We currently have 150 emails now about Romans 9, by far the most asked-about chapter in the Bible in the inbox. Here’s one of them, a recent email from a listener named Aaron. “Hello, Pastor John! I was reading Romans 9 today and came across what is known to be a very hard-to-swallow passage and doctrine. While I believe God is sovereign, I can’t help but take into account Paul’s ‘what if’ statement at the beginning of verse 22. Is the language here being used as we would use it today? Almost implying that God can — but doesn’t necessarily mean he does it? Is that a feasible interpretation? How do you explain this conjunction and its implications?”
A Little Autobiography
Well, perhaps just to encourage those who struggle with the message of Romans 9, let me give a little autobiography. When I was teaching Bible and Greek at Bethel College from 1974 to 1980, virtually every class brought up the problems of the sovereignty of God vis-à-vis the will of man.
“Romans 9 is a watershed of how you view God.”
“If God is as sovereign as you say, Piper, how can man be accountable for his sin?” And eventually in these discussions, I would go to Romans 9 as part of my answer. Then there would be great disputes over how to handle Romans 9, especially verses 1–23. So, in the spring of 1979, I asked for a sabbatical. I had been there about six years, so it was time. From May of 1979 through January of 1980, as I studied, all I did was think and pray over Romans 9 day and night, every day. I had to settle it for myself.
The point of what I’m saying is that it was a great struggle for me. I feel like Romans 9 is a watershed of how you view God. I had to settle for myself whether this chapter meant what it seemed to mean, what I was saying it meant. Or did it have some other explanation? Out of that nine months or so came the book The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23.
I have shared the struggle with those who read this chapter and scratch their heads and try to reorient their minds. I have shared that. I don’t think Romans 9 is up for grabs though. I think Romans 9 really addresses the eternal destinies of people, not just historical roles. It does deal with individuals, not just corporate peoples. Those are usually the two reasons people give for saying, “No, you shouldn’t use Romans 9 to talk about individual election or predestination.”
This is not hard to see. Let me show our listeners from Romans 9:2–3 how I approached the chapter, and I think they’ll see it.
Paul says, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2–3). So what’s he saying? He’s saying that individual Jews, kinsmen of Paul, are lost and perishing, and this creates for Paul not only a heart-wrenching personal agony, which he describes, but a massive theological problem: Have the promises of God failed?
I mean if Jews — and he’s not talking one or two, but most of them — have a veil over their face, then they’re not seeing Jesus as their Messiah. So the question addressed in this chapter is, Has God’s promise to Israel fallen? The presenting issue is precisely that some Jews — not the people as a whole — have fallen. They are perishing.
Paul’s answer comes in Romans 9:6: “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” Then he gives his basic answer why: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” That’s his basic answer. In other words, Paul answers the problem precisely by pointing out that individual lost Israelites are not really part of the Israel who inherits the promises.
“In this very moment, the vessels of mercy are everyone and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord.”
It’s the lostness of individuals that creates the problem — it’s not imposed on this chapter. It’s the problem within Israel. There are Israelites who are perishing, and Paul solves the problem theologically by saying, “God’s word to Israel has not fallen because not all Israel is Israel.”
The rest of Romans 9:1–23 is Paul’s demonstration or vindication of the justice of God in the exercise of his sovereignty in having mercy on whom he will.
Free to Show Mercy
So Romans 9:14 asks, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” That’s where I started in writing my book: “Is there injustice on God’s part?” And his answer is “by no means.”
The rest of it, verses 15–23, offers support for why there’s no injustice on God’s part. He gives his argument in Romans 9:15, where he says, “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
So God is free to have mercy on whom he’ll have mercy. He is free to show mercy and grace to whomever he wills. Nobody deserves it, and God is not unjust to give it freely to whomever he will, and not to another.
What If . . .
Now why does God exercise his freedom in choosing one and not another? And that brings us to the question that Aaron asked about concerning verses 22 and 23. Because this is Paul’s most ultimate answer in the Bible, I think.
Everybody should put their ears up when I say that. “Whoa, that’s a big claim. Check that out.” So I’m going to say it again: verses 22 and 23 are Paul’s most — and I would say the Bible’s most — ultimate answer for why God does what he does in choosing one and not another. This is the very sentence that Aaron asked about.
It begins by saying, “What if . . .” Now in the Greek it is just if, but what if is okay because we should answer the what if question by saying, “Well, no legitimate objection can be raised.” I’ll come back to that. Here is what the sentence says:
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 9:22–23)
Aaron is asking, “Do the words what if at the beginning of verse 22 mean that God could act this way, but doesn’t act this way?” That’s what he’s just asking. In other words, does what if mean “Oh yeah, he could act that way, and that would fit with Piper’s Reformed understanding of this text, but he doesn’t really act that way.” Aaron is asking, “Is that a feasible interpretation?”
The answer is no, that’s not a feasible interpretation. It’s not feasible to take the words that way. And there are several reasons, but let me just zero in on one.
Actual, Not Hypothetical
The reason is that the if that introduces verses 22 and 23 has really already happened in Romans 9. It’s not a question of whether it’s going to happen — it did happen. And Paul is restating what he has already said. He is drawing out the application — namely, with regard to Pharaoh.
“Romans 9:22–23 is the Bible’s most ultimate answer for why God does what he does in choosing one and not another.”
When Paul says, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” well, he’s restating the very thing that he just said he did in regard to Pharaoh in verses 17 and 18. Here’s what that says: “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.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:17–18).
When Paul refers five verses later, in verse 22, to God’s “desiring to show his wrath and make known his power, [enduring] with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” that’s exactly what he has just done with Pharaoh in verse 17. This what if is not hypothetical — it’s actual. He did it. The what if is asking, “What if he did it — can any legitimate reaction be raised?” And he answers no.
Vessels of Mercy
Paul’s overall point in this section is that God is just in having mercy on whom he will (Romans 9:14). He does no one — no human being ever anywhere — any wrong. He always upholds the infinite value of what is infinitely valuable — that is, his righteousness. He upholds his glory.
In his absolute, glorious freedom — “I’ll have mercy on whom I have mercy; I’ll be gracious to whom I’ll be gracious” — he makes known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy. That’s verse 23, and that’s the ultimate goal of the universe. Those vessels of mercy are prepared beforehand by God for glory.
But in this very moment, the vessels of mercy (I’m talking now to our listeners) are everyone and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord.