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Who Art Thou, O Man?

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

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.

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Last modified, 26-Apr-1998