Only a Remnant Foreknown

Lesson 41: Romans 11:1-6

Only a Remnant Foreknown

by Bob Burridge ©2012

Luther was grieved when he considered the condition of Christ’s church in his day. By the early 16th century the church had invented the office of Pope. Whoever held that office was declared to be infallible in his official pronouncements, and was venerated with the honor due to Jesus Christ alone.

The church had come to believe that saved souls spent time in a place they called purgatory. A person could buy certificates called indulgences promising to excuse them from their sins on the basis of good deeds done by the saints. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were believed to be transformed physically by the mass to become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

Critics were few, and those who spoke out were ridiculed or disciplined by a powerful church. Some were even accused of high crimes and executed painfully.

Bibles were rare and only available in languages that the scholars could read. The masses of people, some of whom dearly loved God and trusted in his provision, were deceived and led into superstitious, pagan, and fanciful beliefs by a corrupt church, one very much like corrupted Israel in the time of the New Testament.

The state of the church had deteriorated horribly. This pattern is seen repeatedly in the history of those who consider themselves to be God’s people. By the time of Noah, the world had mostly turned away from the heritage of Adam, Able, and Seth. By the time of Abraham, paganism had again gripped God’s world. In the time of Jesus and the Apostles, those who claimed to be God’s nation crucified the Savior and persecuted his people.

Sadly, we see the same pattern in our era at the beginning of the Third Millennium after Christ. Those who claim to be God’s people are dominated by a popular corruption of the truth. People see all the denominations, cults, and religions that call themselves “Christian”, and become confused.

In Paul’s words to the Romans in chapter 11 we learn that it’s all part of a plan that is working toward a glorious end. We will see this more clearly as we come to the end of the chapter.

The particular issue that moved Paul to write this chapter was the corruption of God’s chosen nation of Israel, their rejection of the promised Messiah, and the dawning of a new era, the age when God’s church would see the fullness of the gospel message.

To learn what we can do about this problem in our own era, we need to go back to Paul’s answer to the Romans. The ancient prophets had warned Israel about her neglect of God’s law. The moral law condemned them before God, but they limited it to just certain superficial things, and violated the spirit of the law. They had come to believe that they were able to be morally pure by their personal efforts and by the rituals performed by the Priests.

The sacrificial laws as God gave them pointed forward to the coming of the Christ as the suffering Savior, but the teachers of Israel turned the sacrifices into empty rituals, and imagined that the promised Messiah would be a Jewish champion who would give them earthly power over the Gentiles. Therefore, God was going to bring the punishments of his covenant upon them. The Jews would no longer be his special nation, and the Gentiles were to become to predominant population of his true church on earth.

The Messiah (the Hebrew word for Christ) was not what most of the Jews expected. When he came they were not able to recognize him, so they rejected Jesus, and had him Crucified.

This tragic rejection of the promised Redeemer was their final condemnation. When the gospel call came to the Jews, they persecuted the messengers. Having had the word of the ancient prophets, and the special warnings sent through the Apostles and by the Christ himself, they were without excuse for their disobedience.

Paul wanted to clear up an important point.

God had not rejected his true people. He started with a question (a favorite method of Paul).

Romans 11:1a, “I say then, has God cast away His people? …”

His answer was quick and emphatic:

Romans 11:1b, “… Certainly not! …”

The original words he wrote are, may genoito (μη γενοιτο), “let it not be”. It was the ancient Greek way of saying, “No way! Such a thing should not even be considered!” God had not rejected his people.

He gave two lines of argument to support this.

First he pointed out the obvious …

Romans 11:1c, “… For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.”

Paul himself was one of them. He was a Jew by physical heritage, a descendant of Abraham, particularly of the honored tribe of Benjamin. He was obviously not teaching that God was rejecting all Israelites. Not only Paul, but all the Apostles, and most of the early church were Jews.

Next, he reminded them about God’s own promise in Scripture.

Romans 11:2a, “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. …”

This had been a common promise in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalm 94:14 said, “For the LORD will not cast off His people, Nor will He forsake His inheritance.”

The confidence they had was in God foreknowing them. This was an expression that had to do with the Covenant the Lord made. To “foreknow” in Scripture is not just knowing things before hand. The Greek word used in the original passage written by Paul is a form of the verb proginosko (προγινωσκω). Literally it simply means “to know beforehand”. But what kind of knowing is this?

Some have suggested that it means, that God formed his plans by looking ahead to see what we might decide. That cannot be the meaning of the word as it is used here regarding the basis of God’s promise to his people. First, that interpretation does not fit with the way it is used in the sentence. It does not say “because of what God foreknew, but “whom foreknew.”

The God of Scripture is not presented as a changeable deity who looks into the future to see what individuals would do if he didn’t do anything, then decide to decree to do what they would have done anyway.

We need to see how the expression “to know” is actually used in the Bible, before we can know what it means to “know beforehand.”

“Knowing” can have several meanings in any language. One kind of knowing is the factual kind. You might know things like what you did yesterday, what is the square root of 9, what is the capitol of New York State, or the names of the U.S. Presidents. Another kind of knowing is more personal. This is where we “know” someone because we have met them personally and gotten to be friends. There is still another kind of “knowing” that is much more intimate. This is when we uniquely know someone in a very special way. It is when we come to love them like a family member. I may have known a teacher I had in school, but I did not know him in the same way that I know my own children.

