The Absolute Sovereignty of God: What Is Romans Nine About?

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

There are two experiences in my life that make Romans 9 one of the most important chapters in shaping the way I think about everything, and the way I have been led in ministry. One happened in seminary and turned my mental world upside down. The other happened in the fall of 1979 and led to my coming to serve this church.

When I entered seminary I believed in the freedom of my will, in the sense that it was ultimately self-determining. I had not learned this from the Bible; I absorbed it from the independent, self-sufficient, self-esteeming, self-exalting air that you and I breathe every day of our lives in America. The sovereignty of God meant that he can do anything with me that I give him permission to do. With this frame of mind I entered a class on Philippians with Daniel Fuller and class on the doctrine of salvation with James Morgan.

In Philippians I was confronted with the intractable ground clause of chapter 2 verse 13: "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure," which made God the will beneath my will and the worker beneath my work. The question was not whether I had a will; the question was why I willed what I willed. And the ultimate answer – not the only answer – was God.

In the class on salvation we dealt head on with the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace. Romans 9 was the watershed text and the one that changed my life forever. Romans 9:11-12 said, "Though they [Jacob and Esau] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad – in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’" And when Paul raised the question in verse 14, "Is there injustice on God's part?" He says, no, and quotes Moses (in verse 15): "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." And when he raises the question in verse 19, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" He answers in 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?"

Emotions run high when you feel your man-centered world crumbling around you. I met Dr. Morgan in the hall one day. After a few minutes of heated argument about the freedom of my will, I held a pen in front of his face and dropped it to the floor. Then I said, with not as much respect as a student ought to have, "I [!] dropped it." Somehow that was supposed to prove that my choice to drop the pen was not governed by anything but my sovereign self.

But thanks be to God’s mercy and patience, at the end of the semester I wrote in my blue book for the final exam, "Romans 9 is like a tiger going about devouring free-willers like me." That was the end of my love affair with human autonomy and the ultimate self-determination of my will. My worldview simply could not stand against the scriptures, especially Romans 9. And it was the beginning of a lifelong passion to see and savor the supremacy of God in absolutely everything.

The Fall of 1979

Then, about ten years later, came the fall of 1979. I was on sabbatical from teaching at Bethel College. My one aim on this leave was to study Romans 9 and write a book on it that would settle, in my own mind, the meaning of these verses. After six years of teaching and finding many students in every class ready to discount my interpretation of this chapter for one reason or another, I decided I had to give eight months to it. The upshot of that sabbatical was the book, The Justification of God. I tried to answer every important exegetical objection to God’s absolute sovereignty in Romans 9.

But the result of that sabbatical was utterly unexpected—at least by me. My aim was to analyze God’s words so closely and construe them so carefully that I could write a book that would be compelling and stand the test of time. What I did not expect was that six months into this analysis of Romans 9 God himself would speak to me so powerfully that I resigned my job at Bethel and made myself available to the Minnesota Baptist Conference if there were a church who would have me as a pastor.

In essence it happened like this: I was 34 years old. I had two children and a third on the way. As I studied Romans 9 day after day, I began to see a God so majestic and so free and so absolutely sovereign that my analysis merged into worship and the Lord said, in effect, "I will not simply be analyzed, I will be adored. I will not simply be pondered, I will be proclaimed. My sovereignty is not simply to be scrutinized, it is to be heralded. It is not grist for the mill of controversy, it is gospel for sinners who know that their only hope is the sovereign triumph of God’s grace over their rebellious will." This is when Bethlehem contacted me near the end of 1979. And I do not hesitate to say that because of Romans 9 I left teaching and became a pastor. The God of Romans 9 has been the Rock-solid foundation of all I have said and all I have done in the last 22 years..

Jonathan Edwards’ Testimony to God’s Absolute Sovereignty

I feel about the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty over my will and over this church and over the nations the way Jonathan Edwards did – even if I don’t have his powers to see and savor God’s truth. I read the following story because it may have been the story of many in this church, and may yet be, I pray, the story of many:

From childhood up, my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life, and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell. It used to appear like a horrible doctrine to me. But I remember the time very well, when I seemed to be convinced, and fully satisfied, as to this sovereignty of God, and his justice in thus eternally disposing of [dealing with] men, according to his sovereign pleasure. But never could give an account, how, or by what means, I was, thus convinced, not in the least imagining at the time, nor a long time after, that there was any extraordinary influence of God’s Spirit in it but only that now I saw further, and my reason apprehended the justice and reasonableness of it. However, my mind rested in it; and it put an end to all those cavils and objections. And there has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God's sovereignty, from that day to this; so that I scarce ever have found so much as the rising of an objection against it, in the most absolute sense, in God’s shewing mercy to whom he will show mercy, and hardening whom he will. God’s absolute sovereignty and justice, with respect to salvation and damnation, is what my mind seems to rest assured of, as much as of any thing that I see with my eyes, at least it is so at times. The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. (Jonathan Edwards, Selections [New York: Hill and Wang, 1962], pp. 58-59).

