Our Approach to the Doctrine of Predestination
We believe, as Reformed churches, and emphatically, as Protestant Reformed Churches, in the truth of sovereign predestination, which, briefly, means to us that God sovereignly determines the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate. In short, that God is always the Lord of man. I say, emphatically, not because, as many allege that we do and accuse us of doing, we preach the doctrine of predestination exclusively; still less because we are hard and cruel and have no natural sympathy for mankind in general; but because, in many churches that sail under the Reformed flag, this most important and fundamental truth is forgotten and ignored, or camouflaged and corrupted. They have a copy of the Reformed confessions in the back of their Psalter, but that confession, the very heart of which is the truth of predestination, is scarcely known and certainly does not live in their hearts. Many a preacher carefully avoids in his sermons that truth; and, if he preaches it at all, usually concludes his sermon by contradicting it in the end, presenting the grace of God as a well-meaning offer on the part of God to all, and leaving the impression that salvation is, after all, up to him that willeth and to him that runneth. This we decline to do, first of all, because it concerns the Word of God, which may not, and dare not be corrupted. And secondly, because the truth of predestination is a basic and central truth, with which the Church of Christ stands or falls, as is plain from II Tim. 2:19: "Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity." And therefore, we repeat, we teach the truth of predestination emphatically.
In our radio lectures we propose, the Lord willing, for a few weeks to call special attention to this truth on the basis of Romans 9 and in our present lecture we speak to you on the proper spiritual approach to this doctrine, on the basis of Romans 9:1-3, I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
In this ninth chapter the Word of God introduces, evidently, a new subject: The great question of the rejection of the Jewish nation, involving the exclusion from the Kingdom of God of many individual Israelites according to the flesh, and of the calling of the Gentiles. And the transition from the preceding to the present chapter appears rather abrupt. The connection with the preceding, however, must probably be found in the soul of the apostle Paul. In the eighth chapter of this epistle to the Romans he had been inspired to write a glorious song of triumph on the theme of the security of believers in Christ with respect to their final salvation and the great glory of that salvation which they possess in hope. And especially in the closing verses of that chapter he had ascended the heights of faith, whence he challenged life and death, angels and principalities and powers, heights and depths, things present and things to come, yea, all created things to separate the elect from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord. And the very blessedness of believers of the new dispensation leads him to turn his attention to his kinsmen according to the flesh, the Jews, and causes him to contemplate their sorrowful plight. And thus he is led to write on this new subject of the rejection of the Jews and the calling of the Gentiles in the light of God's absolutely sovereign dealings with both.
The first five verses of chapter nine are introductory. In them the apostle approaches the new problem; and the approach is evidently spiritual and psychological. The apostle reveals what is the attitude of his own soul, his personal sentiment, now he is about to write about the stupendous truth of the rejection and reprobation of his kinsmen according to the flesh. Solemnly he emphasizes that he speaks the truth in Christ, that he lies not, that his conscience in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit, bears him witness that he really speaks the truth, when he declares that in the approach of this new theme he is reminded of a great heaviness of soul and of a continual sorrow in his heart. So great is this heaviness and so profound this sorrow, that he does not hesitate to say that he could wish himself to be accursed from Christ for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh.
What is the meaning of this astounding expression?
Various interpretations have been offered of this last expression, that weaken the true sense of the apostle's words. It has been suggested that a thing accursed is, after all, only a thing devoted to death, so that the apostle probably means nothing more than that he could wish to die for the sake of his brethren. Others have ventured the conjecture that the apostle uses the word accursed in an ecclesiastical sense, and that he only intended to declare that he could wish to be excommunicated from the church. Still others translate: "I did wish," and would explain the apostle's words as referring to the time before he was converted, when he persecuted the Church of Christ. However, all these interpretations are not the result of honest dealing with the exegesis of the text but rather of the objection that the apostle certainly could not wish to be accursed from Christ. Yet, this is exactly what he declares, and the words will have to remain as they stand here, in all their force. What the apostle means is: were I placed before the alternative that my brethren according to the flesh be saved, or I; were I permitted to choose between their salvation and my own, could I effect their salvation by my being accursed, I could indeed wish to be accursed from Christ in their behalf.
We must not, however, misunderstand this strong expression of Paul's. He cannot mean, of course, that as a Christian he could wish for any man's sake that he had no part with Christ, that he were still in his sin, that he were still a natural and wicked man, that he belonged to the enemies of Christ. That would be spiritually impossible. And that would imply a wicked desire. But, in the first place, he speaks according to the flesh to his brethren, who are his kinsmen according to the flesh. He is related to them, and his natural love and pity for them is expressed in these words. And secondly, the apostle is not considering the ethical and spiritual side of the matter, but is rather thinking of the joy of salvation and strongly desiring that all his brethren might share in that joy. He says that he could wish to lose it, to forfeit salvation from that viewpoint for his brethren, his kinsmen according to the flesh.
And looking at it in this light, this passage is very important for us.
First of all, let us note that the apostle's attitude in approaching the tremendous subject of God's absolute sovereignty in election and reprobation is intended by the Word of God as an example for us. When, as children of God, we approach this subject, and speak of God's sovereign predestination, it is but proper that our attitude should be deeply spiritual. It may not be, it could not possibly be the attitude of pride and self-exaltation; for if it pleased God to ordain us unto salvation in distinction from others, it certainly is no cause for us to boast in self. One who really understands the truth of this point will humble himself deeply before God. Let no flesh glory in His Presence. And this also implies that one cannot very well speak of the subject of God's sovereign rejection of the reprobate, who in time are our fellow men, our kinsmen according to the flesh, without feeling to an extent the same heaviness, the same continual sorrow for them which the apostle here so emphatically declares to feel in his heart. No cold-blooded rejoicing in the damnation of our fellow men may characterize our contemplation of God's sovereign dealings with the children of men. The fact that God's predestinating purpose divides our race, makes separation between men of the same flesh and blood, always remains a matter of suffering as long as we are in this present time. And this leads me to another remark. From the viewpoint of our flesh, of our earthly, natural life and relationships, it is not so strange, - barring some theological objections, - to hear the apostle declare that he could wish to be accursed from Christ for his kinsmen according to the flesh. Without wishing to place ourselves on a par with the apostle, we may safely say that, in a degree, we can often repeat these words after him. Just imagine a parent who experiences the grief of seeing one or more of his children walk the way of sin and destruction. Just imagine a pastor, who, in the course of years becomes attached to his flock and earnestly desires their salvation, but who beholds many of them that are not the objects of God's electing love. And what is true of our own flesh and blood in the narrowest sense of the word and of the Church of Christ in the world in general can be applied to mankind as a whole. Out of one blood God has made the whole of the human race, and they are, according to the flesh, all our brethren. And we can understand a little, at least, of the attitude of the apostle when he speaks of the great heaviness that burdens his soul and says that he could wish to be accursed from Christ for his kinsmen according to the flesh. And in as far as we could wish in our present flesh and blood, we could indeed desire all men to be saved.
What then? Shall we hide and corrupt the truth of God's sovereign predestination from purely carnal and humanistic considerations? God forbid We believe the Word of God according to the Scriptures, and in them we trust. And that Word teaches us plainly that God is the Lord, even in regard to the salvation of His own and the damnation of the rest. Even though for a time this antithesis means suffering according to the flesh, by faith we are of the party of the living God, consecrated to Him and to His glory, and are confident that when all the suffering of this present time is past, God will justify Himself, and all flesh shall confess His everlasting righteousness in the damnation of the reprobate as well as in the salvation of the elect. Soli Deo Gloria!
Spiritual and Carnal Children
As has been said, Romans 9 deals with the tremendous question of the rejection of the Jewish nation, involving the exclusion from the kingdom of God of many individual Israelites. And this fact the apostle explains in the light of God's sovereign dealings with men. God chooses and He rejects; and His counsel of predestination sovereignly cuts right through the church visible an earth, making distinction between spiritual and carnal children, children of the promise and children of the flesh. This is taught first of all in Romans 9:6-8, "Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed."
The apostle introduces these words by the statement that the Word of God has not taken none effect, has not "fallen out." This statement is of fundamental importance. The fact that so many of the Jews of the old dispensation and many baptized children of the Church are forever lost is no proof that the promise of God has failed. Frequently Scripture speaks of the promise. Sometimes it uses the singular, "the promise" ; and in other passages it uses the plural, "the promises." Essentially the expression always refers to the same truth. The promise is God's revealed and pledged, yea, sworn purpose of salvation for His people through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is the promise of redemption and deliverance from sin and the inheritance of eternal glory in the kingdom of heaven. It is the promise of the Spirit, the promise of eternal salvation, the promise of life. Now, superficially considered, it would seem that this promise concerns all the children of the Church, both in the old and in the new dispensation. Was not the Word of God to Abraham quite without limitation, "I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, in their generations, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee?" And does not the apostle Peter sound forth the same general promise when, standing at the very entrance of the new dispensation on the day of Pentecost, he proclaims: "For unto you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call ?" But, what then? Is it not a fact, the very fact that looms large before the apostle's mind and that causes him to be filled with heaviness and great sorrow, that many, that the very large majority of the descendants of Abraham, never received the promise; that thousands upon thousands of the seed of Abraham in the old dispensation perished; that at the very moment when the promise of God entered upon its realization the nation of Israel was definitely rejected, and that the hearts of many individual Jews were so hardened that they were closed to the influence of the gospel? And must not the same be said of the children of believers in the new dispensation? How many of them receive the seal of God's covenant in infancy, are instructed in the way of God's covenant from their youth, in order to spurn and despise the promises of God and choose the way of destruction even unto the bitter end? How, then, shall we explain this glaring fact in the light of the promise of God concerning Abraham and his seed, concerning believers and their children?
Many there are who, as they face this question, take refuge in the explanation that the promise of God is contingent upon the consent and acceptance of the promise by the seed of Abraham, by the children of believers. The promise, they say, is for all the natural seed of Abraham and for all the children of believers. They are all, without exception, comprehended in the covenant of God. From God's side the covenant is established with them; on God's part the promise to them is ''Yea and amen.'' This, they claim, is the privilege of all that are born of believers in the Church of Christ, that God sincerely holds out His promise to them and promises them the blessings of salvation without distinction. Only, when they come to years of discretion, they must accept their covenant obligations. Upon this the promise is contingent. And if the promise is not accepted, they simply cannot receive it. Thus it was in the old dispensation: the promise to Abraham and his seed includes, indeed, all the natural seed of Abraham; but thousands for whom the promise was intended failed to accept God's offer of salvation. Hence, many of the children of the promise were lost. And the same failure to accept the promise explains why so many children of believers in the new dispensation, for whom the promise is intended, are cast out and rejected.
Let us not fail to note, however, that this explanation is quite contrary to the Word of God in our text. For the apostle writes that the Word of God has not become of none effect. Yet, according to the explanation just mentioned, this is exactly what happened. God's promise was for all; yet, in the case of thousands upon thousands this promise failed of its realization. O, I know, and fully understand, and admit, that in the way of their unbelief and iniquity they were lost. But I deny that this can serve as an explanation of the fact that God did not fulfill His promise in them. Are not all the children of Abraham by nature alike? Are not all the children of the covenant by nature dead in trespasses and sins, as they are born? Is any one of them by nature able to enter into the covenant of God, to believe and hope in the promise, unless God first realizes His promise unto them? How, then, shall children of believers ever become spiritual children of the promise, unless God takes the initiative and realizes His promise? If, then, God's promise is for all the seed of Abraham, and if by nature all the children of Abraham according to the flesh are alike unable to render themselves worthy or receptive for the promise of God, it follows that the Word of God has fallen out, has become of none effect, has utterly failed in the case of those children of Abraham that never receive the promise.
But, as has been stated, this is contrary to the Word of God in our text. "Not as if the word of God has taken none effect," the apostle writes. The Word of God is the Word of God. It is never contingent upon man. It is never dependent upon the creature for its realization. Its realization depends on God alone, and He is the Amen; He is the Rock; whatever may fail, His Word faileth never. And also in this case it did not fall out, not even in the case of them that were lost. All to whomsoever the promise was given and pertained were surely saved. Not one of them perished. But from this it follows that the Word of God in question was limited in its scope, and that the promise did not pertain to all the carnal seed of Abraham. That is the explanation of the Word of God here. They are not all Israel that are of Israel, that are descendants of Jacob; neither are they all children, true children of God, because they are the seed of Abraham. The children of the flesh are not children of God, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. The truth of this explanation is demonstrated by the example of Isaac. Abraham had more sons. At the time of Isaac's birth he was already father of the son of Hagar, the bond-woman. And after his marriage with Keturah he gained several more children. It cannot be denied that all these children of Abraham were included in the "seed" of Abraham in the natural sense of the term. Yet, God plainly limits His promise to Isaac. "In Isaac shall thy seed he called."