An example might help illustrate this distinction. When I went to seminary I read the works of the great theologian Cornelius VanTil. I knew of him factually because I knew things about him and had read some of his books. When a friend of mine was visiting me in Philadelphia we got the idea of calling Dr. VanTil on the phone. To our surprise he invited us over for the first of what came to be several visits at his home. In time we got to know him more personally. VanTil knew many students and friends that way. While we were there we were served lemonade and snacks by the professor’s wife. We got to know him as a friend, but Dr. VanTil knew his wife much more intimately.

The Bible uses the word “to know” in each of these ways. We determine which meaning the word has in each use by the context.

God factually knows everyone and everything. So his foreknowing in Romans 11:2 could not mean just a factual knowing. Factually, God knows everything and everybody eternally, his eternal enemies too. It would have no special meaning for his own people compared with others as it says here. We also know that the facts about us cannot be the reason he made us his people, because Paul reminds us in verse six that it is not by works, but by grace that we were chosen to be his own in that special way.

Therefore, in this context, it must mean that God knows some specially in a way that he does not know others. He knows Israel and his church personally by the outward and formal covenant he made with them as a nation. However, within Israel and the church he knows his elect children intimately. He sent the Savior to redeem them and to make them heirs of the riches of his glory forever.

Jesus used this word in this very special sense too. He said to the superficial believers in Matthew 7:23, “… then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ ”

Jesus was quoting the ancient prophet Amos who was telling Israel what God was saying to them. Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The word translated “known” is actually the Hebrew word yada’ (ידע), the common word for “to know”. Amos was saying that God “knew” his people specially. That was why he treated them differently. As his own children, he was not going to let them continue in their destructive sins. By his covenant promise he was going to discipline them in love. God knows his own people with a personal and intimate kind of knowing.

Jesus was saying that of those who come to him and claim to be his on the last judgment day there will be some he does not know. He could not mean that he was ignorant that they existed, or unaware of what they had done. It could only mean that these were among those he did not know intimately as his own. They were not among those “foreknown” by God as stated here in Romans 11.

For God to foreknow his people, is to know them beforehand with that special kind of knowing. He entered into a special covenant relationship with them from before the foundation of the earth. This is the meaning of Ephesians 1:4-5, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”

Paul had used the same expression back in chapter 8:29-30, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”

Again, his predestining, calling, justifying and glorifying of them was not based upon what he foreknew about them, but upon whom he foreknew. It was those whom he would justify in Christ and one day glorify. He had known them specially before hand, from all eternity.

To teach us about his election of some to save them from among all those of the fallen race, God chose Israel as a nation. He made a covenant with her, and called her to be a testimony to the world. Though they had a special place in God’s plan, not all of them were redeemed. The same would be true of his Church in this post-apostolic age. Many belong to the church, but not all are truly transformed by the atonement of the Savior.

When the time came to judge Israel as a nation, it was not a failure of God’s plan. It was the execution of his already revealed plan. The warnings of the Covenant were about to fall upon those who showed themselves not to be among the redeemed. Their rebellion clearly demonstrated man’s depravity. God showed his grace by adopting some of the undeserving ones to be his own special children.

He also showed his love by not letting his loved children linger in sin. That was the point Amos was making. A Father does not punish the children down the street, they are not his to punish. He loves his own so much that he will not let them develop habits that are harmful and wrong. This is why God often brings hard times upon his people. It is because of his deep concern for them. He reminds them of how they need to depend upon his care, and that his care never fails. He reminds them of the awesome love that sent the Savior to suffer and to die in their place.

Then Paul reminded them of the example of Elijah.

Romans 11:2b-4, “… Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, ‘LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life’? But what does the divine response say to him? ‘I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ “

Paul’s example came from 1 Kings 19. Most all the nation of Israel had gone off after the worship of Baal. Even the king bowed to this pagan idol. At the call of God, Elijah stood against the masses and the powers that ruled the nation. As God’s spokesman, he challenged and defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Then he pronounced the end of a long God-imposed drought over the land. However, when the wicked queen Jezebel issued a threat against Elijah’s life, he became depressed, went off alone, and prepared to die. He thought he had been left as the only faithful one remaining.

Paul refers to what Elijah said in 1 Kings 19:10. He said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”

Elijah had become so focused upon himself, that he missed how he fit into a much larger picture. He needed to be reminded of God’s electing grace. It is God who preserves his people. It is not they who preserve God or their place in God’s heart. The Lord announced that more judgments were coming, but through it all 7,000 will be preserved who would not have bowed to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).

God had chosen a remnant for himself from among all the unfaithful. Paul makes it emphatic in Romans 11:4 where God says, “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men.” It was not the faithful 7,000 who kept themselves true. It was God who by his covenant promises preserved them as his dear children. The remnant who remained true in the face of a prospering but compromising majority had been firmly held by the loving hands of their Heavenly Father.

The remnant principle is important for
believers to understand in every age.

Romans 11:5-6, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.”

The remnant principle applies all through redemptive history. Though the majority of those who seemed to be God’s church were deceived, God preserved some by grace alone to show his special redeeming love. It was true in every era. We think of the times of Noah, Moses, the Judges, the Kings of Israel, the prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, the times of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and it’s true today.

God brings judgments, sometimes upon the masses, but he is not pleased to let his own perish. He will keep them specially by grace. That is what Peter wrote of in his 2nd Epistle. 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Peter had used several examples leading up to this statement. The angles who had rebelled perished in judgment. Though the world was destroyed, Noah and his family were preserved by grace. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, but Lot and his family were saved by grace.

