Just recently I have “come out” in regards to my Reformed convictions. This is scary and liberating at the same time. It is scary because, as a Calvinist,  I have been on the receiving end of some of the most vicious, vitriolic and vile speech I have ever seen in my life. But, it’s liberating because, now, I get to write more freely about things which I feel are important about the issue. Romans 9:19 is one of those things.

Romans 9 is one of the most discussed passages, I dare say, in the entire debate over Calvinism—I believe rightly so.[1] Nobody (I can’t imagine) objects to the idea that Romans 9 is about God’s sovereignty. I don’t even think that anyone objects to the fact that this passage is, at least in part, about election, and God’s sovereignty in such. Much of the debate, however, is whether or not the passage addresses sovereignty and election on an individual or corporate basis. In other words, is this passage talking about God choosing (electing) individuals for salvation (i.e., a certain person is chosen to be saved but not the other person), or it is talking about some sort of corporate election (i.e., God has elected that those who believe will be saved)?

I have seen and been involved in much debate over this issue for a while now. Some may say that it is ultimately impossible to determine which “election” this passage is talking about. I disagree.

This is where Roman 9:19 comes in. The reason why I think this verse, in particular, is an important one for this discussion is two-fold.

First, Paul, quite gifted in rhetoric, often uses imaginary objectors to help make his points. As it turns out, these are incredibly useful not just for Paul, but also for those reading him (us). Let me demonstrate what I mean. Looking at the context of Romans 9:19, we see that Paul has just finished telling his readers that God loved Jacob and hated Esau (v. 13), that he has mercy on whomever he desires (v. 15), that nothing God does in terms of election has anything to do with human will or effort (v. 16), that Pharaoh himself in the Exodus narrative was raised up for the sole purpose of showing God’s glory in his own destruction (v. 17), and that, finally, God not only has mercy on whomever he wills, but “he hardens whomever he wills”(v. 18).[2]

Here comes the statement under discussion:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” —Romans 9:19

How is this verse helpful for us? Here is how. Paul’s imaginary objector offers an exegetical guidepost for us as we read Paul’s argument. Here is what I mean. If we are reading Paul up to this point, and his statements do not cause us to ask this question that is raised by his imaginary objector, then it is likely that we have arrived at an incorrect understanding of this passage. Paul’s own response to the objection shows us this. Notice that Paul doesn’t say after the objection, “No, you’ve got it all wrong. You see, what I am saying is that God is sovereign, yes, but in a way in which people still determine their own destinies and fates.” No, he says, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (v. 20). The reader’s objection is predicated on a correct understanding of Paul’s statements—namely, that God is the one who softens and hardens hearts as he wills, not as man wills of himself. It is not the objector’s conclusion that is being corrected (i.e., the God is that sovereign), but the very fact that they are objecting (i.e., that humanity is left not responsible for their actions). A few commentators help bring this to light.

Thomas Schreiner remarks:

The question would scarcely be raised this way if the previous verses taught that the ultimate factor in human destiny were human choice.[3]

R.C. Sproul comments (on the objection raised in Romans 9:14, but applicable here):

This is this particular objection that is raised by Arminianism again and again and again. And one of the reasons I am convinced that I am understanding Paul in Romans is that because every time I teach the Reformed doctrine of election I get the same objection from my Arminian friends: “There is unrighteousness with God!” And the fact that Paul is anticipating that response gives me confidence that I have understood the position he is coming from.[4]

John Gill comments:

We may be assured, that since the objections are the same, the doctrine must be the same that is objected to: and this we gain however by it, that the doctrines of particular and personal election and reprobation, were the doctrines of the apostle; since against no other, with any face, or under any pretence, could such an objection be formed.[5]

In other words, as Sproul above proposed, we can be sure that our interpretation of this passage is the right one because 1) individual/particular election is the only thing that would have elicited such a response from Paul’s objector, and 2) this is the response Calvinists typically receive after explaining their docrtine of election.

Here is Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown:

This objection shows quite as conclusively as the former the real nature of the doctrine objected to—that it is Election and Non-election to eternal salvation prior to any difference of personal character; this is the only doctrine that could suggest the objection here stated.[6]

Matthew Henry concurs with Gill:

Had the apostle been arguing only for God’s sovereignty in appointing and ordering the terms and conditions of acceptance and salvation, there had not been the least colour for this objection.[7]

Henry here is arguing against this notion that what Paul is speaking about is that God has only elected or predetermined what type of person will be saved (i.e., the one who believes). He is exactly right, too, in my view. If Paul were arguing such, then his predicted objection in this verse would make absolutely no sense. It would be unwarranted and out of place.

Disclaimer: I understand that I have not referenced Arminian commentators. Right now, I am concerned with the exposition of the Reformed interpretation so that it is clear. Perhaps I will devote a second installment later on dealing with Arminian interpretations. I just want to show how, in my opinion, this objection leaves little room for an Arminian interpretation of this passage.

So, that concludes the first of the two reasons why this question asked by Paul’s objector is important—it serves as a valuable exegetical guide.

The second reason I think this question is important is not (necessarily) a Scriptural one, but a practical one—very similar to Sproul’s and Gill’s comments above. In my many conversations with those of the Arminian persuasion (or anyone outside of the Calvinist(ic) “camp”), I cannot tell you how many times that, when I have expressed my view of God’s sovereignty in salvation, I have received the rebuttal, “Well, if that is true, then God has no grounds to condemn us. If he controls who is saved and who is not—especially if he even controls the hardness of the heart as the text says—we can’t be blamed for not believing. It is clearly his will for the reprobate.” For example, just the other day someone commented on a Facebook thread (of which I was a part), “My problem with the idea that God…predestined every action…is it would remove all responsibility for us and make us not responsible for our choices.” How close that is to Paul’s objector here! I am often absolutely stunned by the similarity—even on the verbatim level—of many of these responses to that of Paul’s objector in Romans 9:19. Yet not once has anyone with whom I have interacted acknowledged this—at least openly.

This tells me one thing: the Arminian interpretation of Romans 9 (i.e., that it speaks of some form of corporate election—really anything but individual or particular election) is very likely deficient. Why? Well, again, the “corporate” interpretation of Romans 9 does not produce the objection given in Romans 9:19. It simply can’t. The fact that God has only determined what type of person is saved (i.e., the one who believes) ruffles no one’s feathers (except perhaps an atheist). Of course God isn’t going to save those who reject him! The idea that God himself chooses to have mercy on whomever he wills, however, does ruffle feathers, as Paul’s objector demonstrates. The only time I ever get an objection in the vein of Romans 9:19 (and, again, they are many times even indistinguishable from Paul’s very words) is when I talk about individual election to salvation and God’s absolute, immutable sovereignty in the matter. This is very telling to me.

