The Second Objection: “We’re Not Responsible!” – Romans 9:19-23
Pastor Mark Hardy April 21, 2013
As we continue on in our study of Romans 9, which focuses primarily on the sovereignty of God in salvation, we now come to one of the most awe-inspiring but theologically heavy and difficult passages in the entire Bible. It is one that stretches us beyond the limits of our finite and fallen understanding. This is why I want to begin by reminding you that the truths Paul reveals here about God did not have a detrimental effect on how much he personally prayed and witnessed to others, which people so often think will happen if you believe what he says. For 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says he “prayed without ceasing” and 1 Corinthians 15:10 states he labored in evangelism “harder than any of the other apostles.”
Now thus far, we have seen in vv. 1-5 that Paul was in great sorrow over the fact that in his day the majority of Israel, his fellow kinsmen who had been given amazing privileges by God, had rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Since this painful reality called into question God’s promises to Israel, and thus His very character, Paul states his thesis in v. 6 that “the word of God,” His saving promises to Israel, has not “failed.” He then went on to prove this thesis in vv. 7-13 by showing that God never guaranteed salvation to every individual Israelite and that physical descent from Abraham alone offers no security. Instead, God insured a “spiritual” Israel within “ethnic” Israel by sovereignly choosing or electing some, such as Isaac and Jacob, and rejecting others, such as Ishmael and Esau. His primary example in v. 11 was where God chose Jacob over Esau before they were even born and had not done anything good or bad.
Knowing people would react negatively to what he just said about God’s unconditional election of individuals to their respective eternal destinies, he anticipated the first objection in v. 14, which in essence is “God isn’t fair!” After sharply rejecting this objection “May it never be,” Paul went on to explain in vv. 15-18 why his rejection was justified. Revealing what God did to both Moses and Pharaoh, Paul showed God’s sovereign freedom to declare the glory of His name in bestowing mercy on whom He desires, and hardening whom He desires.
But having revealed God’s sovereignty in both showing mercy and hardening whomever He determines, Paul now anticipates and another negative reaction and objection. This second objection is what we will be looking at this morning. Turn in your Bible to Romans 9.
In Romans 9:19-23 we see three aspects concerning the second objection to Paul’s teaching on the sovereign calling of God. The first aspect is this:
I. The Objector’s protest against Paul
A. Look at v. 19 where Paul quotes an imaginary objector’s protest: You will say to me then, “Why does He (i.e. God) still find fault? For who resists His will?”
1. In other words, the objector is saying, “If God sovereignly shows mercy on whom He desires, and hardens whom He desires, and it is impossible to successfully resist His sovereign predetermined will, then how can people be held responsible? God is wrong to “still find fault” or blame them for their hardened hearts when their destiny has already been determined by Him?
2. The essence of this second objection is: “We’re not responsible!” The fact that the objector says this shows that he clearly understood what Paul was saying about the eternal destiny of individuals being attributed to the sovereign will of God. This is why he protests!
3. Now if Paul knew the objector had simply misunderstood what he said all he needed to do to clear things up was to state that the ultimate factor in peoples’ salvation is not God’s sovereign choice but their own human free will and faith. But he doesn’t and that’s very telling!
4. Paul didn’t have a problem with people asking sincere questions and humbly seeking to better understand God’s mysterious ways. But the objector’s heart attitude here is wrong and we see this in the second aspect concerning the second objection, which is this:
II. Paul Rejects the objector’s Presumption
A. In vv. 20-21 Paul sharply rebukes the objector and then gives the first of two answers to this objection. His first answer is: The absurdity of creatures contending with their Creator. Look at v. 20: On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? (Stop there)
1. Standing in direct defiance to the objector’s protest Paul declares, “On the contrary.” He then rebukes the objector and puts him in his proper place as he contrasts finite “man” in his creaturely weakness and ignorance to the infinite Creator “God” in His sovereign majesty and wisdom—“…who are you, O man, who answers back to God?”
2. The one Greek word translated “answers back” (antapokrinomenos) means to reply against or contend with, which is similar to what Job did to God of which he later repented (10:1-2; 13:3, 15b, 18-19; 19:7; 23:3-4; 31:35; 42:1-6).
