January 29, 2015 by allistairg
In part 1 of this Bible study, I explained that the saying “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” does not refer to either the salvation of Jacob or Esau or to any other individual. It has a specific application concerning the nature of the election of Israel within God’s purposes.
The Apostle Paul then anticipates certain objections. He lays these out at length in the following passage (Romans 9:14-24):
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. For the scripture said to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth. Therefore has he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardens. You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will? No but, O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? Has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honor, and another to dishonor? What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had before prepared to glory, even us, whom he has called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Emphasis mine)
Let us just stand back from this passage and consider the following question: why would Paul have needed to anticipate these (highlighted) objections from the believers at the Church in Rome? It doesn’t take immense powers of inference to read between the lines and work out how these early Christians thought. Paul knew how they thought, and clearly they had a strong sense of fairness, which was related to a person’s level of accountability before God. If this was not the case, then Paul’s words make no sense. Paul felt the need to address this issue, because he knew that it would cause some difficulty for at least some of his audience.
Now I will anticipate an objection! Some perhaps may argue that Paul was trying to reform the thinking of Christians, by encouraging them to dispense with their current view of ‘fairness’ and replace it with a complete submission to an idea of the sovereignty of God which precludes ‘fairness’, at least as we understand it. Perhaps Paul believed that his brethren had picked up some kind of moral virus from the surrounding pagan culture, and his role was to disabuse them of this false notion. Well clearly this is absurd. Roman society was anything but fair! It was an authoritarian society, which made a mockery of the ideas of equality and fairness. Some people were free citizens and others were mere slaves. Some had a right to privileges by reason of birth, and others could not hope to obtain such benefits. So there is no way that the believers in Rome could have been infected by some kind of sinister “fairness bug”.
Good and wild grapes
The reason the believers in Rome would have objected to Paul’s ostensibly shocking argument is because they held to a healthy view of justice, because God is just. We know from numerous texts of the Bible that God upholds what we normally understand by ‘justice’. A good example is Isaiah 5:1-7:
Now will I sing to my well beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well beloved has a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: and he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the middle of it, and also made a wine press therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? why, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?
And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor dig; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (emphasis mine)
If the Calvinist view of reprobation is true, then God would not have made this appeal to His people. He would not have asked them to judge between Himself and His vineyard, in order to appreciate that His punishment of it was fair. He would simply have said: “I have decided to fashion this vineyard in such a way so that it does not and cannot bring forth good grapes. That is my decree. And because it has not brought forth good grapes, I will then destroy it. If you then think that is unfair, because I was the one who made it barren, then who are you to question Me?! I will do what I like whether it seems fair to you or not. End of.”
If this really is the way God speaks to His people, then there is no sense in explaining that He is judging the vineyard, because He has good reason to do so, on the basis that He did everything He could to enable it to bring forth good grapes, but instead it brought forth wild grapes. The people whom the vineyard symbolises have genuine free will, and they brought forth evil, because they wilfully resisted God’s work in their lives. God looked for justice from these people. He expected it. He had invested in these people, such that they would produce a moral return. But instead they wilfully rebelled against God. There was nothing forcing them to act in the way that they did. They could have obeyed God, but chose not to. Therefore God’s justice can easily be seen to be totally fair. Nothing to do with predestination, of course, and everything to do with their own stubborn will.
A controversial explanation
On the basis of this kind of text it is not surprising that the believers in Rome would have been horrified at any understanding of God’s activity, which appeared to be unjust and trampled on a person’s level of moral accountability. Hence Paul’s need to write: “You will say then to me, Why does he yet find fault? For who has resisted his will?” Paul was not merely hypothesising, setting up imaginary objections just to knock them down like an intellectual parlour game. No. He said “You will say then to me…” He knew how the brethren in Rome thought, and he realised that what he was trying to explain was controversial.
So why did Paul approach this subject in this way?
Was he really saying that God deliberately creates some people to be recipients of blessing and salvation and others to be evil and therefore worthy only of eternal damnation? If so, then this clearly contradicts the revelation of God’s justice in Isaiah 5, as quoted above, which reveals that it is possible to resist God’s will.
And if Paul is not saying that, then why not reassure the believers in Rome concerning the nature of God’s justice? Why is Paul’s answer to the objections a kind of ‘put down’, which stifles any attempt at thought, and, frankly, makes God look like a tyrant? How can we possibly trust such a God? After all, if His will is inscrutable and we cannot hope to understand even the basics of His idea of fairness, and if we are required to believe that He creates the wicked and willingly consigns people to everlasting torment purely by irresistible decree, then how can we trust Him and love Him as our Heavenly Father? After all, if He is willing to damn that person, then He is also willing to damn me and anyone else who happens to read this article. And He does so simply because He wills it. (And if anyone argues that “God would not do that to me, because I am elect”, then that person needs to understand that he could be mistaken. After all, if God’s will is inscrutable, then we have no right to use that kind of logic against God. No one is safe under such a divine regime.)
