In these past weeks I’ve labored, as I’m able, to lead you through Romans 9. To do this I’ve enlisted help. We’ve already heard Martin Luther’s advice on Romans 9, that it’s strong wine and we should be aware of that. And we’ve already heard John Calvin’s advice on Romans 9, that we should embrace this chapter as it is but go no further than the text itself goes, giving no room for sinful speculation. Today I’d like to enlist more advice.

On Romans 9 Charles Spurgeon said the following, “…there is no doctrine more hated by the world…than…the sovereignty of the infinite God. Men will allow God to be everywhere but on His throne. They will allow Him to be in His workshop to fashion worlds and make stars. They will allow Him to be in His treasury to dispense gifts and bestow His bounties. They will allow Him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, to light the lamps of heaven, and rule the waves of the sea; but when God ascends His throne, creatures gnash their teeth. And we proclaim an enthroned God, and His right to do as He wills with His own, to dispose of His creatures as He thinks well, without consulting them in the matter; then it is that we are hissed at…and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on His throne is not the God they love. But it is God upon His throne that we love to preach. It is God upon His throne whom we trust.”[1]

Let’s go to God on His throne and ask for His blessing on this teaching…

Last week we looked at v14-18 and saw Paul in the courtroom, ironically, acting as God’s defense against man who sits in judgment over God, accusing God, saying He is unjust to be sovereign in salvation. Paul makes his opening statement in v14, he brings forth his evidence in v15-17, and powerfully gives his closing argument in v18. But…as we come to v19 we see that Paul has much more to say in defense of God. If we come back to the courtroom imagery it’s almost as if Paul’s walking back to his seat, content with his defense of God, only to turn around at the last second with another question for his hearers to consider. This is the feel of v19.

Here’s where we’re headed. In v19 Paul brings up another objection that man brings against God. It is very similar to the objection raised in v14, but this it’s not so much a logically based objection, it’s more of a raw, visceral, response to what Paul’s said. And rather than backing off, or slowly working through God’s sovereignty, explaining the nuance of this great doctrine, or how sovereignty should comfort us instead of threaten us, Paul responds in v20-24 with a rebuke to man for bringing another objection.[2] It is similar to what he did in v14-18 but this time he notches it up a bit and asks his own questions to us for objecting against God in the first place.

Another Objection (v19)

“You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?”

So man has heard Paul’s teaching on the sovereign freedom and pleasure of God in and over all things. And in response to that man taken a seat in judgment over God for being sovereign, accusing God to be unjust. Paul has dealt with that, saying God has mercy on whomever He wills and hardens whomever He wills. But now, in response to what Paul has said in v18, another objection rises in the heart of man to bring forth against God. “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” In other words, if God is behind the actions of all men, if He shows mercy to some and hardens others, God can’t find fault with anyone, and God can’t condemn anyone, since God was the One who did the hardening in the first place. Or to put it simply, the objection in v19 is this, ‘If God truly does v18, and if no one can resist His sovereign will, and we’re all just subject to whatever God’s wants to do, than clearly God’s not fair!’

Do you see what lies behind this objection? v19 is really just another way of saying, in order for God to be just and right in condemning anyone, man must be able and responsible for his or her own actions.[3] Because if God is this sovereign over all hearts than it really just makes us all robots in the grand scheme of things, right? Wrong. This objection in v19 reveals a deep misunderstanding of God’s sovereignty. God is sovereign, yes, absolutely so. But man is also responsible, and we must never deny that. We cannot have a view of God’s sovereignty that negates or gets rid of man’s responsibility. To do this is to embrace fatalism, which isn’t biblical at all. And we can’t have a view of man’s responsibility that negates or gets rid of God’s sovereignty. To do this is to make man sovereign over God. The Bible affirms both, full sovereignty and full responsibility, and we must do so as well.