3. Despite the infinite gulf between the creature and His Creator, the objector has the audacity to lip off to God. Therefore, Paul rebukes him for his arrogant presumption in challenging God’s character and accusing Him of being unjust and unrighteous in capriciously showing mercy to some and hardening others.
B. To further explain the absurdity of presumptuously talking back to God, Paul then gives a familiar Old Testament illustration of a potter and his clay, probably distilled from Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9-10 (Job 10:9; Ps. 2:9; Isa. 41:25; 64:8; Jer. 18:1-6). Look at the rhetorical questions Paul asks the objector in vv. 20b-21: The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? (The obvious answer is “Of course not!”) 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? (The obvious answer is “Absolutely!”)
1. Paul is driving home the point that just as it is absurd and unthinkable for a molded object to talk back to the molder who made it and challenge his design and purpose, so it is the height of presumptuous arrogance and foolishness for the finite creature to challenge the justice and wisdom of the infinite Creator and demand that He account for His actions.
2. Using a human potter to illustrate the divine Potter, Paul makes it very clear that the potter has the “right” (exousian) or authority to fashion his clay into whatever kinds of “vessels” (skeuos) he desires. Likewise, in an infinitely greater degree, the divine Potter has the sovereign right and authority to do with people, whom He created out of dust (Gen. 2:7), whatever He desires.
3. Notice that the potter has the right “…to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use.” The word “vessel” (skeuos) here refers to individual people, and the phrase “from the same lump” (ek tou autou phuramatos) refers to the totality of fallen humanity.
4. Now it is important to understand that the perfectly holy God is not responsible in the slightest way for the sinfulness of His creatures (Hab. 1:13; Jam. 1:13). Although God makes no one sinful and is not the Author of sin, He is here dealing with people as sinners by nature and by deed, which obviously takes human responsibility into account.
5. John Murray accurately states, “It must be borne in mind. . . that Paul is not now dealing with God’s sovereign rights over men as men but over men as sinners.” (pg. 32)
6. And Charles Hodge says, “It is not the right of God to create sinful beings in order to punish them, but his right to deal with sinful beings according to his good pleasure, that is here asserted.” (pg. 319)
7. Therefore, the divine Potter has the right and authority to make from the same dirty (i.e. sinful) lump of clay, two different kinds of vessels that are equally undeserving. Notice again that He makes “…one vessel for honorable use and another for common use.”
8. The word “honorable” (timen) refers to that which is precious and noble. The word “common” (atimian) here is the opposite of honorable, and refers to that which is without honor or dishonorable, and despised.
9. Now since the divine Potter has this right to do whatever He wants with His sinful creatures, the objector has no grounds whatsoever for talking back to God for His sovereign choice to bestow mercy on whom He desires, and to harden whom He desires.
10. John MacArthur rightly states about this, “Many critics of such doctrine, supposedly coming to the defense of God’s justice, fail to acknowledge that every human being since the Fall has deserved nothing but God’s just condemnation to an eternity in hell. If God were to exercise only His justice, no person would ever be saved. It is therefore hardly unjust if, according to His sovereign grace, He chooses to elect some sinners for salvation.” (pg. 37)
11. And F.F. Bruce said it like this, “The point on which Paul insists here is that all are guilty before God; no-one has a claim on his grace. If he chooses to extend his grace to some, the others have no ground for arguing that he is unjust because he does not extend it to them. If it is justice they demand, they can have it.” (pp. 190-191)
12. Therefore, Paul’s first answer to this objection is that it is absolutely absurd for creatures to contend with their Creator.
13. The third aspect concerning the objection is this:
III. Paul’s Application of his Illustration
A. Here Paul gives his second answer to this objection, which is: Nothing about God’s sovereignty violates His righteous character. Look at vv. 22-23: What if God, although willing (probably better translated “because He willed) to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.
1. Here again Paul contrasts two different kinds of vessels—the “vessels of wrath” (skeue orges) and the “vessels of mercy” (skeue eleous). These correspond to the two vessels in v. 21 for “common use” and “honorable use” respectively and again represent individual people within the totality of sinful humanity.
2. Notice that Paul says that God “…endured with much patience vessels of wrath.” Although it may appear that God’s “patience” here is an expression of His kindness by which He withholds His final judgment to give men time to repent (2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9), this is not the case.
3. No one has the capability to repent and turn to saving faith in Christ apart from God’s initiative (Jn. 6:44; Rom. 3:11). And those whom God is patient with here are heading for final judgment and there is no indication that they will later become vessels of mercy.
4. Therefore, just like He did with Pharaoh in v. 17, God is here patiently withholding His final judgment with a view to a greater display of His glory. In these two verses Paul gives three reasons why God patiently withholds His final judgment from the vessels of wrath.
5. The first two are in v. 22 and the third is in v. 23. The first reason is because God willed “…to demonstrate His wrath.”
6. God’s “wrath” (orgen) is His settled attitude of fierce anger and displeasure against man’s sin and His abiding determination to punish those who commit it. If God had immediately destroyed Pharaoh the first time he rebelled against God, no one would have seen God’s demonstration of His majestic holiness expressed in His wrath being poured out upon Egypt in the ten plagues.
7. The second reason is because God willed “…to make His power known.” Remember what God said to Pharaoh in v. 17: “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.”
8. God’s mighty power that was originally displayed in creation is equally made known in His punishment of sin and sinners. God demonstrated His power and proclaimed His glorious name in His powerful plagues upon Egypt and especially the parting of the Red Sea for Israel’s deliverance and the Egyptian armies destruction.
9. Thomas Schreiner summarized these two reasons well, “In Pharaoh’s case God demonstrated his patience by not destroying Pharaoh immediately, even though he resisted God’s command. By delaying his judgment on Pharaoh, however, God magnified his name and exhibited more forcefully the greatness of his salvation and the terror of his judgment….God defers his immediate judgment of vessels of wrath so that he can unveil the full extent of his power and wrath on those who continually resist his offer of repentance.” (pg. 521)
B. Now notice the two opposite eternal ends of these two vessels.
1. Paul says the “vessels of wrath” are “prepared for destruction,” and the “vessels of mercy” are “prepared for glory.” Here Paul makes more explicit than ever that he is speaking about the eternal destinies of individuals, not the historical roles of corporate nations.
2. The word “destruction” (apoleian) when used of persons as here means eternal destruction or damnation, to perish away from the presence of the Lord (Matt. 7:13; Jn. 17:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thess. 1:7-9).
3. And the word “glory” (doxan) at the end of v. 23 refers to those who have received God’s mercy to eternal life (Rom. 2:7, 10; 5:2; 8:18, 21; 1 Cor. 2:7; 2 Cor. 4:17; Eph. 1:18; Phil. 3:21; Col. 1:27; 3:4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14; 2 Tim. 2:10).
4. Paul says the “vessels of wrath” are “prepared for destruction.” This is one of the most tragic identifications of unbelievers in all of Scripture.
5. The word “prepared” (katertismena) here means to be fitted or made ready. But the point of greatest controversy is the question, “Who prepared them?”
6. Some scholars say the word “prepares” is in the middle voice, signifying that these people “prepared themselves” for destruction. But not only is the middle voice not appropriate here, but it misses the whole point of the potter-clay analogy where the potter is completely sovereign over the clay.
7. Therefore, it is best to see this as in the passive voice. But since there is no expressed agent, some scholars say that Satan is the one who is ultimately responsible for preparing them for destruction.
8. And others say this simply refers to these peoples’ ripeness of sinfulness and readiness for judgment unless they turn to God in repentance and faith.
9. However, the context clearly shows that it is best to see the unnamed agent here as God Himself, whereby this is called a “divine passive.” John Murray brings this out well, “It is true that Paul does not say that God prepared them for destruction as he does in the corresponding words respecting the vessels of mercy that “he afore prepared” them unto glory. It may be that he purposely refrained from making God the subject. However, we may not insist that God is not viewed as fitting them for destruction. In verse 18 there is the agency of God in hardening. In verses 22 and 23 the analogy of verse 21 is being applied and the vessels of wrath correspond to the potter’s vessel unto dishonor which he prepares for this purpose. They are also vessels of wrath. . . .and wrath corresponds to destruction. For these reasons there is nothing contrary to the teaching of the context if we regard God as the agent in fitting for destruction. . . .The main thought is that the destruction meted out to the vessels of wrath is something for which their precedent condition suits them. There is an exact correspondence between what they were in this life and the perdition to which they are consigned. This is another way of saying that there is continuity between this life and the lot of the life to come. In the general context of the apostle’s thought there is no release from human responsibility nor from the guilt of which perdition is the wages.” (pg. 36)
10. Remember that God is not responsible for peoples’ sinfulness, we are! But unless He sovereignly chooses to bestow mercy, God does not make peoples’ soft, sensitive hearts into a hard, rebellious hearts; He merely confirms the hardness that already characterizes them, like He did Pharaoh.
