Has God Failed? (Romans 9)

Election

In Chapter 9 of Romans we run head on into the sovereignty of God and the clear teaching of the Bible that God chooses some to be saved, but not others. This idea is, of course, very politically incorrect in our day, and very offensive to our concepts of justice. Therefore this chapter deserves careful study.


From an illustration by Donald Grey Barnhouse. Thanks to Chris Gonzales.

The Eight Advantages of Israel

First, they were chosen as the people of God: There is no doubt about that. God makes it very clear that he separated this nation -- the descendants of Abraham, the twelve sons of Jacob and the tribes that came from them -- as his people. He called them that: "Behold, Israel is my son," (cf, Exodus 4:22 KJV). He dealt with them as the specially chosen people of God. Gentiles have not always understood that, and many times I think we resent it. Somebody has said, "How odd of God to choose the Jews." But God really did choose them. Their position was different than any other nation of their day, and Paul acknowledges it.

Second, to the Jews was given the glory, Paul says. By that he means the Shekinah, the bright cloud that followed Israel through the wilderness and later came into the holy of holies in the tabernacle and marked the presence of God himself among his people. Centuries later, when the temple was built by King Solomon, the cloud of glory came and filled the holy of holies, and the people knew that God had recognized his ties with this remarkable people and was living among them in a very real sense. They had the glory.

The Jews also had the covenants, Paul points out, these remarkable agreements that God made with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, with Moses and David, in which God committed himself to do things for that nation, and he has never gone back on those covenants. God took the initiative to make these covenants with this strange and wonderful people.

Fourth, Paul says, the Jews had the Law. This was their dearest and greatest treasure, and it still isThey have a service set aside in which the men of the congregation take the scrolls of the Law and dance with themYes, the Law was their greatest treasure. God gave it to Moses -- not to Charlton Heston!

Also, [Fifth] Paul argues, the Jews had the temple worship. Not only did they have the Law, but God had carefully and meticulously described how the people should conduct themselves. He told them the kind of offerings to bring, the ritual to carry out, and he designed beautiful ways of reminding them of the truth that he had taught them through these rituals and services. The Jews had the temple itself, one of the most beautiful buildings ever built by men. It was the glory of Israel, and it was still there in our Lord's day, and even while Paul was writing this letter.

Sixth, the Jews had the promises. Those are still to be found in the pages of the Old Testament -- promises of a time when the Jews would lead the nations of the world. There would be universal reign, a world King, and Jerusalem would be the center of the earth. Government would flow from the city of Jerusalem throughout the whole earth. Those promises are still there, and God means to fulfill them.

Seventh, Paul says, the Jews had the patriarchs, those tremendous men whose names are household words all over the world -- Abraham and Moses and David. We think we are blessed having leaders like Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln, but even they are not as widely known as these great names from Israel.

Finally, the supreme blessing was that Jesus himself, the Messiah, came from Israel. From the Jews is traced the human ancestry of Christ. Notice that Paul does not say that Christ belonged to Israel -- he came from them. He belongs to the world because, as the apostle adds,

He is God over all, to be praised forever!

This is one of the most clear and definite statements of the deity of Jesus that comes from the apostle's pen. I know there are manuscripts suggesting that this is to be translated as a closing doxology that says "God be blessed and praised forever." But the best manuscripts do not put it that way at all. The most ancient manuscripts agree that this is what the apostle wrote:

Christ is God over all, blessed and praised forever!

And yet, with all these fantastic advantages, with the remarkable achievements and possibilities of this nation, the Jews of Paul's day were violently anti-Christian. They could not stand the idea that Jesus was their Messiah. Paul could see evidence, even at this date, of the approaching crisis between the Jews and the Romans that would result in the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and judgment upon this nation. They would be scattered throughput all the nations of the world for centuries. Paul saw that coming.

Has God Failed?

(Romans) was written about 62 A.D., and already events were moving to bring about that final confrontation when the Roman armies would surround the city and eventually break through the walls, destroy the temple, level it to the ground, and take the Jews captive and send them out into all the nations of the world, fulfilling the word of Jesus that this would occur. And yet, despite these fantastic advantages, remarkable and unique in all the nations of the world, Israel had proved to be faithless. That is what breaks the apostle's heart. Now Paul raises a question, and here he gets into the heart of this chapter: Did this also mean that God was faithless? Has God failed? Did Israel's failure come about because God is not able to save those whom he wants to save? Is that the problem?

