The Initiative of God and Human response
Verse 14 – 18 raise a new question. Namely is God acting unjustly or righteously in changing the rules on who the elect are?
Absolutely not! Is Paul’s reply. Why? Because the question is incorrectly framed. God does not base His selection (or election or predestination or choice) upon justice and mercy. The apostle proves his pint by quoting Exodus 33:19, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (NIV). Paul’s Jewish detractors might argue with him, but they would contradict Scripture, which says that God’s election is always according to mercy.
And that is a crucial point for us to understand. After all, if God had given the ancient Israelites what they deserved (justice), they would have been obliterated. The same applies to the Jews of Paul’s day – or even to Christians living in the twenty-first Century. We are totally dependent on God’s mercy.
Some have wondered if mercy applied to Pharaoh in Romans (:17, 18, since the Bible tells us that God hardened his heart (Exodus 9:12). But it also notes that he hardened him own heart (Exodus 8:15, 32; Exodus 9:34) in the face of God’s attempt to wake him up through the plagues.
The plain fact is that God didn’t rescue Pharaoh from the results of his decisions, even though He had the power to do so. Thus there is a sense in which God share the responsibility for the hardening.
But the good news of Romans 9:18 is not that God allows us to harden our hearts but that “he has mercy upon whomever he wills.” The option is up to us, just as it was to Pharaoh. In the face of God’s grace, we can choose either hardening or mercy. It is the primary choice of our lives. The message of Romans 9:17,18 is not only that God offers mercy but that He is also capable of withholding it. He forces it upon no one – not even His covenant people.
That thought brings us to the complex question of verses 19-33. In seeking to understand this passage it is crucial to remember that chapter 9 is a unit that is seeking to understand why so many in Israel have not found salvation, while so man Gentiles have.
Verse 19, building on verse 18 asks a new question: “Why does God find fault with people if no one can resist His will?” After all, the objection runs, “IF God treats men as Paul supposes, they have no moral responsibility; God himself has no business to condemn as a sinner a man whom he himself has hardened.”
Paul’s answer to that assertion is divided into three segments. In the first (verses 20-24), the apostle slams to the ground the idea that frail and finite human being have any ability or right tot question God’s justice. The apostle backs up his response with quotations from Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9, two passages in which the clay question the right of the potter to do as he wills with it.
God’s prerogative to deal with people with perfect freedom and on His own conditions is precisely the issue the apostle has in mind in Romans 9. God is in charge, not Israel or anyone else. He is the potter, they are the clay. If He chooses to have mercy on the Gentiles, that is His business and privilege. No humans, no matter what their religious or racial pedigree, have a monopoly on God or authority over Him. Nor can the Jew or anyone else escape the result of rebellion. If they chose the way of sin, they also can become dishonorable vessels (verse 21). People are not automatically honorable because of their birth as Jews. Nor are they automatically dishonorable because they are Gentiles. God is sovereign, and He sets the rules and the conditions. In verse 24 he puts into plain language the issue that has been behind his discussion all through Romans 9; That God can save Gentiles as well as Jews. But that is a point he needs to defend to his Jewish readers.
That takes us to the second major section of verses 19-33. Verses 25-29 find Paul’s substantiating his claim of mercy to the Gentiles from the Old Testament. His quotations fall into two groups. The first (verses 25, 26) is from Hosea 2:23; Hosea 1:10, which the apostle uses to ground the acceptability of the Gentiles. Thus those who were not God’s people could become His people and join the family of God’s beloved. Such acceptance was a crucial part of Paul’s presentation, since Gentiles by then formed the majority of the church in Rome.
But that defense, while it succeeded in justifying the inclusion of the Gentiles, said nothing about the dearth of Jewish response. Paul turns to that issue in verses 27-29, in which he utilizes two quotations from Isaiah to demonstrate that even though God had blessed the Jews with the Abrahamic blessing of being a multitude like “the sand which is on the seashore” (see Genesis 15:5; Genesis 22:17, still only a “remnant” of Israel would be saved (Romans 9:27; Isiah 10:22). Thus the Hebrew Bible had spoken to the problem of the lack of Jews in the church that Paul has been addressing since Romans 9:1.
The third part of the answer to the question posed in verse 19 is found in verses 30-33, which are absolutely crucial for understanding Romans 9, a chapter that has put the emphasis on divine initiative, on predestination, or election, on God’s will, and on His choosing a people such as Abraham – as well as on His “hardening” of Pharaoh. Many have incorrectly assumed fro Paul, here, that everything is up to God, that humans are so much passive clay in His hands, and that even before their birth God has predestined some to heaven and others to hell, regardless of any choices that might make in life.
Paul puts all such theorizing to rest in verses 30-32. Her he shows us the human part in God’s plan. The answer does not lie in the mysterious decree of God, who predestines some to salvation and others to damnation, but in the human response to Christ.
The apostle presents a topsy-turvy picture. On the one hand are the Gentiles who didn’t even have any interest in righteousness but who found it in spite of themselves (verse 30). On the other hand, are the Jews who earnestly pursued righteousness but failed, in spite of their zeal, to obtain it (verse 31).
Why? (verse 32. With that question we have come back to the heart of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 – 8. The reason the Gentiles had obtained righteousness was that they had accepted the free gift of God through Jesus by faith (cf Romans 3:23-25). And the Jews failed because they had sought to attain it by works of the law, but they did not succeed in fulfilling that law. (Romans 9:31; cf 3:20). Worse yet, they had stumbled over the stumbling stone (Romans 9:32). In order to make his point more forceful Paul utilizes four short quotations from Isaiah 28:16; Isaiah 8:14 to affirm that God Himself has laid down a solid rock for His people. That stone he saw as none other than Jesus Christ.
The plain fact is that it is the crucified Christ who is the key to salvation. And when people come face to face with His substitutionary sacrifice, either they accept it by faith or it become an offensive teaching that they end up rejecting.