Steve Sewell, “God’s Plan of Election (Commentary on Romans 9 – Part Two)”

, posted by Steve Sewell

Scripture quotations are from the English Majority Text Version (EMTV) unless noted otherwise. 

 

Does God Harden Hearts?

(Still addressing verses 17 and 18):

9:17 For the Scripture says 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 proclaimed in all the earth.”

9:18 So then He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.

I want to say up front, that God NEVER hardens someone’s heart so that they are unable to believe in Christ. That idea is not in harmony with the character of God, nor does it line up with what the Bible teaches about salvation. God extends mercy and grace to everyone who humbles themselves before Him in faith. The only people that God does not extend mercy and salvation to, are those who pridefully reject the truth that is in Christ.

“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  (1 Pet 5:5)

However, as in the case of Pharaoh, God may, at times, harden someone’s heart in order to carry out His will, as He had to do in delivering the people of Israel from Egypt. But it must be understood that God only hardens a heart that has already been hardened toward Him and to the truth. He simply hardens it in a manner that allows Him to carry out His purpose.

How does God harden a person’s heart? While it may be a direct move on a person’s heart, God may also simply put a person in a situation that reveals what is already in his heart. Oftentimes, we don’t know what a person is really like until they’re in a situation that requires them to respond according to who they really are. This may have been the case of Pharaoh. How often God deals with people in this manner, nobody can say.

Furthermore, when God does harden someone’s heart, I believe it’s likely only temporary until He has fulfilled His purpose through that person.

The way of salvation is never blocked to those who are open to the truth, and are willing to come to Him by way of His Son in humble faith. God will always extend mercy to those who respond to the light He provides, out of a sincere heart.

In the case of Pharaoh, he was not open to the truth. He was not open to the true God of the universe. He worshiped and served false gods. Based on everything else the Word of God teaches about His mercy, about pride and humility, we can be sure that God did not harden this man’s heart in an unjust manner. If Pharaoh had a heart of humility, and had responded in the fear of God to the light given to him, God would not have hardened his heart. Or more accurately, He would not have hardened it further.

However, as it was, God needed to harden Pharaoh’s heart to the point that he would not respond to the many plagues that God brought upon him and the Egyptians. In this way God was able to show His power in him, and that His holy name “might be proclaimed in all the earth,” via the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God is just and He is fair, and He is impartial in His dealings with mankind. There is no injustice in God that would cause Him to harden a heart that is humble and responsive to His love and truth that is shown to them – especially as it relates to someone’s salvation.

The Hardening of Israel

Our discussion of hardening wouldn’t be complete without talking about the hardening of Israel. Indeed, this understanding is critical if we’re going to correctly understand what Paul is talking about in the next few verses. Paul provides us with the proper context in the following passages. There are quite a few verses to read, but reading them as you consider the next verses in chapter 9, will allow you to see through Paul’s eyes.

Israel rejected their Messiah, and continued to rely upon their Hebrew lineage and works of the law, rather than by faith in Christ:

1 Brothers, the good pleasure of my heart and my supplication to God on behalf of Israel, is for [their] salvation.

2 For I testify concerning them, that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.

3 For they, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

4 For Christ is the end of [the] law for righteousness to everyone that believes.

5 For Moses writes about the righteousness which [is] of the law, “That the man who does those things shall live by them.”  (Ro 10:1-5)

Above all peoples of the earth, they were the one’s who should have recognized their own Messiah, as prophesied in their own Scriptures. Because of their rejection of Christ and the salvation God provided for them, “God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, down to this very day.’” And David says: “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a recompense to them. Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever!” (Ro 11:8-10)

Paul touches on this further later in the same chapter:

“For I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers, lest you be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”  (Ro 11:25)

Thus God turned to the Gentiles. Now all who trust in Christ become the “people of God,” no matter what race or people group we belong to. Paul elaborates on this further in chapter 10:

“But I say, have they not heard? Yes, indeed [they have]: “Their voice went out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” But I say, did Israel not know? First Moses says: “I will provoke you to jealousy by those who are not a nation, by a foolish nation I will anger you.”  (Ro 10:18-19)

“But Isaiah is very bold and says: “I was found by those who did not seek Me; I was made manifest to those who did not ask for Me.” But to Israel he says: “the whole day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”  (Ro 10:20-21)

Further still:

11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? By no means! But by their transgression, salvation [has come] to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy.

