If you have been following along in our study of Romans, the doctrine of election230 should come as no great surprise to you. In the first three chapters of his epistle, Paul has shown that all men, without exception, fall short of God’s standards for righteousness and thus are under divine condemnation. The Gentiles are guilty before God, because they rejected that which God revealed concerning Himself in creation. Instead of worshipping God, they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped man-made images or images in their own likeness. In judgment, God has given them over to their sin. The Jews are even more guilty, for they have received the revelation of God through His Law. While they teach the Law and judge others by it, they fail to live up to its standards themselves. Consequently, both Jews and Gentiles are under divine condemnation (see Romans 1:18–3:20).
In the last part of chapter 3 and all of chapter 4, Paul describes the salvation which God has provided for men, apart from works, based solely on God’s grace in the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus died in the sinner’s place, bearing the wrath of God and thus satisfying the requirements of His justice. The benefits of Christ’s death for sinners is gained by faith alone, apart from human works or merit. All those who believe in Jesus Christ are justified by faith and become “sons of Abraham,” saved in the same way Abraham was—by believing God’s promise (see Romans 3:21–4:25).
Paul discusses in chapters 5-8 the consequences of justification by faith. Justification by faith results in great rejoicing. We rejoice over the certainty of the hope of glory which was once lost due to sin. We rejoice in our present trials and tribulations, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts. We rejoice also in God through our Lord Jesus Christ (5:1-11).
The salvation which God has provided in Christ deals with sin at its very roots. It was in Adam that we sinned and came under the sentence of death. In Christ, all that Adam did to condemn us has been overturned. While Adam’s sin resulted in death for us, Christ’s righteousness assures us of forgiveness and eternal life. Sin reigned because of Adam, but life reigns through Jesus Christ. The outcome is that no matter how great sin might be, God’s grace is always greater (5:12-21).
We were not saved to live as we once did in our transgressions and sins. Not only were we declared righteous, in Christ, we were prepared to live righteously in Him as well. Continuing to live in sin is inconsistent with what happened to us when we died in Christ, to sin, and when we were raised to new life, in Him. While once we were slaves to sin, we are now set free to live holy lives which glorify God. We are thus expected and exhorted to present ourselves as slaves to God and to regard ourselves as dead to sin (6:1-23).
There is a problem. No matter how much we wish to please God and no matter how hard we try to do so, we fail. We fail because we do not have sufficient strength to overcome the sin which reigns in us through our own flesh. Like Paul, we want to serve God and to obey Him, yet we find ourselves disobeying Him instead. Like Paul, we wish to avoid evil, but we find that we do it anyway. As necessary as it may be to live righteously, we cannot do so in and of ourselves (Romans 7).
The solution is found, once again, in the work of our Lord on the cross of Calvary. If we are in Christ, we need never fear divine condemnation for He has delivered us from it. We are assured through the Holy Spirit that we are the sons of God. While we suffer and groan, due to the sin which remains in the world and in our own bodies, we are assured of that day of full release and victory over it. All creation groans with us and eagerly awaits the day of our full adoption as sons of God when the effects of sin will be reversed. The Holy Spirit ministers to us by interceding for us with the Father. Because He is sovereign, we are assured that God’s purposes and promises will be fulfilled. He not only chose us in eternity past, but He has already planned out our lives. He controls all things so that His purposes for our lives will be accomplished. Because of God’s sovereign power and His great love, we know that nothing can separate us from His love or keep us from the good He has purposed for us (Romans 8).
In Romans 9-11, Paul now turns to the role which the Jews play in God’s program. He is explaining Israel’s failure, her rejection of Messiah, and her persecution of the church. He is also explaining how God has incorporated the Gentiles into His program so that both Jews and Gentiles will be saved. In concluding this section, Paul tells us how, in God’s wisdom and sovereignty, He is using the salvation of the Gentiles to bring about the salvation of the Jews.
