In these verses, Paul is addressing what is really a third objection to his gospel. The first had to do with the faithfulness of God, for to say that many in Israel who did not embrace Jesus as Messiah were lost made it seem as if God was reneging on his promises to Israel. This is the overall objection, and Paul’s main answer to it comes in verses 6-13. His answer is that God’s promise of salvation is not dependent on physical descent but upon his sovereign election.
But this answer leads to two further objections. Paul’s answer has in some sense created some new problems. One of them is this: God’s unconditional election of individuals to eternal life makes him look partial and unjust. How can God choose Jacob and hate Esau, not on the basis of their works but solely on the basis of his sovereign choice? The apostle answers in verses 14-18, which we considered last time. His answer, as we saw, is primarily that this is how the Scripture describes God. The God of the Bible is sovereign in salvation. His glory, which is inseparable from his righteousness, is displayed in his sovereign bestowal of mercy and hardening. The standard of God’s righteousness is not located in our modern ethical consciousness but in the self-revelation of who God is in the Bible. And that is a self-revelation of sovereignty in salvation. Since this is the way the Bible describes God, we must not think of this way of acting on God’s part as unrighteous.
Now comes a third objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” (19). This objection is the age-old question of the problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. How can God be sovereign in salvation, how can it be that he is the decisive reason why we are saved, how can it be that his will is the ultimate reason we are saved than not, without giving up on our responsibility? Or how can our wills be truly authentic, how can our choices be meaningful and significant, when God is the one who determines our eternal destiny?
You may not like his answer, because he does not exhaustively answer the question. Ultimately, he leaves the conundrum as a mystery. But this is a test of our humility before God. We need to be able to rest in what God says and to leave the rest up to him. But that does not mean that the Bible doesn’t give us any answer, and Paul does shed some light on the problem. In fact, in the verses before us he gives us two final reasons why is it right for God to exercise sovereignty in salvation.
The first reason has to do with who we are compared to God: he is the Creator and we are the creature; he is the potter and we are the clay. He can do with his own what he wills. If he chooses to save one and harden another, that is his prerogative as the Creator of all things. This answer comes In verses 20-21. But that is not all he has to say. The other reason he gives has to do with the purpose behind his sovereignty: to display the full orb of his attributes, both of mercy and judgment, but especially mercy. God has created and rules a world in which his glory is most fully exhibited. This answer comes in verses 22-24. So we will consider these two reasons under the headings of God’s prerogative in exercising sovereignty and God’s purpose in exercising sovereignty.
Four reasons why this doctrine is important
Before we do so, however, I want to consider with you why this is so important. Why does Paul spend 24 verses on explaining and defending the fact that God’s will, not ours, is decisive in salvation? What possible good can this doctrine do? Won’t it impede a sense of the urgency of obedience and faith? Let me give you a number of reasons why this doctrine is important and why we must not shrink back from boldly holding to it.
First, we should do so because this doctrine does more than any other to make God and his grace our only hope for salvation and eternal life. And this is what we need, because our tendency is to rely on ourselves in one way or another. Our tendency is to look to our righteousness instead of Christ, to rely on our strength instead of the strength that God gives. But if God’s will and purpose is at the bottom of our salvation, then our hope must finally rest in him and in no one or nothing else.
Second, it is important because this doctrine does more than any other to give God all the glory for our salvation and life. If my will is the decisive instrument in my salvation, then at the end of the day I have saved myself, and I get the credit for gaining eternal life for myself. You can say all day long that God provided salvation on the cross and without it we cannot be saved, but if you make the human will the thing that finally determines whether or not I take advantage of that salvation, then the human will gets the glory for the salvation. But that is glory that belongs to God alone, not to man. To God alone the glory!
