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About Doctrines

Hardening and Mercy



Paul presents men's argument against God in the form of a question. The question shows the sovereignty of God (who can resist?). Yet, surprisingly, Paul's answer seems simplistic. Or, rather, the Apostle elects not to answer the question. "How can you argue with God's choice?" might be a good paraphrase of v20.

One is reminded of the final chapters of Job. After the stage being set in the opening two chapters of Job, the bulk of the book (3-37) deals with Job's friends and their humanistic arguments attempting to explain the predicament. Then, suddenly, in chapter 38 God appears to Job. But, God neither allows Job to speak, nor does He address any of the catastrophes Job has suffered. Rather, God asks a series of questions that demonstrate God's absolute superiority to man. Job, of course, relents and repents. That is the response Paul seeks here.

In our case, just as in Job's case and in Paul discussion here in Romans, no agency is assigned to hardening or dishonor. Honor and dishonor are synonyms like happiness and misery and glory and shame. They are the contrasts of God revealed in His full character. When God deals in wrath, the wrath will get worse. When God deals in love, things get better.

Man has no right to specifically ask God "why?" Man certain has the right to ask God what the lesson is about and what man should be learning, but man has no right to question God’s choice. This lesson we never really learn. We always want to know "why me" when we encounter new events. The Bible continually tells us this is the wrong response.

Paul backs up his "proof" by drawing upon the example of the potter and the clay. This example is found in the Old Testament prophets and would be familiar to the Jewish population (Isa 29:15-16; 45:8-10; 64:8-9; Jer 18:1-6). At the heart of the argument is that the potter will make some vessels for common usage and some vessels for exciting and elegant usage. It is the potter’s choice which use is in mind when a given vessel is created.

Some of these verses, of course, provide grounds for controversy. What is meant by "vessels of wrath" and "vessels of destruction?" Since the vessels of wrath are destined for "destruction," does this support Calvin's view of predestination?

We must remember two points. First, mankind is lost and, thus, God is dealing, in the first instance with sinful creatures. And, secondly, we have throughout this entire section the conflict between whether nation Israel or individuals are involved. We know, of course, that individuals make up the collective nation, but the question as to which is in view is an important factor in understanding what Paul addresses.

"Vessels of wrath" are men filled with a fury against God (Isa 51:20). These are the sinful men of Romans 1, men and women who have time and again chosen self over God and have hardened their hearts by encrusting it with so much sin that God cannot be found. These are the people modeled after Pharaoh. In these, the vessels of wrath or the vessels destined to dishonor, God is free to display His justice and punishment. If God does not occasionally demonstrate His wrath to the world, it is of little use to evangelize on the basis of Romans. Heaven and Hell must be made real for people to understand. At the same time, current wrath must be made real to help draw mankind to a loving Savior.

In these vessels of wrath the glory of God's power may be found (2 Thess 1:9). Sinful men are left to their own devices to fill themselves with a full measure of sin so that they become fit for destruction. They are clothed in their own unrighteousness and hardening. God simply exercises His right as judge and executioner. That He waits, enduring much long-suffering, is an outreach of His love and grace. In this grace, an occasional sinner will soften his heart to seek God and, thus, demonstrate the reality of grace at work in the world. At the same time, God has every right as sovereign Lord to exercise judgment whenever and however He desires and determines. Yet, God in His grace and mercy endures with great long-suffering these sinful people.

Vessels of honor and mercy reflect those who have sought after God and been found by Him. It is in the vessels of honor that God truly allows His glory and grace to be seen. His goodness is at work the most in those who have come to Jesus. And, having come to Christ, Paul has already demonstrated that they are prepared for glory (8:28-39). This is the process of sanctification and glorification.

This all applies to the individual. But, much of this section is at the collectively level, the national level of Israel. If we were to apply these teachings on this collective basis, we simply find that God has the sovereign ability to deal with the nation as He chooses. God elected or chose the nation of Israel. God chose not to elect any of the other nations of earth, and, in fact, chose to use Egypt as an example of the vessels of wrath. But, then, when Israel continually chose "man things" over "creator things" God set the nation aside.

The lump of clay represents the mass of fallen humanity. God has the right to save those He desires to. History shows both God’s wrath and His mercy. He calls many to come to Him, both Jews and Gentiles (v22-23), then God shows His mercy on those who believe in Jesus (Matthew 22:14) For many are invited, but few are chosen. (NIV)

There are several pictures in the Old Testament of the nation of Israel being set aside and restored. Major examples are the preservation of the nation at the time of Joseph, then the setting aside of the sinful nation until the time of Moses. The nation is restored at the Exodus, only to fall into a series of good and bad times during Judges. The delivery of Israel into the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians is still another example. Ezra and Nehemiah are accounts of restoration, while Esther is an example of preservation within the exile.

God’s sovereign right to deal with the nation in this fashion, in grace and mercy and wrath, is found in the next set of verses as Paul draws from the story of Hosea.

1 Peter 2:10
Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. NIV

 

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