What is the meaning of the expression "the children of the promise"? Does the term simply mean the same as if the apostle had written, "the promised children"? Thus some interpret the phrase. Or, is the meaning, as others would interpret, children to whom the promise pertains, that are heirs of the blessed promise of God? 'To be sure, the children of the promise were also promised children, and the promised blessing was for them. But the expression "children of the promise" has a deeper significance.
Frequently Scripture speaks of the promise. And children of the promise are those that were brought forth by the power of the promise. The promise is, as it were, their mother. God brings them forth by realizing His word of promise in them. Hence, they are those in whom the promise of redemption has been realized in principle: spiritual children, born not of the flesh but of the Spirit. That is the real meaning of the expression "children of promise." This may be gathered not only from the expression itself, but also from a comparison with the expression as it occurs in Galatians 4:23, 28: "But he who was of the bond-woman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. The phrase "by promise" in verse 23 literally reads in the original "through the promise." Isaac was born through the means of, by the power of the promise. So we are also "children of the promise as Isaac was." And that this refers indeed to their spiritual birth is evident if we compare verse 29 of the same chapter of Galatians: "But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now." By nature, apart from the power of the promise of God, we are born after the flesh. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. But by the promise of God we are horn of the Spirit and after the Spirit. For that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. And therefore, children of the promise are spiritual children in whom God wrought and realized the power of His promise of salvation.
Hence, only the children of the promise are children of God, according to the text. They are those whom God adopted as His children in Christ before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died and rose again that they might have the right of sonship, and in whom God realizes this adoption by, the Spirit of grace. And only the children of the promise, who are the real children of God, are also the real Israel: ''For they are not all Israel which are of Israel." And again: only "the children of the promise are counted for the seed.'' The rest, even though they are born of Abraham, even though they are born in the church, of believers, and are baptized, are not included in the promise of God. Even though they are under the covenant, they are not in the covenant. They are carnal, sinful, and remain carnal. And their very close proximity to the covenant of God, their living, as it were, as carnal children in the house of God, simply brings to manifestation all the more clearly their wicked and carnal nature. But the promise of God never fails, but runs in the line of election: "For men verily swear by the greater and an oath for confirmation is to them the end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath." Heb. 6:17. God's counsel of election and reprobation cuts right through the Church, and within the Church makes separation and distinction between carnal and spiritual children.
Now, what is the relation between these two kinds of seed in the same line of the generation of the people of God; and what is the significance of the carnal seed within the Church?
Outwardly and for time, they are one people. In the stricter sense this was the case in the old dispensation, when the line of the covenant was confined within the limits of the nation of Israel. Nor is it different in the new dispensation. The Church in the world is the gathering of confessing believers and their children. And they form one people, even though the course of God's covenant is no longer confined to one nation. And to this one people God reveals His covenant. They are called after his name, and outwardly all that belong to them are subject to the same dealing. We are all baptized in the name of God Triune. To all the Word is preached. All celebrate the Lord Supper. All, young and old, are instructed in the knowledge of God and our Savior Jesus Christ. Yet also to the Church of the new dispensation, also to us as the Church of Christ in the world, the Word of God applies: ''All is not Israel that is of Israel." Always there are the children of the promise, the true, spiritual seed; and again there also develops always again the carnal seed, that live in close proximity and outward fellowship with the spiritual seed, dwell in the same house with the latter, are subject to the same influences as these, but are not children of the promise and receive not the grace of God in their hearts.
And the presence of the carnal children is of great significance to the Church of Christ.
First of all, it may be remarked that they are a cause of continual sorrow, of the great sorrow of which the apostle speaks in the beginning of this chapter. They are of our own flesh and blood, and we greatly and earnestly desire the salvation of them that are dear to us. What is there that parents would more earnestly desire for their children than that they all may walk in the fear of the Lord and be saved? And what is true of parents in relation to their children applies to a pastor, to the office-bearers in general, to the whole congregation with respect to all the individual sheep of the flock to which they belong. They rejoice when the children of God's covenant grow up as children of the promise and serve the Lord. Such is their constant prayer. To this end they labor, preach, instruct, admonish, rebuke, encourage, comfort, publicly and privately, in the midst of the gatherings of the Church and in individual contact. Yet, not all become manifest as children of the promise. Many despise the birthright, as Esau. You labor with them, you pay special attention to them; when they become wayward and indifferent, more labor is bestowed on them than upon those that constantly walk in the way's of the covenant. You admonish them; you pray with them; but it is of no avail: they despise the spiritual blessings of the kingdom of God; they trample under foot God's covenant; and finally, they forsake the fellowship of God or are excommunicated from the Church, to seek their delight in the pleasures of sin. This is a great sorrow and a grievous burden to bear as long as we are in the earthly house of this tabernacle. Our flesh cries out when God's sovereign mercy cuts right through the midst of the seed of Abraham to separate the children of the promise from the carnal seed.
But there is more.
It is because of the presence of the carnal seed, especially, that the Church on earth is always in danger of apostatizing from the truth. How clearly this is illustrated in the history of the people of Israel in the old dispensation. How the carnal element abounded in their midst! How they always led Israel astray to serve other gods, to seek the pleasures of sin, to bring the terrible wrath of Jehovah upon the nation. The same is still true: the carnal element in the Church on earth always tends to corrupt the truth, to expose the Church to every wind of doctrine. It is they that find the way of the kingdom too narrow, that would broaden it out to make room for them that follow after their fleshly lusts, that would amalgamate the Church and the world. and for that reason desire to draw the world into the Church.
And thus, finally, it is by this carnal element that the measure of iniquity is filled, and from the carnal seed the antichristian power is constantly developing until the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, the culmination of all the forces of iniquity. It is in the carnal seed that sin becomes manifest in all its horror. With them the children of the promise are engaged in continual spiritual warfare, until the days come in which there shall be great tribulation, days in which the very elect would be deceived if they were not shortened for their sake.
Watch, therefore Let us not say: "We have Abraham to our father." All are not Israel that are of Israel; neither are the'. all children of God because they are of Abraham's natural seed. Nor ever say that the Word of God has fallen out. For God realizes His promises in all His people. His word never fails. But walk as spiritual children of God in Christ, watching and praying individually, and as a church, that no one take our crown!
Separation Between Twin Brothers
We now approach what has often been considered a locus classicus, one of the main passages that prove the truth of predestination. I refer, of course, to Romans 9:10-13, "And not only this; but when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth) it was said unto her, the elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." And because of the extreme importance of this passage for the truth we are now considering, as well as because the opponents of this truth have attempted to distort the plain meaning of these words, we will proceed somewhat slowly and deliver more than one lecture on the same passage.
Let us note, first of all, that this passage, in which the apostle adduces the example of Jacob and Esau, is in more than one respect an advance over the preceding part of this chapter: first of all, because he refers to the deepest cause and ground of the distinction between Jacob and Esau. This ground is to be found in God's free and sovereign predestination. This was not mentioned in the preceding verses. There the apostle had merely stated that not all the children of the flesh are also children of the promise, without pointing to the determining cause of the distinction between the two-fold seed. In our text, however, the apostle traces this distinction to its ultimate cause: God's purpose according to election must stand and must become plainly manifest. Secondly, it brings out more sharply than the preceding verses the fact that not the natural birth from Abraham determines who shall be children of the promise. Jacob and Esau were children of the same parents, which was not true with respect to Isaac, on the one hand, and Ishmael and the children of Keturah, on the other. The latter were, indeed, children of Abraham; but Sarah, the mother of the promise, was not their mother; and therefore it might be argued that the promise pertained to Isaac in distinction from his half-brothers because he, after all, was the only true, natural seed of Abraham. But this argument would not apply to the example of Jacob and Esau: they were children of the same parents. In the third place, the example is still more forcible because Jacob and Esau were twin brothers as far as their origin was concerned, there was no natural difference between the two. In the fourth place, all the more striking this illustration proves to be when we consider that from a natural point of view Esau certainly should have the pre-eminence over Jacob: for the former was the first-born, and, therefore, possessed the birth-right. This is emphasized in the text when it recalls the Word of God to Rebecca that the elder shall serve the younger. In the fifth place, note that it is also emphasized in the text that the distinction between the two brothers was not based upon any work on their part, for they had done neither good or evil. Finally, the text states that the cause of the distinction between the two brothers is in the purpose of God, for the purpose according to election must stand. And all this is emphasized by the quotation which the apostle makes from Malachi 1:2-4: "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated."
Now, let us consider the text a little more in detail.
The Word of God, "he elder shall serve the younger," was spoken to Rebecca. She had gone to inquire of Jehovah, for she was pregnant, and she perceived that her condition was strange and extraordinary. For the children struggled within her. Feeling, perhaps, that this strange phenomenon might be a sign from the Lord, she was persuaded to seek the light of divine revelation. And the Lord answered her inquiry as follows, "Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels and the one people shall be stronger than the other people and the elder shall serve the younger.'' Gen. 25:23. The last clause only is quoted by the apostle Paul in our text. And the meaning of this is plainly that the blessing of the covenant, that usually was bestowed on the first-born, in this case should be for the younger son not Esau, the first-born, but Jacob would inherit the promise.
In passing let me remark that the name Jacob is indeed a very good name. You could never call your child Esau, but to call him Jacob would be perfectly proper. The name does not mean, as many explain, ''deceiver,'' but means literally, ''heel-holder,'' and refers to the fact that Jacob laid his hand upon the heel of his twin brother Esau in the womb. It is true that there is a carnal element in the name because Jacob before his conversion at Peniel, where ''by his strength he had power with God'' and conquered by weeping and supplication, Hos. 12:3,4, thought that he had to help God along by his deceit. Yet, fundamentally, his holding of the heel of Esau in the womb was a sign, in fact, maybe more than a sign, maybe it was an unconscious urge to conquer his profane brother and be the first-born, heir of the promise and of the covenant of God. The name Jacob, therefore, fundamentally refers to the zeal for God's covenant and kingdom. Principally, Jacob may be compared to "the violent," that take the kingdom of heaven by force, of which Jesus speaks in distinction from the weak and miserable generation of His time, according to Matt. 11:12-19.
You remember the passage. The men of His generation the Savior compares to ''children sitting in the markets and calling unto their fellows, And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced we have mourned unto you, and ye have not wept.'' John the Baptist preached the kingdom of heaven neither eating nor drinking, and before him they piped and when John would not dance, they said that he had a devil. Before Jesus, however, who came eating and drinking, they mourned, and when He would not weep, they accused Him of being a glutton and a winebibber. Always, whether John or Jesus preached, they found an excuse not to enter the kingdom of heaven. In sharp distinction from these stand the "violent,'' who take the kingdom of heaven by force. Whether John or Jesus preaches it, they want to enter in. To these ''violent'' or spiritually strong, Jacob belonged. That is the significance of his having his brother by the heel in the womb. Jacob, therefore, is a good name.
But this by way of a digression.
Now let us return to the text.
What was God's purpose in revealing to Rebecca before the children were born that not both of her sons, neither the elder of the two, but only the younger should inherit the promise? The answer is found in the words of our text: '' ... that the purpose of God according to election might stand.'' Now, God's purpose is that which He eternally determines from before the foundation of the world according to His sovereign good pleasure. In this case, the purpose of God concerns the realization of the promise, the bestowal of the covenant blessing. This purpose is realized according to election, that is, it is not on all, not even on all the natural seed of Abraham, that God purposes to bestow the blessing of the promise. On the contrary, His predestinating purpose distinguishes and makes separation even between the natural descendants of the father of believers. Only on His own elect, whom He has sovereignly known from before the foundation of the world, He purposes to bestow the covenant blessing. What this purpose of God according to election with respect to Jacob and Esau signifies is also expressed in Malachi 1:2-4. The apostle quotes from this passage when he writes: ''As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.''
Curious are the attempts that have been made by those who shrink from the truth of God's sovereign predestination to distort this significant expression. Not only are there who would fain weaken the sense and read: "Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I loved less''; but the words are even changed into their very opposite, and interpreted as if the apostle had written "Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I loved also." How far either of these interpretations is from the truth is evident, when we read these words in their context as they occur in Malachi 1:2-4. There we read: "I have loved you, saith the Lord. Yet we say. Wherein hast thou loved us? Was not Esau Jacob's brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau, and laid his mountains and his heritage waste for the dragons of the wilderness. Whereas Edom saith, We are impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places; thus saith the Lord of hosts, They shall build, but I will throw down; and they shall call them, The border of wickedness, and, The people against whom the Lord hath indignation forever." Surely, in the light of these words it cannot be maintained that the quotation from them which occurs in the words of our text signifies that God loved Esau, too, or merely that He loved him less than Jacob. The text as it occurs in Romans 9 can only have reference to the love and hatred of God's sovereign and eternal good pleasure: and it may be paraphrased as follows: Jacob have I eternally accepted in love; Esau have I eternally rejected as the object of my sovereign hatred.