Third, this doctrine does more than any other to remind us that our salvation is not ultimately dependent upon ourselves. And that is very good news. If the constancy of my will is at the bottom of my final salvation, then I can only be hopeful if I ignore the dark realities that lurk within my heart. But if I am honest with myself, I will probably end up giving in to despair. This truth, however, reminds me that my final salvation does not depend on the keeping power of my will but on the keeping power of God’s grace and purpose. It fills me with hope to know that God is beneath all my willing and doing, and that his arms will catch me when I fall. As the hymn puts it, “He will hold me fast…”
Fourth, this doctrine does more than any other to remind us that God is in ultimate control, not only of my salvation, but of all things. He can take the most powerful ruler on earth, like Pharaoh, and use him for his purposes, even when Pharaoh thinks he is doing his own thing. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will (Prov. 21:1). It reminds me of the truth that “the LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (Ps. 33:10-11).
And all these things together reinforce the reality of Romans 8:28, that all things work together for good. We know they do, because God, not man, is on the throne and in ultimate control.
I recently watched the movie Signs again. I like that movie because it is about a man who moves from an abandoned faith in God to a reawakened faith in God. One of things that moves him back to faith after losing it from suffering the tragic loss of his wife is his seeing again that there are no coincidences and that God is the great Mover behind all that happens in our lives, with a purpose that is good. In my opinion, there is an especially moving part in the movie, when he (Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson) tells his brother that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who look at seemingly miraculous events and see them as evidence that there is someone out there looking out for them, and those who see such things as nothing more than pure luck. For those who think they are on their own, Hess says, “But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they are on their own. And it fills them with fear.” Then there are those who believe that whatever happens is not just pure luck: “deep down, they fell that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.” I confess that I like that, and I think he’s right. When you look at the things that are transpiring in our world, so many people are filled with fear and it’s because deep down they believe they are either totally or ultimately on their own. But the Scriptures, and this doctrine, give us a reason to put ourselves in the category of those who don’t see things as mere coincidences, and who believe that God is really for them for their eternal good.
It goes almost without saying, though, that the theology of Hollywood movies, even good ones like Signs, is very thin. The movie doesn’t describe God any more than as someone who is there to help us, whatever that means. On the other hand, Romans 8 and 9 are predicated upon a concrete view of God as truly sovereign, who helps us in the sense of making all things work together in Christ for our eternal good. If he is for us, no one can be successfully against us. And that is a hope that will not put you to shame.
Very well, we see why this doctrine is important. Now let’s look at the two final arguments the apostle gives for establishing the reality of the sovereignty of God in salvation.
God’s prerogative in exercising sovereignty (20-21)
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Essentially, what Paul is saying here is that our status as the clay makes it inconceivable for us to question God in his right as the potter to do whatever he pleases with his own. We may not like the way God is described to us in the Bible, but since this is God’s self-revelation of himself to us, we are only talking back to God when we disagree and object to it.
I think one of the reasons people have such a hard time with this view of God is because we project on God our own limitations. There just isn’t any way I could make my will determine someone else’s will without at the same time using force to suppress their will and therefore destroy any accountability they might have for their actions which proceed from such compulsion. But we must not think that God’s sovereignty over the wills of men makes them any the less accountable for their actions. We are not God. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between the way we relate to other people and the way God relates to the works of his hand. And Paul reminds the reader and potential objector of this: “who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” The apostle is using very strong language here to make this distinction between our human frailty and God. God is God and you are not! He is the Potter and you are the clay. He is the Creator and you are the creature.
Paul’s argument not only reminds us of God’s power in light of our limitations, it also reminds us of God’s rights in light of our creaturehood. It is his right to save one and not another because God is God and we belong to him. Just as a potter can do with the clay what he pleases, even so God has the right to do with us whatever he pleases. What right does the clay have to talk back to the potter? What right do we have to put God in the dock?
Further, since God is God (and we are not), he does not have to give us an exhaustive reason or explanation as to why he acts as he does. Imagine a child demanding a reason from a parent before obeying. And yet the distance between a parent and child is infinitely small compared to the distance between the creature and the Creator. Now of course that doesn’t mean it is wrong to try to understand why (Paul does give somewhat of a reason in the next few verses), but it is wrong for us to demand such.
