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Romans 9:19-33

I.              God's Purpose with Israel - 9:1-11:36

A.            Israel's Fall - 9:1-33


1.             Paul's pain - 9:1-5

2.             God's purpose - 9:6-13

3.             Man's protest - 9:14-23


a.              the first objection: "God is unrighteous!" - vv. 14-18

b.             the second objection: "God is unfair!" - vv. 19-23


1)             a human reaction - v. 19


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? [We should also note that “the question would scarcely be raised this way if the previous verses taught that the ultimate factor in human destiny were human choice. The question emerges precisely because the destiny of human beings is attributed to the will of God” (Schreiner, 514).]


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" (John 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" (111-112).


·          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)" (Piper, 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 "it was God's will (in one sense) that Sihon act in a way that was contrary to God's will (in another sense) that Israel be blessed and not cursed" (115).


·          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" (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" (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).


2)             an apostolic reply - vv. 20-21


a)             indignation - v. 20a


The objection raised in v. 19 is not, however, a humble inquiry on the part of an inquisitive student of theology, as if he were simply asking "How can these things be?" It is rather an indignant declaration and arrogant protest against God in which he insists that "these things ought not to be, and if they are, God is unrighteous!"


Paul's emphatic "O man" and "to God" in v. 20 assign to the objector his proper place: As a mere man you have no right to accuse God of unrighteousness. Piper explains:


"Paul has no objection when a person seeks to understand as much of God's dealings as possible, but he objects strenuously when a person criticizes and rejects the truth which he discovers. . . . For man to advise God about how he ought to act is as out of place as for a statue to advise a sculptor how to chisel. The presumption that a man's sense of values is ultimate and can prevail against God's sense of values is as ludicrous to Paul as a ranting figurine" (166).


Schreiner concurs:


“The objection does not represent a humble attempt to puzzle out the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom. The objection manifests a rebellious spirit that refuses to countenance a world in which God is absolutely sovereign and human beings are still responsible. The opponents dig in their feet by insisting that if God decides whom to harden and to whom to give mercy, then it is nonsense to hold human beings responsible for their actions” (515).


But isn't it true that people can and do, in fact, resist God's will? Didn't Pharaoh? True, but no one denies that men can say "No" to God's commands, even as did Pharaoh when he "resisted" God's command through Moses that he set free the children of Israel. Paul's point, however, is that even this sort of "resistance" is in one sense "willed" by God. In other words, God "willed" (decree) that his "will" (precept) be resisted. In resisting God's will of "precept" Pharaoh was fulfilling God's will of "decree".


b)             illustration - vv. 20b-21


Paul uses a common biblical metaphor to illustrate his point. The relationship between Creator and creature may be compared to that between a potter and his clay. The sole authority for determining what sort of vessels are to be made rests with the Creator/potter. He has the indisputable right to give full and artistic display to all his attributes and skills as a craftsman by making vessels as he sees fit, either for honorable use or dishonorable use. Consequently, the creature has no more of a right to protest how God dispenses with the creation than does a piece of clay have the right to dictate instructions to the potter.


As with so much else that has preceded in 9:1-18, many commentators find in vv. 20-21 a reference to national or corporate entities and not to individuals and their eternal destinies. For example:


It is argued that the OT texts quoted in vv. 20-21 (Isa. 45:9-11; Jer. 18:1-6) deal with the nation Israel, not individuals. But, it must be noted that Paul is employing a common metaphor and need not apply it precisely the same way as does another biblical author. Furthermore, it is more likely that the passage from which he derives the metaphor is Isaiah 29:16 which does have reference to individuals.


We should also take note of v. 24 in which the "vessels of mercy" (v. 23) are identified as those who have been called "from among" Jews and "from among" Gentiles. "Since the vessels of mercy consist of Jewish individuals and Gentile individuals, there is no basis for arguing that Paul's contrast between vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath . . . is a contrast between nations" (Piper, 181).


Some argue that Paul must be referring to national entities and not to individuals because "no potter makes a vessel just to destroy it." But this ignores the obvious parallel between v. 21 and v. 22. The vessel made for common use in v. 21 = the vessels prepared for destruction in v. 22. Therefore, common use and destruction are synonymous. Also, to say that a potter does not make a vessel simply to "destroy" it is based on a misconception of "destruction". By this term Paul does not mean extinction but eternal condemnation. "Destruction is not the opposite of existence; it is the opposite of glorious existence (9:22f.). And that is all that the metaphor of 9:21 requires. If apoleia means an eternal inglorious existence in hell, then the objection that God could not make persons for such apoleia, since potters do not do that sort of thing, is not true. For potters do make vessels which are fit for inglorious uses outside the house" (Piper, 183).


Moo (607) points out that the word translated "destruction" (apoleia) is always used by Paul to refer to final condemnation (Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 6:9; the cognate verb (apollumi) is used this way in Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; note esp. the contrasts between this word and salvation in Phil. 1:28; 1 Cor. 1:18; and 2 Cor. 2:15).


