Recognizing the Sovereign
3-30-08 a.m. (PDBC)
This passage of scripture has presented the church with much difficulty. Here we have the clashing of philosophies regarding “Whosoever” and the “Elect”. I admit that I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with it this week. I know that its content has caused many divisions with churches. But the more I thought about it the more I saw it dealing not so much with “Whosoever” and the “Elect” as it is Paul addressing a group of Jews who feel like they were born with silver spoons in their mouths.
Basically, the Jews have been saying, “We deserve God’s favor, We’ve earned God’s favor, We’ve inherited God’s favor.” But Paul is saying God doesn’t owe you or anyone anything. God is sovereign and if He acts in a way that you feel is unjust or unfair that’s tough because as the Sovereign He doesn’t owe anybody any explanation.
The Jews that Paul was speaking to had misread or misunderstood their history. They believed that since they were Jews they were in…they had it made based on their heritage and rituals. Paul emphatically reminded them that God’s promise was NOT…I repeat…NOT to Abrahams physical seed but to his spiritual seed. That is the lesson passed on to us as well. Some people feel that their family’s church heritage… Christian heritage…sort of “grandfather” them into heaven. Or, they make assumptions that they will be granted a seat on the train bound for glory based on their good lives. These are foolish conclusions. We deserved nothing; no one deserves anything from God.
Again, Paul was insightful enough to anticipate objections that might be offered based on this teaching.
Let’s read verses 14-18:
9:14 What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! 15 For He tells Moses: I will show mercy to whom I show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. 16 So then it does not depend on human will or effort, but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the Scripture tells Pharaoh: For this reason I raised you up: so that I may display My power in you, and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth. 18 So then, He shows mercy to whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.
Now these verses speak to the Sovereignty of God.
There would be nothing wrong in saying that God in His sovereignty could…If He desired to…choose to save some and not others. God in His sovereignty has that right. There would also be nothing wrong in saying that God in His sovereignty could…if He desired to…choose to save everyone regardless of their belief. There would be nothing wrong is saying that God in His sovereignty could…if He desired to…choose not to save anyone. You see if it were just an issue of His sovereignty than He could do anything He wants and not have to justify it to anyone. And as unfair as we might think it to be it would still be just…because He is the Sovereign God. However, God in His sovereignty has made specific promises to His creation. One of those promises is that,
“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
Now we know that God’s word never contradicts itself and yet we come across passages of scripture like the one we are looking at today and think, “Boy this sure sounds like God has already determined who will be saved and who won’t.”
But that would contradict John 3:16 so there must be another answer. To me the simplest answer involves God’s foreknowing. You see I believe that nothing takes God by surprise. God not only see the end from the beginning He knows every choice that will be made in between. He is not the instigator of those choices but if He is omniscient, that is all knowing, then He knows all…even the choices you are making right now as well as those you will make in ten years.
Now if you can accept that then I think it will make it a little easier to understand this passage the way I understand it.
Let’s look at the examples Paul offers here. Paul chooses two very interesting people, Moses and Pharaoh, to begin his discussion of this question. He says that Moses received mercy from God. He does not say Moses received a reward from God. And Paul says that God hardened Pharaoh. He does not say God condemned Pharaoh.
In His sovereignty and foreknowing God knew every decision that Pharaoh would make. He knew every opportunity that Pharaoh would dismiss when it came to turning to God. Now God could have forced Pharaoh to change his heart but that would go against the freedom that God blessed His creation with. You say well the Bible says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. You’re right but the Bible also says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart in the first five plaques. Five times the Lord attempted to get Pharaoh’s attention and five times Pharaoh blatantly ignored God’s attempt.
You see, God will attempt to get your attention time and time again. For some countless attempts will be to no avail and at that point God will take His hands off and just let them go their way. Romans chapter 1 attests to that truth. I believe that’s what happened with Pharaoh. How merciful is God that He would pursue some us even though He knows what the outcome will be? And why would he do that?
God knew Pharaoh’s eternal decision all along. While Pharaoh may not have recognized God’s mercy in his life…those of us reading the story can see God’s mercy extended in countless attempts to turn even Pharaoh’s heart.
While this is often a difficult passage to reconcile…and I don’t claim to stand in complete authority regarding this passage…to me it speaks more to the sovereignty of God than it does those He would or would not choose. If God chooses to use some in positive ways and some in negative ways it’s His right to do so. But notice I did not say that God chose for them their decisions. Instead I mean to say that based upon the decision He knew they would make He chooses to use them to display His glory.