Peter set the theme in the first chapter of this letter. In 2 Peter 1:10 he wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble.”

Those specially called and known of God will be kept by him and will not stumble. Therefore strive to show evidences in your life that you are among those who are redeemed.

Paul concludes with the reason for it all, grace. The remnant is kept by that one thing alone. It is God’s choice alone. It is not based upon the works of individuals, or those of a church.

Do you sometimes wonder why there are so few today who look to the Bible as God’s holy and infallible word? Why is it only a minority that sees his word as our only rule in matters of faith and life? Why are so many unwilling for God to be truly and completely Sovereign as he presents himself in Scripture? Why do only some see man’s great hope not in his esteem of himself, but in his esteem of his Savior’s love. Why are they not willing to forsake the ways of the world though God condemns such things? Why do they not come to worship honoring God rather than to be entertained, pampered, or humored?

If our works of the past, present, or future are in any way the cause of our blessing, then grace is no more grace as verse 6 tells us. When grace is abandoned, all these principles of Scripture come tumbling down.

God has preserved a remnant according to the election of grace.

Don’t let the numbers, or the media, or the appealing programs of a vacant religion discourage you or make you lose heart. As Israel was not all lost by its corruption in the days of Paul, the church is not all lost by its corruption today.

There is always a remnant kept by the eternal and intimate love of God. They are not identified by what the world counts as success, or by what the masses approve. They are known by their faithfulness to what God himself declares as centrally important.

Attitude controlling drugs may make you feel good for the moment, but they kill you slowly and only cover up what is really important in your life. The vain and popular forms of religion, even of so called Christianity, do the same thing for our souls. They numb their victims to the really important things, while they jubilantly dance their way toward destruction, the destruction of society and ultimately of their own souls.

But God is faithful. We ought not fear that God has lost control, or that his plan is off track. Though we may feel alone at times, as did Noah, Elijah, and many others, we must persevere in our trust in the promises and principles of God’s word. We must persevere in the duties and work he calls us to do. We must rest in grace alone, not in substitutes. That alone is what saves us now and prepares us for eternal glory.

Our hope is in the fact that God has foreknown his people eternally. Therefore they are eternally his in an intimate and special love that cannot fail.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

Back to the Index of Studies In Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Is God Fair?

Lesson 36: Romans 9:19-24

Is God Fair?

by Bob Burridge ©2011

We grow up with strong ideas about fairness. From the time we learn to play with other children in our back yard, to the time we become adults, we are taught that there is a set of rules that should apply equally to everybody.

We also learn that not everybody is really equal. Some are more gifted physically. They become great athletes, or tireless skilled laborers. Some are more gifted intellectually and become inventors, or expert professionals. Some have deep compassion and become our encouragers. Some work hard and earn what they have and more to be able to help those truly in need. Others are lazy and become an unnecessary burden to others. Some break the law and forfeit certain rights so that the state can protect others in society. Some are the victims of prejudice, or become victims of life changing tragedies. People have different abilities, experiences, opportunities, and interests.

These realities show that God neither makes us the same to start with, nor wants us to all be the same in every way. It would be a sad, boring and unproductive society if people tried to be identical, and did not believe they needed others with different skills and abilities to survive.

There is a philosophy called egalitarianism that sees all inequality as evil. It is plainly anti-biblical. Egalitarians favor laws that force its own view of equality upon everyone. To make it work out in practice it means passing laws respecting only certain groups of people to remove their advantages. It is a self-contradiction. It results in unequal laws to force upon some what certain individuals in another group perceive as equality. God has obviously not purposed that everyone can be or should be equal in everything.

But there is a right idea of equality that is part of God’s creation. God imposes basic moral principles and civil liberties upon everybody. The 10 commandments show us that we all should respect the property, spouses and lives of others. We should all respect truth, rightful authority, and not covet what God gives to others. Everyone is called upon to worship the one true God in the ways he commands. No one has the right to bypass these standards, or to limit them to just some people.

The idea of human fairness is possible because there are universal principles which apply to us all. God is the one who has given these principles, and obligates us all to respect them.

However, we make a serious mistake if we imagine that God also has laws above him. That is why it is wrong to ask if “God is fair?” However, since that question often comes up naturally in our fallen minds, it is important to answer it biblically. It was a question that was bound to be in people’s minds as Paul wrote to the Romans.

God was about to judge Israel for her corrupted worship and sins. In Romans 9:6 Paul explained that God was not being unfaithful to Israel in judging her. The promise of God had not failed. It explained, “they are not all Israel who are descended of Israel.”

Israel had failed to understand that God’s covenant with Abraham and his seed was never made as a promise to all his descendants. On the physical side, only Isaac, then only his son Jacob were chosen. On the spiritual side, only the children of the promise are actually redeemed. God said he loved Jacob and hated Esau. That was not based upon anything they had done or would do (Romans 9:11). It was God’s sovereign choice alone that set his love upon the undeserving.

In 9:14 Paul showed that God is not unjust in just choosing some and not others. It said, “Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!”

Paul used Scripture to show that on the one hand God does not choose everyone. Clearly the Bible had said that God loved Jacob, but hated Esau. On the other hand, the Bible says that God is not unjust in choosing only some. God shows mercy upon whom he will, and he hardens whom he will. Though we may not see how all this fits together, we must accept what God’s word says.

Now we come to Romans 9:19-24.

