19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 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?” 21 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? 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, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
We’ve been working our way over the past few weeks through Romans 9, one of the more challenging passages in this letter. Last week, we took a detour and examined part of Ephesians 2 as a way of setting the table for what we’ll see today. Here are three concrete things we learned in Ephesians 2:
- Salvation is God’s work and is not based on any personal merit. (Eph. 2:4-8)
- God has done all of this so that “in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:7)
- We have been created and shaped by God, and he has preordained good works for us to walk in. (Eph. 2:10)
So, with those things in mind, let us turn to Romans 9. I want to briefly walk through our text and then address some practical application for our lives. A.W. Tozer famously said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” To that end, scholar Christopher Ash says that Romans 9 provides us with a “Copernican Revolution” when it comes to our thinking about God. Copernicus was a mathematician in the 1500’s who created quite a stir when he asserted that the sun was actually the center of the universe and not the earth. Up until that time, people believed that the earth was the center of things and everything else revolved around it. Copernicus said, no, that’s not true, no matter how much you want to believe it. If we are not careful to be true to the teaching of Scripture, we can also conclude that we are the center of things and not God. God is actually the center and all things revolve around him and his will.
And, because he is the center, because he is the creator, because he is the potter, he gets to choose how his creation is used and who his people are. That’s Paul’s case, and it is not something he just came up with. In fact, quite possibly the first Bible story you ever heard is an example of this truth. This has literally been true from the beginning of Scripture. Go to Genesis 6:5-9
5 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.”8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
So, one of the first stories we see in the Bible is that of God choosing to kill, according to Genesis, all of mankind with the exception of one man, his family and a host of animals, who he chooses to save. Now, if we’re not careful, we can come away with the notion that Noah and his family deserved to be saved. This is what I was taught as a kid. God looked at the earth and everyone was sinful all the time except for this Noah guy who was somehow perfect. And, to be fair, that is kind of what it says in verse 9, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” But, this does not mean he was without sin, and that he somehow deserved God’s favor.
This is actually a place where the King James Version is helpful. Verse 8 that we read from the ESV says that Noah found “favor,” the King James Version, however, translates that differently in that it says that Noah found “grace.” And, what is grace? It is unmerited favor, which is exactly the kind of favor that Noah received. By grace you are saved.
So, here’s the question Paul thinks people will be asking. If it is true that God effectively chooses who will receive his unmerited favor and who won’t, then how can he find fault with anyone? And, along with this, Paul is asserting that God’s will is irresistible, which would have been a prevailing Jewish view. If God is God then what he wants happens. Consider the story of Jonah. God’s will was that Jonah would go to the city of Nineveh and preach repentance. Jonah says no and tries to physically flee from God. But, what happens? God’s will is ultimately done when Jonah gets swallowed by a fish and finally relents. Jonah is completely incapable of thwarting God’s will. And, here’s a lesson from Jonah, life is better when we just obey. Life is better when we not only pray, “your will be done,” but we also live “your will be done.”
So, Paul has asked, if God chooses who his people are and who his people aren’t, and that this is all his doing, then why does he find fault with anyone? And, Paul, responds to that question in a couple was: first, with a rebuke and then with a hypothetical. His initial response instead of trying to actually answer that question is this: “Who are you to question God?” Verse 20: Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Paul basically says, “listen guys, you are asking questions above your pay grade.” And, we do this all the time. There are so many questions that we understandably ask. And, Paul’s not necessarily saying it is wrong to ask these questions, but, I do think that he is warning us not to get hung up on our unanswered questions because they will always be there. Don’t let your lack of understanding of the big mysteries limit your willingness to be faithful to God. If your modus operandi is that you will give yourself over in obedience to God as soon as you get some answers on things, then you will never give yourself over. If there aren’t mysteries then there is no need for faith. If I understand God perfectly, then there is no need for me to just trust him. So, Paul isn’t saying, “don’t question God,” but I do think he is saying don’t wait until you have all the answers to practice obedience.
And, then he throws out a hypothetical answer. He says:
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, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
In other words, unbelievers are not just some nuisance to God, Paul says maybe he is actually displaying his power through them. For example, some of the key players in the gospel narrative of Jesus are not believers, but they are used by God. Just like some of the key players in the narrative of Israel’s release from Egypt did not follow God, but they are used by him.
To Paul’s point, though, don’t expect to fully understand the mechanics of all this. Instead, just be in awe of God’s power, and don’t hold back your obedience because you don’t understand it all.
Now, in our last few minutes I want to address a few practical applications of what we’re learning. Because I think it is possible to take the overarching truth here, which is that God is sovereign and his will will be done, and use that truth in ultimately selfish ways to justify one’s own lack of obedience. Here are two false takeaways.
- If God is sovereign and does what he wants, and there is no way that I can thwart his will, then my actions do not matter.
Wrong: Scripture is clear that God is supremely concerned that you would bring honor to him through the thoughts of your heart and mind and through your physical actions. What you do and don’t do matters greatly to God in the same way that how your children behave matters to you. But, this is isn’t simply that God wants you act morally, there is also a ton of evidence in Scripture that we can also bring our requests, needs and petitions before God through prayer and that he responds to those things. For example, in the story of Moses and Israel, God is ready to wipe them out after they worship a golden calf, but Moses comes before God in prayer and fasting and he relents. And, I think this just illustrates how complex and incomprehensible God’s power is.
- If God is the one who chooses who will be saved, then things like evangelism and missions do not matter.
Again: wrong. If that is true, then how in the world do you explain most of the New Testament? How do you explain the lives of the apostles? No, the reality is that God is clearly using his church to make his gospel appeal to the world. The comforting thing, though, is that the effectiveness of our witness is not solely based on our eloquence in presenting the gospel or how great the ministries of our church are. But, we are clearly given the Holy Spirit and the message of the gospel with evangelistic purpose to go and declare the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light.