In our first week in Romans 9 I began with many cautions to be aware of. In our second week in Romans 9 I began with a quote from Martin Luther, that this chapter is strong wine and to be ready for that when we study it. Today, our third week in Romans 9, I’d like to begin with a quote from John Calvin about the ‘sacred rule’ of Romans 9. In his commentary Calvin says this, “Since the Holy Spirit has taught us nothing but what is to our interest to know, this knowledge will undoubtedly be useful to us, provided we shall confine it to the Word of God. Let this, therefore, be our sacred rule, not to seek to know anything about predestination except what Scripture teaches us. Where the Lord closes His holy mouth, let us also stop our minds from going on further. Since, however, these foolish questions will naturally come to us, being what we are, let us hear from Paul how they are to be met.”[1]

Let’s pray together and ask God to help us stay within the guardrails of Scripture, so that this will be useful to us.

Paul is aware of what he’s writing. Have you ever thought about that? Paul is being carried along by the Holy Spirit as he writes this letter, yes, 100%. But that doesn’t mean Paul’s in some kind of Holy Spirit induced daze as God pens these words through him, no. He’s fully aware of what he’s writing. That means Paul knows these words are true and correct on one hand, as well as difficult and strong on the other hand. And Paul knows who he’s writing to, to sinners. Sinners that have a natural inclination to fight against these very things. So, what does he do? He’s just spoken very strongly in v6-13 about God’s dealings with Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, and Esau. Will Paul back off, speak more simply, or explain how God’s sovereignty fits with man’s responsibility to give his readers a break? No. Not at all. Instead, Paul presses on and expands on these things in even stronger terms.[2] But again, he doesn’t lose sight of his readers. He’s aware his teaching of God’s absolutely sovereignty in salvation will bring up some questions and objections in his readers. So, in v14 he addresses them head on.

This is how our passage this morning is framed. It begins with Paul’s opening statement in v14, then moves onto Paul’s evidence in v15-17, and ends with Paul’s closing argument in v18.

While I love what Paul is about to say, while it brings me great comfort, and while I’m about to seek to persuade you to be so comforted as well…this passage is strange to me. It’s as if we walk into a courtroom as v14 begins. And rather than seeing God as Judge and man on trial we see God in the dock and man sitting over Him as judge. And yet, there on the floor stands the Apostle Paul. Walking back and forth, describing these things as God’s defense. I could be way off to see this text like that, but I’m thankful Paul doesn’t back down here. Because if there’s one thing man (we) need to be continually reminded of it’s that we never sit in judgment over God as if we were the ones weighing God’s actions to see if He’s just or unjust. No, we must remember this: God is not measured man’s standards.[3]

We’ll let’s enter this courtroom to hear Paul’s defense of God.

Paul’s Opening Statement (v14)

“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!”

As we’ve seen Paul do many times so far in Romans, here in v14 he asks a question that’s rhetorical, meaning it needs no answer because the answer is obvious. It’s like someone holding a bowl of ice cream in their hands and asking, ‘How do I enjoy ice cream?’ ‘WHAT? You just do! Just get a spoonful, stick it in your mouth, and you’ll find yourself enjoying it.’ There are many ways we could explain this kind of question in v14. But perhaps we’re moving too fast even here. I think Paul’s question here is obvious, but do you see that its obvious nature isn’t so obvious to everyone? That Paul includes it and brings up this question at all means many people miss this. Many people hear Paul say God chooses to set His love and affection on some and not everyone, that God loved Jacob and yet hated Esau, and conclude that God must be unfair. So, after Paul states the truth, its as if he can already hear the crowd booing, so he turns to address this question of God being just or not.[4]

So as obvious as the question in v14 is meant to be, it’s clearly not obvious to many. And that this is still the most common objection to God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation today, clearly many people still don’t see this as obvious as Paul does. The word he uses here in v14 sets up the whole argument. The word right or just in Greek is dikia. This is who God is. He is just, He does what is right. This is who Paul knows God to be, and this is what he’s defending here. But do you know what word is there in v14 to say there is injustice on God’s part? It’s the word adikia, meaning unjust, or wrong. So the objection in v14 is that by choosing some and not choosing others God is ‘against what is right.’