But it has also been objected that this election is not personal, but national. Also this objection, however, is quite void of force. In the first place, we may reply that even if this were the case, and the expression "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated," were to be applied to the nations of Edom and Israel, this application would not alter the case in the least. Is not a nation composed of the sum total of its individual members? And is it not true, therefore, that what is applicable to the nation, in this case, is no less to be applied to the individuals that constitute the nation? Even if we could adopt this interpretation, the fact would remain that the persons of Edom and the Edomites, as they are included in the nation of Edom, are the objects of God's sovereign displeasure, and are excluded from the promise of the covenant by the determining purpose of God. Secondly, is it not quite evident that even this interpretation would not at all exclude, but include the persons of Jacob and Esau? And that is applicable to the nations that sprang from them is of equal force with reference to their persons. But, besides, how contrary to the entire context is such an interpretation of this passage. The apostle refers to Jacob and Esau as an illustration of the fact that not all the descendants of Abraham are children of the promise. He is not writing of nations and national distinctions, but of individual children of Abraham and of the evident truth that not all the natural seed, not all the individual descendants of the father of believers, are included in the promise. The entire context shows plainly that the apostle is speaking of the distinction God's sovereign purpose according to election makes between persons of the same origin.
Still more curious is the explanation of Barth. Predestination according to him does not refer to any quantitative distinction between persons, but merely to a qualitative difference. Esau and Jacob are types of the church. Esau is the church visible on earth, as it is known to us. As such the church is reprobate, carnal, under the judgment and under the wrath of God. Jacob, however, is the church from God's viewpoint, elect and hidden in God's counsel, and the object of the love of God. Jacob and Esau, therefore, refer really to the same persons. Jacob is Esau from the point of view of this present time. Esau is Jacob from the point of view of election. It is only by faith and through the revelation of God in what Barth calls the "eternal moment'' that Esau apprehends that God loves him in His eternal counsel as Jacob.
All these objections and interpretations cannot stand for one moment in the light of the clear statement of the text that it refers not to nations, to the nations of Israel and Edom, or to certain typical persons, but to the concrete, historical persons of Jacob and Esau. And, therefore, there can be no dispute about the fact that the words, ''Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,'' refer to the twin brothers personally.
Hence, we must come to the conclusion that the Word of God in our text, just as in numerous other places, teaches the doctrine of personal election and reprobation. This doctrine of personal election does not merely mean that God chose and ordained an arbitrary number of persons unto salvation and eternal life, so that it would have made no difference had He chosen a greater or smaller number. There never is anything arbitrary in the work of God. All His work is characterized by infinite wisdom and intelligent purpose. God chose not an arbitrary number, but He ordained a Church, an organic whole, the body of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in order that the riches of glory, of His Son, might shine forth in that Church as a whole, each individual member in his own way and in his own place serving that one purpose, and that so the glory of God might become manifest in the vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory. Nor is there any arbitrariness in the counsel of reprobation or in the number of the reprobate for even as the chaff must serve the wheat, so the reprobate must be subservient to the realization and the glorification of the elect Church of Christ. But the truth of personal election does signify that God sovereignly determined just how many and who were to have a place in that glorified Church, as well as the very place each of them should occupy in glory, and with equal sovereignty determined how many and who should have no place in that Church, but be vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. For salvation is not of man it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And no flesh must ever glory in his presence.
Founded in God's Good Pleasure Alone
We were discussing the passage from Rom. 9:10-13, and I will not take time now to quote it again. Only, in the present lecture I must call special attention to the words of verse 11: "(For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth.) " These words state very plainly that predestination is not based upon works or upon foreseen faith, but rests only in the good pleasure of the Most High.
We must bear in mind that the doctrine of God's sovereignty and of His free determination with respect to the salvation of men is not according to man. Many there are, and always have been, that object to this truth and all its implications. There were not many periods the history of the church of Christ in the new dispensation which she was strong enough to maintain and to confess the truth of God's sovereign predestination in all its purity according to the Scriptures. And ours is certainly not a time in which we expect that the faithful professors of this truth abound. Even those who officially profess to believe this truth usually prefer to keep silent about it; and when they are required to give an account of this strange, ambiguous attitude, they answer that the doctrine of sovereign predestination is a mystery, belongs to the hidden things of Cod with which we have nothing to do. The revealed things, thus they argue, are for us and our children. And this revealed will, which in the minds of those who assume this ambiguous position usually implies that God is willing to save all and that the gospel is a general offer of salvation on the part of God, must have all the emphasis in the ministry of the Word and the preaching of the gospel of Christ. The doctrine of a general will of God unto salvation is maintained alongside of the truth of sovereign election and particular grace and the former is emphasized to the exclusion of the latter. And when it is objected that such a position is absurd and untenable, the defenders of this position usually seek a haven of refuge in the well-known excuse that this is an insoluble mystery and that we must maintain both sides of this dilemma without curiously inquiring into the deep things of God. This false and ambiguous position has proved more dangerous to the maintenance of the pure truth of Scripture concerning God's sovereign predestination than professed free willism. For under the Reformed flag the entire cargo of Arminian heresy is smuggled into the Church.
However, in this present lecture we are more concerned with the theory of the Arminians. They also pretend to believe in the doctrine of election and, of course, of reprobation. But they explain it in such a way that it is really contingent upon the works and the faith and the free will of man. Granted, they say, that Scripture teaches personal election and reprobation and that this sovereign predestination determines the eternal state of the predestinated, this cannot possibly imply that God in predestinating has no regard for the character and works of those that are so predestinated. The ultimate ground upon which, and the reason why one is elected unto eternal life while another is rejected unto eternal desolation cannot be the mere sovereign good pleasure of the Most High. This, they claim would be arbitrary; it would present God as a cruel tyrant. Predestination. therefore, rests on the part of God in His foreknowledge of the character and works of man, and on the part of man is based on his foreseen works and, therefore, ultimately on the free will of man. God elected, according to the doctrine of the Arminians, those whom He foreknew would be willing to believe in Christ and to persevere in that faith and He reprobated them that were by Him foreknown as unwilling thus to believe and persevere. Only thus, they claim, can man's freedom be explained and maintained in the light of God's predestinating purpose; and only on the basis of this presentation of the truth of election and reprobation can the gospel be preached that whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely.
We like to emphasize in this connection that the doctrine of predestination is not at all in conflict with the gospel promise that whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life. This we also preach without any distortion or limitation of the words. Surely, whosoever will may come. And what is more, they may have the assurance that they will be received, seeing that their will to come is already the fruit of God's grace. The Lord Himself gives them the assurance that they that come unto Him He will in no wise cast out. And the promise of rest is for all that are laboring and heavy laden and will come unto Christ. No one will ever be able to say that on his part he was willing to come to Christ and to receive salvation, while God rejected him. But this is the difference between the pure Scriptural truth of predestination and its Arminian corruption, that according to the latter the will to believe is the ground of God's election, while according to the former the will to come is the fruit and outcome of God's predestinating grace.
But suppose we adopt for a moment for the sake of argument the Arminian conception. God has foreknown from all eternity those who would believe in Christ and those who would reject Him; and He unchangeably predestinated the former unto eternal life and the latter unto everlasting damnation. Would this really gain for man the so eagerly desired freedom to determine upon the matter of his own eternal state? Is even then not the eternal state of the elect and of the reprobate immutably fixed and determined? Can even God's foreknowledge be changed? To return to the words of our text, does not God unchangeably know that Esau will be wicked; that he will prove to be a fornicator, profane that he will despise his birthright if it is placed within his reach; that he will stumble at that stone, and that it were better for him had he never possessed the birthright, yea, that he never had been born? And yet does not God sovereignly place him in the position of the firstborn and put the stone of stumbling in his way? Furthermore, can it be said that while God eternally and unchangeably foreknew that Esau would be lost forever, according to the divine intention Christ died for him? Speaking in general, is it conceivable that God seriously gave His only begotten Son unto the death of the cross for the salvation of them who in His foreknowledge are unchangeably predestined unto damnation? It will be evident that the Arminian cannot be permitted to retain the semblance of the truth of God's sovereign predestination. If one desires to present the salvation of man as contingent upon his own will, he must deny predestination in any form. One must choose between the sovereignty of man and the sovereignty of God. There is no alternative.
However, this Arminian presentation of the doctrine of predestination is contrary both to the context and to the text itself. Especially if we view the text in the light of what follows in the chapter, it ought to be very evident that the apostle had in mind no such view as that of the Arminians. For why should he in that case conceive of the objection which he himself expresses in the question, "Is there then unrighteousness with God?" or why again should he consider the other objection often raised by sinful men, "Why does he yet find fault, for who hath resisted his will?" It is evident that, considered in the light of the Arminian view, these objections are simply meaningless and have no sense or force whatsoever. But also in conflict with the text is the view that God's predestination rests upon His foreknowledge of the works of men. For the apostle emphatically states that the Word of God, which was the revelation of the purpose of God according to election, came to Rebecca before the children were born, neither had done good or evil. Had the Word of God come to Rebecca after the children had grown up and after it had become manifest that Esau was a wicked fornicator while Jacob was the true child of the covenant, she might have drawn the conclusion that God distinguished the brothers on the basis of their own works. But now the purpose of God according to election must stand. Hence, this purpose is revealed to her before the children were born, neither had distinguished themselves by their works, whether good or evil. From this it is evident that it was God's purpose to show unto Rebecca that His counsel of election and reprobation with regard to Jacob and Esau was entirely independent of their works and rested solely in His own sovereign good pleasure.
The text, therefore, makes it very plain that God's predestination is absolutely sovereign and has nothing to do with the works or even the faith of man as a ground of His predestinating counsel. The only ground of His love of the elect and His sovereign hatred of the reprobate is in Himself. He chose to life and He rejected to death according to His sovereign will. He alone determined from before the foundation of the world who would and who would not have a place in that Church in which forever the glory of His grace will be manifest and shine forth.
We conclude, therefore, that the predestination of Jacob and Esau is a personal election and reprobation, that it is an election and reprobation unto eternal salvation and eternal desolation respectively, and that it rests in God's sovereign good pleasure alone. And this truth is taught not only in this passage, but is corroborated by all of Scripture. Jacob and Esau are types of the elect and reprobate, for God has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places with Christ, according as He has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world. Eph. 1:3, 4. And in Christ we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will. Eph. 1:11. To the unbelieving Jews the Lord says openly that they believe not because they are not of his sheep. John 10:26. His sheep are those whom the Father gave Him. John 10:29. And they hear His voice and follow Him, and He knows them and gives unto them eternal life, and they shall never perish. In Mark 4:11, 12, we read that Jesus explains the purpose of His teaching in parables as follows: "And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them." In John 12:37-41 we read: "But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him." And, to quote one more, in I Peter 2:7-9 we read: "Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."
It has often been objected to this doctrine that it offers no comfort to the wicked or to the sinner. But in reply we may ask: is there then any form of presentation of the gospel that could possibly comfort the wicked and the reprobate? As long as a man walks in the way of iniquity, there is no comfort for him in the whole of Scripture. And the pure, unadulterated truth of predestination maintains even over against him, yea, over against all the workers of iniquity, and even over against the devil and his host, that God is God and that He executes His counsel and realizes His sovereign purpose even in them. Not even in their wickedness and in their deliberate walking in the way of destruction and of everlasting damnation are they able to boast that in doing so they frustrate the will of God concerning them, or are effectively opposing the Most High. Even in hell they will have to confess on the one hand that God is righteous and that their condemnation is just, but also that their eternal desolation has its ultimate cause in God's sovereign predestinating purpose. Hell will confess that God is good and that He is the sovereign God indeed.
But for the godly this doctrine is the ground of his assurance and the source of all his comfort. And comfort it is for him at every stage of his spiritual development and in all circumstances of his life. Are you seeking? Know, then, that you shall surely find: for the fact of your seeking is the indubitable evidence that God has sought you first. Are you knocking? It surely shall be opened unto you: for the fact of your knocking is already the fruit of His grace. Are you weak and wavering? His counsel shall surely stand, and you shall never perish. Are you a confirmed believer? You will know, then, that no one shall pluck you out of His hand: for He will perfect the work which He began and surely preserve His own even unto the very end, so that they can never be lost.
