Making Sense of Predestination

Romans 9:6-18

September 21, 2008 | Brian Bill

Our youngest daughter Megan and I have been reading the Book of Revelation before she goes to bed at night.  She’s asked me several times over the last couple years if we could read it and I’ve put it off because it can be difficult and even confusing, plus I wasn’t sure if this was the best book to read before going to bed…and I was just worried about whether I’d be able to sleep!  We’re about half-way through and she’s asked me a lot of questions.  This past Wednesday night I decided to ask her how many questions I’ve actually answered.  Megan smiled and said, “Maybe two.”  

My guess is that this passage of Scripture in Romans 9 has raised more questions than answers for you.  You’re not alone in this regard.  Even the Apostle Peter, when referring to inspired Scripture written by the Apostle Paul, recognized that his weighty words were sometimes difficult to comprehend in 2 Peter 3:16: “…His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”  

Let’s state right up front that there are some hard things to understand in the Bible – like predestination.  Here are three passages to ponder:

Romans 8:29: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…”

Ephesians 1:5: “He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ…”

Ephesians 1:11: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” 

The word predestination is composed of two parts: “Pre” meaning “before” and “destination” meaning “point of final arrival.”  To predestine something is to determine beforehand where it will end up.  If you contemplate this doctrine for awhile, you’ll have to face some difficult questions:

  • If predestination is true, what happens to human responsibility?
  • Are we just robots, doing what God has ordained?
  • If some are predestined to heaven, then why bother with evangelism?
  • How can people be guilty of sin since they are doing only what they were predestined to do?

This topic has caused friendships to fracture, churches to split and divided Christians into different doctrinal groups.  Before going much further, let me give you my understanding.  I have a simple mind, so I recognize that this might not be satisfactory to everyone, but here goes:  God is supremely sovereign and we are responsible for our response to Him.  The word “sovereign” means one who has absolute authority and complete control.  I love the answer that Charles Spurgeon gave when someone asked him how he reconciles God’s sovereignty and human responsibility: “I wouldn’t try,” he replied, “I never reconcile friends.”  

You can find both of these friends in the Bible.  In fact, we could say that Romans 9 emphasizes the sovereignty of God while Romans 10 provides the framework for human responsibility.  However, Paul doesn’t seek to relieve the tension because they are friends.  He doesn’t fully explain the working out of election and responsibility in this chapter because he’s more interested in addressing the haughty heart that dares to question the Creator. 

Election and responsibility are taught by Jesus in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, [divine election] and whoever comes to me [human response] I will never drive away.”  Here are just two verses from Acts 13 where these two friends are found: Verse 39: “Through him everyone who believes is [human response] justified” and verse 48: “…and all who were appointed [divine election] for eternal life believed.”

In his commentary on Romans, John Stott offers this quote from Charles Simeon, who lived during the time when the Calvinist-Arminian controversy was quite bitter.  He warned his congregation of the dangers of forsaking Scripture in favor of a theological system: “When I come to a text which speaks of election, I delight myself in the doctrine of election.  When the apostles exhort me to repentance and obedience, and indicate my freedom of choice and action, I give myself up to that side of the question.”

I like how Ray Pritchard puts it: “God is in charge of what happens, when it happens, how it happens, why it happens, and even what happens after it happens.  This is true of all events in every place from the beginning of time.  He does this for our good and His glory.  He is not the author of sin, yet evil serves His purposes.  He does not violate our free will, yet free will serves His purposes.  We’re not supposed to understand all this.  We’re simply to believe it.”

Questions and More Questions

With all that as a “predestined preview” of our passage for today, would you please turn to Romans 9:19-29?  The first thing I want you to notice is that there are seven different questions listed in verses 19-24.  I’ve underlined the question marks: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us?  For who resists his will?’  But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?  ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, why did you make me like this?’  Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?  What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction?  What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

While Paul doesn’t specifically answer each of these questions, there are at least three answers that are given.