We are now at the half-way point of Romans 9. Paul began by expressing his great love for his own people, the Jews, his grief over their unbelief, and his willingness to sacrifice himself if it would bring about their salvation (9:1-5). In verses 6-13, Paul has pointed to the doctrine of election as his first explanation for Israel’s unbelief. Not all of physical Israel is that “Israel” which God purposed to bless. God has always selected some to bless and chosen to leave others in their state of unbelief, destined for the judgment they deserve. Paul has already given us two examples of divine election. God chose to bless Isaac, not Ishmael; He loved Jacob and hated Esau.
In our text of Romans 9:14-23, Paul will press his point even further. In verses 14-18, he will contrast God’s choice of Moses and His hardening of Pharaoh. In verses 19-23, Paul will move from specific individuals to two broad groups—“vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy.”
All along in his epistle to the Romans, Paul has made use of questions. If I have counted correctly, 75 questions are asked in this epistle. In our text, Paul raises two questions in response to his teaching on the sovereignty of God in salvation and its outworking in divine election. The first question is recorded in verse 14:
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there?
The second question is raised in verse 19:
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”
Our text centers around these two questions, both stemming from Paul’s teaching on the sovereignty of God and on divine election. The premise in both cases is the same: God chooses some for salvation while the rest He has appointed for wrath. The two questions are different, however. We should take note of these differences before we begin to look at each question separately.
(1) The questions are phrased differently:
(2) The questions are raised by different people. The first question is raised by Paul. It deals with the response of Christians (“we”). The second question is raised by another (“you”).
(3) The questions reveal a very different spirit on the part of the questioner. The first question is posed from the perspective of faith and submission to God. The second question is raised in rebellion against God.
(4) The two questions approach the justice of God from a very different point of view. The first question accepts the justice of God and wishes an explanation which assures that it is in no way compromised by His grace in election. The second question challenges the justice of God as unjust. The second questioner would like to misuse the doctrine of election to throw out divine judgment altogether.
(5) The questions are answered differently. The first question is answered without rebuke and with documentation from the Old Testament. The second question is not actually answered at all.231 Instead, the questioner is rebuked for being out of order.
The difference between these questions is evident. The contrast is deliberate. After we study these questions independently, we will seek to explore the differences and to learn the lesson Paul teaches by putting them side by side.
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 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 does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
The question of verse 14 is introduced with the same expression as found in Romans 6:1; 7:7; and 8:31. It implies that a response to the sovereignty of God, particularly to divine election, is expected. The question assumes the reader has rightly understood Paul’s teaching that God chooses to save some and not to save others. The question also suggests that the teaching Paul is engaged in here is difficult to understand and that it may raise questions which should both be asked and answered. The doctrines of the sovereignty of God and divine election do raise questions. It is not wrong to raise them and to look to God for a resolution to the difficulties they raise.232
The construction and translation of the question Paul raises (“There is no injustice with God, is there?”) indicates that the questioner does not doubt God’s justice. The question merely expresses an area of tension in the mind of the one listening to Paul’s teaching here. How do we square God’s justice, which we know and believe to be true, with God’s sovereign election of some and not others? If we have no problem here, others surely will, and they will press us for the answer.
Paul’s response (“May it never be!”) is indicative of his conviction that God’s justice is not tarnished or violated by election. Just as the questioner is reluctant to ask the question for fear it may be irreverent, the apostle is quick to affirm the justice of God. God is surely not on trial here as He appears to be when the second question is raised in verse 19.
Paul’s explanation follows in verses 15-18. It has two parts, each introduced by the explanatory word “for” in verses 15 and 17. His explanation covers both sides of election, election to salvation and to condemnation. Moses is chosen of God as an object of divine mercy and compassion (verse 15). Pharaoh is chosen of God as an object of divine wrath (verses 17-18). Verse 16 separates the two illustrations, both coming from the days of Israel’s birth as a nation and deliverance from bondage in Egypt. It spells out the implications of sovereign grace.
