The Letter to the Romans



32. God's Mercy and Sovereignty


Romans 9:19-24

In the last lesson we examined Paul's statements on God's sovereign appointment of those who will honor Him and of those who resist His will. God uses even evil according to His sovereign will; nothing and no one can outmaneuver God.

A seemingly logical human question in response to the sovereign reality of God is, "If God appoints some for destruction and others for salvation, why does He 'blame' us for our sinfulness? Our resistance is just His will."

Paul is quick to silence such presumptuous questions. Such impertinence can only occur in a person who does not have a proper respect for God's superiority and absolute dominion over all creation. The historic record in the Bible reveals how Godly men throughout history have respected God's ultimate authority. By contrasting our responses with theirs, we begin to see what attitude lies behind such careless questioning of God's purposes.

First, Romans 3:7 lays the groundwork for this examination. Paul states that even though our sin and falseness creates a means through which God's glory is increased because of His saving us, we are still sinners. In other words, the fact that our sinfulness enhances the reality of God's mercy does not excuse us of our sin just because it provides a means for God to look good. Our sin is not a favor to God; He does not need us to magnify His excellence. He is God, and we neither add to His greatness nor subtract from it.

The story of Absalom revolting against his father David is recorded in 2 Samuel 16. During this insurrection, a member of Saul's household name Shimei began cursing David publicly, saying God was punishing David for what David had done to Saul's household. One of David's men wanted to kill Shimei, but the beleaguered king would not allow such violence. "If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, 'Curse David,' who can ask, 'Why do you do this?" " (v. 20).

Regardless of what we might speculate about David's feelings of guilt and unworthiness, David's humility before God was unfeigned. The one to whom God promised an eternal heir knew that he could not question God nor supercede His will. He did not have the authority to stop what God had ordained.

In 2 Chronicles 20:6 we see Jehosophat standing before the temple after hearing that the armies of Moab and Ammon were approaching. He called to God and affirmed His sovereignty saying, "Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you." He was entrusting the fate of Judah and Jerusalem into God's hands, knowing that if God did not wish for the enemy to destroy them, the approaching armies would not be able to succeed.

A fascinating story of recognizing God's sovereignty occurs in Daniel 4. Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had just spent seven years living like an animal-a curse God had leveled against him because of his arrogance and disregard for God's authority. When his senses were restored to him, he praised God saying, "All the people of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back His hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'"

In verses 19-20 of Romans 9, Paul is asserting that no human has the authority to question God's will. We may not understand why He does what He does, and we may not think He is "fair" from a human perspective. God's perspective, however, is eternal and divine, not human. We have no ability to second-guess God or to judge His decisions. We are to submit ourselves to Him in reverence and worship and acknowledge His sovereign love and mercy that has brought us near to Him through the blood of Christ.

The story of Job provides insight into our proper human response to God's sovereignty. When Job was afflicted with the loss of his wealth and children, he was in shock, overwhelmed by the magnitude of his suffering. Yet in all this, chapter 1 verse 9 tells us, "Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing." The clear message here is that even when circumstances seem evil and unfair, we are not to imagine that God is perverse. His knowing is greater than ours, and it is a sin for us, the limited creation, to accuse our omnipotent, omniscient Creator with wrongdoing. We fancy ourselves to be clever and wise, but we cannot see and know as God sees and knows. We are called to trust Him in the darkness. We are not supposed to "understand" Him. We are only supposed to know Him.

In 9:12 Job said, "If he snatches away, who can stop him? Who can say to him, 'What are you doing'?" God does not owe us answers, and we are not to imagine that we deserve Him to answer us. He calls us only to trust Him-not with fatalism that denies the reality of suffering, but with complete awareness of our pain and with confidence in His goodness.

At the end of the story, when God finally answered Job, He asked: "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!" (v. 40) He continues in verse 8, "Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?"

To blame God for our mistakes or sins is blasphemous. To attribute our suffering to God in order to deny our own responsibility in making destructive choices is not only dishonest but irreverent.

When Paul asks who we are to talk back to God, he is not saying we cannot question God. He is saying, though, that as creatures of the Almighty, we must not think we can approach Him as an "equal". We are never to suppose we can know as He knows. To imagine we have the right to have God answer to us is to commit the same sin Adam and Eve committed when they fell for the serpent's flattery that they could be as God, knowing good from evil. We may know good and evil, but our knowledge of evil is not as God's knowledge. We are intrinsically evil and condemned; God is not. We must be rescued from our evil; God is the only One qualified to be our rescuer. We can never suppose that God owes us answers or divine understanding. All He has promised us is Himself. He is enough.


