Notes on Scary Stuff in Romans 9

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 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? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea… (Romans 9).

Ultimately, there is great mystery and terror in contemplating the infinity and power of God. The fact that he knows and plans all things, the fact that he “works all things according to the counsel of his will,” cannot be escaped. Trying to solve the problems this seems to bring by making the ultimate plan to be what falls together from the conglomeration of human choices simply transfers mystery and terror from God to “reality,” “the universe,” or some other title for the metaphysical casino that results when we make ultimate reality impersonal rather than personal.

However, many of the problems that are perceived to follow from this passage do not actually do so. I think the issues that are raised against the “Calvinism” of this passage usually relate either to the nature of human beings or to God’s character. Paul says little that helps us with the issue of human nature except in quoting God that, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” This implies that all people are in need of mercy and are slaves to sin. Even though God’s plan predates their ability to do anything good or bad, these are fallen beings and God’s decision to show mercy is the prerogative of a king dealing with treasonous subjects. God has not caused evil, but is dealing with evil in different ways, all of which are just.

Which brings us to how this passage affects our perception of God’s character.

God is not as glorified by meting out wrath and punishment as he is by bestowing grace and reconciliation and blessing. Contra Van Til, there is no “equal ultimacy” here. The reason for “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” is stated: “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.”

But wait. Doesn’t the text say that God wanted “to show his wrath and to make known his power”?  So he wants both justice and mercy and we are back to equal ultimacy.

But Paul doesn’t say that he punished the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. He says that he endured them with patience. How did enduring them with patience “show his wrath and make known his power”? Paul has just quoted about Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

This is about Jesus and the cross.

What, according to Romans, is now to be proclaimed in all the earth? The Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Egypt was struck with plagues (including darkness) as a result of Pharaoh’s sin. What happened as a result of Israel’s sin? Jesus was cursed and even plunged into darkness. Pharaoh and Egypt’s firstborn sons were killed, but in Israel Jesus the firstborn was killed.

Paul goes on in his argument in Romans 9 to write about how Israel has

stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

The sin was rejecting and killing Jesus, which precisely showed God’s wrath and–in the wake of the resurrection, the Great Commission, and Pentecost–made God’s power known.

In other words, Paul’s description in Romans 9.22, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” is a reiteration of a topic he has addressed again and again in Romans: God used Israel’s sin to bring about a Judgment Day in which, at the climax of Israel’s sin, Jesus might publicly bear God’s wrath on humanity.

A quick review:

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? (Romans 3:5-6 ESV)

Here “our” unrighteousness refers to the nation of Israel. And showing the righteousness of God means demonstrating God is righteous through Israel’s grand sin, the cross of Christ, as Paul emphasizes a few verses later:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

The “righteousness of God” here is plainly identified with putting Christ Jesus “forward as a propitiation.” God’s wrath and power were displayed and the Gospel proclamation makes that known in all the earth.

Romans 4.15 is best explained as reiterating that the purpose of Israel was to intensify sin so that God’s wrath could be displayed, at the climax of that sin, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. “For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.”

This is then elaborated in Romans 5.12ff. The passage is commonly understood as an exposition of two “Adams,” the original Adam and then Jesus. However, there are actually three Adams: first, Adam, then Israel with the Law, and then Jesus. Again, Paul states that Israel was used to “show God’s wrath.” This becomes especially clear in verse 16:

And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.

Here the contrast is not between Adam and Jesus but between Adam and Israel, the many trespasses. Thus the law was given to intensify sin through history until the measure of God’s wrath was filled up. Rather than Israel’s faithfulness being the means of bringing salvation, it was their apostasy that brought blessing to the nations.

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21 ESV)

The natural reaction to this message, as in Romans 3.4-8, is to mock it. If God’s plan was to bring salvation from climactic sin, then why not preach that we should remain in sin that grace (i.e. salvation spreading throughout the world as Paul has described in 5.12-21) might increase? The objection recorded in Romans 6.1-3 follows immediately and naturally from Paul’s message.

I will skip how Romans 7 might easily fit in this scheme because it will get us embroiled in other controversies. It suffices to say that we have a great deal of reason to hear Paul re-address this theme again in Romans 9-11. Paul wants us to understand God’s covenant plan for Israel.

Whatever we can and should properly infer about God’s plan in relation to those who persist in unbelief from Romans 9, we have to realize that Paul does not have any special knowledge that the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” are necessarily going to persist in it. The description “prepared for destruction” does not need to be interpreted as an absolute prophecy but as a statement about what will happen if they continue–if they remain hardened rather than only partially.  For example, Romans 2: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

Are these vessels prepared for destruction or vessels that might later be softened? Paul plainly hopes that they may be softened. He says so explicitly. Having stated that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills,” he goes on to argue in chapters 10 and 11 for a grand strategy in softening them up, concluding that only “a partial hardening has come upon Israel.” The hardening need not be permanent. He can pray and work for it to be ended.

And here again we see the problem of “equal ultimacy” in which numbers don’t matter as long as God saves some sinners and damns the rest to his own glory. Paul doesn’t want us to think that way.  “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”

And then, in the conclusion of this great argument that spans from chapter 9-11, we find that salvation is to spread to all:

For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

So the reason God is glorified by his wrath is not simply because of the intrinsic justice of punishing sin. It is because his wrath is displayed in history in order to bring salvation to the whole human race in history.

Of course, we know from Paul and elsewhere in Scripture that not every individual has been or will be saved from the ultimate wrath of God. In trying to figure out how this relates to God’s sovereignty, it makes sense to look at Romans 9. But we need to realize that Paul is still continuing his argument that grace is to abound all the more than sin ever did.

And yes, I have just argued that Postmillennialism is firmly embedded in Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.

Mark Horne is a graduate of Covenant Seminary and resides in St. Louis.

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