The question raised in verse 14 pertains to the righteousness of God due to the fact that He does not treat all men equally. The tension which Paul recognizes in his day is even more pronounced in our own. Equal treatment is required by the law, and inequality quickly is pointed out and protested against. Women who perform the same tasks as men expect to be paid equal wages. One race expects equal treatment with another. How is it then that God can get away with treating people differently? How is it that God can be righteous in justifying one person and condemning another? How is it that God can deal with men differently and ignore their performance?
Paul’s response is recorded in verse 15. He turns to the history of Israel and to God’s dealings with Moses as recorded in Exodus 33. He cites these words which God spoke to Moses: “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.”
We must understand the context in which they were spoken if we are to understand these words. God has led His people out of Egypt. They are now camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. While God was giving the Law to Moses on the mountain, the Israelites became impatient. Under the leadership of Aaron, they made themselves an idol and began to worship it in a most heathen way (Exodus 32:1-6). Initially, it is God who is angry and Moses who appears to be trying to persuade God to be gracious to His people. When Moses appealed to God on the basis of His reputation, God relented of the destruction of the entire nation (32:7-14).
When Moses went down from the mountain and saw the wickedness of the Israelites, he became angry with them. He strongly rebuked his brother Aaron and ordered the people who would obey to kill those who were out of control. The sons of Levi responded, killing about 3,000 (verses 15-30). Moses then sought to intercede for the nation and to make an atonement for their sin. He even offered himself to God for this purpose (verse 32).
After this follows a series of pleas by Moses in which he besought the Lord to forgive the Israelites as a whole, to abide with them, and go with them into the land of Canaan (32:31-34:9). God persistently assured Moses that he had found favor with Him and that He would go with him (see 33:14,17). Moses persistently pressed God to forgive the nation as a whole and to deal graciously with all of the Israelites, just as He was dealing with him (see 33:12-13, 15-16; 34:9).
A period of time passed before God revealed to Moses and to the people how He would deal with them. During this time and after, as God had instructed (33:4-6), the people stripped off their jewelry as a sign of their mourning and repentance. God continued to show His favor toward Moses but not toward the people. Moses pitched a tent outside the camp. The people stood in respect as Moses entered the tent. When he was in the tent, the cloud descended upon it, stationed at the entrance to the tent. It was here that God communed with Moses face to face, causing his face to glow. While he was in the tent, they worshipped. God was with Moses in intimate communion, but He remained distant from the people (33:7-11).
Moses wanted even more of God than speaking with Him face to face. He wanted to see God face to face. This was not possible, but God did permit him to see His glory, partially veiled. He granted Moses to see Him from the back side, sheltered by a rock and by the hand of God (33:18-23; 34:6-8). Both when this request was granted Moses and when God’s glory was revealed to him, God spoke to Moses concerning His mercy:
“I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:19).
Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Several things command attention in these words which God spoke to Moses. First, God’s glory, which Moses asked to see (Exodus 33:18), is seen partially in His goodness. This is why God caused His goodness to pass before Moses. Second, God’s glory is evidenced in His sovereign grace. Moses knew that all Israel was guilty and worthy of death. He could not ask for justice; he could only plead for grace. But Moses asked for too much. Moses asked God to be gracious to every Israelite. God’s response is found in the words by Moses cited above. God’s grace, in order to be grace, could not be granted to every Israelite. It must be sovereignly granted to some.
