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Romans Nine - Part 3

February 25, 2009 Length: 16:12

Matthew examines the hardening of Pharoah's heart as "proof" of pre-destination.

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Today we’re continuing in Romans 9. In verses 14 through 21, we find another passage to which those who promote the doctrine of predestination often appeal. We read:

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not. For he says to Moses, I will have mercy on whomever I have will mercy and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion. So then, it is not of him whom wills nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, for this very purpose I have raised you up that I may show my power in you and that my name may be declared in all the earth. Therefore he has mercy on whom he wills and whom he wills he hardens. He will say to me then why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will? But indeed oh man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it why have you made me like this? Does not the potter have power over the clay from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

First of all, let me suggest something that will be helpful to you if you haven’t already figured this out for yourself. As we’re looking at these texts, it will be much easier for you to follow my remarks if you have your Bible open to the passage. I’m using the New King James Version, and I’ll be consistently referring back to the text. So, unless you have these Scriptures memorized, I recommend that you have the verses in front of you. All right then. To someone who approaches this Scripture with an inclination to accept the doctrine of unconditional election, these verses say that God grants to a pre-selected group the grace to trust him for salvation. Everyone else, like wicked Pharaoh, is consigned to suffer his wrath. We can no more protest to God about the eternal fate he chooses for us than a lump of clay can complain to the potter about the sort of vessel he intends to make with it.

But as I’ve been saying all along, looking at these verses in the context of the chapter gives us a different view. St. Paul’s concern in this chapter, in fact in this whole section of the epistle from Chapter 9 through Chapter 11, is the standing of Israel as the chosen people of God in the wake of Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection. To fail to see these verses in that light does them disservice. Now, that’s not to say that Paul couldn’t present a doctrine of unconditional election in a passage that focuses on Israel’s status, but if that were his intent, we would expect the teaching on election to be offered as the explanation of Israel’s spiritual condition as a people. In other words, if this chapter was about predestination, we should hear the apostle clearly declaring at some point: “So here’s the story about Israel: God foreordained some Israelites to believe and others to not believe. The ones he picked before time began to receive his grace are saved and the ones he chose not to assist are damned. That’s it, so be it.”

Now, one of the reasons these verses are so often quoted by believers in unconditional election is that taken just by themselves and interpreted by someone predisposed to accept predestination, one might construe them to teach just that. But when taken together with other Scriptures, specifically passages from elsewhere in the book of Romans and most especially from this particular three-chapter section of the epistle, these lines suggest something all together different. A little aside here. Sometimes, I think that while the division of the Bible into numbered chapters and verses is extremely useful, it can also create interpretational temptations for us. It makes it easier to lift verses and/or chapters out of their overall context. Splitting chapters into sections with headings, as is common in many modern versions of the Bible, exacerbates the problem. I wonder, if we had to read the epistles as they were written, that is — like letters, would we see them more comprehensively? Would we feel the connected flow of the themes better? Would we be less inclined to a proof-text approach to the Scriptures? It’s just a thought. Anyway.

We’re going to prepare ourselves to deal with these “Pharaoh verses” to turning to some other texts in Romans. But before we do that, let’s establish what we’re trying to clarify. What we need to comprehend is this whole business of “hardening.” Given that St. Paul uses Pharaoh as his example, it’s pretty clear that what we’re talking about is the sort of increasingly irrational, self-exalting, potentially soul-destroying stubborning towards God that Pharaoh exhibited when the Lord sought to free Israel from Egyptian bondage. If you don’t recall the story, just read Exodus 7-14. The text also tells us that God uses these hardened individuals to manifest his power and proclaim his name. What these verses don’t explain is 1) what leads God to withhold his mercy from such people in the first place, and 2) what is his purpose in doing that?

