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 honored 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.
One of the great advantages of being a pastor and laboring to understand God’s word and exult over it in preaching is that I must stand before people week after week whose children have died, or worse, are spiritually dead; whose spouses are critically ill, or worse, spiritually hard; whose health is failing; whose jobs are in jeopardy; whose finances are strapped; who battle depression, or love someone who does; and who know from experience that the world — the real world where they live — is shot through with sin and suffering and futility. I say it is a great advantage to me as a pastor who is called to understand, and teach, and exult over the word of God, to do it in this context of life.
It’s an advantage because I can’t afford to play any academic games here. I can’t endlessly suspend judgment on crucial teachings. I can’t be neutral about great realities that matter in people’s lives. There’s too much at stake every week for us to entertain ourselves with trivialities or platitudes. Life is hard and you don’t come here to hear me speculate, or give my opinion, and offer pep talks to divert your attention from your problems.
And it’s an advantage because in this context of real, live people of all kinds in real pain every week, the big truths of the Bible either help or they don’t. And a pastor hears about it. It is a great blessing to me to do theology in the public context of a covenant community of suffering people. The problem of pain, and the problem of evil, and the truth of God’s sovereignty are never far away.
Testimonies of God’s Sovereign Goodness
I now have about 125 entries in my filing system under the title, “sovereignty of God.” Many of them are letters. Letters from you and letters from people around the country about the practical, powerful, precious effect of the truth that God the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is absolutely sovereign over all suffering and sin.
One of the reasons I don’t shrink from the vision of God in Romans 9 is because after almost thirty years now of teaching and preaching from the conviction of God’s supremacy and sovereignty in all things, I believe that it is not only biblically faithful, but also profoundly practical and faith-sustaining and life-giving. I have seen the sheer absolute holiness and majesty and sovereignty of God over all evil and over all human willing and acting become an anchor for storm-tossed souls, and a refuge for the frightened, and a rock of stability when all else seemed to give way, and a hope when the most precious earthly things had been lost, and a confidence that the worst of miseries really will be turned for good.
One mother of a 22-year-old college son who has not awakened yet from a coma for over two years after a skiing accident (that my son Barnabas was on), wrote to me, “Your statement, ‘In reality our pain and losses are always a test of how much we treasure the all-wise, all-governing God in comparison to what we have lost,’ brought me to my knees again. It has been very hard to give my ‘treasure’ back to the Lord. As you say, ‘This is a very precious discovery, because it enables us to repent and seek to cherish Christ as we ought.’” Isn’t that amazing!
One of the reasons I mention some of these letters is to help you realize that people’s responses to the truth of God’s sovereignty over all things are often not what you think they will be. The fact is: the views of God that you or I, in our limited experience, think are needed in a painful situation, may not be what is needed at all. Have you ever been surprised, like I have, at how amazingly and powerfully relevant the sheer absolute God-ness of God is! It turns out to be exactly what some people need when we think: surely what they need is some soft, non-theological, emotionally-gentle cushion. To our amazement, we find them saying, though they may not even be able to articulate it, “I am so deeply shaken to the utter foundations of my being that nothing but a massive dose of divine majesty and sovereignty will do me good.”
I have had a father say to me in March, after three horrible months of revelation concerning the abuse of his daughters by an uncle, that it was the truth of God’s absolute holiness and sovereignty, preached in January, that was the rock that got him through the last three months.
I met a young woman from India a few years ago who thanked me for the truth she had heard in something I had said and asked if she could write to me. When she was born a treatable disease was misdiagnosed, and she was paralyzed. By age fourteen she had had 21 surgeries and was cruelly treated by other children calling her “crippled.” She became a Christian in high school. She married, had four miscarriages, and her second child died in her husband’s arms at two months. She closed the letter,
I have read many books on suffering, but they are often so man-centered and . . . nullify, or at least diminish the glory, majesty and sovereignty of God. It is radical thinking to say that God wills and ordains our suffering and not just passively allows it, hoping to make the best of it for us. As I have grown in my walk, I can see that nothing in this world happens apart from the sovereign will of God.”
Facing the 21st Century
Have you ever considered — I am asking you to consider — that what is coming to us in the 21st century may be so catastrophic, so unprecedented in this country, that everything we ever knew of earthly securities will fail, and that this God, the God of Romans 9 — the God that, in our three centuries of American security and comfort and luxury could be so easily marginalized — that this God may be precisely the God perfectly suited to take on the challenge of Islam, and shield us from false teachings within the church, and be big enough to give you hope when the whole world seems to collapse and then rise in rebellion against Christ? Are you sure that your inherited God is the Biblical God? Is your God big enough and majestic enough and sovereign enough to be the God of the 21st century and of the world that we see developing around us?
An Objection Against This Vision of God
In Romans 9:19, Paul hears someone raise an objection to his vision of God. They say, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” Paul had just said in verses 17–18, “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.’ 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” It was this last phrase that raised the objection. If he hardens whomever he wills — if God has the right to decree who will become rebellious — then “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Paul has portrayed God as absolutely sovereign. He decides who will believe and undeservingly be saved and who will rebel and deservingly perish. Before they were born or had done anything good or evil, he loves Jacob and gives Esau over to wickedness and destruction (9:11–13). He is free and unconstrained from influences outside himself when he decrees who will receive mercy and who will not (9:15–18).
