Starting from Romans 9:10, we read,
10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, BEFORE the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—IN ORDER THAT God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” ~Romans 9:10-13
Twins. Same father and mother. Yet, before they were born, according to God’s purposes, one is elected and the other is not. The older one, Esau, will serve the younger brother, Jacob. And to be blunt about it, v13 – Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.
How do you react to these verses? That’s not fair. Give poor Esau a chance. It’s like if I had very limited financial resources and I have 3 kids but I could only invest in one of them. And I look at my 3 boys and out of the 3, I thought that Timothy had the most potential. He is really smart and talented so I invest all my extra money on him: kumon classes and music lessons and I coach his AYSO soccer team, but for my other 2 boys, I think they’re pretty average so I ignore them and put them in front of a tv all day. You’d think I am a horrible father. That’s not fair to Jeremiah and Elijah. And that is how we feel when we read these verses.
And Paul already anticipates this reaction in the following verses. v14 —
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. ~Romans 9:14-16
Paul begins to reveal his theology. We say God is unjust, but Paul recalls what God said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. It doesn’t matter how much you desire things to be different or how hard you try with all of your effort, these are not the deal makers or deal breakers. No, what seals the deal is the mercy of God and it’s His prerogative where that line is drawn.
I know some here are saying, Amen to that. I know others are uncomfortable and wondering, does this make us all pawns in God’s cosmic chess game called life and we have zero input?
Well, I think the next verses push us even more toward the Calvinist camp. Let’s read v17-18 —
17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. ~Romans 9:17-18
Paul now cites the example of Pharaoh, our 2nd example. And of course, Paul is referring to the time when the nation of Israel was enslaved in Egypt. And Moses goes to Pharaoh and demands that he let his people go. And from these verses, it sounds like Pharaoh’s sole purpose for existence was to be an enemy of God so that God might display his power to the world.
We know the rest of the story. Pharaoh refused Moses’ request, and with each of the 10 plagues, Pharaoh hardened his heart toward Moses and ultimately towards God, but these verses shed some new light. Actually, we read that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And this hardening served God’s purpose to display a miraculous deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians as God parted the Red Sea. This certainly gives weight to the Calvinist position, for it is God who hardens our hearts.
On the other side, you have the Arminians. And on this side, a premium is put on the human response of faith. There is not a whole lot to support this side but we do read in Romans 9:30 that our response in terms of faith is important. It reads,
30 What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. ~Romans 9:30-32
Paul makes a distinction between the Jews pursuing a righteousness based on the law, in other words, religion, and they are not saved vs. the Gentiles who pursued a righteousness which was not a result of works but faith in a relationship with Jesus Christ and this led to salvation. So this human response of proper faith in Jesus is a vital component in salvation so we can’t say it’s all God and we have no input whatsoever.
Now, you have the Calvinists on one side and the Arminians on the other. So the question remains, how do we reconcile these 2 positions? Is it God’s sovereignty or human freedom?
The first thing you can say is that the question itself is one that is a bit presumptuous from God’s perspective. Let’s read Romans 9:18-21 —
18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. 19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use? ~Romans 9:18-21
So the sovereignty of God is laid out. God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden. God, who is the Potter, has the right to make some of us into beautiful porcelain vases displayed in a museum. And he also has the right to make some of us into ceramic ashtrays sitting on a kitchen counter. Essentially, that’s what Paul is saying.
And we hear that and all of this sense of injustice starts welling up inside of us because it seems so unfair. And we throw up our hands in the air and say, well, I guess this means I am off the hook. If my heart is hardened, it’s because God made it so. How can God blame us for anything we do? It’s out of our control.
You can see how this logic arises when we talk about the sovereignty of God and the almost arbitrary, whimsical nature of God to choose one person and not another. But Paul stops this logic dead in its tracks. He reminds his readers that we are finite humans and God is infinite. We are the clay, He is the potter. He is God, we are not.
We want to have answers for every question. We want to put God into a nice, neat box that we can explain fully. Like a computer, we want to dissemble God and say, here is the CPU and this is how the mind of God operates.
The same thing happens in Job, our 3rd example – when Job begins to question God and why he is suffering, God stops him dead in his tracks and says in Job 38:1 —
1 Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: 2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? ~Job 38:1-5
God addresses Job’s questions by turning the table and asking Job a series of questions of his own. And it’s the same point — know your place. Remember to whom you are speaking with. I am not your buddy whom you are so comfortable with that you can ask him anything you want. I am the God of the universe who spoke the stars into being. This is how God responds. Know your place. Things don’t always have a simple answer.
When I was a young Christian in college, life was simple. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. I could skip my classes whenever I wanted. My parents paid for my tuition and living costs so I wasn’t under financial pressure. Everything was black or white. God was good. Sin was bad. My purpose in life was clear. I thought I knew what it meant to live in the center of God’s will. I thought I had life including spiritual life all figured out.
But as I get older, I realize that things are not always black and white. There are a lot of gray areas. I am no longer confident that I know how to discern God’s will day by day. Life is not as simple as I once thought. Wicked people prosper and godly people suffer. Things happen in life that make me wonder, why on earth did that happen? And I have no clue. I read my Bible, I pray but nothing speaks to me on that issue. And the list of unanswered questions seems to grow over time.
We have to learn to not be so adamant about our theology, and instead, to be okay living in the mystery of God. Meaning, there will be many areas about God and spiritual life that simply have no satisfactory answer or explanation on this side of eternity.
Paul could have laid out his theology on God’s sovereignty vs. human will clearly as he does with many other issues discussed in Romans. But when it comes to the sovereignty of God and human freedom, he is intentionally vague. Because both are necessary. The sovereignty of God does not negate human will and freedom. Did Pharaoh harden his own heart? Yes. Did God harden his heart as well? Yes. We have to hold both in tension and be okay that we will never be able to precisely parse out how much was it God’s sovereignty and how much was it human freedom. This is not something that God intended for us to figure out or he would have been more specific in his revelation to us in Scripture.
Finally, we see the same principle in the story of Joseph. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, but he did not lose faith in God and God protected him and blessed him. And in the end, he became the Prime Minister of Egypt and during a time of famine, he was able to help his brothers in their time of need. And during their reunion, he shares in Genesis 50:20,
“What you intended for harm, God meant it for good and to save many lives.” ~Genesis 50:20
God is sovereign. Of course, He is. Despite all the hurts of the past, people’s wrong choices and mistakes, God worked it for good. But did Joseph have to place his faith in God and continue loving him through hard times? Yes, he did. Both the sovereignty of God and human freedom must be held in tension.