But not only is the truth of God's predestination a source of rich consolation and a ground of firm assurance to the godly; it is also a reason for profound humiliation before God and men. After all, the Arminian doctrine is a proud error: for it teaches after all that salvation is based upon the works and free will of man. But the truth of sovereign predestination emphasizes that God is all and man is nothing. There is absolutely no reason to boast. And the end of the matter is: "He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord."
The Righteousness of God's Sovereign Mercy
We now continue our discussion of the truth of predestination as taught in that marvelous ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. And this time we call your attention especially to Romans 9:14-16: "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy in whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy." Note, in the first place, that this passage is introduced by a most significant question: "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?" Notice, in the second place, that the epistle appeals for an answer to God Himself, and that he does not attempt to solve the problem by his own philosophy: "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." And notice, finally, that the apostle concludes by emphasizing anew the truth of God's predestinating purpose when he writes: ''So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy." Also this time we shall have to go slowly, for the matter is extremely important, and it is our earnest desire to make very plain to all our hearers, whether they will accept this truth or not, that we are nevertheless teaching nothing but the pure Word of God. Surely, in regard to this tremendous truth of predestination our own speculation and philosophy means nothing. We have to be silent, and just listen to the Word of God.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?
The little word then refers undoubtedly, first of all, to the very immediate context. There the apostle had adduced the example of Jacob and Esau to prove the matter of God's sovereignty in regard to the salvation of men. Jacob and Esau were of the same parents. They were, moreover, twin brothers. And from a natural point of view Esau had the pre-eminence, for he was the firstborn. Yet, the Word of God came to Rebecca when she went to inquire of the Lord concerning her extraordinary condition that the elder should serve the younger. And this was said unto her before the children were born, neither had done any good or evil, in order that the purpose of God according to election might stand. And this sovereign, predestinating purpose of God was moreover, plainly expressed in that which was written, Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.'' It is in close connection with this example that the question now is raised: What shall we say then? If the matter stands thus with the salvation of man in the light of God's predestinating purpose, what shall be, what necessarily must be our conclusion concerning God? Shall we say that there is unrighteousness with God, when He chooses the one and rejects the other without regard even to their work?
This is, indeed, an amazing question. Although we certainly cannot agree with Dr. Barth's interpretation of the passage, yet, from a merely formal point of view, he undoubtedly paraphrases this question correctly when he writes: "Is it not inevitable that from the highest pinnacle of human faith there should ring out the mad questioning cry, 'Is not such a God unrighteous?' Yes, is He not indeed a capricious, spiteful demon, seeking to make fools of us all? Does He not rebel against the law of righteousness which He ought to obey? Can anything be so revolting to us as the majestic secrecy of one who is incomprehensible, unapproachable, inaccessible, self-sufficient, and completely free? Must we not all, all of us, cry out instinctively that such an one cannot and must not be God?"
Yes, indeed, the question is very bold and extremely presumptuous. Imagine the audacity and presumption of the creature, of mere sinful man, that would undertake to summon the Must High, the absolute Sovereign of heaven and earth before the tribunal of His own judgment in order to determine whether or not He were guilty of unrighteousness. Such an attitude over against the supreme Judge of heaven and earth is, of course, absurd and absolutely impossible. But, secondly, what if the answer which we would give to this bold question should happen to be in the affirmative, and we would indeed pass a verdict of guilty in this impossible and inconceivable trial? Would this, then, change the truth of God's absolute sovereignty? Would He not still be God, Who performs all His good pleasure, and would not the ultimate conclusion in such a case have to be that our condition is absolutely hopeless, seeing that Go, Who is nevertheless God, is found guilty of unrighteousness? Yet, the question must be put, for the apostle is writing about the truth of God's sovereign grace, according to which salvation is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth, but of God's predestinating mercy. And this truth meets with many objections in the sinful heart and mind of man. And it is one of these objections which the apostle intercepts by the question: ''What shall we say then ? Is there unrighteousness with God?"
To be sure, as we have said before, many there are who must have nothing of the truth of God's absolute sovereignty. First they may make an attempt to show that the Word of God is on their side, and that it teaches no such thing as absolute election and reprobation. And when this fails, -- because the language of Scripture is too plain to be denied, -- they begin to judge the truth and introduce objections of human invention, arguments that are not derived from the Word of God but from their own mind. The purpose usually is to bring the truth into discredit and thus to show that it cannot be the truth, that it is not acceptable. The untenableness of this doctrine is set forth. Its absurdity is proved. The cruelty and the injustice that is implied is emphasized. It is called a monstrous, horrible doctrine. And well we are acquainted with some of these objections of the human mind. The opponents never weary of repeating them. If it is true,. they say, that God determines with absolute sovereignty in the matter of salvation of man, if He loves the one and hates the other before the foundation of the world, even before they have done either good or evil, then God is the author of sin. If you teach the doctrine of absolute predestination, you must needs deny the responsibility and freedom of man. Then you make men careless and profane, for they will say: "If we are elect, we shall be saved and if we are not elect, we cannot be saved anyway." Then you make of God an arbitrary, cruel tyrant; then your God is devoid of justice and righteousness. And such a God we simply do not want. God is a God of love, and He seeks the salvation of all men. And if men are not saved, it is because they do not want to come to Christ. Salvation is of him that willeth and of him that runneth, not of God that is absolutely sovereign, and sovereignly shows His mercy to whomsoever He wills.
These objections and arguments of human invention are as old as the truth. Wherever the truth of divine predestination was taught and preached, from the earliest times of the history of the Church, it met with bitter opposition. And our text shows that this was the case even in the times of the apostles. Paul knows that the truth that God is sovereign in the matter of salvation will not be received by the sinful heart and mind of man, that it will meet with opposition in the world. Men will raise objections against this teaching. And some of the most weighty of these objections he therefore considers in this chapter. In our text he intercepts the objection that there is unrighteousness with God if He loves Jacob and hates Esau without regard to their works. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? And the apostle answers immediately and emphatically: "God forbid."
But is this answer sufficient? Must there not be more than a simple denial of God's unrighteousness? Must not the people of God meet arguments with arguments on this score? To be sure, attempts have been made to do so. God-fearing people have tried to show that God's sovereign predestination is justifiable, and the attempt was well-meant. A very common mode of defense was, and still is, that which proceeds from the fact that all men have sinned and, therefore, are worthy of damnation. God is not obliged, therefore, they say, to be merciful to any still less to all. No one could accuse Him of unrighteousness if He would leave all men in their damnable state. How much less does the indictment hold how God is merciful to some and saved them to the glory of His sovereign grace. And we must admit that there is an element of truth in this argument, but it is no final and satisfactory answer. For, to say the least, could not God have prevented the entrance of sin into the world? And seeing that it is certainly according to His own counsel that sin came into the world, is there then no unrighteousness with God when He sovereignly determines to leave some in their damnation and prepare them as vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction?
We shall, therefore, not attempt to meet the arguments of the opponents with any human reasoning. We shall not presume to justify God by summoning Him before the bar of human reason and clearing Him of all guilt. For God is always God. He is always Judge: He is never defendant. We are always judged by Him; but He cannot be judged by us. Neither do we justify Him, but He always justifies Himself. We can never say anything of ourselves about God. If we do, we will surely lie found liars. Thus, we are always thrown back upon the Word God Himself. If we would know God, Who isreally God, the living God, we must needs listen, never speak. If then, we would have an answer to the question, if in all sincerity arid truth, and not in an attitude of rebellion and opposition to the truth, we put the question: Is there then unrighteousness with God? --we shall have to turn to the Holy Scriptures for an answer and inquire what God will say.
And this is exactly what the apostle does in the words our text. ''Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses...." It is the Most High Himself that answers the question and He answers it by emphasizing His sovereign prerogative as God and as the Lord of all. For that is the implication of the answer: ''I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." We have not time now to go into this passage in detail. The Lord willing, we will do so in a following lecture. However. it must be plain that these words which are quoted from Exodus 33:19 merely emphasize that God is sovereign in His mercy, and that in Hs sovereignty He is righteous.
Let us briefly analyze and review the situation that is called to our mind by the words of Exodus 33. They were spoken first of all to Israel as a nation, as they had been delivered with a mighty hand from the house of bondage in Egypt, had been led through the Red Sea and were now encamped at Mount Sinai. And the people had grievously sinned: they had violated the covenant of God by making and worshipping the golden calf. Jehovah threatens to destroy this people that had rebelled against Him and trampled His covenant under foot. But Moses pleads for mercy. And he pleads not only that God will forgive the sins of His people, but He also implores the Lord that He Himself will go up before the people and lead them to the promised land. And Jehovah heard the supplication of His servant, and granted his request. Still he is not satisfied. He must have not the mere assurance that Jehovah would go up with them and be in their midst, but he wants the promise that the Lord would go up with them in His favor. God must be gracious to them, He must be good to Israel. That goodness of Jehovah he would see. And he beseeches Him: "Show me thy glory." And even this bold request the Lord will grant His servant. He will make all His goodness to pass before Moses, and He will proclaim before him the Name of the Lord. Yet, even so, Moses must learn to understand that this goodness is not for all that are called Israel, that Jehovah is sovereign in the dispensation of His mercy: "And I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." Exodus 33:18,19.
These last words are quoted by the apostle in the words of our text. And their meaning is very plain: God maintains His sovereignty in bestowing His mercy on whomsoever He wills, even making separation between Israel and Israel. The answer of God to Moses, who is anxious about the people of God in the desert, is: yes, God is merciful unto His people; but He will not be merciful unto all these people: they are not all Israel, though they be of Israel. And the question, who belong to the true Israel of God and who do not, is not determined by the worth or will of man, but only by the sovereign will of God. He is merciful to whom He will be merciful, and hath compassion on whom He wills. Such is His sovereign prerogative, and there is no unrighteousness with Him. That is His own Word. And His Word comes to us and we believe. There is no unrighteousness with God, and God forbid that we should ever say or think that there is. But He is merciful unto whom He will be merciful. It is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth. Humble yourselves before Him. For if you will and run, it is solely of God that sheweth mercy. Of Him, and through Him, and unto Him are all things; to Him alone be the glory forevermore.
Of God's Sovereign Mercy
We are still discussing the text from Romans 9:14-16, and this time we must call special attention to the words: "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." We promised that we would enter into a more detailed explanation of the first part of our text, in connection with the quotation from Exodus 33:19. The sin which the people of God had committed at Sinai in worshipping the golden calf was a principal sin: they had violated the covenant of God in the very spot where they had heard the thunder of God's voice and trembled; at the very moment when God made His covenant with them, they had manifested the perversion of their wicked heart, making gods after their own heart and worshipping them. At Sinai carnal Israel break God's covenant; there they commit the sin that will follow them all through the desert and all through their history, until it reveals itself in its final horror when they crucify the Son of God. And when Moses, the servant of God, came down from the mount and called upon the faithful to pass through the camp and take vengeance, three thousand fell by the sword of the sons of Levi.
But Moses realizes that this cannot be the end of the matter; and, therefore, he intercedes for the people with God. He confesses the sin of the people before the face of Jehovah and pleads for forgiveness. He bears the people on his heart, for in pleading for their salvation he uses words similar to those employed by the apostle Paul in the opening verses of this chapter: "O, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin --; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written." This prayer of Moses certainly cannot be answered, and the Lord replies: "Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book." Nevertheless, He commands His servant to lead the people unto the place which the Lord had promised to give them for an inheritance; but He will not go up in their midst, but will send His angel that should go before them. This is reiterated in the words of chapter 33:1-3; there the Lord commands Moses once more that he must lead the people into the land of promise. And once again Jehovah emphasizes that He Himself will not go up in the midst of Israel, for they are a stiff-necked people, "lest I consume thee in the way."
Now, we must remember that all this was entirely new to Moses. He could not understand. To him the people of Israel as a whole were the people of God. To them Jehovah had given the promise that He would make them heirs of the land flowing with milk and honey. Them Jehovah had delivered with a strong hand from the house of bondage for the very purpose of bringing them to the promised land. How then could it be possible that God would consume the people and destroy them in the wilderness? Can the promise of God become of none effect? And when the people mourn because they heard that Jehovah would not go up in their midst, and deeply humble themselves before the face of God, Moses enters into the tabernacle once more to plead more earnestly for Israel, for God's forgiving mercy upon them, and for His presence with them: "If thy presence go not up with me, carry us not up hence." And Jehovah heard the supplication of His servant and granted His request Himself to go up with the people in their midst. It is in this connection that the servant of God approaches the Lord with that amazing prayer: "Show me thy glory." He would see the goodness of the Lord. Had not the Lord intimated that He would consume the people in His wrath if He would go up in their midst? Hence, he must have the promise that the Lord would go up with them in His favor. God must be gracious to them. And, therefore, he would see the goodness of God for His people. And it is in answer to the prayer of Moses that the Lord says to him: "And I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." Ex. 33:19. It is these words that are quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:15, in order to prove from Scripture that God is merciful in absolute, sovereign righteousness.