12 But if their transgression is riches for the world, and their defeat is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fullness be!

13 For I speak to you Gentiles; inasmuch as I am indeed an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry,

14 if somehow I may provoke to jealousy my fellow Jews, and thus save some of them.

15 For if their casting away means reconciliation [for the] world, what will their acceptance be, if not life from the dead?  (Ro 11:11-15)

It was Paul’s heart-filled desire that the people of Israel would be moved to “jealousy,” and that “some” be saved.

4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”

5 So too then, at this present time, there is also a remnant according to the election of grace.  (Ro 11:4-5)

This spiritual blindness and partial hardness that Paul talks about only applies to the nation of Israel, the people of Israel as a whole. The opportunity for individual Jews to come to Christ was still available, as it is in our day. As there was a “remnant” of believing Jews in his day, so is there a believing remnant today.

Paul ends chapter 11 with the same Israel/Gentile discussion that began in chapter 9:

30 For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now you were shown mercy through their disobedience,

31 even so these now were disobedient, that through the mercy shown you they also might be shown mercy.

32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He might show mercy to all.  (Ro 11:30-32)

God desires to extend mercy to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. It’s a matter of responding in humility to the light and truth that God provides. Individual Jews are in the same spiritual condition as the rest of us. We are blind to the truth until the Holy Spirit reveals it to us. It’s up to us to respond with a willing heart of faith.

With that background and awareness of the hardness and blindness of Israel, we can now approach the following verses with confidence:

9:19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?”

9:20 But indeed, O man, who are you to [be] answering back against God? Shall the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”

9:21 Or does not the potter have the right over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and the other for dishonor?

“You will say to me then”

This is a hypothetical question. From whose perspective is Paul asking this? With our awareness of Paul’s discussion of Israel throughout chapters 9-11, particularly in regard to Israel’s hardening and how it relates to the Gentiles, we can confidently identify the questioner as being the Jew.

“Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?”

“Why have you made me like this?” (vs. 20)

Here is the question I believe is being asked here, as we continue with the flow of Paul’s discussion:

“If God is sovereign, and intervenes in lives and nations and situations, as He did in the case of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and Esau)….and in the case of Pharaoh and Israel, why does He still find fault with those whom He deals with? For who can resist what He does among nations and in people’s lives as He carries out His purpose?”

Again, the whole context of chapters 9-11 reveals that these questions are being asked from the perspective of the Jews. In the context of this chapter, that purpose is the plan, and the avenue that He has chosen to carry out that plan. Again, God will do whatever He needs to do in order to fulfill His purpose.

9:20 But indeed, O man, who are you to [be] answering back against God? Shall the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”

9:21 Or does not the potter have the right over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and the other for dishonor?

I believe this is what Paul is saying: “Who are you to speak and protest against God and against how he deals with nations and mankind, and how He carries out His plan for the  world?”

Paul is the one asking the questions, so he can answer them anyway he wants to. He doesn’t explain how God has made us, or how He works in the affairs of man. Instead, he simply focuses on the sovereignty of God. He refers back to Jeremiah 18, and talks about God being the Potter and man as the clay. As in Jeremiah, so here, Israel is in view.

What Paul is doing here is agreeing with the questioner, that God does indeed have a right to do as He pleases. However, it must be understood that he makes these statements based on his understanding of God’s character. He knows that God never does anything that violates His attributes. He knows that He’s a God of love and mercy and grace and is without partiality. He knows that God always responds to a heart of humility. He knows that all of God’s attributes always work in total harmony.

