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Election Texts - Part V

Romans 9:14-23 (1)


“What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 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 does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For 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.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On 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? Or 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? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.”


The structure of Paul's argument is fairly clear. In v. 14 he anticipates an objection to what he has said in vv. 6-13. His response is that, contrary to appearances, God is not unrighteous in making his eternal choices without regard to distinctions in people. He cites two proofs ("for", vv. 15,17), from which he then derives two inferences ("so then", vv. 16,18).


The charge of unrighteousness comes from Paul's assertion in vv. 6-13 that, when God determines who will receive mercy, He does not base his decision on any human distinctives that a person might claim either by birth or effort. The objector evidently believes that a "righteous" God must elect people on the basis of moral distinctives for which they alone are responsible. To determine their eternal destiny independently of their deeds seems both irresponsible and unrighteous. Indeed, some have gone so far as to label the teaching in this text "immoral", and have felt compelled to ascribe the offensive verses to someone other than Paul.


Would this objection ever have been raised and dealt with by Paul at such great length had the issue in view been the historical or earthly status of individuals? The objection, Paul's vehement denial of unrighteousness in God, and his lengthy (vv. 14-23) explanation are intelligible only if eternal salvation and condemnation are at stake.


Paul’s reply is to cite the experience of Moses on Sinai. But how does God's statement to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy" prove that God is not unrighteous in electing unconditionally? In other words, how does this apparent assertion of unconditional election prove unconditional election? The answer is in two parts.


First, the declaration "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" is an example of a Hebrew formula called idem per idem (see also Ex. 4:13; 16:23; 1 Sam. 23:13; 2 Sam. 15:20; 2 Kings 8:1). According to Piper,


"by leaving the action unspecified the force of this idiom is to preserve the freedom of the subject to perform the action in whatever way he pleases. By simply repeating the action without adding any stipulations the idem per idem formula makes clear that the way the action is executed is determined by the will of the subject within the limits of prevailing circumstances. Therefore, when God says, 'I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will be merciful to whom I will be merciful,' he is stressing that there are no stipulations outside his own counsel or will which determine the disposal of his mercy and grace” (Justification of God, 62).


It is somewhat similar to the force of our declaration: "I'm going to do what I'm going to do." I.e., "I intend to accomplish my will, all else notwithstanding."


Second, Exodus 33:19b, from which this declaration comes, is an interpretation or explanation of the essence of God's name and glory (or "goodness") referred to in Exodus 33:19a (cf. Ex. 34:6-7). The divine words "I will be gracious/merciful . . ." in Ex. 33:19 are thus


"a manifestation of God's glory (33:18), a 'passing by' of his goodness and a proclamation of his name. Thus God's glory and his name consist fundamentally in his propensity to show mercy and his sovereign freedom in its distribution. Or, to put it more precisely still, it is the glory of God and his essential nature mainly to dispense mercy (but also wrath, Ex. 34:7) on whomever he pleases apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. This is the essence of what it means to be God” (Justification of God, 100).


Exodus 33:19 is not merely a description of the way God treated Moses or even of how he treats Israel. "Rather it is a solemn declaration of the nature of God, or (which is the same thing), a proclamation of his name and glory” (Justification of God, 67). To show mercy independently of external constraints or conditions is what it means to be God! Therefore,


"since God's righteousness consists basically in his acting unswervingly for his own glory, and since his glory consists basically in his sovereign freedom in the bestowal and withholding of mercy, there is no unrighteousness with God (Rom. 9:11f.). On the contrary, he must [emphasis mine] pursue his 'electing purpose' apart from man's 'willing and running,' for only in his sovereign, free bestowal of mercy on whomever he wills is God acting out of a full allegiance to his name and esteem for his glory" (101).


The implied subject of the sentence in v. 16 ("it", NASB) is God's bestowal of mercy (v. 15) or his "electing choice" (v. 11). In other words, God's bestowal of saving mercy is not determined by the willing or running of man. Verse 16 is thus a heightened repetition of v. 11. The "works" of v. 11 = the "willing" and "running" of v. 16. His point couldn't be more pointed! Nothing man does, whether "good or bad" (v. 11), has any influence on God's decision to bestow or withhold mercy. God's will to show mercy is determined solely by God's will.


