[StriderMTB’s lengthy article, “The Folly of Doing Theology in an Echo Chamber: A Thorough Examination of Piper’s ‘Two-Wills’ View,” has been divided into 30 parts and edited for serial publication on this website. Here is a link to the original post. After the entire series is published, it will be made available as a single article on this site. Critique 19 is included in this post.]
Critique 19: EXPLORING GOD’S ACCOMMODATING WILL FURTHER IN ROMANS 8-11. GOD WILLS MERCY AND WILLS HARDENING NEITHER CAPRICIOUSLY NOR ARBITRARILY, BUT IN ACCORDANCE WITH HOW HIS SOVEREIGN TERMS ARE MET
God’s flexibility and ability to accommodate his purposes within a context of genuine, indeterminate freedom, is a mark of his sovereignty, not a strike against it. Concerning God’s purpose for Israel, we mustn’t forget God’s intention from the beginning was to always use the nation of Israel to extend mercy on Gentiles. Using a race analogy, Paul explicitly states Israel “stumbled” and “failed” (Rom. 11:11-12) implying she did not succeed in the calling God intended for her. But all is not lost. God will sovereignly use her disobedience to do what her obedience failed to do. And that is exactly how we ought to principally view divine sovereignty: using and exploiting human failure rather than determinatively causing it in every case. God’s original desire was that Israel, through her faithful obedience, would act as a light unto the nations. But when Israel chose to assimilate with the nations rather than stand in contrast to the nations, God sovereignly accommodated his plan and chose to use her failure and disobedience to accomplish what he had originally desired her obedience would accomplish— that being divine revelation and mercy extended to all.
Piper misses all of this because he insists on reading Romans through a 16th century Reformed lens. As a result he simply fails to keep up with Paul’s 1st century Jew vs. Gentile train of thought in Romans. Paul’s overarching argument throughout Romans 8-11 is that no one has rights to God’s mercy through lineage or human works. God gives mercy to those he wills on his own terms, and he hardens who wills on his own terms. But God does not arbitrarily lay down such terms. Rather God has sovereignly chosen that his terms to receive mercy will be on the basis of a faith response. And it is on that very point Paul notes Israel failed in her earlier opportunities to pursue righteousness that comes by faith because she tried to establish her own righteousness apart from God’s terms. Consequently she has willfully placed herself under God’s terms for judgment and hardening.
So yes, God does will Israel to be hardened, but it is neither capricious nor arbitrary, for God wills mercy and wills hardening in accordance with how we respond to his sovereign terms. In the case of Israel, God will use her temporary hardening as a means to perpetuate his long-desired purpose to extend mercy to Gentiles on the basis of faith. Even so they [Gentiles] must be wary, for they too can become cut off from God’s mercy and grace if they drift into unbelief. Moreover it is crucial that we note that God’s unique and specific hardening of Israel is not irrevocably determinative or inflexible, for Paul declares that Jews can once again become recipients of God’s merciful salvation and be grafted back in if they do not persist in unbelief. For their partial hardening that brought life to Gentiles will mysteriously serve as a means for their own salvation. Just listen to the logical flow of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 8-11:
“Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus… Who can bring an accusation against Gods elect? God is the One who justifies… So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden… Gentiles… have obtained righteousness — namely the righteousness that comes from faith. But Israel, pursuing the law for righteousness, has not achieved the righteousness of the law. Why is that? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were by works… [and] Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to Gods righteousness… For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes…One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness… True enough; they were broken off by unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either… severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you — if you remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in…again… So that you will not be conceited, brothers, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery: A partial hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved…” (Romans 8:1, 33; 9:18-19, 30-32; 10:3-4,10-11; 11:20-26)
Paul’s argument is that God’s sovereign terms, his sovereign choice to extend mercy and grace, is in accordance with faith and not ritualistic works of the law or lineage. Moreover those who come to God through faith become the elect of God. The commitment to pursue God over all other competing idols, no matter what form those idols take, (i.e. traditions, ritual law-keeping, self-works) is faith. God qualifies such people in turn as being his elect people chosen by grace. To make this point stick Paul reminds us of a time in Israel’s history when even Elisha thought all Israel was lost and would have to be judged because of faithlessness. But such was not the case as Paul explains,
“But what was Gods reply to him? I have left 7,000 men for Myself who have not bowed down to Baal. In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace. Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace. What then? Israel did not find what it was looking for, but the elect did find it. The rest were hardened” (Rom 11:4-7).
It is interesting and helpful to see Paul tie in God’s grace and election with the faithfulness of people, and judicial hardening with those who are found to be faithless. I am not accusing Piper of it, but many Calvinist commentators will argue that Paul is saying God used his sovereign grace to preemptively and irresistibly prohibit 7000 people from bowing down to Baal. But that is not Paul’s point at all. Rather Paul is declaring that God has graciously kept alive 7000 people and spared them from judgment because of their faithful refusal to bow the knee to Baal. Put simply it is not that God sovereignly kept them from worshiping Baal through grace, it is that God graciously kept them alive by grace because they did not worship Baal. It is helpful to read the original account in 1 Kings 19:17-18, “Then Jehu will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death whoever escapes the sword of Jehu. But I will leave 7,000 in Israel — every knee that has not bowed to Baal and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
We can affirm God sovereignly preserved and reserved a remnant of Israel for himself according to his will and good pleasure, but God’s will is not arbitrary, some roll of divine dice. God’s willed to reserve, by grace, a remnant of 7,000. Yet that very remnant comprised individuals who were qualified to be among the remnant in virtue of their humble obedience to God and faithfulness to him. We see this theme repeated throughout scripture. For example Joshua and Caleb were the only ones from an older generation who qualified themselves to be among those privileged by grace to enter the Promised Land.