This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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14What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
19You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
God’s Chosen People
Is it fair that Jacob could be chosen over Esau before either was born (Rom. 9:11)? Is it fair that human works are not taken into account by God when he decides whom to save (Rom. 9:11)? Is it fair that people who suppose they have eternal salvation because of their ethnicity will face a rude awakening at the final judgment when they discover that God is not partial (Rom. 2:11) and adopts as his children all who come to him by grace alone through faith alone? Are all people not God’s children? If only “children of promise” receive his blessing, is this not discriminatory and unacceptable to human assumptions and expectations? Some might term it a violation of human rights.
Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.
To get at such objections, in rhetorical fashion Paul airs the blasphemous contention (see also Rom. 3:5–8) that God might in some way be guilty of “injustice.” “By no means!” is the strongest possible denial.
A major reason God is not unjust is the simple fact that he is merciful. He shows compassion. Paul has already established that no one deserves such treatment; what would be just is God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18–3:20). A bedrock Old Testament truth about God is that he is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6; cf. Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Yet there is an offsetting side to this: “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty” (Nah. 1:3). God’s saving compassion is abundant. But he holds accountable those who spurn it.
So, despite how richly deserving all humans are of God’s rejection, Moses affirms God’s readiness to forgive and save. In this respect, too, God’s Word does not fail (Rom. 9:6) but proves true.
“It depends” in verse 16 is added by the translators and is a reasonable rendering of words that more directly run “So then, [it is] not of the one who wills, nor of the one who runs, but of the one showing mercy, God.” Adding “it depends” throws the stress on God’s sole sovereignty in anyone’s salvation, which is an undeniable truth about individual (as well as corporate) salvation as Scripture presents it (see also John 1:12–13).
But equally important in the present discourse is the more basic matter of the faithfulness of God to his Word (Rom. 9:6). He is not unjust (Rom. 9:14). God’s mercy and compassion, which find and redeem countless undeserving sinners, are reminders that God’s Word surmounts all obstacles and reaches into the locations and hearts of all who call on his name. To say “So then it depends . . . on God, who has mercy” is to say that “the word of God has [not] failed” (Rom. 9:6; see also Isa. 55:10–11) and that “injustice” is not an appropriate label for anything God plans or does.
Paul draws on Moses to illustrate God’s sovereignty in salvation as attested in his faithful and unerring Word. One of the mightiest kings of his era, and not a believer in the God of Abraham, Pharaoh was nevertheless subject to God’s purpose and “raised . . . up” by God to show God’s power precisely in his life and circumstances. An additional divine intention was that as a result of God’s interactions with the Egyptian sovereign, God’s “name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
As with Esau, while God’s sovereign hand conditioned all that Pharaoh did and ultimately hardened his heart, in the exodus narrative Pharaoh hardens his own heart too (Ex. 8:15, 32; 9:34) and therefore bears responsibility for his own condemnation.
And God’s mercy (Rom. 9:16) is shown in Pharaoh not just in that time but in all the eras since when the Torah has been read and applied, including the moment at which Paul dictates these words. The gospel Romans announces and explains, in part through the argument found in chapter 9, is an extension of God’s “name” being “proclaimed in all the earth” through the working of his faithful word to Pharaoh, not in “injustice” (Rom. 9:14) but in mercy made known wherever the Torah has been read for those with eyes to see.
Paul concludes this minisection (Rom 9:14–18) with the declaration that there is no “injustice on God’s part” (Rom. 9:14) but rather merciful consistency. On the undeserving—every last member of the human race—“he has mercy on whomever he wills.” Shortly he will clarify the identity of this “whomever”: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13, citing Joel 2:32, a verse also cited by Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2:21).
Paul’s conviction of God’s mercy (mentioned over two dozen times in the New Testament) is particularly strong because that mercy pulled him from the flames of his homicidal zeal: he was “formerly . . . a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy” (1 Tim. 1:13). Or again: “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16). Peter also marvels that those with no claim to God’s favor nevertheless by God’s mercy receive it: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:10).
And just as God is consistent and impartial in showing mercy, “he hardens whomever he wills.” Paul has already established that God has made sufficient self-disclosure to render all people accountable to acknowledge him; we all alike are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). His hardening results when his mercy is spurned. This can be viewed as “injustice” only when examined from a sinful self-exalting viewpoint; it is rather God’s viewpoint that must be discerned and affirmed.
Questioning God’s Goodness
In Romans 9:19 Paul anticipates an objection to the answer he has given (Rom. 9:15–18) to the previous rhetorical question raised (Rom. 9:14). The “you” is singular and envisions an individual interlocutor: in Paul’s mind he is eye to eye with someone questioning God’s goodness. Like Jesus, Paul is not only an itinerant missionary and public preacher but also a personal evangelist.
