We now come to some hard words, whether they are hard to understand or simply hard to take. And as we seek to be faithful to what God has given us here, we have to be mindful of Peter’s caution—there are places in Paul’s epistles where it is not safe for ignorant or unstable people to go (2 Pet. 3:16). But if we receive the hard words the right way, the reward will be tender hearts. If we reject these hard words, then it will be our hearts that become hard—just like Pharaoh’s.
“What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid . . .” (Rom. 9:14-24).
Summary of the Text
We have already seen Paul refuses to let us draw the conclusion that God is ineffectual (v. 6). Here he refuses the implication that God is unrighteous (v. 14). This means that he rejects the ancient Epicurean conundrum on the problem of evil—wherein God must either be incompetent or malevolent. Paul rejects both options. Paul vindicates God from charges of unrighteousness by citing the divine prerogative, as spoken to Moses (v. 15). God will have mercy on those He will have mercy on, and He will show compassion to those He wants to show compassion to. Note that we are talking about mercy and compassion, not justice. It does not depend on the one who wills or runs, but rather upon the mercy of God (v. 16). The flip side of this (not showing mercy) is evidenced in God’s treatment of Pharaoh (v. 17). Paul repeats the principle again, this time with both sides stated (v. 18). Then the obvious objection is raised—if God makes us do these things, how can He judge us for them (v. 19)? Paul’s answer looks like a non-answer to us—as in, “shut up, he explained” (vv. 20-21). But there is far more to it than that. What if God, wanted to display His wrath, needed vessels of wrath (v. 22)? What if He, in order to display His mercy, needed vessels of mercy (v. 23)? And those vessels of mercy, as it turned out, were selected not only from the Jewish race, but also from all the nations (v. 24).
Characteristics of the Biblical Position
The biblical position on this issue is concerned to reject the either/or fallacy of impotence or malevolence. The biblical position begins by asserting the prerogatives of God, and not the rights of man. As it turns out, that is the only way to preserve anything for man. And the biblical position provokes the objection of v. 19. Just as preaching the gospel of grace will provoke the objection that this leads to “sinning that grace may abound” (6:1), so the preaching of sovereign grace will provoke this objection—and nothing else will.
When Paul summarizes the objection that is mounted against what he is saying, our initial reaction to it is yeah! “What about that?” If God hardens some and has mercy on others, where does He get off blaming us for being hard? It is as though God commands the little wood puppet to avoid certain evil dances, then makes the puppet dance them, and then smashes the puppet to smithereens. “Bad puppet!”
Before answering the objection, if your sympathies are there, whose side are you on? Paul’s or the apostolic critic?
Potter and Clay
Paul’s answer does two things. First, it assumes the absolute right of the Creator to dispose of His creation as He pleases. God is the Potter, and we are the clay (Is. 64:8). But second, notice that he also presupposes genuine moral responsibility on the part of the clay. He blames the clay for thinking a certain way, and for “replying against God.” The point of his illustration is to display relationship, and not to claim that men are inert substances like clay. They are subject to authority like clay. In some respects we are nothing like clay, being much greater than clay—but of course, God is infinitely greater than a potter. We are more like clay than God is like a potter. We are more like fictional characters in a Shakespeare play than God is like Shakespeare.
God Is No Zeus
When Paul reminds you that God is the Potter, don’t try to get satisfaction by making Him just ten times bigger than we are. God is not a big creature, like Zeus was. When one creature forces another, his exercise of freedom displaces the freedom of the one acted upon. If we conceive of God like that, simply bigger than anything, we cannot escape the idea that He is actually a bully. But remember the Creator/creature divide. But I have a question. In the scene where Hamlet is deciding whether to kill his uncle while he is at his prayers—how much of that is Shakespeare, and how much of it is Hamlet?
So why is there sin and evil in the world? This is the ancient question—why would an omnipotent, omni-righteous God create a world that would go off the rails the way it has? Paul does not assert here, but he does indicate a direction—what if? If this were the answer, Paul would have no problem with it. In a world without sin and evil, two attributes of God would go unmanifested. And since their manifestation glorifies God, In a world without sin, we would not see God’s fierce wrath and His great power. But it glorifies Him for us to see His wrath and power. That is the first reason. The second is that in a world without sin, we would not see the greatness of His mercy. In order to forgive sinners, we must have them. Before reacting against these suggestions in anger, take a moment to compare this answer to the typical “free will” theodicy. The evil is there—to which god is it offered?
Riches of Mercy
It is strange that a passage so full of mercy could generate so much anger and distress. God offers His mercy through Christ, and we don’t want to take it because mercy presupposes our wickedness (Is. 64:8). If there are ten inmates on death row, and the governor pardons seven of them, what is that? If it is mercy, then how is it construed as injustice to the remaining three?