Paul does not permit us to find its cause in anything other than God himself. Moo contends that human "willing" denotes "one's inner desire, purpose, or readiness to do something" whereas the "running" points to "the actual execution of that desire. Together, then, they 'sum up the totality of man's capacity’” (593).


Paul now turns to his second illustration: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. We should begin by noting that God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart is not simply a judicial response to Pharaoh's self-hardening. Many contend that Pharaoh first freely hardened his own heart and only then, as an act of judgment, did God harden his heart as well. This is based on the fact that in Exodus 8:15 and 8:32 it is said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart but not until 9:12 does it say that God hardened it.


But clearly the hardening in 8:15 and 8:32 is simply the fulfillment of what God predicted he would do in Exodus 4:21 - "And the Lord said to Moses, 'When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go." Pharaoh's resistance to God's command in Exod. 5:2 is clearly the work of God as Exod. 5:22-23 declares. Again, in 7:13 Pharaoh's heart was hardened, "as the Lord had said," that is, in fulfillment of the prediction in 7:3-4 that God would harden his heart. Thus those texts which say Pharaoh's heart was hardened and those which say Pharaoh hardened his own heart are simply fulfillments of God's declaration in 4:21 and 7:3 of what He (God) would do.


The purpose for God's hardening Pharaoh's heart is stated in Exod. 7:3-5 - ". . . in order that I may multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt." Again, in 14:3-4, God hardens Pharaoh's heart in order that He (God) might "be honored through Pharaoh". In other words, God's intention in hardening Pharaoh's heart was so there might be an extended occasion for the multiplication of God's signs and wonders. In this way the name of God would be exalted, proclaimed, and magnified all the more.


Paul's point in citing both Exod. 33:19 and Exod. 9:16 is to prove that there is no unrighteousness in God when he bestows mercy on some (e.g., Jacob) but hardens and rejects others (e.g., Esau and Pharaoh).


It wasn't the willing, running, or works of anyone, whether Jacob, Esau, Moses, or Pharaoh, that determined God's decision to be either merciful or just. It was wholly and solely based on the sovereign good pleasure of God himself.


In v. 18a Paul restates what he said in v. 16, namely, that God sovereignly bestows or withholds mercy on whom he wills unconditionally, i.e., without regard to any supposed conditions fulfilled by fallen men and women. If we would but acknowledge that no one deserves mercy, perhaps we would cease demanding it. In other words, the person who objects to God's judgment is the person who has presumed upon his grace. We regard God's unconditional sovereignty in the bestowal of saving mercy to be unrighteous only because we conveniently forget that the only thing any human being deserves is eternal death.


One final observation is in order. Once again, some persist in arguing that Paul's reference to "hardening" here pertains not to salvation or eternal destiny but to one's role or place in the historical process. In addition to the multitude of arguments already cited as to why that cannot be the case, Moo writes this:


"First, structural and linguistic considerations show that v. 18 is closely related to vv. 22-23, where the 'vessels of mercy, destined to glory' are contrasted with 'vessels of wrath, prepared for destruction.' As God's mercy leads to the enjoyment of glory, God's hardening brings wrath and destruction. Second, the word group 'harden' is consistently used in Scripture to depict a spiritual condition that renders one unreceptive and disobedient to God and his word. Third, while the Greek word is a different one, most scholars recognize that Paul's references to Israel's 'hardening' in Rom. 11:7 and 25 are parallel to the hardening here. Yet the hardening in Rom. 11 is a condition that excludes people from salvation. Fourth, it is even possible that the references to Pharaoh's hardening in Exodus carry implications for his own spiritual state and destiny” (596-97).


The first objection (vv. 14-18) Paul answered was the charge that his doctrine of election renders God unrighteous. The second objection (vv. 19-23) is not dissimilar: God is unfair!