After stating yet another objection man has against God, you might think at this point Paul would back off a bit, slow down, and explain some things to perhaps calm his readers down a bit. But he doesn’t. Really, he doesn’t explain any of the nuance here with sovereignty and responsibility. What does he do? He begins asking questions of us, giving us a threefold rebuke.

See that next in v20-24…

A Threefold Rebuke (v20-24)

The first question comes in v20“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have You made me like this?”

This is a strong rebuke from the apostle, isn’t it? But this is strong for good reason. You see, when man, when we, question God or make objections against God, we need to be reminded that in approaching and handling such a subject we’re not in the arena of the theoretical, or the academic, or even human opinion. No. The reason for Paul’s strong rebuke is because when God comes into the equation we are in a vastly different arena.[4] Anytime we begin thinking on or discussing God, His Person – His work – His truth, we must remember who we are. Church, God is not our equal. We’d do well to remember it as we’re confused or perplexed by His word.

I’ve mentioned this a few times before, but it’s worth repeating. In Psalm 50 God rebukes His people for their many sins. It begins by saying this, “The mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth…Hear O My people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you…you hate discipline, you cast My words behind you, you are pleased with thieves, you keep company with adulterers, you give your mouth free reign to evil and deceit, you slander your brother and mother…” But after all of this, do you know what tops the list of all the evils they’ve done? Psalm 50:21, “…you thought I was One like you…but now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.” God is not our equal, He is not like us, He alone is God and there is no other! This must grip us and captivate us and bring us out of our small views of God. Indeed, it is a great sin and evil for the God of glory to rest lightly in the soul of man.

Now, all of this shouldn’t discourage our questions. We all have questions about Scripture, we’re all perplexed at points and ought to seek for understanding. So yes, we should ask our questions, but how we ask them, or the spirit in which we ask them really matters. I think Paul takes some issue with the spirit of the objection in v19, which prompts the strong rebuke in v20. See what he says, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” See the two parties present here? Man…God. One a vapor, the Other eternal. One frail and small, the Other strong, sturdy, and immovable. One corrupt and sinful, the Other pure, sacred, and radiant in holy beauty. One a creature, the Other the Creator. Paul highlights our creaturely position to show us how out of bounds it is to object, or ‘answer back’ against God. This phrase ‘answer back’ is only used twice in the entire NT. The other time it’s used is in Luke 14.[5] In that passage Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and after calling them out Luke tells us in 14:6, “And they could not ‘answer back’ or ‘reply’ to these things.” Lesson? Just as it was entirely out of bounds for the Pharisees to question Jesus aiming to rebuke Him, so too, it is entirely out of bounds for sinful man to object against God. Naturally then the rest of v20 says, “Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have You made me like this?”

Which leads to the second question in v21“Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”

In v21 Paul expands on the comment he ended v20 with. See that? He raised the subject of a molder and the object it molded there, and now he pulls forward a very common image used by Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others, the image of the Potter and the clay. But remember how he brings it forward. He uses it as a question here, this is the second question of his rebuke to us. By doing it this way, Paul’s aiming at our sight. He’s laboring to get us to see that the central idea of this image is the freedom and rights of the Potter to do as He pleases. “Has the potter no right over the clay?” Or is the clay sovereign over the Potter? Which is it? It can’t be both. Who is sovereign then? Of course, it’s the Potter. Only He has the right to do as He pleases. We, as clay, have rights. The rights of man matter because we’re made in God’s image. But when the will, the desires, the rights of God the Potter clashes with the will of man the clay, who wins? God, every time. Even if He as the Potter decides, in His infinite wisdom, to take the same lump of clay and form it into vessels for honor and for dishonor. No one who truly knows who God is and who we are, will hear the question in v21 and answer, ‘No, the Potter doesn’t have the right over the clay.’ Well perhaps we should say, only man the sinner, only those bent from birth in hatred against God would ever dare say such a thing. Have we not learned from Pharaoh in v17 that man can never contend with God and that God will always have as well as display to all that He has the upper hand?

We’ve been asked two questions so far, and in each we’ve been rebuked by Paul. But Paul keeps going and asks us a third question to rebuke us in v22-24. “What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

Don’t go too quickly over this. v22 begins this question, v23 extends it further, and v24 unexpectedly puts us right in the middle of it. See v22. God, at times, desires to show His wrath and power, yes. God endures the wickedness of man patiently, yes. And there are sinful men and women fit into the category of ‘vessels of wrath prepared for destruction’, yes. That’s v22. Now see v23. What if God desired all of that in order to do something else? What if God desired all of v22 for the purpose given in v23? What purpose? The purpose of making the riches of His glory known to another group of sinful men and women called ‘vessels of mercy’? Is God wrong to do this? That’s the third big question here for us to answer, and the answer must be an immediate and unhesitating ‘NO!’

Now, I do think that’s the big point to see. But I’m aware some of you are wondering about these vessels, of wrath and of mercy. Well, see the detail at the end of v23. These ‘vessels of mercy’ are what they are…why? Because God has prepared them beforehand for glory. The vessels of mercy have been made vessels of mercy by God, that is clear. Now look at v22. You notice how that’s not there when Paul mentions the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? It doesn’t say God prepared them to be such. That’s not there. So question: who prepares the vessels of mercy? God! Who prepares the vessels of wrath? Themselves! Or another way to say it is this: for those who are saved, God gets the glory for such a great salvation. But for those who are lost, who reject the gospel in life and enter hell after this life, the fault is theirs. God doesn’t create sin or author evil in our hearts or make people sin. There is mystery here, but it’s true nonetheless.

But what about v24? The vessels of mercy God prepared beforehand, are who? Gentiles! We’re part of it! What do these Gentiles receive? The riches of God’s glory. Oh, what a phrase this is! The main purpose in God being patient with the wicked, and in showing mercy to others, is to make known the riches of His glory! Has it come as a surprise to you to find such a phrase in Romans 9? Far too many don’t even bother with Romans 9 or debate it endlessly concerning the ins and outs of predestination in a cold and lifeless manner. Yet here we find the goal of the sovereign mercy of God is to reveal one thing and one thing only: the riches of His glory! I wonder how many of us didn’t know this phrase was here in this chapter at all?! But here it is![6]

Well, what is this ‘riches of God’s glory’? Paul speaks of it everywhere. In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened, so that we would know “…the riches of God’s glorious inheritance.” In Ephesians 3:8 Paul says grace was given to him so that he would “…preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ…” In Ephesians 3:16 he prays again that we would be strengthened with power according to the “riches of God’s glory.” In Philippians 4:19 Paul prays again, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” And perhaps most clear of all, Colossians 1:27, “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Some say, ‘Where’s the gospel in Romans 9.’ For Paul, the riches of glory the vessels of mercy receive (v23-24) is nothing less than the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him God has given us so much that all heaven can give us no more. Christ then, is the pinnacle of the sovereign mercy of God. Christ is the riches of the glory of God, and Christ is the only hope for sinners.

Conclusion:

Two things to wrap up.

First, we need to be rebuked. ‘Who are you, O man, to accuse God?!’ ‘Does not God the Potter have right over the clay, to do with it as He sees fit?’ We need the reminder that God doesn’t answer to us, He is not our equal and that God always does what it right and just.

But second, how wonderful that the God who is so far beyond us and so vastly bigger than us…became like us, to save us?! In great sovereign love, God sent His Son, so that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life! Riches of glory!

Church, these things are not just truths to be known, they’re truths to be celebrated. May you do so, more and more!


[1] Charles Spurgeon, quote in J. V. Fesko, Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 274–275.

[2] Ibid., 271.

[3] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 620–621.

[4] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans – God’s Sovereign Purpose (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1985), 185–187.

[5] Moo, Romans, 622, footnote 257.

[6] Lloyd-Jones, Romans, 234.

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