(I’m taking part in a Twitter Bible reading group covering Romans to Revelation over the second half of 2014. Today (July 24th) is Romans 9, and my comments need a more sustained argument than is practicable on Twitter. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)
I have to admit that I struggle with some of the ideas expressed in this chapter, but I suspect I’m not alone. This post will explore that struggle, and perhaps some of it may help others in a similar struggle. Once again, I apologise that it is longer than most of my posts.
My starting point is verse 15: “God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.'” There are quite a few good things here:
- It emphasises the nature of God: mercy, compassion, love. Paul is quoting from Exodus 33:19, where God is offering to show Moses this nature.
- It reinforces the point that Paul has been making in earlier chapters: that being right with God is a result of God’s action, God’s decision, and not something we can earn by our behaviour.
- It shows God’s favour is not limited to the Jews, the children of Israel, again something that Paul has mentioned and will emphasise again later in this chapter.
But however good this is, it raises a darker question: does this mean that there are people to whom God does not show mercy and compassion, and if so on what basis? In this chapter Paul suggests that the answers are ‘Yes’ and ‘because of God’s choice, decision, even predetermination’.
Paul uses two examples to illustrate this:
- Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, where “before they were born [Rebekah] received a message from God … ‘Your older son will serve your younger son'” (vv11-12, quoting Genesis 25:23). In fact, it can be put even stronger: “‘I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau'” (v13, quoting Malachi 1:2-3; some translations have “hated Esau”)
- The Pharaoh who refused to let Israel go, and suffered the plagues: “God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you'” (v17, quoting Exodus 9:16). Again, Paul puts it even more strongly: “God … chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.” (v18)
Is this really how God works – a God of mercy, compassion, love? Does God really decide before people are born whether they are going to be good or bad? Does God really raise someone up just for the pleasure of knocking them down? Does God really harden people’s hearts so that they don’t have a chance to listen and repent and receive mercy? Could Esau and Pharaoh have acted differently?
I don’t want to believe in a God who acts in this way. Paul seems to recognise the problem – or at least acknowledges that it’s a problem for some people: “Well, then, you might say, ‘Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?'” (v19) Yes, I might well say this.
The trouble is, when Paul introduces someone else’s argument, it is usually to knock it down, and this is no exception: “Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” (v20). He goes on to use the analogy of a potter making different jars of clay for different purposes.
I think there are two things wrong with this:
- First, human beings are not lifeless pots. A pot cannot complain to the potter, but a human can challenge God – and they frequently do, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: the book of Job, several Psalms, even Abraham himself (Genesis 18:20-33).
- Second, if God makes us for particular purposes, I think it is wrong if God then criticises us for not being different. If a potter makes a plain pot “to throw garbage into” (v21), it is ridiculous if the potter then smashes it just because it is not decorative.
So what can we make of Paul’s argument? The notes in the Study Bible I use simply say that this is how it is: that God has absolute sovereignty; that to say or suggest anything else diminishes our view of God; that if we deny this we are assuming that we are in full control of our lives. But taken to its extreme, this idea suggests that we are merely robots mechanically carrying out the instructions written by the divine Programmer. I think that this ignores the reality of free will, that there are choices we can make; and that it actually diminishes the freedom of God in relation to creation.
The relationship betweern God’s sovereignty and our free will is a complex one, and cannot be resolved simply by referring to these verses. But I don’t think that we can simply dismiss them; we need to understand why Paul uses this argument. Perhaps one approach is to recognise that Paul tends to emphasise some aspects of Scripture to make a point; in chapter 3, for example, Paul quotes several verses which say that all people are wholly sinful, ignoring other verses which suggest otherwise.
Is he doing the same here? This argument is part of Paul’s discussion on why most Jews have not accepted the gospel message. Part of this is to say that this should be expected: physical descent from Abraham does not by itself guarantee acceptance as ‘children of God’ (v 8), just as neither does trying to keep all the requirements of the law (v31, and in earlier chapters). Paul suggests that this rejection is itself somehow part of God’s plan – an idea he will return to in chapter 11 – so his use of Esau and Pharaoh as examples and his potter analogy simply emphasise this point without trying to say it’s the whole story.
So I finish where I started: “God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.'” (v15). Perhaps our emphasis should be to rejoice when we experience this mercy and compassion, and not limit God’s choices. Even Paul moves on in this chapter from the ‘bad news’ to rejoice in God’s compassion for all nations.