Once again Paul anticipates the objection of a hypothetical adversary. He knows what people are thinking. In v. 18b he asserted that God may, in the pursuit of his eternal purpose, sovereignly harden the human heart. In the case of Pharaoh, God rendered him insensible to the divine command in order to provide for himself a platform or occasion on which he might display his power and mercy. When God chooses either to soften the heart by his mercy or harden it by his judgment, it is without regard to any human willing or running (v. 16). At first glance, the objection seems reasonable.


If a person's hardness of heart is the work of a sovereign God, it is unrighteous and unfair for God to condemn the individual or to hold them accountable for their resistance to his commands. Whereas someone such as Pharaoh might resist God's will of precept (or command), in doing so he is in fact fulfilling God's will of purpose (or decree) Therefore, since no one can successfully resist the will of God's eternal and decretive purpose, it is wrong for God to find fault with their behavior. In other words, if God hardens the human heart, on what basis does He still hold the person morally accountable for his sin?


If we are to understand the objection and Paul's answer, we must first observe the distinction between God's preceptive will and his decretive will.


Consider Exodus 4:21-23 and the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. God, through Moses, will command Pharaoh to let the people go. That is God's preceptive will, i.e., his will of precept or command. It is what God says should happen. Others refer to this as God's revealed will or his moral will. But God also says he will harden Pharaoh's heart so that he will refuse to let the people go. That is God's decretive will, i.e., his will of decree or purpose. It is what God has ordained shall happen. It is also called his hidden will or sovereign will or efficient will. "Thus what we see [in Exodus] is that God commands that Pharaoh do a thing that God himself wills not to allow. The good thing that God commands he prevents. And the thing he brings about involves sin” (Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God?”, 114).


Thus, God's decretive will refers to the secret, all-encompassing divine purpose according to which he foreordains whatsoever comes to pass. His preceptive will refers to the commands and prohibitions in Scripture. One must reckon with the fact that God may decree what he has forbidden. That is to say, his decretive will may have ordained that event x shall occur, whereas Scripture, God's preceptive will, orders that event x should not occur.


Perhaps the best example is found in Acts 2:22-23 and 4:27-28. Here we see that in some sense God "willed" the delivering up of his Son while in another sense "did not will" it because it was a sinful thing for his executioners to do. As Piper explains,


"Herod's contempt for Jesus (Luke 23:11), Pilate's spineless expediency (Luke 23:24), the Jews' 'Crucify! Crucify him!' (Luke 23:21), and the Gentile soldiers' mockery (Luke 23:36) were also sinful attitudes and deeds. Yet in Acts 4:27-28 Luke expresses his understanding of the sovereignty of God in these acts by recording the prayer of the Jerusalem saints: 'Truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel to do whatever thy hand and thy plan (boule) had predestined to take place.' Herod, Pilate, the soldiers, and Jewish crowds lifted their hand to rebel against the Most High only to find that their rebellion was unwitting (sinful) service in the inscrutable designs of God. . . . Therefore we know that it was not the 'will of God' that Judas and Pilate and Herod and the Gentile soldiers and the Jewish crowds disobey the moral law of God by sinning in delivering Jesus up to be crucified. But we also know that it was the will of God that this come to pass. Therefore we know that God in some sense wills what he does not will in another sense” (111-12).


What God has eternally decreed shall occur may be the opposite of what he in Scripture says should or should not occur. It is important to keep in mind that our responsibility is to obey the revealed will of God and not to speculate on what is hidden. Only rarely, as in the case of predictive prophecy, does God reveal to us his decretive will. Examples of God's preceptive or revealed will include Matt. 6:10; 7:21; and 1 Thess. 4:3. Some would also place in this category 1 Tim. 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. Examples of God's decretive or hidden will include James 4:15; 1 Cor. 4:19; Matt. 11:25-26.