There is a third element in God’s response: His goodness is not only revealed in forgiveness but in condemnation. God’s grace was shown to thousands whom He forgave. But His grace cannot be extended to all lest justice be set aside. God’s goodness includes not only grace but justice. Thus, while God may sovereignly bestow His grace on some, He must also sovereignly punish others. He will not “leave the guilty unpunished” (34:7). When Moses asked for grace to be granted to every Israelite, he was asking for that which would have been unrighteous. God’s justice requires that He punish sinners. His grace enables Him to sovereignly forgive some. It is not failing to save all which would be an injustice, but failing to judge many. God’s sovereign election of some to salvation is completely just.233
Paul will take up this matter of God’s justice and divine condemnation in verse 17. Before he moves on to this side of God’s goodness, he underscores the implications of divine election in verse 16:
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
Divine election in no way impugns the righteousness of God. This is a wrong inference, an incorrect implication of what Paul has been teaching. The implication Paul wants to leave with the Christian is this: our election does not depend upon us at all, but upon God.
Paul is not content to have his point understood in general. His words in verse 16 span the whole spectrum of human works. He specifies that our election is not determined by either our will or our works.234 God did not elect some based upon our commitment to Him or our resolution to be faithful. Neither is our election based upon our faithfulness in carrying out that which we have willed. Running is an exercise of endurance. While we should run the race with patience,235 it is not our endurance which secures our election.
What a glorious truth! God’s choice of men, and the salvation which He has purposed, is not dependent upon man’s will nor his works. This is precisely what John’s Gospel teaches:
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).
Divine grace, as evident in election, assures us that God is just and that we are justified. Salvation is God’s work, all of grace. We are saved by grace. We are sanctified by grace. By His grace we are kept eternally secure. For this, we shall be eternally grateful.
Few will struggle with those whom God has chosen to be recipients of His grace. The problem for most is with those whom God rejects, those whom God has destined for eternal torment. Many things can be said on this point. For example, it must be said that all those whom God “hardens” (to use the terminology of Paul in our text) have also hardened their own hearts. God does not condemn any who are innocent236 to eternal torment, but only the guilty. Likewise, those whom God chooses to save are also guilty, but are granted His grace. No one goes to hell simply because God arbitrarily determined they would, but because they have rebelled against God and against His law. This is what Romans 1-3 is all about. This is also what Romans 10 is about.
But here, Paul chooses Pharaoh to illustrate that God’s election is not only positive (saving grace), but negative (divine hardening and condemnation). Pharaoh is the counterpart of Moses.237 Pharaoh was the enemy of Israel. He is the one whom God raised up to resist Him and to persecute His people. Moses was the one whom God raised up to deliver His people. Just as God loved Jacob and hated Esau (verse 13), so He chose to manifest His grace to Moses and His wrath toward Pharaoh.
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart had one thing in common with God’s favor toward Moses—both were purposed to promote the glory of God. Why did God raise up Moses and the nation Israel? To demonstrate His power and to proclaim His name to all the earth. God’s power was dramatically demonstrated when Pharaoh stiffened his neck and said, “Who is the God of Israel, that I should obey Him?” (Exodus 5:2). The plagues were God’s response to Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let the Israelites go. The plagues were a dramatic demonstration of God’s power, a power vastly superior to the power of Pharaoh and of Egypt. Because of what God did to Pharaoh and to Egypt, God’s name was proclaimed. The nations with whom Israel would come in contact knew all too well of God’s power, and they feared it (see Exodus 15, especially verses 14-16).
Paul’s point will go even farther than this, for now it is the hearts of the Israelites which God has hardened. He is about to show his readers that just as Pharaoh’s hardened heart was the occasion for the salvation of the Israelites, so Israel’s stubborn unbelief has become the occasion for God’s salvation of the Gentiles. If God would not be glorified by Israel’s faith and obedience, He will be glorified by her obstinate unbelief and persecution. The Book of Acts makes it abundantly clear how this took place (see Acts 8:1, 4; 11:19-21).
Verse 18 brings us to the second “so then” of our passage:238
So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
Paul concludes here not so much by pointing out something new as by restating the premise with which he began. His readers have heard him correctly. God is sovereign. He determined a plan before time began. He chose some to be saved, to be plucked by grace from the path which leads to destruction. He chose to harden others, to allow them to persist in their unbelief and to plunge themselves into hell. The choice, as Paul will later point out, is one which men themselves make. The choice, as Paul here points out, is a choice which God first makes. God’s sovereignty not only tolerates election but necessitates it.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.