A lot of people think that is the problem. They wonder if God is really able to save someone whom he calls. So this is a problem that is relevant in our day. Paul answers by launching upon a great statement that sets forth the faithfulness of God -- but in terms that we struggle with. I want to warn you before we get started that you are going to have a difficult time with the ninth chapter of Romans. Way back in the prophet Isaiah's day, God had said to Isaiah, "My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts," (Isaiah 55:8-9). Whatever else those words might mean, they certainly imply that there are times when God is going to act in ways that we don't understand, ways that seem absolutely contrary to the way he should act.

I think this is one of the major problems that we face in dealing with God. There have been times when I have been bewildered and baffled by God's behavior. I have seen solutions to problems of deep importance, I could see how to work them out -- but God seemed totally unable to catch on. Even when I have told him how to solve them, rather than take the simple steps that would have worked out the solutions (as I saw them), he persisted in going into deeply involved relationships and circumstances that seemed to have no bearing at all in the working out of this problem. I am confronted, finally, with the truth of Isaiah's words. God is beyond me. Now, that is the attitude we must keep in mind as we go through this chapter.

Paul begins to introduce this to us by showing us some of the principles by which God works in carrying out his great work. There are three principles that we want to take this morning: The first one is that we must understand that great opportunities and special privileges that God may grant to nations or to individuals, such as those he has just listed for Israel, do not necessarily imply that God intended in any way to save those people. Here is how Paul establishes his argument: First, he says, salvation is never based on natural advantages, Verses 6-7:

It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. (Romans 9:6-7a NIV)

Now, two of the patriarchs are mentioned, Jacob and Abraham. Israel, of course, is another name for Jacob. God named him Israel after Jacob wrestled with the angel, for Israel means, "A prince with God." God made Jacob, the usurper, into a prince. But those who are his descendants are not necessarily involved in all those promises. Even those who are physical descendants of Abraham, the greatest of the patriarchs, are not all included in the salvation promise of God. Therefore, we can draw the conclusion that salvation is never based on natural advantages. It is not inherited.

Your family may have been Christians, but that doesn't make you a Christian. You may have had great opportunities for Bible study and Bible knowledge, and maybe you have taken advantage of them -- but that doesn't necessarily make you a Christian. These special privileges that come to us by natural means are never the basis for God's redemption. That is the first thing we have to understand. But, in contrast to that, the second thing is that God's salvation is always based on a divine promise. Now look at what Paul says, Verses 7-9:

On the contrary, "Through Isaac shall your offspring come." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I [God] will return, and Sarah shall have a son." (Romans 9:7b-9 NIV)

This takes us back to the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, where God said to Abraham and Sarah, "I will come back, and Sarah, whose womb has been barren all her life -- who has never had a child, who is now ninety years of age and, from a natural point of view, couldn't possible have a child -- is going to have a baby," (cf, Gen 18:10). It was a biological miracle, and that was God's promise. It involved his own supernatural activity. His promise is based on what he does, not upon what men do.

As we well know, Abraham had another son, Ishmael, the oldest boy. He was thirteen years older than Isaac, the firstborn of Abraham. By rights, he should have inherited the promises that God made to Abraham, but he didn't. Instead, Isaac inherited those promises. Ishmael stands as a symbol of the futility of expecting God to honor our ideas of how he is to act.

Remember how Ishmael was born? Sarah said to Abraham one day, "Do you expect God to do everything? He has promised you a son, but you are getting old. Time's wasting. Surely, God doesn't expect you to leave it all up to him!" (cf, Genesis 16:1-2). So she suggested that he take her Egyptian servant. He did, and she conceived and bore a son whose name was Ishmael. Ishmael was brought before God by Abraham, who said, "God, here is my son. Will you fulfill your promises to him?" (cf, Genesis 17:18). God said, "No, I won't. That is not the one. He must come by divine promise," (cf, Genesis17:19-21).

I think this is a very important principle in Scripture. I find a lot of people who get an idea of what they think God ought to do. They ask him to do it, and, because they have asked him to do it -- in line with what they think are the promises about prayer -- they think God has to do it. They misread all the promises about prayer and think that if they get an idea of what they want, God has to do it. But what this teaches us very plainly is that God is committed to do only what he has promised to do. If you want God to act on your behalf, find a promise that he has given.