In my humble opinion, Romans 9:19 is, if not the crux, one of the most important facets of the Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9, to which so far I have yet to encounter anyone who has been able to give a satisfactory answer (with the exception of a couple cases where the entire Epistle to the Romans was marred beyond recognition). This is something that needs to continue to be discussed between Calvinists and Arminians, not with the motive of being right or proving someone else wrong, but with the desire to arrive at the truth. And, lest someone think this a trivial matter, I truly believe that this is one of the most important debates we can be having within the church right now. Our beliefs about salvation—the way God makes it work—affect quite literally every part of Christian life. Our view of salvation is crucial to everything from evangelism to raising children. The harder we fight for truth in this area, the better.

Let’s fight for truth, not with each other.

[1] I realize that not all of Romans 9 is about this issue. Therefore, from this point forward, when I say “Romans 9” in the context of the Calvinism discussion, I am particularly talking about vv. 1-24 (possibly all the way to v. 29).

[2] Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, ed. Moisés Silva, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 515.

[4] Wade Davis, RC Sproul Why Are Reformed Christians Influenced by Arminianism, n.d., https://www.youtube.com/.

[5] John Gill, Exposition of the Whole Bible, Romans 9:19

[6] Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, Romans 9:19

[7] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 2218.

Read more Comments Off on Why Does God Still Blame Us? The Crucial Question of Romans 9

Romans 9:19-24

Delivered 10/05/1997

There was a time when almost everybody on earth believed that the earth was flat. At that time, this was a very comfortable theory to live with. It was safe, easy to understand – it was comfortable. Now, believing this did not make it true, but it was easier to handle and it made life more predictable. In reading accounts of the time, we learn that people got rather upset when some evidence that this was not true was presented. As more and more scientists began to say that the earth was really round and not flat, contrary to the way it looked to their eyes, and that it was spinning on its axis and floating in a great sea of space, people got very upset.

Religious people, especially, were upset, for they believed with all their heart that the Bible taught that the earth was flat. They would quote certain passages that seemed to indicate this. So there was a great deal of controversy over the issue. It was a long time before people began to realize that the new evidence really made God appear more wonderful and more powerful than he ever had before. They began to discover, too, that there were certain verses and passages which they had overlooked before that supported this new evidence. They could see how the old viewpoint could be fitted within the context of this new truth that was appearing.

You know, I think that is our problem when it comes to a passage like Romans 9. There are a lot of us who have grown up thinking that God is flat, that he is rather safe and easy to understand and that he fits very comfortably into the pattern that we have made for him. He is predictable, and we find ourselves very secure with these little theological boxes into which we have crammed God. But Romans 9 is the kind of passage that destroys our little boxes. I hope that is what has been happening to some of the boxes that you have tried to fit God into.

The emphasis in Romans 9 is the absolute sovereignty of God. To say that God is sovereign is to say that He does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases: that whatever takes place in time is but the outworking of that which He decreed from eternity.

Ephesians 1:11 (NKJV) In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,

Isaiah 46:10 (NKJV) Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,’

1 Timothy 6:15 (NKJV) which He will manifest in His own time, He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords,

“Potentate,” means ruler or authority. He is the only ruler! This means that everything that happens is according to the eternal plan of God. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way in paragraph 1 of chapter 3, “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.”

God is absolutely sovereign, and Paul has been demonstrating this to us in Romans 9. He gave us the principle of sovereign election in verse 6. Then in verses 7-13 he illustrates the principle. God is a God who makes choices based only upon his own will. God rejects Ishmael and chooses Isaac. God chooses to love Jacob and to hate Esau.

This raises the question of verse 14, “Is god being unfair in choosing one person over another?” In verses 15-18 he shows that God is just and righteous to give mercy to whom he wishes and to withhold it from whom he wishes. God is sovereign in the exercise of His mercy and his love.

You might be thinking, “Boy this is not what I have been taught.” It might not be, but it is what the Bible teaches. Believe the Bible, not what some preacher says about the Bible. You have a responsibility to be a Berean and study for yourself.

This raises another question; if God saves who he wills and hardens who he wills, what is the obvious question? How can he hold me responsible for his choice? I can’t resist his will, so how can I be blamed for my unbelief? He hardened Pharaoh, and Pharaoh did just what God wanted him to do. He could not resist God’s will, no man can. So, why does He find fault with and punish sinners?

Listen carefully! There would be no room for this objection, or that of verse 14, if Paul had been teaching that God chooses those whom he foresees would believe, or that the ground of distinction was in the different conduct of men. It is very evident, therefore, that he was teaching no such doctrine.

How easy it would have been to answer the charge of injustice by saying, “God chooses one and rejects another according to their works or faith.” The only reason that this question arises is because Paul is teaching so clearly that God chooses one and rejects another based solely on his own will, and that the destiny of men is determined by his sovereign pleasure alone.

Have you ever asked these questions, “If God is sovereign and has decreed from all eternity whatsoever takes place how can I be held responsible for what I do? Who can resist His will?” If you have ever asked those questions, it’s only because you understand what the Bible is teaching about the absolute sovereignty of God. I’ve heard this question raised many times.

Romans 9:19 (NKJV) You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”

The Greek word for “fault” is memphomai, it means to blame. It has the idea of holding responsible. This question is reinforced by the consideration that no one can frustrate, or resist God’s will. The Greek word for “will” is boulema. It means resolve or purpose.

When talking about the will of God we must differentiate between what is called his decretive will and his moral will, or his secret will and his revealed will. Look at “will” in these two passages.

Romans 9:19 (NKJV) You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”

1 Thessalonians 4:3 (NKJV) For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality;

Does the term “will” mean the same in both of these passages? No. Romans 9 uses the term “will” to speak of God’s secret will of decree. And 1 Thessalonians 4 uses the term “will” to speak of God’s revealed will of precept.

The term “will” is ambiguous. The ten commandments are God’s preceptive will. They command men to do this and to refrain from that. They state what ought to be done, but they neither state not cause what is done. God’s decretive will, however, causes every event.

It might me helpful to clarify if the term “will” were not applied to the precepts. Call them requirements of morality, commands, precepts, or laws and reserve the term “will” for the divine decree.

Remember, God’s sovereign will is secret until it happens. Our concern is to be obedient to the moral commands of God, the Scriptures.

The Scripture commands all men to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, but in His sovereign will he has chosen some to believe and He has chosen to harden the rest.