Paul anticipates the next question that
naturally comes to the fallen heart

Romans 9:19, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’ “

The temptation is to ask, “How can God find fault, and condemn the sinner, if no one can resist his will?” Is God fair to condemn those who are not able to come to him? Was God fair to reject Israel for her unbelief when it is God alone who implants faith?

This question was anticipated as a possible objection to Paul’s teachings. Two facts had already been proven directly from Scripture, and are assumed by this question.
1. God is totally Sovereign over all that comes to pass.
2. God holds the sinner and unbeliever responsible for his sin and unbelief. He finds fault with them.

If either of these was not true, then Paul’s easiest answer to this question would be to say so. But Paul does not answer by saying, “God is not so absolutely Sovereign.” Nor does he say that, “Man is not really held at fault for his moral actions.” And he doesn’t answer by saying, “Sure we can resist the will of God.” He did not answer like that because those answers are simply not true.

The Apostle chose rather to tell the hard truth. God is sovereign, yet he holds individuals responsible for sin. Nothing could be more plain from God’s word than these facts.

The God of Scripture is Lord over all things. For example it says in Psalm 135:6 , “Whatever the LORD pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.” And in Ephesians 1:11 the Bible says, “In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will”

Since he is sovereign, no one can resist what God wills. A few sample verses make this point absolutely clear.

Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, Like the rivers of water; He turns it wherever He wishes.”

Jeremiah 10:23, “O LORD, I know the way of man is not in himself; It is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.”

Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

God’s word also directly states that he finds fault with the sinner for his sins.

Romans 2:5, “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,”

Numbers 32:23, “But if you do not do so, then take note, you have sinned against the LORD; and be sure your sin will find you out.”

These points have already been proven from the Bible. So Paul moves on to the real issue.

Paul’s basic answer is given in one direct statement.

Romans 9:20a, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? … “

What right does man have to call into question what God has clearly said is so? Does the mere creature call the Creator into judgment? Does he really think he knows so much that he can say what God cannot be?

Such a question is inexcusably arrogant coming from a mere creature who took thousands of years to figure out that the earth rotates around the sun, who was so proud in his pronouncement that the atom was the smallest thing possible, but he was wrong.

I once owned an encyclopedia that said a human could not survive travelling at speeds over 60 miles per hour for very long. No one can speak all the languages that exist on earth even in just this one brief moment of history. No one can explain completely how planets bend space to produce gravitational fields. No one can describe the exact nature of light, the first thing God created. In mathematical physics no one can solve the most fundamental questions about the universe and the things of which it is made.

No one can even know what the next moment will bring. And no one can account for how all things got to be the way they are. Expert meteorologists are unable to consistently predict tomorrow’s weather accurately. Yet some dare to say that God cannot be both sovereign, yet still be fair in finding fault.

Even a human’s ability to question what might be, is a God given ability. Yet fallen man abuses his God-given faculties in such ways that only condemn him more.

The facts are plain. Sinners are under God’s control and serve his purpose, but they are not released from blame.

How can we reconcile God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s moral responsibility? Our finite and sin-corrupted minds should not expect to comprehend the infinite and complex ways of God. God’s will is not like anything we have experienced or seen.

Unlike our preferences and choices, God does not think in steps. He does not reason from one idea to derive the next. He does not have to gather facts, analyze them, and draw conclusions to decided a course of action. God is eternally unchangeable as he is described in Scripture. He eternally knows all things, and all the means that produce them. He knows the causes of everything. All the causes and circumstances are planned by him. That is too hard for us creatures to even begin to consider. The fallen heart cannot begin to see this aside from the Holy Spirit by grace giving the ability to submit to such a concept.

I remember a tragic account of a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard. It cost the lives of three people. When I read the report no one knew for sure the cause of that incident. Some experienced pilots were speculating about how disorienting it is to fly with limited visibility. We hear a lot about the merits of flying by instruments over flying by sight. Visual flying is fine under clear conditions and in ordinary circumstances. But when visibility is low, or conditions are difficult, a pilot may easily become confused. Have you ever been parked at a light and when you glance at a car moving forward slowly next to you, you get the sensation that your car is rolling backwards so you push on the brake? Similarly in an air plane your body is not a good indicator of the attitude of the plane. A pilot may have the sensation he is flying level and headed safely toward the horizon when in reality he is flying directly into the water or his plane is at a dangerous angle making him likely to stall. These are conditions about which pilots need to be trained so that they ignore their feelings, and trust what the instruments are telling them.

Similarly we fallen creatures have hearts and minds that can fool us, and confuse reality. We may think something is quite reasonable and logical, when it is not. We may presume things as fact which are really only perceptions and assumptions.

We need to have something more accurate than our own feelings and limited understanding. We have such a guide in God’s word as preserved for us in the Bible. Living by the revealed word is similar to trusting the instruments of a plane. When God says he is Sovereign and yet holds men accountable, we must trust that it is true, just, and fair. We need to resist how we feel about it as mere fallen humans who are easily deceived.

Luther corrected his rival Erasmus telling him he had created: “… a god of your own fancy, who hardens nobody, condemns nobody, pities everyone. You cannot comprehend how a just God can condemn those who are born in sin … the answer is, God is incomprehensible throughout, and therefore his justice, as well as his other attributes, must be incomprehensible.” (Haldane 482)

Then Paul used a biblical example which
all the Jews would already know from Scripture.

Romans 9:20b-21, “… Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?”

