The ninth chapter of Romans has been the subject of much debate through the centuries because a person’s view of divine sovereignty, human responsibility and the place of
in God’s plan may hinge on its interpretation. The exercise of interpreting Romans nine is so disturbing to some that they have opted to ignore teaching it. It is a lot easier to attack the interpretive work of another teacher if you haven’t done the exercise yourself. Israel
This blog regularly deals with biblical counseling issues. Embracing what this chapter teaches will bring you to have a God-centered approach to any struggle you could ever bring into the counseling room
Does God really have the right to do whatever He wants with people, including choosing to save them or leave them in their sins? Later I am going to answer, “Yes,” but let me illustrate.
I grow rhubarb. I have a thriving stand of it in my garden. It belongs to me. I created a space for it with my tiller. I planted it. My family tends it. We pick some of it and use it for our purposes.
We can use it for whatever we want. My wife makes killer rhubarb pie, rhubarb torte, rhubarb crisp and rhubarb crunch. I have even sampled some delicious rhubarb punch. I occasionally eat it like a stalk of celery, as disgusting as that might sound to you. Its large leaves, when picked, work well as a mulch to keep down weeds or as a hat to prevent sunburn.
Rhubarb is valuable to me as long as it accomplishes my purposes. But it tends to shade some of my other garden plants and make them pale. It sometimes encroaches on the territory of other plants. When this happens I have to take action.
What if rhubarb had a personality? Can you picture those red and green stalks meeting under cover of darkness to plot my overthrow and replace me with the garden rake or the largest tomato plant?
What if I use my self-propelled Toro lawnmower to take out a section of the rebels? Would those stalks I left complain that the others never had the chance? Would they accuse me of violating the free will of those stalks that really wanted to be in a pie of only they had been given a chance?
Get this: Even you rhubarb lovers would not take their side against me because the issue is not the free will of the rebels but the free will of the master. It is not what my rhubarb wants but what I want that makes the difference.
This is where my illustration breaks down. Rhubarb does not have personality. It was not created with a mind, emotions and a will. It has not used its will to replace me. That is why the story of God’s redemption is so much more vivid.
The story of the Bible is not about great people who achieved great things for God. The story is of a great God, period. We are allowed in His story because He decided to let us in. We belong to Him. He created a space for us. He put us here. He takes care of us and makes us thrive here. He uses us for His purposes.
Are you ready for this? He has the right to do whatever He wants with us because He is God. Bad thing for us, we have darkened minds, self-focused emotions and depraved wills. Our fallen wills have chosen to replace the living God with anything from statues made of stone to sports to sensuality. Good thing for us, this God does what He wants in complete harmony with His character. And that changeless character is merciful as well as holy.
The content of the chapter is summarized in verse 18, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” Does this mean that God actively chooses the people who get to be saved while passing others by, or is there another way of looking at it? Two primary views emerge: Either (1) God saves individuals on the basis of His character and sovereign plan or (2) God saves nations on the basis of His character and sovereign plan. The second view leaves open the possibility for God to rescue or condemn nations independent of His dealings with individual people.
It is true that God judges nations while saving His people inside those nations, but that is not the message of Romans 9. While there are national aspects to the election of God (Deuteronomy 7:7-8), this text will demonstrate that viewing God as the Savior of individuals is the interpretation that best fits the purpose of Paul’s letter. The story of God’s redemptive plan for the nation of
is an illustration that directs us to His redemptive plan for individuals, not the other way around. Romans nine contends that God is the sovereign ruler over nations and individuals within those nations for His own good purpose and His own glory. Israel
We humans, like so much rebellious rhubarb, are not running to submit to God’s rule. People who are troubled with talk of election and predestination have an incorrect view of the nature of man and the nature of God. Men are not crawling over one another to get into the kingdom of heaven and God is not standing outside with a stick, beating those poor willing souls away from the gates.
God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden because He is God and because we are rebels. As the book of Romans has clearly illustrated, the shocking reality is not that God would dare allow rebels to suffer eternal punishment but that He would dare save any of us.
Does this make sense to you? Does it make sense that this is God’s world and that He can do whatever He wants? Beware if it does. When you take this point of view you need to be ready to answer some questions. If God is indeed sovereign, every event in His world is subject to the scrutiny of the people in His world.
How, for instance, do you answer the skeptic who asks you how you can believe in a God who would raise up wicked men like Herod the Great, Adolph Hitler and Osama bin Laden to kill so many innocent people? What kind of God would allow earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes to kill children? “If that is God, I choose not to believe in Him,” your unbelieving friends might say.
You could take the current theological way of escape from hard questions and say that God has limited His knowledge of some future events. Redefining God’s attributes by giving Him this “openness” might make you think you are protecting His reputation from blame for events you cannot explain. But you can never satisfy a sinner whose heart is hard by cutting God down to the sinner’s level of understanding.
There are some questions we can never answer. Can you be satisfied with that and still run to your Savior even when He has left you hurting and weak?
The Gospel of Luke (13:1) records an instance where some men questioned Jesus about a horrible crime Pilate reportedly committed against some Galileans in the
. Jesus replied reminding them of yet another tragedy in which a tower fell and killed eighteen people. We cannot know why they asked Him about this but we can know what our response to such events needs to be. Jesus said that such events call us to repentance. Catastrophes are a reminder that our lives are short and unpredictable and that we are accountable to God. While men are shaking their fists at the Creator they should be kneeling in shame, pleading for forgiveness. Temple
So this begs the question: Do you want a God without a plan and without control over His creation? If He is not in charge, the alternative rulers deserve more fist-shaking than God is currently getting. Do you want a God Who chooses not to control nature or Who is surprised by the wicked plans of wicked men? When your unbelieving friends look at a sin-cursed world and seek to accuse God of wrongdoing, turn the tables like Jesus did. The burden is on them. Unless they repent they will perish in similar fashion.
This is Paul’s argument in Romans nine. Man says, “That’s not fair.” God says, “Don’t ask for what’s fair.” Man says, “What about my free will?” God says, “What about my free will?”
Consider some thoughts that may help you as you approach what has been called “the most neglected chapter in the Bible”:
There are some things you can know for sure when you approach this difficult chapter:
1. It does not contradict what the Bible says elsewhere. The Bible has proven itself immune to the charges of its critics. This does not mean that there are no difficult passages, only that those passages are part of a unified body of revelation from God.
2. It presents God as He is, whether you like it or not. Romans nine does not seek to accommodate those who seek to create a lesser god.
3. God is never confused or in error. Whenever there are charges of wrongdoing, God is never the defendant.
4. It is possible to correctly understand the hard texts. Your confusion over circumstances or biblical texts does not change God’s character or His word. The emotions stirred by a difficult text should never determine your interpretation of that text. Your theology or system of belief must bend to the plain reading of any Scripture text, not vice versa.
5. The safest action for hurting or confused people is to run into the presence of God, never away from Him.