Furthermore, he knows that he’s not discussing the details of how one comes to Christ in this passage, but is still discussing the plan and the pathway of that plan. He knows that he’s still discussing the situation of Israel, and how the Gentiles fit into God’s plan. While this analogy of the potter and clay is true of God and all men, he specifically has Israel (and the Gentiles) in mind. It’s the situation with Israel and the Gentiles within God’s plan that is the object of Paul’s discussion throughout this chapter, and throughout chapters 10 and 11.

“one vessel for honor and the other for dishonor”

In keeping with the flow of Paul’s focus, the “vessel for honor” refers to the “children of God,” the “children of promise” that he mentions in verse 8, which is made up of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. The “vessel for dishonor” refers to unbelieving Israel. The given identify of these vessels is further made clear in verses 22-24 and verse 29, which we will discuss in order.

But before we move on, I want to discuss the first part of this verse:

“Or does not the potter have the right over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and the other for dishonor?”

A potter has the freedom and the power to make whatever he wants out of his clay. He can make it for honorable purposes, or for dishonorable purposes. Such is true of the Master Potter. God can do whatever He wants with those whom He has created. And whatever He does is just and good. Whatever and whoever He uses for His purposes is noble and honorable. God is a holy and righteous God, and will never do anything that violates who He is.

Thus, while He can do whatever He wants, it’s all in harmony with who He is. What He wanted was for Israel to believe the truth and worship Him. And still wants that today. What He wants is for sinners to come to repentance. What He wants is for sinners to come to Him through humble faith in His Son. While God can do whatever He wants, He only wants to do those things that are in harmony with His attributes. He will never do anything according to one attribute at the expense of another.

People make assumptions that God just does whatever He wants, without any consideration of what the Bible teaches about His holy and just character. Paul could use this type of terminology (potter/clay) because He had a correct view of God, as we already discussed. This is why I suggested reading my article on God’s character first, before reading this commentary. It makes all the difference in how we interpret passages like this one.

9:22 But 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,

9:23 and so that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,

Calvinists see the “vessel of honor” as referring to “the elect” and the “vessel of dishonor” as referring to the “non-elect.” They see “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” and “vessels of mercy which He had prepared beforehand for glory,” as God determining who will be these vessels. While God did indeed create us, He didn’t decide beforehand who would be a “vessel of honor” and who would be a “vessel of dishonor,” or “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy.”

Again, Paul’s discussion in this chapter is not about individual election, nor is it about personal salvation. Election is the choosing of a people group, and the discussion all along has been about the situation with Israel and how God is dealing with them. All along it’s been about the relationship between Israel and the Gentiles.

When the all-knowing God created us, He of course knew the heart of man and the events that would unfold throughout history. Based on His foreknowledge He knew the direction each of us would go. Thus, by creating man He knew that two different groups would emerge out of that “same lump,” believers and unbelievers. However, God didn’t design one group to be “vessels of wrath” and the other group to be “vessels of mercy.” He didn’t determine who they would be. He simply identified who they were.

God identified each group and ordained that unbelieving Jews and Gentiles would have their end away from God where they will suffer eternal destruction, and that believing Jews and Gentiles would have their end in the glory of God’s presence. In other words, God didn’t decide who would believe and disbelieve, but decided “beforehand,” before He even created them, what the end of their faith or non-faith would be.

Yes, God is the Potter and we are the clay, and He did create us the way He wanted to. But in what way did He create us? First of all, He didn’t create certain individuals with an unbelieving heart, and other individuals with a believing heart. He didn’t design some hearts without the capacity to turn from sin and to faith in Christ, and other hearts to have the capacity to turn from sin and to faith in Christ.

God designed the human heart with the potential for both good and evil. He has designed us with a free will to choose between the two. Those who choose evil and reject the truth, are “vessels for dishonorable use.” Those who choose good and the truth that is in Christ, are “vessels for honorable use.”

I need to add at this point, that none of us are able to come to the truth on our own. We all need the Holy Spirit to convict us of our sins, and to reveal the truth to our hearts. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, none of us are able to come to faith in Christ. But the point I’m trying to make, is that we have all been born with a heart that has the capacity to respond to the truth. I’m just trying to make it clear that God does not design anyone in such a way that it would make it impossible for them to understand the truth and respond to the gospel message in faith.

