More Hard Truths

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, August 4, 2015 0 comments

by Bill Seng

“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction?” ~Romans 9:22

For many people this portion of Scripture stands as either a stumbling block or the foundation of their theology. Does God really predetermine who is going to heaven and who is going to hell? Some would say yes, others would say no. What clues might exist within the text itself that help us to have a deeper understanding of what this is actually communicating to the reader?

Romans 9:17 is notorious, for it says, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” It sounds as though God determined that Pharaoh would be his chosen vessel on which he would bring his wrath. There is truth to this, but also notice that it did not say that he created Pharaoh for such a purpose, but that he raised him up. This hints that maybe Pharaoh was not just an arbitrary target of God, but that he was selected for various reasons. Exodus 1 tells the story of how Israel became at odds with Egypt, and it all started with a new Pharaoh who had forgotten about the good relationship that former rulers had with the Israelites and what they had done for the Egyptians in the past. This caused distrust that led to slavery and genocide.

But also take note that Romans 9 uses the imagery of a potter. Another place in Scripture uses this same imagery to convey a very similar point about a person and a nation’s fate. Many people will read Romans 9 and conclude that the potter is a dictator. Jeremiah 18 tells a different story. It describes a potter who is struggling with the clay that he is working with and had to form a different pot out of it than what he had intended.  Verses 6-8 read, “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” An element of free will enters into the equation in this illustration and Paul, as a Jew, probably would have recalled this imagery.

One of the great dangers of applying the notion that God specifically created and directed the decisions of Pharaoh to become evil is that of slipping into hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinism suggests that God not only has a plan and not only predestines things, but determines everything in the world. All of the major theologies reject this idea because God is not the author of sin and everyone is responsible for his or her own actions. A significant number of people that take the most literal reading of these verses end up believing that everything they do is determined by God.

On the same token, this passage is establishing God’s sovereignty very clearly. Whether you believe he determines who is going to hell or that he simply knows who will reject him freely, God does create people knowing that many of them will go to hell. Romans 9:21, using the imagery of the potter, states, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” This clearly reveals that ultimately God is the judge and it is by his standard that he judges.

There are many points I would love to address within this passage, but the final point of discussion is that of limited atonement. Limited atonement is the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not meant for everyone, but only a select number of people whom God has selected, in advance, to go to heaven. This means that the Jesus’ sacrifice was not good enough for everyone, but was limited to a predetermined number of people. Verse 29 states, “It is just as Isaiah said previously: ‘Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom.’” Verses like these make it sound as though God preselected people to remain faithful to him and preselected people who would be faithless. But is this an arbitrary selection by God, or is there something more to it?

Take note of the mention of descendants in the above verse. In the Old Testament, God promises on multiple accounts punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6). When King Solomon went astray from God’s commands, God did not exact judgment on him for the sake of his father, King David, who carried out God’s Law in righteousness (1 Kings 11:12-13). I do not think that verses like these are referring to a limited atonement, but God fulfilling his promise to bless faithful parents by blessing their offspring. But in both cases, whether the parents are faithful or wicked, each generation has free will. Righteous descendants can choose to rebel, as Solomon did, and wicked descendants can choose to repent.

God does not desire that anyone should perish (2 Peter 3:9) and be eternally separated from him. His new covenant through Jesus’ blood was supposed to extend an invitation to people who were once excluded from the promises of God. This covenant was not meant to simply save people who were already chosen, but to open the path of salvation for anyone who would be willing to repent and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior.

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