God's sovereign grace in rebellion. 9:14-23
After expressing his grief at Israel's rejection of the gospel, v1-5, Paul broaches the subject of the true Israel of God, v6. Many of his readers had aligned themselves with historic Israel and its institutions, so Paul sets out to explain that God's true Israel are the children of promise rather than the children of flesh - children of grace rather than law. God's mercy has always only ever applied to a remnant, a godly line who rest on the faithfulness of God alone, v7-13. Now, in v14-24, Paul sets out to deal with the objection that by saving only a remnant from Israel, God has acted unjustly.
v14. God's sovereign choice of an elect remnant within Israel has remained consistently the same and properly fulfills his promise to Abraham. Yet, what about the apparent conclusion that God's actions are inherently unjust? Is it not unjust to distinguish between people, not on the basis of their behavior, their inherent worth, but rather on the basis of a seemingly capricious sovereign grace? "Definitely not", says Paul. He now sets out to argue the case.
v15-17. By quoting Exodus 33:19, Paul establishes the basis of his argument. He reminds his readers of Israel's idolatrous flirtation with the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. For their apostasy, Israel should have been annihilated, but thankfully God chose to spare many of the people from the consequences of their actions. This called-out remnant of Israel ("the elect") was not saved by human effort or will, but by God's sovereign grace. Paul also reminds his readers that when Israel was called out from Egypt, it was God's heavy hand against Pharaoh that saved his remnant people; their salvation has only ever depended on God's mercy.
v18. "God shows mercy in the gathering of a people who do not deserve to be gathered to him, and where it is his will, he uses human obstinacy to that end." Paul now sums up his argument against the idea that God's justice in election is arbitrary. The realization of God's sovereign will has as its end the fulfilling of his promises to Abraham - to gather and preserve an eternal people for himself. God's sovereign undertaking to this end exhibits his righteousness, not his unrighteousness.
v19-21. This raises an obvious objection. How can a just God condemn those arbitrarily set aside through an act of His own sovereign will? Quoting Isaiah 29:16, and moving to the thought of Wisdom 15:7, Paul makes the point that a sovereign God rightfully orders the affairs of his creation to achieve his ultimate will. In simple terms, God has the right to draw out from unfaithful Israel a remnant, and such is not arbitrary, but serves his ultimate purpose of gathering a people to himself, ie., God has the right to fulfill the promises to Abraham as he sees fit. God displays his justice in that all of Israel are rightly "objects of his wrath", but in an act of grace he sets apart a remnant for "noble purposes."
v22-24. "If God, with the right to punish sin, patiently puts up with rebellious Israel (v22), in order to gather a remnant according to grace, ..... (v23), made up of Jews as well as Gentiles (v24), [then who are we to argue with him as if his actions are unjust?]" As God endured a Pharaoh, so he endures rebellious Israel, and this so that he might ultimately bestow the riches of his glory on "objects of his mercy", ie., save a people to himself.
God's gracious purpose displays both wrath and saving power. Israel, along with all humanity, are rightly objects of God's wrath, "prepared for destruction", yet individual Israelites are not necessarily condemned. As with all people, they can, like Abraham, turn in faith to the source of all mercy, and so in Christ be saved. This is the point of Paul's words, "even us, whom he also called", v24a.
Justice and the sovereign will of God
"Theologians are unwise to systematize the doctrine of election in such a way that no puzzles, enigmas, or loose ends are left", John Stott.
Our passage for study has certainly prompted many people to conclude that it teaches predestination and election, namely that it is God's intention "to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation.", Article XVII of the Articles of Religion in the Anglican Prayer Book. We do need to understand that the Bible teaches that God's hand is in all the circumstances of life, both good and bad. How else can we think about an almighty God? Of course, in our age, surrounded by human freedom, such an idea causes some degree of anxiety, particularly among those who feel the Bible is free of enigmas. The problem lies with our difficulty to think laterally. We moderns tend to be linear thinkers, unable to hold the Biblical ideas of God's sovereignty and human free-will in tension. The simple fact is, both ideas are true and so we just have to live with "this perennial paradox", as Douglas Moo puts it.
Yet interestingly, our passage is not actually about God predestining some individuals for salvation and damning the rest. In fact, such a crude expression of systematic theology would find little Biblical support anyway. What Paul is addressing is the issue of God's supposed injustice in not saving all Israel. Paul's answer is that God never intended to save all Israel because salvation does not rest on a person's race (a descendant of Abraham), or worth (obedience to the law), but rather, on God's gracious mercy, his kindness. Like Abraham of old, it is those who rest in faith on God's mercy who are members of God's chosen people.
All of Israel, in fact, all of humanity, is like a single lump of potter's clay deserving to be formed into nothing more than a pot "for the kitchen" as William Barclay put it, and ultimately, for the tip. Yet God, in his sovereign mercy, has shaped some pots from the clay "designed for the drawing-room." We can argue that such selectivity is not true to God's promises, although God never promised universal salvation. We can argue that it seems unfair, particularly for the pots that end up in the tip, but then, they deserve to be in the tip. Thankfully, the potter has chosen to produce some works of art from the clay and who are we to argue the justice of his mercy? Best to take up the free offer of art-status and end up in the drawing room.
1. God "hardens whom he wants to harden." Is this a form of predestination to damnation? If not, why not?
2. How does the phrase "even us, whom he also called", v24a, answer the question "Is God unjust?", v14.
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