Even these words have been given an Arminian twist. Interpreters that would by all means avoid the consequence of absolute predestination explain that the Lord had said before to Moses that He would blot out of His book him that sinneth. Hence, the words quoted by the apostle from Exodus 33:19can only mean that whereas God would blot out the unfaithful and violators of His covenant out of His book, He would be gracious and merciful to His faithful covenant people. True, He would not be gracious to all; Moses must not imagine that all the people as they are encamped at Sinai are true people of God, and that God cannot consume a large number of them. He will be merciful, however, to them that keep His covenant and are therefore, worthy of His compassion.
But how evident it is that such an interpretation is guilty of distorting the plain meaning of the text. First of all, how impossible is such an interpretation. The text would then mean: I will blot out of my book him that sinneth, but I will be merciful to him that sinneth not. But why should there be need of mercy and compassion and grace for him that sinneth not? And where is he that does not sin? Would in that case not all be blotted out of God's book? Who then could be saved? Secondly, how contrary to the meaning of the words as they stand is such an explanation of the text: for the Lord does not say: I will show mercy to him that is worthy of my mercy, and I will have compassion on him that deserves my compassion. But: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. His will, His sovereign will alone is emphasized in the text. And finally, how contrary to the entire text in Romans 9 is this Arminian interpretation of the text. The whole context deals with God's sovereign determination in the matter of the promise: not all are Israel that are of Israel, because it pleases God to make separation even between the seed of Abraham, according to His predestinating purpose. How strange, then, that in such a connection the apostle should of a sudden refer to the worth of man as the basis of God's mercy to him. Besides, what occasion is there in the light of this Arminian interpretation for the question that introduces the words of our text? "Is there then unrighteousness with God?" We can understand that this question should arise if Paul here teaches that God sovereignly chooses and rejects; but we cannot see any reason for this question if the Arminian interpretation must be adopted, and Paul merely teaches that God is merciful to him that is worthy.
And therefore, we will have to maintain that the apostle quotes these words from the Old Testament as proof of the fact that God Himself maintains His sovereignty in bestowing His mercy on whomsoever He wills. The cause of the distinction whereby some are saved, while others are not, even among them that are called Israel, even in the Church of Christ on earth, as it is established in the line of the generation of believers, is not in man: it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but only of God that showeth mercy. All boasting is strictly excluded.
But now we must hasten to explain that last part of our text: "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy."
It ought to be very plain that the pronoun it by which the apostle introduces these words refers to nothing less than eternal salvation. Those that deny the truth of God's sovereign election and reprobation interpret the preceding verses, that deal with Jacob's election, as having reference only to a national distinction and to temporal blessings, and not to eternal salvation. Jacob's distinction consisted merely in this, that God would establish the theocracy in the line of his descendants. And it stands to reason that they are constrained to interpret the words of our text in the same fashion. I will not try to refute this false interpretation again. It is refuted by the very words of our text: for let us notice that the apostle is not writing about distinctions between one nation and another, but plainly refers to members of the same nation, to Israelites in the natural sense of the word. The words, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and will have compassion on whom I will have compassion," express according to the context in Exodus 33 a distinction God freely and sovereignly makes between individuals of the same nation; persons, not nations, are distinguished by the mercy of God. And this applies certainly to verse 16. The text means: it is not of any individual, of any man that wills or runs, but of God that showeth mercy to attain salvation. Eternal salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.
God's mercy is His eternal will to bless, to make happy. God is merciful, and He is the most blessed God in Himself. And He wills Himself as the most blessed God. This virtue of God according to which He knows and wills Himself as the most blessed is His mercy, considered apart from any relation or attitude of God toward the creature. And with respect to man God's mercy is His will to reveal His own blessedness by making man partaker of it, causing him to taste it, so that he also becomes blessed in God. And if such a man is in a condition of misery, God's mercy reveals itself in the deliverance of that miserable man from all his misery, and bestowing upon him the blessing of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The mercy of God, the will of God to bless us in the highest possible degree, is centrally revealed in the cross and resurrection of the Savior. And that mercy of God is abundant according to Scripture. It does not reveal itself merely in delivering us from our misery and bringing us back to a former state, but it leads us on to the highest possible glory and bliss, to the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away. It blesses us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. This it is, according to all Scripture, that flows from the mercy of God, which is from everlasting to everlasting upon those that fear Him. And therefore it is to this salvation, consisting in the forgiveness of sin, righteousness, and the glory of eternal life, that the apostle refers, when he writes: "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy."
And thus the apostle emphatically reasserts that God is absolutely sovereign in bestowing His mercy on whomsoever He wills. For what else could these words mean? He that willeth is certainly the man that is willing to receive the grace of God, that longs for the salvation of Christ, seeks for it, knocks at the door of the kingdom of God, asks for the blessing of God's mercy. And he that runneth is the man that has entered into the strait gate and is already running the race, walking in the narrow way. The figure of running is derived, as more often in Scripture, from the running in the race. It denotes an earnest endeavor, keen interest in the salvation of God, the strife to enter in, to attain to the goal, the battle of faith, of walking in the way of sanctification. The apostle, therefore, asserts in the 16th verse that salvation is not of him that wills it, desires it, and seeks it, and asks for it; nor of him that earnestly endeavors to attain it, and strives to enter in; but only of God that showeth mercy. Now it is very plain that these words cannot mean that he who wills, seeks, and knocks, and earnestly desires to be saved, and prays for it, and he that strives to enter into the kingdom of God and the rest that remaineth for the people of God, shall not be saved. For, first of all, the very opposite is true, according to all Scripture. Whosoever will shall surely be saved. He that fights the battle of faith shall surely have the victory. He that runs the race shall surely receive the crown. Nor does the apostle deny this in the words of our text. But he says that salvation is not of him, but of God that showeth mercy. The ultimate source of anyone's salvation, the reason why a man is saved, must not be sought in the fact that he wills or runs in distinction from others that do not will and do not run; it lies only in the mercy of God. Not to man, not to his will or endeavor, it must be attributed that he is saved and that God is merciful to him; but to the sovereign mercy of God alone. That mercy is first, not the will or endeavor of man. That mercy of God is the ultimate cause even of a man's running and willing, his seeking and knocking and praying, of his entering into the strait gate, and of all his earnest endeavor to obtain the crown of life. If it were not so, man could not be saved. Never would we of ourselves, we, who are dead in trespasses and sins, repent of sin, become broken-hearted, seek the grace of forgiveness, and wash our garments in the blood of the Lamb. It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth; it is only of God that showeth mercy, even that a man wills and runs. That mercy precedes his willing and all his running. It is the deepest cause of his willing and of all his striving to enter into the kingdom of God.
Such is the plain meaning of the apostle's words.
And this is true consolation for every sinner that truly comes to Christ, as well for every believer that strives to enter into the rest that remaineth for the people of God. When you see a man bowing his head with shame and beating his breast in consternation, and when you hear him utter the prayer of the publican, "God be merciful to me, a sinner," then you must not say to him, "God will surely be merciful to you, for you will and desire to seek His mercy"; but you may tell him this: "Brother, God surely was already merciful to you, for that repentance and sorrow over sin, that contrition and that prayer for mercy were not of you, but of God that showeth mercy." And the same may be said to the believer that earnestly strives to persevere in the way of sanctification. When you ask the question why one willeth and another willeth not, why one runneth and persevereth and another does not, the only answer of the Word of God is that God is merciful to whom He will be merciful, and hath compassion on whom He will have compassion. He is absolutely sovereign in the bestowal of His mercy. Therefore, he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.
The Potter and the Clay
God's child loves to sing: "Have Thine own way, Lord! Thou art the Potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me after Thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still." And no wonder: he is a vessel of mercy, prepared afore unto glory by God's sovereign grace. And therefore, he can well entrust himself to God as the Potter, confident that He will mold him unto everlasting glory. The hymn is undoubtedly an allusion to Isaiah 64:8, "But now, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand."
But the viewpoint of the text in Romans 9:19-21, which also speaks of the potter and the clay, is nevertheless different from that in the hymn we just quoted. This passage speaks not only of vessels of mercy, prepared unto glory, but also of vessels of wrath, prepared unto dishonor. And it maintains the absolute sovereignty of God with respect to both. Let us first read the text: "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?"
Let us note that the apostle once more intercepts an objection here against the doctrine of God's absolute predestination. The apostle realizes that this is a hard doctrine for the proud and haughty sinner; for sinful man, rather than submit himself to God, will invent his own idols, gods after his own heart, sweet little vanities that are subject to his will and that inspire no fear whatsoever. But the truth the apostle had been developing brings us face to face with the revelation of the absolute Sovereign, who accomplishes all His good pleasure and does all things for His own Name's sake. And the apostle, realizing the rebellious state of the sinful heart, introduces a second objection that will undoubtedly be lodged against his doctrine, and especially to the teaching contained in the preceding section of this chapter, as concluded in verse 18: "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." Especially to the very last clause of this eighteenth verse the apostle refers: "Thou wilt say then unto me; -- if the case be really thus, if God only shows mercy unto whom He wills, but also hardeneth whom he will; -- Why doth he yet find fault, seeing that surely no man can ever resist his will? If it pleases him to harden me, I certainly cannot help it. And if I cannot help it, he surely does not have to find fault with me if I sin." Such is the objection the apostle considers in the words of our text.
In the present lecture we must consider first of all the figure of the potter and the clay, and explain its significance.
The figure which the apostle uses to illustrate the relation of the absolute sovereignty in which God stands to man is a very familiar one. There is a potter, busily shaping vessels of pottery from the clay he uses as his material, which was done, as we learn from the Old Testament, on a frame or wheel. He has, according to the presentation in the words of my text, one lump of clay. There is, therefore, no difference in the quality of the material from which he shapes his vessels. But out of that same lump of clay he makes different vessels to serve different purposes: vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. Some of these vessels he shapes into things of beauty, into pretty vases, that you give a place of honor to adorn your living-room table or the mantle above your fireplace. And some he makes crude and unfinished, to serve as ash cans and garbage containers, vessels unto dishonor. He makes them all out of the same lump of clay, to suit his own purpose and fancy. Such is the figure of the potter and the clay.
And the meaning of the figure is very plain. The whole emphasis in the text falls on the power, that is, on the right, the authority, the sovereignty of the potter over the clay. When of the same lump he makes definite vessels, ash-pots, garbage containers, on the one side, and beautiful vases, ornamental vessels that receive a place of honor in your home, on the other hand, the vessels have no right to protest, whatever they may be and whatever purpose they may serve in their finished form. The vessels unto dishonor, if they could protest and talk to the potter, have no right to say: "We had some rights of our own to begin with, and these rights you violated when you shaped us into ash-pots and garbage cans." They had no rights whatever. They were originally a mere lump of clay. This central idea of the figure the apostle himself emphasizes when he explains: "Shall the thing formed say unto him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?"
Nor is it difficult to apply the figure. God is, of course, represented by the potter; and there is no difference on this point. Neither can it be denied that the vessels, both unto honor and unto dishonor, signify the finished work of God with men, their final, eternal state. The vessels unto honor are the glorified saints in the eternal kingdom; the vessels unto dishonor are the damned in hell. The former are the objects of His eternal mercy; the latter of His sovereign wrath. The final state of the saved and of the lost is illustrated, therefore, by the vessels unto honor and the vessels unto dishonor. And both are presented by the figure as being the handiwork of God. The point of the text, therefore, is very evident. Scripture here teaches very plainly that God has the indisputable right to do with men, even with a view to their eternal destiny, as He pleases. No one has the right to call Him to account for what He does. No more than the finished vessel unto dishonor can say to the potter, Why hast thou made me thus?" no more can the damned in hell have the right to raise this protest. No more than the glorified saints will have occasion to claim that they were made manifestations of God's mercy because they had a right to be, nor more can the damned in hell ever say: "We had certain rights which Thou didst violate, and Thou didst not have the right to make of us vessels of wrath unto destruction." And although the wicked sinner here in the world, not knowing his proper place, may rebel against God's sovereignty, in hell this rebellion will be silenced forever. There no more objections will ever be heard.
So much is clear. No interpreter can deny this without violence to the text.