Now there are those who again want to put this in terms of merely historical roles: the vessels for honorable use or dishonorable are to be interpreted, they say, in terms of earthly service. But this will not do, for at least two reasons. It won’t do because the overarching problem behind all these verses is the eternal lostness of those Israelites who had rejected Christ. Those who perish eternally are the vessels for dishonorable use, and those who are saved the vessels for honorable use. Second, the apostle uses the imagery of vessels in the next verses, describing the lost as “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (22). It is hard for me, at least, to imagine Paul talking merely in terms of earthly punishment here. Then in verse 23 the apostle describes the saved as “vessels of mercy . . . prepared beforehand for glory” (23). The honor in verse 21 relates to mercy and glory in verse 23 and dishonor in verse 21 to wrath and destruction in verse 22. God has the right to love Jacob and hate Esau (13), and he has the right to show mercy on whomever he wills (15) and he has the right to harden whomever he pleases (17). He is the potter and we are the clay.
Now some will come back and ask how can we be expected to follow a God whose ways we cannot understand? How can our faith be sustained in a God whose ways are shrouded with mystery, especially when we are facing hard things in our lives? In answer we must remember that though God has not revealed everything, he has revealed some things, and our faith has all it needs to be sustained by knowing what God has revealed. In particular, faith can be sustained by knowing that God is good and just and holy, and that he involved, not just with the “big picture” but with the details as well. You don’t sustain faith by telling yourself that you are in control, but by holding on to the God is in control over all things. And that is precisely the view of God that these verses give to us.
But we also need to ask ourselves if it is right for us to only be willing to follow God as far as our understanding goes? If that is the case, don’t we dishonor him as being untrustworthy? What about Prov. 3:5-6: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Trust in the God who is sovereign and let your hope rest in him.
Nevertheless, before we move on to the next point, I think it is important to point out that the apostle is not rebuking a person simply for wanting to understand the way of God which are shrouded in mystery. God is not harsh towards those who are struggling with genuine questions. I think, rather, that he is rebuking that person who is demanding an explanation from God on their own terms. This is the attitude of, “Unless God gives me the kind of explanation I want, I’m not going to trust in him or love him.” This is the attitude of those who use theological problems as an excuse not to get right with God or conform their will to his. At the end of the day, this kind of person is not really serious about seeking the Lord but making room for their own sin and rebellion.
This morning (7/4/20) I read Isaiah 66, where God describes the kind of person he will bless: “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (2b). Of all things, we should want God to look to us – to shine his face upon us, to bless us with the light of his countenance. There can be no greater honor, no more glorious blessing. But to whom does this come? Not to the high and lofty among men, no to the philosophers and the wise, but to the humble and contrite, to those who tremble at God’s word. Do you tremble? Oh God, give us a heart that trembles not before men but before your word! Let us not be people who take offence at God’s word because it does not correspond with our inherited view of God but rather let us humble ourselves and rejoice with trembling before the God of the Bible.
God’s purpose in exercising sovereignty
In verses 22-24 there are three purpose clauses, and in these purpose clauses we are told why God exercises sovereignty the way he has done. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom he has called, not from Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” The three purposes are “to show his wrath” and “to make known his power” and “to make known the riches of his mercy.” And yet the three clauses are not equal – the purpose to show mercy is the preeminent purpose, and the purpose to show his wrath and power are subservient to this greater purpose (we’ll come back to this). But the overall reason given in these verses is that God hardens whom he wills and saves whom he wills in order to most fully display the glory of his wrath, power, and mercy.
God chose to prepare some vessels for destruction in order to show his wrath and power in the destruction of the wicked (22). The exemplar here is Pharaoh, because through God’s hardening his heart and enduring him and being patience with his sin and rebellion, God was able to more fully display and show forth his attributes of wrath and power: “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment” (Exod. 7:3-4; compare Exod. 9:16 quoted in Rom. 9:17).
