In our previous articles we looked at the issue of God’s sovereignty and our responsibilty, taking a look at the Arminian concept of Libertarian Free Will and how it doesn’t hold up logically. Next, we considered the Calvinistic understanding of Biblical Compatibilism - that God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are compatible concepts that work together. In this article, we will consider some of the Biblical texts concerning God’s sovereignty in the salvation of people.
The Litmus Test of True Theology
In this series of articles, we’ve talked much about what Biblical compatibilism is, but we want you to see it from scripture itself.
The litmus test of whether a theology is biblical or not is whether or not it can deal honestly with the text of scripture and stay with the consistent argument of the text without jumping around. Theologies which cannot simply read and work through a relevant passage of scripture, but have to jump around to proof text or use imported categories of thought or concepts, cannot be considered biblical. So, this is what we are going to do here in Romans 8-10 and a few other scriptures. There are many texts of scripture which could be used to illustrate this dual truth of God’s absolute sovereignty and our real responsibility. However, here will only look at a few most pertinent texts, and leave you with a list of other texts you can study on your own
Romans 8-10 – The Sovereignty of God in Salvation
The context of our passage in Romans 9 is all eight preceding chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I’ll provide a brief summary below to bring us up to speed:
Romans 1-3 – Shows us the wrath of God against sinful humanity and people’s sinful rebellion. God ‘gives up’ to their sinful desires so that they reap the consequences of their rebellion. People are inexcusable for their rebellion because God’s kind withholding of immediate judgment is supposed to lead them to repentance, and everyone is accountable because of the law – either written or in their conscience.
God is righteous in judging sin and no one is righteous in themselves because no one seeks God, and all are under condemnation. This is the current sinful state of people apart from God’s grace. They have fallen in Adam, willfully sinning, and under just condemnation for their sin.
Romans 4-6 – due to man’s sin and sinful nature, the only hope of justification (salvation) is not in their own works, but rather by faith in God’s promise of salvation. We only have peace with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who put their faith in Christ are united to Him so that they are now dead to sin and blood-bought slaves to righteousness.
Romans 7-8 – However, the experience of the believer in this life is one of continued struggle with sin. The law reveals our sin to us, but also ends up increasing our sin because of our inability to keep it. Believers have two desires warring within them: the flesh and the spirit. However, because they are in Christ, there is no condemnation for them because He took our condemnation and fulfilled the righteous requirements of the law for us. God also gives them His Spirit to live in them through Whom they are able to cry out for help to live by the Spirit and put to death the deeds of the flesh.
Romans 8 - God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
In Romans 8:28-30 we read:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Paul says that the reason why we can be confident that “all things work together for good” is that for those who are called according to His purpose, He foreknew them, He predestined them to be conformed to the image of Christ, He called them, He justified them and He finally glorified them.
This passage is known as the “Golden Chain of Redemption.” It describes the believer’s salvation. Notice that the subject of all of those verbs is God. He does everything in salvation.
On the basis of this fact, that God has done everything in the salvation of those whom He foreknew, Paul writes a series of questions and answers where he affirms the solid and unshakeable confidence the believer has of ultimate salvation and the inseparability of their union with Christ and the love of God. Nothing can be against us (8:31-32), No one can bring a charge against us (8:33), no one can condemn us (8:34) and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (8:35). Paul goes to extraordinary lengths to make this point emphatically by listing “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:38-39). In fact, Paul is so confident of this that he can say that the believer has been glorified - past tense! God's work in salvation is so sure that even the ultimate end of glorification can be spoken of in the past tense.
Note – the basis of this rock-solid confidence for the believer is placed not on the believer’s choice or any other work, but rather on the Sovereign God’s free choice to elect to salvation those whom He has foreknown. This is the context of Romans 9.
It is in light of this that Paul foresees some questions that will come up in the minds of his readers, which will be very helpful to us today. In the next section, Paul expounds God’s sovereign choice.
Romans 9 - God’s Sovereign Choice
After expressing his longing for the Jews to be saved, Paul says that the fact of their unbelief shows that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (9:6-7). Salvation—belonging to God’s people—is not inherited genetically, but rather is through faith. To illustrate this, Paul uses the example of Jacob and Esau.
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom. 9:10-13)
Note that the text clearly says that God chose Jacob and not Esau before they were born, before they had any opportunity to do anything, for the reason that His purpose of election might continue. This is a truth that God repeats throughout scripture – His purpose counsel shall stand and His purposes will be accomplished (cf. Isa. 46:10; 44:26-28; Psa. 33:11; Prov. 19:21). The emphasis of the text is on God’s sovereign purpose in electing one and not the other for His own ends.
That’s not fair!
At this point, Paul anticipates the objection in all of our minds:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part?” (9:14a)
In fact, I received this very question in a workshop I taught:
God is sovereign and full of justice. If God didn’t elect some people how would they get judged if God didn’t choose them to be saved? (Romans 1:32 & 2:1)
Paul in verse 15 answers the question by explaining from Exodus 33:19 that God says that He will have mercy and compassion on whoever He chooses. This is because ultimately, mercy cannot be demanded. Mercy is not getting the punishment we deserve for our sins. If we got the punishment for our sin, that’s not unfair, it’s simply justice. However, mercy is given at the discretion of the One who is to deal out justice—God the Judge of all. “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” (9:16)
Paul’s use of Old Testament examples in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Romans 9 is to show to the Jews that God’s pattern of the salvation of His people has been on the basis of unmerited mercy. He chose them out of the many surrounding pagan nations, not because they were better, but because He is good and merciful (see Deut. 7:7).