As pointed out at the beginning of our study of this text, the question raised in verse 19 is very different from that which we find in verse 14. The first question was raised humbly, out of genuine concern; this question is raised arrogantly, in defiance toward God. We might paraphrase it this way:
So what is the big deal? What is God’s problem? Why does He blame me for those things which He made me do?
Notice first what is said or implied by the question raised in verse 19. The assumption is that God does condemn men for their unbelief and their sins. “Why does God still find fault?” God still has not given up. He still persists, stubbornly they seem to think, in finding men guilty of their sins. In addition, the assumption is granted that God is indeed sovereign: “Who resists His will?” Notice further that the assumption is that it is wrong for God to condemn men, even though He has done so and persists in doing so.
Additionally the whole orientation is wrong. God is acknowledged to be the One judging men, and yet the questioner has taken the seat of the judge by asking this question. And the questioner has seated God in the seat of the defendant, the accused. Now God is expected to explain His actions to men. God is being judged and condemned by men for condemning men! How amazing is Satan’s work of turning things upside down.
The answer to this question is not given here, not because the issue raised should not be aired. The problem is the spirit with which it is raised. The question assumes that if God is sovereign and He has determined all that will happen, then men are no longer responsible. The premise is correct: God is sovereign. God does choose whom He will save and whom He will harden. The conclusion is entirely wrong. The question assumes that if God is sovereign, men are not to be held accountable for their deeds. The answer given later is that God’s sovereignty is such that it gives men a choice and holds them accountable for it.
Notice three significant things about Paul’s response here:
(1) Paul in no way backs off of what he has taught. He does not try to soften his teaching nor does he feel the need to clarify or defend what he has previously taught. This is an important point because the question is only valid if the premise is valid. The premise of the question is that God is sovereign, and that He does choose to save some but not others. If the premise was wrong, then Paul would have corrected it here and now. But he does not correct the premise. This further confirms that Paul is teaching the doctrine of individual election, one which determines the destiny of all men, including those whom God purposed to save as well as those whom He chose to harden.
(2) Paul indicts the questioner for talking back to God. The question and the questioner are out of order. Here is a question which should never have been asked.
(3) Paul refuses to answer this question at this time. Paul’s response here is not an answer to the question. As in Jesus’ days, no matter how true, how self-evident Jesus’ answers were the unbelieving heart would not accept them. To answer this question here and now would have been to respond to a fool according to his folly. Here Paul puts the questioner in his place in verses 20 and 21 and then restates his teaching in broader terms in verses 22 and 23.
Paul intends to put men in their place in verses 20 and 21. God is the Creator; we are creatures, created by God. In such a world, God, not men, gives the orders and passes judgment. When men begin to judge God, something has gone desperately wrong.
I taught school in a state prison where the guards wore white shirts and the inmates wore brown shirts. Whenever one of the inmates complained or criticized Mr. Look, the guard, he would respond, “Well, well. They told me that in this place the men who wear the white shirts got to tell the men in the brown shirts what to do.” Following Mr. Look’s logic and terminology, God is wearing a white shirt, and men can only wear brown.
(4) Paul’s response to this question assumes that God is the Creator of human life, and thus He has the right to use men as He chooses, including the determination of man’s eternal destiny. The imagery of the potter occurs several times in the Old Testament.239 The two texts from which Paul seems to draw, and to which he refers in Romans 9:20-21, are found in Isaiah and Jeremiah:
“Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker—An earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’ Or the thing you are making say, ‘He has no hands’? Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’ Or to a woman, ‘To what are you giving birth?’” Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker: “Ask Me about the things to come concerning My sons, And you shall commit to Me the work of My hands. It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands, And I ordained all their host. I have aroused him in righteousness, And I will make all his ways smooth; He will build My city, and will let My exiles go free, Without any payment or reward,” says the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 45:9-13).