Romans 9:19 (NKJV) You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”

How can God blame people for not believing when he has decreed that they be hardened? No one can resist His will.

This is a hard question. How can God send people to Hell for not believing when he has hardened them in unbelief?

Romans 9:20 (NKJV) But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”

Paul doesn’t answer the question but appeals to a reverential silence which the majesty of God demands of us. Note the contrast , “O man — God.” How can man question God?

The word “reply” comes from the Greek word antapokrinomai. It is a compound word from “anti” meaning opposite, contrast, or against and “apokrinomai,” to conclude for oneself, to begin to speak, to contradict or dispute.

How can man with his infantile puny pea brain, speak against the Almighty God? The emphasis falls on “you.” Who are you?

If you find yourself questioning God, you have played the fool because you are saying, “Because I can’t figure this out, there must be something wrong with God.” Paul says, “Shut your mouth and admit that you know very little.”

God is omniscient and we are ignorant. How can we speak against Him?

Have you ever been in the presence of a really great mind and felt totally unworthy to question or contradict them? How can we ever question or contradict God? Paul gives us an Old Testament analogy that’s an absurdity.

Romans 9:20b (NKJV) Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?”

Isaiah 45:9 (NKJV) “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’?

Isaiah 64:8 (NKJV) But now, O LORD, You are our Father; We are the clay, and You our potter; And all we are the work of Your hand.

Does the clay ask the potter questions? That is absurd! Man is as far from comprehending the mind of omniscient God as clay is from comprehending the mind of the potter. Realize the limits of your thinking.

Isaiah 55:8 (NKJV) “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.

Psalms 50:21 (NKJV) These things you have done, and I kept silent; You thought that I was altogether like you; But I will rebuke you, And set them in order before your eyes.

Martin Luther said to Erasmus, “Mere human reason can never comprehend how God is good and merciful; and therefore you make to yourself a god of your own fancy, who hardens nobody, condemns nobody, pities everybody. You cannot comprehend how a just God can condemn those who are born in sin, and cannot help themselves, but must , by a necessity of their natural constitution, continue in sin, and remain children of wrath. The answer is God is incomprehensible throughout, and therefore His justice, as well as His other attributes, must be incomprehensible.” It is on this very ground that Paul exclaims, ” Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33) Now, His judgements could not be past finding out, if we could always perceive them to be just.”

Look with me at:

Jeremiah 18:3-6 (NKJV) Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. 4 And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the LORD. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!

The analogy is obvious. The potter makes choices and the clay has no part in the choice.

Romans 9:21 (NKJV) Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?

The word “power” is from the Greek word exousia which means authority, or right. What gives God the absolute authority over man? I’m looking for a one word answer; what is it? — creation.

Genesis 1:1 (NKJV) In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

In the great expanse of eternity which stretches behind Genesis 1:1, the universe was unborn and creation existed only in the mind of God. In His sovereign majesty, God dwelt alone.

Genesis 1:3 (NKJV) Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

This is creation ex nihilo, out of nothing. There was no one to suggest plans to God, or to suggest alterations to the plans God had. There was no one to defeat God’s purpose. God was alone. He could do as he pleased.

After God created something, the thing had no authority to complain, “Why have you made me this way?” A wren has no right to complain that it is not an elephant. God had decided to create a world and a world by definition includes differences. The different things have no right to hold God responsible for the qualities they have or the qualities they lack. God is responsible to no one. He distributed wings, horns, legs and minds just as it suited Him. No one has any claim on God. Out of His own free choice, he created angels, stars, planets, the earth, mountains, deserts, rivers, lakes, insects, and elephants and everything in between. He gave elephants four legs, thick ones, and wrens two legs, thin ones. Why? Because He wanted to!

Psalms 135:6 (NKJV) Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.

To understand the Bible, you must realize that God is the sovereign Creator. There is no law superior to Him that commands, “Thou shalt not make elephants with two legs, or thou shalt not hate Esau, or harden Pharaoh’s heart.” The ultimate answer to all objections is the relative positions of Creator and creature. All objections presuppose that man is, in some way or other, independent of God and has obtained from somewhere, or achieved by his own efforts, some right over against him. Many folks suppose that once a being is created, he/she can claim that God is obliged to treat him as he wants to be treated, rather than as God decides to treat him. Man has rights they say, that God must respect. On the contrary man has no rights in opposition to God. What ever rights a man has are those God decides to give him. God, as Creator, can give, withhold, or retake any rights as He pleases. Whatever rights he gives to man are a gift and not a debt. No one has any claims over the creator.

Remember in the book of Job when Job began to question God? Job wanted a legal hearing to prove God’s injustices against him. God didn’t explain his ways to Job, He exhibited them, showing that the sovereign Creator and sustainer of the universe does not owe puny man an explanation.

Since God is God, who dare challenge His prerogative?

Paul concludes with three verses to apply his analogy.

Romans 9:22-24 (NKJV) What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

The grand object of God, both in the election and the reprobation of man, is that which is paramount to all else in the creation of the universe; namely, His own glory.

What if God, exercising His sovereign right of choice, makes some vessels of mercy while others are made vessels of wrath? Does God have a right to display his wrath? Does He have a right to display His Justice? Yes! Wrath and Justice are as much a part of His character as are mercy and grace.

“Willing to show His wrath;” this speaks of will of purpose, sovereign will. God wants to show His wrath because He wants to reveal Himself, and He is a God of wrath.

Deuteronomy 4:24 (NKJV) “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.

Therefore, the entrance of sin into the world was necessary, so that God could manifest His wrath and His judgement and His holy anger because these are part of His character.

Listen carefully, for ages, theologians have argued and debated over the origin of evil. Let me tell you plainly, it was God’s will that sin should enter the world, He decreed it. Now if that shocks you, it is far more shocking to insist that sin has invaded the world against God’s will. If that happened, He wouldn’t be omnipotent, would he? Some folks say that God just permitted sin to enter the world. Permission is not a word to use with God. Nothing in the universe can be independent of the omnipotent Creator, for in him we live and move and have our being. Therefore, the idea of permission makes no sense when applied to God.

