Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"SINCE GOD IS GOD, HE FREELY DOES WHATEVER HE WISHES."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Paul and the saints of Rome, we heard last week, were dismayed at the fact that so many Jews rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ. Though theirs was the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the law and the service of God and the promises, and though the Christ was born in their midst and was blood of their blood, they yet rejected this Messiah. How, one wonders, was such unbelief possible Ė given the promises God had given to Israel?! Did it not mean that God, ultimately, was not faithful to His promises to Israel? And if His Word of promise was empty, why should the Gentiles of Rome Ėand we today, for that matter- serve this God?
We heard the apostleís answer. God, Paul had said, continues to act according to the pattern He has established in His Word. Already at the cradle of Israelís history, God discriminated amongst covenant children. Though Ishmael and Isaac were both children of Abraham and both were circumcised, God narrowed His activity of grace to one of the two brothers, and told Abraham to send the other away. Similarly, though Esau and Jacob were both children of the promise, twins in fact, God sovereignly decreed, before their birth already, to restrict His labour of grace to the offspring of Jacob, and not the offspring of Esau. Thatís to say: within the circle of the covenant God was pleased to place a second, narrower circle of those who receive His eternal favour. In Paulís words: "they are not all Israel who are of Israel."
So the apostle and the saints of Rome ought not to be surprised that numerous of the Jews in Paulís day rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ; this rejection was according to the pattern of Godís working in the Old Testament. In the years since Paul wrote Romans 9, God has not changed. That is why we ought not to be surprised when members of the church today Ėthough theirs are the adoption and the glory and the covenants, though God has given them the Bible and theyíve been taught the worship of God and they have the promises- that is why we ought not to be surprised when members of the church today turn their backs on the Lord, reject the gospel. This is according to the pattern of Godís workingÖ.
That was the message of last week. It left us with questions, painful questions. For the fact of the matter is that various of us have experienced very close at hand the pattern of Godís working as described in the first verses of Rom 9; we know loved ones who have rejected the gospel. So we wonder: is God fair?
The apostle Paul, brothers and sisters, expected such questions. So, in the verses we read this morning, Paul faces these questions head on. Specifically, he asks and answers two questions; vss 14-18 revolve around whether there is unrighteousness in God, and vss 19-24 answer a criticism one would throw at God. The remaining verses draw out the conclusion.
But Ėand this is the fundamental element that opens up these verses- Paul does not come to God with a spirit of: Iíll ask God a few critical questions. Rather, with a spirit of humility, of deep reverence for Godís God-ness and careful listening that befits his own humanness, Paul opens the Bible God has given to him, and from it seek Godís answers to his questions.
As we set ourselves to listen to the answers Paul finds to the questions arising from the first 13 verses of the chapter, it is for us to adopt the same attitude of humility Paul adopted. That is why I have chosen the words of vs 20a as the window through which to look at the entire passage; it is not for man to answer back to God.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
SINCE GOD IS GOD, HE FREELY DOES WHATEVER HE WISHES.
Godís actions include no unrighteousness
As we listened last week to the message that "they are not all Israel who are of Israel", and digested that message during the week, the question that undoubtedly kept jumping at us was this: is God not unfair? That he would pick Jacob and not Esau, would choose my brotherís children and not all of mineÖ, isnít that unfair? Itís the question of vs 14: "is there unrighteousness with God?"
Paulís answer, brothers and sisters, is very telling, for itís instant, itís short, and itís blunt. "Certainly not!" says our translation. More accurately: "No way!" The point is that Paul refuses even to consider the possibility of unfairness with God. He knows: to explore even the possibility of injustice with God is to place the self over God in order to examine Him. It is as it were to put God in your lab and subject Him up to research.
