It’s hard to confirm exact numbers, but by educated guess I would safely assume that the most asked-about chapter in the Bible in our emails here at APJ is Romans 9. I know without any exaggeration that we have hundreds of questions in the inbox on this one chapter alone. Within the chapter, Romans 9:22 is very likely the most asked-about text of all the other verses in the chapter. I know of at least 65 emails just asking about this single text, a hard text. Here’s one representative question from a listener named Leslie that captures the heart of dozens of those emails: “Pastor John, hello. I could use your help in my struggle with Romans 9:22. It seems to me to imply that those who are not elect are not even given a chance to repent since they were born for destruction. Is this right, that many people are created with no chance of ever being saved?”
I’m not surprised that Romans 9 is among the texts that people have the most questions about because my own history bore that out. Just recently, I’ve been perusing some of my old journal entries from 1977 to 1979. I was in my early thirties, and almost all of my discretionary time was spent studying and writing about Romans 9, especially Romans 9:14–23.
It may interest our listeners that this text — which highlights the absolute sovereignty of God over salvation as clearly, as forcefully, as any other text in the Bible and is therefore so problematic for most of us — was the text God used on December 14, 1979, to move me from being an academic theologian, who taught for 6 years in a college, to becoming a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where I served for 33 years.
This text moved me to become a pastor with a longing that God would use me to save lost sinners from the cradle to the grave and to grow a strong church that would send hundreds of people to the unreached peoples of the world in world missions.
So I’m bearing witness that the most controversial chapter in the Bible with regard to the sovereignty of God in saving sinners was the chapter that God used to move me out of an academic dealing with the word of God into a frontline effort to save lost sinners, and to strengthen the church, and to reach the nations. That’s important.
“Nobody who humbly wants Christ as Savior is lost.”
It’s important because people think that if you believe in the absolute sovereignty of God over the salvation of sinners, then you would be disinclined to be a soul-winning pastor and a missions-driven church. That’s not true. It had the opposite effect on me — as it did on William Carey, John Paton, Adoniram Judson, and hundreds of other missionaries and pastors who laid down their lives to reach lost people with the gospel.
There is such a thing as hyper-Calvinism, which is not historic Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism has always been a tiny group who have twisted the Bible by their unbiblical logic to say that the only people you should invite to Christ are those who give evidence of being among God’s elect. So if you are a hyper-Calvinist, you don’t share the gospel indiscriminately — like I do — but you wait and look for signs among unbelievers that they might be elect.
That’s absolutely wrong. It is not what Romans 9 teaches or implies. It is not what any other text in the Bible teaches or implies. The lover of God’s sovereignty who is saturated with a big, biblical view of God’s power in saving sinners says to every human being, without exception, words like these:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:1–2)
In other words, we are pleading with them, “Come to the water of life. Drink freely, everyone! If you will receive Jesus Christ as the Son of God — crucified for sinners, risen from the dead — and put your trust in him as your only and precious Savior, you will receive with him everything that God has done through him. Everything that God is for you in him — you will have it all. Nothing good will be withheld from you. If you will have the Lord Jesus Christ, you have everything that he achieved, climaxing in everlasting joy in the presence of God.”
That’s what you say. If people will let you talk for a full minute like that, that’s what you say to every single human being.
Now here are the words from Romans 9 that cause people to stumble. Let me say a word about them. Romans 9:18–19 says, “So then [God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault?’” In other words, we’re not asking a question that Paul didn’t ask. We shouldn’t be thinking, “I’ve got a question, Paul, that you never thought of.” No, you don’t.
Then Romans 9:19 continues like this: “For who can resist his will?” Paul did not say, “Well, everybody can resist his will. We all have free will. Everybody can resist his will.” That’s not the way he answered the question “Who can resist his will?”
Paul then says in Romans 9:20, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Now by that question, Paul did not mean we should never ask God questions. That’s not what he meant. He meant that you should never react with disapproval when God answers.
And he goes on,
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 honorable 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 . . . (Romans 9:20–23)
Now, Leslie asks, “It seems to me to imply that those who are not elect are not even given a chance to repent, since they were born for destruction. Is this right, that many people are created with no chance of ever being saved?” That’s her question. My answer is no. That would not be a faithful, biblical way of stating the situation. Let me put beside each other two biblical truths that many people consider contradictory, but are not, and then I’ll draw out of those two truths an implication for Leslie’s statement.
His Sovereignty, Our Responsibility
The first truth is, from all eternity God has chosen from among the entire fallen, sinful humanity a people for himself — but not everyone. Thus, this selection is owing to no merit at all in those chosen people. God pursues their salvation not only by effectively achieving the atonement for their sin through Christ, but also by sovereignly overcoming all their rebellion and bringing them to saving faith.
Here’s the second truth: everyone who perishes and is finally lost and cut off from God perishes because of real, blameworthy self-exaltation, which is sin. Because they are hardened against the revelations of God’s power and glory in nature or in the gospel, no innocent people perish. Nobody who humbly wants Christ as Savior is lost. No one is judged or condemned for not knowing, or believing, or obeying a reality to which they had no access. All lostness and all judgment are owing to sin and rebellion against the revelation that we have.
“There will be no innocent people in hell, and there will be only forgiven sinners in heaven.”
What keeps those two truths from being contradictory is this: the moral accountability of man is not destroyed by the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation. To say it another way, God’s final and decisive governance of all things, including who comes to faith, is compatible with all humans being morally accountable to God for whether they believe or not.
Now, we live in a world that by and large refuses to embrace God’s purposeful sovereignty in all things. That is Ephesians 1:11: “[He] works all things according to the counsel of his will.” People reject this largely because the only solution their minds can embrace for maintaining human accountability is the presumption of ultimate human self-determination, otherwise known as free will. But ultimate human self-determination is not found anywhere in the Bible — but God’s sovereignty is, and man’s accountability is. Nowhere are these considered contradictory.
Invited Every Day
Therefore, my response to Leslie’s statement — namely, “many people are created with no chance of ever being saved” — is to say that everyone is being wooed and invited by God every day. They are being wooed through natural revelation — the sun rising on the good and the evil, or the rain falling on the good and the bad — or through conscience, or through gospel truth. These revelations of God are their chance to be saved. It is a real invitation. It is real precisely because if they humbled themselves and received God’s grace, they would be saved.
Those who humble themselves and receive God’s grace know that it was only the sovereign grace of God that enabled them to believe. And those who don’t do it know that it is because of their own sin. That they loved something else more than God is why they didn’t believe. There will be no innocent people in hell, and there will be only forgiven sinners in heaven.