What’s Paul’s answer to this? We’ve heard it a few times now in Romans, “By no means!” Paul not only believes but treasures the truth that God is righteous, that God is just, that God always does what is right…and that this is so fundamental to who God is that its unthinkable for God to be unrighteous or unjust.

So Paul, in the form of a question, has given us his opening statement. Is God adikia? No, God is forever, dikia! He now moves on to give us his evidence.

Paul’s Evidence (v15-17)

“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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

The first piece of evidence Paul gives to make his case in v15 is from Exodus 33. He’s already referred to Exodus before in v1-5, so it’s natural to see him do it again. Exodus 33 is famous for very good reason, because it’s the moment God reveals Himself to Moses in the cleft of the rock. Remember it? Moses is pleading with God to continue to be with His sinful people and not abandon them because it’s God’s very presence that makes Israel distinct among the nations. God answers Moses’ plea and says He will remain with them. Then in Exodus 33:18-20 this happens next, “Moses says, ‘Please show me Your glory.’ And God said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” God said, “you cannot see My face, for no man shall see Me and live.”

At first you might wonder why Paul, at this point in Romans 9, reaches back and quotes this verse from Exodus, but I think the more we look at the encounter Moses has with God here the more we can see why Paul quotes it. Moses had been pleading with God to not abandon His people, and God agrees to not abandon them! This is answered prayer. And Moses is thrilled that God has answered yes to this request and will continue to be with Israel. And just like we do, after being thrilled with answered prayer Moses then makes a bolder request that extends far beyond him. Moses asks God to reveal His glory to him. As gutsy as this is, it’s not possible because. Just as an astronaut would be incinerated by the sun if they got too near, so too we sinners will be destroyed if we get too near the holy God. So God says no to this request of glory. But God does say He’ll reveal His goodness to Moses. And in this back and forth one thing Moses learns is that God is subject to his own will, no, God does as He pleases. Then we hear God saying, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”

So back to v15. Moses had no idea what he was doing when he asked to see the glory of God. But God was gracious to him, revealed His goodness to him, and reminded Moses that He is not subject to every whim and desire of man. So bring all of that forward now. We are far too like Moses. We so often have no idea what we’re saying. Our natural conclusion is that God is unjust to be so sovereign, but Paul reminds us, God is higher than us, God is greater than us, and God is bigger than us. When it comes down to it, God shows mercy and has compassion on those He desires to.

What’s the takeaway from this? We see it in v16, “So then it (“it” being everything in Romans 9 so far, salvation, sovereignty, God’s freedom to show mercy on whomever He desires to) depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” This is the grand principle we’re to learn in this. We, as image bearers of God, do a lot of ‘willing’ and ‘desiring’ and ‘running’ and ‘exerting’, but at the end of the day history doesn’t move according to our designs. Rather, Ephesians 1:11 is true when it says “…all things work according to the counsel of God’s will.” Or in other words, for the elect, for those who are saved, none of us can ever look at ourselves and say ‘God has shown favor to me, God has saved me, God has had mercy on me, because of me!’ No, we are what we are by the sovereign mercy of God.

But while that’s true of the elect, what do we make of those who are not elect? What do we make of those who reject the gospel? Surely, they are present here as well in this text. What about them? Well, Paul turns to that next as he moves along giving his evidence.[5] See it in v17, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

This is another quote from Exodus, 9:16 this time. And as before, context shows us why Paul reaches back and uses it here. Exodus 9 is right in the middle of the plagues God is sending onto Egypt for refusing to let the Israelites go. In Exodus 9:13-16 we read, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go, that they may worship Me. For this time I will send all My plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out My hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you My power, so that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”

After this God warns Pharaoh about the hail He’s going to send from heaven, telling him to put all their animals in the barns and for the people to hide indoors so that the hail won’t kill them. But as was so often the case with the Egyptians, some did listen even among Pharaoh’s courts, but most didn’t, and those who didn’t listen were killed by the hail.