Why is this right for him to do? He has given answers in verses 14–18 and now he gives two more. I will summarize them very briefly and do very little defending on my own. I will let them stand and read one very powerful summary quotation from Jonathan Edwards that has helped me see the enormous implications of this passage.
First Argument: The Qualitative Difference Between Potter and Clay Makes Foolish the Criticism of the Clay
First Paul argues that a potter has the authority and right over the clay to make a wide range of vessels from the same lump. Verse 21: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” The argument here is basically: Potters know more than clay about what is wise to make. I say this because Paul asks in verse 20, “Who are you, O man, [that is, a mere man, a mere piece of clay] to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” In other words, the argument is simply this: we humans don’t know enough to elevate our values and our standards and our insights to the point of judging God and saying: You used your sovereignty in an unwise, unrighteous way. That’s argument number one. There is an infinite, qualitative difference between potter and clay that makes it foolish and wrong for clay to criticize the choices of the potter.
Second Argument: The Purpose Is to Display God’s Glory for the Vessels of Mercy
The second argument goes deeper. I think it is the deepest argument in all the Bible for why God is right to unconditionally choose whom to love and whom to hate, whom to show mercy and whom to harden, whom to make a vessel for honor and whom to make a vessel for dishonor. The deepest reason this is right, Paul says, is that it displays most fully the glory of God, including his wrath against sin and his power in judgment, so that the vessels of mercy can know him most completely and worship him with the greatest intensity for all eternity.
I will read it to you from verses 22-23 and you decide if you think that is a fair restatement of Paul’s argument. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath — [it is wrong to insert “although” before “desiring” the way the NASB does, saying “Although he desired to show his wrath . . .” That’s a paraphrase that gets the meaning exactly backward. It’s wrong because we know from verse 17 it is not although God desired to show his wrath and power that he raised Pharaoh up and endured his rebellion through 10 plagues; rather it is because he desired to display his power and wrath that he dealt with Pharaoh the way he did (Exodus 7:3; 8:10; 10:1; 14:4)] — 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.”
The Three Purposes in Verses 22–23
There are three purposes mentioned and the first two serve the third. First (verse 22) God acts to show his wrath against sin — that he is a holy God who hates sin. Second (verse 22) God acts to show his power in judgment. Third, (verse 23) all of this self-revelation is to make known the riches of his glory (including his holy wrath and mighty power) for the vessels of mercy. In other words, the final and deepest argument Paul gives for why God acts in sovereign freedom is that this way of acting displays most fully the glory of God, including his wrath against sin and his power in judgment, so that the vessels of mercy can know him most completely and worship him with the greatest intensity for all eternity.
Edwards on Why God Ordained That Evil Be
Now listen to one whose insight and understanding of these things is far beyond mine, Jonathan Edwards, answering the question why a good and holy God would decree that there be hardening and evil. Listen carefully. Think hard. This is not the Bible. This is a man who I believe understood the Bible correctly on this point:
It is a proper and excellent thing for infinite glory to shine forth; and for the same reason, it is proper that the shining forth of God’s glory should be complete; that is, that all parts of his glory should shine forth, that every beauty should be proportionably effulgent [radiant], that the beholder may have a proper notion of God. It is not proper that one glory should be exceedingly manifested, and another not at all. . .
Thus it is necessary, that God’s awful majesty, his authority and dreadful greatness, justice, and holiness, should be manifested. But this could not be, unless sin and punishment had been decreed; so that the shining forth of God’s glory would be very imperfect, both because these parts of divine glory would not shine forth as the others do, and also the glory of his goodness, love, and holiness would be faint without them; nay, they could scarcely shine forth at all.
If it were not right that God should decree and permit and punish sin, there could be no manifestation of God’s holiness in hatred of sin, or in showing any preference, in his providence, of godliness before it. There would be no manifestation of God’s grace or true goodness, if there was no sin to be pardoned, no misery to be saved from. How much happiness soever he bestowed, his goodness would not be so much prized and admired, and the sense of it not so great . . .
So evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world; because the creature’s happiness consists in the knowledge of God, and the sense of his love. And if the knowledge of him be imperfect, the happiness of the creature must be proportionably imperfect. (Jonathan Edwards, “Concerning the Divine Decrees,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 528)
So I ask, “Is God less glorious because he ordained that there be real evil and real guilt and just punishment?” Paul’s answer is, no, just the opposite. God’s glory will shine the more truly and brightly for having decreed and governed this universe as we know it. The effort to rescue God from his sovereignty by denying his foreknowledge of sin or by denying his ultimate control over sin is destructive for faith and hope and worship. It is a great dishonor to his word and his wisdom. Christians, if you love the glory of God, look well to the teaching of your church and your schools. Test them. But most of all look well to your souls.
May the majesty of God and the weight of his glory and the grace of his dying and rising Son rest upon you. Amen.