Another example is found in Revelation 17:16-17. Clearly, "waging war against the Lamb is sin and sin is contrary to the will of God. Nevertheless the angel says (literally), 'God gave into their [the ten kings] hearts to do his will, and to perform one will, and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled' (v. 17). Therefore God willed (in one sense) to influence the hearts of the ten kings so that they would do what is against his will (in another sense)” (112; emphasis mine).

 In Deut. 2:26-27 we read about Moses' request that the Israelites be allowed to pass through the land of Sihon king of Heshbon. It would have been a "good" thing had this king done so. Yet he didn't, because the Lord "hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate" (Deut. 2:30). Thus in one sense it was God's will that Sihon act in a way that in another sense was contrary to God's will that Israel be blessed and not cursed. Much the same is found in Joshua 11:19-20 where we are told that the Lord "hardened the hearts" of all those in Canaan to resist Israel so that he, the Lord, might destroy them just as he had said he would.


Other cases are found in Romans 11:7-9,31-32, and Mark 4:11-12. In the former text we see that "even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isa. 42:18), nevertheless God also has his reasons for sending a spirit of stupor at times so that some will not obey his command” (Piper, 115).


Similarly, "the point of Romans 11:31 . . . is that God's hardening of Israel is not an end in itself, but is part of a saving purpose that will embrace all the nations. But in the short run we have to say that he wills a condition (hardness of heart) that he commands people to strive against ('Do not harden your heart' [Heb. 3:8,15; 4:7])” (116). In the text from Mark, "God wills that a condition prevail that he regards as blameworthy. His will is that they turn and be forgiven (Mark 1:15), but he acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will” (115).


In 1 Samuel 2:22-25 we read about the evil of Eli's sons, evil that was clearly against God's "will". God's revealed "will" was that they listen to their father's voice and cease from their sin. Yet we are told that the reason they didn't obey Eli (and God) was because "the Lord desired to put them to death." As Piper notes, "this makes sense only if the Lord had the right and the power to restrain their disobedience – a right and power that he willed not to use. Thus we must say that in one sense God willed that the sons of Eli go on doing what he commanded them not to do; dishonoring their father and committing sexual immorality” (117). Other examples similar to the one in 1 Samuel 2 are 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Kings 12:9-15; Judges 14:4; and Deut. 29:2-4. These are all incidents, among many others that could be cited, where God chooses ("wills") for behavior to come about that he commands not ("does not will") to happen.


Still another example is found in Genesis 50:20. There Joseph says to his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Says Grudem:


"Here God's revealed will to Joseph's brothers was that they should love him and not steal from him or sell him into slavery or make plans to murder him. But God's secret will was that in the disobedience of Joseph's brothers a greater good would be done when Joseph, having been sold into slavery into Egypt, gained authority over the land and was able to save his family” (Systematic Theology, 215).


Arminians have traditionally objected to this distinction between "two wills in God" when it comes to the issue of individual salvation. I am thinking in particular of the statements in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9. But "ultimately Arminians also must say that God wills something more strongly than he wills the salvation of all people, for in fact all are not saved. Arminians claim that the reason why all are not saved is that God wills to preserve the free will of man more than he wills to save everyone. But is this not also making a distinction in two aspects of the will of God? On the one hand God wills that all be saved (1 Tim. 2:5-6; 2 Peter 3:9). But on the other hand he wills to preserve man's absolutely free choice. In fact, he wills the second thing more than the first. But this means that Arminians also must say that 1 Timothy 2:5-6 and 2 Peter 3:9 do not say that God wills the salvation of everyone in an absolute or unqualified way -- they too must say that the verses only refer to one kind or one aspect of God's will” (Grudem, 684).


Both Calvinists and Arminians, therefore, must say that there is something else that God regards as more important than saving everyone: "Reformed theologians say that God deems his own glory more important than saving everyone, and that (according to Rom. 9) God's glory is also furthered by the fact that some are not saved. Arminian theologians also say that something else is more important to God than the salvation of all people, namely, the preservation of man's free will. So in a Reformed system God's highest value is his own glory, and in an Arminian system God's highest value is the free will of man” (684).