A Brief Overview of Romans 9

Now all of this is a bit misleading as an introduction to Romans 9. But only a bit. It might give the impression that Romans 9 is a treatise on the sovereignty of God. It’s not. Romans 9 is an explanation for why the word of God has not failed even though God’s chosen people, Israel, as a whole, are not turning to Christ and being saved. The sovereignty of God’s grace is brought in as the final ground of God’s faithfulness in spite of Israel’s failure, and therefore as the deepest foundation for the precious promises of Romans 8. For if God is not faithful to his word, we can’t count on Romans 8 either.

Consider this brief overview. Verse 3 shows us that Israel as a whole is accursed and cut off from Christ, "I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." We will deal with Paul’s arguments next week. Only notice now that this is the plight of Israel: "accursed and cut off from Christ." Now that raises a huge problem! What about the word of God – the word of promise to Israel and covenant: "I will be your God, and you will be my people!" (Jer. 31:33).

So Paul answers this question in verse 6: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed." You can see what was at stake. It looks as though the word of God has failed! But Paul says no. Then he gives the explanation that launches him into the doctrines of unconditional election and divine sovereignty over human willing. His explanation in verse 6b is: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." Not all physical Israel is true Israel. In other words, the word of God has not failed because the promises were not made to all ethnic Israel in such a way that secured the salvation of every individual Israelite.

Verse 8 says it again: "It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants." In other words, not all the physical descendants of Abraham are the beneficiaries of the covenant promises. Who then is? And here Paul goes right to the bottom of the explanation. He says, The beneficiaries of the promise are the children of promise. But, we ask, who are these? What are the conditions they must meet to be the "children of promise"?

Paul’s answer to this in verse 11, with the illustrations of Jacob and Esau, confronts us with the ultimate sovereignty of God in choosing who the beneficiaries of the promise will be. In referring to Jacob (who became the heir) and Esau (who did not) Paul says: "for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad [there’s the unconditionality, and here’s the reason for it], so that God's purpose according to election would stand [there’s the explanation deeper than human conditions – God’s sovereign purpose], not because of works but because of Him who calls [notice: he did not contrast works with faith, but with "Him who calls" – not even faith is in view here as a condition], Rebecca was told, "The older will serve the younger."

All this raises the question of God’s justice. Paul is hiding nothing here. He is putting it all out in the open. In verse 14 he says, "What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part?" Paul’s answer is no. And after quoting Moses about God’s freedom to have mercy on who he has mercy (v. 15) he repeats the absolute unconditionality of being chosen by God to be a child of promise. Verse 16: "So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy."

Which leads, then, to the question in verse 19, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" Those are the questions we are confronted with in this chapter. Are all Israel the "children of promise" or only some? If only some, what makes one person a child of promise and another not? If it is ultimately God’s unconditional, free, sovereign electing mercy, then is he unjust? If he is that free to have mercy on whom he wills and harden whom he wills (v. 18), and if it does not depend on man who wills or man who runs (v. 16) then, why does he still find fault?

The Point of Romans 9: An Explanation and Defense That the Word of God Has Not Failed

So you can see that the issue of divine election, and human will, and God’s justice, and human blame, and God’s sovereignty are all here in this chapter. But they are not here for their own sake. They are here to explain this burning question: How can God’s elect people, Israel, be accursed and cut off from Christ if the word of God is reliable? How can verse 6a be true: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed." That’s the issue in this chapter.

Will the Promises of Romans 8 Stand?

And it is utterly crucial for us as we move to the Lord’s table. Will the promises of Romans 8 stand? Will the blood-bought promises that we Gentiles and Jews are staking our lives on stand? Will God stand by his commitments, sealed with the blood of his Son? Will he work all things together for our good? Will the predestined be called and the called be justified and the justified be glorified? Will he give us all things with him? Will nothing separate us from the love of God in Christ? Is there really now no condemnation, and will there be none tomorrow?

Romans 9 comes after Romans 8 for this utterly crucial reason: It shows that the word of God’s covenant with Israel has not failed, because it is grounded in God’s sovereign, electing mercy. Therefore the promises to the true Israel and the promises of Romans 8 will stand! That is the gospel of Romans 9. The promises purchased by the blood of Christ will be performed by the sovereign power of God.

Oh, how thankful, how humble, and how confident we should be as we worship the Lord at his table.

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