The rhetorical question is twofold: (1) Why does God continue to blame people or find them guilty? Because, (2) as Paul has just stated (Rom. 9:18), God hardens whomever he wishes. And “who can resist his will?”
The translation brings into smooth English a string of expressions that could be rendered “Whoa! Just a minute, here, buddy! Entirely to the contrary, you! Who do you think you are, smarting off to God!” Paul perceives behind the question an impious attitude that has dared to question and blame God.
God’s saving compassion is abundant. But he holds accountable those who spurn it.
A modern reader may find it easy to cast Paul in a negative light because of the apostle’s self-assurance. But this would overlook the basis of his confidence, which is not in himself or his logic but in God’s written Word. Paul cites a portion of Isaiah 29 just a few verses past a verse favored by Jesus.1 This verse (Isa. 29:13) speaks of those who give God lip service but have hard hearts (cf. Mark 7:6–8). It is likely that Paul pictures a questioning person who by his very tone proves he is among those Jesus called out. He is not a seeker but a scoffer, like the person nailed in Isaiah 29:15–16:
Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
Paul’s concern, then, is not to exonerate his reasoning by winning an argument or proving he is right; it is to remove the questioner’s blinders so he can see God and the gospel message. No one who approaches God with such arrogance as to ignore one’s own sin (Isa. 29:15) or to invert who is who (Isa. 29:16) can tap into God’s abundant mercy; it is God who places man in question, not vice versa.
The Potter and the Clay
As with Jesus’ parables, Paul draws on a common image in an ancient world where potters and pots were everyday sights (Rom. 9:21). Obviously, potters can do as they wish with their clay. As in verse 20, Paul is thinking scripturally, this time drawing on Jeremiah 18. There God tells Jeremiah to go observe a potter handling clay “as it seemed good to the potter to do” (Jer. 18:4). Jeremiah reports what he learned from this: “Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel’” (Jer. 18:5–6).
In the Jeremiah passage, however, the point is not that God shows mercy or hardens by inscrutable decree. It is rather that when God declares judgment, but then people repent, he relents from his judgment (Jer. 18:7–11). He therefore calls on any who will listen to heed and turn to him.
In other words, the potter (God) has built into the system (his saving plan) a judgment that is reversible if people (the pots) will respond to his self-disclosure, consider their ways, and turn to him. God has a perfect right to show mercy, or to harden, under such gracious terms.
The leading question in this discussion (Rom. 9:19) is shown to be out of bounds based on the very attitude it shows. It is only human self-righteousness that can justify such an accusatory approach to a God who has forever shown himself to be merciful.
Wrath and Mercy
In verses 22 and 23 Paul makes the same point that God does in Jeremiah 18:7–10. If a people (like the Gentiles) is condemned by God but then turns to him, God says that “I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (Jer. 18:8). But if a people (like the Jews) has favorable prospects in God’s sight but then “does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it” (Jer. 18:10).
Romans 9:22 pictures God’s twofold intention of punishing sin (“show his wrath”) and subduing (“make known his power”) those who resist him. To show wrath with patience (as he does; Rom. 2:4) on people who by their willful ignorance “are storing up wrath for [themselves] on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5), God endures “with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Paul has already foreshadowed this: “For those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom. 2:8).
Romans 9:23 speaks of the other side of the coin. This group was likewise earlier foreshadowed: “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). God has foreknown and predestined them (Rom. 8:29–30) “in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory.”
Romans 9:22–23, then, confirms God’s justice (not “injustice,” Rom. 9:14) in damning some and saving others. This has always been his stance toward wayward humans. In that sense, too, God’s Word has not failed (Rom. 9:6), for he is dealing with people in the Roman Empire of Paul’s day with the same kindness (which none deserve) and severity (which all have earned) that have always marked his redemptive reign (Rom. 11:22 on God’s kindness and severity).
“Even us whom he has called” in verse 24 points to Paul (a Jew) and his Roman readers (for the most part Gentile). The rest of the verse (“not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles”) confirms that in the preceding discourse Paul has had in mind the problem, posed by his Gentile-inclusive gospel understanding, for Jews who rejected Jesus.
For such Jews “the word of God has failed” (as they saw it) because God has allowed non-Jews entrance into their Jew-only fraternity. Paul started his reply to this by affirming that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Verse 24 summarizes his preliminary conclusion (to be substantiated and enlarged on later) that “vessels of wrath” (Rom. 9:22) and “vessels of mercy” (Rom. 9:23) may be found among both Jews and Gentiles. It is God’s call that transforms the former into the latter.
- Isaiah 45:9 may also lie in the background. But Isaiah 29 seems more prominent in Paul’s reply.
This article is by Robert W. Yarbrough and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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