The example of the potter and the clay was used several times by the Old Testament prophets. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah use it to illustrate God’s Sovereign Lordship. Isaiah 64:8 speaks to Jehovah as “our Father”, and as “our potter.” It says to him, “all we are the work of Your hand.”

Jeremiah was sent by Jehovah to the house of a potter for a lesson: Jeremiah 18:3-6 says, “Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make. Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?’ says the LORD. ‘Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!’ ”

The thing made has no right to complain, as if his Creator had made an error.

Isaiah 45:9 , “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’?”

Isaiah 29:16, “Surely you have things turned around! Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay; For shall the thing made say of him who made it, ‘He did not make me’? Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?”

The rebellious heart questions even God’s right to be God.

Paul here, just like the prophets of ancient Israel, rebukes the attitude that prompted the question. Only a foolishly ignorant and irreverent heart would dare such a complaint.

Our limited minds cannot understand the infinite mind of God. It is hard not to think that God reasons and works one step at a time as we do. But it is not the way his mind works. Every thought and idea of God is eternally there. He never sees sin appear, then decides what to do with it. He does not wait to decide to allow sin until after he considers the consequences of not doing so. Our little human theories fall far short of understanding a mind that is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

The clear teaching of these Scripture references shows that the Maker has full authority over the things he formed to do with them whatever he wills. He made each part of his creation to be as it is to serve his eternal purpose.

We are reminded that we are not formed from different things. All are made from the same lump. We do not emerge in this life from a neutral glob of humanity. We are all created by the One True God, and all are fallen in Adam who represented the whole human race in Eden.

Romans 3:22-23, “… For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

Mankind as a whole race is fallen in Adam. Both those God saves, and those he leaves guilty, are from that same clay. From fallen mankind God sovereignly molds one to honor, and another to dishonor. Therefore, God would be fully just and fair if he threw out all the clay and left all mankind condemned.

The fact that God says so is enough, but Paul goes on to tell us more. He shows us something of why God has formed both kinds of people. In Romans 9:22-23 he writes, “What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory,”

Paul applied the Potter Principle to God to show the ultimate right of the Potter. The potter’s purpose is what ultimately counts in what he makes. In spite of what the world around us reasons in rejecting this principle, humanity’s highest good is not each person’s own happiness, prosperity, and ease. The thing formed is to fulfill the plan of the one who formed it. This is, from the time he is made, his highest good. It is not required that man understands how everything fits together. He cannot. But it is required of him to accept God’s word, and to promote his Creator’s glory.

God made two groups of humans so that his nature will be more fully known. God leaves some sinners in their deserved guilt. By them God says he makes known his wrath, and his amazing power.

He does not just destroy evil right away. He endures it patiently to supply a continuing lesson in them. He endures them all the way to old age to expose man’s depravity. No greater testimony could be given to the truth of the Bible than to look around at what flows from the heart of our neighbors and our nation’s children. Do you doubt depravity? Then read the daily news, talk about hell with your neighbor, let an unbeliever know that without Christ he is without hope. Until the Holy Spirit redeems someone, they will quickly show their dislike for what our Creator reveals as the truth. By his infinite and all wise power God endures such arrogance for his ultimate glory. How dangerous for anyone to take comfort in God’s longsuffering! How short-sighted of them.

God also makes himself known by those who become the objects of his mercy. In them he shows the riches of his glory, undeserved blessing through a suffering Savior.

Without both vessels of wrath and mercy, these truths about God would remain a secret. Dr. Haldane writes: “the awful ruin of the wicked is necessary for the full display of the riches of Divine mercy in saving the elect.”

The guilty have no right to complain that they are appointed to wrath. Judgment for sin is what all humans deserve. Only by grace is justice met by the Messiah for some. But no one is condemned aside from true personal guilt, for which the sinner is held fully responsible.

So then, how does God condemn those he does not call by grace? Paul does not get into that here. He just states the fact that it is so, and proves it from Scripture. Later, in Chapter 11 we will see more of the ways of God explained. For now, Paul has shown that it is not the will of a person, or his works, that makes him a Christian. It is God’s mercy alone, his undeserved blessing, that makes redeemed children out of lost sinners. God, the Maker, is at perfect liberty to do as he pleases with his fallen creatures.

Of course this is not a popular concept. Fallen man hates to hear about grace unless it is a message of the hope of salvation for everybody. The idea that God is just and holy offends the sinner because it condemns him. Jesus faced the same response when he spoke of election in John 6:65-66, “And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.”

It is not as if men want to come to Christ but cannot simply because they are not on some divine list. Unless they are redeemed by grace, they will not want to come to the true Christ of Scripture. It is that conviction and concern in knowing that this is true which shows a heart touched by mercy.

The whole issue is brought back
to the original question

Romans 9:24, “even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?”

God’s plan had not failed to redeem all of the physical nation of Israel. That was never his plan. Israel had been called from among the other nations to represent God’s mercy outwardly. From within Israel God called some to be his true children of promise. These were the vessels of mercy chosen to display the glories of Christ.

When Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, the time had come when not only some from Israel, but some from all nations would display that they had been chosen as vessels of mercy. Since all humans are fallen in Adam and deserve God’s eternal wrath, there would be no injustice or unfairness if God left all to be condemned forever. Though we cannot fully understand how this all fits together, we must never dare to question what God has made clear in his word.

