In Romans 9, Paul makes the case for God’s purpose in election which is that His choice (election) has nothing to do with our works (Romans 9.11 and 2 Timothy 1.9), our will, or our striving (Romans 9.16). It depends only upon Him who calls (Romans 9.11) and on God who has mercy (Romans 9.16). God graciously has mercy on some sinners, rescuing them from the just wrath they deserve (see 1 Thessalonians 5.9), by predestining them for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 1.5), by calling them to faith (see Romans 8.30), by giving them the gift of faith (see Ephesians 2.8), by granting to them belief (see Philippians 1.29), by granting them repentance (see 2 Timothy 2.25-26), by justifying them (see Romans 8.30), and eventually by glorifying them when the Son of God returns (see Romans 8.30).
The doctrine of election has been summed up by the London Confession of Faith (1646) with these words:
And God hath before the foundation of the world, foreordained some men to eternal life, through Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of His grace; [having foreordained and] leaving the rest in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His justice.
And by the Abstract of Principles of the Southern Seminary (1858)
Election is God’s eternal choice of some persons unto everlasting life-not because of foreseen merit in them, but of His mere mercy in Christ-in consequence of which choice they are called, justified and glorified.
And by the Baptist Faith and Message (2000),
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
While the London Confession of Faith and the Abstract of Principles state the doctrine of election, the Baptist Faith and Message adds some very important qualifications: God’s purpose in election is both consistent with the free agency of mankind and comprehends (or includes) all the means (speaking of evangelism and missions) in connection with the end of saving sinners. The BFM makes these qualifications of election because these are exactly the qualifications that Paul makes in Romans 9.
After laying out God’s purpose in election, and responding to the objection that it is unjust, he proceeds to address the next misunderstanding of God’s purpose in election by writing,
19You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”26 “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” (Romans 9.19-26 ESV)
Evidently, Paul was anticipating that some who heard about God’s purpose in election might come to the conclusion that not only was God unjust by choosing to save some based only upon His mercy and not upon their good works, but that God’s choice rendered the free will of mankind a rather meaningless idea. How could God find fault with a sinner who was left in his sin by a God who denied him the only means, God’s mercy, that would rescue him? It would seem that neither the sinner nor the righteous could resist the will of God or the election of God.
One of the many objections of those who deny God’s purpose in election is that it would make God a coercive God, forcing His grace and mercy upon those who don’t want it and denying it to those who do. And this seems to be the objection to which Paul is responding to in Romans 9.
The way in which Paul answers this objection is fascinating to me. He does not do what I would expect him to do. If he was meaning to correct my misunderstanding of God’s purpose in election (the “misunderstanding” expressed in the London Confession of Faith), he might have written something similar to the following,
You might say, “Who can resist His will?” but that would be a foolish question. God’s election of sinners in no way imposes His will upon them, but rather extends to them the free offer of forgiveness and salvation should they choose to accept. Those who receive His mercy do so of their own free will, totally on their own accord, and those who resist God’s mercy do so of their own free will, totally on their own accord.
But of course, that is not what Paul wrote at all.
The Potter and the Clay
The first thing that Paul did was to state very clearly that the Creator has the right, as Creator, to create some men and women to be objects of His mercy and to create some men and women to be objects of His wrath. As Creator, He is totally right and just to foreordain before the foundation of the world that some humans would remain objects of His wrath and that some humans would become objects of His mercy. The clay really has no right to say to the potter, “Why have you made me like this?”
God’s purpose in election then glorifies God as the Supreme Creator who rightfully is in charge of His creation. He is not obligated to submit to the will or desires of the humans He created. Of course, this might not “sell” very well to the sensibilities of a man centered society that prefers a picture of a god who serves the needs of mankind, who has put us as the center of his world to love and to serve. But Paul states the point very clearly: God is the Creator and He has the right to set up His creation as He wills. We see here again God’s purpose in election, where His will and His mercy and His power and His name remain at the center instead of the will or effort of humans.
