The Sovereignty of God
The topic of God's sovereign act of calling and rejecting leads naturally into the basic question of divine justice. Paul speaks of Jacob and Esau this way in Romans 9:13, 14,
13 Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!
How can there be no injustice with God, if God sovereignly loved Jacob but hated Esau? Keep in mind that Jacob was chosen and Esau rejected before the children were even born (vs. 11). The answer lies first in the fact that Paul has already established in chapter 5 that God intends to save all mankind. That includes Esau. God's sovereign choices do not determine who is saved and who is lost forever, as most modern theologians have assumed. God is choosing certain ones known as "the elect" (i.e., "chosen") as agents of salvation to the rest of the world.
It is about choosing the few to bless all families of the earth with the gospel of the Kingdom and the healing of all nations. It is a question of who is saved FIRST and who will receive the Abrahamic blessings through their ministry.
Calvin vs. Arminius
Historically, there was a heated debate between Calvin and Arminius. Calvin argued that God was totally sovereign and had chosen some for salvation and the majority to be tortured in hell forever. Arminius agreed that some would be saved and others not, but argued that man had total free will to make his own choices.
Neither understood that God intended to save all men in the end. Calvin taught that God was sovereign, and that man had no right to question the justice of His ways. Arminius saw injustice in Calvin's viewpoint, and his solution was to transfer the sovereignty from God to man.
Not many are endowed with Calvin's iron stomach. Not many can endure the teaching that God sovereignly chooses a few and then consigns the vast majority to their perpetual doom in the fires of hell. To most people, such a viewpoint is extremely unjust, and to ask "who are you, O man, who answers back to God?" (Rom. 9:20) is insufficient.
The alternative normally presented to us is the idea of "free will," which attempts to resolve the injustice at the expense of His sovereignty. Sovereignty brings an equal level of responsibility for the outcome, and so if men are doomed to perpetual torture in hell, shall we hold God responsible? Calvin said God was responsible, but we had no right to question Him. Arminius said that no one can blame God, because man made his own choices.
The problem with "free will" is that no one really believes that God could be God without retaining some sovereignty. Virtually all true believers, if they have any experience with God, know that God has led them and has directed their steps in ways that are far beyond their own ability or will.
Furthermore, how can one speak of free will to a man who lived in a far country and who never had opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ? What free will did he have in regard to salvation? Did he choose to be born in a far-off land where the gospel was never preached? If God chose his parents, then God still retains at least some level of sovereignty and therefore yet retains some corresponding responsibility for His actions.
It is true that all men could have some revelation of God just by looking at creation itself (Rom. 1:19). But if God were really interested in revealing Himself to others, He could certainly have done it in a way that actually worked. He could have manifested Himself to all men in the same way that He converted Saul on the Damascus Road. Likewise, He could have put us all back on the right path like He did with Jonah by sending a storm and a great fish to turn him around.
The fact is, in the examples of Paul, Jonah, and others such as Moses, God directly intervened to reveal Himself and to turn their hearts. But why do this with only with a few. Is this fair? Is this just? Is it alright to even question God's actions?
The bottom line is that "free will" does not accomplish the goal of its theologians. Its success in reducing God's level of responsibility is directly proportional to the reduction of His sovereignty in the affairs of creation. Even so, it can never remove all responsibility from God's shoulders, because He is the Creator. He owns what He creates, and His own Law tells us that a man is responsible for what he owns (Ex. 21:34). The only way to remove all responsibility from God is to deny that He is the Creator and to deny His right of ownership.
If we strip God of all sovereignty, the devil would be God. And he does not respect the free will or rights of men.
God's Ability to Save All Men
Most of the injustice problem is resolved when we realize that Paul, in Romans 5, has already set forth the divine plan to save all mankind. God has not doomed the majority of humanity. He will not lose anyone in the end.
The sovereignty of God, then, has only determined who are the ones chosen to bring the gospel to the rest of humanity. His sovereignty (power) ensures that He is able to do this, and that there is no force on earth that can stop it.
Without understanding Romans 5, it is not possible to understand Romans 9. Sovereignty demands good results. But God has chosen to start small, in order that He might train the few to bless the many.
It is about a calling, not about salvation itself.
This means that not all will be so blessed in this life time. The first six "days" God works to train the elect. Then He raised all past generations from the dead in order to bring restoration to the rest of mankind. The "lake of fire" is not a place of endless torture, but is the baptism of fire that the elect experience today. It is the Holy Spirit, through whom all find cleansing though the divine judgments of the Law.