1. God designs with purpose (19-21). 

Let’s look at what’s behind Romans 9:19: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us?  For who resists his will?’” The word “then” goes back to the question about Pharaoh.  Specifically, as we learned last week, when Moses wanted to go, Pharaoh said no.  Since Pharaoh was hardened and verse 18 states: “God has mercy on whom He wants to have mercy, and He hardens whom He wants to harden,” then why are we blamed for our behavior?  If we are simply playing the roles God has for us in the outworking of His will, how can God judge us for resisting His will?   Paul takes issue with the attitude behind the two questions in verse 19 and so he replies in verse 20: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”  The phrase “talk back” literally means “to answer to one’s face” or to “be against and away from.”  Paul was putting this person in his place.  

When I was in high school I remember asking my mom if I could go somewhere with my friends.  When I asked her if I could go, she said no.  I then peppered her with a whole bunch of other questions that started with why but she wasn’t about to change her mind.   I became so angry that I said something very disrespectful to her.  My words were terrible and my sense of timing was even worse because at that exact moment my dad walked into the room.  I’ll spare you the details but suffice it say that my dad put me in my place in no uncertain terms.  I didn’t talk back to my mom again…at least for awhile.

Paul is putting this questioner in his place.  Notice that it’s not the fact that a question is asked; it’s the attitude behind the question that’s inappropriate.  It’s not wrong to ask questions of the Almighty but we cannot presume to correct Him.  I’m reminded of what God said in Job 38:2-3: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”  Job is put in his place in 40:2: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?  Let him who accuses God answer him!”  I love how Job responds in verses 4-5: “I am unworthy – how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice, but I will say no more.”  Friends, when God declares His will, we should be still.  That’s hard for us because many of us want to have the last word with God.

the Creator can do whatever He wants with that which He has created

Pulling together passages from Isaiah 28:16, Isaiah 64:8 and Jeremiah 18:1-6, Paul shows that as Creator, God has the absolute rights of ownership.  The Creator can do whatever He wants with the created: “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’”  Then, expanding the analogy of the Potter and the clay, Paul describes the absurdity of a piece of pottery complaining to the Potter: “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”  Friends, you and I are clay.  And clay has no right to complain.  Clay has no qualifications to talk back to the Creator.  God can take and make pretty pottery and He can also turn the clay into something common and ordinary.  The point is that the Creator can do whatever He wants with that which He has created.  MacArthur adds, “To fully understand God, we would have to be equal to the God who made us – a notion even more absurd than a clay pot’s being equal to the potter who molded it.”

Genesis 2:7 says that we are formed from the dust of the ground, but we are designed with a purpose.  Paul’s readers would have known that the image of the Potter and the clay typically referred to God and Israel in the Old Testament.  Keeping the larger context of Romans in mind, Paul is speaking about Israel and her failure to accept Jesus as Messiah.  The “same lump of clay” represents humanity as a whole.  If God wants to only save a remnant, and the Creator wants to add a bunch of Gentile pottery, isn’t that His right? 

2. God delays punishment (22-23). 

God designs with a purpose and He also delays punishment to some in order to show His mercy to others.  Let’s look next at verses 22-23: “What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath — prepared for destruction?  What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory…” Notice the two uses of the phrase, “What if…”  Paul is introducing two categories of people here.  The Bible often uses extreme terms to separate people into two distinct groups – the saved and the lost, children of God and children of Satan, light and darkness.  Here he uses two quite descriptive categories: “objects of his wrath” and “objects of his mercy.”  Let’s look at each one.

  • Objects of wrath.  Romans 1:18 says that “the wrath of God is being revealed…against all the godlessness and wickedness of men…”  We don’t like to talk about the wrath of God but we must because the Bible does.  I want you to notice however, that God “bore with great patience the objects of his wrath.”  God is patient and His divine delay in delivering justice is so that people will repent and receive salvation.  This is spelled out in 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Because of our sin we all deserve the wrath of God but there’s a way out.

This is a tough passage, isn’t it?  Do you see the phrase, “prepared for destruction?”  It’s helpful to know that the grammatical construction is in the “passive voice,” which shows that people prepare themselves for destruction because of their sins.  It’s not that God makes people sinful but that He leaves them in their sin unless they repent and receive Jesus.  If people resist and reject God, they end up preparing their own destruction.  If, during the time of divine delay, an individual repents and receives Jesus, he or she becomes an “object of mercy.” Ezekiel 18:32 says: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord.  Repent and live!” 

