In Romans 9:17-18, we read:
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.
Those who believe in predestination read these verses as testimony that God foreordains some to receive grace and mercy and others to reap his wrath. But St. Paul’s teaching in chapters 1 and 11 of this holy epistle cast the passage in a different light. We know how Pharaoh’s heart became hardened. It became so as a result of his unwillingness to submit to God as a result of his refusal to set the children of Israel free, even as the Lord subjected the people of Egypt to terrible plagues. At last, God simply allowed Pharaoh to receive the natural reward of his stubborn resistance.
In fact, a brief look at the book of Exodus may be useful here. In chapters 7-9, we can chart the course of Pharaoh’s spiritual demise through the various tests that came to him. After God’s first miraculous sign to Pharaoh — that of Aaron’s rod turning into a serpent — we read that Pharaoh’s heart grew hard. He would not listen to Moses and Aaron’s plea to let Israel go. That’s Exodus 7:13. Exodus 7:23 tells us that after God turned the waters of Egypt to blood, “Pharaoh turned and went into his house. Neither was his heart moved by this.” Now, after the next plague, the plague of frogs, had abated Exodus 8:15 tells us that Pharaoh hardened his heart against the servants of God. Later, when his own magicians told him that the plague of lice was the finger of God, Pharaoh’s heart, Exodus 8:19 says, grew hard. When the fourth plague, the plague of flies was over, Exodus 8:32 tells us that “Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also.” Next, after the Lord killed all the Egyptian livestock, “the heart of Pharaoh became hard” says Exodus 9:7. But interestingly, after the sixth plague of festering boils, the language of Exodus changes. Instead of telling us that Pharaoh’s heart was not moved or that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, Exodus 9:12 states that the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh. And that is the phrase used after each of the remaining plagues, except for the seventh after which we read simply that Pharaoh’s heart was hard. That’s Exodus 9:35.
Now, whatever we might make of this, we can certainly say that this transition in phrasing is consistent with what we’ve learned from the epistle to the Romans. God eventually gave Pharaoh up. That is, he ceased striving with Pharaoh, allowing him to become cemented in his belligerence. But this was only after Pharaoh had consistently and willfully steeled himself against God. So, how does all of this relate to God’s words to 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.” The truth is, whoever, we are, whatever we do and whether we know it or not, God reveals himself through us. All of us, including Pharaoh, have been raised up to manifest the power of God so that his name may be declared in all the earth. We will either do so through our cooperation with his mercy and grace, or we will do it like Pharaoh did. God will find a way to show someone his loving mercy and compassion through our stubborn resistance to him. One way or another, God will use us to accomplish his purpose to bring as many as will receive his love into oneness with the divine life. And in this, we have no room for complaint.
As St. Paul teaches here in Romans 9:19-21:
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O 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? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Once again, we must interpret this passage in a manner consistent with the context of the chapter and the broader teachings of the epistle. In fact, these verses are in many ways parallel to the passage we looked at in Romans 11. So, we can’t just set aside what the apostle says there as we seek to understand what he’s saying here. To stay on track, let’s first consider who St. Paul is addressing when he says “O man, who are you to reply against God?” Remember, in this chapter, the apostle is thinking about Israelites who, while being members of God’s chosen race, find themselves cast outside the true Israel because they refused to heed the gospel. That suggests that the people St. Paul has in mind here are those Israelites who rejected Christ.
Such a one might question God, “But Lord, mine is the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises” as we read in Romans 9:4-5. “Oh God, I have walked in obedience to the law, I am a righteous son of Abraham. Why have you consigned me to darkness and spiritual stupor and hardness of heart?” These are the same Israelites the apostle talks about in Romans 11, those branches that were cut from the holy tree of Israel because of their unbelief. But these folks have no room to complain against God. God is perfectly just in giving them up to hardness of heart and sickness of soul. For this is the natural fate of those who refuse the transforming mercy and compassion that is in Christ Jesus. What’s more, as their Creator who establishes and upholds our relationship with him, what God in his love decides to do with our rejection is entirely his prerogative. We can no more control that than a lump of clay can determine how the potter will form it.
