Few chapters in the Bible elicit as much controversy as Romans 9. The subject matter of God choosing to redeem one person over another—based solely on His sovereign choice—is an absolute affront to most modern sensibilities of fairness and justice. But the apostle Paul wasn’t bothered by those objections. In fact, he used the truth of God’s sovereignty to repudiate them and reaffirm God’s unimpeachable justice and righteousness.
Paul had a passion for the salvation of sinners, and it was particularly strong for the Jews—after all, they were his people. So in Romans 9 he starts by saying, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” (Romans 9:1–2). What troubled Paul? He explains, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Paul’s heart breaks for lost Jews such that he would wish himself out of fellowship with Christ for the sake of winning their salvation. That’s an evangelistic zeal most of us know nothing about. He expresses the same impassioned longing a chapter later: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation” (Romans 10:1). Everything in Romans 9 is sandwiched between those earnest expressions of deep desire for the salvation of his fellow Israelites.
Israel’s spiritual waywardness and unbelief fired up Paul’s heart. The Jews had been given the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the Law, the Temple, and all the blessings and promises of being God’s people. They descended from the fathers—the very line of Christ. But they had rejected all that and more, forfeiting their spiritual inheritance and inviting God’s wrath. And Paul desperately wanted to see them saved. He is literally begging God for the salvation of sinners. And that evangelistic zeal drove him all the way to Rome, where he was ultimately beheaded for the faith.
Paul knew what is essential for sinners to be saved. First, he explains that it requires divine sovereignty—he recognized that salvation is a divine work. In Romans 9:6, Paul indicates some believed that God’s plans had failed. But the Word of God has not failed in the unbelief of Israel, and here’s why: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Romans 9:6). God never intended to save all of Israel—He has always been selective. Paul explains that the blessing did not extend equally to all of Abraham’s offspring—that it came through Isaac, then Jacob. God never made a secret that this was part of His divine plan: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13).
Paul anticipates the possible objection to God’s selectivity, and heads it off. “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” (Romans 9:14). That final phrase, mē genoito, is the strongest negative in the Greek language. Paul is saying “No, never, not at all.” He goes on, “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:15–16). The Lord’s gracious choice of certain people unto eternal life is just that—His choice. It’s not based on human merit or exertion. To further illustrate God’s discriminatory practices, Paul looks all the way back to Pharaoh:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Romans 9:17–18)
Again, Paul knows our natural inclination is to object on the basis of so-called fairness. In verse 19 he raises the objection for us: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’” How can God find fault with us if He’s the one who makes the decision? How can He harden Pharaoh’s heart, then hold him responsible for the actions of a hard heart?
Paul answers those gripes by essentially telling us, in his own vernacular, to shut up:
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? (Romans 9:20–22)
As the potter, God exercises ultimate and unquestioned authority over us, the clay.
Now, bear in mind also that God exercises His sovereignty without doing any violence to the will of the creature. Pharaoh was guilty because he himself was in willful rebellion against God. God did not overrule any desire or inclination of Pharaoh in order to harden the evil ruler’s heart. The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not done against Pharaoh’s own will.
Still, this passage in Romans 9 is perhaps the strongest statement of divine sovereignty in the New Testament. We must understand that God has the right to put His wrath and His justice on display for His glory just as much as He has the right to put His mercy and His grace on display. Obviously, we prefer the glory He receives from His grace, but He gets just as much glory from His wrath. It is simply not up to us to determine how God displays His glory. Paul understands that salvation is a sovereign work and that God is not unjust, and nothing here contradicts the truth of Psalm 119:142, which says, “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness.” God will do what God will do, and it will always be righteous and just.
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