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.)