And yet, as St. Paul assures us in Romans 11, if these whom God has cast into blindness at some point choose to respond to him, which is an opportunity God must give them somehow if St. Paul’s teaching is to make any sense at all, then they will be restored to the faith community of the true Israel. So, it is in this light that we must read these verses about God making some to be vessels of dishonor and wrath and others to be vessels of honor and mercy. In fact, it is here that we see the direct connection of this passage to the apostle’s words in Romans 11. There, St. Paul taught us that the unbelieving Israelites who had been broken off from the Israel of faith and delivered by God into disobedience, or in the words of Romans 9, “who had been made into vessels of dishonor,” had been relegated to that fate in order to open the way for the Gentiles to receive salvation. Here in Romans 9:22-24, he says essentially the same thing.
What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Again, in this talk of wrath, we must remember St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 about the nature of God’s wrath. As we learn there, God’s wrath is his act of giving up those who resist him to the natural rewards of their sin. In doing this with the faithless Israelites, by using their blindness to open the eyes of the world to the Savior they had rejected, God launched the next phase of his eternal plan to make all humanity one with him. He brought his eternal love and mercy to the Gentiles.
St. Paul continues this theme in verses 25 through 29. We read:
As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.” “And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.” Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.” And as Isaiah said before: “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah.”
Here St. Paul reiterates the nature of God’s true chosen people. They come from the children of Israel and from the nations of the Gentiles. Their common denominator? It is exactly what St. Paul identifies in Romans 11: a continuing, abiding, and living faith in the God who establishes his kingdom among us as we choose to receive with humility, gratefulness, obedience, and joy, the gift of grace that he offers to all humanity. We have nothing in ourselves, no matter who we are, no matter what our heritage, to recommend us to him. There is only his everlasting and universal mercy. St. Paul then concludes this chapter. He says:
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 9:30-33)
St. Paul is such a methodical teacher. When we understand this chapter in the correct context, we see just how perfectly this quote from Isaiah sums things up. Christ is a rock of offense and a stumbling stone, but he is also the rock of our salvation as Psalm 95:1 says, and whoever believes on him will not be put to shame. Those who stumble over him and reject him may find that he humbly and obediently does exactly what they want him to do, to depart and take his saving grace with him. Their hearts will be offended by him and will become entirely resistant to him, but for those who believe, receive, and live in the energy of the Holy Spirit of grace, he is an eternal foundation of joy. Be they Jew or Gentile, their hearts will become ever-transformed temples of Christ.
In my series on philosophical Christianity, I developed a distinction between the eastern and western Christian views of God. For the East, God is a self-denying God of love whose ultimate desire is to restore every sinful human being to perfect oneness with him. In his infinite humility, he honors his creatures’ decisions to either receive or reject his love. This is the God who is revealed in Romans 9 and Romans 11 and Romans 1 and throughout the entire New Testament. But under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy, a different image arose in the Christian West, that of a self-concerned God of order whose ultimate goal is to protect his personal holiness from the stain of humanity’s sinfulness. As I showed in that series, it is this vision of God and not the Scriptures which serves as the foundation for the doctrine of predestination. I constantly encounter people everywhere who have become leery of this cold, calculating God who simply desires to strike a balance between the good and evil in the universe. He is a God so bound by perfect order that he must obliterate freedom from his creatures. Before he creates the world, he must be sure that everything will wind up precisely as he intends. Though they have been raised in this tradition, these folks I meet are wary of it.
Not long ago, I talked with a young married couple who had been raised in churches of the Calvinist Reformed variety. The wife had the sad misfortune of delivering a stillborn child. To say that she and her husband were brokenhearted doesn’t begin to adequately express their grief, but they were devastated beyond heartache when their Calvinist pastor came to visit them. Consistent with his doctrine, he would offer these parents no assurance that their departed child was with Christ. For who can say whom God elects for grace and who is damned? Especially when the founder of this doctrine, Augustine of Hippo, assures us that the vastly larger portion of humanity must suffer damnation so that the universe may fully appreciate the value of God’s saving grace. That’s from “The City of God” Book 21, Chapter 12.
For this young couple, as for many former Calvinists I meet, the coldness of this doctrine eventually proves alien to the loving, self-sacrificing, all-embracing Christ who is manifested in the Scriptures, who inhabits the experience of the ancient Church and who touches us every day in the sacramental and the aesthetic life of the holy Orthodox faith. The God who gives mercy to all and always, whose love for us is bounded only by our unwillingness to receive it, this is the God whom we worship as Orthodox Christians. May all who seek him find repentance, restoration, peace, joy, and transformation in this holy Church.