Over the centuries, people have rejected Christianity for many reasons. Tragically, some have done so as the result of misconceptions regarding what the Bible actually teaches. They have heard individuals who claim to be Christians expound what they claim are Christ’s teachings. The hearers assumed that Christ’s teaching was being represented accurately, but recognizing the self-evident flaws in the presentation they heard, falsely concluded that Christ’s teaching was contradictory, when, in reality, the problem was in the one who purported to present correct Bible teaching.
One major cause of unbelief among those who have concluded that Christianity is false has been the advocacy of Calvinism. The rational, logical mind recognizes that a perfect, infinite God would not create beings in His own image (Genesis 1:27) that are not free moral agents responsible for their own decisions. Nor would He allow them to be subjected, through no fault of their own, to a condition of depravity, inherited from their parents, that makes them incapable of exercising their free moral agency to choose to accept or reject Him. Since a substantial segment of Christendom has promulgated Calvinism for over five centuries, multitudes of people unfortunately have assumed that the New Testament endorses Calvinistic tenets.
One passage that has been alleged to teach that God’s sovereignty means that He is free to override human will or do whatever He pleases (see Miller, 2003), though His actions interfere with human choice, is found in the New Testament book of Romans:
But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Romans 9:6-13, emp. added).
The parenthetical material is typically interpreted to mean that God decided to save Jacob and reject Esau before either was born, and without regard to any action of good or evil on their part. Of course, such an interpretation rips the verse from its context and places God in an unfavorable light.
In stark contrast, the context of the statement demonstrates that the apostle was referring to God’s plan to bring Christ into the world by means of the genetic line of Abraham and his descendants. Even though the bulk of the Jewish nation ended up rejecting Christ and the Gospel, God’s word concerning Abraham’s descendants was still fulfilled. How? “They are not all [spiritual—DM] Israel who are of [physical—DM] Israel.” In other words, Paul insisted unequivocally that the original promise to Abraham to bless the world was fulfilled in Christ, the Gospel, and the church of Christ—not in the fleshly, physical nation of Israel. To be physically descended from Abraham does not make one a spiritual child of Abraham. As John asserted: “And do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9). Genetic offspring are “a dime a dozen.” Only spiritual descendants—i.e., those who trust and obey God, are genuine children of Abraham.
Consequently, no person has a right to maintain that simply because he descended physically from Abraham, he shares in the promise of salvation in Christ. After all, Abraham had other sons who could claim the same genetic connection to Abraham (Genesis 16:15; 25:1-2). But it was through Isaac that God chose to bring the Christ. Abraham’s other fleshly sons were not “children of the promise,” i.e., through whom God promised to bring Christ. When a person today obeys the Gospel in order to become a Christian, that person becomes a child of the promise, and then is counted as the seed of Abraham, regardless of physical nationality (Romans 4:11-12; Galatians 3:29).
Further, a person might argue that God chose Isaac over Ishmael because Hagar was not Abraham’s real wife. But what about Isaac’s sons? They were full brothers, in fact, twins, and Esau was the firstborn. Yet God selected Jacob through whom to work out His redemptive plan—a selection that did not determine Jacob’s salvation status. Two quotations from the Old Testament prove Paul’s point—the first from Genesis 25:23, and the second from Malachi 1:2-3. In both, the focus is on the two nations that eventually descended from Jacob and Esau, i.e., Israel and Edom. God was not unjust when He made the selections He made to carry out His plans to bring Christ. The Jew might tend to feel that since God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through whom to work, then every physical descendant should be spiritually acceptable to God. Here, indeed, is the number one misconception of the nation of Israel throughout Bible history, as well as a major point of confusion for the Calvinistic misrepresentation of the sovereignty of God. When it comes to personal, individual salvation, everyone is treated impartially, as an individual. Genetic descendants of Abraham have no spiritual advantage over anyone else. Paul continued:
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (Romans 9:14-21, emp. added).
The words that God spoke to Moses, found in Exodus 33:19, were designed to encourage him not to give up on his leadership role. God had brought the nation out of Egypt, despite Pharaoh’s opposition. No one could keep God from doing what He deemed necessary to achieve His plan to bring Christ into the world. God showed the Israelites great compassion and mercy in His physical treatment of them through the centuries. But He shows spiritual compassion (i.e., He imparts salvation) to everyone equally on the same gospel terms, i.e., on the basis of what Christ accomplished on the cross.
The Jews were constantly in a dither (“willing” and “running”—vs. 16) as they asserted their favored status to the exclusion of Gentiles. But God never intended to show gospel mercy on the basis of ethnic linkage to Abraham. His exclusive selection of Abraham was for the singular purpose of bringing Christ into the world that the entire human race might have access to forgiveness of sin. The Jewish nation misinterpreted the coincidental racial aspect of God’s dealings through them. To bring Christ, God had to make choices of people to use. But His choices had nothing to do with each individual’s own personal salvation.
