Election: Romans 9, Part 4 (“But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”)

(Rom 9:19-21)  One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?'” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?

Unquestionably, Paul speaks the truth. God can do as he pleases. And God elected one nation (Israel) and not the others. The others have no right to complain.

But individual Gentiles had become God fearers and proselytes. Doubtlessly, many in Rome fit this description. God’s election of Israel and later election of those with faith leaves some out in the cold. True. But Paul is not, here, speaking of the election of individuals.

Paul alludes to a metaphor — God as potter, people as clay — used twice by Isaiah, in Isa 29 and 45, speaking of Israel (Ariel refers to Jerusalem) and Persia (Cyrus was king of Persia). Both times Isaiah is speaking of God’s judgment on nations.

(Rom 9:22)  What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction?

Notice, in fact, that Paul says: God can do as he pleases; and he pleases to be patient with those who deserve damnation. Even though God is entitled to make pottery for ignoble purposes (think about it: the Greek means “dishonored” not “common”), he nonetheless pleases to show great patience.

Reflect back on Romans 1. As we considered, Paul considered both Jews and Gentiles as objects of God’s wrath. Here, Paul is saying that God has been patient with a people — Israel — who deserve destruction. (And who would be destroyed shortly by the Romans in AD 70!)

(Rom 9:23-24)  What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory– 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Paul now describes as “objects of his mercy” both Jews and Gentiles, clearly meaning those with faith (we can’t ignore chapters 1 – 8). Thus, those Jews without faith are those prepared for destruction and those with faith are those prepared for glory.

So what does “prepared in advance for glory” refer to? Paul explains,

(Rom 9:25-26)  As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” 26 and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.'”

Paul refers to a prophecy of the return from exile in Hos 9:9-10. “Prepared in advance” means that God had been planning for centuries to graft the Gentiles into the Jewish root — as God had prophesied.

(Rom 9:27-29)  Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. 28 For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.”

29 It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”

These are references to Isa 10:20-23 and 1:9, both referring to the return from exile. Paul is saying that God said centuries ago that only a remnant would enjoy the blessings of the return.

But this is not because God only elected a few. Rather, Israel was denied the blessings because of sin, and it’s God’s grace that preserved a remnant — defined as those with faith in Jesus.

Consider the context of Isa 1:9 —

(Isa 1:10-20)  Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the law of our God, you people of Gomorrah! 11 “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies. 14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

18 “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; 20 but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

God condemns Israel for their sins and offers forgiveness for those who repent. He offers no help to those who resist and rebel, but utter forgiveness for those who are “willing and obedient.” It’s the identical thought as in Exodus where God speaks of his mercy and his wrath while revealing his glory to Moses.

Just so, in Isaiah 10, God explains his purposes plainly in the introduction to the prophecy quoted by Paul  —

(Isa 10:1-2)  Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, 2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.

The rest of the passage defines the “woe” that God will give to the unjust, preserving only a remnant. God chooses them for a plainly stated reason: their violations of Torah for abusing the oppressed, the poor, widows, and the fatherless. God is not acting arbitrarily. Rather, we are astonished at his patience with such wickedness.

Isaiah is speaking of the Babylonian exile. The original remnant was, of course, those who returned with Ezra and Nehemiah. But Paul is saying the true remnant are those who have faith in the true Messiah.

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10 Responses

  1. Jay,

    Did God choose Paul (Saul) or did Paul choose God?

    What of the 12? Were they looking for God or was he looking for them?

    In the same way Paul understood his calling to be a preacher and apostle (1 Timothy 2:7, 2 Timothy 1:11) an appointment by God, so it was that those who believed the good news about Jesus were those who were “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48).

    God is not waiting in the wings to see what individual men will do, he knows, and he alone is in control, not man.

    Royce

  2. Because God chose certain individuals (say Paul) for ‘individual purposes,’ it does not necessarily follow that God chose all individuals for ‘individual purposes.’

    If i understand Jay correctly, his comments are not meant to suggest God “waiting in the wings to see what individual men will do.” [Jay, correct me if i’m wrong.]

