SUNDAY NIGHT CROSSTRAINING NOTES
The Most Difficult Chapter in the Bible - and Why We Need to Study It (3)
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Sunday, June 29, 2008 - 6:00 p.m.  Sermon #: 1184
Pastor Don Horban

Romans 9:19-29 - Paul knows that his words in verse 18 will bring a strong reaction from his Jewish protesters - “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” God isn’t bound to only show love and compassion to the ethnic descendants of Abraham. God can’t be locked-in to any one race. He said He’d pass the blessing of justification through the line of Isaac and then welcomed Ishmael into the covenant through circumcision. He raised up Pharaoh and used his stubborn heart to reach out to Rahab, a Gentile. God is sovereignly free to extend the blessings of His grace to any and to all who put faith in His promise. So, as Pharaoh proves so clearly, God “....has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” And Paul knows in advance the idea in that eighteenth verse seems to carry like baggage on an airplane.

Those words seem to suggest a kind of fatalism. If God chooses on whom He will have mercy and then sovereignly hardens the hearts of others there is nothing left for us but to wait and see how He plays His cards. If God determines both mercy and unbelief, how can we be held responsible either way? That’s exactly what Paul brings to the table in verse 19 - “You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" How can we be held in any way responsible for the condition of our hearts? Let’s face it, who can do anything other than God’s sovereign will? God can’t blame me for my heart. My heart is His doing. This is the way many people interpret Paul’s illustration in verses 20 and 21 about the potter and the clay on the wheel - “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?" [21] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” - If God has the power to make our hearts either good or bad, and I don’t have any such power, then God is responsible for the bad hearts that exist, not the possessors of those wicked hearts. And I hope you see the terrible impact of those thoughts. God becomes the only real sinner in the universe, because only He could make all the hearts good but deliberately chooses not to do so.

This is why Paul can’t let this argument stand. Our text today is directly related to the preceding account of Pharaoh. It’s directly related to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Most important of all, it’s especially related to the way in which God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and the purpose God had in hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

1) GOD IS SO POWERFUL AND SO SOVEREIGN, HE USES ALL PEOPLE FOR HIS PURPOSE WHETHER THEIR HEARTS ARE OPEN TOWARD HIM IN FAITH, OR CLOSED IN STUBBORN, FREE REBELLION

Romans 9:19-21 - “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ [20] 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?’ [21] Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” I know these are hard verses. But, for me, the key for interpretation is found in the last part of verse 21 - “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” The key word - the controlling word - in this text is that word “use.” This is a verse about God’s sovereignly free use of any person or any group He chooses.

Obviously, these words have their most immediate application to the person Paul has just been describing - Pharaoh. As we saw last week, Pharaoh hardened his heart against God and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in judgment of Pharaoh’s stubbornness. We won’t go over that ground again here. But there’s a new point Paul is unpacking in today’s text. And once we see it, we’ll see how it ties in very intentionally with Paul’s initial concern for Israel and the Jews. The point Paul brings out is God’s plan - His word - His covenant - whatever term you choose to use, isn’t falling through the cracks just because people rebel against it. God uses all people and groups for His own purpose. Please take note of this. These verses aren’t about God determining people’s character. There is absolutely no mention of character in this text. These verses are about God determining people’s use. Please look honestly at verse 21 again - “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?” There’s honored use and dishonorable use. But that’s all there is. It’s all about use.

And there’s a reason the story is so important for Paul. It fits his purpose in these three chapters (Romans 9 through 11). Many of God’s own people - the Jews - have responded in unbelief. Not all the descendants of Abraham have exercised the faith of Abraham. Does this mean God’s word has failed. That’s the whole issue Paul initially set out to deal with in Romans 9:6 - “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel....” But not only has God’s word not failed, God will sovereignly use the unbelievers in Israel to accomplish His great purpose. Later on Paul will tell us God will use even the rebellious among Israel to reveal His mercy and grace to the Gentiles - Romans 11:11 - “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous.” Like Pharaoh, God will use even the rebellious to accomplish His sovereign purpose. That’s the central message of today’s text.

2) GOD’S USE OF PEOPLE ISN’T ARBITRARY, FIXED OR STATIC, BUT TURNS AND MOVES AND VARIES IN A PROCESS AS THEY TURN EITHER AWAY OR TOWARD GOD’S REACH OF MERCY AND GRACE - This is not a picture of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There is nothing instantaneous conveyed in the picture of the potter. Everything points to a process. There is shaping, wetting, smoothing, perhaps even remaking - all of it done slowly, gradually, over time. And there’s a reason for this gradual working of the clay. As I said earlier, what is implied in the image is made explicit in other New Testament passages.