Man is not an accidental animal. He is an “on purpose” creation. He is made to display the glories of his Creator — which he does, like it or not. Either he honors God by showing evidences of mercy and grace, or his arrogance honors God as he boldly reveals the truth of his fallen nature and he takes his place as an eternal lesson showing God’s just wrath. Complaining and finding fault against his Creator is an unnatural business for the creature. But fallen man prefers to busy himself with finding fault in God, rather than admitting his own moral depravity, which is so much easier to prove.

Have you remembered to thank God for his undeserved redemption every day? Let this be a strong reminder that it should be our life and breath to live in that gratitude. While we all deserve the eternal terrors our sin justly brings with it, Paul reminded the believers in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-11 that contrary to what we deserve, “… God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.”

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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Is God Unjust?

Lesson 35: Romans 9:14-18

Is God Unjust?

by Bob Burridge ©2011

In the Book of Romans the Apostle Paul explains some hard, but important truths. For 2,000 years before Christ, God had specially blessed the Jews. He had given them many advantages, and charged them with safely keeping his word.

Sadly, for the most part, what God gave them was abused, and his word was confused. Jesus had warned that the glory of the Jewish people was about to be ended in judgment. Their temple would be destroyed, and their corrupted worship stopped. Paul too had taught that the coming of Messiah marked the end of their unique privilege. As a Jew himself, the Apostle Paul deeply grieved for their unbelief.

Did this mean that God was not keeping his promise to ancient Israel? Certainly that cannot be possible. God had never promised to save all of the physical descendents of Jacob. God gave his covenant promises to Adam, and later to Noah. But he never intended all humans descended from them to be his redeemed people. From the descendants of Adam and Noah, he chose the family of Abraham and his descendants to represent God’s blessings. From the children of Abraham God only chose Isaac to continue the advantaged line. And of Isaac’s twins, God loved Jacob but hated Esau as we saw in the previous part of this chapter of Romans.

Not all of the Jews by natural birth are the spiritual children of God’s promise. Of all those outwardly associated with the Covenant People, only a remnant of them are redeemed by the Savior. In that sense, within the Visible Church there is God’s Invisible Church, those chosen by God’s grace, those upon whom God set his love.

This is not an easy truth for the fallen mind. The spiritually dead heart does not want to admit its own guilt and its inability to change its own basic nature. He wants to be free to do what he wants to do. He wonders that if God chooses only some to be redeemed and to become his true children, is there injustice in God? Is he unfair?

In Romans 9:14-18 Paul deals with the justice of God in choosing some only. In 9:19-24 he handles more directly the fairness issue which we will take up in our next study.

Is God unjust?

Romans 9:14, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!”

Justice is one of God’s eternal attributes. It is part of what he is. When he created all things, he built justice into the universe as a moral principle. When he made mankind in his image, God put it into the heart of humans to love justice. The fallen heart corrupts that idea as it does all the qualities that are in God.

Justice describes what happens to lawbreakers. First is assumes that there is a rule, a law, that ought to be obeyed. It assumes that there is a penalty attached to breaking that rule. Whenever the rule is broken, justice demands that the penalty will be paid. Fairness means that the rule, and its penalty, are applied consistently.

Is God unjust or unfair when he rejects Israel as a whole, yet saves some? Is it unjust that he loves Jacob, but hates Esau (Romans 9:13, Malachi 1:2-3)?

Paul dismisses the objection immediately. He says, “Certainly not!” He uses strong words to deny to the very idea that God could be unjust. The Greek phrase here is mae genoito (μη γενοιτο), which literally means, “Let it not be!” It’s like when we say, “Don’t even think such a thing!” One of my Greek teachers used to bring this over into our day by using the American idiom, “Perish the thought.”

Since Romans is an inspired book of Scripture, if no more was said this would be enough. The Bible says here that God is not unjust. Paul had just shown from Old Testament Scripture that God loves some and hates others, that not all descendents of Jacob are the true Israel of God’s promise. Yet God is just. It says so here. That is all we really need.

God in his desire to show us more about this wonder, does not stop there. He explains beyond just telling us the fact. There is a great comfort here for God’s people when they understand this truth. There is a promise here that helps us through hard times and those moments of doubt.

The First Point of Doctrine in the Canons of Dordt, Article 14 on Election and Reprobation, states, “Just as, by God’s wise plan, this teaching concerning divine election has been proclaimed through the prophets, Christ himself, and the apostles, in Old and New Testament times, and has subsequently been committed to writing in the Holy Scriptures, so also today in God’s church, for which it was specifically intended, this teaching must be set forth–with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people.” (translated from the original Latin manuscript, adopted in 1986 by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church)

To explain his answer more completely,
Paul again turns to Scripture.

Romans 9:15, “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ “

If God has stated this in his word, it is therefore true and must be accepted. The New Testament regularly cites Old Testament authority to prove its case. The Bible does not engage in abstract philosophical arguments to give authority to its teachings. Neither should we.

God spoke to Moses telling him about his divine prerogative in Exodus 33:19, “Then He said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ ”

This is the verse Paul quotes here in Romans to support the point he is making. Mercy and compassion are shown toward those to whom God desires to show it. It is hard to imagine anything being more clear. God does not treat all humans in the same way. This is directly stated by God himself.

Also, God is just. The idea of justice itself comes from what God is. While he selects those to whom he will be merciful and show compassion, he never neglects the demands of justice in so doing. As Paul had also written about God, “He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13).

So then, if all humans deserve eternal damnation and separation from God, how can any be shown compassion and be mercifully delivered without violating justice?