[For example]God has never, anywhere, promised to heal all physical illnesses. I would invite you to share it with me if you know where it is. He does heal, and often he will respond to the requests of his children -- but he has never promised that he will. Therefore, we are wrong when we try to claim from God something that he never promised to do. That is why anything expected from God must rest upon a promise that he has already given. Otherwise it is merely his grace that supplies an answer to our requests. That is the second principle here. Now we come to the, third, which is even more difficult to handle, Verses 10-12:

Not only that, but Rebecca's children had one and the same father, our ancestor Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad -- in order that God's purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls -- she was told, "The older will serve the younger." (Romans 9:10-12 NIV)

Do you remember who Rebecca was? She was Isaac's wife. He found her through his servant, who had been sent to find God's choice for Isaac. Now, that is a remarkable statement, and Paul confirms it with a quotation from Malachi 1:2-3:

Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." (Romans 9:13 NIV)

Many have struggled over those words. But all the apostle is saying is that it is clear from this story that: First, ancestry does not make any difference (these boys had the same father), and, second, what they will do in their lives -- including the choices they will make -- ultimately will not make any difference. Before they were able to make choices -- either good or bad -- God had said to their mother, "The elder shall serve the younger." By that he implied, not only that there would be a difference in the nations that followed (the descendants of these two men) and that one would be in the place of honor and other wouldn't, but, also, that the personal destinies of these two men were involved as well. I think that is clear from the record of history. Jacob forevermore stands for all the things in men that God honors and wants them to have. Jacob was a scheming, rather weak character -- not very lovable. Esau, on the other hand, was a rugged individualist -- much more admirable when he was growing up than his brother Jacob. But through the course of their lives, Jacob was the one who was brought to faith, and Esau was not. God uses this as a symbol of how he works.

I remember hearing of a man who said to a noted Bible teacher, "I'm having trouble with this verse, 'Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.' How could God ever say 'Esau have I hated'?" The Bible teacher said, "I have trouble with that verse, too, but my problem is not quite the same. I have no trouble in understanding the words 'Esau have I hated.' What bothers me is how God could ever say 'Jacob have I loved'!" Read the life of Jacob and you will see why.

Now, I do admit that we must not read this word "hated" as though God actually disliked Esau and would have nothing to do with him and treated him with contempt. That is what we often mean when we say we hate someone. Jesus used this word when he said, "Unless a man hates his father and mother and brother and sister and wife and children and houses and land, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple," (cf, Luke 14:26). Clearly he is not saying that we have to treat our mothers and fathers and wives and children and our own lives with contempt and disrespect. He clearly means that he is to have preeminence. Hatred, in that sense, means to love less. We are to love these (family, possessions) less than we love him.

God didn't hate Esau, in the sense we usually employ that word. In fact, he blessed him. He made of him a great nation. He gave him promises which he fulfilled to the letter. God did not hate Esau in that usual sense. What these verses imply is that God set his heart on Jacob, to bring him to redemption, and all Jacob's followers would reflect the possibilities of that. As Paul has argued already, they were not all necessarily saved by that, by any means, but Jacob would forever stand for what God wants men to be, and Esau would forever stand as a symbol of what he does not like.

Do you know the final confrontation of Jacob and Esau that is recorded in the Scriptures? It was when Jesus stood before Herod the king. Herod was an Idumean, an Edomite, a descendant of Esau. Jesus was, through David, a descendant of Jacob. There, standing face-to-face, were Jacob and Esau! Herod has nothing but contempt for the King of the Jews, and Jesus will not open his mouth in the presence of Herod. This is God's strange and mysterious way of dealing with humanity. Now, I don't understand it, but I have to submit to the fact that God is greater than I. His ways are not my ways, and his thoughts are not my thoughts.

What Paul is teaching us here is that God has a sovereign, elective principle that he carries out on his terms. Here are those terms: Salvation is never based on natural advantages. Never. What you are by nature does not enter into the picture of whether you are going to be redeemed or not. Second, salvation is always based on a promise that God gives. This is why we are exhorted in the Scriptures to believe the promises of God. It includes, in some mysterious way, our necessity to be confronted with those promises, and to give a willing and voluntary submission to them. I do not understand that, but Paul brings this up a little later in this chapter when he discusses the harmony, as far as we can understand it, between the free will of men and the sovereign elective choice of God. The third principle is that salvation never takes any notice of whether we are good or bad. Never! That is what was established here. These children were neither good nor bad, yet God chose Jacob and passed over Esau.