Note also that the objection in v. 19 to which v. 20 is addressed is formulated with reference to an individual: "Who can resist his will?" The objector perceives correctly that individual accountability is in view when he asks: "Why does God still find fault?"


One more point must be made before leaving vv. 21-22. Paul portrays God as a potter who makes vessels from the same lump. The implications, notes Piper, are clear:


"The various types of vessels which the potter chooses to make are not at all determined by what the clay itself is, apart from the potter's shaping. Had the vessel for honor and the vessel for dishonor been made from different lumps of clay one might argue that it was some distinctive quality in the different lumps which caused the potter to appoint one vessel for dishonorable use and another for honorable use. But Paul rules that out with the phrase 'from the same lump'" (184-85).


It would seem that the same lump of clay from which the different kinds of vessels are made is parallel to what Paul said in vv. 10-13 about Jacob and Esau being born of the same mother and father (Rebecca and Isaac). John Stott draws this conclusion:


"If therefore God hardens some, he is not being unjust, for that is what their sin deserves. If, on the other hand, he has compassion on some, he is not being unjust, for he is dealing with them in mercy. The wonder is not that some are saved and others not, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing at God's hand but judgment. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgment), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust. If therefore anybody is lost, the blame is theirs, but if anybody is saved, the credit is God's" (269-70).


3)             a divine reason - vv. 22-23


a)             vessels of wrath: the non-elect - v. 22


b)             vessels of mercy: the elect - v. 23


First, how should we translate v. 22?


a)             "what if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath"




b)             "what if God, because willing to demonstrate His wrath"


The latter is probably correct, indicating that God patiently endures the vessels of wrath because he wants to accomplish three things: (1) he wants to demonstrate his wrath; (2) he wants to make his power known; and (3) he wants to make known the riches of his glory on vessels of mercy.


The translation because is also supported by comparing v. 22 with v. 17. Piper explains:


"Though Paul is now speaking more generally about 'vessels of wrath', the words of God to Pharaoh in Ex. 9:16 are still serving as the pattern for the way God acts. God's raising up Pharaoh and enduring him through a ten-fold recalcitrance was not in spite of his desire to show his power but because of his desire to show it. God could have destroyed Pharaoh after any one of his acts of disobedience, and the reason he did not was that he might 'multiply his wonders in the land of Egypt' (Ex. 11:9). By 'sustaining and tolerating' Pharaoh again and again God accomplished his purpose to show his power in the plagues and finally to win renown in Pharaoh's overthrow at the Red Sea (cf. the purpose mentioned in Ex. 7:3-5; 9:14-16; 10:1; 11:9; 14:4,17-18). Therefore, since Rom. 9:22 uses the same language as 9:17, it is more probable that God's desire to show his wrath and make known his power is the cause of his sustaining and tolerating vessels of wrath than that this sustaining and tolerating are in spite of that desire" (188-89).


The third of these three purposes is clearly ultimate, the other two being subordinate. In other words, the primary purpose for which God manifests his wrath on vessels of destruction is so that his mercy might be seen as all the more glorious. "The remarkable thing is that the revelation of this treasure of glory which the church will experience as mercy, is accomplished, at least in part, by God's patiently sustaining and tolerating vessels of wrath set for destruction" (Piper, 168-69).


Second, what does it mean to say God patiently endured vessels of wrath? Apparently, God is patiently holding back immediate judgment so that the reprobate might continue to store up wrath for themselves and in this way make possible an even greater display of God's power and judgment. “The implication is that it would have been just and righteous for him to destroy them immediately” (Schreiner, 520). In dealing with Pharaoh, God endured his repeated refusal to let the people go in order that he might turn each occasion into an opportunity to display his power (Ex. 14:1-4,14). Also, with a greater measure of sin comes a greater display of wrath, which in turn sheds an even greater light on the glory of mercy towards those who themselves deserved judgment no less than the others.


Third, the vessels of mercy in v. 23 are explicitly said to have been prepared beforehand by God for glory. In v. 22 the vessels of wrath are said to be prepared for destruction, but by whom or by what? There are four views:


(1)           the voice of the Greek participle may be middle, not passive; hence the vessels of wrath are conceived as having prepared themselves for destruction (ostensibly through their rebellion and unrepentant unbelief);


The direct middle, in which the subject acts directly on himself (“Judas hung himself”), should be distinguished from the indirect middle, in which the subject acts on his own behalf (“for himself”).


(2)           prepared for destruction is simply a descriptive phrase without implying any agent of the preparation;


(3)           Paul deliberately expresses it this way to leave the issue shrouded in a mystery;


(4)           God is the agent or cause by whom the vessels of wrath are prepared for destruction.