Speaks to His Sovereign Mercy
We’re tempted to compare Moses and Pharaoh and conclude that Moses was a godly man and Pharaoh a sinful man. However, Moses and Pharaoh suffered from the “Fall of Man” in the Garden of Eden equally.
Neither Moses nor Pharaoh deserved anything but hell. Neither man deserved the mercy of God. And yet Moses heard the marvelous truth from the lips of God, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy," and God embraced Moses and spoke to him as his friend. Verse 16 reminds us, "It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy."
Now that would be unsettling for the Jews who place a high emphasis of man’s effort. Again, Paul seems to foresee this and their potential arguments. Look at v. 19-29.
9:19 You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” 20 But who are you—anyone who talks back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” 21 Or has the potter no right over His clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? 23 And [what if] He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory— 24 on us whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? 25 As He also says in Hosea: I will call “Not-My-People,” “My-People,” and she who is “Unloved,” “Beloved.” 26 And it will be in the place where they were told, you are not My people, there they will be called sons of the living God. 27 But Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: Though the number of Israel’s sons is like the sand of the sea, only the remnant will be saved; 28 for the Lord will execute His sentence completely and decisively on the earth. 29 And just as Isaiah predicted: If the Lord of Hosts had not left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah. Romans 9:19-29 (HCSB)
While some may argue that this is certainly pointing to God’s election I see here an argument for “whosoever”. I see here:
God’s Sovereign Mercy
To understand this you have to really go back and take a look at the issue Paul is confronting regarding the Jews perception of a privileged position with God. In Romans Paul has not only been opening the gospel to the Gentiles but he has been closing the door to the Jews privileged position. Now you can understand how neither of those teachings would set well with the Jews who thought themselves as attached to the hip of God. While the Jews considered this a negative message it was anything but. This message did not isolate the Jews from God’s grace. Rather it opened the door for them to truly experience God’s grace. Furthermore, it broadened the reach of God’s grace to the gentiles. Of course the Jews could care less about the gentiles.
Verse 19 comes across as a childish rant from a group who bubble has been burst. Paul uses verses 20-29 to praise God’s patience and sovereign mercy. He uses it in the same manner that I did to stress God’s sovereignty. In other words to say who are you to question God. Do you not recognize His sovereignty? He created you and He can do as He pleases. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. You should be praising God that in His mercy He even extends His grace to you in the first place. Who do you think you are? And why do you think you’re better than anyone else?
What’s interesting to me is that these questions seem to be rhetorical. They seem to suggest that the Jews best take a step back and consider their attitudes. As I said this passage speaks more to the “whosoever” than it does to the “elect”. I can honestly hear Paul saying, “How dare you assume that you…based on your heritage and rituals…are the elect of God.” “How dare you assume that the Jews have sole propriety on salvation.”
Paul answers these rhetorical questions with some wonderful references to the surprises of God that the prophets Hosea and Isaiah wrote about. Paul looks at Old Testament history and sees the Lord bring blessing where none was expected, choosing those whom no one would have chosen. He is saying clearly to the Jews that this is the kind of God we serve. We make no contribution to his decisions; he doesn’t seek our counsel. We have no right to demand that he explain himself.
The offer is made to all. Look at the last paragraph of chapter 9:
9:30 What should we say then? Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained righteousness—namely the righteousness that comes from faith. 31 But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the law. 32 Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: Look! I am putting a stone in Zion to stumble over, and a rock to trip over, yet the one who believes on Him will not be put to shame. (30-33)
God embraces unsuspecting Gentiles and gives them the gift of righteousness when they weren’t looking for it. Israel, on the other hand, did not receive righteousness because of their pride. They wanted a righteous standing that was built on their own efforts. They didn’t want righteousness as a free gift; they wanted it as a reward they had earned or deserved. And for that reason they did not achieve it.
Look very carefully what Paul does not say here. He does not say that Israel missed out on the gift of righteousness because they were not chosen. They missed out on the gift of righteousness because they rejected it. It was their fault. God is merciful out of his freedom to do whatever he will, and yet those who do not receive him do not because they choose not to.
If we could imagine some day interviewing men and women who have entered into the presence of God for eternity, we would hear them say, "I am a child of God because of his mercy. My salvation is completely dependent on him. I contributed nothing. He was merciful to me when I did not deserve it. To Him be all praise."
If we could interview those who would spend eternity separated from Christ, what we would hear them say is something like this: "Eternal separation from God is my doing. I refused then, and I refuse now, to humble myself so as to place my faith in Christ. I am where I am because I choose to be."
Paul wants to encourage more love for God; more appreciation of the gifts he gives; more humility; more certainty that we don’t deserve anything; and therefore more gratitude for what he does give us.