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So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. —Rom. 9:18
Though it is sometimes difficult for modern readers to see, burdened as they are with a long history of Calvinist interpretation, there is no indication that the people whom God hardens are chosen arbitrarily. In Romans 1, Paul discussed the nations. When he does so, he says that God gave the nations up to their own sins precisely because they were so intent on resisting him. Likewise, in Romans 2:4–5, continuing the same argument, Paul explicitly mentions the “hardness of heart”:
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
As is abundantly clear, God’s desire, even for those whose heart He hardens, is that they might be saved. That is why He displayed abundant kindness. But once that kindness is resistant, the heart is hardened so that God brings His purpose to pass precisely through the hardness of the hearts of the people. The way in which this occurs comes into sharp focus in the next verses.
You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” —Rom. 9:19
At the beginning of this essay, I quoted Romans 3 and noted that Paul would pick up his question in Romans 3 and address it, in detail, in Romans 9. This is where he does so.
But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. —Rom. 3:5–8
The question in 3:5–8, as it is in 9:19, is whether God is righteous to bring His purposes to pass through the people’s unfaithfulness and then condemn the people for their unfaithfulness. This is what we see in Romans 9. Through the very unfaithfulness of Israel, God drew in the dark powers of sin and death. It was only because of that that God could them destroy the powers of sin and death in the flesh of the Messiah, in whom is focused Israel’s election. The question, then, in 9:19, is whether this all constitutes a breaking of the covenant. It seems as though God had simply tricked Israel.
Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 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, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory . . . —Rom. 9:21–23
This is one of the most tragically misread passages in the whole New Testament, which will be easy to see once we take a look at the Old Testament roots which Paul is drawing on. Before we do, I will comment on clues which we find in the passage itself. First, Paul says “lump.” That word is likewise used in Romans 11:16 to refer to Israel, set apart for God. This should make us wary about asserting that the “lump” is a metaphor for the whole mass of sinful humanity. Second, God was “show his wrath and make known his power.” The resonances with 9:17, which described Pharaoh, should be clear. This is Israel, which, like Pharaoh, is the vessel through which God shows his power and displays his name to all the Earth. Third, God endured the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction in order that he might display the riches of his glory to vessels of mercy. There is causality here. The former is necessary for the latter. Having established that, let’s take a look at where Paul is drawing this analogy. It comes from Jeremiah 18:1–6:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
Three things are of great significance in this passage.
First, the “clay” is not simply humanity. Instead, it is the “house of Israel.”
Second, the word “vessel” which Paul uses in Romans 9 is drawn straight out of Jeremiah 18. The word “vessel” means that the house of Israel is a tool through which God accomplishes his purpose.
Third, and most importantly, the clay “spoils in the potter’s hand.” That is, it was resistant to the working of the potter.
This reminds us of Paul’s words in Romans 2. God is kind towards sinners, but when they continue to resist, they store up wrath for themselves. This is what has happened to Israel. God called Israel from the very beginning to be a blessing on the Earth. He kindly endured their unfaithfulness, but, now that they have spoiled in his hand, they store up wrath for themselves. And most significantly, when we understand Romans 7, we understand that their unfaithfulness was the very means through which God brought to pass his purposes. Through their unfaithfulness, God destroyed the powers of sin by casting them onto the flesh of the crucified Messiah. That is how the “vessels of wrath” are necessary for the display of God’s glory to “vessels of mercy.” That “glory” is the glory of Romans 8, the glory by which the children of God, Jew and Gentile alike, rule justly over the whole creation and bring about its redemption from the bondage of decay. The universal scope of the promises of God is the direction in which Paul’s argument has been heading from 9:6 on, as is made clear:
. . . even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? —Rom. 9:24
Now we have the climax of “out of Isaac shall I call a seed.” That “seed” towards which God’s “purpose of election” was driving is not just the Jews. It is all of those whom God names as His own children, Jew and Gentile alike, joined to the One and Only Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, the Spirit sent into their heart, crying “Abba, Father.”
As 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.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’” —Rom. 9:25–26
Here Paul’s description of the “children of God” in 9:7 reaches its climax. The reference is to the people of Israel, as they exist after the renewal of the covenant, the heart-circumcision, that Jeremiah 31, Deuteronomy 30, Ezekiel 36 moment. In Hosea, the prophecy is of the restoration of the Northern Kingdom after her long exile. Paul is not trying to fool us. Instead, he demonstrates that this return must be constituted by a Gentile ingathering when he quotes:
And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved.” —Rom. 9:27
The quotation is from Isaiah 10, and where Isaiah says “return”, Paul says “saved.” Despite the complaints of rather unhelpful commentators, Paul is not pulling the wool over our eyes. Paul sees the return from exile as constituted by the resurrection of Jesus in which the Church finds salvation. It is therefore altogether appropriate to read the great return from exile as the “salvation” which the Christian longs after. In the whole context of Isaiah 10, the prophet has described the remnant returning to the “mighty God.” That little phrase is only used one other time in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 9:6-7 referring to the messianic king on the throne of David called “mighty God.” Might we hear echoes of “the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever” (9:5)? “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”, winks Paul. Paul has juxtaposed Hosea 2 and Isaiah 10 on purpose. While Hosea 2 promises full restoration for the Northern Kingdom, Isaiah 10 promises only a small remnant. Paul sees these promises cohering in the fact that the Gentiles have heard the word of God through the remnant of Israel who has been sent to “declare my glory to the nations” (Isaiah 66:19). Just as most of the Northern Kingdom was assimilated into the nations, the great restoration of the Northern Kingdom takes place in a mission to the nations. To this, Paul adds another citation from Isaiah.