A Look at Romans 9- Part 3

What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.” 16So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

Paul now reverts to a writing form popular in his time called a diatribe. In other words he uses an imaginary dialogue to express his thoughts. He had just finished arguing that it is God who chooses who will be His people and furthers this argument by introducing the imaginary objector to the text to pursue his argumentation in the form of this dialogue.  The questions Paul presents through this objector would not have been new to Paul since in all likelihood he would have dealt with these forms of arguments in his ministry. Professor Moo writes

Indeed, these questions state the inevitable human response to an insistence on the sovereignty of God in salvation: if God decides apart from anything in the human being whom he will choose and whom he will reject (v.13), how can he still be “righteous” (v.14)- and how can he blame people if they reject him (v.19)?[i]

The question Paul is dealing with is: does choosing or rejecting individuals apart from their own merit or even faith attribute injustice on God’s part? How can God be a just God if this is the case? Isn’t this unfair? Paul rejects this notion outright by stating “by no means” or “may it never be”. V.15 then explains why it can never be that there is injustice on God’s part. Paul begins by showing he is not going to ignore this offensive charge. Paul defends his objection to this allegation by quoting the words of Jehovah in Exodus 33:19. In this Paul is looking back at when Moses had requested a glimpse of God’s glory and Jehovah replied by causing all His goodness to pass by Moses. This act was to proclaim His name YHWH. The section quoted shows that God is free to show mercy to whom He chooses. This is a fundamental right that God had to reveal to Moses if He desired. I would argue that this is, once again, a principle based upon the OT.  God is free to have mercy or to harden anyone He pleases and there is nothing man can say about it!  Those who hold to God having to offer salvation equally to all men never take into consideration that God has a right to choose with whom He will spend eternity. Paul then continues with v.16 by stating: So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy which is ushered in to finalize his argument in defending the justice of God.  The term “it” in the phrase it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy has been a contested term to which some have attributed all sorts of interesting interpretations. Many have argued that it is most likely salvation or election which, to my understanding, is true but I feel the stronger understanding would be derived from what was just said. In other words, the “it” is probably linked to God having mercy on whom He wills.

Our friends who hold to Corporate Election argue that the mercy is speaking merely of God’s choosing a people or nation for roles and privileges. In other words some have put forward the claim that this text is speaking of roles. The hardening is seen as merely God preventing some nations or individuals from understanding His works or message in order to fulfil His plan. So, in other words, it isn’t speaking of individual destinies at all. Some are used in a positive sense in God’s plan (mercy) while others are not (hardening). This is, once again, not a convincing argument since God’s choosing is applied to salvation (9:3, 6a, 22-24). The mercy is from God and not from man’s will or man’s efforts.  This text is related to vs. 22-23 where the vessels of mercy are destined for glory while those of wrath are destined for destruction. Whether we like it or not, the term ‘harden” is used consistently of people not responding or disobeying God rather than merely God withholding information from nations.

Hardening of Pharaoh

17For 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.” 18So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. 19

The next portion I want to address is the hardening of Pharaoh which relates back to the freedom of God and furthers the argumentation we just saw. We see that vs. 15-16 are the positive explanation of God’s election and now in vs.17-18 Paul presents the negative side of the issue. It must be clearly recognized that the term “hardening” is put there to oppose the term “mercy” and to give it meaning. To ignore this fact will turn the entire passage on its head. So in opposition to God having mercy on whom He wills where the example of Moses is used, God also hardens whom He wills. Paul illustrates this by bringing in Jehovah’s use of Pharaoh. It must be recognized that God had “raised up” or “appointed” the hardening of Pharaoh for a purpose. The purpose was to bring glory to Himself and to make His name known! Remember, everything from the plagues to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army to the liberation of the Hebrew people was due to Pharaoh’s hardened heart so that Jehovah could show His power and proclaim His name. Much like the mercy not being based upon anything in the individual, the hardening is logically seen in this way as well! Is it possible for God to use a king by purposing his destruction to bring about His glory? Seemingly this is the very issue we are addressing in this text.

It should be noted that the argument for the raising of Pharaoh is oftentimes linked to the national purposes. In other words Pharaoh is seen as representative of Egypt as a nation. It would be difficult to prove this seeing that it is clearly stated in Exodus 4-14 that it was the ruler of Egypt (not Egypt) that was hardened. Of course, this is not the only counterargument to my understanding of this text against my position. It is also argued that Pharaoh hardened his own heart and that God merely used Pharaoh’s hardening to show His power.  Dr. Norman Geisler writes:

The scripture makes it very clear that Pharaoh hardened his own heart…while it is true that God predicted in advance that it would happen (Ex. 4:12), nonetheless the fact is that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first (7:13; 8:15 ect), and God only hardened it later (9:12; 10:1, 20,27)[ii]

This is an interesting argument however I feel it falls short when we examine v.18. The verse says that GOD HARDENS WHOM HE DESIRES. Paul’s whole argument flows very well when we allow God His sovereign choice in whom would be His people. God said long before Pharaoh hardened his heart that He would harden him (see Exodus 4:21 & 7:31) and this was more than God merely passing by and allowing Pharaoh to harden his own heart. Paul argues that Pharaoh was raised up for this very purpose to demonstrate God’s wrath. The question that I needed to ask myself in the case of this ruler of Egypt is could Pharaoh have not hardened his heart? Could he have just let the people go and thwarted God’s purposes in glorifying Himself? There is an action being done here by the Lord! Besides, how does saying that Pharaoh hardening his own heart link together with the accusation of God being unjust?

