This week our L3 Journal reading plan takes us through a passage of scripture that can be difficult to understand and potentially difficult to swallow.
Romans 9:13 - "As it is written, 'Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'"
Romans 9:17 "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.'"
Romans 9:21-22 - "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction..."
These verses trigger all the churchy buzzwords of election, foreknowledge, predestination, hardening and will; however, we will be best served framing the argument as Paul, the author of Romans, frames it. The question does not revolve around salvation history, but it revolves around God.
What do we believe about God?
When the question first comes up about choice, Paul responds with verse 14: "What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means!"
For Paul, the argument begins not with fairness, but with whether or not God is just. We would absolutely affirm the righteousness of God.
Exodus 34:6-7 - "The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 'The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation.'"
Romans 3:24-26 - "and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus."
These passages illustrate the holiness of God who does not overlook sin, but has provided a way out for sinners through the cross of Jesus Christ. To this point there is probably very little confusion, but the point we need to take away is huge. God is a holy (set apart), righteous, just God who exemplifies all of these attributes in every action, judgment, and revelation. Every movement of our God toward man in human history exemplifies His justice, His righteousness, and His holiness.
The question then becomes, how do we explain the tension that we feel when we look at passages of Scripture that we would view as unjust (remember the claim Paul is refuting in Romans 9:14)?
To answer this question is in many ways to not answer the question. Isaiah 55:8-9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." The reality is that when we feel tension in Scripture, we must rely on the truths about God that we know. We know that God is good. We know that He is holy, righteous, and just. We know that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.
A.W. Tozer says it this way in his highly recommended work, The Knowledge of the Holy, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." In other words in will define how we view the world, the Scriptures and God's actions. We must believe rightly about God and that will help us when the Scriptures cause tension.
What do we believe about the sinfulness of man?
Well, this section is much shorter.
Romans 3:10 - "as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one...'"
Romans 3:23 - "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..."
Romans 6:23 - "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
So, when it comes to how we stand before a holy God, every human is guilty and deserving of the ultimate penalty of death and separation from God.
How does all this fit together to help me understand what is going on in Romans 9:11-23?
We now have a clear lens to look through. God is holy, righteous, and just in every action. Humanity is wickedly depraved and sinful, deserving of death. God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.
It is impossible for humanity to earn salvation. That is clear in Romans 9:15-16: "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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. Our salvation, the fact that our eyes have been opened to see Jesus, has nothing to do with our goodness, but on the mercy and compassion of God alone. To this end, when it comes to salvation, God is seen as just and the justifier of all who believe, and is seen as lovely.
But what about the rest? What about those whose hearts have been hardened? What about those who are unable to resist his will (verse 19) and are vessels of wrath prepared for destruction and dishonorable use? There is not a great answer except to quote Paul in Romans 9:20, "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me like this?'"
His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. In the end it really does not do any good to look at the Potter and say that He made a mistake. God is at work to make His power known (verse 9:22) and to "make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory." His eternal purposes might not make sense in our 21st-century American culture of fairness, but to be fair, He tells us as much when He says as the heavens are high above the earth so is the difference between His ways and thoughts and ours.
So what do I do with this?
If you have been made to see Jesus and trust in His name and work, you owe Him everything. From the depths of gratitude for being a vessel of mercy to the heights of obedience in proclaiming His truth to a world who desperately needs Him.
People mistake the doctrine of divine election as an excuse to be selfish with the gospel. This, however, could not be further from the call of God on our lives. Eventually Paul gets to Romans 10:13-15, "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'"
His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Here again is tension. Salvation is the work of God, but He includes human responsibility not only in the believing, but also in the sending. If you are a child of God, who has been blessed with the free gift of salvation that we could not earn, it is our divine obligation to advance the kingdom of God by making disciples of Jesus Christ.
FBC Family Pastor