[The following is included for those with a knowledge of Greek who might wish to know why the use of the direct middle (i.e., option 1 above) is highly unlikely here: "First, grammatically, the direct middle is quite rare and is used almost exclusively in certain idiomatic expressions, especially where the verb is used consistently with such a notion (as in the verbs for putting on clothes). This is decidedly not the case with katartizo: nowhere else in the NT does it occur as a direct middle. Second, in the perfect tense, the middle-passive form is always to be taken as a passive in the NT (Luke 6:40; 1 Cor. 1:10; Heb. 11:3) – a fact that, in the least, argues against an idiomatic use of this verb as a direct middle. Third, the lexical nuance of katartizo, coupled with the perfect tense, suggests something of a 'done deal.' Although some commentators suggest that the verb means that the vessels are ready for destruction, both the lexical nuance of complete preparation and the grammatical nuance of the perfect tense are against this. Fourth, the context argues strongly for a passive and completed notion. In v. 20 the vessel is shaped by God's will, not its own ('Will that which is molded say its maker, "why have you made me this way?"'). In v. 21, Pauls asks a question with ouk (thus expecting a positive answer): Is not the destiny of the vessels (one for honor, one for dishonor) entirely predetermined by their Creator? Verse 22 is the answer to that question. To argue, then, that katertismena is a direct middle seems to fly in the face of grammar (the normal use of the voice and tense), lexeme, and context" (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Zondervan, 1996), 418).]


How has Paul answered the objection stated in v. 19?


4.             God's people - 9:24-33


a.              the calling - v. 24


The vessels of mercy whom God has chosen for glory include both Gentiles and Jews. Paul's intent is first to demonstrate from the OT that Gentile salvation was long ago prophesied.


b.             the OT confirmation of Gentile salvation - vv. 25-26


Romans 9:25 = Hosea 2:23

Romans 9:26 = Hosea 1:10


These two texts in Hosea were addressed to the 10 apostate northern tribes of Israel before the Assyrian exile in 722-21 b.c. They describe both the rebellious condition of Israel ("not my people" / "not beloved") and her prophesied restoration ("my people" / "beloved" / "sons of the living God").


But if these passages in Hosea refer to the prophesied regathering and restoration of Israel, why does Paul apply them to the calling or salvation of Gentiles? Two answers have been given:


(1)           Some argue that the rejection and restoration of Israel have their parallel in the exclusion and eventual inclusion of the Gentiles in God's covenant blessings. In other words, Paul finds in the restoration of Israel to love and favor a type in terms of which the Gentiles will experience the same. Thus the principle according to which God will regather Israel applies to the gathering in and salvation of Gentiles as well. In sum: the salvation of the Gentiles is analogous to, but not the fulfillment of, the salvation of the Jews.


(2)           Others agree that the OT texts in Hosea are a prophecy of the future regathering/salvation of Israel. But they argue that "Paul deliberately takes these two prophecies about the future salvation of Israel and applies them to the church. The church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, has become the people of God. The prophecies of Hosea are fulfilled in the Christian church. If this is a spiritualizing hermeneutic, so be it. But let no one say that it is liberalism. It is clearly what the New Testament does to the Old Testament prophecies" (George Ladd).


According to this view, the OT prophetic promise of Israel's regathering in covenant faith to Yahweh is being progressively fulfilled in the salvation of believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, that is to say, in the Church. The calling out of Gentiles from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation is the prophesied restoration of Israel, for the Church is the continuation and maturation of Israel's believing remnant. See 1 Peter 2:4-10; Phil. 3:1-3.


N.B. Be it noted, however, that those who adopt this latter view do not necessarily rule out a future restoration of Israel, as taught by Paul in Romans 11. In other words, the restoration is both progressive and future. George Ladd himself believed in a yet future mass ingathering of Jews into the body of Christ.


c.              the OT confirmation of Jewish salvation - vv. 27-29


Here Paul expands upon the truth articulated in Rom. 9:6, to wit, that God's purpose has never been to save all ethnic Israelites, but only a remnant. This is not a new doctrine but something explicitly affirmed in the OT.


·          Romans 9:27 = Isaiah 10:22

·          Romans 9:28 = Isaiah 10:23

·          Romans 9:29 = Isaiah 1:9


In sum: that only a remnant is saved is indicative of the severity and extent of divine judgment (vv. 27-28); that at least a remnant is saved is indicative of the miracle of divine grace (v. 29).


d.             the conclusion - vv. 30-33



1)             why Gentiles are saved - v. 30


Gentiles are saved because by sovereign grace they attained righteousness in the proper manner: by faith.


2)             why Jews are lost - vv. 31-33


Jews are lost because in arrogant pride they pursued righteousness in an improper manner: by works.


This is not because the Mosaic Law endorsed the idea that righteousness could/should be attained by works. Righteousness in the OT, as in every age, is always a gracious gift of God received by faith alone. As Daniel Fuller points out, "the as it were . . . signified that the idea of serving God by works in which men could boast stemmed from a subjective, fanciful notion which the Jews read into the Mosaic law without the slightest encouragement to do so from the law itself" (Gospel and Law, 73).