‘Yes, He Can’ — In Defence of God’s Sovereignty
‘The purpose of God according to election’ (Rom. 9:11)
There is a question that has vexed some and puzzled others. It has entered many minds, and yet, for reasons that will become apparent shortly, we are somewhat reluctant to ask it. This question goes to God’s rights, entitlements, prerogatives. In short, it comes down to this: Is God sovereign? Can He act according to His own pleasure, as He wills? Is God ‘right’ in showing mercy to whom He will? And does He have the ‘right’ to harden a heart?
The simple answer
On one level, there is a very simple answer: man must not criticise God, nor question His rights. ‘But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?’ (Rom. 9:20 ESV). God is always right. Man, finite, limited and created human being that he is, has no right whatsoever to take issue with God in any way. In writing or speaking about God we want to take care to do so with the reverence He is due.
And yet, Paul enters into this question in some detail — not in an accusing spirit, of course, but to provide a solid defence of the sovereignty of God. That this sovereignty does not take away one milligram of man’s responsibility is made very clear by the same author in the same letter (1:17–18), as well as by many other verses from the same and other inspired writers (e.g. John 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; 1 John 5:10). However, in this article we only have space to offer a few thoughts on the other side of the coin: namely the sovereignty of God, as set out in Romans 9.
The occasion for asking the question
Paul deals with the question of God’s sovereignty at some length and in a most striking way in Romans 9. In the first eight chapters he had presented the gospel of God concerning His Son (Rom. 1:1, 3). He had established the fact that all had sinned, none was righteous, but all could be justified by grace, through faith, and on the basis of the blood of Christ (3:23, 24; 5:1).
This was a most wonderful message but it obliterated the national privileges of the Jews. They knew that God had chosen one people, Israel, for special blessing and nearness to God. There would be some blessing to Gentiles as well, but (i) not to the same extent, and (ii) through Israel as a channel. The special position of the people of Israel was cherished and, often, held with no little amount of national pride.
The gospel presented by Paul pulled the rug from underneath the feet of such Jews. If all men were on the same footing, all were lost sinners, all equally needed grace and all could equally be saved by grace, where was Israel’s national advantage? What was to become of the promises not yet fulfilled that had been given specifically to that people?
God is sovereign
It is in this context that Paul treats the question of God’s sovereignty. The immediate question at issue was: is God ‘right’ in showing such unlimited grace to Gentiles? Or: ‘can’ God shower Gentile believers with blessings that put in the shade all that Israel had ever been promised? Paul’s inspired answer is clear and unambiguous: yes, He can!
Having set out, in the first paragraph of Romans 9, that he loves Israel and that Israel has many advantages (the covenants, the fathers, the promises and, according to human ancestry, the Messiah), Paul goes on to prove that God was absolutely right and entitled to choose others for blessing. As part of his proof, he makes use of four examples from the Old Testament.
Example 1: Isaac and Ishmael
In the next paragraph (vv. 6–9), Paul refers to a striking example that would have been very familiar to the Jewish objectors: Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac, of course, was the child of promise; Ishmael was not. The national blessing for Israel, therefore, did not really hinge on having Abraham as their ancestor but much more on the concept of ‘promise’. God’s promises, in the Bible, are gratuitous, unmerited commitments to intervene in blessing (see 1 Ki. 8:24, 56; etc.). No Israelite had ever objected to God choosing Isaac for blessing. How could they possibly object now to God choosing others for even higher blessing? Even the blessing of Israel did not depend on natural pedigree but on God’s liberality, promise and sovereign choice.
If an Israelite were to object to God’s sovereignty and insist on natural descendance as the only basis for blessing, he would either lose his own blessing or have to recognise Ishmaelites as on the same footing (and indeed the Edomites — see the next example). Neither was a palatable option.
Example 2: Jacob and Esau
Paul’s antagonists, however, might have argued that, although Isaac and Ishmael had the same father they did not have the same mother. One was the son of a free woman, the other the son of a servant (which was true: Gal. 4:22–23). This being so, Paul brings in a second example (Rom. 9:10–13) to show that God’s choice, not ancestry, is the determining factor (as well as to make another point we will come to in a moment, namely the difference between election and foreknowledge).
The example is beautifully chosen and fitting: Jacob and Esau, two sons of the same father, Isaac, as well as of the same mother, Rebecca. Yet, despite identical pedigree, God selected one for special blessing: ‘The elder shall serve the younger’ (v. 12). Where is the Jew who would object to the fact that Jacob was blessed, not Esau, or that it was Israel which was chosen for blessing, not Edom?
‘But’, some might have replied, ‘look at the lives of the two twin brothers.’ Esau was ‘profane’ (Heb. 12:16) whereas Jacob learned many lessons in the school of God and ended his life as a worshipper (Heb. 11:21). ‘Wait a moment’, we hear Paul reply, ‘when was it that God pronounced blessing on Jacob?’ God chose Jacob before either of the twins were born: ‘the children indeed being not yet born, or having done anything good or worthless’ (v. 11). Clearly, God’s choice was sovereign, based on His own will, not on the actions of Jacob or Esau.