Now, here is a thought that is very tempting to the human mind. God has created in us a desire to understand what goes on around us. It is good too that we develop that desire, that we in fact seek to answer the questions we have. That is part and parcel of the mandate weíve received in Paradise, when God placed all things under menís dominion. But Ėand this is the critical point in relation to Rom 9- God did not place Himself under our dominion. We certainly may investigate, examine, research. We may set all creation under our microscope, we may ask critical questions in an effort to understand the weather, the economy, human nature, photosynthesis, etc. But we may never attempt to set God under our microscope, may never approach Him with critical questions about what God does or why. The questions we have Ėand we may have them- need to be set before God with an attitude of humility. And an attitude of humility makes it possible to listen to Godís holy answers to our questions.
Well now: is there unrighteousness with God? Is God somehow unfair? "No way," says Paul. Paul is so abrupt in his answer for the very thought of unrighteousness in God goes against Godís very being as God. The mindset that asks the question is critical of God, and thatís is why the question is out of place for the man of faith. Thatís why Paulís terse answer, "Certainly not!", would actually be sufficient replyÖ.
Yet Paul does not step off the topic. He knows: people of faith honestly struggle with this question. For the benefit of the man of faith, then, Paul opens the Bible to learn from Godís Word what God has said on the point. After all, only God Himself can reliably answer questions about God.
"Is there unrighteousness with God?" Paul draws his readersí attention first to what God said to Moses after the incident of the golden calf. You know what happened. God had graciously, sovereignly taken the people of Israel out of Egypt, brought them to Mt Sinai and made His covenant with them. In that covenant God gave also the second commandment, the one forbidding Israel to make a carved image of any creature in order to worship God through that image. But shortly after God gave His instructions to His people by covenant, they explicitly did what God had flatly forbidden. That is why Godís anger raged against the people, and God told Moses that He would distance Himself from the people; instead of God Himself leading the people to the Promised Land, God would send His angel to go before them (Ex 32:34). Moses, though, was not content with that reply, and so pleaded with God that God would Himself still come along with the people through the desert to the Promised Land. And see: God was pleased to grant the request (33:14).
How amazing! Did Israel in any way deserve that God would come along, lead them through the desert to the Promised Land? Every one could know it: given the peopleís blatant transgression in the matter of the golden calf, Israel had not a shred of reason to hope that God would still come along. By their offence they had lost any and every claim they might have had to Godís presence; they were worthy only of divine rejection, total and eternal divine rejection.
In that context, now, we hear from Godís mouth the words that Paul quotes in Rom 9: "I will have mercy to whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion" (Ex 33:19). God says He will come along, and with that decision to come along God gives to Israel an illustration of Who He really is. He is merciful, He is compassionate. The term Ďmercyí describes the gift a higher gives to a lower specifically when that lower one does not deserve it. And the word Ďcompassioní describes the deed of pity one extends to another though heís under no obligation to concern himself with the otherís misery. The people of Israel, and Moses also, have no rights before God, are beggars, orphans, helpless wretches dependant only and alone on Godís mercy, Godís compassion. And see: concerning such wretches God says that He will have mercy on whom He wills (those Israelites!), and have compassion on whom He wills too Ė those Israelites. How marvellously, then, does the passage describe Who God is! Heís obligated to no one, is not obliged to show anyone a shred of mercy. Yet He does, He shows mercy to persons who donít deserve a dot of it. Truly, how gracious this God is!
So Paulís conclusion is obvious. Vs 16: "then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy." Salvation cannot ultimately depend on whether you want it or strive to obtain it, for that assumes that youíre neutral before God, that somehow you have a right to Godís favour if only you can fulfil certain conditions. But Israelís transgression with the golden calf made plain that this people Ėand therefore all their offspring through the generations, including the Jews of Paulís days- were radically, totally unworthy of Godís mercy, Godís compassion. That the people continue even to exist: thatís only Godís compassion. That He goes with them: thatís compassion compounded. From beginning to end, their whole being depends of Godís mercy.
So: let none think that the vigorous efforts of the Jews of Paulís days would affect their salvation one dot. Their salvation depended strictly and only on Godís grace. For by definition no Jew (and no Gentile either) had a single claim to any good gift from God.