The fact that God chose to work through Abraham and his seed to bless all nations of the earth was not an injustice to the nations. In fact, it was to bless them. In the end, the seed of Abraham are the sons of God, for whom all creation awaits eagerly, knowing that they too will be blessed through them. To say that God is only interested in the sons and will then discard creation would indeed be an injustice. But Paul has already established the divine plan in Romans 5 to save all mankind, and again in Romans 8 to bless creation through the sons.
If we keep this in mind, we will not have to wrestle with the sovereignty of God in Romans 9.
How Could a Just God Hate Esau?
Romans 9:13 says,
13 Just as it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
This is quoted from Malachi 1:2 and 3. Will God save the man that He also hates? To really comprehend this, one must know the full story of Jacob and Esau, which I have written in my book, The Struggle for the Birthright.
Though the Law had not yet been given by Moses, many of the laws of God were known earlier. In Gen. 26:4, 5 God says,
4 . . . and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, 5 because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.
One of those laws is found in Deut. 21:15-17. It is the Law of the Hated Son. A father is forbidden to deny the first-born son the Birthright, even if he "hates" him and/or his mother.
In other words, the hated first-born son has rights under God, and he cannot be disinherited unless he has proven himself to be unworthy. Reuben, for instance, was the first-born of Jacob, but he defiled his father's bed and was stripped of the Birthright (1 Chron. 5:1).
It had been prophesied that the elder would serve the younger, but when Isaac was ready to pass down the blessing, Esau had not had time to prove himself unworthy. So Isaac intended to bless Esau, fulfilling the Law, rather than the prophecy.
Jacob's mother heard about it and convinced Jacob to deceive his father by pretending to be Esau. No doubt both of them justified their lies on the grounds of the prophecy given before the children had been born. So Jacob sinned against both Isaac and Esau in the attempt to fulfill the prophecy by the flesh. Jacob still did not understand the sovereignty of God, nor had his name been changed to Israel.
Isaac could not take back the blessing once it was given to Jacob; but he knew that this sin would have to be corrected at some point in the future. So he prophesied to Esau in Gen. 27:40,
40 …When thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck (KJV).
40 …When thou rulest, that thou hast broken his yoke from off thy neck (Young's Literal Translation).
In other words, Esau would obtain the Scepter, or "dominion," which was (at that time) still a part of the Birthright. At some time in history, Jacob would have to give up the Birthright and give it back to Esau, so that Esau would have ample time to prove himself unworthy. Only then could the Birthright be taken from Esau in a lawful manner.
God legislated the Law of the Hated Son in part to protect Esau's rights as the hated son. That is why Malachi 1:3 and Romans 9:13 tell us that God hated Esau. This was not an injustice to Esau. This protected Esau's rights. God stated for the record that He hated Esau in order to do justice to Esau and to protect his rights as a hated son.
Esau, the Rebellious and Stubborn Son
Esau's descendants were known as Edom (Gen. 36:1) and later by the Greek form, Idumea (Ez. 36:5). History tells us that they were conquered and absorbed into the Jewish nation in 126 B.C. The first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that they…
"subdued all the Idumeans, and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would be circumcised and make use of the laws of the Jews . . . at which time therefore, this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews" (Antiq, XIII, ix, 1).
The Jewish Encyclopedia confirms this in its section on Edom (1903 edition):
"From this time the Idumeans ceased to be a separate people."
The Jewish nation is, therefore, fulfilling two sets of prophecies: those of Judah and those of Edom.
First, they are fulfilling the fruitless fig tree of Judah that Jesus cursed (Matt. 21:19), which was destined to bring forth more "leaves" in the latter days (Matt. 24:32). In other words, the Jewish nation was destroyed in 70 A.D., but it would come back to life in order to prove once again that it could bear only leaves and no fruit. This was fulfilled in 1948 with the establishment of the modern Israeli state.
Secondly, that same nation is also fulfilling the prophecy to Esau-Edom, for their descendants are also represented in the Jewish state. Esau was given the Birthright in 1948 and took for himself the Birthright name, Israel. They have held it until now, giving Esau's descendants ample time to prove their unworthiness on account of their bloodshed (Ez. 35:6) and violent manner of occupying the land of Palestine. To these Zionists, the Lord says in Ez. 36:5,
5 Therefore, thus says the Lord God, "Surely in the fire of My jealousy I have spoken against the rest of the nations and against all Edom, who appropriated My land for themselves as a possession with whole-hearted joy and with scorn of soul, to drive it out for a prey."