    First, regarding “individual men,” Jay is speaking about collectives of people. i know it’s terribly easy for us to react, “well, collectives just are made up of individuals, so it must amount to the same thing.” This is a difficult distinction i think. Nevertheless, there’s quite a bit of biblical warrant that God doesn’t see it that way–that He has dealt with collectives of people in certain ways which do not merely reduce to dealings with each individual. If it’s the case (1) that Paul could be considering collectives rather than individuals in this passage, and (2) if it’s possible that there could be a distinction between individual and collective dealings with God (‘election’ or ‘accountability’ or whatever), then Calvinism would lose a tremendous amount of explanatory force over this key passage in Paul.

    Second, i have not understood Jay to be saying God is “waiting in the wings” at all. –that is, i don’t understand Jay’s words to imply that God is somehow a *passive* participant in redemptive history. i’m not sure i’d picture God waiting around to see if there were ever going to pop up such creatures as Jewish humans, and after waiting and finding out there would be such people, He says, “A-ha! Now I can choose them for such-and-such purposes.” This seems obvious because people are genetically Jewish, whereas it seems far less obvious in the case of believing-Jews because now we’ve introduced a feature which depends on individual choices. That appears to force us into saying that God either caused/determined the choice or that God had to elect people passively (‘waiting’ or ‘responding’ to their free acts). But if we consider the social/collective dimensions of election being raised here, maybe we won’t be forced into that dichotomy at all (but maybe i’ve embellished on Jay’s work at this point.)

  3. Jay:
    It seems that when interpreting Romans 9, you are leaving no room for multiple meanings out of a passage as is the pattern of the Bible.

    The sign of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 and its quote in Matthew 1 is a good example. If you had been around Mary at the time she conceived, I can hear you saying “You can’t be a virgin and have a baby! Look at the context of Isaiah that God is quoting now, which will become Matthew 1:22 when the Bible is canonized. Although the passage is translated “virgin”, it really means “young girl”, because we know there was no spontaneous conceptions back then. So because of the context of the passage God is fulfilling here, you must’ve slept with somebody to become pregnant!”

    Not a good way to analyze prophecy, and what Paul is saying here. It seems that you already had a conclusion in mind when you started this series, which is too bad.

    Again I ask: Why water down Romans 9 with such strict interpretations limited to the period context only, when that’s not how God applies His own scriptures to events? Why work hard to make Romans 9 disagree with Jesus in John 6, thus creating a contradiction where there was none before?

    What’s the point here?

  4. And why won’t my wordpress gravatar propagate to this blog?!? Argh!

  5. Royce,

    What Guy said.

    I’m only trying to correctly interpret Rom 9 – 11 and, to me, that means figuring out what points Paul himself was trying to make to the church in Rome. And he wasn’t arguing a brief for Calvinism or Arminianism. His concern was the lost state of most Jews, and his response was: read the Law and the Prophets: it’s coming true just as God said it would.

    There are, of course, serious implications for TULIP Calvinism pro and con. But this is mainly because both sides argue from these passages as though they were written by Calvin or Arminius to deal with their questions rather than Paul’s — and that always leads to bad exegesis. Thus, the biggest consequence of my proposed interpretation is that Paul is talking about something else altogether — something that’s important and that we ignore.

    But once we’ve understood Paul as Paul meant to be understood, then we can consider what implications his thinking has for today. But we can’t skip the intermediate step.

    Did God choose Paul. Certainly, he did. Does that mean that Paul is talking about God’s choosing in the very same sense in Rom 9 – 11. No, it doesn’t. Rather, we must interpret Rom 9 – 11 in its own context.

    As I’ve said, however, the fact that God has the level of foreknowledge that Paul credits to God has serious implications for both Calvinists and Arminians when we consider God’s choices as they affect individuals. I’ve not addressed those questions (here) because Paul isn’t addressing that question in 9 – 11. Once we work our way through chapter 11, we can consider what the implications are for individual Christians. But not until we’ve figured out what Paul meant the Romans to learn from these chapters.

    So if I haven’t put everyone to sleep by the end, maybe we can take up Open Theism and all that later.

  6. Guy,

    Thanks. I think you’ve put your finger on it. Paul certainly teaches that God is active in shaping human history to his ends. And the rest of the Bible says the same thing. God is not passive.

    But Paul does not teach in Rom 9 – 11 that God elects every individual. Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. That’s simply not what Paul is discussing.