The Egyptian connection
The solution to the problem involves an understanding of how God works in the midst of evil and suffering. There is a profound mystery to suffering, and although the Word of God encourages us to have a healthy understanding of justice and fairness (hence the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5), sometimes this needs to be put on hold when we are faced with seemingly intractable problems in our lives. One of the most formative periods in the life of Israel was their captivity in Egypt. The miraculous deliverance from Egypt is repeatedly referred to throughout Scripture. It is as if this event is a model for understanding suffering and deliverance.
Paul specifically refers to God’s dealings with the Pharaoh, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Israelites’ slavery there. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not allow the Israelites to leave. This is an example of what could be called ‘reprobation’. It would appear that God deliberately caused Pharaoh to be an oppressive tyrant, and then judged him for being so. This appears to be grossly unfair to Pharaoh. The Calvinist would perhaps say: “So be it”. But an investigation of the book of Exodus does not support this interpretation. The question we need to ask is this: did God harden Pharaoh’s heart from the outset, or only after he had first hardened his own heart?
The second answer is the correct one.
In Exodus 5:1-2 we read: And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus said the LORD God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness. And Pharaoh said, Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, neither will I let Israel go.
Pharaoh’s response was to increase the burdens on the people of Israel, and there is no mention of God hardening his heart. This is also the case in the account given in Exodus chapters 6 to 8, where we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart. It is true that Exodus 4:21 and 7:3 state that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart, but we can only assume that that divine action began when the text states as much. All we can rely on is the evidence of the text, and it is not until chapter 9, verse 12 that we read that “the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh”. There are numerous references prior to this verse that inform us that Pharaoh hardened his own heart or that “his heart was hardened” (7:13,22; 8:15, 32; 9:7). We also have to remember that Pharaoh was already oppressing the Israelites; he had proven himself to be a brutal ruler for many years prior to the appearance of Moses and the period of the plagues.
Furthermore, God reveals His purpose for hardening Pharaoh’s heart: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3). Clearly therefore if God had created Pharaoh an evil man, then the signs and wonders would have been evident in Egypt from the moment Pharaoh began to act in a malicious and oppressive way. Even the earlier reference to God’s promise to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21) indicates a future event, and yet we know at that time that Pharaoh was already a despot. Therefore it is not possible to say that God created Pharaoh to be a reprobate, but rather that God made use of an evil man to work out His own purposes.
At the potter’s wheel
This hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is the context of Paul’s reference to God fashioning “vessels for dishonour” (Romans 9:21). The metaphor of the potter and the clay of Romans 9:21 was well understood, and may be a reference to its use in Jeremiah chapter 18, verses 1-12. This passage is God’s call to the wicked to repent:
“O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? said the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do to them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, with which I said I would benefit them.” (Jeremiah 18:6-10. Emphasis mine).
This text in Jeremiah makes a complete mockery of the claims of Calvinism. If God creates people to be evil (“vessels for dishonour”) then how can they possibly be expected to repent? If the nation threatened with punishment is expected to repent, then how can it if it is reprobate, according to the eternal decree of God? And if God intends to do good to a nation, how then can it rebel against Him, if it is elect according to an eternal divine decree? Clearly the biblical metaphor of the potter and the clay does not support the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination.
God enduring His own will?
Romans 9:22 also informs us that God endured the vessels for dishonour “with much long-suffering”. How strange? If it was God’s will and pleasure that these people should be reprobate, then why would He have to ‘endure’ them at all? Surely, if the doctrine of reprobation is true, then it is His pleasure that they should be in this spiritual condition, isn’t it? After all, that is what Calvinism teaches! Are we to believe that God is some kind of masochist, who has deliberately caused some people to be profane, evil and corrupt, with the result that it grieves Him? How ridiculous!
The fact that God has had to endure these people with much long-suffering indicates that it is manifestly not His will for them to be in this spiritual condition of reprobation.
Likewise, why does the Apostle Paul have sorrow in his heart over the condition of Israel (Romans 9:1), if Israel has been rejected by God by decree? Surely Paul should be rejoicing in submission to the will of God, and delighting in the fact that God’s will is being done in the spiritual destruction of some of the nation of Israel? That is what predestination to reprobation implies. Surely Paul is admitting that he is grieved at the will of God (which is tantamount to blaspheming!).
Clearly the Calvinist interpretation is entirely false. It is a delusion. The text simply cannot bear this strange construction that has been put on it.
However, we do need to ask why Paul presented his argument in the way that he has.
A reassuring truth
There is no doubt that God is indeed sovereign. God in His sovereignty has created man with free will, but that does not mean that man can presume to live completely independently of his Maker. The reassurance that Paul is giving the Christians in Rome is that even the lives of the wicked – who are evil by their own choice – can be fashioned by God in such a way as to serve His purposes. This is the true meaning of the potter and clay analogy. For Christians suffering persecution within the Roman Empire, it is an important truth. God is not absent even when evil flourishes, but He is working out His purposes through those who persecute His people. The wicked are still responsible for their actions, even when the sovereign God uses those actions for His higher purposes. We don’t need to understand what God is doing in such situations, but we need simply to submit to His authority.
This is a far more positive and coherent interpretation than the Calvinistic theory. God is glorified, even when evil flourishes.