A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 07/23/00
Romans 9 is one of the most difficult chapters in the Bible. We are all beyond our depth here and in danger of drowning if we stray too far from two basic facts, which stick up like solid and unmoveable rocks in this swirling sea of deep doctrine: God is sovereign; Man is responsible. But these two facts raise two problems: First, how can man justly be held responsible if God has the kind of sovereign control the chapter describes (this is the question of thy hypothetical objector of v. 19); and second, how do vv. 20-ff constitute an answer to this question? For at first glance they look more like an evasion of it.
The facts themselves are unassailable. Sovereignty is driven home by 9:11, 15, 16-18 in inescapable terms that cannot be watered down or explained away. All attempts to do so fail. The distinction between foreknowledge and predestination urged by Milton, for example--"If I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault / Which had no less proved certain unforeknown"--works only when it is applied to finite and temporal beings like ourselves. For me to foreknow is not necessarily to cause. But if I were infinite and eternal, and if I foreknew infallibly that, were I to create Adam, he would fall and plunge the whole human race into its wild career of misery and degradation--if, knowing this and having omnipotent power I then decide to proceed with creation, I have by that act foreordained those events just as much as foreknown them. The distinction between the two breaks down completely when they are applied to an eternal and omnipotent being. Nor does it help to speak of "corporate election," for though Jacob and Esau represent peoples, they were also individuals whose destiny was fixed before they were born or had acted.
It would seem then that there is little room for free choices and hence for human responsibility. But this fact is just as unavoidable in Scripture as the other. Paul does not emphasize responsibility in Rom. 9 (though he glances at it in v. 14) because he has spent his first two chapters in a careful argument to establish it, concluding in 2:1 that we are without excuse. Why would he then end up using the strong language of Rom. 9? Partly because he would rather face all the irresolvable problems inherent in the attempt to reconcile such Sovereignty and such Freedom than allow the least hint of works or human merit to sneak back into the plan of salvation. If it depends on the one who wills or the one who runs, then I can look at the non-Christian and say, "I had the good sense to believe the gospel--what's your problem?" And Paul will not allow me to do this. He would rather subject the Church to endless debates between Calvinists and Arminians than allow the slightest whiff of boasting, i.e. of merit, back into consideration.
What then of the problems? We have spent the last 2,000 years trying to resolve them and have not succeeded. Arminians simply shove Sovereignty under the rug or define it out of existence. A certain kind of Calvinist (sometimes called "hyper") is prepared to to just that with Responsibility. Neither is biblical. However the human intellect may balk at it, we are simply left with a Mystery here. I am not abandoning Reason and taking refuge in Paradox. There may be a perfectly rational explanation in the mind of God. But I am not sure that finite minds can achieve the perspective from which they can understand it. And this should not surprise us, first because God is bigger than we are and second because we are surrounded by things that we do not and cannot understand, but which do not prevent our functioning on a purely physical plane.
For example, there is the Conundrum of Motion. This has always fascinated me, and I cannot resolve it. Perhaps there is a great mathematical mind somewhere who can. If there is, it does not invalidate my illustration, which does not demand the non-existence of answers, only of our ability to understand them. Since a mathematical point has only location but takes up no space, there is an infinite number of them on any line segment--between any two you could always theoretically insert a third. Therefore, in order to pass from point A to point B, I must occupy an infinite number of locations in a finite amount of time. This would seem to be impossible. But that does not stop me from clicking my computer keys, nor you from moving your eyes over the screen. It is the same with Sovereignty and Freedom: My inability to resolve the apparent contradiction doesn't stop me from making responsible choices.
Therefore, we must not let the difficulty of relating Soverignty and Freedom tempt us to deny either fact. To deny Sovereignty is to dethrone God, to blaspheme His name, and to reintroduce salvation by works by saying that it does depend on the one who wills. But to deny Responsibility is to destroy Man, to blaspheme God by accusing Him in effect of tyranny, and to cultivate a state of moral paralysis. Therefore, we must simply make up our minds to live with the tension between them. As Francis Schaeffer once said in a taped study on this passage, "The Bible simply states both and walks away."
This perspective helps us understand how Paul's answer to the question in vs. 20ff is actually an answer rather than an evasion. For he helps us understand that this is not primarily an intellectual but a moral problem. We never approach it as disinterested intellects, but rather as people needing to justify our sin, as the very language in which the question is formulated in v. 19 implies. But we are not responsible to understand all mysteries, to pierce the secret counsels of God, but rather to obey Him. We are held responsible to repent and turn to Christ. We have already been proved without excuse in chp. 1-2. Therefore, the objection, "I don't see how I logically CAN repent in the light of this strong teaching on Sovereignty" is not admitted as an excuse either. It is not your responsibility to understand the mechanism of repentance but simply to repent. In other words, a person who justifies his refusal to repent on the grounds of his apparent inability to do so vis a vis God's sovereignty is just as perverse as a person who refuses to get out of bed in the morning on the grounds that motion is mathematically impossible as far as he knows. When you have repented, you will say "It wasn't me but God's grace." That is, you could not have fulfilled your reponsibility alone. But though you did participate in the process, all the glory for it goes to God.
All night long we'd sat up and debated If Man is free, or if his will is fated To choose as it has been predestinated; Or. if Man is responsible and free By God's immutable and fixed decree, Yet God rules all by strict necessity, How can necessity and freedom mix? The whole thing left my mind is such a fix That I went walking, trying to explain It all, and so got caught out in the rain.
The first drops turned to steam upon the road, But soon they all came thick and fast, and flowed Together. It was possible to tell The precise moment they no longer fell Directly on the pavement with a hiss, But joined to form a watery abyss That rushed to pile itself up in a heap Along the curbs, and soon was ankle-deep.
And all that water had to go down hill Until it found some river it could fill, Which in its turn would have to find the sea. They did not ask advice from you or me Or stop to talk abstruse theology, But just went on about their business, free To be what their own natures bade them be.
I'm profoundly glad God sent His Son to die for my sins. I'm also glad He didn't leave it at that, but took mercy on me and gave me a new nature, different from the old one which was contrary to all righteousness and had no room for repentance. I don't understand it all, but I know I do not want to blunt the wonder of it by watering down either my responsibility or His sovereignty of Grace, which saved me for no good reason I can see or point to in myself. I cannot explain it, but I can and do praise Him for it, and I invite you to join me in that.
Here endeth the lesson.