Rotherham renders the last part of the verse, "to make of its produce a prey." Gesenius' Lexicon defines the word prey, saying, "It is used of persons and cattle carried away in war." The word literally means spoil or robbery. This is the carnal and violent manner by which Edom takes the land and uses the Birthright. It is by war and conquest, rather than by spiritual warfare.
Edom uses the Birthright as a stubborn and rebellious son, rather than as one reflecting the heart of the Father. There is a reason why the Law of the Rebellious Son follows the Law of the Hated Son. They go together as a warning to the first-born son.
The Jewish state, then, is fulfilling both sets of prophecies, and neither of them is good. There is a way, however, for them (or anyone) to get out from under the cursed fig tree as well as to escape the prophecies of Esau. It is by renouncing Esau and following Jesus Christ and identifying with the Christ-Identity within them, instead of the fleshly "I" that characterizes their Adamic "I."
Romans 9:14 says,
14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!
We have explained how God was just in all of His dealings with Esau. Justice is defined and expressed through God's Law, which in turn is the expression of His goodness and justice. He will never go against who He is. Unlike men, God does not allow His emotions to cloud His thinking, nor does it affect His justice. His so-called "hatred" of Esau does not involve any loss of self-control due to emotional problems. It is a judicial "hatred," rather than being emotion-based.
The Example of Pharaoh
Paul then gives us the example of Pharaoh, because it appeared to some people that God had acted with injustice toward him. After all, God had hardened Pharaoh's heart (Ex. 10:1). So was God unjust? Paul explains it to us:
15 For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."
This is a quotation from Exodus 33:19. Moses had just asked God to show him His GLORY (vs. 18). The next verse then reads,
19 And He said, "I Myself will make all My GOODNESS pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion."
The "glory" of God is therefore His "goodness," and both are manifestations of His sovereignty. In other words, God is both totally just and totally sovereign. Paul quotes this verse to counter the view that God might be unjust in His dealings with Pharaoh.
16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
Here Paul comments on the sovereignty of God, for he is about to take us deeper into this important teaching by giving us the example of Pharaoh.
17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth." 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
The Scripture in question is Exodus 9:16, but God had told Moses in earlier chapters of His intention to harden Pharaoh's heart. Exodus 4:21 says,
21 And the Lord said to Moses, "When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.
Thus, when Moses told Pharaoh to let the people go free, God hardened his heart in order to bring about the opposite result. Pharaoh's reaction was to increase their burden by forcing them to gather their own straw to make bricks (Ex. 5:18). God hardened Pharaoh's heart in order to provide legal cause in judging Egypt. The judgment was then established in Ex. 6:1,
1 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for under compulsion he shall let them go, and under compulsion he shall drive them [the Israelites] out of his land."
It is interesting to see how God dealt with Pharaoh according to the Law. Pharaoh made Israel labor under compulsion to make bricks without providing straw; so God judged Pharaoh by putting him too "under compulsion." (The KJV renders this Hebrew idiom more literally, "with a strong hand.")
The divine Law also tells us that any man who refuses to abide by the righteous judgment of God (through the judges) was to be executed for contempt of court (Deut. 17:9-13). Some are appalled at this Law, thinking that God would have people immediately executed without giving them time to reflect or contemplate their refusal to submit to righteous judgment. But the example of Pharaoh shows us that God gave Pharaoh a lengthy grace period of ten plagues before carrying out the death penalty upon his firstborn son—and later, upon the army of Egypt itself. This reveals the mind of God in judicial matters, for it shows that the Law must be applied with mercy and grace and that the sentence of the Law can be altered by repentance. Even so, Paul was dealing with a deeper judicial problem.
Did God Treat Pharaoh Unjustly?
Was there injustice with God when He hardened Pharaoh's heart? God again told Moses in Exodus 7:3,
3 But I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
Some have argued that God hardened Pharaoh's heart only as a response to Pharaoh hardening his own heart. That explanation attempts to remove responsibility from God at the expense of His sovereignty. So what do the Scriptures say? After the plague of hail, we read this in Exodus 9:34 to 10:1,
34 But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses. 1 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may perform these signs of Mine among them."
In other words, Pharaoh hardened his heart as a response to something God did—not the other way around. This exercise of divine sovereignty sounds very unjust—and indeed it would be unjust, except for the fact that God intended to save Pharaoh in the end. He would be corrected and saved by means of judgments. If he remained uncorrected in his life time, then the corrections would come at the Great White Throne, where every knee will bow and every tongue confess Him as Lord (Phil. 2:10, 11).