The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I shall announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make. Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. “So now then, speak to the men of Judah and against the inhabitants of Jerusalem saying, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am fashioning calamity against you and devising a plan against you. Oh turn back, each of you from his evil way, and reform your ways and your deeds.”’ But they will say, ‘It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart’” (Jeremiah 18:1-12).
The Isaiah 45 text draws our attention to a very important truth which relates to Israel. The image of God as Creator goes beyond His creation of Adam and Eve in the garden or even of God as the Creator of all men. God is described in the Old Testament as Israel’s Creator as well (see Isaiah 44:2; 45:11; 54:5). Just as God made man from the dust of the earth—ignoble stuff that it is—so God made Israel from less than noble stuff. Israel’s origin from such humble stuff should have undermined any false pride she might have. But beyond this, since God created this nation He has the right to do with it as He chooses. He may, if He chooses, use this clay vessel as a vessel of mercy or as a vessel of wrath. He, as Israel’s Creator, can deal with her as He chooses.
This truth brings the blood of many, especially unbelievers, to a boil. “What right does God have to deal with men in such a cavalier way? Who does He think He is?” God’s sovereign right, as the Creator and Ruler of the universe, to save some and condemn others is seen as shameful. And yet, my friends, many of those who would protest against God’s sovereignty, demand the same sovereignty for themselves. They want to be “like God,”240 yet they don’t want God to be like God.
I am speaking specifically here of the so-called “pro-choice” movement, those women who insist that they have the right to decide, without any outside influence or intervention, the fate of the child in their womb. They believe that they have created the child and that it is theirs to dispose of as they wish. They do not call the child “clay” but “the tissue of human conception.” All in all, they believe the decision concerning the life or death of the unborn is their sovereign choice. “Privacy” is really a synonym for “sovereignty.” Is it not amazing that the very thing which the abortionists would condemn in God they commend and even demand for themselves!
The text in Jeremiah is specifically applied to God’s sovereignty as it relates to salvation. While Paul may not quote directly from this text, he is surely referring to it or at least to the lesson which it was meant to convey to Israel. For just a moment, follow me through the message of Jeremiah to see how his words serve to reinforce Paul’s argument in Romans.
In Jeremiah’s text, there is a potter who makes a vessel which does not turn out in a way that pleases him. The potter therefore sets the pot aside and makes another. No one would quibble with his right to do so. After all, he is the potter; the pots are mere clay. God is likened to the potter and Israel to the clay pot. When Israel failed to live up to its task, God was free to set Israel aside and to create another vessel to accomplish His purposes.
The right to do this is not based solely on the fact that God is the Creator, the potter. God’s right to do this is based upon a principle governing the way God deals with men—all men. The principle, which is defined in this text from Jeremiah, might be summarized in this way:
God’s promised blessings and judgment depend upon our response to His Word. Those who repent and request God’s mercy will receive it; those who resist and refuse it will be judged.
Israel presumed upon the grace of God. They seem to have forgotten that God’s promised blessings were based upon His grace. When the nation turned from God, it supposed that God owed them His favor. They thought His blessings would flow to them regardless of what they did. They also supposed that God’s wrath was to be poured out on the Gentiles regardless of what they did. In this text, God makes it clear that He pours out His grace on sinners who repent of their sin and call upon Him for mercy. His wrath is poured out on those who resist and refuse His grace and who persist in their sin. His promised blessings therefore flow to those who will receive them, as undeserved favor. His wrath is poured out on the disobedient who wish to live their lives independently of God.