The clear takeaway here is that God’s withholding of mercy from some is not unfair, because mercy cannot be demanded. It is freely given by God at His discretion.
God Hardened Pharaoh's Heart
To illustrate this, Paul brings up the example of Pharaoh. In Exodus:
Three times God says that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21; 7:3 & 14:4)
Six times God actually hardens Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10 & 14:8)
Seven times it says Pharaoh’s heart ‘was hardened’ implying God as the subject of the verb (Ex. 7:13, 14, 22; 8:19; 9:7, 35; 14:5)
Three times we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34)
Paul explains that God clearly stated His purpose for this in Exodus 9:16,
“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.”
And Exodus 10:27 further explains:
“But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go.”
Here we see compatibilism and concurrence clearly stated. The two wills are set side by side. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, while simultaneously Pharaoh is unwilling to let the people go. Note that God’s will doesn’t override the human will, but rather, the two wills spring forth from each individual and yet at the same time work together to achieve God’s purpose. God doesn’t wrestle Pharaoh to do something he is unwilling to do. Pharaoh acts in full complicity with his own heart’s desires and that’s why he’s culpable.
It certainly doesn’t seem like Pharaoh had libertarian free will here! The text itself clearly says that the reason why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was so that God’s power and glory might be shown. God’s primary purpose in all things is His own glory. This leads Paul to reaffirm again, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9:17).
The purpose of God’s free choice to show mercy on whom He pleases is His glory.
A Dangerous Response
Paul anticipates the reactions of his readers when he interjects: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” (9:19)
This is probably the same objection many have in their minds when they think of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human will. We think it sounds like fatalism and instinctively question God’s goodness and justice. We question whether the Judge of all the earth really will do that which is right (cf. Gen. 18:25). However, Paul’s response here is perhaps shocking:
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? 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?” (Rom. 9:20-21)
Throughout Paul’s letter, he has anticipated questions and objections to what he is teaching and every time he has given reasons and answered those questions. However, with this question, there is no answer, only rebuke. But it is not a mindless dismissal. Look at the content of the rebuke.
The Appropriate Response
Paul’s rebuke here is that it is inappropriate for the thing made to question its Maker’s motives and purposes for creating it as such. The Potter has the right to create one vessel for honourable use, and another for dishonourable. This statement should floor us. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is one which squarely confronts us with the separation between Creator and created. He alone is God and we are not. He has total and complete rights to do whatever He wants and we do not. He alone actually has truly ‘free’ will—He can and does do whatever He pleases. This bare truth by itself may scare us… and rightfully so! For it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (cf. Heb. 10;31).
Why do we struggle with the fear of God? I believe one reason is because we have not rightly seen the truth of His sovereignty. The Bible presents to us a God who is so sovereign that He is absolutely unfettered and unconstrained by His creation and creatures. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” (Psa. 115:3; cf. Psa. 135:6) So much so that even the one of the most powerful pagan monarchs of ancient times, the king of Babylon, after the Lord had humbled him and made him to eat grass like a beast of the field because of the king’s pride confessed:
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)
We cannot pass over this point too quickly and not let the full weight of this text resonate and shake us to our bones. The God who created you and Whom you serve is unchained and uncontainable! This is why the genuine fear of the Lord is entirely appropriate.
In light of Romans 9:19-21, our appropriate response is to hold our hands over our mouths and marvel that God extends grace at all, since all deserve His wrath.
God’s Purpose in Election
After demonstrating that God is not unjust in withholding mercy, and forcefully showing the inappropriateness of the created questioning its Creator’s wisdom, Paul offers an explanation for God’s sovereign election:
“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— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:22-24)
Again, note that the driving purpose for God’s election is “to show His wrath and to make known His power.” God’s ultimate purpose is the display of His glory.
God’s glory is either displayed in His wrath against those on whom just condemnation falls, or His power on those who He saves.
Asymmetry in Salvation and Reprobation
Secondly, note how the text talks of these two vessels. The vessels of wrath were prepared for destruction – it is a passive construction. Although God is implied as the subject of the verb, these vessels were passively prepared for destruction. God does not have to do anything to make sinful humanity worthy of judgment but just leave them to their sin. The world already stands condemned (cf. John 3:18) and the wrath of God remains on him (cf. John 3:36) because we all have sinned (Rom. 3:23).
However, note how the text talks about the vessels of mercy which “He has prepared beforehand for glory”. Here God is the active agent. Unlike the vessels of wrath, God actively prepares the vessels of mercy for glory. Here, God has to actively do something to save people. We saw in Romans 8 that He foreknew them, predestined them, called them, justified them and glorified them. All those were active verbs where God was doing everything.
