Romans 9:14-33- The Israel of God
Explanation- ‘What shall we say then,’ Paul begins, ‘Is there injustice on God’s part?’ God forbid! God’s mercies have always been extended to those whom He wills. A man’s will or the exertion that he puts forth is nothing in the face of God’s sovereign choosing. Paul then looks to the example of Pharaoh to further solidify this point. Pharaoh was raised up for the purpose of displaying God’s power and might to both Israel and the Egyptian people. This Pharaoh, who regarded himself as a god among men, was brought to nothing in the sight of Yahweh and these people. There is a divine mystery present here in that we read several times of Pharaoh hardening his heart toward God’s word, and several times where it is said that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. So then, who ultimately hardened Pharaoh’s heart? In light of Romans nine, God is the one who ultimately hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to display His power. Certainly, Pharaoh had the responsibility to adhere to God’s word, and he is, therefore, without excuse before God. But in the end, it was God who raised Pharaoh up for this very purpose.
Paul then predicts the question that will inevitably arise from this case that he is making. That is, how does God find fault in those whom he hardens? If they are just doing what they have been ‘programmed’ to do, then how can there be responsibility on the individual’s part? Paul answers in the best way possible. He says,
‘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?” 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?’ (v. 20-21)
When dealing with God, we must always remember that God is God, and we are not. Job found this out when he questioned God in the midst of his sufferings. He sought an audience with the Holy One so that he may plead his case. Incredibly, God did show up, but not in the way that Job expected He would. God says to Job in chapter 38, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’ (Job 38:2). It is then that God presents Job with a series of rhetorical questions that remind him of this very principle, namely that God is God and Job is not. Paul approaches the topic of election in a similar manner. ‘Who are you, O man?’ God is God, and you are not! The metaphor concerning the potter and the clay is an excellent portrayal of what is happening here. Just picture a lump of clay saying to its molder that he is wrong in his design. ‘I wanted to be a vase,’ declares the clay to the potter when formed into a wastebasket. Can you imagine such a scene? Is this not how we approach God when we question His sovereign choice? Rather than clay, I have often viewed all of creation as a master narrative with God as its author (it is HIStory after all). He has written all of the characters into the story with specific purposes, much like C.S. Lewis wrote the characters of Narnia into their proper place. As an author, C.S. Lewis retains total creative control over the characters of his story; similarly, God retains creative control over His. Yet God retains control for a greater purpose than Lewis does. While Lewis seeks to entertain an audience, God seeks to display His power. Paul says that it is through election that God places the severity of His wrath on display and demonstrates His power. How else would the elect of God experience this aspect of God without those vessels fitted for destruction? Can an object whose purpose is to receive mercy from God ever come to know God’s wrath apart from witnessing its expression on an external party? We now see why this is a controversial doctrine, indeed! Yet the Bible speaks of God’s election, so it is a concept that we must come to terms with.
In the direct context, Paul is seeking to express the election that has taken place concerning the nation of Israel. This Israel, whom Yahweh betrothed in the wilderness, has been ‘cast away,’ in a sense, and salvation has come to the Gentile peoples. Truth be told, this is not a new concept in terms of redemptive history, for God spoke through the prophets of old that there would come a day when this very thing would happen. This takes us back to the foundational principle that not all of Israel is truly Israel. There has always been an elect remnant existing within the nation Israel that was the true people of God. This concept is just now more fully on display because of the massive conversion of Gentile converts under the New Covenant.
Paul also explains how human responsibility plays into Israel’s hardening. The Jews sought to please God through their many works and pious behavior, yet God is not pleased with any of these things in themselves. The righteous life has always been one lived in faith before God. This is why the Gentiles, who have received righteousness through faith, are being saved. There is no amount of work that can be done to ensure salvation, and so far in the epistle to the Romans, Paul has explained that quite effectively. Man must approach God in faith, and then good works will follow.
Application- As already stated, the doctrine of election is a heavily debated theme, and there are even those who would accuse God of evil for exercising election in His rulership. In light of this, it is good to be met with Paul’s words frequently, ‘Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’ Paul anticipated that this would be an issue among some and answered their question before it was even asked. In reality, we have absolutely no right to question God about anything that He does. He is the earth’s creator and sustainer, and He governs all things according to His perfect will. Certainly, there is a place to ask God ‘why?’ in the midst of certain forms of suffering, but it should never be done in a way that takes from God His authority to do as He pleases. We must approach God reverently and not as a disgruntled employee seeking to give his employer a ‘piece of his mind.’ There must be an absolute trust that all things are working together toward a good and perfect purpose. God has promised that is so. So when we approach the doctrine of election, we must do so with the understanding that God is God and we are not. Coming to Him in any other way is ultimately a form of seeking to dethrone His wisdom and place our own on the throne instead.