Today we know more than Moses knew about how God justly displays his compassion. Jesus was God in human flesh. He came as the promised Messiah. Only he, as the infinite and perfect God, and as perfect man, could represent those chosen by God, to live and die in their place to satisfy justice for all those to whom God intended to show his compassion.

There can be no principles that limit God other than that which flows from his own nature. Nothing more absolute or eternal than him can possibly exist. Any concept of justice or fairness must come from God himself, not from things external to him. There can be no law that binds the hand of God. A principle that binds must be sovereign over its subjects. If something compels, it is in itself Lord over that which is under it. The highest principle above which is nothing else, is Lord of lords. The Bible tells us that this is the Creator who has revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God incarnate in the person of Jesus. Since God defines justice and fairness, the thought of him being unjust or unfair not only denies that God is God, it makes nonsense out of the idea of the words themselves.

God has compassion upon whom he will. Whatever he desires is by definition right and just. God’s word has established that it is so. There is no need to explain further. The facts of Exodus 33:19 stands by themselves. No more needs to be said. Our inability to reconcile statements, or to comprehend them, is not a valid objection to their being true. The final test is to determine what God’s word says. That is the final word.

What then determines who the
object of mercy will be?

Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

This is a partial conclusion in Paul’s argument. Since it is God alone who decides who will receive his mercy, then it cannot depend upon man. Man cannot be the cause of the mercy he receives if its cause is in God.

First: This mercy cannot be caused by man’s will. It is not by a human’s decision, choice, determination, or receiving that he is saved. It is caused by God alone who has mercy upon whom he will.

Then also he shows that mercy is not caused by man’s efforts. Running is a favorite metaphor Paul uses in several other letters (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Galatians 2:2, 5:7, Philippians 2:16). It stands for the busy work of man in what he sets his mind to want and to do. But all his efforts cannot be the cause of mercy. It is God alone who makes that determination.

Dr. Haldane suggests that Paul might be thinking back to Jacob, the Father of Israel. He desired the blessing that appeared to belong to Esau. He willed it. He wanted it. He ran off to get the venison, disguise himself and deceive his father. Yet in all this, his desires and actions were not the cause of his being chosen. God had chosen that rascal Jacob before he was even born. Before he had done good or evil. If anyone was undeserving of blessing it was that deceiver Jacob. How clear an example God gives us showing that mercy comes by God’s grace, not by man’s choice or effort (Romans 9:11-13).

The Apostle John tells us why some believe and receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. In John 1:12-13 he says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Of course it is also true that those God truly redeems will both will and run. They exercise faith. They receive Jesus as Lord. They do run to him. However, the point is that these are the effects, not the causes, of God’s mercy. He puts that love and faith into their otherwise dead and foolish hearts. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

There is always a divine purpose for some
being left in their evil dispositions.

Romans 9:17, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very 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.’ “

Paul again uses the Bible. He quotes the example of how God used Pharaoh. Instead of complex philosophical ideas being introduced, Paul looks to what God has said. Man is often tempted to try to explain the existence of evil beyond what God reveals. Some imagine that God is bound by some abstract idea of human freedom. Others imagine that God lays aside some of his sovereign ability to do his own will. But none of these theories come from God’s word. They are the products of the fallen human mind that creatively wants to be in control.

John Calvin wisely cautions us “… never to feel the least desire to attain any other knowledge concerning this doctrine save what is taught us in Scripture. When the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, let us also stop our thoughts from advancing one step further in our inquiries.”

Unwarranted speculation is dangerous, and it is blasphemous to the revealed nature of God. We are not required to comprehend how a thing is done, or how it all fits together. Our duty, which is not possible in yet fallen hearts, is to accept what God plainly says.

How did this part of Israel’s history come to happen as it did? This man who became the Pharaoh was born into the royal family of Egypt. He was raised to develop the dispositions he displayed toward God and the Israelites. It was this man who came to rule Egypt at just that right time. Only one answer is possible. Israel’s history, even her Egyptian captivity, was the decreed providence of God. All that Pharaoh was, made him the perfect tool for displaying God’s mercy toward Israel. It was God who raised him up to be the person disposed to act exactly as he did. It was not Pharaoh who determined that the Exodus would take place as history records. It was the eternal and unchangeable sovereign good pleasure of God.

God tells us that there was a divine purpose in it all. When six of the plagues had been sent upon Egypt, and four more were yet to come, God gave these words to Moses to say to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16, “But indeed 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.”

God could have removed Pharaoh long before the first plague was sent. But God later explained in Exodus 33:19 to Moses, that Pharaoh’s stubborn and evil heart became the means by which God would show his power in delivering his people who could not deliver themselves. God would declare the glory of his divine nature, his holy name. This would be a testimony to all the earth, not just to the Jews but to us gentiles thousands of years later. Children even today learn of God’s power by hearing the story of the plagues, the passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and God’s deliverance.

The verse Paul had quoted just a moment ago from Exodus 33:19 said the same thing. It was all done to display the glory of God’s name, that he has mercy upon whom he will. This is the revealed fact Paul appeals to. This is what God himself explained.

Next, Paul adds the negative side.

Romans 9:18, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”

Here Paul concludes his reasoning from Scripture explaining God’s rejection of Israel. He repeats for a third time, God’s prerogative to show mercy on whom he will, but to this he adds the negative side. He eliminates any possible misunderstanding. If God has mercy upon whom he will, then there are those upon whom he does not show mercy. Those become hardened by the absence of God’s restraint upon their hearts. Being left to hardness, they are used to demonstrate God’s power and holy name. This has been proven already in the verses Paul has quoted.