    The fact that Paul is discussing God’s grand plan for nations/races/peoples rather than individuals in 9 – 11 doesn’t say whether God has a grand plan for each individual. It just means you have to look elsewhere for answers to other questions.

  7. Brad,

    Paul is not saying in Rom 9 – 11: here are some prophecies subject to multiple fulfillment. He’s saying: for those of you who, like me, are astonished that the Jews have rejected God himself when he came in the flesh, we should re-read the Law and the Prophets to see that God had predicted this going back to Moses. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.

    When we interpret Paul’s words in Rom 9 – 11, the first, essential step is to determine what they meant to his readers in Rome. What question was Paul answering? And he wasn’t answering the Calvinist/Arminian debate. He was worried about the eternal fate of his countrymen.

    Now, once we sort through Paul’s words, we can then see what lessons there are for us today. He may well shed light on the Calvinism controversy. But we can only see that light if we carefully exegete Paul’s words in his context.

    (When did it become objectionable to argue that we should read scripture in its historical and literary context?)

    Finally, if I’m in error, as many readers seem to think, the way to demonstrate that is to show how Rom 9 – 11, in proper literary and historical context, means something other than what I’m saying.

    But even if Paul means what I think he means, that only means that Paul isn’t discussing individual election here. That doesn’t disprove unconditional individual election. It just means those who wish to argue for that position have fewer proof texts. (Hence, I’m not arguing that Paul contradicts John 6. I’m just saying that Paul isn’t teaching unconditional individual election in these 3 chapters — which is an entirely different thing.)

    I’m going to resist the temptation to argue other texts in the comments, because my intent, for now, is just to figure out what God is saying to us through his apostle in these chapters.

  8. To be fair, the only person to say (in so many words), “This is a new way to look at the scriptures” is Jesus. All the other authors tend to assume that when they use scripture to back up what they are saying, the reader understands that they are using them for new purposes, in a new context. When Peter preaches the gospel of Jesus from the Old Testament in Acts, he’s obviously using old passages in a new context, regardless of what the older context was.

    I have never thought that Paul was addressing a debate. He is directly and clearly explaining who God is to people who needed to know, because as Romans, they did not have the same rich history of relationship that the Jewish people did. One of the questions he is answering is, “If God’s chosen people rejected the Messiah, how are we going to be accepted now into the kingdom?” Paul’s answer is “God chooses whom he wants – be it nation or individual.” It’s not up to us to question, but to understand it’s not random.

    Paul is demonstrating that throughout history it was not lineage or nationality that prevailed, but God’s choice, to the point that not every Jewish person is a son of Abraham (which would’ve been an amazing revelation to the people of the time). Once again, Paul redefines scripture, and says that a son of Abraham is one who believes in Jesus, not one with the proper physical lineage.

    (Paul doesn’t announce, “Hey! New interpretation!” He just redefines the term, assuming the reader will understand that he is writing revelations of the kingdom by the power of God.)

    I’m not objecting to reading scripture in its context. But I think your assumptions about the context are incorrect, namely the “why” about Paul’s writing.

    Paul was speaking to a people without the same historical context He had grown up with. But it didn’t matter, because what they needed to know is how the entire story of God (everything revealed in the OT) has been consistent (God’s choice), and that they were included because of His graceful choice, not their nationality or lineage. Their story is a continuation of what God was already doing, which is whatever He wants. That is the context from which Paul is writing.

    When you argue at the front of the letter that no one – not even “chosen” people – are qualified for salvation, you need to spend a few chapters on the power of God, and what the overall story is. Otherwise, those Gentiles lacking the “common historical sense” that Paul had would be nervous about their own salvation. Paul is making the argument that just like God chose Jacob and hardened Pharaoh for His own glory and story, the “chosen” people have not been unchosen, but have been part of a greater story that included the Gentiles – the readers of this letter.

  9. even in previous elections from abraham to noah to moses was it really any different? god elects people, the choose or choose not to do his will…election of new people shouldn’t really be a surprise

  10. […] a critical point in understanding God’s relationship with Israel, and is entirely consistent with the earlier series on Rom 9 – 11, “Election.” As Paul wrote in Romans — (Rom 3:25)  God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through […]

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