Of course, those who believe in unconditional election will say that God’s purpose in predestination is to manifest his absolute, inscrutable sovereignty over all creation. As to how some folks come to be without mercy, well that’s revealed in the analogy of the potter and the clay. God made some of us to hold grace and the rest he fashioned as vessels for his wrath. Which one I end up being depends on what God was making when he threw my particular lump of clay onto his wheel. But one can interpret the analogy that way only if one assumes that the “vessels of honor” in verse 21 refers to people who are predestined for salvation and the “vessels of dishonor” are those pre-elected for damnation. As we’re going to discover, however, this cannot be what the apostle means by these terms. We see that when we let other passages in the epistle shed light on them. And there’s no place better to begin than the very first chapter of the epistle to the Romans. In verses 18-32, we read:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

Remember what I said last time about God hating Esau? I suggested that this amounted to God’s decision to let Esau have the life he desired unencumbered by worship and obedience to his Creator. Here in Romans 1, St. Paul teaches us that this is indeed how God deals with those who stubbornly reject him after he has revealed his glory to them. He leaves them to drink bitter dregs of depravity, vileness, and death: the natural rewards of a life willfully separated from God. We see in these verses that God’s wrath, his hatred, his rejection, his withdrawal of mercy and compassion from some individuals is not an angry outpouring of pain upon human beings whom God has marked for punishment since before they ever existed. It is, rather, his act of giving up on people who choose to consistently and obstinately reject his lordship.

God, the passage says, “gives them up” to their uncleanness. He “gives them up” to their vile passions. He “gives them over” to their debased minds, and they reap the unfortunate results of their choices. But St. Paul tells us that God does this only after an all-out attempt to show himself to these people. He wants to gain their acknowledgement, their willing worship, and their service. That God “gives them up” implies that beforehand, he was holding on to them. For his part, God was seeking to accomplish in their hearts what he seeks to accomplish with all his creatures: perfect oneness with him. What’s more, St. Paul says, these folks

God, and God intended them to act on their knowledge of the truth and embrace him. God didn’t hide himself from them. He didn’t keep them from seeing him. Rather, St. Paul tells us, they, themselves, suppressed the truths of his love. They chose to ignore him.

Like other texts we’ve investigated in this series, this is a passage of Scripture that loses all sensibility if one assumes the truth of unconditional election. If God predestines us for grace or damnation, then St. Paul has grossly misrepresented God’s program here. For instance, he says “because they knew God and did not glorify him as God nor were thankful, God gave them up to uncleanness.” Now, if he wanted to be consistent with the doctrine of predestination, St. Paul would have to say instead “because God pre-eternally gave them up to uncleanness, they were unable to glorify him as God nor be thankful.” The apostle also writes here “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator. For this reason, God gave them up to the vile passions.” Once more, if St. Paul wanted us to believe in predestination, he would have to seriously amend his words. To make his logic consistent with his doctrine, he would have to say “God gave them up to vile passions before they ever existed. For this reason, they could do nothing else except exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.”

Even before I was Orthodox, I did not accept the doctrine of unconditional election. I just couldn’t explain away passages like these or the many other conditional “if/then” statements found in the New Testament. For example, “

we receive him, then Christ grants us his grace” (John 1:12). “If we continue in our faith, then he will present us holy and blameless in his sight” (Colossians 1:22-23). “If we open our hearts’ door to him, then he will enter” (Revelation 3:20). And I could go on and on. To believe in predestination requires one to dismiss the straightforward logic of such important verses. That, or one must believe those who wrote them, like St. Paul, were, for some mysterious reason, doing their best to disguise the truth of predestination, trying to make it sound like our free will and cooperation does play a role in our salvation.

Now, I think most people would agree that it certainly feels, to us, like we are free to choose whether we will trust or reject God. So, if our responses to God are actually predestined by him, one would think that the New Testament writers would work very diligently to dispel that illusion rather than to encourage it with statements with statements like these. The bottom line, then, is that all these texts clearly contradict the doctrine of unconditional election. What remains for us to show is how passages like Romans 9, which some take to suggest predestination, are, in fact, consistent with the greater number of Scriptures that show the necessity of our freely-offered cooperation with God in the working out of our salvation. What we learn in Romans 1 probably gives us enough to reconcile the Scriptures about Pharaoh, Jacob, and Esau with this cooperation view. But I want to deeper-fortify our understanding of this by turning to another passage, one which is actually found within this “What about Israel?” section of the epistle to the Romans, which speaks directly to how and why people become spiritually hardened. We’ll take a look at Romans 11 next time.


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