In his book “Reason to Believe” R.C. Sproul was examining all the best and most credible arguments for the origin of evil. After he examined some of the different theodicies, he concludes by saying this:

“These theodicies are but a few of the more popular of the multitude of theories that have been offered as possible solutions to the enigma of sin. I am not satisfied with any of them. It is not my intent to be the devil’s advocate or to lend assistance to those who reject Christianity because of these objections. I am not trying to give the skeptic more ammunition than he may already have. I am trying to make it clear that the problem is a severe one and one for which I have no adequate solution. I do not know how evil could originate with a good God. I am baffled by it, and it remains a troublesome mystery to me.” (Reason to Believe, pg 126)

Sproul is unable to address why there is a world full of evil. He has no explanation for it because he believes God is PASSIVE over evil, simply permitting it. How terrifying! As we look out into a world where evil is rampant, it would be terrifying to think that all this stuff is being ALLOWED to happen. What most Christians believe about God and evil is just plain old deism (the belief that God created the world and then left it to itself to operate). God is no idle spectator, looking on from a distant world at the happenings on our earth, but is Himself, shaping everything to the ultimate promotion of His own glory.


God brings to pass in time what he has decreed in eternity. There is evil in our world because God decreed it, and then created it for His own glory.

Revelation 4:11 (NKJV) “You are worthy, O Lord, To receive glory and honor and power; For You created all things, And by Your will they exist and were created.”

All things, including sin, were created by God.

Listen carefully: if a 16 year old boy kills his mother and then goes to school and kills two classmates and wounds several others, as happened this past Wednesday, it was God’s will that he should do so. NOTHING HAPPENS OUTSIDE GOD’S WILL.

Ephesians 1:11 (NKJV) In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will,

God works all thing, not some things, after the counsel of His will. Now I know that people have paroxysms when you say that God decreed sin, and I hesitate to say it, but it is clearly what the Bible teaches. Is murder a sin? Was it a sin for that boy to kill his mother and classmates? Yes! Was crucifying Jesus Christ a sin? Yes, it was. Was Jesus’ murder decreed by God? Yes!

Luke 22:22 (NKJV) “And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”

Who determined it? God, of course. Just in case you question that, I can prove it, look at:

Acts 2:23 (NKJV) “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;

Acts 4:27-28 (NKJV) “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together 28 “to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.

People have a problem when you say that it was God’s will for someone to be murdered. But what was the worst crime of murder ever committed? Who was the only innocent person ever murdered? Jesus Christ! You might say, “Well that’s a special case that had to do with our redemption.” Really? Well, what will you do with the case of Absalom? Absalom polluted his father’s bed by an incestuous union, committing a detestable crime.

2 Samuel 16:22 (NKJV) So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the top of the house, and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.

God declares this to be caused by Him. Look at what God said to David:

2 Samuel 12:11-12 (NKJV) “Thus says the LORD: ‘Behold, I will raise up adversity (the Hebrew word used here is ra’. It often means “evil.”) against you from your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 ‘For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, before the sun.'”

When men sin, God had decreed that they should perform the acts they did, but in the carrying out of these deeds, they were guilty because there own purposes in the doing of them was evil only. Men are responsible for their sins.

Genesis 50:20 (NKJV) “But as for you, you meant evil (ra’) against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.

The jealous brothers had considered murdering Joseph, but they changed their minds and sold him into slavery. Their intentions were evil, but God had controlled their wills. They could not have killed Joseph, because God had decreed to send Joseph to Egypt for the purpose of later saving that family from starvation. The brothers decided to sell Joseph, God controlled their decision. They were not free to will his death, nor to let him go either.

Augustine said, “That men sin proceeds from themselves; that in sinning they perform this or that action, is from the power of God.”

Proverbs 16:1 (NKJV) The preparations of the heart belong to man, But the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.

Proverbs 16:9 (NKJV) A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.

God is holy and sin is contrary to His holy nature, yet the existence and operations of it are according to His will. His eternal counsels determine sin’s course. It’s really clear that this is what the Bible teaches, but I’m not real comfortable with it in my humanness.

Why did God decree sin? To display his wrath; “Make his power known.” How does God make His power known? By the judgement of sin. Sin provides a means for God to be glorified. “Vessels of wrath”- they are objects of God’s wrath. “Fitted for destruction” –The word “fitted” means prepared for destruction.

Reprobation includes two acts. 1. Passing by those who are not elected, leaving them in their natural state of alienation from God. 2. The act of condemning, on account of their sin, those who have been passed by.

Romans 9:23 (NKJV) and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,

Why did God save you? God saved you to display his mercy and grace. God prepared beforehand our glory.

2 Thessalonians 2:13 (NKJV) But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth,

Romans 9:24 (NKJV) even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

Believers are the called of all nations. God’s covenant promise finds its fulfillment not in Abraham’s physical seed but in the called, the elect of all nations.

Had sin never entered the world, how could the justice of God be displayed in punishing it? How could the wisdom of God have been manifested in so wondrously over-ruling it? How could the grace of God have been exhibited in pardoning it? How could the power of God have been exercised in subduing it?

Romans 9:19 (NKJV) You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?”

How can we be responsible for sin when we can’t resist God’s will? Man is responsible because God calls him to account; man is responsible because God can punish him for his disobedience. God, on the contrary, cannot be responsible for the simple reason that there is no power superior to Him, no greater being can hold Him accountable, no one can punish him. There is no one to whom God is responsible; there are no laws which he could disobey.

The sinner is responsible for his own sin and he will be held accountable for his sin by the sovereign Creator of the universe.

Scripture teaches that God is the sovereign Creator and ruler of all things, sin included. Scripture also teaches that as Judge, He holds every man responsible for the choices he makes and the course of action he pursues.

It bothers us that God is absolutely sovereign, we don’t like that. I think this is the truth about God which men dislike the most. We are having to face the fact that God is a sovereign being. He is not responsible to, or answerable to anyone. He is totally, absolutely sovereign. We don’t like that, because to us, sovereignty is always connected with tyranny. To trust anyone with that kind of power is to put ourselves into the hands of someone who might destroy us, and we instinctively fight that.

We fight it in our national life, we fight it in our family life, we fight it in our individual relationships. We do not trust anyone with absolute power over us. The very Constitution of the United States is based on that presumption. No one can be trusted with absolute power. We have checks and balances built into our government. We divide it into three divisions and put one against the other, so that they all watch each other. We do not believe that even the best of us can be trusted with absolute power.

It is no wonder, therefore, that when we come to the Scriptures and confront the fact that God has absolute power, we become uneasy and troubled by this. What we must do is get rid of the idea that his sovereignty is going to be destructive to us. It isn’t at all. As I hope you see, his sovereignty is our only hope!

Nothing can separate us from the love of God because He is sovereign (Romans 8:38-39). All things work together for good for those who love God, because God is sovereign (Romans 8:28). The most comforting assuring blessed truth in all this is that the sovereign God loves us.

1 John 4:9 (NKJV) In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.

Since God loves us and is on our side, what could we possibly fear; who can harm us?