Now, I want to close at this pointBut I want to ask you this question: "How do you react to what we have covered so far? Is there something in you that wants to cry out to God and say, 'God, that's unfair! That isn't right!'" When I preached this message at the 8:30 service this morning, a man walked out the door cursing God because he treated men this way. Do you feel something like that? Then relax, because you are normal! There is something in us called the flesh that reacts to this; it doesn't like it. Paul is going to pick that up later in this chapter and we are going to face it squarely and find out what we can about this sense of unfairness that we have toward God in this regard. But, in the meantime, let us reverently accept the fact that God is greater than we are. He knows more than we, he knows what he is doing, and everything he does will always be consistent with his character. God is love. Whether we can understand it or not, that is where it is going to come out. (Ray C. Stedman, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/romans2/3523.html)

Let God Be God

Paul has already told us that God has a different reason for setting people up and giving them special privileges, and in the opening verses of Chapter 9 he has given us three principles that we must accept. They are the reasons God himself gives for his actions. These are the principles upon which he acts. Verse 1 tells us that God never bases redemption or salvation on natural privileges: inheritance, ancestry, education, opportunity. All these natural privileges, though they may be granted to an individual and may give him great access to knowledge about God, do not guarantee that a person is chosen of God. The second principle is that with those whom God chooses, God always precedes that choice in history with a divine promise of his activity on their behalf. God himself promises to act. He never bases salvation upon what human beings are going to do, except as they respond to what God does. We have to understand that. Redemption always has at the heart of it a promise that God has given and that we are to respond to. Paul makes that clear. Third, Paul points out that God's choice is never based on the behavior of individuals, whether good or bad. Now, that is the tough one. That is what we have a hard time believing. But Paul proves it in the case of Jacob and Esau, in which a choice was made before the boys were born, before they had opportunity to do anything, either good or bad. God made a choice. Therefore, salvation or redemption never is based on human works. We have seen that all the way through Romans, but here it is put in a very positive form.

Well then, what is the basis on which God chooses? If it is not works, if it is not the natural advantages which he himself gives, then what is it? Paul's answer, which we take up now in the second half of Romans 9, is that it is based upon God's sovereign right to choose. God has a right to choose. That is the final resolution of that problem. Let's hear what the Scriptures say on that, Verse 14:

What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Rom 9:14-18 NIV)

Now, I do not know how you react to that. I do not know what you feel about what it says -- but it is clear what it says, isn't it? It does not say that salvation is based on human effort or human choice -- it is God who chooses. I think that is very clear. You may not like what it says, but that is what it says. The ultimate reason for God's choice of anyone is that God chose him. He chooses whom he wants.

I think this is the truth about God which men dislike the most. We are having to face the fact that God is a sovereign being. He is not responsible to, or answerable to, anyone. He is totally, absolutely sovereign. We don't like that, because to us sovereignty is always connected with tyranny. To trust anyone with that kind of power is to put ourselves into the hands of someone who might destroy us, and we instinctively fight that. We fight it in our national life, we fight it in our family life, we fight it in our individual relationships. We do not trust anyone with absolute power over us. The very Constitution of the United States is based on that presumption. No one can be trusted with absolute power. We have checks and balances built into our government. We divide it into three divisions and put one against the other, so that they all watch each other. We do not believe that even the best of us can be trusted with absolute power. It is no wonder, therefore, that when we come to the Scriptures and confront the fact that God has absolute power, we become uneasy and troubled by this. But you see, if God had to give an answer to anyone, that being or person to whom God had to account would really be God. The very idea of God is that he is sovereign. He does what he pleases. He does what he wants to do. What we must do is get rid of the idea that his sovereignty is going to be destructive to us. It isn't at all. As we will see before this is over, his sovereignty is our only hope!

Paul says that God declares his own sovereignty. God says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion," (Exodus 33:19 NIV). Now, Moses was a great example of God's choice of someone to bless. Who was Moses that God should choose him? Moses was nobody in himself. He was a murderer; on one occasion, in a fit of temper, he killed a man. Then, instead of turning himself in for justice, he hid the body in the sand. He was a criminal, a murderer, a fugitive from justice. For forty years he had been living in the desert, a nobody. No one had heard of him. But God picked him up and made him a messenger of God and gave him a name that became known throughout history. He set him in authority over the greatest king the world had ever known at that time and used him in a most remarkable way. Why? God chose to do so. That was his elected choice. He had the right to do that.

