Romans (Part 30) - God's Desire to Display His Wrath (9:13–33)
Romans 9:14 through 29 discusses God’s justice in his election. We must be careful to remember that the election spoken of here is not the choosing of individuals for heaven or hell. Paul has been discussing God’s interaction with humanity—especially through Israel—to bring about his redemption plan. Therefore, the choosing has to do with those who will, in God’s coordination, best bring about his purpose, and it includes such diversity as Isaac, Jacob, and even (as we will see in the second half of Romans 9) Pharaoh.
After having just insisted in verses 12 and 13 that the choice of Jacob over Esau was prior to birth, demonstrating that God’s choices are not payback for good behavior, Paul suggests that this idea may lead some to think that God chooses capriciously. After all, if it is not Jacob’s doing good that conditions his election, is it that God chooses people based on an “eeny-meeny-miny-moe” approach? Is he choosing by whim without basis? Paul frames the question as wondering if there is, therefore, injustice with God’s election. But Paul immediately responds, “Absolutely not!” (9:14). And as support for his answer, Paul points to God telling Moses, “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (9:15). Now if all we understood from God’s conversation with Moses were these two sentences, we would be left wondering why Moses would use them to counter a charge of injustice. By themselves these lines appear to prove the opposite—that God indeed does choose without basis.
But in our last session, we took a look at Exodus 33 where God spoke those lines to Moses. There we found that God had blessed Moses because of his faith response to God’s revelation. But importantly, Moses had implored God to go with the Israelites, leading them to the Promised Land. Moses’s basis for his request was because they were God’s people, and as God’s people, they needed his continued revelation of himself with them having the opportunity to respond in faith so that relationship could grow. In other words, Moses appealed to God on behalf of God’s purpose for continuing his redemption plan for the purpose of relationship. And it was in answer to that appeal that God said he would go with them and have mercy on the people even though they did not deserve it, having just sinned horribly against him in the golden calf episode. Therefore, the statement God makes of having mercy on whom he will is not by unconditional whim but rather that his mercy will flow out to the good and to the bad, depending on how his purposed plan for redemption may best be developed.
Paul further insists in verse 16, based on this attitude and action by God, that all events and achievements in this world come about—not based on human will and drive and individual aspiration—but rather by God who coordinates all for his redemptive purpose. As proof, Paul holds up Pharaoh as an example. Pharaoh cared nothing for God. Yet, Pharaoh achieved the highest rank in Egypt, controlling that whole part of the world. Was it Pharaoh’s ambition and abilities that forced his rise? No, Paul argues, it was God who chose to bless Pharaoh, giving him position through his own mercy, but for a specific purpose, as Paul points out in verse 17. And that purpose was for the further coordination of events that would continue his redemptive plan.
So Paul argues that both God’s mercy and hardening (which God applied to Pharaoh in turn) came according to God’s control. Mercy, the giving of blessing, came as God’s expression of truth, goodness, and beauty. Hardening, the withholding of blessing, came with God’s withdrawal of truth, goodness, and beauty. Thus, the movement by God can be said to cause hardening, while it involves the individual’s attitude of rejection of God’s TGB at the same time that hardens him or herself.
Having established that God chooses based on his purpose for coordinating his redemption plan, Paul asks why God would still find a person guilty of sin if in God’s coordination, the accomplished action was exactly what God had wanted to occur. In other words, if God coordinates events for people to act a certain way, why does he find fault with them when they act that certain way? They have, in effect, performed his will? And Paul’s immediate answer is, “Don’t question God.”
That answer is not the in-your-face order to shut up that it may sound like. The statement provides the platform of Paul’s further answer using the potter analogy. Several passages in Isaiah refer to the potter and his fashioning work. In Isaiah 29 the emphasis is that the potter knows the clay intricately well, teaching that God knows us intricately well. In Isaiah 45:9, the potter’s purposed design emphasizes that God grooms people for his designed use. And in Isaiah 64:8, as the pot is the work of the potter’s hands, Israel appeals to God to be used as he intended.