God stands asymmetrically behind salvation and reprobation.
In respect to the reprobate, scripture shows us that God does not have to tempt anyone to sin because they are tempted from their own evil desires (James 1:13-15), and that He gives them over to their evil desires (cf. Rom. 1:18-32)—takes His hand of grace off, so to speak—and lets them reap their just condemnation. Furthermore, scripture plainly tells us that God does not delight in the destruction of the wicked (see Ezek. 18:32; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:1-4; 2 Pet. 3:9).
However, for those whom He saves, He actively accomplishes their salvation. While they were dead in trespasses, God makes them alive together with Christ and raises them up to be seated with Christ in the heavenly places so that He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness (cf. Eph. 2:1-7). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Both salvation and faith are the gift of God’s grace so that it precludes all boasting.
Romans 9 Takeaway
This text of Romans 9 clearly tells us that God is sovereign in salvation – actively and solely accomplishing it for those He has chose according to His good purposes. It shows us that it is not unjust for God to withhold mercy because it cannot be demanded. It also warns us of an inappropriate response to God’s sovereign choice—He is the Potter, we are the clay. It shows us that God’s purpose in election and reprobation is to display His glory and that He stands asymmetrically behind them. Our appropriate response in light of all of this is awe and fear of this untamed God!
However, the question still hangs in the air: “Why is this good news?”
It is good news because God is not just uncontrollable sovereign power, but He is also good, just, true, merciful and gracious. “For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.” (Psa. 86:5) This is a truth that is echoed repeatedly throughout scripture (cf. Ex. 34:6; Neh. 9:17; Psa. 25:8; 100:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Num. 14:18) as if to remind us to not forget that:
We must not divorce God’s sovereignty from His other attributes.
Many people tend to look at the doctrine of God’s election as if God is stingy, cold and unloving—withholding His goodness from people. Yet we read just the opposite with the unwilling prophet, Jonah, who was called to go preach to sinful Nineveh though he hated them and didn’t want them to repent. Notice Jonah’s complaint:
So he prayed to the LORD, saying, "O LORD, is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I was so quick to flee toward Tarshish. I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion--One who relents from sending disaster. (Jonah 4:2)
Jonah’s complaint was that God was too gracious, compassionate and merciful!
May we all remember that God is far more just than we realize and far more merciful and compassionate than we deserve!
Romans 10 - A Correction to Fatalism
At this point, Paul knows that many will object, “Doesn’t the doctrine of God’s sovereignty make evangelism and our ‘seeking God’ unnecessary?” So, Paul goes on to correct the misunderstanding of fatalism by showing that God not only determines the ends of salvation, but also the means by which salvation comes. Chapter 10 clearly states to us that, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)
He goes on to show the necessity of evangelism:
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14-15a)
“The sinner's inability to save himself, therefore, should not make him less diligent in seeking his salvation in the way which God has appointed. Some leper when Christ was on earth might have reasoned that since he could not cure himself, he must simply wait for Christ to come and heal him. The natural effect, however, of a conviction of utter helplessness is to impel the person to make diligent application at the source from whence alone help can come. Man is a fallen, ruined, and helpless creature, and until he knows it, he is living without hope and without God in the world.”
Furthermore, the Bible presents God’ sovereignty as the basis for confidence in our evangelism. Hear what R.C. Sproul in his book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will, says about Acts 18:
“How cheering it must have been for [Paul] in Corinth to hear the words, "Be not afraid, but speak and hold not thy peace; for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to harm thee; for I have much people in this city," Acts 18:10. What greater incentive to action could have been given him than this, that his preaching was the divinely appointed means for the conversion of many of those people? Notice, God did not tell him how many people He had in that city, nor who the individuals were. The minister of the Gospel can go forward confident of success, knowing that through this appointed means God has determined to save a vast number of the human family in every age. In fact, one of the strongest pleas for missions is that evangelism is the will of God for the whole world; and only when one acknowledges the sovereignty of God in every realm of life can he have the deepest passion for the Divine glory.”
Yes, God has elected from all eternity those who would be saved and glorified – but He has also from all eternity determined the means by which they would be saved in time! We cannot separate God’s ends from His appointed means. This applies to salvation and everything else. God does certainly know the end because He has decreed it. But He has also decreed the means and process by which that end will be accomplished. Both the end and the means to that end are to glorify His wisdom, justice, mercy, goodness, and power.
Far from discouraging evangelism, the sovereignty of God in salvation actually is fuel for it. Many of the most important pioneers of modern missions were driven by Calvinistic theology of the sovereignty of God such as John Eliot, David Brainerd, William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Robert Morrison, Charles Simeon, David Livingstone, John Paton and Samuel Zwemer to name a few. Their confidence in the sovereignty of God and conviction that God has truly chosen people from every tribe, tongue and nation drove them to great risk and sacrifice for the sake of the spread of the Gospel. They were driven by the same passion for God’s glory that He has and desired to see Christ have the fullness of that for which He died.
In our next article, we will consider God’s sovereignty over who comes to faith in Jesus Christ and also over evil itself.
Read the other articles in this series:
GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IN SALVATION - An Exposition of Romans 8-10
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