On the other hand, God demonstrated his sovereignty with Pharaoh as well. He took a man who was no better than Moses (in fact, Scripture tells us God often puts in power the basest of men) and put him on a throne and gave him authority and power over all the nation of Egypt. Then, when Moses confronted him, God allowed Pharaoh to continue to resist God's will. God could have stopped him, but he didn't. He allowed him to do what all men do by nature -- resist God. So Pharaoh held out against God in order, as this verse says, that God might demonstrate his power and attract the attention of men everywhere to his greatness.

That bothers us, too. We think anybody who boasts about his greatness, who tries constantly to get people to think about how great he is, is a braggart, he is conceited. We don't like such people -- largely because we are jealous of them! We want to be the one standing up there getting people to admire our greatness. But you see, God is the one who must do this. In our constant tendency to think of God as nothing but an enlarged man, we attribute to God our own motives. When man does this, he is destructive. He must necessarily put others down in order to elevate himself. But what God does is necessary to the welfare and benefit of his creatures. The more his creatures understand the goodness and greatness and glory of God, the richer their lives will be, and the more they will enjoy life. Jesus said, "This is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent," (John 17:3 KJV). So when God is inviting men, and seeking to find ways to have men think about his greatness, it is not because God's ego needs to be massaged -- it is because God's creatures require that for their very welfare. Therefore God finds ways to do it, and he uses men even to resist his will in order that there might be an occasion to display his greatness and power. Paul's conclusion, therefore, is that God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. Immediately somebody objects. We all feel this objection, I am sure. We object in the same words as Verse 19:

One of you will say to me, "Then why does God still blame us? For who can resist his will?" (Romans 9:19 NIV)

In that brief statement is hidden all the accusations and all the bitter charges that men bring against God: "God is the one responsible for all our human evil. It isn't us; it is God, ultimately, who is to blame!" This accusation appears in many different forms in human history. What does man do with this essential truth about God's nature, his sovereignty? He uses it to blame God for all human evil. Verses 20-29 give us Paul's answer to this, and we will look at that in due time. But, right now, I want to spend a moment with this charge that men bring against God. What it is really saying is,

"All right, Paul. You say that God uses men for whatever he wants to use them for. Men cannot resist him. Pharaoh could not resist God's use of him. God used him to oppose what he sent Moses to do in Egypt. Pharaoh was merely an instrument in God's hands. So God uses men to do evil, then he turns around and blames them for the evil and punishes them for doing what he made them do! That's not just, that's not fair! God himself must agree that it is not fair to make somebody do something, and then punish them for doing it. The very sense of justice, which God himself gave us, is offended by that!"

That sounds logical, doesn't it? The logic of it sounds unanswerable. Many people argue this way. With calm reason and devastating logic they point out that Scripture teaches that God can use men however he wants, for good or for evil; therefore he has no right to condemn them or to punish them because they do evil. How do you answer logic like that? Let's see what Paul does. Paul has four things to say in reply, and let's examine them carefully: The first one is found in Verse 20. Basically what he says here is, "All right, you man, whoever you are, you are going to charge God with injustice. You say he is not fair because he does this! Let's examine your credentials."

But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (Romans 9:20 NIV)

"Let's take a look at this," Paul says. "Let's compare and consider the difference between man and God. Here is man, finite (that means his knowledge is limited, his understanding is limited). He is not only finite, but he is frail. He has very limited strength. He only lasts a little while -- a breath of air and he is gone. He is very weak, unable to do much. The record shows us through the whole course of man's history that not only is man finite and frail, but, despite all the logic that he seeks to employ, time and time again man demonstrates that he is foolish. With all his logic he makes atrocious blunders. He ends up doing things that are extremely hurtful when he thinks he is doing the right thing. With all this array of logic and of reason and ability to think, he ends up making the most foolish mistakes. Now, that kind of man is daring to stand up against the God who is infinite in knowledge, infinite in power and majesty, mighty, wise, knowing all things from beginning to end -- not only all the things that are, but all the things that could be as well. This puny pipsqueak of a man is daring to stand up and challenge the justice of a God like that!"