By hardening, Paul does not mean that God made an innocent Pharaoh become wicked. He left him to the disposition of his own fallen soul. Pharaoh received nothing that was not justly deserved.

Dr. Charles Hodge explained about God’s work in the heart of this Egyptian leader, “He did not make him wicked; he only forebore to make him good…”

God is not obligated to bestow his mercy upon anyone. God’s nature demands that he must always be just. This is why a Savior was necessary to redeem us who are all unworthy in Adam. God’s nature involves a mercy that is a prerogative of his good pleasure. His redeeming grace does not apply to all fallen humans. We do not know this by implication or by the constructions of Theology. The Bible directly tells us.

Oh how this infinite nature of the Creator is so far above us! It is beyond our comprehension. In Psalm 139:6 we read, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.”

Of course we could look into many more cases in Scripture about how wicked hearts are hardened. We could study more into the details of Pharaoh’s heart and of the sovereign workings of God. We could examine how God hardens the hearts of those who are left in sin. Paul does not go into all that here. That would detract from the simplicity of his argument. He has quoted Scripture, and by this his point has been made. It is clearly true because God in his inspired word says so.

God’s dealings with Israel are not unjust. He would be a “Just God” if he had left us all in the condemnation of sin which we deserve. He may exercise his prerogative and show mercy and compassion upon whom he will.

How tragically foolish when men blame God when they sin. They reason as if it is the Lord’s fault for not stopping them. They assume that if God had a good purpose in their rebellion, then they cannot be held responsible. However, here God tells us that he held Israel responsible for her rebellion and blasphemy.

Paul’s reasoning is beyond objection. He uses God’s inspired word. God is not unjust in hardening Pharaoh, or the hearts of the apostate nation of Israel, or of the apostate modern Christian church. God is not unjust in saving some who deserve eternal damnation, because Jesus settled the debt of justice in the place of them according to that eternal plan. He has mercy upon whom he will, and whom he will he hardens. All are used in his plan to declare his power and glory.

Have you been touched by the mercy of God? Has he made you aware of the offense of your sin before his holy eyes? Has he made you see the wonder of the Cross of Christ? Has he made you hungry for righteousness. Do you desire to obey his moral principles in every way you can? Has he humbled you to repentance when you fail? The Eternal God did not have to do that. It was his divine prerogative to show mercy. You deserve as did Pharaoh, Esau, and all those not redeemed in Christ, to be justly left with your deserved guilt, and to be hardened in your heart against God.

What marvelous grace rescues us, and will not let us go! What comfort and hope is ours, who in Christ learn to rest in God’s compassion rather than in our own devices. Take time to thank God for his undeserved grace.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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God’s Sovereign Good Pleasure

God’s Sovereign Good Pleasure

by Bob Burridge ©2011

Psalm 135:6, “Whatsoever the LORD pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places.”

This verse uses the word “Jehovah’ where translations have “LORD”. It’s the four-letter Hebrew word “yhvh” (יהוה), the covenant name of God.

This verse doesn’t only begin by assuming the fact that there is a God, it tells us that he is really in charge, and is able to do anything he pleases — and he does. He is infinite in his power and ability.

We are used to not getting our way all the time. We have the power to do some things we want. However, we don’t have the ability to always control things so that we always get what we intend or prefer, and we don’t always want what’s good.

We say a child is spoiled if he is trained to always expect to get what he wants. He becomes self-centered and inconsiderate of the needs of others. It is tragic when a child is so indulged that we create a selfish adult.

In contrast, God’s ability to do all he wants is joined with his perfect and infinite compassion and wisdom. His glory is shown in his love for those he purposed to redeem.

humans were not made to be slaves to carry out God’s plan like mindless robots. He created us to be the custodians of his creation, and bearers of his image with attributes that, though finite, reflect his ability to reason, and to make moral decisions. His pleasure included his coming as Savior to redeem unworthy sinners. He justly redeems us from out guilt by becoming the sin-bearer for those loved before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). Our Redeemer never fails to care for his children.

Some don’t like this teaching of Scripture. They make up theories to get around it. Some say that God voluntarily gave up part of his Sovereignty to give us a free will. Some say that free will was the unknown factor in God’s creation. Such theories make no logical sense. They can not be made to agree with direct statements of the Bible. None of these ideas allow for a God who is really infinite in his power, and unchangeable in his perfections and judgments.

The idea of free will is very confusing to the unbeliever. We are free to will whatever we want. The problem is that our desires are blinded and bound by sin so we will never want what’s truly God-honoring. And we are finite, so we can not know enough to be sure that what we want is really best, and even if we did, we don’t have the power to make it happen. What we want is as much a part of God’s decree as is the final outcome of our decisions and actions.

God, on the other hand, does all his holy will (as the children’s catechism puts it), and he does it everywhere all the time.

This is not just taught in Psalm 135. It is a lesson which is the fiber of all the rest of what God makes know to us in his written word.

Psalm 115:3 says, “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.”

In Job 42:2 Job learned to cry out to God saying, “I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.” or as the NASB translates that last part. ” …no purpose of Thine can be thwarted.”

In Isaiah 14:24 God says, “… Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand.”

In verse 27 the prophet said, “For the Lord of hosts has purposed, And who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, And who will turn it back?”

We are very encouraged and comforted to know that God’s perfect plan will be carried out, and that the plan is perfectly good.

(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)