Romans 9 is one of those chapters of the Bible that carries with it a ton of theological weight. This is true especially regarding the doctrine of election. In the middle of his conversation about the people of Israel and how some are saved while many rejected the Messiah, Paul begins to talk about the sovereignty of God in some fairly radical terms.
Paul talks in Romans 9 about God choosing Jacob and rejecting Esau, even before either had been born. The point was that God made his choice of which twin would carry the line of blessing and promise, and that choice is not based on the relative goodness or badness of either boy. God picked Jacob. God let Esau go his own way.
Then Paul talked in even stronger terms about Pharaoh in the Exodus. Pharaoh’s heart was against God. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart as well. A look back at chapter 1 of this book would remind us that God has, in times of judgment, handed people over to their own desires and allowed them to become as evil as they wanted to. This is a great example of what hardness would look like.
As the argument builds, it looks more and more like what Paul is saying is that God elects some to follow him, predestining them to salvation. It also looks like God hardens some, leaving them to their own sinful ways that will turn them more and more against him. It looks like Paul is telling us that all who are saved are saved because God chose to save them and acted on their hearts. It looks like those who are not saved are not saved because they opposed God and God left them to themselves. It looks, well, Calvinistic.
What is most convincing to me that Paul is teaching the doctrine of election here the way that reformed believers claim is what comes next. Paul anticipates the objection to what he has just written. This is something that Paul has done a couple of times already in Romans. Paul will write for a bit, and then he will show you what those who oppose biblical teaching will claim.
So, watch the objection Paul anticipates. Ask yourself if Paul’s anticipated objection and his response to that objection tells you that Paul is turning away from a doctrine of sovereign election or if he is in fact telling us, “Yes, that is what I’m saying.”
Romans 9:19-24 – 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But 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?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Look at the objection Paul anticipated. People will ask how sovereign grace can possibly be fair. After all, nobody can overpower God. Nobody can resist God’s will. So how can it be right for God to judge people for rejecting him if he never elected them to eternal life?
Paul anticipates that objection. And if Paul was not teaching sovereign election, Paul would have said, “No, you misunderstand me.” But Paul does not say this. Instead, Paul responds with a reminder that we, as sinful creatures, have no right to question the way of salvation and sovereignty of the Lord. We are clay, and the potter who shapes the clay is the one who has the final say so as to what the clay will be. The potter does not exist for the clay, but the clay exists for the potter. And if there is any question as to who must be more free, the potter must be more free than the clay that the potter is using to shape things for the potter’s glory.
My point is not to remove all discomfort from this passage. Nor is my point to unpack its implications. But, I believe that it is important that we see that the anticipated objection that Paul speaks in verse 19 is a proof that what he was saying in the prior verses is exactly what it looks like; it is the doctrine of sovereign election. And we need to see that Paul’s response to the objection does not turn away from sovereignty to emphasize human autonomousfree-will. Instead, Paul doubles down on the fact that the freedom of God is ultimate.
If you want to put all this together, there are two truths you have to hold. If any person is saved, they are saved because God elected them, converted them, and saved them. If any person is lost, they are lost because they, in their sin, have never wanted to love and follow God. For the saved, God moves to overcome their natural rebellion against him, changing their desires so they come to him. For the lost, God allows them uninterrupted freedom, and they will always use that freedom to choose against God. In no case does God do anything here to treat any human being unjustly. In every case, every human life will glorify the Lord by either demonstrating his sovereign mercy or his perfect justice.