‘But’, we hear another objector say, ‘isn’t this simply foresight? God knew in advance what kind of person Esau was going to be and chose Jacob over Esau because of His foreknowledge of the two brothers.’ No, this is not the case. Paul makes this very plain by adding the following comment in brackets: ‘that the purpose of God according to election might abide, not of works, but of him that calls’ (v. 11b). Taking these points:
- The purpose of God is according to election i.e. according to God’s sovereign choice. This principle ‘abides’.
- It is ‘not of works’ — neither works accomplished at the point in time when God chooses, nor works carried out at a later date: it is ‘not of works’ at all! See also verse 16.
- It is ‘of him that calls’. Here is the true source, origin and centre of divine purpose and election: it is in ‘him that calls’, in God Himself.
In verse 13 Paul adds another weighty statement: ‘according as it is written, I have loved Jacob, and I have hated Esau’. Previously, Paul had quoted from the first book of the Old Testament; now he quotes from the very last book, Malachi. Many years had passed since God had first pronounced His choice of Jacob. The two brothers had grown up and lived their lives. Over the following centuries, Esau’s family had perpetuated the profane character of their father. It was only then that God stated that He had hated Esau.
Once again, no one ought to dare to accuse God: ‘What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Far be the thought’ (v. 14).
Example 3: Israel in the wilderness
Paul follows up with a third example to demonstrate how absurd — and counterproductive to the objective of defending Israel’s position of blessing — it would be to accuse God of unrighteousness on the basis that He blessed those who had no merit. Did they not remember what God had said to Moses in the wilderness? ‘I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy, and I will feel compassion for whom I will feel compassion’ (v. 15). This statement was made in Exodus 33 after Israel had broken the law and worshipped the golden calf and in doing so had broken the covenant and forfeited all its privileges. God could have consumed them in a moment. But He did not do so. He showed mercy. And on what basis? It could not have been merit because they had none. It was on the basis of His own pure inexplicable will. Surely, the Jews had accepted this fact; it was just that they had not realised, or had lost consciousness of, the principle implied, namely mercy that is not dependent on the actions, or even the will, of those who receive it (v. 16).
Therefore, if they objected to Gentiles being blessed on the basis of pure mercy they would need to object to their own blessing, which was based on mercy just the same.
Example 4: Pharaoh
The fourth example goes a step further. The case of Pharaoh is adduced in order to demonstrate a further aspect of God’s sovereignty. The concluding statement of this section is: ‘So then, to whom he will he shews mercy, and whom he will he hardens’ (v. 18). The first part of this sentence we have already seen illustrated by the cases of Isaac, Jacob, and Israel. All had received unmerited mercy. But the last part of verse 18 poses an even greater challenge, at least at first sight: ‘whom he will he hardens’.
To understand this section, we need to realise two facts. One is that God is sovereign — that He is entitled to act as He will — and that He is not bound by man’s actions or character. He is the potter, we are the clay (vs. 20–22). The other is that in all history, and in all of God’s Word there is not a single case and not a single indication that God ever used His right to harden people without a very good reason to do so.
Pharaoh is a case in point. It is indeed true that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but only after Pharaoh had demonstrated extreme and incredible arrogance by saying, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice …?’ (Ex. 5:2) — and only after he had repeatedly hardened his own heart. As a matter of fact, the Spirit, using two different words in the original language, states no less than seven times that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Ex. 7:13, 14 (JND), 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7) before saying that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Ex. 9:12).
Are we saying that God is not entitled to harden whatever heart He wants to harden? No. He is God, He is sovereign, He is entitled to do whatever He will. But nor are we saying that God ever made use of this right. Never ever do we hear of God actually hardening a heart without abundant reason.
A final illustration: the potter and the clay
Is there anyone who is still not satisfied by this vindication of God’s sovereignty and righteousness? Paul anticipates such a case: ‘Thou wilt say to me then, Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose?’ (v. 19). This objector runs the following argument: if God is sovereign, then man must be just a puppet of God’s will; no one can resist this divine will, hence how can God possibly condemn or find fault with man? This is where we are on dangerous ground. This is not reverent enquiry but high-minded accusation and impertinent insinuation. Hence Paul’s response referred to at the beginning of this article: ‘Aye, but thou, O man, who art thou that answerest again to God?’ God is the one who gives the verdict on man, not vice versa.
An illustration serves to show how futile and senseless such an attitude is. The potter is entitled to make of the clay whatever he will: vessels to honour and vessels to dishonour (v. 21). And the clay does not have a view on what the potter does, or how he does it. So, who can accuse God if He wishes to show His mercy toward vessels of mercy, even if there are others who have become vessels of wrath? No one whatsoever.
Let us take note of an important nuance of expression in verses 22 and 23. Of the vessels of mercy it is stated clearly that it is God who has ‘prepared’ them for glory (v. 23). But of the vessels of wrath it does not say that God prepared them, or fitted them, for destruction, but simply that they are ‘fitted for destruction’ (v. 22). Pharaoh, unbelieving Israel, and all who refuse to believe have fitted themselves for destruction. But this does not stop God from showing His abundant mercy, making ‘known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, … us, whom he has also called, not only from amongst the Jews, but also from amongst the nations’ (vs. 23–24).
God is vindicated. What He does during this present dispensation in showing mercy to Jews and Gentiles alike is fully in line with His sovereignty and shows His righteousness, power, longsuffering and mercy. And, as Paul proceeds to show later, none of this hinders Him from also fulfilling His promises to Israel. ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!’ (Rom. 11:33–36).