11. Now although Paul sees the divine action behind the passive, he presents the agency of God very differently with the vessels of wrath than he does with the vessels of mercy, which we will see in v. 23. God accomplishes all things by the counsel of His sovereign will, but He does not bring about all things in the same way.
C. We now see the third reason why God patiently withholds His final judgment from the vessels of wrath in v. 23: And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.
1. God has patiently withheld His final judgment that could rightfully fall on His rebellious creatures at any time not only because He wants to display His wrath and power, but also because ultimately He wants “…to make known the riches of His glory.” This is His greatest reason!
2. God’s “glory,” like His name, is the sum-total of all His attributes. And “the riches of His glory” refers to the splendor and fullness that characterizes these attributes.
3. And notice those to whom God is intent “to make known the riches of His glory”—the “vessels of mercy.” These are the redeemed, all those who have been the personal recipients of the mercy of God.
4. Notice what Paul says about these vessels of mercy, “…which He prepared beforehand for glory.” The one Greek word translated “prepared beforehand” (proetoimasen) here is in the active voice here, meaning there is no question that God is the active agent in the salvation of people.
5. By saying “prepared beforehand” we cannot escape the explicit fact that Paul is speaking of God’s predetermined or predestined decision in eternity past to bestow His mercy on certain individuals whom He sovereignly elected for “glory” (doxan), which means eternal life. (Eph. 1:4-6)
6. But the great work that God does in saving the elect is to put on display before them the fullness of His glory. In His unwavering commitment to magnify His glorious name, God makes known to the vessels of mercy the full range of His glory—on the one hand, His wrath and power; on the other hand, His mercy.
7. But since God delights more in His mercy than His wrath, He sets forth the priority of His mercy by placing it against the black backdrop of His wrath. It is the reality of God’s wrath that causes us as believers, to see the holy fierceness of God against sin and sinners and the fact that we deserve the same, and therefore, more fully appreciate His inexplicable mercy and grace that He has showered upon us, which should fill our hearts with praise and adoration to Him.
8. Therefore, Paul’s second answer to this objection is nothing about God’s sovereignty violates His righteous character. He justly punishes the wicked for their sins and He extends undeserved mercy to the objects of His grace.
9. But Douglas Moo is correct in saying, “We must not allow the preeminence of God’s purpose in bestowing mercy on some to cancel out the reality and finality of his wrath on others. Paul is clear here, as he is elsewhere: some people receive God’s mercy and are saved, while others do not receive that mercy and so are eternally condemned.” (pg. 608)
10. Although all are equally deserving of eternal hell, the divine Potter not only has the sovereign right and authority bestow mercy on some and harden others, but He is also active in both yet in different ways. This is what theologians call “double predestination,” which I believe is biblically correct as long as it is stringently restricted by the checks and balances of Scripture.
11. For the Scripture teaches that both the absolute sovereignty of God and the full responsibility of man, which we will see in 9:30-10:21, are true. You say, “How can that be?” We don’t know!
12. Although there is no doctrine that stimulates more negative reactions than this one, for it flies in the face of our own perceptions of human freedom, equality and justice, it perfectly balances in God’s perception.
13. Therefore, we must simply accept it by faith and live with the tension because God has revealed it to be true in His Word, which is our final standard, not our perception. But if we don’t and instead try to balance this at the expense of one or the other, we will end up being guilty before God of adding to or taking away from His Word.
In closing, Paul never offers a logical solution to this biblical tension. He is content to hold both of these truths as revealed by God without reconciling them and continues to praise God for His wonderful grace and mercy upon him, as he faithfully obeys the Lord in praying without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) and evangelizing the lost (1 Cor. 15:10). And beloved, we would do well to follow his example.