The Potter’s Purpose
The second thing that Paul did was to state very clearly the reason God foreordained some humans to be objects of His wrath and others to be objects of His mercy. His choice is not random or without reason, but with a clear purpose. God’s purpose in election was to show His wrath, to make known His power, and to make known the riches of His glory and mercy. He patiently endured the vessels prepared for destruction, instead of consuming them with His wrath instantly as they justly deserved, so that the vessels foreordained and predestined for His mercy might come to know His power, mercy, and glory. In other words, God purposely designed His creation to contain vessels prepared for destruction so that the beauty and greatness of who God is what God does might be fully understood by those humans prepared beforehand to be vessels of mercy. This is exactly what Paul had said about Pharaoh, a man raised up by God so that God could show His power and exalt His name in all His creation (see Romans 9.17).
And who is it that are vessels of mercy? “Those whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (see Romans 9.24). Those God foreknew, He predestined. Those he predestined, He called. Those He called, He justified. (see Romans 8.29-30).
Thought it will not be our focus today, we should not miss that one of the immediate applications of God’s purpose in election is the perseverance of the saints during times of suffering and tribulation. The foreknew/predestined/called/justified/glorified progression of Romans 8.29-30 is immediately preceded by the great promise of God: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8.28). And as Paul explains God’s purpose in election in Romans 9, he puts it in the context of the vessels prepared for glory coming to know the riches of His glory by living side by side with the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. In other words, it is through suffering that the elect come to know the beauty and greatness of God and come to know the riches of His glory. Like Paul already stated in Romans 8, we eagerly await the redemption of our bodies as we suffer in the bondage to decay because we are hoping for something that we do not yet have (see Romans 8.18-25). And as Romans 8.28 says, all of this plays out under the sovereign hand of God, to the praise of His glorious grace.
Consistent with the Free Agency of Mankind
What Paul did not do in Romans 9.19-29 is to really explain the connection and interplay between God’s purpose in election and the free will of mankind. He did not explain how election is “consistent with the free agency of man” (BFM), at least as clearly as I wish that he would have. To answer that question, I think we must remind ourselves what it means to be a sinner in need of salvation.
Paul has already said in Romans that death through sin has entered the world and that death came to all men because all have sinned (see Romans 5.12). The New Testament consistently uses the image of death to describe sinners: the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23), we were dead in our sins and transgression (Ephesians 2.1). This spiritual death is very real, and it has disastrous consequences upon mankind. The mind and conscience of sinners was corrupted (see Titus 1.15), sinners are slaves to sin (see John 8.34), held captive to do the will of Satan. Sinner’s minds are blinded so they cannot see the glory of God or the beauty of the gospel (see 2 Corinthians 4.4). Sinners are dead in their sins, unable to turn away from their sins or even to believe and have faith in Jesus.
The only hope for dead persons is that someone might be able to give them life. It is the election of God which regenerates (a word which means “to change radically, to produce anew”) and gives new birth to dead sinners. God made us alive in Christ (see Ephesians 2.5). God caused us to be born again (see 1 Peter 1.3). The Son gives life to whom He wills (see John 5.21). And this regeneration, this rebirth makes all things new. And this regenerating work of the Spirit is what enables a sinner to come to Jesus (see John 6.65), to believe (see Philippians 1.29 and Acts 13.48), to repent (see 2 Timothy 2.25), and to be justified and sanctified.
What happens in election is that God wills that we have a new will. This is exactly what Paul says in Philippians,
12Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2.12-13 ESV)
Through God’s gracious choice, the sinner is reborn with a new will, a desire to believe, repent, and to bring glory to God. What this means is that “resisting the will of God” is illogical because God works in the elect a new will so the elect will what God wills. The believer, in complete freedom, freely choices and wills to believe and repent while the sinner, whose will has not been reborn by the regenerating work of the Spirit, continues to will to disbelieve and to gratify the cravings of the sin nature. New birth does not depend upon human will or effort, but on God who has mercy.
So, God’s purpose in election is not unjust in that it denies saving grace to those who want it for no sinner wants saving grace. The only way a sinner desires saving grace is that God works within them to convict them of their sin and opens their eyes so they can see the Savior. The will of the sinner is totally free to continue to will to sin. And, the will of the reborn is totally free to will to repent and believe. Election is consistent with the free agency of mankind.