By David M. Freeman
Paul vividly describes the ugliness of sin and the beauty of salvation by grace in the first eight chapters of his letter to the Romans. At the outset of chapter nine Paul moves on to describe the great burden of sorrow that he is carrying.
One might wonder how Paul could be sorrowful after proclaiming the unstoppable power of the love of God, but Paul explains that he is sorrowful because he sees so many of his fellow Jews that have not known the love of God. When God sent Jesus the Messiah to the Jewish nation they "received him not" (John 1:11). When the apostles of Jesus preached the gospel of Jesus to the Jewish people many rejected it, thus judging themselves "unworthy of eternal life" (Acts 13:46).
Yet, despite their hardness of heart and their refusal to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, Paul loves the Jewish people and desires their salvation. In fact, Paul exclaims that he would be willing to take their place and be “accursed from Christ” if it meant that they would thereby find peace with Christ. They had known so many other blessings from God – they had been adopted as his chosen nation from among all nations of the earth, they had seen the glory of God in his many works on their behalf, they had received covenant promises and the Mosaic Law. Furthermore, Paul reminds us that it was through the Jewish people that the Messiah had come. And yet despite all that God had done for them, God would yet say of Israel, “All day long have I stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people” (Romans 10:21).
God’s Sovereign Choices
Upon seeing so many Jews estranged from the love of God through their rejection of the Messiah one might wonder if God’s promises to the Jewish people had been nullified. But Paul proceeds to answer this question before we have a chance to ask it by declaring, “[It is] not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (verse 6). But what does this mean? Paul elaborates,
Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. For this is the word of promise, At this time will I come, and Sara shall have a son.
Paul is telling us that it is possible to be a child of Abraham without being a child of God. In particular, the fact that both Isaac and Ishmael descended from Abraham did not determine their relationship with God. God chose to make Isaac the heir of promise rather than Ishmael, and he made this choice before either of them had been born. Paul is emphasizing that Ishmael’s estrangement from the people of God did not contradict or nullify the promises God had made to Abraham.
Having discussed God's choice of Isaac over Ishmael, Paul turns our attention to God's choice of Jacob over Esau. Paul points out that the twin brothers Jacob and Esau had the same mother and father (“when Rebecca also had conceived by one”). Isaac and Ishmael had different mothers, and one might mistakenly conclude that this was why God chose Isaac instead of Ishmael. Such a conclusion is impossible in the case of Jacob and Esau. One might point out that Esau exited the womb before Jacob, and therefore one might expect God to bless Esau above Jacob. But this is not what God did. Before either child was born and without consideration of their good or evil works, God had already made a choice to love Jacob and to hate Esau. Paul tells us that God did this in order to highlight the fact that he is free to make such choices, and to make such choices independently of our merits. Again it becomes clear that one can be a descendent of Israel (as Esau was) while not being a child of God (as Esau was not). Furthermore, Paul is emphasizing that Esau’s estrangement from the love of God did not contradict or nullify the purposes of God.
Is There Unrighteousness With God?
At this point another question arises. Paul both asks it and answers it in verse 14: "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid." Has God acted unjustly in his choice to bless Isaac and Jacob as opposed to Ishmael and Esau? God has done no wrong in making such choices. It is God’s sovereign right to make such choices.
To illustrate, Paul contrasts Moses and Pharaoh. God spoke to Moses of mercy, but God spoke to Pharaoh of judgment. He told Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."
God has the right to show mercy as he sees fit.
To rightly understand this, we must first understand that no one has the right to expect mercy from God. We are sinners, and God is holy. He is doing what is right when he hates and punishes sin. When God grants mercy to a sinner, he does so of his own free will. He is under no obligation to do so. Therefore, we are not in a position to complain about the choices God makes when granting mercy to one but not another.Paul concludes, "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy." Salvation does not originate in the will nor in the effort of man. Salvation originates in the mercy of God, which he grants according to his own free will and good purposes. God chose to show mercy to Moses, but he withheld mercy from Pharaoh. God gave Pharaoh his position of power and prominence in order to glorify the power and prominence of God. While God grants mercy to some, he hardens others in their sin. Although Moses suffered for a time as a result of his sins, God allowed Moses to repent and find forgiveness. In the case of Pharaoh, there was no opportunity for repentance. As Pharaoh persisted in his rebellion against God, God removed the possibility that he would veer from his course toward destruction. God caused Pharaoh to reap the full consequences of his rebellion. Paul is asserting that such purposes of God are not unjust. They are good and right. God was righteous in choosing to show mercy to Moses despite his sin, and God was righteous in choosing to judge Pharaoh for his sin. Moses needed mercy. Pharaoh deserved judgment. The sovereignty of God over both Moses and Pharaoh did not nullify or contradict their accountability before God.
Are We Accountable?
Yet another question now needs to be addressed. “Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?” In other words, “How can we be held accountable for our actions if God is in control? If God was sovereign over Ishmael, Esau, and Pharaoh, and their estrangement from God's love was in accord with God’s sovereign purpose, how could God still hold them accountable for their sins against him?” Paul is rather firm in his answer to this question.
Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?
Paul reminds us that we are not in a position to question our Creator. The Creator has a right to create as he sees fit. He has the right to take clay from the same lump and create one vessel that will be honored while creating another vessel that will be dishonored. At this point we must pause to affirm our belief in the goodness of God.
If God is good, then we must trust that his decisions are good.
He has a good purpose in all that he does, even when his purposes collide with the expectations of our humanistic thinking. We tend to elevate ourselves so that we are all but equal with God. We tend to forget that God is our all-powerful Creator and that we have rebelled against him. Paul puts us in our proper place with his answer to our question.But Paul also provides further explanation of why God creates vessels unto dishonor. He does it to display his wrath against sin. He does it to reveal his power over evil. Yet God is not pleased with the existence of evil. He endures with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath. Though it is true that they play a role in the overarching purposes of God, God is not pleased with their sin. God is responsible for their creation and destruction, but they themselves are responsible for their sin.On the other hand, why does God create vessels of mercy? Paul explains that God personally prepares them in order to display the riches of his glory through their salvation. They themselves are responsible for their sin, but God is responsible for their salvation.
Salvation Is By Grace Through Faith
How do all these considerations relate back to Paul's original concern at the outset of this chapter? Paul has demonstrated that God is sovereign over the salvation of the Jewish people. The fact that many Jews were lost through their rejection of the Messiah did not nullify or contradict the purposes of God. Paul goes on to say that these considerations apply not only to the salvation of Jews, but also to the salvation of Gentiles. The vessels of mercy are “even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles” (verse 24). Paul then quotes from several Old Testament passages in order to prove that God had always purposed to bring in many Gentiles while many Jews would fall away.
Paul explains that many Gentiles obtained salvation because they sought it through faith in Jesus Christ (verse 30). Many Jews did not obtain salvation because they sought it by the works of the law (verses 31-32). Many Jews saw Jesus as an offense rather than a Savior, and they stumbled. But many Gentiles believed on him as the Son of God, and the promise of God is that “whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (verse 33).
Are you trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior? If so, you will not be ashamed. The God who is sovereign over salvation has promised that those who come to Christ for mercy will find it. His purposes regarding the salvation of sinners cannot be thwarted, so you can safely trust in his promise to those who have faith in his Son.