God’s blessings are promised to any sinner who will receive them, as grace and by means of faith. God’s wrath is promised to all who reject His grace. Worked out, this principle explains why God has rejected Israel for a season and why so many Israelites are in unbelief and under divine judgment. This principle also explains how God could, through Jonah, prophesy coming wrath upon the Ninevites and then forgive them when they repented.
God has the right to do as He chooses with men whom He has created. But God’s dealings with men are not capricious. They are based upon those principles which He Himself has declared. The Israelites, who were promised His blessings, are now in unbelief and under divine condemnation. They are so, not because God is arbitrary and unpredictable in His dealing with men, but because He consistently keeps His Word and deals with men in accordance with the principles He has laid down. So too God is presently pouring out His favor on Gentiles because these Gentiles have repented and requested His grace. God is dealing with men in accordance with the principles given by Him in His Word.
While Romans 9 has a strong emphasis on the sovereignty of God, as implemented through divine election, it does not ignore the doctrine of human responsibility which will be much more fully developed in chapters 10 and 11. If the objector who raised the question in verse 19 were to study Jeremiah 18, he would understand why God deals with Israel (and with mankind in general) as He does. God’s sovereignty does not rule out man’s responsibility. God is sovereign, and man is responsible. The two truths are compatible. The premise of the objector (If God is sovereign, man is not responsible) is incorrect.
The doctrine of election is spelled out in broader terms in verses 21 and 22. These individuals (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh) are not exceptions; they are examples. They illustrate the principle of divine election, a principle which extends and applies to every human being. Ultimately there are only two categories, only two destinies: By divine choice, a man is either a “vessel of wrath” or a “vessel of mercy.”
Notice that Paul’s statements in these two verses are posed as questions. They are not statements, per se, but questions. These questions seek to put the questioner in his place, or rather, to remind the questioner of what his place is. God is the potter; we are the clay. The clay does not have the right to question the potter.
As I understand these verses, Paul is refusing to explain God’s actions and is rebuking the questioner for raising the question. It is not that Paul has no answer. Man is eternally condemned, not only because God has not chosen him (Romans 9), but because he has not chosen God (chapter 10). God’s sovereignty is so great that He can allow men to make choices and still be in complete control. When we make our choice, we are responsible for that choice. We dare not seek to blame God for our sin or for the judgment which it brings on us. When we choose to sin, the “Devil did not make us sin,” and neither did God (see James 1:13-15). When all other explanations are set aside—indeed, even if there were no other explanation for divine election—God is God, and therefore He can do as He chooses with those whom He created, for His glory and for His purposes. God did not create men so that He might serve our purposes, but that we might serve His purposes.
Verse 23 puts this whole matter of “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy” into perspective. Verse 22 speaks of God as enduring with much patience the “vessels of wrath” which He has created. Why does God let the wicked go unpunished so long? Why does God not deal more quickly with the wicked? This divine delay in judging sinners is often the source of great agony to the true believer (see Psalm 73, for example). Paul gives us one answer to this question: God’s delay in judging sinners is for the benefit of the elect.241 Both the glory of God and the judgment of God are future events. God has chosen to delay judging sinners because, as I understand it, this is a part of the revelation of His glory. God is therefore glorified not only by the salvation of the elect but by the condemnation of the non-elect.
Some Christians seem to think God is glorified only by the salvation of sinners. This is not the case. God is equally glorified by the condemnation of sinners. Moses and the exodus of Israel from Egypt glorified God. Pharaoh’s hardened heart and his resistance against God and His people also glorified God. All of God’s creation will ultimately bring glory to Him. The ultimate question is not whether God will receive glory. The ultimate question for you is whether He will be glorified by your salvation or by your condemnation. God has nothing to lose and everything to gain. You have everything to lose or everything to gain.
The principle laid down by Jeremiah still holds today. God has promised to forgive and to bless those sinners who repent and who will receive His mercy. God has promised to judge those who resist and reject His grace. Will you cry out for His grace and be saved?