Now we must guard the holiness of God, and affirm the fact that God does not compel or force men to sin. Yet, neither must we weaken the force of these words either. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he prepares vessels for destruction. Yes, I think it is a good explanation for this is to say that he does this by leaving people in their sin. But the reason for God leaving them in their sin is not found in any particular degree of sin in them, but is to be found in God’s eternal purpose (note the fact that God prepares “beforehand” in verse 23 and note the similarity to verse 11). And the reason God created a world in which men would sin and perish forever was partly in order to create a world in which the glory of his wrath and power would be displayed in the destruction of all his enemies.
This is right because God is righteous when he acts in such as way as to preserve and display his glory. And the Scriptures remind us (Exod. 9:16; 33:19) that it is part of the essence of God’s glory for him to show mercy and to harden whomever he pleases.
But God not only prepares some vessels for destruction; he also has prepared other vessels for mercy (23-24). And this is the ultimate reason why God prepares vessels for destruction: the purposes of showing wrath and power are “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy” (23). Mercy, not wrath, is the preeminent attribute that God wants to declare and display. I think it is interesting that Paul does not talk about the riches of God’s power and wrath, but he does talk about the riches of God’s glory displayed for the vessels of mercy.
The fact of the matter is that we would never really know God’s mercy if it were not for his wrath and power poured out on the wicked. In fact, this is the way the book of Isaiah ends, a book devoted to describing God’s righteous rescue of his people culminating in a new heavens and new earth: “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isa. 66:24). The purpose of this display is not to revel in death and destruction; the purpose is to reveal the amazing mercy displayed by God upon his people who themselves deserve that death and destruction. When we consider that our salvation is properly described in terms of mercy, we realize that if we had gotten what we deserved, we would have been in Pharaoh’s place. Yes, God could have saved all mankind had he so chosen, but then those who were saved would never truly understand how great was the mercy that saved them. The Scriptures seem to indicate that our delight in God depends in part upon our being able to see, with Moses upon the mount, the fullest display of the glory of God, but this is not possible apart from a display of both mercy and wrath, with the wrath serving the purpose of mercy.
Is this a full and exhaustive explanation for God’s purposes? No, of course not. But it does give us a partial glimpse into the eternal purposes of God. For that we should be grateful, not morbidly curious.
How can I know I am elect?
If this is true, that our salvation depends ultimately upon God’s will rather than our own, that the elect alone will gain salvation, then the pressing question becomes, how do I know I am among the elect? Some would argue that you can’t know. But that’s not what the apostle Peter indicates when he calls us to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:7). And that’s not what the apostle indicates, when he says, “even us whom he hath called” (24). In other words, Paul says that we know we are a vessel of mercy if we can put ourselves in the category of the called. So the question then becomes, “Am I called?” What does that mean? It means at least four things.
First, it means that I am called to salvation and faith (2 Thess. 2:13, 14). It means that I have responded to the call of the gospel to embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Have you? The call is a command to believe in the gospel and to repent of your sins. Have you?
Second, it means that I see in Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). It means that I am no longer among those who think the gospel is foolishness but who see the gospel of the cross of Christ to be my only hope of reconciling with God in this life or the next. Do you see the glory of Christ? Do you love and worship him?
Third, it means that I have fellowship with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), that religion is not just a thing to do but a relationship to enter into. Do you know Christ as your friend and help? Do you know the reality of the communication of Christ’s love to you in his word and prayer? Is he real to you?
Finally, it means that I have been called out of darkness into light (1 Pet. 2:9). In other words, there is a definite change in your life. Once you were characterized by sin and rebellion and going your own way. Now your heart’s desire is conformity to Christ. Once you saw holiness and obedience as a burden, and now you see them as the measure of your freedom. Is this true of you? Does your heart long to be more holy, not merely on the outside like the Pharisees but also on the inside?
If so, then you have every mark of being called and therefore of being elect. And as such you can be sure that your final salvation is guarded and guaranteed. No one can snatch you out of God’s hand, for you are embraced in God’s eternal purpose, a purpose that does not and cannot change. Thanks be unto God! Salvation is of the Lord.