Summary: How do we understand the wrath of God?


For me, Romans 9 has always been an especially troubling chapter, one I’ve avoided till I saw that it contains a message of hope. Paul appears to be describing God as less than loving. He seems to be teaching a kind of “double predestination”, with God deciding how many people He can send to Hell. We can accept election to glory, but it is difficult to picture God as a heartless Judge who arbitrarily creates people for the purpose of sending them to endless torment. Such a vindictive attitude we would find disturbing in any human being.

Some view human choice as more powerful than God’s grace. This view makes God look weak, as one who cannot overcome our “free will” and whose grace is easily resisted. But God is sovereign, we’re not; He “calls the shots.” This is the message Jonah learned the hard way when he complained that God was being too merciful to Nineveh; he finally admits, “Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9). God will overcome sin and death; His mercy will prevail. He will even conquer unbelief. Every knee will bow before Him, confessing Him as Lord (Phil 2:10). “God is not willing that any should perish” (II Pet 3:9). Would a perfectly loving God really grant His loved ones the freedom to reject Him forever and suffer irreparable harm? Can we re-think this ultimate issue without doing harm to a high (evangelical) view of the atonement and of Scripture’s inspiration and authority?


In Romans 9 we see God initiating His purpose in the lives of Jacob and Esau (6-16); through Pharaoh (17-18), in vessels of wrath and mercy (19-23), and in all Israel (24-29; also chapter 11).

I. Jacob & Esau…

In verses 6-14 we see God choosing Jacob over Esau. The language used is strong: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I hated” (13). Does the selection of Jacob imply the complete rejection of Esau? All nations are blessed through Abraham, a promise of God’s covenant--including Esau and his descendants. God decided the matter of the birthright before Jacob and Esau were born (11). The “hatred” refers to the fact that Esau was destined to lose what he wanted. The choice of Jacob over Esau makes it seem like Esau was loved less. When the brothers were later reconciled, they embraced and wept, and Jacob declared, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen 33:10). Jacob saw in his brother’s forgiveness a reflection of God. I interpret God’s “hatred” as hyperbole, an overstatement. Esau was blessed, but without the advantages of the firstborn. God could not love Jacob and literally hate Esau, who prospered, to a lesser degree. God favored Jacob but did not reject Esau. When we love our neighbors, even our enemies, we are reflecting God’s love. Salvation doesn’t depend on human desire or effort but on God’s mercy (16).

II. Pharaoh…

In verses 15-18 we see that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart to accomplish His purpose, revealing to the Egyptian ruler the destructive consequences of his sin, and displaying to all Egypt the power of God. When Moses told Pharaoh that his God’s name was “I AM”, he was declaring that Egypt’s gods were “I am not” (Gordon Hugenberger). This hardening in the original Hebrew denotes strengthening of one’s resolve. Pharaoh had resisted Moses but would have caved in to the obviously miraculous display of God’s wrath early on, and God wanted this to play out. God was making a point with all ten plagues, each one aimed at Egyptian gods. By Pharaoh holding out, all of Egypt discovered who God was, and news of this Exodus event even spread to Canaan. And it continues to give hope to Jews throughout the world every Passover.

III. Vessels of wrath & mercy…

In verse 19-23 Paul describes vessels (or objects) of wrath and mercy. He states that unbelievers are the vessels of God’s wrath, prepared for destruction. Another way of looking at this is that every vessel of mercy represents the destruction of a vessel of wrath. We come into the world as vessels of wrath; we are born as sinners and God’s enemies. Paul explains earlier in 5:18 that, “Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.” Also in I Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” The first Adam brought doom upon all; the second Adam provides life for all. The second Adam’s obedience undid the doom--the pollution and penalty of sin. The second Adam was what the first Adam was meant to be, what we were all meant to be.

The Bible is clear: God loves His enemies. He “destroys” His enemies by making us His friends. The old vessel is destroyed and the new vessel, a “new creation” emerges (II Corinthians 5:17). God reveals to us convincingly the self-defeating nature of evil. He displays mercy by destroying the power of sin and by compelling hardened enemies to become friends, bringing about reconciliation. His wrath is restorative. His purifying love destroys, like a consuming fire, transforming all that is false within us, so that our perspective is bound to change and respond to His grace.

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