However, interpreters differ in their answer to the question what precisely is illustrated by the lump of clay of which the potter shapes his vessels. Some of the answers to this question are motivated by the desire to limit God's sovereignty by the freedom of man. Thus a well-known commentator writes: "The lump of clay, therefore, represents the whole of humanity, not humanity as God creates it, but in the state in which He finds it every moment when He puts it to the service of His kingdom. This state includes for each individual the whole series of free determinations which have gone to make him what he is." (Godet). What this interpretation means is evident. Man first makes himself into a vessel unto honor or unto dishonor, and then God uses him to whatever purpose He may. The honor or dishonor to which God turns man in the execution of His work is dependent on the attitude taken by man in relation to God. Man shapes himself first, and then God sees what He can do with him. God found righteous Moses and the wicked Pharaoh; and the former He uses as a vessel unto honor, the latter as a vessel unto dishonor. According to this interpretation the text would intend to maintain that God has the sovereign right to use the wicked as vessels unto dishonor and the righteous as vessels unto honor.
We cannot subscribe to this interpretation. It really ignores the text entirely as well as the context. As to the text, this interpretation is in conflict with the plain meaning of the figure of the potter and the clay. The figure speaks of one and the same lump of clay; and there certainly is no distinction of quality in the clay that would induce the potter to make different vessels.
The sole reason why vessels unto honor and unto dishonor are made out of the one lump of clay is the purpose and the good pleasure of the potter. But the interpretation referred to above really finds the ground of the action of the potter, by which he shapes different vessels, some to honor and some to dishonor, in clay, that is, in the free determination of men with respect to their relation to God. Besides, according to the illustration the potter has the indisputable right to make vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. He shapes them so that they can serve an honorable or dishonorable purpose. But the interpretation would defend the right of the potter to use different vessels already prepared to the purpose to which they are most nearly adapted. Nor is this explanation in harmony with the entire context of Romans 9. Has not the apostle clearly set forth that salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy? Did he not conclude that God hath mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth? How then could he mean to deny all this by teaching that God makes vessels of honor of them that first make themselves worthy of such use, and vessels unto dishonor of those that make themselves wicked first? How, in the light of this interpretation, could the objection be raised that is implied in the question: "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?" The objection would be absurd on the very surface. And therefore, we cannot accept this interpretation. It may be fairly admitted that when God sovereignly prepares men for eternal glory and eternal desolation, He does not violate the moral nature of men; but the fact remains that His determination of men's eternal destiny, whether they shall serve as vessels unto honor or as vessels unto dishonor, is, according to the text, free and sovereign, and not limited by man's disposition or choice.
Another and rather common interpretation is that the lump of clay represents fallen humanity. Mankind is fallen in Adam and is become a corrupt mass, without any claim to God's mercy. God, therefore, without doing any injustice to any can form into vessels of mercy those whom He will to save according to His sovereign good pleasure, while He has the sovereign right to leave others in their corrupt and damnable state. But also this interpretation does not do justice to the figure as it is found in the text. The figure of the potter and the clay does not merely illustrate the sovereignty of God with regard to the vessels of mercy, to make them into vessels of honor, but also His prerogative to make vessels unto dishonor. The potter does not make vessels unto honor, and permit vessels unto dishonor to develop by themselves; but he forms them both. And therefore, God is equally sovereign, both with regard to the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the reprobate.
If we would consider the matter from an historical point of view, we are not even compelled to explain that the lump of clay represents mankind as it was originally created. We may go a step further back. Fact is that the divine Potter forms man literally out of the ground. He took the dust of the ground, or reddish clay, and formed Adam out of it. Literally He began with a lump of clay, He made man out of that lump of clay, and in that one man He formed the entire human race. This formation of Adam out of the dust of the ground was the very first step in making vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. For it was God's sovereign purpose, even in the formation of Adam, to make these two kinds of vessels in the way of sin and grace and along the line of election and reprobation. And this purpose He carries out. For sin entered into the world, to be sure, by the wanton disobedience and the will of man, yet also according to God's eternal good pleasure and His omnipresent providence. No, God is not the author of sin; far be it from us even to think such a thing of Him Who is absolutely holy and righteous. But with equal abhorrence we reject as unscriptural the view that sin was a mere accident, that God did not hold the reins as the governor of the universe when man fell and all the world was submerged in the darkness of sin and death. From God's viewpoint, therefore, the entrance of sin was merely the second step toward the formation of the vessels unto honor and the vessels unto dishonor. Now, from that fallen race, corrupt and dead in sin, He takes His own in Christ Jesus, those that are chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, redeems them through His blood, justifies them through His resurrection and by the power of His irresistible grace makes them the objects and products of His mercy, vessels unto honor in His eternal kingdom of glory. And the rest He hardens, and through every means forms them into vessels of dishonor. For He is merciful unto him to Whom He will be merciful, and whom He wills He hardens. Thus the figure in the words of my text is strictly maintained. Hath not the potter power over the clay, to make of the same lump vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor?
Back of this entire course of history stands the counsel of God, according to which He loved Jacob and hated Esau. According to that counsel it was God's sole and eternal purpose to glorify His name through His Son in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ. In the eternal counsel of God Christ is first; and that, too, as the Crucified One, Who was raised from the dead and exalted in the highest heavens to be Lord of all forever and ever. For thus we read in Col. 1:15, ff.: "Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence." In the same eternal counsel God chose the vessels unto honor in Christ Jesus, gave them unto Him, a glorious church, His body, an organic whole, the fullness of him that filleth all in all, in order that the glory of God in the glorified Christ might be abundantly multiplied through them. And He determined to make vessels unto dishonor not merely to show His righteous indignation, but also in order that the latter might be subservient to His purpose in the formation of the vessels unto honor. This is God's eternal purpose. And this purpose He carries out without fail throughout the history of the world, even unto the end, without interruption, everything being subservient unto this purpose of the Most High. Always He is God. Nowhere does He merely permit. Not for a moment do the reins slip out of His hand. He is the Lord, sovereign over all. He performs all His good pleasure. And always He forms His vessels unto honor and His vessels unto dishonor for His own sovereign purpose. And no one can say: "What doest thou?" Hath not the potter power over the clay?
Let us, then, humble ourselves and bow down in the dust before this great and glorious and absolutely sovereign God. We may not understand, we may not fathom the truth of God; we do not; I do not, and you do not; and I am glad to make the confession. God is infinitely great and glorious in majesty. I am infinitesimally small, and, besides, by nature corrupt. The finite does not, and does not have to comprehend the Infinite. But when He speaks, let us listen. Just hear what God will say. That is our salvation. And when He places us where we ought to be, prostrate in the dust; when He takes that darkness of sin out of our mind and that rebellious pride out of our heart, we will no longer reply against Him, but humbly worship with fear and trembling, and confess: Thou art the Potter; we are the clay; have Thine own way, Lord, forever and ever, and I will be still.
Who Art Thou, O Man?
In our last lecture we called special attention to the figure of the potter and the clay. This time we must still discuss the first part of the passage from which that figure was taken: "Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?" As I said last time, by these words the apostle introduces another objection to the doctrine of predestination as set forth in the preceding verses of this important chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. One objection had already been met. It was expressed in the question: is there then unrighteousness with God, if sovereignly and without regard to their works He chooses the one and rejects the other? This question is now settled. The objection was removed by appealing to Scripture twice, in order to learn what God Himself has to say in the matter. We cannot summon God before the tribunal of our human and sinful judgment. If we would have a true and proper answer to the question concerning God's righteousness in the matter of sovereign predestination, we must hear what He will say. And God declared to Moses that He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and that He will show compassion to whom He will show compassion. Salvation is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. And to Pharaoh it was said by the Scriptures, -- and notice that this is only another way of saying: by God, -- that God raised him up for the very purpose that He might show His power in him and that His name might be declared throughout all the earth. The conclusion was, therefore: "Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth." And it is to this doctrine that the objector lodges his protest in the words: "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?"
Now, what does this objector say? What is the sense of the question by which he expresses his objection to the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty? Emphatically he states that no one hath ever resisted the will of God. And no one is able to resist the will of the Almighty. And upon the basis of this indisputable fact he draws the conclusion that if it please the Most High to make him a vessel unto dishonor, He certainly cannot find fault with him, if he be wicked and walk in the way of sin. He speaks as follows: "Is not the will of God irresistible? Is He not stronger than I? Can I, then, frustrate His purpose to harden me and to make of me a vessel unto dishonor? Am I not passive, mere clay in His hand? If I, then, cannot resist His will to harden me, I cannot be held responsible for my sin. God surely cannot find fault with me, seeing I am His own handiwork and I could not prevent His forming me into just what I am." Thus the objection runs. It maintains that the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God necessarily involves the denial of the responsibility of man. The purpose of the objection is to bring the truth into discredit, to maintain man's sovereignty over against that of the living God.
Let me first of all say a few things about this objection.
And then I would like to emphasize once more that here we meet with one of the commonest objections against the truth of God's sovereignty in the matter of the salvation and the damnation of man. You may study the history of the Church and its doctrine along its main and positive line, which, by the way, runs not over Pelagius and Arminius to the modern free willist, but over men like Augustine and Calvin to those that maintain the truth of divine predestination in the present day. And you will discover that principal objection of the opponents, when all other arguments were exhausted, was always this: you make God the author of sin, and you deny the responsibility of man. It is the same objection raised already against the teaching of the apostle in this ninth chapter of Romans and expressed in the question: "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?"
In the second place, we may readily admit that here we confront a problem which we shall never be able to fathom or to solve, the problem how God is able to execute His counsel through the instrumentality of moral agents, and especially through the wicked, without ever encroaching upon their moral responsibility.
Two things, however, are very clear from Scripture. The first is that God sovereignly rules even over all the acts of men and especially over all the acts of the wicked to His own purpose. And the second fact is no less clear from the Word of God, namely, that in doing so He never infringes upon man's accountability.
Take as a central example Judas and all the enemies of Christ that nailed Him to the cross. On the one hand, it is evident that God used them to crucify the Son of God. This is very plain from Acts 2:23: "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain." And the same truth is emphasized in Acts 4:24-28: "And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is: Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against the holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done." God indeed employed the wicked to shed the blood of atonement by which His people would be saved. On the other hand, the wicked instruments were without excuse. It was their sin and wickedness that motivated this greatest of all crimes. And the enemies were well aware of this. Never could they answer against God that He had compelled them to hate and crucify the Christ.
Thus it is always.
In as far as the question, "Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?" represents an attempt of the wicked to excuse himself and escape the righteous judgment of God by an appeal to the sovereignty of God and the irresistibility of his will, it is simply a lie. Why? Because the objector presents the matter as if God's act of hardening were ever in conflict with the will and desire of the one that is hardened. The supposition underlying the question is that the one hardened would resist the process of hardening if only he were able. And, beloved, let me set your hearts at rest, for this never occurs. The objector complains: "Who can resist his will?" as if he actually seriously attempted to serve the Most High and escape this hardening, but was forced into it against his will by a certain fatal power stronger than he. Such a process of hardening never occurs. The will of the wicked that are formed into vessels of dishonor always cooperates with the sovereign will of God, never attempts to resist Him. God hardens the heart of man, and man hardens his own heart. Do not misunderstand me. Even in the process of hardening man is not first. On the contrary, God is sovereign; not man. But the fact remains that when God hardens a man and shapes him into a vessel of dishonor, the man that is so hardened stands in perfect agreement with the will of God. For he loves iniquity, and seeks his own damnation, even does so consciously and knowingly. He hardens himself even in spite of the Word of God that is brought to his knowledge and understanding, calling him externally to repentance. This is very clear from the history of Pharaoh, to which reference is made in the ninth chapter of Romans. Never does it occur that a man sincerely repents or would repent and says: "O, how I would wish to be a child of God and to serve Him," while God hardens him. If it is your sincere and earnest desire to be saved, to be redeemed and delivered from sin, to be called a son of God, He does not harden you, but has even now wrought His grace in your heart. Just as I said a few weeks ago, the truth of sovereign predestination is not at all in conflict with the truth that whosoever believeth on him shall be saved, and whosoever will may come and drink of the water of life freely. The hungry soul shall be filled; the thirsty soul shall be fully satisfied; the weary shall find rest; to him that knocks it shall be opened; he that seeks shall surely find; and they that mourn shall be comforted. And it never happens that God forms a man into a vessel unto dishonor and the man struggles against that sovereign will of God. That is a moral impossibility. And therefore, the objection is a lie. When anyone replies to the doctrine of divine sovereignty: "O, well, who can resist His will? I tried it, and He is much stronger than I," he lies; and there is no one among you as you hear the truth concerning God's sovereign predestination that can honestly and sincerely come with this objection: "Why doth he yet find fault, for who hath resisted his will?" Your own conscience bears you witness that you would be dishonest with yourself and over against God.