God is a just God, and everyone who stands before Him for judgment, will do so because they chose to reject the Lord Jesus Christ. They will stand before Him because they loved their sin and this world.

While this applies to all mankind, in keeping with the flow of Paul’s discussion, his primary focus is on Israel and the Gentiles, and on the Church, which consists of believing Jews and Gentiles. Thus, within the context of Paul’s discussion, the “vessel of honor” and the “vessels of mercy” is the Church (vs. 24), and the “vessel of dishonor” and the “vessels of wrath” is unbelieving Israel (vs. 29).

This phrase, “show his wrath, and to make his power known,” is similar to the description in verse 17: “For Scripture says 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 proclaimed in all the earth.’”

At that time, Pharaoh and his people were “vessels of wrath,” and the people of Israel were “vessels of mercy.” God displayed His wrath against Egypt so that He could show His mercy to the people of Israel, as well as to the rest of the world….for through them would come the Christ, the Savior of the world.

Soon after God delivered them, the situation flip-flopped with Israel. In the midst of much sin, they rebelled against God and made a golden calf to worship instead. They were then the ones that became the objects of God’s wrath. He wanted to destroy all of Israel, and make a  great nation out of Moses. But Moses interceded on their behalf and reminded God of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Ex 32:9-14), so God responded according to Moses’ appeal. Israel eventually became more wicked than the people they drove out of the land of Canaan.

Ultimately, they rejected their Messiah, the very One their Scriptures spoke of. Now the elect people of God, consisting of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, are the “vessels of mercy.”

Thus where Paul says, “What if God, wanting to show [His] wrath, and to make His power known,” he’s talking about the fact that though God desired to show His wrath against rebellious Israel, He endured with them in order to “make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy,”:  believing Jews and Gentiles:  

9:24 even us, whom He called, not only of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles?

God endured unbelieving Israel in order to show mercy to the believing remnant of Israel (Ro 9:27; 11:15), and on believing Gentiles, which make up the Church. God endured the nation of Israel so that His plan of election (this plan to call out of the world a people for His name), would be carried out. This plan was completed in the death and resurrection of Christ. This plan, and the pathway of that plan, is what Paul has been talking about throughout this chapter.

9:25 As also in Hosea He says: “I will call those My people who were not My people, and her beloved, who was not beloved.”

9:26 “And it shall be in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ there they shall be called sons of the living God.”

Paul has been talking about the situation with Israel and the Gentiles throughout this chapter. He talks about how the Gentiles relate to Israel in God’s plan of election. He puts them side by side, and not only throughout this chapter, but also throughout chapters 10 and 11. Thus, the identification of who Paul is talking about in these two verses are primarily Gentile believers. However believing Jews are also in view, and the combination of the two believing groups are the “vessels of mercy,” the Church. 

9:27 Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant shall be saved;

The “remnant” are Jewish believers.

9:28 For He is finishing and cutting short an account in righteousness, because the Lord will make a short account upon the earth.”

“For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the Lord will make a short work upon the earth.”  NKJV

Albert Barnes is helpful here:

Quote

He will finish the work. This is taken from the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 10:23. The Hebrew is, “The Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption, even determined, in the midst of all the land.” Or, as it may be rendered, “Destruction is decreed which shall make justice overflow; yea, destruction is verily determined on; the Lord Jehovah will execute it in the midst of all the land.” (Stuart.) The Septuagint and the apostle adhere to the sense of the passage, but do not follow the words. The phrase, will finish the work, means, he will bring the thing to an end, or will accomplish it. It is an expression applicable to a firm purpose to accomplish an object. It refers here to his threat of cutting off the people; and means that he will fulfil it.

Cut it short. This word here means to execute it speedily. The destruction shall not be delayed.

In righteousness. So as to manifest his own justice. The work, though apparently severe, yet shall be a just expression of God’s abhorrence of the sins of the people.