Paul does not see fit to take this example further, saying only in Rom. 9:18,
18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
If the judgments of God were never-ending, or if death could never be overcome by the power of resurrection, and if God's hardening were never corrected, then and only then would God be unjust. But after laying the foundations in Romans 5 for the salvation of all men, and buttressing this with Romans 8:28, where all things work together for good, we can view Romans 9 without wrestling with God's sovereignty and justice.
Justice vs. Fairness
Paul does not answer the lesser question: Is it fair to raise up Pharaoh for such a different purpose than, say, Moses? Is it fair that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau before they were even born? Even if they are all saved in the end, is it still not unfair?
This is not a question of justice but of fairness. There is a difference. As to the matter of justice, Paul defends God's character. As to the fairness of His treatment of various men, Paul says only in verse 20,
20 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? 21 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?
In other words, God has rights of ownership by right of creation. Very little in life is fair, but God is always just. It is only when people do not understand the distinction between justice and fairness, or between man's rights and God's rights, that we misunderstand the situation. It is pride that causes men to think that they have the same rights that the Creator does. We do not own ourselves, because we did not create ourselves. Only when we put on the mind of Christ will we have full understanding how all things work together for good. Until that time, we must exercise faith.
God's Will and God's Plan
God's sovereignty brings up a very common objection, not only in Paul's day but in ours as well. So Paul raises this objection in Romans 9:19,
19 You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will [boulema] ?"
The word translated "will" in this verse is boulema. It is different from the usual word that is translated "will," which is thelema. Paul defined thelema earlier in Romans 2:18, writing,
18 and know His will [thelema], and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law.
In other words, the Law tells us the will of God for our lives. When the Law says, "Thou shalt not steal," it is His will that we should not steal. We know His will if we are instructed out of the Law, because the Law tells us the mind of Christ and forbids us go contrary to His character.
But in Romans 9:19, Paul uses the term boulema, which goes beyond the mere will of God. It is the divine Plan by which God exercises His sovereignty. We ourselves function under authority, and hence, the will of God tells us how to exercise proper authority as we live our lives on earth. But God functions on the level of sovereignty, not authority, for there is none higher to authorize His actions.
Paul uses the example of Pharaoh to reveal the boulema of God, as distinct from His thelema. The will of God to Pharaoh is set forth in Exodus 8:1, "Let My people go, that they may serve Me." But the Plan of God (His boulema) includes the factor of Time, which delays the will of God to an appointed time. This is set forth in Exodus 7:2-5,
2 You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. 3 But I will harden Pharaoh's heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. 4 When Pharaoh will not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt, and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. 5 And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.
The will of God is a simple command which Pharaoh was to obey. The Plan includes the process by which it would be fulfilled. The Plan includes the divine intent behind His will. God's will was indeed fulfilled, but only after ten plagues. The will of God tells you what will happen; the Plan of God tells you also how it will happen.
The will of God is a simple command; the Plan of God includes the TIME it takes to work out the details, the detours, and especially to overcome all resistance. If we reduce this to a simple formula, we can say that the Will plus Time equals the Plan.
(W + T = P)
Ultimately, the will and the Plan are the same. But the distinction is in the word "ultimately," for that is the time-based word that links the two. The will of God shall always be done, given enough Time. But whereas every man resists the will of God at first, no man can resist His Plan.
Hence, Pharaoh resisted the will of God and refused to let Israel leave Egypt to serve God. But Pharaoh was not capable of resisting the Plan of God. So when the Plan called for Pharaoh's heart to be hardened in order to resist the will of God, Pharaoh played his role perfectly, even thinking that he had hardened his own heart of his own free will.
Greater Authority means Greater Accountability
The exercise of man's will is limited to the realm of his authority. God's will is executed through His sovereignty and is limited only by His own just character.
So how could God find fault with Pharaoh? How could God judge Pharaoh, in view of the fact that he could resist God's will but could not resist God's plan? From a judicial standpoint, we know that God judges men according to their knowledge and their level of responsibility. The greater the authority and knowledge, the greater the judgment.
So Moses was barred from entering the Promised Land for striking the rock instead of speaking to it; whereas, if any other man had disobeyed in this manner, the judgment would not have been so great.
Likewise, Jesus said in Luke 12:47, 48,
47 And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.
By this principle, Pharaoh was judged according to the level of his authority. But if, in the end, God refused to save him, then God would remain unjust. God holds Himself responsible for the Plan, because He is sovereign; man is held responsible only on the level of his authority. Sovereignty always trumps authority in the end, because it is greater. God does indeed hold men accountable and judges each man according to his deeds (Rev. 20:12), yet that judgment has a stated purpose, as given to Pharaoh: "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord."
