A BELIEVER WROTE TO ME seeking help to understand what is, to him and many others, a disturbing passage in the Bible. He was referring to Romans 9.
Paul writes that “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom. 9:18). The sovereignty of God exercised in saving people can be quite readily accepted by most, but the idea of God using His sovereign power to condemn others to destruction is unpalatable to many. Paul anticipates strong objections and goes on with his reflections.
“One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” (Rom 9. 19). That is obviously a good argument. If God divides humanity into those who will be saved and those who will be condemned, does that not pose problems in terms of justice and the character of God?
Most people would quite readily accept that God will save humankind through His sovereign grace. But that is where the problem lies. If God can sovereignly save people, why would He sovereignly condemn others? And what basis would He have for condemning those unfortunate people? If He determines the final outcomes, why blame those who will be condemned, for they had no choice?
Paul understood these arguments and oﬀers an answer that does not directly answer the question at hand. “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom 9:20).
God as the divine Potter has every right to do what He wishes with the pieces of pottery He produces. To drive home his point, Paul then refers to people who are “objects of his (God’s) mercy” and the rest who are “objects of his wrath” (Rom. 9:22-24).
Many people find this idea of God predetermining some to be objects of His wrath quite disturbing and difficult to accept, and quite rightly so. This idea has been developed further in certain theological circles as “double predestination”. How should we interpret a passage like this?
First, we must always pay attention to the context of passages. Here, we must identify Paul’s key argument before we lose our way in the details. In chapters 9-11, Paul explores the mysteries of God’s salvation which includes both Jews and Gentiles and appeals to his unbelieving fellow-Jews to receive that salvation found in Christ. The Jews had false confidence that they were the chosen people of God. All others were “fuel” for hell. Paul challenges this belief and argues that God divides diﬀerently (according to the presence of faith), and that His salvation includes Gentiles. Who is to question God’s choice of Gentiles? Or if God were to reject some Jews?
Paul, then, softens his approach and appeals to the Jews assuring them that “God did not reject his people whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:2). Infused with the magnanimity of God, he declares that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). The key argument of Paul is that God was exercising His sovereign grace to save both Jews and Gentiles. Jews were not to question God’s choices, but rather ought to turn to God’s grace and be recipients of God’s salvation.
Second, when we come across difficult passages, we must let Scripture explain Scripture. Rom. 9:5-24 will have to be seen together with passages such as 2 Pet. 3:9 (“He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”); Jn. 1:12 (“To all who receive Him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God”), and many more. These verses emphasise God’s desire to save all, and that salvation comes to those who respond to God’s grace.
As a whole, Scripture points to the complex and mysterious interplay of divine sovereignty and human choice. A case in point is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (cf. Rom. 9:18). While the relevant Exodus passages do mention God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, they also emphasise that his heart was hard (Ex. 9:19), became hard due to circumstances (Ex. 7:22) and that he also hardened his heart (Ex. 8:15). The texts point to a complex interplay of sinful human nature, sinful choices, circumstances, and divine action in a way that we may not fully understand.
Third, we can find some light in how John Wesley understood predestination. Wesley disagreed strongly with double predestination, more so because of its unhelpful implications and consequences. In his sermon “On Predestination” based on Rom. 8:29-30, he argued that our understanding of how God experiences time and eternity is limited by our own finite thinking and experiences. What does the foreknowledge” of God mean when God sees all time and eternity in “one eternal now”? God knows who will believe. He predestines these to be saved, and they are saved (cf. 1 Pet 1:2). We describe these realities in a cause and eﬀect relationship that, from the perspective of God, may be a diﬀerent reality.
IN ANOTHER SERMON (“Free Grace”), Wesley criticised the doctrine that God predestines some to hell as blasphemous; it portrays “God as worse than the devil”. In his tract, Predestination, Calmly Considered, he puts forth fuller arguments against mistaken notions of predestination. The problem was that they deny the necessity of free will. While Wesley held to the doctrine of original sin (thus no one is able to respond to God on his own), he also taught that prevenient grace is given by God to all so that everyone can exercise free will and respond positively to God; if they do not, they will be held guilty and responsible. For Wesley, this is a more acceptable way of understanding what Scripture teaches. It brings together the doctrines of original sin, free will, and God’s justice.
Also, it prevents the lack of passion in bringing the Gospel to everyone. If all can be potentially saved (because Christ died for all), then we will preach widely and with passion. We will avoid the kind of situation that young William Carey faced; when he shared with ministers on the necessity of missions, he was told: “Young man, sit down: when God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.”
Is our salvation entirely dependent on God’s sovereignty and grace? Yes. Is the exercise of our free will and our faith in Jesus important? Yes, as we are enabled by God’s prevenient grace. Can objects of wrath become objects of mercy? Yes, as Paul himself writes, “we were by nature objects of wrath, but because of his great love for us, God … made us alive with Christ” (Eph. 2:3-5). This is the good news for all objects of wrath. God is rich in mercy, and oﬀers His salvation to them.