Here’s one: 2 Timothy 2:20-21 - “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. [21] Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”

It is no reach to apply this to our Romans text. Whenever the same author used the very same words in the very same context we have reason to stand and pay attention. Here are vessels (same word), significantly, they are set aside for both honorable use and dishonorable use (again, the very same terms). But here we are told explicitly what the pottery wheel image only implies. People can change. They can turn from wickedness. They can leave what is dishonorable. And when they do, God uses their lives in magnificently different ways from when they were dishonorable. Dishonorable use can turn to honorable use. In fact, it is the repentant, faithful transformation of character that determines the divine use, not the other way around.

3) WHILE GOD PREPARES PEOPLE FOR FAITH WITH UNIVERSAL, PREVENIENT, RESISTABLE GRACE, IF PEOPLE STUBBORNLY RESIST THIS GRACE, THEY PREPARE THEMSELVES FOR DIVINE WRATH AND DESTRUCTION - But even here, and this is the important point, God will sovereignly use all people to accomplish a fuller eventual revelation of His mercy: Romans 9:22-24 - “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, [23] in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— [24] even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

There is no getting around those opening words about God “desiring to show his wrath....”(22). In words today’s market-driven church can’t easily digest, Paul talks about God’s willing, wrathful judgment on wickedness and unbelief. And this needs to be carefully read and proclaimed as part of the gospel. But then there are two questions that come to mind. First, why does God want to reveal his wrath in these “vessels”? And second, how do all these vessels get “prepared” for either mercy or wrath?

Let’s look at the second question first: how do all these vessels get prepared for wrath or mercy? The vessels of mercy are easier to deal with because the text tells us how these vessels are prepared and by Whom - “....in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory....”(23). God prepares vessels for mercy. Of course, it must be a work of God or it wouldn’t be mercy. If people earned it or got themselves in a good place to qualify, it might be blessing they received, or reward, but it wouldn’t be mercy. So far, so good.

Then there are the vessels of wrath - “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....”(22). This verse is actually quite different. Study the words carefully and you’ll find Paul says God reveals his wrath and power against them, but it doesn’t say God prepared them for that wrath. All Paul tells us is these vessels are “prepared” for wrath. But how did they become prepared? If Paul doesn’t tell us specifically in this verse, could it be because he has already told us, perhaps even in this very letter to the Romans? This, to my mind, is the best solution to this difficult issue. I think Paul doesn’t go into the details of this preparation for wrath precisely because he just finished a picture of this process five verses earlier in the description of Pharaoh. Pharaoh certainly did experience God’s wrath in the hardening of his heart. But this was only after Pharaoh calcified his own heart by spurning the warnings and revelations of God through Moses.

And that’s not all. There are other very important passages in this very letter of Romans that spell out the exact same truth about how people become “prepared” for wrath, rather than mercy. Perhaps the most important of all is Romans 2:4-5 - “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? [5] But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.” What are these people going to get from God. Paul says, unless they repent, they’re going to get wrath. Why are they going to get wrath? Is it because God doesn’t want to show them mercy? No. The text is very clear. In fact, the reason God is giving them so much time, the reason He still waits with patience is He wants them to repent. But it’s not likely they’re going to repent. It’s not likely because they have set a bad direction for their hearts. Exactly like Pharaoh, as they resist God they store up wrath. That’s just another way of saying they’re preparing for wrath. In other words, just like in Romans 9:22, there is no contradiction between these people being prepared for wrath and God waiting for them with “much patience”(9:22b). The two processes proceed along the same track of human history at the very same time.

I said there were two questions about these vessels of wrath and mercy. The second question was why would a loving God “desire” to show His wrath? - “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power....”(22a). Paul tells us. God wants to use even stubborn, bent on wrath vessels to extend His mercy to a wider audience - Romans 9:23-24 - “....in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— [24] even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?”

And the last part of our text shows that this was not some last minute adjustment to God’s covenant of salvation. Both the inclusion of the Gentiles and the remnant of faith in Israel were predicted long ago by God’s prophets. All of this, though too big for our total conception, fits into the perfect, complete plan of God Almighty - Romans 9:25-29.