There are many who misapply the doctrine of election. They reason something like this:
“Either God has chosen to save me, or He has chosen to reject Me. It really doesn’t matter what I do; it only matters what God has chosen to do.”
If you put the blame on God for your condemnation, you are responding to God in the same way as the questioner in verse 19. And Paul’s rebuke to him rightly applies to you. The offer of salvation has been given. Those who receive Christ by faith will be saved. Those who reject Him will be condemned. What is your choice?
One of the key words in our passage is the word “mercy.” In tracking the use of this word in the New Testament, I learned something very significant: No one ever called upon our Lord for mercy and was turned away.242 No one ever came to our Lord and asked for mercy and received a response like: “Well, you are not one of the elect. I’m sorry, you’ll have to go away.” Every individual who asked Jesus for mercy in the gospels received it. Those who spurned His grace were condemned.
The doctrine of election is true. It is vitally important. But the doctrine of election is not brought up by Paul until Romans 9. It is a doctrine every Christian needs to understand. It is not a doctrine every unbeliever needs to know. Unbelievers need to know that they are sinners and that the wrath of God awaits them. They need to know that God has provided a way of escaping His wrath and of entering into His promised blessings. That “way” is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). No one comes to the Father except through Jesus Christ. By His death, Jesus suffered God’s wrath on the sinner. By His life, you can be given new life. Receive this gift. Call upon Him for mercy, and He will forgive; He will save.
There is only one instance in the gospels when a request for mercy was made and denied. It is so important I want to remind you of it:
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:19-31, emphasis mine).
When the day of judgment has come or when the day of our death comes, there will no longer be an opportunity for mercy. The time when God’s mercy is extended to sinners is now. The day of judgment rapidly approaches. Do not delay, my friend. Plead for mercy, and He will grant it. God’s justice will be executed. We must not doubt this. God’s mercy is now offered. Take it, today.
Allow me to conclude this message with a final thought to ponder. The doctrine of election is not obscure; it is not hard to prove. It is only hard, for some, to accept. Those who may be predisposed to reject divine election would like us to think that this doctrine is not taught in the Bible. In our text, it is taught clearly, emphatically, categorically, repeatedly. If men reject this doctrine, it is not because it is not taught in the Bible, but because men will not accept it. Nothing is clearer in our text: the sovereign God chooses some and rejects others, and He does so in a way that reflects His sovereignty and preserves man’s responsibility.
230 In short, the doctrine of election is the teaching of the Bible that God chooses to save some men from their sins and to allow others to face the condemnation which their sins deserve. The doctrine of election focuses on the divine side of salvation. It is two-sided, in that God both chooses whom He will save and whom He will condemn.
231 The question raised in verse 19 is answered with a barrage of questions from Paul. Those who genuinely seek to know and to obey God have many (not all) of their questions answered. Those who do not merely end up with a longer list of unanswered questions. Jesus often answered the questions of his opponents with one or more questions (see, for example, Matthew 21:23-32).
232 This does not mean, however, that we can explain every difficulty to our satisfaction. In some cases we must simply accept the truths which are taught, even though we may find it impossible to completely harmonize them with other truths. The sovereignty of God must be accepted, along with the doctrine of human responsibility. The deity of our Lord Jesus Christ must be accepted, along with the doctrine of His humanity. How the two blend together may be a mystery, but both truths are clearly taught in Scripture and must therefore be accepted as true.
237 We should recall from the account of Moses in Exodus that Moses was taken into the household of Pharaoh and made a member of Pharaoh’s family. For all intents and purposes, Moses could have been Pharaoh (see Hebrews 11:24-26).
241 It is interesting to look at the context of Exodus 9:16, which Paul has cited above. In verses 15 and 16, we find these words which agree with the point being made here in verse 23: “For if by now I had put forth My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, you would then have been cut off from the earth. But, indeed, for this cause I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power, and in order to proclaim My name through all the earth” (Exodus 9:15-16).