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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Spiritual Self-Condemnation “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-30)

This final “woe” in Matthew 23 is the most awful of all eight of them. Although this builds from verse 25, the conclusion demonstrates the result of such duplicitous behavior—ultimate and eternal separation from the Creator God and His holiness. “Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Matthew 23:31-33).

Here is the principle: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). This is no small issue. Our speech is a direct reflection of what is important to us. So much so that we will be held accountable, for “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).

Those passages ought to give all of us pause. Just what is it that consumes our conversation throughout the day? Is it sports, movies, shopping, gossip, slander, or sowing “discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:19)? Or is it “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report” (Philippians 4:8).

Our mouths are connected to our hearts (Matthew 15:18). What we talk about most of the time is a definite indicator of where our hearts are. Perhaps we should listen to ourselves. That is a pretty good marker of what we love most. “Stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (James 5:8). HMM III

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Freshly-ground coffee brewing in the early morning hours produces a powerful aroma, and I love it. The scent reminds me of childhood, my parents sitting at our kitchen table, leisurely sipping their cup o’ joe, sweetened with sugar and a splash of milk. Content and at ease before their busy day began.

But it’s not just the aroma that I love; it’s everything that I associate with it: contentment, nostalgia, memories. How this particular aroma stirs me is beyond explanation. It runs deep.

It occurred to me that this must be how God feels when our godliness ascends to him. Pleased beyond explanation — a delightful aroma which he could breathe in all day long. In fact, all throughout the Bible, certain scents seem to hold specific meanings for God. While some delight him, others, unfortunately, cause him to recoil.

The Aroma of Our Prayers

In the Old Testament, God commanded the priests of Israel to continually burn aromatic incense — made from a blend of five exotic spices — on the golden altar inside the Holy of Holies. But, like my coffee, it wasn’t simply the fragrance itself that pleased God, but what it represented: the constant prayers of his people.

In fact, the incense, associated with the people’s prayers, was so pure and sacredly sweet to God that any deviation from what God had explicitly commanded was met with swift death, as Nadab and Abihu found out (Leviticus 10:1–2).

Just as God prescribed a specific recipe for the incense, he also prescribes specific prayers for believers today — prayers of:

These particular prayers, in fact, are so pleasant and precious to God that he lovingly collects them in “golden bowls” in heaven (Revelation 5:8). By keeping them close, he can continually enjoy their blessed bouquet.

The Aroma of Our Repentance

In addition to burning incense, Israel was also required to sacrifice certain types of animals to atone for their sins. But, again, it wasn’t the aroma from the sacrifices that pleased God as much as what it represented: repentance, clean souls, changed lives (Leviticus 1:9132:223:18). If performed properly, these sacrifices were “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 15:3).

Over time, however, Israel became careless with their sacrifices, for which God sternly rebuked them. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams. . . . Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Isaiah 1:1113).

The principle is the same for today’s believers. God doesn’t want “vain” confessions — mere remorse — but genuine repentance that comes from truly humble and contrite hearts (Psalm 51:17).

Martin Luther famously wrote in the first of his ninety-five theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Repentance is not peripheral to a life of worship. It’s at the very heart, which is why God sees repentance as especially fragrant.

The Aroma of Our Witness

In 2 Corinthians 2:14–16, the apostle Paul charges Christians to spread “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Jesus Christ] everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

The knowledge that we proclaim is that Jesus Christ was crucified for the sins of mankind, and all who repent and appropriate his sacrificial death on the cross through faith will be saved by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). We are witnesses of the knowledge that Jesus died to bring us to God forever, for our greatest joy (1 Peter 3:18).

But, unfortunately, not everyone likes the scent of this truth, even when it’s spoken “with gentleness and respect,” as it always ought to be (1 Peter 3:15). While our witness always spreads the fragrance of Christ, it’s not always received the same by its hearers. To those who are being saved, it is the lovely perfume of life everlasting; but to those who are perishing, it’s the sour stench of death eternal.

Regardless of recipients’ reactions, however, our testimonies produce a powerful fragrance which God delights in, for truth always smells good to God. Nothing pleases him more than to see his Son glorified in the courageous testimonies of those he came to save. And if the Lord is pleased with us, “what can man do?” (Hebrews 13:6).

The Aroma of Our Love

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The greatest act of love ever performed was when Jesus voluntarily offered up his life for the sins of his people, suffering untold emotional, spiritual, and physical pain on a Roman cross.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10), but Christ gave up his life willingly (John 10:18); and in being crushed, Christ’s loving sacrifice gave off the sweetest, most sacred of fragrances (Ephesians 5:2), for Christ’s death is able to “make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11).

As Christ-followers, we are called to give no less (Ephesians 5:2) — not that we are called to die for others’ sins. But we are called to demonstrate Christ’s suffering and sacrifice through our own emotional, spiritual, and even physical sufferings on behalf of others, however that may look in our daily lives (Colossians 1:24).

It is when we are expressing Christ in this way that we too become a fragrant offering to God. And that, indeed, is an aroma which he could breathe in all day long.

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