In Romans chapter 9, Paul is answering some objections. First of all — and this objection was unspoken — but it’s clearly in Paul’s mind:
Has God’s word failed? Has God’s word of promise to the Jews failed?
And Paul answered by explaining that national Israel is not the same as spiritual Israel; and not all who are descended physically or biologically from Abraham and Isaac and Jacob are members of God’s true people. And Paul turned to the Scriptures to show us that this has always been the case. Abraham had two children: Ishmael and Isaac. One was chosen, while the other was not. One received God’s covenant promises, while the other did not. And then Isaac and Rebekah had two sons: Jacob and Esau. One was chosen, while the other was not. One received God’s covenant promises, while the other did not. As Paul said: Not all who are descended from the patriarch Israel are Israel. And so, God’s word of promise has not failed, because his promises were made, not to all, but only to some.
That was the first objection. The second is stated in verse 14:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? When God chooses one and not the other, isn’t he being unfair? Isn’t he being unfair when he chooses one and not the other, and especially when that decision is not based on what we have done? Isn’t he being unfair and unjust?
And Paul again turned to the Scriptures to prove that God claims the right to have mercy on whomever he wants and to harden whomever he wants. So, God chose to show mercy to Moses and the people of Israel, but he chose to harden the heart of Pharaoh, so that Pharaoh and his men chased after the Israelites and drowned in the Red Sea. God claims the right to show mercy to whomever he wants and to hardened whomever he wants.
And so, we come to the third objection today. And it’s in verse 19. Paul writes:
One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’
In other words: How can God blame someone like the Pharaoh, when the Pharaoh only did what God decreed he would do? After all, why did the Pharaoh take his men and chase after the Israelites so that they ended up drowning in the Red Sea? Why did he do that? Because God hardened his heart. So, it wasn’t Pharaoh’s fault, was it? Pharaoh wasn’t really responsible for what he did, was he? And when people today refuse to believe the good news, it’s not their fault, is it? After all, the reason they refuse to believe is because God hardened their heart. So, someone says to Paul:
Why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?
That’s the objection. What’s the answer?
Verses 20 and 21
Paul’s answer is remarkable, because, you see, he doesn’t really answer the objection. Instead he says in verse 20:
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?
In other words:
Who do you think you are to think that you can question God?
I was thinking of that scene in the film, Zulu, when all the English soldiers are thinking they’re doing okay. You know, they’re done well so far to defend themselves against the Zulus. While some of the English soldiers have been killed or wounded, many of them are still standing; and perhaps they’ll get out of this alive. But then, they look up, and all around them, lined up across the hills, there are thousands and thousands and thousand of Zulus. And the English realise they haven’t a chance; the Zulus are too strong for them. Well, we humans like to think that we’re strong enough to stand up to God and to shake our fist at him and to question him about what he’s doing. But then, it’s as if he draws himself up to his full height, and we realise that we’re tiny and puny and pathetic compared to him and we can’t possible stand up to him.
Or think about the way things look when you’re in the plane, and it’s coming in to land. And everything below you looks tiny: the cars on the road look like toy cars and the people are just specks. Well, Almighty God looks down from heaven upon us, and we’re just specks to him. There’s that verse in Isaiah 40 about the nations being like a drop from a bucket or like dust on the scales. We’re nothing compared to him. So, who do you think you are, O man, to talk back to God? Paul is saying we all ought to fall silent in the presence of God, and submit ourselves to his will.
And then he goes on to use the picture of a potter who is working with his clay. And he takes half of the clay and he uses it to make some pottery which will be used for a noble purpose. And he takes the other half of the clay and he uses it to make some pottery which will be used for some common purpose. One part is turned into a beautiful vase which is put on display somewhere; and everyone admires it. The other part is used to make a jar where people leave their toothbrush. ‘And you know what?’, says Paul: The potter has the right to do whatever he wants with his clay; and the clay can’t talk back to the potter and say:
What do you think you’re doing?
What’s Paul saying? He’s saying that we can’t talk back to God and say:
What do you think you’re doing with us?
Now, people don’t like this passage in the Bible. In one commentary I have at home, the author says very plainly that this is a bad analogy. And that author refers to a great NT commentator — he doesn’t name him — but a great NT commentator who has said that this is one of the very few passages which we wish Paul had not written.
However, whether we like it or not, this is what Paul wrote. And we believe he wrote it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that Paul’s words are not only his words, but they’re also the very word of God. And so, God’s word put us in our place. It humbles us. We think we can understand God and comprehend him. But Paul says: Who do we think we are?
