Romans 9:19-23: Predestination!?! What about my free will?
The doctrine of God’s unconditional individual election / predestination unto salvation is ever-present in Scripture and is so clearly presented and so easily understood that to deny its presence in God’s word would be to deny a vast majority of what God communicates to us. Since it is not an obscure or marginal doctrine in Scripture, we must believe it for without it our faith will falter.
Yet in my experience as a pastor and as a College and Seminary teacher, I have come across many, many people, who, even after being presented with the overwhelming witness of Scripture, still don’t believe in unconditional election. The reason? They understand the ‘dark side’ of this doctrine. They understand that if God elects some to salvation, then that means that he passes over, or does not elect others, and they ‘just can’t believe in a God who would choose people to go to hell!’
This is exactly the response that Paul anticipates and deals with in vv. 19-23.
v. 19 – Fault and Free Will
Now let me begin our walk through these verses by reminding us of something that Paul could have said at this point but does not say. If there was ever a time for Paul to rethink the nature of salvation in such a way as to add our human effort, or free will, to the mix it is now. If there was ever a time for Paul to correct himself and say that God chooses people based upon our choice of him, it is now. It there was ever a time for Paul to soften the doctrines of monergistic grace and salvation, and God’s sovereignty in individual, unconditional election, it is now. But he does not! Paul continues to affirm and argue for monergistic, individual, unconditional election. (cf. Duncan; Moo)
In doing so Paul states and responds to the ‘free will’ problem.
"You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?"”
Let’s remember the context of vv. 14-18. In those verses Paul reminds us that it is God’s prerogative as he follows his divine, sovereign will and pursues his perfect eternal purposes to “have mercy on whom I have mercy”, and to “have compassion on whom I have compassion.” He also reminded us that if God so desires, he will also harden the human heart.
So the question is a legitimate one to ask – if God sovereignly does this, then how can he find moral and spiritual fault in those whom he chooses not to have compassion or mercy, or those whom he chooses to harden? Or to put it differently, “If salvation ultimately depends upon God, and he has mercy and hardens whomever he pleases, then how can he find anyone guilty? How can he charge anyone with guilt since his will is irresistible?” (ESV Study Bible)
vv. 20-21 – Sovereignty and salvation (with an example)
The response that Paul gives is simple and straightforward,
"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?” 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?"
Paul formulates his response the way he does for a couple of reasons:
Paul recognizes that in this question there may be the desire to put God on trial for his ways. There is a rebellious spirit to this line of questioning that Paul wants to correct. Paul recognizes the inherent selfishness in this inquiry and thus he responds in an emphatic manner – who are you to question God? To such an inquisition, Paul’s rhetorical question in v. 20a is appropriate in both its content and its bluntness.
Paul also recognizes that there are others who may have honest inquiry into these things. So in vv. 20b-23 he reminds us of the simple fact that we are mere creatures and the very fact of our finitude should warn us to be careful about our deductions, conclusions and presuppositions in the realm of the infinite and sovereign. (cf. Duncan) His ways are higher than our ways, and we shouldn’t even dream of understanding them. (cf. Deuteronomy 22:22)
The example that Paul gives as an illustration of his point would have been well known to his audience – the potter and his clay This illustration is used to communicate the difference that exists between the Creator and his creatures.(Note: this illustration was used throughout the Old Testament as well to prove the same point Paul is demonstrating here). It’s really an easy illustration to follow –
"The sole authority for determining what sort of vessels are to be made rests with the Creator/potter. He has the indisputable right to give full and artistic display to all his attributes and skills as a craftsman by making vessels as he sees fit, either for honorable use or dishonorable use. Consequently, the creature has no more of a right to protest how God dispenses with the creation than does a piece of clay have the right to dictate instructions to the potter." (Storms)
So what does this actually mean? It means that God can do whatever he wants with the lump of clay that is the human race. He created us and he can do what he wants with us. If he should so choose to save some, he can. If he should so choose to not save others, he can. That’s his prerogative since he is the Creator / potter. John Stott helps us here,
"If therefore God hardens some, he is not being unjust, for that is what their sin deserves. If, on the other hand, he has compassion on some, he is not being unjust, for he is dealing with them in mercy. The wonder is not that some are saved and others not, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing at God’s hand but judgment. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgment), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust. If therefore anybody is lost, the blame is theirs, but if anybody is saved, the credit is God’s." (Italics mine)
vv. 22-23 – The divine reason
in these verses Paul attempts, as best he can, to present God’s reason for doing things the way he has done; meaning monergistic, unconditional, individual election. Notice that there is no talk of love here. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t elect in love; it is clear that he does (Ephesians 1:4-5). I mention this at this point because we often think of salvation as it relates to God’s love and only God’s love. We think only in the terms laid out for us in John 3:16, for example – God loves the world so he sent his Son to save us. Or we would say it in this catechetical way: Q – Why does God save? A – Because he loves us.