  • Objects of mercy.  Did you know that God gets the glory either way?  He even uses Israel’s unbelief to further His purposes.  Actually, He uses all circumstances to promote His glory.  Look at verse 23: “What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory…”  The grammatical construction here is different – we don’t prepare ourselves for glory, because we are “prepared in advance for glory” by God.  

Which group are you in today?  You are either an object of wrath prepared for destruction or you are an object of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for His glory.  Friends, not everyone is going to heaven.  Left to ourselves, we’ll all go to hell.  No one deserves heaven.  If we go to heaven it’s because someone else paid the price for admission.  Mercy means accepting something you don’t deserve.  God is delaying His judgment so that you will repent and receive Jesus.  But He won’t wait forever.

3. God determines to show mercy (24-29). 

First, God designs with purpose; second, He delays punishment.  Finally, He does all this because He determines to show mercy. Verse 24 states that God does this among the Jews and the Gentiles: “Even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”

Out of all the people in the world, God decided to choose one group of people with whom to reveal Himself and to begin His work of redemption, which means to buy back that which has been lost.  He also chose one central place, the country of Israel, from where He would launch His love to the whole world.  Right from the very beginning God’s heart has been for His “chosen people” to reach out to the Gentiles with the message of God.  A Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish – that’s us.  

Unfortunately, they didn’t obey this command and allowed pride and spiritual indifference to enter their lives.  They made at least two mistakes: First, they thought that just because they were born Jewish, they were in God’s kingdom.  Second, they didn’t take God’s Word to the nations.  What Paul is doing here in Romans 9-11 is showing that salvation is not just for the Jews, but for the whole world.  He’s also reminding his readers that God has always called out a remnant from the Jews.

Today there are approximately 13 million Jews in the world out of a total population of 6.7 billion people.  If God had said, “I’m only going to the Jews,” He would still be fair because no one deserves to be saved.  But He didn’t do that.  Instead, He opened the door of salvation to everyone – we’ll get to that in chapter 11.  But He did so by first offering it to the Jews – that’s why Jesus was Jewish.  Will there be any Jewish people in heaven?  Absolutely.  But not every Jewish person goes to heaven.  Will there be any Gentiles in heaven?  Absolutely.  But not every Gentile goes to heaven. The only way there is through faith in Jesus.

Quoting from two Old Testament prophets, Paul builds the case for God’s mercy.  

  • God receives Gentiles into His family.  Using words from the prophet Hosea, Paul says in verses 25-26: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” This shows that it’s a not a new thing for God to add Gentiles to His family.  Do you see the centrality of God’s work here?  Note the phrase: “I will call…” repeated twice and that these former pagans are called “sons of the living God.”
  • God redeems a remnant from Israel.  Not only will Gentiles become full members of God’s family, many Jews will be left out.  Drawing from Isaiah, in verses 27-29, Paul summarizes that those Jews who respond in faith become part of the remnant: “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.  For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.’  It is just as Isaiah said previously: ‘Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.’”  True believers are always a minority.  Paul is reminding those with a Jewish background that they might not make it in, and they better repent quickly if they want to be part of the remnant because God is carrying out His sentence with “speed and finality.”  Like He did with Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction will be total, and only a handful will be saved.

Divine Election and Human Responsibility

Let’s come back to the statement I made at the beginning: God is supremely sovereign and we are responsible for our response to Him.  

1. God is supremely sovereign. 

Salvation starts with God and ends with God.  If predestination is true, it means that we can never claim any credit for our salvation. We don’t even get points for seeking the Lord because he sought us before we sought him. Harry Ironside told of a prayer meeting where a man gave a stirring testimony of God’s grace in his life.  Afterwards someone came up to him and said, “My brother, that was a fine testimony you gave.  You talked a lot about God, but you didn’t mention your own part in salvation.” The man thought for a moment and then said, “You’re right.  I did leave that out.  My part was to run away from God as fast as I could, and God’s part was to run after me until he caught me.”  So it is with all of us.  We do the running away and God does the catching.  We’re in charge of being lost.  God is in charge of saving us. 