Romans 8:31 (NKJV) What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

What is our response to this? Submissive humble Worship.

Romans 11:33-36 (NKJV) Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 34 “For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?” 35 “Or who has first given to Him And it shall be repaid to him?” 36 For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

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Series: Romans

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 9, 2001

Romans 9:19-23

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How Can God Condemn If We Can’t Resist His Will?

Romans 9:19-23

If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Romans chapter 9 as we continue to work our way through this great book and chapter. “If God chooses then our choices don’t matter.” Have you ever had somebody say that to you before? Maybe you said it yourself, or maybe it was put in the form of a question. If God chooses, then do our choices matter? Paul is going to address this very issue in the verses that we are going to study today, verses 19 through 23 of Romans chapter 9. We are in what may be the most difficult chapter of the Bible and my friends, for the next several weeks we are right in the middle of the deepest part of that most difficult chapter. But never fear; God wrote His word for our good and there are practical lessons He intends us to learn.

It will help us to remember where we’ve been so far. Paul, in Romans 9 verses 1 through 5 has assured us of his love for the lost, especially speaking about his kinsmen of the flesh, the Israelites who have rejected the gospel and they’ve rejected Jesus the Messiah by and large in Paul’s time. And Paul tells us right at the outset that he still has a heart of love for them. That’s going to be very important for us as we work through this chapter. If this were coming from someone who was cold and detached without a concern for evangelism, without a concern for the lost, the things Paul says here would be difficult indeed to swallow. But at the very outset we remember that God’s instrument for telling us these things is the greatest missionary of the apostles. And he has a large heart for those who are lost and that helps us as we work through the rest of this chapter.

Now in verses 6 through 13 he has to address a difficult problem. The problem is this: “Have God’s promises failed?” Through Abraham, the children of Israel had been promised the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises. And now the question is, “Paul, in light of the fact that you are acknowledging that Israel, by and large, has rejected Jesus as the Messiah in His time and in yours, does that mean that God’s promises to Abraham and to Israel have failed.” And Paul’s answer is emphatically, “No.” And basically he answers that question by saying, “You need to understand God’s choosing, God’s electing purposes; for the promises were not simply made to those who were ethnically Jewish. The promises were made to those whom God had chosen from amongst the descendents of Israel, those who trusted in His promises, those who loved Him, those who loved Him because He had first loved them.” And He gives, of course, as his clinching example, Jacob and Esau, sons of the same mother, sons of the same father, sons of the covenant as regards to their descent and yet one loved God and the other didn’t. And in fact God could say at the end of the Old Testament in the book of Malachi, “Jacob have I loved and Esau I have I hated.”

Now, that of course immediately raises an objection and we saw that objection last week in verses 14 through 18. “Hey, that’s not fair. It’s not fair for God to choose that way. Election is not fair.” And you’ll remember how the Apostle Paul answered it. First he said, “Look election is not unjust. Let’s clear that up right away.” Secondly he says, “God’s judgment, God’s reprobation, God’s passing over of some is not arbitrary, but rather purposeful.” But finally he said, “Look, if you really want to understand election you’ve got to get outside the category of fairness and justice and you’ve got to move into the category of mercy, because if your salvation was a matter of fairness, well, then none of us would be saved. If election was a matter of justice, none of us would be elect.” To talk about election in the first place, you have to move away from an over focus on the justice and fairness of God which, after all isn’t in question, and you have to move into an entirely different category, the category of mercy. And so Paul argued.

But in verses 17 and 18 he throws out one more illustration that raised a problem in the minds in some who were listening to him. Do you remember, he mentions Moses and Pharaoh and he said, as an example of how God’s election works, “Look at Moses, the Lord blessed him and He drew him to Himself and He chose him and He showed mercy to him. But Pharaoh, God hardened his heart.” And immediately somebody says, “But wait a minute, that’s not fair either. How can God condemn Pharaoh if Pharaoh can’t resist God’s will?”

You see the question that’s being asked is, “If God’s sovereign choice ultimately decides, then how can there be blameed for what we do, since His will can’t be thwarted?” That’s the question that Paul is answering in Romans 9 verses 19 – 23. Let’s hear God’s word.

You will say to me then, ” Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ” Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared before hand for glory. Amen.

This is God’s inspired and inerrant word may He write its eternal truth upon our heart. Let’s pray.

O Lord, we bow before You and we ask that You would open our eyes to understand hard things, things that are not intellectually hard to understand. The reason and the logic is impeccable and clear, but these things are hard for our hearts to get around. Some of us resist them. They just don’t sound right. They’re counter intuitive. Others of us are in the process of resisting Your grace and using this type of a teaching to do it. Still others of us have never tasted the joy of salvation because we don’t realize how gracious and how sovereign You are. To all of these we pray, O God, You would speak in Your word today. For we ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

One of the fundamental differences between those who have been able to accept what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty and those who have not comes at this point: those who accept what the Bible teaches about God’s sovereignty have come to understand that God’s sovereignty is compatible with man’s responsibility. In other words, they have come to accept that it is simultaneously true that God is sovereign and man is responsible. And those who have rejected what the Bible says about God sovereignty have almost uniformly come to the conclusion that if God is sovereign, then man can not be responsible, that if God chooses then man’s choice is irrelevant and meaningless. In other words, they see an opposition between those two things and so they choose to believe one or the other, but not both at the same time.

That is, of course, precisely the struggle that is going on here in Romans 9 verse 19. “Paul,” the objector says, “you have just said that ultimately the difference between Moses and Pharaoh was the choice of God. Well let me ask you this. How can God condemn Pharaoh, how can God condemn anybody since you’ve just asserted that it all boils down to the choice of God? It all boils down to the sovereignty of God. If God is sovereign, how can our choices mean anything?”

It’s that question that the Apostle Paul is going to tackle in this passage. And if you believe that God’s choice and our choice are fundamentally opposed and incompatible, you will have a tendency to choose our choice over God’s choice and reject some very clear teaching of Scripture.

And so I’d like to walk you through this argument of Paul’s today, and I’d like to do it in four stages. In verse 19 you’ll see the question, you’ll see the objection that’s raised against what Paul has just said. In verse 20, just the first part of verse 20, you’ll see Paul’s answer part A. In the second half of verse 20, and in verse 21, you’ll see Paul’s answer part B. And then amazingly, in verses 22 and 23, Paul will give you a glimpse in to the secret will of God. He’ll give you a glimpse in to the purposes of God and I’d like to walk you through these things today.

