Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

God is all-sovereign. Amen. But in his all-sovereignty, is he fair? That topic of God’s impartiality comes up on the podcast a lot. Is God governed by objectivity, or does his sovereignty somehow excuse a bias, an unfairness, in how he works in this world and deals with each of us? Many episodes on the podcast come at this essential question, which you can see in my episode digest in the new APJ book on pages 355–64. You’ll see the diverse ways this question has come up over the years.

The fairness of God is such a dominant theme for you, our listeners, that I was not surprised at all to discover that Romans 9:22 is the most-asked-about verse in all of the Bible in our inbox. No other verse has been asked about more often in our inbox, your emails to us, in our eleven-plus years of podcasting than Romans 9:22. And this most-asked-about text happens to be next up in our reading tomorrow, if you’re reading along with us through the Navigators Bible Reading Plan.

So, to prepare for that reading in Romans 9 tomorrow, here’s one representative question from a listener named Leslie that captures the heart of a hundred-plus other emails that we have: “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.

Sent by Sovereignty

It may interest our listeners that this text — which is so problematic for most of us, the text that highlights the absolute sovereignty of God over salvation as clearly, as forcefully as any other text in the Bible — was the text God used in 1979 (I could even date it, December 14) to move me from being an academic theologian (after teaching six years in college) to becoming a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where I served for 33 years. It 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 saying, 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 in those years to move me out of an academic dealing with the word of God into a frontline effort to save lost sinners and strengthen the church and reach the nations.

“The moral accountability of man is not destroyed by the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.”

That’s important, and I say it because people think that if you believe in the absolute sovereignty of God over the salvation of sinners, 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, as it did on John Paton, as it did on Adoniram Judson and hundreds of other missionaries and pastors who laid down their lives to reach lost people with the gospel.

Open-Armed Calvinism

There is such a thing as hyper-Calvinism, which is not historic Calvinism. It’s 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, you don’t share the gospel indiscriminately (like I do). You wait and you look for signs among unbelievers that they might be elect. That’s absolutely wrong. It is not what Romans 9 teaches or implies. It’s 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:

Listen, everyone who thirsts. Come to the waters. You who have no money, come, buy and eat. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and labor for that which does not satisfy? Come to the water of life. Drink freely.

Everyone, absolutely everyone, who receives Jesus Christ as the Son of God, crucified for sinners, risen from the dead — every one of you who puts your trust in him as your only and precious Savior 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 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 a full minute like that, that’s what you say to every single human being.

Challenge of Romans 9

Now, here are the words from Romans 9 that cause people to stumble. Let me say a word about them. Romans 9:18–19: “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 Paul didn’t ask. We’re not thinking, “I’ve got a question, Paul, that you never thought of.” No, you don’t. The questioner asks, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” And now Paul did not say, “Well, everybody can resist his will. We’ve all got free will. Everybody can resist his will.” That’s not the way he answered the question “Who can resist his will?”

He says, “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Romans 9:20). Now, he did not mean by that question that we should never ask God questions. That’s not what he meant. He meant that you should never react with disapproval when he 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)

Two Compatible Truths

Now, Leslie asks, “It seems to imply that those who are not elect are not given a chance — even 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?” My answer: 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.

The first truth is that, 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. So, that’s the first truth.

Here’s the second. Everyone who perishes and is finally lost and cut off from God perishes because of real, blameworthy self-exaltation — sin — and 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 for a Savior is lost. No one is judged or condemned for not knowing or believing or obeying reality to which they had no access. All lostness and all judgment are owing to sin and rebellion against the revelation that we have. That’s the second truth.

Now, 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. Or to say it another way, God’s final and decisive governance of all things, including who comes to faith, is compatible — it fits — with all humans being morally accountable to God for whether they believe or not.

“There will be no innocent people in hell, and there will be only forgiven sinners in heaven.”

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 — nowhere. But God’s sovereignty is, and man’s accountability is, and nowhere are these considered contradictory.

No Innocent People in Hell

Therefore, my response to Leslie’s statement — that 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, either through natural revelation (the sun rising on the good and the evil, or the rain falling on the good and the bad, Matthew 5:45) or through conscience, or they’re being wooed and invited by 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 do that, 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; that is why they didn’t believe.

There will be no innocent people in hell, and there will be only forgiven sinners in heaven.