What Paul is saying is that even our logic is wrong, because there are mysteries we do not reckon on, objectives that we cannot discern, there is resistance that we know nothing about. So who are you, man, to stand and question the rightness of God? That is a good argument, isn't it? Are we equipped to challenge God in this way? I think the most helpful book in the Bible on this score is the book of Job. Job was not a cavalier; he was not a skeptic, an atheist arguing against God. He was a devout man who loved God deeply. Yet he was a deeply puzzled and bewildered man who could not understand what God was doing with him. You know the story. Job was afflicted with a series of terrible boils and physical afflictions, his family and all his wealth disappeared in a series of terrible catastrophes that came like a trip-hammer, one after the other. To top it all, he was afflicted by three torturers, who called themselves his friends, who came to argue with him in his pain and despair with the presupposition that all suffering must be caused by sin. Therefore Job's suffering meant that he somehow was a deep-dyed sinner, and all his pain was coming because he refused to let people know the terrible evil that he must have done. They hounded poor Job and examined every crack and cranny of this argument and searched it to its depths. Finally, in despair, Job cries out. He doesn't blame God though. That is the glory of this book. He never once blames God. He just says, "Lord, I don't understand it! Oh, if I could just come and stand before you and plead my case, I could show you how unfair it seems to me!"

So, in Chapters 38-41, God appears before Job and says, "All right, Job, you wanted a chance to argue. You wanted to ask me some questions -- here I am. But before you ask me a few, I have some to ask you, to see if you are qualified to ask them of me. Here are my questions: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you when the morning stars sang together, and I flung the heavens into space? Were you there? Where were you when all these things began to be worked out? Can you enter into the secrets of the sea? Do you understand how the rain works, and how the lightning appears? Do you understand these things, Job? Why, these are simple to me. How are you doing on them?" Job has to hang his head. God goes on: "Look at the stars, Job. Can you order their courses? Can you make the Pleiades shine forth in the springtime? Can you make Orion stride across the winter sky, always on time? Can you handle the universe, Job?" And Job says, "No, I'm sorry; I don't qualify." God says, "All right, let me ask you some more questions." Then, in a tremendous section that is really the key to the book of Job, God uses the figures of Behemoth and Leviathan, two strange and formidable creatures, to examine Job's qualifications to handle satanic power. "Can you handle Satan? Do you know how to handle this fantastic dragon who can wreck a third of the universe with his tail? Are you able to take him on?" Finally Job ends up on his face in the dust before God and says, "Lord God, I didn't know what I was getting into! I just meant to say a few things to you, but you are not in my league at all! I repent in sackcloth and ashes; I put my hand on my mouth. I have nothing to say to a God like you."

That is Paul's argument here: "Who are you, O man, to reply against God? You don't understand even a tiny fraction of the things to be known, so how can you argue with a God like that? Paul's second argument follows: Even among men, isn't there a form of sovereignty that we exercise and don't we have the right to do so? Verse 21:

Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (Romans 9:21 NIV)

Nobody questions that, do they? Doesn't a potter have the right to take the lump of clay that he is working with and divide it in half and make of one half a beautiful vase for the living room and out of the other make a slop jar? Why yes, he has that right. Nobody tells the potter what he can do with his clay. Men exercise sovereignty like that and nobody questions it at all.

Well, at this point many people say, "But we're not clay! It's all right to do that with unfeeling clay, but human beings are not clay. We're people. We have feelings, sensitivities, and wills. Your analogy doesn't hold!" Well, you can extend the analogy to things that have feelings. What about the ways we treat plants and animals? Doesn't a gardener have the right to move plants around wherever he'd like? Just last week I tore out some plants and threw them away -- good, healthy plants. Did I have the right to do that? Do my neighbors have the right to swear out a warrant for my arrest because I didn't ask permission of the plants first? No. Does a farmer have the right to send cattle to slaughter, to pick out certain ones that he thinks are nice and fat and slaughter them, while he keeps others awhile longer? Do we ever challenge that? No. Men have that kind of authority -- a kind of delegated sovereignty that they exercise. When flies come into your kitchen, do you housewives have the right to swat them, or must you put up with their nuisance endlessly? You folks who ate turkey for Thanksgiving, do you blame the poultry man because he planned to raise turkeys for that very purpose? Ought we to go over and picket his turkey farm because he did this? No, of course not. Men exercise this kind of sovereignty. And if men exercise this delegated sovereignty, can we deny it to the one being who, in all the created universe, has the right, above all else? That is Paul's argument. It is hard to answer that, isn't it? "But," somebody says, "it still doesn't solve this problem of justice. It seems unfair." Paul's third argument says, "Then let us consider two possible motives in God's actions." Verse 22:

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath -- prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory -- even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: "I will call them 'my people' who are not my people; and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one," and, "It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" [Those are the Gentiles -- us.] Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: "Though the number of the Israelites should be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality." (Romans 9:22-28 NIV)