Creature Subject To Creator

In verse 20 Paul states, "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?' "When we interpret creation through our own eyes and use ourselves instead of God as the definer of reality, we assume the position of God in our lives. If we have the last word about our own experience, we have filled God's position.

The irony is that God still has the last word, the final definition. Our ignorance does not make us innocent. If we sincerely believe, for example, that taking a lump of sugar instead of receiving a smallpox vaccination will protect us from a deadly disease, we will be wrong. Our sincerity may be real, but if we are exposed to smallpox, we will be dead. Our ignorant sincerity does not make us safe.

Likewise our assumption that we have a "right" to question God's sovereign wisdom is egocentric and misguided at best and deadly at worst. We are the clay, Isaiah said, and God is the Potter. We are the work of His hand (Isaiah 64:8). As the Potter who holds our clay in His hands, He can do with us what He wants (Jeremiah 18:6). "Woe to him who quarrels with his maker," Isaiah declared. We have no right to tell God that He has made a mistake or that He doesn't really know the truth about us. If He wants to use an enemy of His for His purposes, as in the case of Cyrus allowing Israel to rebuild Jerusalem, He can do that. We do not have to understand (Isaiah 45:9). We are not even to think we can hide our thoughts and plans from God. No matter how clever we are, we will never be able to deceive Him (Isaiah 29:15-16). Just as the saw cannot rise against the carpenter or the axe turn on the one using it, so we cannot confront God on an equal footing and expect Him to answer to us (Isaiah 10:15).

The notion often taught in Seventh-day Adventist circles since Desmond Ford showed, in 1980, the unbiblical basis for the investigative judgment is that the purpose of the supposed investigative judgment is to vindicate God. His dealings with humans are being displayed to the watching universe, and he will be proven just. Further, He will clarify to us, ultimately, His purposes behind his dealings with all people. He will answer all our questions. He "owes" us, in a sense, complete disclosure of His will and His purposes. He will "prove" that He is not arbitrary, and we will be satisfied with His disclosures.

This belief is as unbiblical as the original investigative judgment. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that we will ever know or understand all God's decisions and ways. 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 does promise, however, that when we are glorified, we will "see face to face. Now [we] know in part; then [we] shall know fully, even as [we] are fully known." While this text refers primarily to the Christian finally knowing the Lord Jesus fully and completely, as He knows us, it still does not suggest that God owes us or will give us comprehensive answers about His decisions. Our faith is to be based upon the person of Jesus and His promises to us, not upon our intellectual gymnastics that deceive us into imagining that God sees our immature needs and clamoring as His obligation.


Objects of God's wrath, Recipients of His patience

Those to whom Paul refers as "prepared for destruction" are the "wicked", as Solomon describes them (Proverbs 16:4). They are those who suppress the truth by their wickedness even though they have seen the truth about God from all that has been made (Romans 1:18-20). They are the unrepentant who persist in sexual immorality, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, stubbornness, self-seeking, and rejection of the truth (Romans 2:21-31). They are those who, even though they are subjected to God's discipline, refuse to repent (Revelation 16:9-11).

Even though the Bible clearly teaches that God knows in advance who is "prepared" for destruction and who is "prepared" for glory, we can know that, although we cannot see all of reality, God's judgments are not arbitrary. Romans 2:4-5 explains that we cannot show contempt for God's "kindness, tolerance, and patience" because these things are for the purpose of leading people to repentance. What looks like God's inattention to unchecked sin is really His mercy and patience with intractable people who are slow to respond to Him. Peter reminded his readers that God is really not slow to keep his promises even though it may seem so to us. His patience, again, is for the purpose of drawing people to repentance because he doesn't want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). Another verse which emphasizes God's patience with sinners is Revelation 2:20-21 where Jesus has a message for the church at Thyatira. He tells them that they have tolerated a "Jezebel", an wicked woman who has led people in the church into sexual immorality and honoring idols by eating food offered to them. "I have given her time to repent," Jesus says, "but she is unwilling."