But how does the apostle meet this objection?
Does he say of his opponent that he misunderstood the doctrine of God's sovereignty, that his objection is due to a mis-apprehension on his part of the apostle's teaching? If that had been the case, how easily could the apostle have removed the misunderstanding and the objection of the opponent. The apostle would then have written something like this: "But, O man, thou misunderstoodst me altogether. I certainly do not mean to teach that God is absolutely sovereign, even over the will of man. On the contrary, His sovereignty is limited by the sovereign freedom of man's will. God therefore hardens only those that resist His sincere desire and efforts to save them; and He makes vessels unto honor of those that are willing to cooperate with Him and seek His grace. Man is always first. God follows the determinations of the will of man." Such an answer would have removed the very ground of the objection, and the opponent would have been silenced. But we read nothing of the kind. Tacitly the apostle admits that the objector understood his doctrine correctly. The truth of sovereign election and reprobation is left unchanged.
Nor does the apostle answer his opponent by appealing to "another side" of this question. He does not shift to "another track." As you well know, there are those double-track theologians among them that assume the name of being Reformed. They profess to believe in the truth of God's absolute predestination and the sovereignty of God; but when the objection is raised that by this doctrine they violate the freedom of man and deny his responsibility, they shift to another track, virtually the Arminian track of theology. On the one hand, they claim to be Reformed and to believe the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God. On the other hand, they teach that God earnestly seeks the salvation of all men and graciously offers them His salvation in the preaching of the gospel.
But the apostle knows nothing of such a double-track theology. He does not draw back before the sharp attack of the enemy. He leaves the truth as it stands. He does not apologize for the truth of God's absolute sovereignty. His real, and only, and final answer to the objection of proud and rebellious man is: "Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God?" And in this answer the apostle directs a double accusation against the proud opponent of this truth. In the first place, he indicts him of the heinous sin of contradicting God. For the apostle had written the Word of God. Of this he was conscious, because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. And now the objector came with an answer against this doctrine, not from Scripture, but derived from his own proud and corrupt heart. He therefore contradicted God. And this is a terrible sin, the height of presumption. And secondly, when the apostle writes that his opponent replies against God, he emphasizes that this contradiction is also rebellion. You rebel against the Sovereign of heaven and earth. That is the deepest root of all objections against the truth of God's sovereign disposition in the matter of salvation and damnation. It is not a matter of misunderstanding. It is not a matter of the intellect at all. It is a matter of the will, of the heart, of rebellion against God. In his deepest heart the sinner does not want God Who is really God.
And therefore, the real answer of the apostle to this objection of the opponent is contained in the question: "Nay but, O man, who art thou?" And the meaning of this question is emphatically that this objector does not know his own place, his proper place, in relation to God. If he, infinitesimally small speck of dust, who cannot for a moment be compared with the infinite God, knew himself, understood his relation to God, his proud speech would die upon his lips.
O, I realize full well, that wherever and whenever this truth is preached in all its purity, this objection must be raised. If it were not raised against my preaching of this tremendous truth, I would consider it a proof that I were not dividing the Word of God aright among you. But now, when the same and similar objections are raised against the preaching of this truth, I will comfort myself with the assurance that it is only a proof that I have understood the apostle correctly on this point and am not distorting or adulterating the truth of God. The consciences of the objectors bearing me witness that this is indeed the truth as revealed in the ninth chapter of Romans. But let us not fall into the same error as the opponents. Let us beware that we do not take the same rebellious question, "Why doth he yet find fault?" on our lips. Rather let us bow our heads in humble adoration, and confess that our God is God indeed. Of Him, and through Him, and unto Him are all things. To Him alone be glory forevermore.
God's Sovereign Dealings
In Psalm 92:5-9 we read: "O Lord, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep. A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this. When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed forever: But thou, Lord, art most high forevermore. For, lo, thine enemies, O Lord, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered." Thus the Church sings about the deep thoughts of God concerning the workers of iniquity in the world. On the other hand, the people of God confess with joy: "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me into glory." And they are sure "that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." These same truths are expressed in Romans 9:22, 23: "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory."
It is plain that these words stand in immediate connection with the preceding, especially with the figure of the potter and the clay. They show the purpose unto which God makes vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. This purpose is on the one hand, to show His wrath and to make His power known; and on the other, that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory.
There are several questions which we have to try to answer in connection with this passage. First of all, there is, of course, the question: what is meant by the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction, and, on the other hand, by the vessels of mercy which He had afore prepared unto glory? In the second place: how does God deal with both these vessels of wrath and of mercy in time? -- a question that is answered by the words "endured with much long-suffering." And finally, we have to ask and answer the question: what is the purpose of God in so dealing with both the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy? And again we will have to take our time and go slowly in order to interpret this most important passage.
We understand, of course, that the terms "vessels of wrath" and "vessels of mercy" are figurative. Nor is it difficult to determine who are meant by these figurative terms. The vessels of wrath are evidently the same as those that were called vessels unto dishonor in the preceding part of this passage. They are, therefore, the reprobate wicked. The vessels of mercy are identical with the vessels unto honor, and are the elect children of the promise, the heirs of salvation. However, in the words of our text, the vessels unto honor are called the vessels of mercy, while the vessels unto dishonor are called the vessels of wrath.
We therefore ask, first of all: what is the meaning of the phrase "vessels of wrath?" Does this expression merely denote the ungodly as actually being the objects of the wrath of God as they exist in time and walk in sin and iniquity in this world? In itself the phrase might well be interpreted in this fashion. Surely, the ungodly, as they historically exist in this world, are the objects of the wrath of God. This is the teaching of the Word of God everywhere. They are vessels that receive, that are filled with the wrath of God, men with whom God deals in His fierce anger: for He hates all the workers of iniquity.
The phrase, however, may also refer to the wrath of God's good pleasure. The expression then refers to the wrath of reprobation. It denotes the ungodly as the Most High ordained them from before the foundation of the world to be manifestations and objects of His righteous wrath. He sovereignly ordained them to be bearers of His wrath and to serve the revelation of His righteous indignation against and hatred of sin. And they are, then, vessels ordained in wrath and unto wrath. And a study of the entire context in which this passage occurs, as well as of the meaning of similar expressions in Scripture, leads us to the conclusion that this latter explanation of the phrase is correct. As we have had occasion to prove repeatedly, the entire context deals with God's sovereign and eternal determination in the matter of salvation and damnation. Jacob God loved, and Esau He hated sovereignly, without regard to their works, in His eternal counsel. Salvation is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. The question of the objector which the apostle answers in this section is: why doth he yet find fault, for who hath resisted his will? And there would be no occasion for this question, if by vessels of wrath is meant that God is angry with the wicked as he exists historically in the world and walks in iniquity. He is, according to verse 18, merciful unto whom He will be merciful, and whom He will He hardeneth. And the divine Potter sovereignly forms out of the same lump of clay vessels unto honor and vessels unto dishonor. It is quite in harmony with this entire passage to explain the vessels of wrath as referring to the ungodly reprobates from the viewpoint of God's eternal counsel and good pleasure to ordain some to everlasting manifestation of His righteous wrath. He conceived them as vessels of wrath in His eternal predestination. And according to that counsel He forms them in time to be manifestations and bearers of His wrath forever.
And this interpretation of the expression is in harmony, too, with the meaning of similar phrases in Holy Writ. The Bible, for instance, speaks of children of wrath; and this expression does not merely mean children that are the objects of God's wrath, but denotes men that are brought forth in wrath and that are born in and under wrath, so that wrath is, as it were, their mother. Thus, in this ninth chapter of the Romans Scripture uses the phrase "children of the promise," referring to men not merely as they are the heirs and recipients of the promise, but as they are born not of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by and of the power of the promise of God. In a similar way vessels of wrath are vessels that are conceived in God's wrath and designed to be the bearers of the righteous indignation of the Most High forever.
This interpretation is corroborated first of all by the fact that in the text vessels of wrath are the very opposite of vessels of mercy; and the latter phrase signifies not merely men that are historically the objects of the mercy, the saving mercy, of God, but men that are ordained in mercy from eternity. The parallel expression, vessels of wrath, must, therefore, be interpreted in a similar fashion. It refers to men whom God has sovereignly known in wrath and whom in His wrath He shapes into vessels unto dishonor in time. And secondly, that this is indeed the correct interpretation is also clear from what is added to the description of these vessels of wrath in the text. They are vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. The meaning of this latter addition is plain. It signifies: to be so constituted that the end must necessarily be destruction. The vessels of wrath are so constituted that their entire makeup and design and institution serves the purpose of reaching that end of destruction. If we abandon the figure of the vessel, the meaning is that there are men so instituted as to their personality, their power and talents, their position in the world, and their place in the whole of the works of God, that everything tends to their destruction, serves the purpose of leading them not to temporal destruction, but to eternal desolation. Unto this they are fitted. And the question arises naturally: fitted unto destruction by whom? Of course, also here the Arminian is bound to say that men fit themselves unto destruction. That God is sovereign also in the determination of the destruction of the wicked, that, although it remains true that the wicked deliberately seeks his own destruction and walks in the way into eternal desolation, this end is nevertheless sovereignly determined by God, so that there is no accident, the Arminian does not understand and does not want to admit. Everything depends on, is contingent upon the determination of the will of man, according to him. But this explanation is so wholly contrary to the entire context, that I need waste no words to expose its fallacy. If we really desire to submit to the Word of God, if we do not sinfully distort the plain meaning of the words of Scripture, the meaning which the text yields can only be that God fitted these vessels unto destruction. And well may the people of God rejoice in this truth, for it means that all the Pharaohs and all the Nebuchadnezzars and all the Neroes and all Hitlers and Stalins, all the destroyers on the earth, and all the persecutors of the Church, all the haters of Christ and His cause and His people in the world, are absolutely under the control and in the hand of God's sovereign power. According to Arminianism, it is the will of the wicked that rules and that determines the history of the world. According to Scripture, however, the wicked is but the ax with which God hews and the saw which He draws. We are absolutely safe; according to God's eternal thoughts and counsel, all the wicked of the earth are so instituted that they but tend to destruction. Fitted unto destruction they are in God's eternal wrath; for Esau hath He hated.
The others are vessels of mercy, afore prepared unto glory. As we already stated, vessels of mercy are not merely men as objects of the mercy of God in time; but they are those whom in eternal mercy God conceived and whom in mercy He forms and shapes unto vessels unto honor. We explained before that God's mercy is His knowledge of Himself and His will to be the most blessed in Himself; and His mercy to man is His will to bless him and make him happy in God and for His Name's sake. And when that man is in misery, in sin and death, His abundant mercy is His will to lift him out of his wretchedness and to exalt him into the highest glory of His incorruptible and undefilable inheritance that fadeth not away. Now the text says that he purposed to make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy. Eternally He willed to glorify His mercy, and unto that end He ordained these vessels of mercy, in order that eternally they might be manifestations and bearers of that mercy. And in contrast to the end of the vessels of wrath, these vessels of mercy are said to be afore-ordained unto glory. Glory is always and principally the glory of God, for God alone is glorious, and there is no glory apart from Him. For God is infinitely good, and the radiation of that infinite goodness is His glory. Just as there is a glory of the sun, and the glory of the sun is the radiation of its light, so there is a glory of God and the glory of God is the radiation of His divine, infinite goodness. Now, it has pleased God, according to Scripture, to reveal and reflect that glory of His goodness in His people. He wanted and ordained a people that should be glorious even as He is glorious in that creaturely way, a people that should be conformed according to the image of His Son: "For whom he hath foreknown, them he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified." Rom. 8:29-30.
Now, when the apostle writes that the vessels of mercy have afore been prepared unto glory, the reference is, of course, to God's eternal counsel and good pleasure. God's glory is infinitely in the Son; in that eternal and only-begotten Son He beholds and has delight in His own glory. He willed and ordained a people that should share in that glory, reflect that glory of the Son of God in a creaturely way. Unto that purpose He ordained and chose a Church. Let us understand this. The one glory of the Son must become reflected in the millions and millions of the glorified members of the one Church. And when all this adorable work of God is perfected, each one of this multitude, innumerable as the stars or as the sand which is by the seashore, will have his own name, his own position, in that glorified Church, to reflect in his own particular way the glory of God in the Son. That is why all must be saved. Not one could be missed without marring the beauty of the whole. Now then, that entire multitude as a whole, a unity, as the Church, the body of Christ, and all the elect members of that Church individually have afore been prepared unto that glory. They have all together and each one separately been ordained to serve the eternal purpose of God to reflect the glory of God. Every individual saint has been assigned to his own place in that glorious whole, has been ordained, fitted into his own position in that glory in God's eternal counsel. The vessels of mercy have afore been prepared unto glory.
Contemplating this marvelous counsel and work of God, we may well exclaim with the apostle: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?" For note well that these elect so prepared unto glory were afore so fitted into the whole of God's infinitely wise counsel that all things in creation and history, good and evil, small and great events, the personal experience of the elect, and the affairs of the nations, must work together, must be conducive unto the end of their glory. For all things were ordained with infinite and perfect wisdom, and all must serve the purpose of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, and through the multitude of the glorified saints. Vessels of mercy the elect are, that have afore been prepared and fitted, instituted in God's eternal good pleasure unto the realization of His glory. And therefore: "Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen."
Long-suffering and Forbearance
In our last lecture, you remember, we spoke on God's sovereign dealings with the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy, according to Romans 9:22, 23: "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory in the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory." The question we must ask this time is: how does God deal with the vessels of wrath and the vessels of mercy in time and in this world? These vessels of mercy and of wrath, that is, the elect and the reprobate, the godly and the ungodly, have all things in common in this present time. They are of the same human race; they live the same earthly life; they are fellow-citizens of the same country; they enjoy the same power and talents and make use of the same means; they occupy the same positions in the world. Moreover, they have the same experiences: God rains upon the godly and the ungodly alike, and He causes His sun to rise over the evil and over the good. They are alike in prosperity and in adversity, in sickness and in health, in war and in peace, in life and in death. And the question arises: what is God's attitude to these vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath respectively? How does He deal with them? Does the fact of these common experiences in this world show a certain common grace of God over the godly and over the wicked alike? That would in fact be quite contrary to all that Scripture testifies, for the Bible informs us very plainly that God hates the wicked every day and that even through their prosperity in the world He intends to send them to destruction, while according to the same Bible He is gracious always unto His people and causes all things to work together for their salvation and to lead them on to eternal glory. But the answer is rather plainly found in the words of our text, for our text tells us that He endures with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction; and that means undoubtedly, as we hope to explain, that He forbears the vessels of wrath while He is long-suffering over His people.
On the basis of Holy Writ we may certainly distinguish long-suffering from endurance. The latter is sustained and suspended, or inhibited wrath; the former is suspended or inhibited love. With a view to a certain end that must be reached God endures, tolerates, the wicked in time, until they shall have served His purpose. With a view to that purpose He does not immediately destroy them and empty upon them the vials of His wrath. This is endurance or forbearance. Again, with a view to a certain end that must be attained He bears the suffering of the vessels of mercy, He does not immediately deliver them when they cry unto Him, but surrenders them to the refining fire of suffering and tribulation, until the divine purpose with them, the perfect glory unto which they were afore ordained, is attained and fully realized. This is God's long-suffering.
To make plain the distinction that must be made here I wish to call your attention to an illustration. Suppose that for a certain purpose which you want to realize you find it necessary to take into your home a certain stranger. You support him entirely; you supply all his needs; he goes in and out among your family; he sleeps in your bed; he eats at your table; he buys with your money; he wears your clothes. But this stranger whom you thus support for your own purposes acts wickedly toward you and your family: he ignores you entirely; he tries to assume the position of lord in your home; he acts as if you were not there; for all you give him he never acknowledges you; he does not say "good morning" when he rises, nor "good night" when he retires; a word of thanks never crosses his lips. On the contrary, he curses you to your face; he slanders you with your enemies; he tramples your good name in the mud; he hates your children and persecutes them; he chases them out of your house, puts them behind prison bars, tortures and kills them. And you keep him in your house and feed him and clothe him until your purpose with him shall be reached. Your attitude toward the man is expressed by the word endurance. You tolerate the man; you restrain your strong inclination to throw him out of your house and punish him for all his wickedness, because you want to attain your end with him.
This may serve to illustrate God's endurance of the wicked. They are in God's creation, in God's workshop; and they must serve His purpose. He sustains them in their position; He feeds them and gives them to drink; He clothes them and gives them shelter; He causes His sun to shine upon them and gives them rain and fruitful seasons and fills their heart with food and gladness; He gives them their talents and powers and all the means to their subsistence and life. And they act as if God were never there; they refuse to acknowledge Him, to serve Him and praise Him and give Him thanks. They never mention His name except to curse Him; they lie about Him and slander Him, and they attack the honor of His name; they manifest their enmity against Him by violating His law, by persecuting His children, by touching the apple of His eye. And when He sends His only begotten Son into the world, they despise Him and spit in His face, buffet and scourge Him and nail Him to the accursed tree. And God does not make an end of them, for they must serve His own purpose, even unto the end. He tolerates them and endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction.
On the other hand, let us also use an illustration to elucidate the idea of long-suffering. It is that of a surgeon who is called to operate on his own child. The condition of the child is such that no form of anesthetic can be applied. Yet, the life of the child depends entirely upon the operation. The father-surgeon binds the child on the operating table; he takes the knife, and with a firm hand cuts into the living flesh of his child. The child cries and moans, beseeches him to stop; but the father, although the pitiful cries of the child pierce his heart, and although he suffers more than the child of his love, continues his work, apparently paying no heed to the urgent prayers of his child, until the operation is finished and the child's life is saved.
That is a good illustration of God's long-suffering over His people. More than once the Word of God speaks of this long-suffering of God over the vessels of mercy. The parable of the unjust judge is concluded by the statement: "And shall not God avenge His own elect, which day and night cry unto him, though he bear long with them?" Luke 18:7. The clause "though he bear long with them" should be translated "though he is long-suffering over them," for the same word is used in the Greek that is elsewhere, also in our text, translated by "long-suffering."
Mark: God is long-suffering over His elect that cry unto Him day and night. The same idea is expressed in II Peter 3:9, where Scripture assures the people of God that God is not slack concerning His promise, but is long-suffering over them, not willing that any should perish. Also there the fundamental idea is that the people of God grow impatient, as in the midst of suffering they look for the realization of the promise and God leaves them in their suffering until His purpose is reached. They are the objects of His love, and He would lead them to glory. But they are in the midst of suffering and tribulation in this world, and they cry unto Him for the final deliverance. But He seems not to heed their cries. Why not? Because the time is not yet. The end is not yet attained. All must wait until the whole Church can be glorified in the day of Christ. God is long-suffering over the objects of His eternal love.
But you will probably say that in our text from Romans 9 the vessels of wrath are presented as being the objects of both God's long-suffering and His endurance, for the text tells us that God endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. However, if you will look more closely at the text, you will discover that this is nevertheless not the meaning. The text does not say that God endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction and that He is long-suffering over them, but that He endured them with much long-suffering. Now, what does this mean? This may very well signify, and to me undoubtedly does mean, that the long-suffering of God over His people is the positive reason and the motive in God for His forbearance of the wicked. Why, in other words, is God tolerating the wicked even unto the end? The answer is that at the same time He is long-suffering over His people until they shall attain unto His glory, unto which He hath afore prepared them. Were God not long-suffering, He would not be enduring. But the power of His long-suffering He is enduring and He tolerates the wicked in the world. But, if we understand this, there can be no objection to apply the word long-suffering also in the words of our text, as in other parts of Scripture, to God's attitude toward His beloved people. And we may well render the text thus: By the power of His long-suffering over His people He endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. The real strength and power, the reason and motive of His tolerating the vessels of wrath lies in the long-suffering of God over His people.
This interpretation fits the actual facts. In history God's endurance of the wicked and His long-suffering over His people are always concomitant: they always go together for the simple reason that the people of God live in the midst of the wicked world and they constitute with them an organic unity from a merely natural viewpoint. They are created in Adam, fall with the whole race in Adam, are subject to death and the suffering of this present time because of Adam's fall. Why? Because God determined to lead His people to that higher glory, which was attainable only in Christ and only in the way of sin and death and redemption through grace. God is long-suffering over them from the very beginning of time. Still more. They are in the same world with the vessels of wrath. These vessels of wrath, that is, the wicked, hate them; they persecute them, chase them into dungeons and holes of the earth, deny them a place in the world, fill them with reproach and shame, torture them, saw them asunder and burn them at the stake. Did not Paul, when he wrote the words of our text, still have in mind the example of Pharaoh to which he had referred in the context? God's people were in Egypt when it was said to Pharaoh that God had raised him up that He might show His power in him. And Pharaoh persecuted the people of God, subjected them to hard bondage, killed the covenant children, was bent upon the destruction of the people of God. And the children of Israel cried unto Jehovah their God, and He seemed for a time not to heed their cries. He endured the vessels of wrath, Pharaoh and his people, with much long-suffering over Israel that cried unto Him day and night.
How clearly this is also illustrated in the suffering of Christ. To be sure, according to the eternal counsel and foreknowledge of God the vessels of wrath were instrumental in crucifying the Christ. And Christ was the apple of God's eye, the Son of His love, His ever faithful Servant, in Whom above all He was well-pleased. And the wicked laid hands upon Him and bound Him and led Him away prisoner. And they performed all their evil will upon Him: they spit upon Him; they reviled Him, blasphemed and mocked Him, beat Him and bared His back to the lashings of the bloody scourge, led Him to Golgotha and nailed Him to the tree of shame. And the Son suffered; He was writhing in bitter agony already in Gethsemane in anticipation of that terrible night of suffering that was before Him. He cried unto the Father with bitter tears and supplications: "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." But the Father did not seem to hear, except for the only answer that was given to the Son in His bitter agony of soul by strengthening Him to His suffering through the means of an angel from heaven. Presently, on the cross, He descends into the depth of suffering and agony and shame. Darkness envelops Him and the accursed tree, and agonies of hell take hold of the obedient Servant. And again He cries: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And again the Father does not seem to heed the cries of His beloved Servant. Heaven seems closed, and the enemies are sustained even at the cross by the Almighty, so that they finish their wicked work. And the lightnings of God's fierce anger do not flash through the darkness to destroy the wicked enemies and deliver the Son of God. God endured the vessels of wrath, even at the cross, with much long-suffering over His Son, His beloved, in Whom was all His good pleasure. And why? Because on the one hand, these vessels of wrath must finish the work God had for them to do, and on the other hand, it was His divine purpose to glorify the Son with the glory which He had with the Father before the world was. And with the Son the Church of His eternal love must be redeemed and glorified.
And thus it is always. God's sovereign dealings with the vessels of wrath are ever such that He tolerates them with much long-suffering.
Thus it will become evident that in all this it is the purpose of the living God to make known His power and His righteous and holy wrath on the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction, and to reveal the riches of His glorious mercy on the vessels of mercy that have afore been prepared unto glory.
For the wrath of God is His holy anger against all the workers of iniquity. And the holiness and the righteousness of God's wrath must become manifest, and will become manifest especially in His judgment over the wicked who hated and persecuted the righteous, with Christ in their midst, throughout the history of this world. For this very reason the righteous must suffer till the very end. And when the measure of iniquity shall have been filled by the ungodly, and antichrist shall have raved against Christ and His people to the very end, and when, at the same time, the measure of suffering shall have been filled by the righteous, then the end of God's forbearance of the ungodly and His long-suffering over the righteous will be reached; the theodicy,. the self-justification of God, shall have been attained, and forever the power and the righteous wrath of God as well as the glory of His mercy shall be revealed and adored by all creation.
Then also it will become perfectly evident that all the powers of darkness, the devil and his angels and all wicked men, shall have served the purpose of God in making known the riches of His glory upon the vessels of mercy. As the chaff serves the wheat, so the reprobate serves the elect. If sin had not come, grace would not have been revealed in all the beauty of its splendor. If death had not come, the riches of God's glory in the resurrection would not have been manifested. If the wicked world, whose prince is the devil,, had not crucified our Lord, the blood of redemption could not have been shed and the glory of God's love in Christ would never have been revealed. If the enemies of the Church had not kindled the fire of tribulation, had not persecuted the people of God, they would not have been cast into the crucible that refines them unto the praise and glory and honor in the day of Christ; they would not know the way of tribulation to patience, to experience, to hope; they would not know how to glory even in tribulation. If all the darkness and suffering and death of this present time had not come, all the glory of the heavenly bless would never have been revealed. God endures the vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction until they have served His purpose and He shall have fully made known the riches of His glory to the vessels of mercy afore prepared unto glory. As we said, His glory is always God's glory; but this glory must be revealed. It is His purpose to impart it in the highest possible way, in all its blessed riches, unto His people in Christ. They shall know it, because they shall share in it, because it shall be in them, because they shall taste it and rejoice in it forever.
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer
Notes: You may also find many sermons of "H.H." at the RFPA website. And you may find copies in print of an entire set of "H.H.'s" catechism sermons here.