I. Why does God find fault if no one can resist His will? First let’s look at verse 19 and the question which is raised. “Why does he still find fault for who resists His will?” You see the question here; you see the objection here. The objection is this, “How can it be just for God to still find fault since there is no one who can resist His will?”

You see, the belief that God is sovereign or that because God is sovereign we cannot be responsible is at the heart of many rejections of the Bible’s teaching of God’s sovereignty. And I want you to know at the outset that Paul’s answer to this question is very instructive and the question itself is instructive. Think of it for a minute. If Paul were not teaching God’s sovereignty, if Paul were not teaching election, if Paul were not teaching reprobation, this question never would have been asked. Have you ever thought that your friends who don’t embrace the doctrines of grace, your friends who may even identity themselves as Arminians, have you ever thought to say to them, “Well if what you believe is true then how can we be responsible?” Why you never would think to say that is because their point is “our choice is the ultimate difference, not God’s.” So you would never think to make that objection to them.

That, by the way, proves that Paul is not teaching what they teach. Can I pause for a moment and say, many of those who do not embrace these teachings think that those of us who do sort of sit around thinking, “Whoops, they’re headed to hell.” That’s not the case. There are many godly Christians who have not been able to get their hearts around this truth, and we know that. There are many who are godlier than I who have not been able to get their hearts around this truth. But here is the concern: sometimes resistance to this teaching is, in fact, a symptom of resistance of grace. That’s our first concern.

Our second concern if this: if someone has not seen the glory of God’s sovereign grace they can never experience the joy and the security and the assurance that God means for all of us to experience in this life and which is so important in our motivation in gospel service. That’s why we dwell on it. Of course, the ultimate reason we dwell on it is because God’s talking about it right here in the word. At any rate, nobody would think to make an objection to those who say ‘it all boils down to man’s choice’ to say to them, “Well, then, how can we resist His will if He is not sovereign?” You wouldn’t say that to that particular teaching and it shows that Paul is not teaching what our Arminian friends teach, or to put it the other way around, it shows that Paul is teaching the sovereignty of God’s grace.

But notice Paul’s answer also confirms that. If ever there were an opportunity for the Apostle Paul to say, “Whoa, wait a minute, you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying that God chooses. I’m not saying that God’s election is determinative. I’m really saying that God chooses because we choose Him.” If ever there were a time for Paul to say that; if Paul thought it, now’s the time. Verse 20 is it. That’s his big chance to say, “Look, oops you misunderstood me, I didn’t mean that.” Guess what? He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t say, “Oh, let me dispel a misconception. I really didn’t mean that the ultimate difference is that God chose Moses and not Pharaoh.” He doesn’t back away for a second. That’s the second proof that Paul is in fact teaching the sovereignty of God’s mercy.

Now I realize that many struggle with this very point, but I just want to say this. If this is your objection to election, then I want you to notice that it’s the same objection that Paul got to his teaching. Can I retranslate that? You’re beef isn’t with me, it’s with Paul. Can I retranslate that? You’re argument is with the Bible. One more time. Your argument is with God. Your argument is the same argument that’s being lodged against what is found in the divinely inspired word of God.

Now many struggle with this. I understand that. And many think, “Look, you preachers are so contradictory in what you say. One the one hand you say that God is sovereign, and on the other hand you tell people that they must believe in order to be saved. Okay, which one do you believe?” Take comfort my friends, you’re not the first one to have that struggle.

I’m looking now at a story that’s recorded in the life and letters of Benjamin Morgan Palmer. Palmer, by the way, preached the dedication service of the second building that this congregation occupied in 1892. For fifty years he was the minister of First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. But before he went to New Orleans, he pastored in Savannah for a time and was there in a time of great revival. And he had just preached an evangelistic message in which he had exalted the sovereignty of God and called on sinners to trust in Him, but he had emphasized that sinners did not have the inherent ability to save themselves or to trust in God. And a man who heard him was frankly very angry about this and showed up in his study on Monday morning to argue with him. Let me tell you what happened. During the 1840s when revival was sweeping through Savannah this young a man came to Benjamin Morgan Palmer to complain about his Calvinism. “You preachers are the most contradictory men in the world,” he said. “Why, you said in your sermon that sinners were perfectly helpless in themselves, utterly unable to repent or believe, and then you turned around and said we would be damned if did not.” Palmer sensed that his visitor was wrestling with the great issues of life and death, and to make sure that the man really dealt with the gospel, he gave him an indifferent response. “Well, my dear sir, there is no use in quarreling; either you can or you can’t. If you can repent and believe, all I have to say is, ‘I just hope you go and do it.’” Palmer then describes what happened next. “As I did not raise my eyes from writing, I had no means of marking the effect of these words on the gentleman until after a moment’s silence, with a choking utterance, the reply came back, ‘I have been trying my best for three whole days and I can not.’” “Ah,” I responded, “that puts a different face upon it. We will go and tell this difficulty straight to God. We knelt down and I prayed as though this was the first time in human history that this trouble had ever arisen, and that here was a soul in the most desperate extremity who must believe or perish, and hopelessly unable of it self to do it, and consequently that it was just a case of divine interposition. Upon rising I offered not one single word of comfort or advice. And so I left my friend, in his powerlessness, in the hands of God as his only helper. In a short time he came through the struggle rejoicing in the hope of eternal life.”

You see, my friends, the point of stressing God’s sovereignty is not to deny man’s responsibility, but to exalt the sovereignty of God’s mercy and to establish it is He who is able to keep that which we have committed unto Him against that day. And that sinner learned that. Not because he was told that he had the power, but because he was told he did not have the power and the only one who did was God. And so he had to seek God for the grace that he needed to stand.

So here is the objection that Paul is getting. “How can God condemn if no one can resist His will?” Now in the next few minutes we’re going to give his response, in verses 20 through 23. Look at what he ways, first in verse 20, here is Paul’s answer part one. “God’s not on trial here. You’ve missed the boat. You’re in the wrong courtroom, men. God is not on trial here.” Paul is making sure when he says, “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God” that we take care not to transgress the proper boundaries of our humilities in this area. Make sure you understand what Paul is not saying. Paul is not trying to stifle the discussion here. It’s not like an embarrassing question has been addressed to Paul and he doesn’t have an answer for it so he just comes back and he presses raw authority. That’s not what’s happening. He’s not making a brutal appeal to authority to snuff out our inquiry. He’s not like some guilty husband saying to his wife, “Well that’s just the way it is.” That’s not what he’s doing. He’s attempting not to bowl his way through some important question

He’s reminding us of two vitally important realities. The first one is this. We are mere creatures and the very fact of our finitude should warn us to be careful about our deductions and our conclusions and our presuppositions in the realm of the infinite and sovereign. Who are we to say what the Sovereign One who is above heaven and earth can and cannot do? Our minds can’t even comprehend all of Him and He has to speak baby talk for us to understand Him. That’s the first thing he’s reminding us when he says, “Who are you, O man, who answers that to God?” He’s emphasizing the Creator-creature distinction.