What Paul is saying in all this is that God may have purposes and objectives that we do not see. And doesn't he have the right to do it? And what if one of those objectives is not only to display his power and his wrath by allowing and permitting man to oppose him and to resist him, but also to display his amazing patience and longsuffering this way? Did you ever think about that? Did you ever think of how, for centuries and centuries, God has put up with the snarling, nasty, blasphemous, accusing remarks of men, and has done nothing to them? He has listened to all the cheap, shoddy, vulgar things that men say about him, and allowed them to treat him with hostility and anger and never does a thing but patiently endure it and put up with it. Paul says, "What if God does all that. What if it takes that kind of a display of the wrath of God and the patience of God to bring those of us whom he chooses to himself?" Something has to appear to us that makes us understand God. We are not being forced to come to him, we are drawn to him. Therefore we have to respond, and something must make us respond. Is it not the wrath of God and the patience of God that draws us on?

All this, then, is necessary to bring some of us to glory. In other words, for some to be saved, some must be lost. Now, I admit that is an inscrutable mystery. I don't understand it. But I don't have to understand it! That's the whole thing. I can't understand it at this point. There are factors in it which God cannot reveal. He will some day, but he doesn't now -- not because he does not want to, but because I can't handle it. And neither can you. We have to accept it, nevertheless. Paul suggests here that without the display of wrath on God's part, no Gentiles ever would have been saved -- only the elect of Israel, and only a remnant of them. But, as it is, the Gentiles, those of us who never had the advantages that Israel had, are included, as Hosea and Isaiah both predicted. Now the final and clinching argument, the fourth one, is found in Verse 29:

It is just as Isaiah said previously: "Unless the Lord All-powerful had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been like Gomorrah." (Romans 9:29 NIV)

This past June we drove past the sites of Sodom and Gomorrah. I don't think there is a more desolate place on the face of the earth -- just dreary, dry desert, with a briny sea in which nothing will live, and around which nothing will grow. It is the most terrible place of desolation on the face of the earth! What Paul argues here is that if God had not chosen to draw us to himself by an elective decree -- something that makes men wake up and stop resisting him and start listening to him -- none of us would ever be saved.

You see, we start thinking on this from the wrong premise. We start by thinking that everybody is in neutral, and unless they have an opportunity to be saved, they just remain in neutral until it is too late for them to have a chance. But that isn't it at all! The truth is, we were born lost. We are already lost. We were lost in Adam. Adam lost the race, not us. But we are victims of it. There isn't a chance that any of us will do anything but resist God. Paul has said in Chapter 3, "There is none that does good, no, not one! There is none that seeks after God, not one!" (cf, Rom 3:10-11). So you see, God is not shutting us away and not giving us a chance. It is his grace that reaches out to us, and without it, nobody would ever be saved at all. The whole race would be lost. God's justice could allow the race to be lost; God's mercy reaches out to save many among us. And that is his sovereign choice! That is where we must leave it.

The passage closes with a very remarkable paragraph. People ask at this point, "How can we tell whether people are chosen or not? If you can't tell by the advantages they have, how can you tell?" Here is the answer (Verse 30):

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." As it is written: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (Romans 9:30-33 NIV)

God says there is a way you can tell whether you are being drawn by the Spirit unto salvation or whether you are being permitted by God to remain where you already were, lost and condemned: The way you can tell is by what you do with Jesus. God has planted a stone in the midst of society. Now, when you walk down a path and come to a big flat rock in the middle of the path, there are two things you can do. You can stumble over it, or you can stand on it, one or the other. That is what God says Jesus is.

The Jews, who determined to work out their salvation on the basis of their own behavior, their own good works before God, stumbled over the stone. That is why the Jews rejected Jesus, and why they reject him to this day. They don't want to admit that they need a Savior, that they are not able to save themselves. No man is. But for those who see that they need a Savior, they have already been drawn by the Spirit of God, and awakened by his grace, and made to understand what is going on in their lives. Therefore, their very desire to be saved, the very expression of their need for a Savior causes them to accept Jesus. They stand upon that stone. Anyone who comes on that basis will never be put to shame. Now that, God says, is the testing point. The crisis of humanity is Jesus: You can be very religious, you can spend hours and days or an entire lifetime of following religious pursuits and apparently honoring God, but the test will always come: What will you do with Jesus? God put him in the midst of human society to reveal those whom he has called, and those whom he has not. Jesus taught this very plainly: "No man can come to me except my Father draw him," (cf, John 6:44); and "all that my Father has given me shall come to me. Him that comes to me I will never, never cast out," (cf, John 6:37 KJV).