But this creates a problem straight away. If God saves because he loves the world then how can he damn someone? If God is love, how can he send someone to hell? If you think about salvation ONLY in terms of God’s love, this is an unavoidable, and unanswerable conundrum.
But Paul reminds us that we need to be thinking differently about God’s election and salvation. While it is true that God loves the world and so he sent his Son, Scripture presents a higher, greater, more fundamental motivation in God that brings about both salvation and damnation. God has chosen to unconditionally elect some to salvation and to pass over others leaving them in the mass of perdition for judgment because he desires to reveal the riches of his glorious grace most clearly (cf. Ephesians 1:1-14). In other words in doing things this way, God is exalted most highly. Paul’s argument has three steps in these verses:
God desires to show his wrath and his power.
God is patient in enduring the sin and wickedness of individuals who deserve immediate judgement and death on account of their wickedness.
Why did God do these things? In order to show his mercy to his chosen ones who were prepared beforehand by God.
This is Paul’s way of repeating that which he has already said before, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) The good, the bad, the moral, the immoral, the right, the wrong, the holy, the evil; all of it is to the praise of God’s glorious grace as he brings salvation to the elect. Is it not amazing to realize that even God’s condemnation serves to exalt His mercy! Is it not amazing to realize that the evil and the trouble and the wickedness of this world actually serves God as he seeks to bring sinners to himself! Amazing grace indeed!
As we bring our discussion of this passage to a close, we need to make sure that we recognize the inherent dangers in passages like this. They represent two ends of a spectrum, both of which are in error.
We disregard or twist the clear teaching of these verses in order to preserve a humanly defined, subjective understanding of free will. We read verses like this and we come away thinking that things must be different, because, after all, we have ‘free will.’ Free will, then, becomes the trump card to any talk of election, predestination, or sovereignty. So the conclusions we draw from this passage, and others like it, is simple and deeply flawed – it can’t actually be saying what it is in fact clearly saying because we have free will. So in an attempt to protect our subjectively defined ‘free will’ we deny the biblically defined sovereignty of God. I hope this is none of you.
We go overboard the other way. We argue for sovereignty in such a way that takes a wrong view of the Bible’s description of God’s will, sovereignty and providence, and in so doing we deny or severely handicap the interplay between God’s sovereignty and biblically articulated human responsibility. We become fatalists of some sort, in such a way that we deny that we have any free will at all. So in an attempt to protect God’s sovereignty we deny the biblically defined nature of human responsibility. I hope that this is none of you either.
We need to believe in both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility (note I did not say free will), but we must do so in biblically defined ways. If we do this we will avoid the synergism of #1 and the fatalism of #2. As Ligon Duncan articulates,
"those who accept what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty have come to understand that God’s sovereignty is compatible with man’s responsibility. In other words, they have come to accept that it is simultaneously true that God is sovereign and man is responsible."
How this works we will never understand. But we must get it right, and in the right order, and we must believe it and proclaim it.
Let me conclude with the following wise words of Calvin. They are his conclusion to his discussion of predestination at the end of his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
"Let this be our conclusion: to tremble with Paul at so deep a mystery; but, if froward tongues clamor, not to be ashamed of this exclamation of his: ‘Who are you, O man, to argue with God?’ (Rom. 9:20). For as Augustine truly contends, they who measure divine justice by the standard of human justice are acting perversely."
Soli Deo Gloria