Now, that’s not to say there’s no answer or that God’s choice to show mercy to one and not to another is arbitrary or random. After all, look what Paul goes on to say. In verses 22 and 23 he shows that God has a reason for doing what he does, and for showing mercy to one and for hardening another. So, let’s look at those two verses now.
Verses 22 and 23
And really what Paul is saying is that God wanted to make three things known. First of all, he wanted to make known his wrath; and secondly, he wanted to make known his power. And he makes known his wrath and his power by being patient towards the objects of his wrath. That’s in verse 22. Then, thirdly, God wanted to make known the riches of his glory to the objects of his mercy. And that’s in verse 23.
So, think of Pharaoh again. God made known his wrath and his power by being patient with him whenever Pharaoh was holding the Israelites captive and refused to let them go. Instead of destroying him immediately, God was patient with him. And that gave God time to show his wrath and power by sending the Ten Plagues and then by allowing the Israelites to go through the Red Sea on dry ground, before ensuring the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea. And everyone who heard of it, heard about God’s wrath on the Egyptians and the great power by which he did all these things. And at the same time, the Israelites rejoiced because they saw the glory of God who was merciful to them and who saved them from their enemies. God hardened the Pharaoh in order to display his wrath and power. And God had mercy on the Israelites in order to display the glory of his mercy. God has a reason for doing what he does.
But, of course, Paul is not only thinking about what happened to the Israelites and to the Egyptians in the days of Moses. He’s thinking about eternal salvation and eternal condemnation. That’s clear from what he says about the objects of his wrath prepared for destruction; and the objects of his mercy whom he prepared in advance for glory. He’s thinking about the glory of heaven and he’s thinking about the destruction of those who are punished forever in hell.
Now, it’s interesting: Paul doesn’t say who prepared the objects of God’s wrath for destruction. Presumably, it’s God himself, because it’s parallel with verse 23 where Paul tells us that God prepared the objects of his mercy for glory. So presumably, just as God prepared the objects of his mercy for glory, he also prepared the objects of his wrath for destruction. But Paul doesn’t say so directly, because the main point Paul is teaching us in this passage is that God’s decision whether to show mercy or whether to harden is not an arbitrary or meaningless decision. There’s a purpose to it. He wants to display his wrath and his power and his glory.
Verses 24 to 29
Let me try to deal with verses 24 to 29 briefly. Verses 24 to 26 refer to God’s mercy, which he has shown, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles, as foretold by God through the prophet Hosea.
And verses 27 and 28 refer to God’s wrath which he poured out on many, if not most, of the Jews. This too was foretold by God, when he promised through the prophet Isaiah that, although the Jews are like the sand on the seashore, too many to count, nevertheless, only a remnant, a small number, will be saved. Has God’s word of promise to the Jews failed? No, because God only promised mercy to some, and not to all.
And then, in verse 29, Paul comes back to God’s mercy. If it were not for God’s mercy, none of the Jews would have been saved. All of Israel would have been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah. But God has been merciful to some and has saved them.
Back in verse 19, Paul raised a common objection:
Why does God still blame us? Who resists his will?
And Paul replied:
Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?
But he didn’t leave it there, because he went on to talk, not only about God’s wrath which is very real, but also about God’s mercy.
Now, here’s the thing. We don’t know in advance who is an object of God’s wrath. We don’t know in advance who is an object of God’s mercy. We don’t know in advance who is prepared for destruction. We don’t know in advance who is prepared for glory. God doesn’t mark us so that we can know in advance who is who. But God has commanded his church to preach the gospel to all. The gospel is to be preached to all; and to all, the church says:
Repent and believe the good news.
To all, the church says:
Whoever repents and believes will be saved.
And even though someone doesn’t immediately believe the gospel, we still have no right to say:
That person is obviously an object of God’s wrath.
We have no right to say that, because who knows? — that person who did not believe immediately might come to faith another day.
So, the gospel is to be preached to all; and while it breaks our hearts that so many refuse to believe, just as it broke Paul’s heart, nevertheless we believe that God is working out his plan, and he knows those whom he has chosen; and he will surely and undoubtedly enable his objects of mercy to believe the good news, so that his church throughout the world will grow, and all those whom God has chosen and whom he has prepared in advance for glory will come to Christ and be united with him through faith.
And, of course, if you want to know what the church has to do so that the objects of God’s mercy will come to faith — and everyone wants to know what the church has to do, and we’re always talking about what the church needs to do — then, you only need to look at Romans 10. And there you’ll read that God sends preachers to preach the good news, because faith comes by hearing.