So what is left for us? To respond to Jesus, that is all. And to thank God that, in doing so, we are not only doing what our own hearts and consciences urge us to do, but we are responding in obedience to the drawing of the elective Spirit of God, who, in mercy, has chosen to bring us out of a lost humanity. (Ray Stedman, http://pbc.org/dp/stedman/romans2/3524.html).


A Remnant Chosen by Grace (Boice)

The most important words in Romans 9 verse 27 are "the remnant." This is a very significant term in the Old Testament, and it has importance for the theology of the New Testament, too. Yet, surprisingly, I have not found a great deal written about it even in textbooks of Old Testament theology. Several Hebrew words are translated "remnant" in our Bibles, but the most significant is the verb sha'ar (over 130 occurrences) and the noun forms of the same word, she'ar (26 occurrences) and she'erit (66 occurrences). *

Altogether, these words are found hundreds of times in the Old Testament, chiefly in the Prophets. In the New International Bible the English word "remnant" occurs sixty-three times. Initially the words seem to have had a military meaning. For instance, in Deuteronomy 3 there is a description of a battle between the Israelites, who were passing through the desert after leaving Mount Horeb, and the Rephaites, commanded by King Og of Bash an. The Rephaites were so thoroughly defeated that the text reports, "Only Og king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaites" (Deut. 3:11a). Similarly, in 2 Kings 19, King Hezekiah, who was besieged and mocked by the Assyrians, sent to Isaiah to ask him to pray for the Jewish "remnant that still survives" (v. 4), and Isaiah responded with an oracle in which God promised that the remnant would not only be spared destruction by Sennacherib but would even prosper for a time like a fruitful tree.'

Once more a remnant of the house of Judah will take root below and bear fruit above. For out of Jerusalem will come a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors.
(2 Kings 19:30-31)
,
A large number of these passages refer to little more than the physical survival of a small number of Jews following a military catastrophe, such as the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. But, increasingly, particularly in the later Prophets, the remnant becomes, not merely a group of survivors but a chastened, regenerated, and converted people whom we would describe as the elect or "saved" within Israel.

One important example of this is in I Kings 19. Though the word remnant does not occur in that chapter. I refer to it because Paul refers to it himself in Romans 11, applying the word remnant to the situation. It is the story of Elijah at Horeb after his great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Elijah had achieved a stunning victory that resulted in the overthrow and death of the prophets of Baal. The battle had taken an enormous emotional toll on him. so that. when Queen Jezebel threatened to have him killed. Elijah lied to the wilderness discouraged. despondent. and content to die. In fact, that is what he told God.

God asked him, "What are you doing here?" (I Kings 19:13).

Elijah answered, "I have been very jealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too" (v. 14).

God replied that he still had work for Elijah to do, that he would appoint a helper for him in his eventual successor Elisha and that Elijah was wrong in thinking that he was the only faithful person left in Israel. "Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel--all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him" (v. 18). When Paul gets around to referring to this story in Romans 11, he concludes, "So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace" (v. 5). This is exactly what we find in Romans 9. And it is the meaning of the bulk of the other Old Testament references. Lawrence O. Richards says that the regenerated remnant referred to in the later Prophets is "made up of those in Israel who will experience conversion and receive the promised covenant blessings. " According to my count, the English word remnant is used of this new entity six times in Isaiah. three times in Jeremiah, five times in Micah. and three times each in Zephaniah and Zachariah. This remnant will be saved. The actual words in Romans 9:27 are "the remnant," that is, the remnant of God's electing choice. As for the rest, 'The Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality" (v. 28). That is, the rest will perish in God's final judgments.

* Other words with virtually the same meaning; sarid, peleytah, palit, yatar, and yeter (over 200 times alone). (Romans, Vol. 3, James M. Boice, Baker Books 2000)

For further discussion on the remnant throughout the Bible see The Concept of the Remnant, http://ldolphin.org/Remn.html


Pots, Potter and Clay, http://www.ldolphin.org/clay.html

Our Lexicon web site of Christianese words: http://lexicon.rail.com/phpLexicon/

R.C. Sproul's MP3 audio messages on the Holiness of God, http://ldolphin.orgaudio/holy1.mp3, through holy6.mp3.

Class Notes on Romans: http://ldolphin.org/romans/

November 11, 2003.