The vessels of honor (Israelites) were brought out of Egypt without judgment; but the Egyptians came to know the Lord by means of judgments. As Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:22 and 23,
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each in his own order....
The will of God is that all men be saved, for He is "the Savior of all men, especially of believers" (1 Tim. 4:10), and "He is not willing that any should perish" (2 Pet. 3:9). His will is not mere wishful thinking. He will always fulfill His will, and the Plan tells us HOW He will accomplish His will. He has called the few in the first great Week of history (7,000 years), training them to minister and bless the rest of the nations in the ages to come. The pattern is Abraham. These chosen ones are not so much chosen to be saved, but chosen to be saved FIRST and trained to bless those who will come afterward.
For this reason, Paul is able to show how God chose Isaac and rejected Ishmael without violating the just character of God. He was able to choose Jacob and reject Esau before they were even born, knowing that it would all work out for good in the end. He was able to harden Pharaoh's heart without doing injustice. In the end, God will not fail to save all of these vessels of dishonor through His righteous judgments.
Though we may object on the grounds of FAIRNESS, our objection comes only when we do not recognize God's rights as Creator and Owner of all things. As Creator, He has the right to give the Birthright to one son over another. He has the right to call Abraham out of many people and train him to bless all nations. He has the right to make some poor and others rich, some handicapped and others whole. He has the right to cause some to be born in a land where they would have no opportunity to hear of Christ, while others fare sumptuously every day on the Word in the full light of the gospel.
Vessels of Honor and Dishonor
God's choices are inherently unfair, but they are based upon His rights as the Creator and Owner of that which He has created. Justice allows any creator to make what pleases him and to use it as he sees fit, even if the vessels think it is inherently unfair.
God's choices are no more unjust than a potter who uses the same clay to make a drinking glass and a toilet. God chose Moses into a vessel of honor and Pharaoh into a vessel of dishonor. This seems unfair, but it would be unjust only if God then made Pharaoh fully liable for his actions.
It is only when we insist that Pharaoh will be lost forever that the question of justice becomes paramount. People are not just clay pots. But at the Great White Throne judgment, ALL are raised and judged by the fiery Law in that final Age. The vessels of honor will be called to rule over the others and train them to know God. Their judgment will end with the Creation Jubilee.
God has always found it useful to create vessels of dishonor to help train the vessels of honor. He used Saul to train David, for instance, and He used Esau to train Jacob. The overcomers must experience adversity in order to have something to overcome. In order to learn forgiveness, we must have something to forgive. In order for the sons of God to exercise dominion over the earth, there must be something to change or correct.
We do not like going through such adversity, of course, and we often complain of our predicament instead of learning to exercise our dominion over it. But Paul tells us God's purpose for creating "vessels of wrath" in Romans 9:22, 23,
22 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? 23 And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory. . .
The "destruction" here is from the Greek word apoleia, whose root is apollumi. The destruction is not its final end, but the means to the end. When Jesus referred to the "lost sheep of the House of Israel" in Matt. 10:6 and 15:24, the word translated "lost" is apollumi. Just because they were "lost" (or "destroyed" as a nation) does not mean that this condition would last forever. In fact, the Good Shepherd left the 99 "safe" sheep and went out to find the one "lost" sheep (Luke 15:4-7).
In the case of the "lost" coin, Jesus said in Luke 15:9, "Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost." Thus, the term "lost" or "destroyed" does not carry with it any inherent sense of permanency unless one adds that concept by using another word, such as "perpetual loss" or "unending loss," neither of which is found in Scripture.
In Romans 9:24, Paul turns his attention to the scope of the vessels of mercy. It was common among the Jews of his day to think of themselves as the vessels of mercy on account of their genealogical connection to Abraham. Vessels of wrath were the non-Jews, or so-called "gentiles."
This idea breaks down when we see that the Israelites of the northern kingdom had been conquered, deported, and dispersed. They were the "lost sheep of the house of Israel," as described in Ezekiel 34. The term does not refer to unbelieving Jews in the first century, but to the House of Israel that had been "lost" 700 years earlier.
The Jewish nation itself was to experience destruction at the hands of Rome in 70 A.D. Thus, they too were "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction." So one cannot claim genealogy as the basis of being a chosen "vessel of mercy." It is based fully upon a relationship with Jesus Christ, whether this is viewed on a personal level or on a national level.