The example of Israel’s unbelief found in Romans 9 adds further insight into the question of how God ordained evil to accomplish His purposes and did so without impugning His character. After proclaiming the marvels of justification by faith, Paul interrupted his doctrinal treatise in chapters 9-11 to clarify some important truths pertaining to his fellow Jews and God’s ultimate plan for Israel. No doubt he had already encountered an angry response from unbelieving Jews who were profoundly offended by the Gospel message where, in their minds, their supposed Messiah not only rejected their traditions and system of works righteousness as a means of salvation, but worse yet, it offered salvation to the Gentiles. Their anger was further exacerbated by his scathing denunciation of their hypocritical legalism and the sham of their rabbinic traditions.
For them, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was an anti-Jewish conspiracy. They were convinced that simply because they were the physical descendants of Abraham, they were the heirs of promise and guaranteed recipients of divine favor. The idea of justification by grace alone through faith alone shattered their entire system. They could not fathom how the blood of Christ could ratify a New Covenant and replace the Old Covenant. It was blasphemy to think that anything could replace the Law. For them, both Jesus and the apostle Paul were traitors and blasphemers. Furthermore, it was beyond their ability to understand how the Gospel could possibly be “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). How could this be true given the rampant unbelief among the Jewish people and the vile character of the Gentiles?
Having undoubtedly experienced the vitriol of his countrymen, and anticipating even more when those in Rome read his letter, the loving apostle spends three chapters explaining the truth of God’s redemptive plan as it related to them. He longed to see them come to a saving knowledge of the truth through repentant faith, saying, “I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:1-3).
It is in the context of this fascinating discourse we discover a series of examples of divine sovereignty, especially as it relates to our topic of God’s role in ordaining evil and sin. Citing God’s uninfluenced and unmerited choice to bless Isaac over Ishmael (vv. 7-10) and Jacob over Esau (vv. 11-13), Paul demonstrates that God chooses whom He will to be His spiritual children. Then, anticipating the human assertion that God is unfair in His sovereign choice of some and not all, he defends God’s fairness and extols His mercy by recalling His dealings with Moses and the golden calf worshippers (v.19). Although God would have been justified in killing them all, He instead chose to only kill “twenty-four thousand” (Num 25:9).
His argument continued by reminding them of God’s mighty act of deliverance when He rescued Israel from the Egyptians. In this account we see yet another example of God’s just and sovereign rule even though he hardened the hearts of some, as seen in His dealing with Moses versus Pharaoh (vv. 17-18). And finally, in anticipation of the inevitable resentment of the sovereignty of God in salvation by carnal minds that would impose upon Him their standard of justice, the Holy Spirit speaks through His inspired servant and declares emphatically:
“So then He has mercy on whom he desires, and He hardens whom He desires. 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, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles” (Rom 9:18-24).
Here again we see the divine prerogative to act as He will towards His creation and to do so with absolute righteousness. He is the potter; we are the clay—indeed, we are but dust. What insolence to protest His sovereignty yet demand it for ourselves. What arrogant foolishness to cry, “Foul! Unfair! What gives You the right to rule and whimsically save some and not all? What justice is there in such limited selection?” But, as we will discover, His Word is clear: nothing He does is capricious or cruel, but always perfectly just and part of His flawless plan.
Therefore, Paul argues that for an ignorant, self-willed human being to sit in judgment over God and question the wisdom and fairness of His sovereign choices is as absurd as a clay pot demanding an explanation from its creator as to why he made it the way he did (vv. 20-21). Paul is simply saying, “To even question God is ludicrous!” Obviously, a clay pot has no ability whatsoever to reason and is infinitely inferior to the potter who made it—a perfect analogy exposing the boundless chasm between God and man and therefore the ridiculous basis of charging God with being unfair in His choice of some and not all.
It is important to point out that Paul’s purpose in this passage is not to definitively explain the inscrutable mysteries of sovereign election and man’s responsibility (developed more fully in Romans 10 and 11), or the sacred harmony between His justice and righteousness, or even the origin of sin, but to clarify God’s purposes for Israel in her rejection of Jesus Christ. Yet, by demonstrating that God’s dealings with man are fair, we discover some fascinating insights relevant to our discussion of God’s purposes in ordaining sin to invade His perfect universe.
This text reveals that there are at least three reasons God gives for ordaining evil: one, “to demonstrate his wrath”; two, “to make his power known”; and three, “to make known the riches of His glory on vessels of mercy.” The first of these insights emerges from Paul’s rhetorical question, “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?” (v. 22). His use of the Greek word thelo translated “willing” is a strong term that far exceeds our English notion of casual compliance or consent. Rather, it denotes a resolute, unyielding, deliberate choice. He did this for the same reason He does everything: to put His glory on display! This is precisely what Paul says in his example at the end of verse 17, “that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.”
In the fourth and final part of this series, we will examine God’s grand demonstration for ordaining to allow evil to enter His perfect universe as stated in Romans 9:22-24.