Because a short work. The word here rendered “short” means, properly, that which is determined on or decreed. This is the sense of the Hebrew; and the phrase here denotes the purpose which was determined on in relation to the Jews.

Upon the earth. Upon the land of Israel. See Barnes “Matthew 5:5“; See Barnes Matthew 4:8“. The design for which the apostle introduces this passage is to show that God of old destroyed many of the Jews for their sin; and that, therefore, the doctrine of the apostle was no new thing, that the Jews might be excluded from the peculiar privileges of the children of God.

Unquote

9:29 And just as Isaiah foretold: “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.”

Were it not for the remnant of believing Jews, and were it not for God’s covenant with Abraham, through whom the Savior of the world would come, the nation of Israel would have been wiped out. God nearly did when He moved against the Northern (Israel) and Southern (Judah) kingdoms, where the few that were left went into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity, respectively (2 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 24 and 25).

Ultimately, Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 for their unbelief and rejection of their Messiah, just as Jesus had foretold (Matt 23:37-24:2).

9:30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;

For the first time in this chapter, Paul names faith by name, though he alluded to it earlier. As I pointed out in the beginning, the reason for that is because the details of personal salvation was not his focus in this chapter. His focus was on the plan of election (salvation) and the pathway of it, as it relates to Israel and the Gentiles.

Paul now makes it clear, that salvation (‘righteousness”) is by faith, not by works of the Law. Where once God’s focus was on the nation of Israel, it’s now on the whole world (not that salvation was not available to Gentiles before Christ).

9:31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not attain to the law of righteousness.

9:32 Why? Because [they did] not [seek it] by faith, but rather by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stone of stumbling.

9:33 Just as it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and everyone believing on Him will not be put to shame.”

Israel believed that righteousness in the eyes of God came by following the Law, as descendants of Abraham. They were not true believers, but like the Pharisees, they merely went through the motions of following the Law, while their heart was far from God. If they were true believers in Yahweh, they would have recognized Jesus as coming from Him. They would have recognized Yahweh in Jesus – through the words He spoke and the life He lived and the miracles He performed.

Following the Law was God’s will for Israel, but following the Law was to be the outward reflection of a heart of faith. Obedience follows true faith. Following the Law without faith is no more than legalism. There was no true relationship with God.

Summary

Israel needed – and still needs – to understand that salvation is not based on works of the Law, but on faith…specifically, faith in the Lord Jesus, who is their Messiah. They needed to understand that true Israel are those who are of the faith of Abraham, and not of the physical offspring of Abraham – “children of the flesh.” They needed to understand that the true “children of God” are the “children of promise,” which refers to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as being the line through which Christ and salvation would come to the world. That involves faith. The children of promise are children of faith, the faith of Abraham, who are spiritual offspring of Abraham.

This promise was a promise of spiritual blessing to the world. This was God’s covenant with Abraham and God’s plan for redeeming the world. God chose a specific pathway for His plan of election, this plan of calling out of the world a people for Himself, through whom He is glorified. Thus, He would do whatever He needed to do to see that His plan continued through its completion in His Son. The deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh and his people is an example of how God intervened in the affairs of man to ensure that His plan was carried out. Thus, much of this chapter is about the sovereignty of God.

However, Paul’s focus of God’s sovereignty is not on the specifics of personal salvation (or individual election), but on the plan of salvation itself. These are two different paths of interpretation, so it’s important that we make sure of what Paul is really talking about in this chapter. If we follow the flow of Paul’s discussion carefully, I think it can be seen that his primary focus is on both the plan of election, and the path of that plan. I did my best to make that clear. Paul doesn’t touch on faith until the end of the chapter, which introduces chapter 10 where faith then becomes the focus of Paul’s discussion.

I think in order to interpret Paul as addressing personal salvation, or as providing us with insight on whom God “elects” and doesn’t “elect” (from the Calvinist point of view), has to be forced into the discussion…because if you work through this chapter without bias, and carefully follow the flow of Paul’s words, I think a clearer picture will present itself, as I hope I’ve been able to bring out in this commentary.