Is God unrighteous, then, when He loved Jacob and hated Esau? Most certainly not. For Jacob did not deserve Godís mercy to begin with. If God makes Jacob His own instead of Esau, makes Paul His own and not Caiaphas, makes you His own and not me, there is not a scrap of unrighteousness in it. He did not have to make anyone His Israel.
Paul finds a second text in the Old Testament Scriptures to support that conclusion. Between the sixth and seventh plagues of God upon Egypt, the Lord sent Moses to Pharaoh with a pronouncement. Moses had to tell Pharaoh that God could have killed Pharaoh long ago, but didnít (vs 15). Instead, (Moses had say to Pharaoh on Godís behalf), "for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth" (vs 16). That is: God wants Pharaoh to stay alive specifically in order that Pharaoh may keep resisting GodÖ, so that God in turn might have cause to pour out more plagues upon EgyptÖ, until the fullness of Godís might was displayed Ėspurred on by Pharaohís stubbornness- for all the world to see. Notice: it is God Who raised Pharaoh up, and it is God Who kept Pharaoh on the throne, and it is God Who kept Pharaohís heart hardened. And He did it all so that Godís sovereign power and Godís great name might be declared throughout the entire world.
What was the difference, then, between Israel in Ex 33 and Pharaoh in Ex 9? Neither Israel nor Pharaoh obeyed Godís commands, and so both were deserving of Godís destructive wrath. But to one God showed mercy; despite their unworthiness He kept them alive, even went along with this people to the Promised Land. And in the other God worked hardening; in the face of Pharaohís sins God kept Pharaoh alive and caused his heart to harden more and more Ė for the sake of Godís greater glory. Paul sums it up like this in vs 18: "Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens." Indiscriminately, according to the taste of His choice, He shows mercy to one and works hardening in anotherÖ. That is why it could be written: "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated" (vs 13).
Godís actions are above criticism
We hear all this, and a whole flood of questions well up inside. That God shows mercy on whom He wills, OK, we can accept thatÖ, until we realise what the other side means. For if He shows mercy to some, that invariably means that He does not show mercy to others. And now we read too that God actually hardens some Ė no, we have difficulty with that. And something within us rebels against this thought. Is that the answer to the question about whether God is fair, is just? If itís really true that it does not depend on someone wanting salvation or striving to get it, if itís really true that God leaves people alive so that He can harden their hearts in order in turn to display His own glory Ė truly, what a callous God this is! Surely, then God canít blame man for not believing the gospel?! Who would want such a God! And if God hardened Pharaohís heart, is it not gross injustice for God to cast Pharaoh into hell for his unbelief?! And if the Jews of Paulís days did not believe the gospel because God passed them by in His eternal election and so hardened their hearts, is God not most unjust to cast them into hell?! And if our own children today turn from God, surely thatís only because God determined to show them no mercy, determined to harden their heartsÖ.
We need to stop for a moment, brothers and sisters, and consider what we are doing. Think about it: those questions weíve just voiced, are they driven by humble curiosity or by rebellion? To put the question differently: is it fitting for people to challenge God about what He is doing, fitting for people to criticise Him? I know: Paul in vs 19 summarises exactly these criticisms like this: "You will say to me then, ĎWhy does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?í" What God ordains shall happenÖ.
It wonít do, we said earlier, for us to put God up to our scrutiny. Much less, we need to know, will it do for us to criticise what we see in God. God has revealed in Ex 33 that He shows mercy to whomever He wishes, including a nation of refugee slaves who blatantly transgress His holy command. And God has revealed in Ex 9 that He hardens the heart of whomever He wishes, including the strongest sovereign of the world of his day. You do not like that? You would criticise God for that? Who do you think you are, says Paul in vs 20, that you have the right to backchat to God on that?! Paulís point is clear: you are but a man, and God is God. So backchat, criticism, is out of place.