Secondly he’s reminding us that no one on earth has a right or reason to call into question God’s mercy. There hangs the Son. There hangs the Son of His love. There is no question about the heart of mercy of God the Father. There may be question about my heart of mercy; there may be question about your heart of mercy; but there is no question about the heart of mercy of God the Father. That’s not on trial here.

Now let me ask you this. Have you shown a heart of mercy to the lost and to your enemies? God has. His mercy, His justice isn’t on trial. Ours may be, but His is not. It’s as if Paul is saying, “Look, all those who have done deeds of mercy toward the lost and toward their enemies like God has, you line up in this line right over here and you can ask God that question. Okay, go ahead, form the line.” And nobody’s there. Because though our heart of mercy may indeed deserve some trial, but God’s does not. His mercy is indisputable. It’s not up for discussion. That’s the first thing that Paul wants us to see in answer to this question.

II. God, as Creator, has sovereign perogatives over His creation. The second thing you’ll see at the end of verse 20 and 21. The Bible clearly asserts God’s sovereign prerogatives as Creator. Paul goes to an Old Testament illustration. It’s a favorite analogy, a favorite illustration in Old Testament books. You’ll find it in Isaiah, you’ll find it in Ezekiel, and you’ll find it most famously in Jeremiah. It’s the picture of the potter and the clay. And Paul is making this bold appeal to these Old Testament ‘potter passages’ that stress what? That God is God and He is Lord and He is beyond your questioning. He is not manageable. You see, so many people, in order to make God safe scale Him down. They domesticate Him. They make Him manageable.

I’ve shared with you before the wonderful story that comes from The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe where Susan is talking to Mr. And Mrs. Beaver and is asking them about Aslan, the great lion. And Susan asks if Aslan is a man and Mr. Beaver replies, “Aslan, a man, certainly not. I tell you he’s the king of the wood and Son of the great Emperor beyond the sea. Don’t you know who is the kind of the beasts? Aslan is a lion, the lion, the great lion.” “Oh, Susan said, I thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there is anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking they are either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe,” said Mr. Beaver, “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about being safe. Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king. The king I tell you.” You see what a beautiful picture Lewis has painted of our incarnate Savior. There is nothing safe about Him. There is absolutely nothing domesticatable about Him. There is nothing manageable about Him. He is sovereign, and let me say that if He weren’t merciful and that if He weren’t just, He’s so sovereign that there is nothing we could do about it.

But you see the place that we run for our safety if not the denial of His sovereignty. We run to two places, the Bible says. We run to His unchanging faithfulness. He does what He says and we run to His goodness. But we do not run to the denial of His sovereignty because that’s futile. He’s not safe. There is nothing safe about Him. God cannot be managed or domesticated. That’s the second part of Paul’s answer.

III. God’s glory displayed through His mercy. And then he ushers you into the inner sanctuary. In verses 22 and 23 he gives you a glimpse into the secret purposes of God and shows you the display of God’s glory through His mercy. And basically Paul tells you this, God’s purpose in election, God’s purpose in choosing, God’s purpose in foreordaining His people before the foundation of the world is to make known His glory to the objects of His mercy. You see, that’s one of the fundamental problems we have with election. We say, “How can you say that a loving God would choose some and condemn others to eternal damnation? How can you say a loving God would do that?” And here is Paul’s answer: “Everything that God does, including that, is part of the design to reveal His mercy.”

Now immediately you recoil and you say, “I’m sorry, that answer just does not compute. How can it be that you can say to me that the loving God chooses some and passes over others and it doesn’t compromise His love?” And Paul comes back and he says, “It is the purpose of the secret counsel of God that everything that He does conspires to reveal His glory to those who have tasted His mercy.”

And you’re still scratching your head and you’re saying, “I don’t understand that” and my friend, I’m scratching my head with you. But, I’m believing because the Bible is absolutely crystal clear about that.

Notice the three steps of Paul’s argument in response in verses 22 through 23. First, although God had every right to immediately judge the wicked, notice Paul’s word, “What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known.” Notice what he says, although He has every right to immediately judge all the wicked, but He didn’t. You see, Paul says, exhibit A of the mercy of God. We should have been fried to a smolder already. Exhibit A, the mercy of God.

Then the second part of the argument. Look at the second half of verse 22. Instead, what did God do? He patiently endured the sin of the reprobate. He “endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Think of Jezebel. How many of God’s men would she slaughter before God put an end to her. What was it? Elisha says, the New Testament says, “the forbearance of God lest she should return and repent.” Think of Calvin’s comments on John 13 when the Lord Jesus kneels to wash the feet of the disciples including Judas. Do you remember what Calvin says? That as the savior knelt to wash Judas, His betrayer’s feet, “He was once more opening the gate of repentance.” That’s Calvin talking. The Savior is opening the gate of repentance to a reprobate, yes. You see, Paul is drawing your attention to the graciousness in the long suffering of God with the wicked.

And here is his clincher. Verse 23, why did he do this? He did this in order to show his mercy to His chosen ones. You see, we may not be able to take that all in right now. I suspect few of us, if any of us, can take all of that in right now. Paul is assuring you that when, on the day of wrath and judgment and glory, on the day that God the Father reveals His Son in all His transubstantiated glory, that on that day we will look at every deed, including God’s choosing and passing over, and we will say, “Ah, I see now how that exalts God’s mercy. That is why He did it.” For the display of His glory and mercy to those who have tasted His mercy.

We may not understand all of that in light of nature. But in the light of grace we believe it. And in the light of glory we will see it. That’s what Paul says in response to the question, “How can God condemn?” Even God’s condemnation serves to exalt His mercy. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, the Apostle Peter once said that there were things in Paul’s writing that were difficult to understand. Surely, surely, we are in the midst of them, but You’ve given them for our good and for Your glory. So make it so. We ask it in Jesus name. Amen.

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If God created men with a sin nature, then it is impossible for men to live a perfect life, yet God holds them accountable for their sins. Mankind does not “choose” to be born, and does not choose to be sinful — we’re just born that way. God ordains the sin nature and then punishes man for what he can’t help. That seems to me like creating a creature with stripes and then punishing it because you don’t like stripes. How is this good/fair?