But it is probably Jeremiah 18:1–4 that is in Paul’s mind as he gives his Romans 9 instruction. In that scene, the potter is working with some clay, attempting to form it into a jar. But the clay (according to the Hebrew use of the words) would not stand up. In other words, because of something in the clay, the potter could not use it for it original intended purpose and therefore fashioned it for something else. Note that the illustration does not speak of the potter creating the clay. The potter illustration is about the potter fashioning the clay that is there for purpose. While we know that God created, the point of the illustration, therefore, is not to focus on God creating us but rather on how God fashions us for use now in our condition. If we do not respond to God’s leading (for relationship) as the clay fell, God will fashion us for other purpose. The clay has no right to claim the potter should fashion a certain way for a certain purpose because everything is done for the potter’s infinitely wise purpose. We as individuals have no right to direct God in his coordination of events for his purpose.
The coordination by God is, of course, done as Romans 8:28 tells us—for the good purpose of God in which those who love God and are called by him rejoice in trust of his coordinating activity. And God will mold people based on who they are relative to this life. By that I mean that life—which is defined as relationship with God—is purposed by God. The rejecter of God cannot dismiss God’s intrusion into “his” or “her” life. Life has no meaning apart from relationship with God. And God so designs this life for relationship for the glory of his truth, goodness, and beauty.
So, Paul is right—don’t question God about finding fault. God’s uses the rejecting, evil desires of certain people to accomplish the greatest good in relationship for those who trust in him. And that is the point of the next two verses (22 and 23). Verse 22 tells us that although God, in his truth, goodness, and beauty, would want to destroy the evil ones (like Pharaoh), he waits, or endures, their existence (although ready for destruction) for purposes of his plan. And his plan, verse 23 tells us, is of providing overflow of blessing to those who will have everlasting relationship with him. Those whom he has prepared beforehand by the coordination of events and activity to produce his redemption plan.
Paul further points out that those on whom the blessing of relationship will come are again not by physical descent but of both Jews and Gentiles whom God has called through his foreknowledge and predestined to be conformed to Christ in perfect, sinless resurrected glory.
Paul seals his discussion with illustrations. His first is from Hosea. Hosea was told to name a child Not My People. But in the next verse of Hosea 1, God seems to reverse himself, saying that those who were called Not My People would be called the children of God. How can that be? It is understood only through the imaging of Israel. While the sin or rejection of God separates, the New Covenant of Life through Christ received by faith creates new-life children from the old dying people.
Then Paul mentions Isaiah’s repeated emphasis on the remnant. While the children of Israel (through their dispersion into the world at large) can be as numerous as the sands of the sea, only those (and here we can say—) chosen by God for salvation (on condition of faith) will make up that remnant.
And Israel, left to herself, would have been wiped out even as Sodom and Gomorrah (9:29), but because of God’s redemption plan, which he coordinated and brought to ultimate fulfillment in Christ, offspring to God remain, both in Israel and in the world at large, imaged by Israel.
The next section, verse 30 of chapter 9 through the end of chapter 10, speaks of Israel the nation failing to prevail. Paul begins the section with a contrast. He says that the Gentiles did not pursue righteousness, meaning that they did not attempt to work at righteousness through the Law. And yet they obtained righteousness by their faith in the New Covenant of Life through Christ. Israel, on the other hand, did not attain.
Let’s look at verse 31 more closely to understand it completely. The word-for-word translation of the verse is “Israel but pursuing law of righteousness to law did not arrive.” Israel, therefore, was pursuing the law—the righteous law, but they never attained to the righteousness inherent in that Law because their mindset was that having the Law already made them righteous. Their pursuit, then, was a selfish pursuit based on their own efforts to show righteous status. The arrogance of the Pharisees was precisely because they thought the more they worked at attendance to the Law, the more the tighter they would be with God. But in that self-pursuit of works, they actually never had righteousness—faithfulness to the New Covenant of Life, which is based on faith not Law.