Paul begin v.19 from the standpoint of the imaginary objector who asks several questions including Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will to which Paul then answers with rhetorical questions of his own. What is amazing about the first question asked by the imaginary objector is that it is a very natural objection to the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. How can God still find fault with people if He’s the one who hardens them? The term “fault”[iii] should be enough to convince us that Paul is speaking here of salvation. The term speaks of transgression or an offence! He is obviously speaking of eternal destinies here when we look at the entire argument in vs. 22-23 If hardness and mercy are not based upon man’s willing or running but God then why in the world does He still find fault in men for their hardness? Nobody resists God almighty! The most common objection raised by people who deny unconditional election is that it undermined responsibility and fairness. What should be noted clearly is that Paul is going to argue otherwise! Notice that Paul nowhere mentions faith or works here as the basis of God’s hardening.

The Potter’s right

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20On 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? 21Or 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? 22What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory,

Paul continues in v.20-21 with developing his first question. The following question “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” is set forward to demonstrate the utter difference between God and man. His answer is a quotation from Isaiah 29:16 with the purposeto clearly articulate that man is subordinate to God. God has a right as creator which is one of total ownership to use His creation as He wills. It is much like the potter who used the pot he moulded as He pleases. J. Piper writes:

It behoves every great artist to demonstrate in the variety of his work the full range of his skill and power. And, according to Paul, it is God’s right and his great desire to manifest the full range of his character in the things that he does. This includes wrath and tremendous power in its execution. [iv]

The potter makes different types of vessels in all shapes and sizes for different purposes. The image of the potter was nothing new to the recipients of the letter seeing it has widespread usage throughout the OT. (Isaiah 29:16; 45:9; 64:7 Job 10:9; 38:14; Jeremiah 18:1-6) The corporate view seems to state this is still a nationalistic/corporate reference to roles. They argue that the texts quoted are from Isaiah 45:9-11 and Jeremiah 18:1-6 which is speaking of Israel. Paul doesn’t seem to be arguing as much or at least in a primary sense on those texts but it seemingly referencing Isaiah 29:15-16:

Woe to those who deeply hide their plans from the LORD, And whose deeds are done in a dark place, And they say, “Who sees us?” or “Who knows us?”
16You turn things around! Shall the potter be considered as equal with the clay, That what is made would say to its maker, “He did not make me”; Or what is formed say to him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

The portion of this text in Isaiah is not speaking of Israel as a whole but of men within Israel (individuals) who were “proud men, who claim so much power to themselves that they cannot endure the authority of God, and entertain a false opinion about themselves, which leads them to despise all exhortations, as if they had been gods.[v] Once again this is Paul using the OT texts to demonstrate a principle which he brings into the new to rectify the problem of vs. 1-5.

Vs 22-23 demonstrate the utter contrast between the vessels of honour and those of dishonour.  Paul argues that God has withheld His wrath upon those prepared for destruction so that He could demonstrate His righteous judgment upon them. Once again there is an action on God’s part which leads to the fulfilment of His purposes. The ultimate purpose however is that He might show His mercies to those prepared for glory. We cannot truly appreciate mercy unless there is wrath in the same way we cannot truly understand the kindness if we’ve never experienced a lack of empathy. It has been argued by a few that mercy doesn’t necessarily equate to salvation however Paul seemingly saw them as synonymous if we examine his usage elsewhere. These texts are very similar to what we saw in Romans 8:29: For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren and the language seems quite clear that God had “prepared” both these groups beforehand which is certainly similar to the thought of predestination.

When we reach the idea of the vessels of glory and the vessels of wrath; it is argued that since the Old Testament used these texts as referring to Israel as a nation then it can’t be speaking of individuals. The argument labels these texts as being parallel to the texts found in 2 Timothy 2:20.

Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. 21Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.

As we can see Paul uses similar terminology in these texts hence the Corporate election promoters argue that God uses nations or people in either a negative or positive role or for diverse works. Some of those roles are of gold and silver while the negative are of wood and earthware. The problem with using this interpretation in Romans 9 is how do we apply this to the problem of unbelieving Jews who are cut off from Christ? How does God using negative roles vs. Positive roles account for the anguish Paul is experiencing? The whole point of the text in Romans 9:20-21 is to demonstrate God as creator. Paul uses the verb “plasso” to demonstrate creatorship as to mold, as with clay or wax from which the aorist active participle used here (toi plasanti) comes. It is a familiar idea in the Old Testament, the absolute power of God as creator like the potter’s use of the clay.[vi] Paul defines that the vessels of honour are bound for glory while those for dishonour are prepared for wrath not different types of works.  Even though I can see a parallel in the language I can also see a very distinct usage within their respective contexts.

It is the Lord’s right as creator of all things to use His creation as He sees fit to bring glory unto Himself by demonstrating His mercy on some and His wrath on others.  He owes nothing to us since it would have been right for the Lord to have used us all as vessels of dishonour but the Lord chose to be merciful to some sinners in a way that was different than others. Who are we to talk back to God if He sees fit to do so?


[i] The Epistle to the Romans: NICNT, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans, Page 590

[ii] Chosen but Free, Norman Geisler, Bethany House, Pag 90

[iii] The term used here is memphetai which is also used in Hebrews 8:8

[iv] The Justification of God, 2nd ed., John Piper, Baker books, Page 187

[v] Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 7, John Calvin, Baker Books, Page 329-330

[vi] Word Pictures in the New Testament, A.T. Robertson, Broadman, Page 384

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