These are all very good points. If it is true that God creates men with sin, and then punishes them for being sinful, then God seems like a wicked tyrant who punishes mankind with sinister glee and morbid satisfaction. Since the problem you present is rather complex, I’m going to break it down into a few different parts in order to address some individual issues.

If God created men with a sin nature, then it is impossible for men to live a perfect life, yet God holds them accountable for their sins

Initially, man did not have a sin nature. When God created mankind, he made them (Adam and Eve) perfect, uncorrupted by sin. It was possible for Adam and Eve to live a perfect life, but in point of fact they did not. By most systems of human reasoning, it is at least fair for God to punish Adam and Eve since they were able not to sin, but actively, willingly chose to disobey God’s commands. As a result of their sin, man was cursed with a sin nature. Man’s inability results from man’s own sin. It is mankind’s fault that man cannot live a perfect life. To put it another way, God created us without stripes, and punishes us for having painted them on ourselves.

In objection to this explanation, the point is often made that while it may have been fair to curse Adam and Eve with a sin nature, it is not fair to curse their children with a sin nature. It may seem that God created and creates every other member of the human race with a sin nature over which they have no control, thus cursing and punishing them for a sin which they did not commit.

There are two responses worth making to this objection. First, the Bible teaches not only that man is created in the image of God, but also that natural generation produces children in the image of their parents (Gen. 5:3). Since our first parents had sin natures when they began reproducing, all their progeny possess similarly sinful natures. Second, the worldview presented in the Bible is far less individualistic and far more oriented toward community than modern views which dissociate us from our first parents. Specifically, Scripture teaches that such solidarity existed between Adam and mankind that our fate rested in his hands:

“By the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one . . . through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men . . . through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:17-19).

In Romans 5:12-19, Paul paralled our relationship with Adam to our relationship with Christ. In the same way that Christ’s righteousness is credited and applied to believers because he is our representative, Adam’s sin and its resulting curse are credited and applied to all mankind because he was also our representative. Not only do we inherit a sin nature via our mothers and fathers, but we inherit guilt (we get blamed for Adam’s sin) and corruption (a sin nature) directly from Adam.

Does this seem fair according to many modern worldviews? No, our natural reaction is to think, “I didn’t do it, so don’t blame me.” But the Bible says this is actually what happened, and in the context of the Bible’s worldview, it does seem fair. Adam was our champion who fought the war on our behalf. He was a sinless being who had no habit of sinning, no sinful inclinations, and no sinful, corrupt world to influence him. He had the incredibly positive influence of walking and talking with God in the cool of the garden, and the commands God gave him to obey were quite simple. In many ways, it is far more gracious to be represented by Adam than than to have to represent ourselves. Without Adam’s advantages, we would simply fall all the more quickly.

Mankind does not “choose” to be born, and does not choose to be sinful — we’re just born that way.

While we do not choose to be born with sin natures, our sin natures do result from a free human choice, specifically from Adam’s choice as noted above. We ourselves do choose, however, to commit the sins we commit. We sin voluntarily, without compulsion, by our own free wills. Our sin natures incline us to sin, and make it certain that we will sin, but they do not force our hands.

Perhaps hell will help illustrate the matter in ways that seem a bit more fair, and for the sake of argument let’s disregard the effects of Adam’s sin. In hell, men are punished for the sins they have actually committed. Further, the people in hell continue to curse God and to sin for all eternity, thus perpetuating and worsening their damned condition. There is no possibility that they can repent, no possibility that they can be saved, and no possibility that they can stop sinning. Is it just for God to continue to punish them for the sins they commit while they are in hell? Most would say yes, and most agree that this is actually what God does. In hell, God justly punishes those who repeatedly, willfully rebel against him, even though those people cannot do anything else. If it is not wrong for God to count the sins of people in hell against them, then it ought not to be wrong for him to count the sins of people on earth against them.

God ordains the sin nature and then punishes man for what he can’t help. That seems to me like creating a creature with stripes and then punishing it because you don’t like stripes. How is this good/fair?

This is such a good question that Paul actually anticipated it in Romans 9:19: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who resists his will?'”

Paul had just taught that God had loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were even born and before they had done anything, good or bad (Rom. 9:11-16). God had made this choice just because it suited him, totally disregarding the merits of the children themselves. The natural human response to this is that God was good to love Jacob, but unjust to hate Esau if Esau hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Paul, however, denied that God is unjust. The strange thing is that he defended God’s justice in Romans 9:15 not by pointing out God’s goodness or fairness, but by pointing out his divine prerogative

God had also actively interceded in the life of Pharaoh to cause Pharaoh to sin (Rom. 9:17-18), basically forcing Pharaoh’s hand, which is even more extreme than simply cursing someone a sin nature. It was this divine act especially that Paul expected to raise the objection, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who resists his will?'” (Rom. 9:19). Again, however, he responded not be explaining why the action was fair or good by human standards, but rather by reasserting God’s divine prerogative:

“On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Rom. 9:20-22).

In this passage, Paul did three things worth noting:

First, he affirmed that God’s actions in this regard do seem unfair, unjust, and even evil. If we come up with a system of doctrine that does not elicit this objection from people, then our system of doctrine is not the system Paul was teaching here.

Second, in his explanation of the matter, Paul did not attempt to justify God’s treatment of Esau and Pharaoh. Instead, he assumed that whatever God does is righteous, and then simply asserted the fact that God had done it. Since God had done it, it was righteous.

Third, he attacked the assumption which underlay the normal human response of “that’s not fair!” — the assumption that human beings have innate rights that even God must respect. In order for it to be unfair for God to create an animal with stripes and then to punish it for having stripes, it would have to be true that the striped animal had a right not to be punished for having stripes, a right which God would violate by punishing that animal. According to Paul, however, God is the one who has all the rights. God can do whatever he wants, and those to whom he does it have no rights not to have it done to them. Because God is good and righteous, we can trust that he will not mistreat us.

Do people have any innate, God-given rights? Yes, they do. The Bible is full of laws about how we must treat each other because of the dignity and rights that accompany being an image of God. But those rights are not intrinsic to existence — they derive from the fact that we are created in God’s image, and from the fact that God in his absolute sovereignty gives those rights to us. But notice that the rights given to humanity at large relate to the way other people must treat us, not to the way God must treat us. Moreover, they assume and depend upon the fact that God himself possesses the ultimate rights — rights which supercede ours.

In conclusion, God’s actions are not good or fair if they are judged by normal, modern, human standards. In order to perceive them as good and fair, we must adopt the Bible’s worldview and presuppositions.

[For more information on this subject, see Biblical Soteriology, part 4 by Ra McLaughlin.

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