2. I’m responsible to respond. 

If you go to hell, it won’t be God’s fault

Someone may say, “Why should I bother responding?  If I’m predestined, God will save me when he’s ready.”  The Bible says that God saves those who place their faith in Jesus Christ.  Henry Ward Beecher used to say that the elect were the “Whosoever wills” and the non-elect were the “Whosoever won’ts.”  If you are wondering whether God has predestined you to salvation, just answer this question: Have you ever placed your faith in Jesus Christ—and in him alone—for your salvation?  If the answer is yes, then you’re predestined for heaven.  But what if the answer is no.  Or what if you’re not sure?  One reason God has delayed his punishment is to give you more time to be saved.  If you go to hell, it won’t be God’s fault. He’s done everything necessary to make sure you go to heaven. 

Here are two points to help us resolve, or at least live with this tension. First, from our human standpoint, we are completely free. When you wake up in the morning, you have a choice to get out of bed or to stay in bed.  You can wear shorts or pants.  When you get in your car, you’re free to drive to work or you can head to Wisconsin if you like.  Every decision you make is a free choice. 

That leads to the second point: Predestination simply means, God chose you first and if he didn’t choose you first, you would never have chosen him.  To say it another way, God so arranged the circumstances that when the moment was right, you had no other choice but to freely choose Jesus. Our choice is a free choice, but it is made possible only by God’s Spirit enabling us to believe and be saved

Think of the gate of heaven, and above it is a large sign that reads, “Whosoever will may come.” As you pass through the gate, you look back and from the inside the sign reads this way, “Chosen before the foundation of the world.”  Or to say it yet another way: “He doesn’t make you go against your will; he just makes you willing to go.”   Friend, here’s some good news.  No one has to go to Hell. If you go there, it will be because you are a sinner deserving of God’s judgment.  How do you know if God is calling you?  If you have the slightest desire, then God is calling you.  If you want to be saved, then Jesus is calling you to follow Him. 

If you want to be saved, you can be saved and you will be saved.  That is the promise of God to you.  No one will ever be lost who turned to Christ for salvation.  No one will be in hell who truly wanted to go to heaven by faith in the blood of Jesus Christ. 

Did you know that there’s only one instance in the Bible where someone cried out for mercy and was turned down?  Every other time when someone wanted mercy, they received it.  The only time it didn’t come was when it was too late.  In Luke 16:19-31, a rich man dies and is in incredible agony.  Listen to verses 23-24: “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.  And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me…for I am in agony in this flame.’”  His request was denied because the deadline had passed – it’s too late to ask after you die.

3. I’m responsible to tell others. 

Some Christians, when pondering God’s divine election have elected to not be involved in evangelism because they believe that God will save those He wants to save without any help from us.  In his outstanding book called, “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” J.I. Packer writes this: “They must be told of Christ before they can trust Him, and they must trust Him before they can be saved by Him.  Salvation depends on faith, and faith on knowing the gospel.  God’s way of saving sinners is to bring them to faith through bringing them into contact with the gospel.  In God’s ordering of things, therefore, evangelism is a necessity if anyone is to be saved at all.  We must realize, therefore, that when God sends us to evangelize, He sends us to act as vital links in the chain of His purpose for the salvation of His elect.” 

4. Give your life to the Potter’s hand. 

Are you presuming upon God’s patience?  You don’t have to have God figured out before you follow Him by faith.  The key question among all the questions is this: Have you given your life to the Potter’s hand?  

Please take the piece of clay that you were given at the beginning of the service right now.  Just leave it in the baggie and start forming it and shaping it.  Imagine now that you are that piece of clay and the Creator is shaping you just the way He wants.

As we close, we’re going to watch a video and as we do, ask yourself this question: Have I given my life to the Potter’s hand?

Teach me dear Lord to live all of my life through Your eyes
I’m captured by Your holy calling
Set me apart, I know you’re drawing me to yourself

Take me, Mould me, use me, fill me
I give my life to the Potter’s hand.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?