Paul wrote to Timothy that we are to pray for the kings and leaders in authority over us that we might live peaceful, quiet lives in holiness. Praying for our leaders, he said, pleases God because He wants all men to come to repentance. Our prayers for our leaders, apparently, work to effect repentance in them as well as providing a secure environment in which others can see and hear the gospel from we who love the Lord Jesus. Our obedience to pray, even though we cannot understand how it works, is one of the offerings we give which God uses in His times of patience with the resistant.


The riches of His glory

The great paradox of our lives is that we who are by nature objects of wrath are chosen by God to inherit the riches of His glory. In fact, Paul says, He prepared us in advance for glory. It's hard to imagine what the riches of God's glory might look like, but the Bible gives us a hint. Adam and Eve were created in God's image. God made them to rule over His handiwork in all the earth. In fact, the psalmist tells us that God made man "a little lower than the heavenly beings." The Hebrew word translated "angels" or "heavenly beings" actually can be translated "God". God crowned humanity with honor and glory and gave him authority to rule over His handiwork (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8:5-6).

Adam and Eve lost the glory and honor God gave them when they sinned. Humanity lost its nobility and became intrinsically evil, condemned to death. Although they still bore traces of God's image, they misused their authority because they lost their connection to the Creator. This honor and authority and glory is what God is restoring to the objects of His mercy.

Ephesians 4:22-24 tells us that in Christ we have been made new in the attitudes of our minds. Paul exhorts God's people to put on their new selves created to be "like God in true righteousness and holiness." Colossians 3:9-10 says we've taken off our old selves with their evil practices and put on new selves. We are not to lie to each other, deceiving and manipulating, because our new selves are being renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator.

Hebrews summarizes this newness by explaining that Jesus is the representative human who has born the full weight and penalty of sin and has been "made perfect" through His suffering. Because of His obedience to the Father in all this, he has been glorified and has redeemed humanity's authority. All creation is now under Christ's feet; He is ruler over all. As the one perfect, sinless human being, authority over all God's handiwork has been given to him. Now, because He has taken care of the sin problem, He has the authority to make us holy as well when we choose to surrender to Him. We and He are now in the same family, and He calls us His brothers. In Christ our glory is restored to us, and we will inherit the kingdom of heaven as co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).

Verses 22-24 state that God has prepared people for both wrath and destruction. It also tells us that he has "born with great patience" those who are the objects of His wrath. Then Paul asks us to consider that God might have been patient with those doomed to destruction for the sake of revealing the "riches of his glory" to the objects of His mercy. Paul is suggesting in this paradoxical passage that God withheld his judgment and wrath from the wicked in order to bring them to Himself. He didn't deal with them-and He still doesn't deal with us-as we deserve, but waits and continues to call us to Himself. His desire is that all should be saved. His great patience is a manifestation of His mercy. His withholding of judgment does not mean that He will not judge. It just means that He is still trying to draw all people to Himself. His judgment is not arbitrary, and His patience is not weak.



You were born an object of God's wrath. If you have accepted Jesus as your Savior and have surrendered yourself to Him, however, you have passed from being doomed to destruction to possessing eternal life. Your acceptance of Jesus is an evidence of His patience and mercy. Without His awakening resurrection power at work in you, you would be unable to turn to Him and desire Him. Your inherently dead spirit would have no desire for God, filled as it is with self-centeredness.

But God has called you to Himself, and in His patience He has waited for you to decide how you will answer Him.

God is asking you to surrender to Him every part of your identity and every one of your "rights". He is asking you to risk giving up what most defines you, what makes you feel comfortable in your sphere, and to allow Jesus to become all you need. He is asking you if you will trust Him enough to surrender the things about you of which you are proud and which define you, and trust Him to fill those places of need and identity. Are you willing to trust Him enough to bring to you the work He has planned in advance for you to do? Are you willing to trust Him enough to be stuck in obscurity or to embrace something for which you never planned or dreamed if God brings it to you?

God has extended his great patience and mercy to you. He wants to give deep meaning and freedom to you by filling you with His resurrection power and life. He wants to take you from the never-quite-satisfying place your life has been and place you in "the valley of love and delight" as the old Shaker hymn says. This transference, however, will require you to surrender to Him all that you have valued and cherished in favor of embracing Jesus alone, whatever that may mean in your life.

Praise the Father for his great patience and mercy and for the gift of Jesus. Praise Jesus for taking your sin and for breaking the power and curse of death for you. Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing your dead spirit to life and for making you God's child, born from above.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Copyright (c) 2006 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 21, 2006.
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