To drive that point home, the apostle asks his readers in Rome to consider the potter up the street. He takes a lump of clay, softens it with water, works it, kneads it, squeezes it until it has the right consistency, and then sets the lump on his wheel. Deftly he spins the wheel, applies pressure to a point in the lump, and slowly, steadily a lovely vase appears Ė fit to hold the Sunday flowers on the coffee table. He takes another lump of clay, softens it with water too, works it, kneads it, squeezes it to the right consistency, sets it on the wheel, spins the wheel, applies the needed pressure Ė and out comes a chamber pot. Shall the chamber pot criticise the potter for making it into a lowly chamber pot?? We know: the thought is ludicrous, simply because of the infinite difference between clay and the potter, between clay without life and a living potter who can think.
Well then, why should man criticise God for what God makes of man?! For the difference between man and God is greater than the difference between the clay and the potter! For man himself is clay, collected in the beginning by God and fashioned by the Master Potter into the shape of a man - and then God Most High breathed into that shell the breath of life. Between man the creature and God the Creator is a difference no tinkering in all the world can overcome, for God always remains God and man but a creature. If this God, now, caused many offspring to be born over the generations to the man and the woman He made in the beginning, is it fitting for these offspring to criticise the Master Potter for His handiwork? We understand: to criticise the way God made us or our children is at heart to deny our place as creatures, is also to deny Godís place as God; to criticise is arrogant, is to place ourselves above God and evaluate His divine actions according to our human standards! Truly, thatís arrogance!
Well now, if sovereign, divine God fashioned some pots for eternal destruction ĖEsau, for example, or the Jews of Paulís days who refused to believe the gospel- who are you and I that we should criticise God for that?! And if God fashioned other pots for eternal salvation ĖJacob, for example, or the Gentiles of Rome who embraced in faith the good news of Jesus Christ- who are you and I that we should criticise God for that? If He is pleased from out all the covenant offspring of Abraham to chose some to life eternal, is it not rather fitting that the creature man simply praise this God Most High for His undeserved mercy? And if this God Most High is pleased to harden the hearts of others Ėthough they have received the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the Bible and the worship and the promises- is it not for the creature man to praise this God for His justice? We, like Paul, may desperately wish for all the Jews to be saved, but when all is said and done weíre going to have to submit our wishes to the infinite will of the God Who is so far above us that we can do nothing better than, like Job, to lay our hand on our mouth and dare no more to criticise such a God. In a word: itís for us to know our place.
Godís actions prompt praise from men
What, then, is left? Only this: I shall praise forever the God Who chooses for Himself a people out of every tribe and tongue and race under heaven. Hosea had said it already: a people who was not Godís people Ėsay, the Roman, or the Egyptian, or the Australian- God would rename as "My people". And those who in the Old Testament were rejected by God as not His Ėthe Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans- God would call "sons of the living God". How very amazing! And undeserved.
And Israel? As Isaiah had said:
"Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea,
[only] the remnant will be saved."
That a remnant would actually be saved is so amazing too, for itís equally undeserved. Given that the people of Israel were creatures made by God, no one could rightly criticise God for doing with them as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah. The fact that the Jews were sinful changes the picture not a bit, for every person, regardless of race or age, is equally depraved. Yet, by the boundless mercy of God, some would be saved, a remnant Ė including Paul, Peter, Timothy and the other Jews who came to faith in Jesus Christ through the preaching of the apostles. And that gives cause to praise, to praise the God of such compassion.
And the others? Those Jews upon whom God determined not to show His mercy? In truth, that was according to His pattern from the beginning; God had mercy on some only, and others He hardened. Here is sovereign God in action, and it is all righteousness, all beyond criticism. But the fact that some are hardened, that some by Godís eternal decree stumble over the Rock of offence, points up the more how amazing is the fact that He has compassion on some. And the most amazing part of it all is this: God has mercy on me! What delightful cause for eternal praise!! Amen.