So, the question we should as is this: why does Paul go back and quote this portion of Exodus in v17? Paul desires to show, once again, how God is sovereign over all. We’ve already seen God to be sovereign over His elect in v15-16, but now we see God sovereign over His enemies in v17. So we could say God allowed Pharaoh to enslave His people and reject Moses, but this text pushes us to say more. We could say God’s will was involved here but ultimately Pharaoh rejected Moses because God left him to his own devices, but again this text pushes us to say more. Yes, God did allow Pharoah to enslave His people, and yes, Pharaoh really did choose, with his own will, to reject Moses’ command to let Israel go. But ultimately we see here in v17 that God put Pharaoh in his position of power for the purpose of showing His power.[6]

What’s the takeaway from this? It’s the same as before. All things work according to the counsel of God’s will. Rulers and kings might make great boasts, and proclaim themselves to be powerful and mighty, nonetheless God rules over all. Why? For two reasons, v17 tells us. 1) to display His power, and 2) so that His name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Or simply put, God rules over all for His great glory, that all would see it and behold God for who He truly is.

Paul has made his opening statement, given us his evidence for it. He now turns to make his closing argument. See it in v18…

Paul’s Closing Argument (v18)

Remember, man has objected to what Paul has said in v6-13 and stated that it’s not right for God to choose to save some and pass over the rest. Paul’s defense of God, his final conclusion, is summed up in v18, “So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.”

Three things to say on this.

First, I do think v18 is clear. It says what it says, and thus, we must believe it. We don’t have to understand it, we might struggle with it, but this is God’s Word to us, so we must believe it.

Second, remember who you are. When we got to v13 last week I mentioned most people read this and immediately take issue with God’s hating anyone. But, once again, we ought to take issue with God loving Jacob in v13, and here in v18 we ought to take issue with God’s showing mercy to any sinner. Why? Because sinners don’t deserve love or mercy from the God they’ve rejected. As abrasive as this might sound to modern man, it’s true. And this, is one gift of Romans 9. By reminding us that we are what we are by God’s sovereign mercy alone, it reveals how highly we think of ourselves. This should humble us. No one walks away from a text like this with a strut. All who come to Romans 9 honestly are unswaggered.

Third, with all that in mind, let’s examine God’s hardening in v18. Far too many people think of God’s hardening as evil. As if Pharaoh was once a great guy, a ‘chip off the old block’, but then God came along and actively put all kinds of evil in his heart which ruined him and led him to do all that he did. That’s a wrong view of hardening. God did harden Pharaoh, the text says it, let’s not seek to get around it. Exodus says God did this too. But it also says Pharoah hardened his own heart as well. And in Romans 11, we find another case of God hardening but in that case it isn’t a permanent hardening, it’s only for a time.[7] Lesson? God didn’t force Pharaoh to do anything he didn’t want to do. Pharaoh desired sin, and God simply allowed him to have what he desired.

What a warning is here for us against sin?! I’d encourage you to be honest with yourself here as I ask this question. Are there certain sins you deeply desire to do but hold back because you know there out of bounds? Perhaps you don’t act out physically but do you allow yourself to be carried away mentally or emotionally in them, lingering on them in your heart and mind and getting lost in a kind of enjoyment of it? Hear the warning: be careful what you wish for, God may just give it to you. And when you get it, you’ll hate it.

Conclusion:

Church, we’ve now heard Paul’s defense of God. The big question for us here is this: do we agree with Paul here? Or do we still fight against it?

This past week I reached out to a few folks and asked their thoughts on this passage. All of them came back with many thoughts, but one thought was common to them all: ‘Wow, this is a hard text for many to swallow.’

I agree with that. It is hard for many to swallow this, if they’ve placed humanity (themselves) at the center of all things. Which means, the way to embracing the truths of Romans 9 is to see God and His glory are seen as the central highest value in and over all things. Church, I can’t encourage you enough. Don’t fight this. If you fight this, what you’re protecting yourselves from the very things that would do you the most good. Only a God this sovereign and this strong can overcome and save hearts dead and entrenched in sin. God is not merciful to all, but He is merciful to all who look to Christ. 


[1] John Calvin, quoted in J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 262.

[2] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 610.

[3] Ibid., footnote 196, 611.

[4] R.C. Sproul, Romans, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2009), 321.

[5] Moo, Romans, 613.

[6] Sproul, Romans, 329.

[7] Moo, Romans, 618.

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