will not be an obstacle leading to iniquity. 31 Throw away all your sins you have committed and fashion yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

Ezekiel 33:11 (NET) 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’

1 Timothy 2:1-4 (NET) 1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people, 2 even for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

2 Peter 3:8-9 (NET) 8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.

It seems very clear that God delights in the salvation of lost sinners, but that He will judge the wicked. God’s preference, His pleasure, comes from saving sinners.

I think that the solution to your dilemma may be quite simple (though I’m sure some would disagree with me on this). The solution to your problem lies in the difference between “or” and “and”. In our world we tend to think only in terms of “or”. For example, when the Pharisees were testing Jesus, hoping to trip Him up, they asked about taxes, assuming an “either/or” response:

Mat 22:15-21 (NET) 15 Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap him with his own words. 16 They sent to him their disciples along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You do not court anyone’s favor because you show no partiality. 17 Tell us then, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus realized their evil intentions and said, “Hypocrites! Why are you testing me 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 20 Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Should the people pay taxes to Caesar, or should they only give to God? Jesus’ answer: “Both”. Give to Caesar that which is rightfully his, and give to God what is His.

Now let’s see this applied to Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus. We are told numerous times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (see Exodus 9:12; 10:20, 27; 11:10. We are also told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (see Exodus 8:32). So, here is the question: “Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart, or did Pharaoh?” Answer: Both. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh did also.

Now to the Book of Romans. In Romans chapter 9 (verses 1-29) Paul tells us that not all physical Israelites are true Israelites because God saves whom He chooses and rejects whom He rejects. Sounds a lot like double predestination. But in the very next chapter (10) Paul writes that the reason why men are condemned by God is because they have rejected Jesus and His provision of salvation. Why, then, do men go to hell? Because God rejected them, and because they rejected God. “And”, not “Or”.

God is in control; He is sovereign. But at the same time we have an obligation to proclaim the gospel to the lost (Romans 10), and men have a choice to make and are held accountable for it. See also Romans 1-3: Men are condemned because of their rejection of what God has revealed to them.

The one thing you must focus upon is that God is merciful and compassionate -- more so than men (case in point, Jonah, who protests the fact that God is gracious and compassionate -- Jonah 4:1-3). I would encourage you to read and meditate upon Psalms 78 and 103.

May God give your soul rest in the God who is not only sovereign, but who is also merciful and compassionate.