Pharaoh provides a good illustration of how God worked in this regard. God purposed to show mercy to the people of Israel that they might leave Egypt, go to the Promised Land, and further advance God’s plan to bring Christ into the world. So God sent Moses to present God’s words to Pharaoh. The demand to release the people, however, only served to “raise up,” i.e., arouse, incite, or stir up Pharaoh (see Thayer, 1901, p. 222; Alford, 1877, 2:409; Vincent, 1890, 3:105; cf. Psalm 80:2). On his own volition, Pharaoh opposed God’s plan. His defiance created conditions under which God’s name was publicized to the world, alluded to in the quotation of Exodus 9:16.
Still, God gave Pharaoh opportunity after opportunity to change his mind—ten separate plagues and multiple visits from Moses (who repeatedly articulated God’s word to him). But this prolonged engagement (the longsuffering of God) resulted in giving Pharaoh more opportunities to be hardened in his rebellion—contrary to God’s will for him. Because God was the initiator and instigator of the circumstance, it may properly be said that He did the hardening. God confronts all people through circumstances and His Word, but each person is responsible for his or her own separate, individual reactions. [For a discussion of the sense in which God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, see Butt and Miller, 2003.]
But if God showed mercy to the Israelites by allowing them to escape Egyptian slavery, and if God destroyed Pharaoh for resisting His will, why then did God find fault with the Jews of Paul’s day? Why would God find fault with anyone whose heart is hardened by His demands? The answer lies in the fact that God has the divine right to use His own methods to bring about salvation for the world without interfering with our choices. Here is a marvelous feature of the sovereignty of God—His ability to work out His own purposes while simultaneously allowing the human agents involved to exercise their own free will and make their own choices. God can incorporate human beings into His overarching redemptive plans regardless of the personal choices humans make. Consequently, no one can rightfully accuse God of mistreating him or her. In fact, truth be told, human heartaches are often self-generated (cf. 1 Peter 4:15).
Thus throughout the context of Romans 9-11, Paul was not discussing personal salvation. Each individual decides salvation by the choices he or she makes. Paul was writing about how God can, and has, made use of people and nations in history to bring to fruition His grand plan of salvation. One Old Testament passage clarifies the concept:
“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Lord. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel! The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. And the instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it, if it does evil in My sight so that it does not obey My voice, then I will relent concerning the good with which I said I would benefit it. Now therefore, speak to the men of Judah and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.” ’ ” And they said, “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart” (Jeremiah 18:6-12, emp. added).
This passage demonstrates that people make their own choices to do evil or good, to obey or disobey God. But God can work over, under, around, or through people—depending upon their personal choices. Either way, God achieves His will while simultaneously allowing each individual to make his or her own decisions and cinch his or her own fate. In that sense, and only in that sense, He is a potter with putty in His hands (cf. Isaiah 29:16; 45:9). Each individual decides their own conduct, and God then uses them accordingly.
God must show His wrath against sin and punish sin by His power (Romans 1:18). But He is longsuffering in that He does not want anyone to perish, as illustrated by how long He put up with Pharaoh’s stubborn resistance. Similarly, He tolerated Noah’s generation for many years before bringing the Flood, and He bore with the Israelites throughout their defiant history. They were “prepared for destruction”—in the sense that they chose to so fit themselves, and did everything possible to achieve it. But such was not God’s desire for them:
Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds (Romans 2:4-6).
Nor is it God’s desire for anyone today:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.... Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation (2 Peter 3:9,14-16; cf. 1 Timothy 2:4).
The nation of Israel had a long history of preparing itself for destruction—which finally came in A.D. 70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. In the meantime, God endured them with much longsuffering. Why? “That He might make known the riches of His glory.” That is, He was working out His scheme of redemption. He put up with the unbelieving Jews, allowing them to proceed down the pathway of their own self-appointed destruction (Matthew 23:32), until He could bring Christ, and then get the Gospel disseminated to the Gentiles (Acts 18:5-6; Colossians 1:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16). The church of Christ was launched in A.D. 30 in the city of Jerusalem, the heart of Israel, and consisted only of Jews for several years. God could not instigate due punishment upon the Jewish nation at that point without endangering the infant church of Christ. He waited until the Gospel went forth from Jerusalem to “the end of the earth” Acts 1:8), enabling the Gentiles to be introduced to the Gospel (Acts 10). This accounts for the “lag time” between A.D. 30 and A.D. 70.
The book of Romans cannot be used successfully nor legitimately to maintain the doctrine that God can do anything He chooses without regard to human decision-making and free moral agency. Unlike the imaginary deities conjured up in the minds of misguided men, the God of the Bible is shown to be perfect, possessing attributes of excellence to a perfect degree. He is the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.
Alford, Henry (1877), The Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980 reprint).
Butt, Kyle and Dave Miller (2003), “Who Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2259.
Miller, Dave (2003), “Things God Cannot Do,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2292.
Thayer, Joseph H. (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint).
Vincent, M.R. (1890), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 reprint).
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