Romans 9:19-23 - Man Plans His Way but the Lord Directs His Steps
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19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” - Romans 9:19


The Jews may be quite upset at what Paul is preaching regarding their nation and at this point would likely raise some objections. This judicial hardening happening to Israel (Rom. 11:25, Acts 28:27), if it was you or your family, your church, your nation being hardened you too might be troubled. Likewise, we may be troubled regarding us and our loved ones when Jesus says the reason He speaks in parables is "so that while seeing, they may not see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven" (Mark 4:12). If that was Jesus response regarding your loved ones wouldn't it trouble you? Perhaps you would inquire just the same as Paul anticipates in verse 19 above. If this were speaking of salvation then it would be a difficult passage to swallow, but as we'll see it's not regarding salvation but rather a firming up of men in their unbelief. Remember our analogies in last week's study? Consider what Paul quotes at the end of Romans 9:


33 just as it is written,

Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,
And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” - Romans 9:33


If one stumbles over this rock that God has put, does said person have the right to blame God for their stumbling? Notice not all stumble over it, but it's placement results in good things for them that believe. The Israelites were striving in their own strength (see Rom. 9:31-32, Rom. 10:2-3). God saw they were striving in their own strength and put a "stone of stumbling" in front of them, of which the Israelites may make the Romans 9:19 claim above "Why does He still find fault?". We can no more fault God for this than Adam and Eve can fault God for putting them in the same garden as the tree of knowledge. They tried though, after eating from it Adam's defense to God was "the woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate." Is Adam correct that it's God's fault? No. God gave the woman to be Adam's helper (Gen. 2:18), God giving the stone, as discussed in last week's study which we'll get into here as well, is with good intent.


This is about God orchestrating His plan, His promise, His purpose, which is actually quite exciting! The Rock they stumbled over is salvation for us! (And available to them as we'll get into.) God has had a plan from long ago, that's always been the plan, that would result in the inclusion of the Gentiles resulting in salvation to both Jew and Gentile as we'll see in Romans 11. To that extent there has been a partial hardening as Romans 11:25 states but this partial hardening was and has resulted in salvation coming to the Gentiles. What's beautiful is that this partial hardening is not only beneficial to the Gentiles, but to the Jews as well. In fact, without this hardening there would be no benefit to either group (Rom. 11:31).


Let me put it this way. What if the eyes of all Jews were opened to the 1st coming of the Messiah? If they knew and believed Jesus to be the Son of God would they have crucified Him? No. If they didn't crucify Christ then nobody has any hope, neither Jew nor Gentile. But, by a "spirit of stupor" given to the Jews  (Rom. 11:8) and "eyes to see not and ears to hear not" they remained or were "made firm" in their unbelief. From this ignorance they cried out "crucify Him". We should be thankful that the Jews were enemies of the gospel...


28 From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; - Romans 11:28


From the gospel's point of view the Jews are enemies of it. They crucified Christ (Acts 2:22-23 below) and they tried to stop His message (Acts 5:40). But from God's point of view they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the Gentiles though we should be so grateful for what God did threw the Jews. Yes godless men crucified Jesus and Yes this was God's plan all along (John 12:27, Matt. 26:54). As Peter states in Acts:


22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. - Acts 2:22-23


Interestingly that's Peter speaking after the crucifixion, beforehand Peter tried to stop it when he drew his sword in defense of Jesus and struck a slave that came to take Jesus away to His crucifixion. Jesus commanded Peter holster his sword and after explaining to Peter that Jesus could appeal to the Father and have at His disposal more than twelve legions of angels, Jesus said to Peter "How then will Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?" Did men in their evilness come to take Jesus away? Yes. Did God plan it? Yes.


The error some make is assuming that if God orchestrated those events then God orchestrates everything, every thought, every choice, every decision, good or bad and they read this section of Romans 9 and make it represent that viewpoint and apply it to everything as though everything that happens is the will of God (cf. Jer 7:31, 19:5, 32:35). The boss runs the business, and if something is important enough he leaves his office and comes down and sees to it personally. Does this mean the boss sees to EVERYTHING personally even to the point of being the causer of all things, even the bad (evil)? No. If that were the case, why have employees at all? As we discussed previously, some matters are of utmost importance that God does indeed see to them personally.


20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? - Romans 9:20


This closely resembles Isaiah 29:16 and is likely what Paul is alluding to, not that he intended to quote Isaiah but to use the same wisdom that Israelites would have generally accepted from these OT verses (cf Isa. 10:15) but now Paul applies such reasoning to Israel.


At this point the reader hasn't reached Romans 11 yet. We've spent a good amount of time there as Romans 11 helps make sense of Romans 9. Paul, like he's done throughout Romans is setting the stage for his big reveal that's coming up in Romans 11. However right now, Paul is arguing God's right to judicially harden Israel and now addresses the question that would likely surface in the minds of many Jews considering what's been shared thus far and the point is this. Does God have the right? Yes. Does God have to answer to us to do it? Nope. The bigger question for me is not to look at does God have the right, but what is God's heart behind the action? Is He a good boss or a sadistic boss? This is the big reveal in Romans 11 but first Paul is laying this groundwork.


21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? - Romans 9:21


Like we've seen already in this chapter, Paul often quotes from the Old Testament stories the Jews would have been familiar with. As gentiles we often read this and overlook it's OT ties, but Jews would have been well familiar with the story of the potter and the clay pulled from Jeremiah 18. Let's look at that.


1The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord saying, “Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will announce My words to you.” Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something on the wheel. But the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so he remade it into another vessel, as it pleased the potter to make.

Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; 10 if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it. - Jeremiah 18:1-10 (emphasis mine)


Consider what is written there and how God appropriated the vessels based on the condition (highlighted in bold) and consider what is written in Romans 11:17-23 below.


17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; 21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. 23 And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. - Romans 11:17-23 (emphasis mine)


Do you see the similarity between the two stories? There is a condition at hand. God doesn't allow someone to be blind arbitrarily. What is that condition? Faith as confirmed in 2 Corinthians 4:4:


in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. - 2 Corinthians 4:4 (emphasis mine)


Also notice the potter had a different plan for the clay before it spoiled. It was never his intention to remake it into another vessel that served a different purpose until after it spoiled. Once it spoiled however, he made a new plan for that clay. God elaborates that imagery to be likened to what He is doing with Israel. Proverbs 16:9 says that man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps. I believe Jeremiah 18 above illustrates that very well.


On a side note there's another similar reference in the OT that Paul was likely alluding to as well in Isaiah 29:15-16 which too shows the correlation between man's plan and God's molding with a call to repentance at the start of verse 16.


Does man have free will? Yes. Does God direct their steps? Yes. I believe this is the reality of the potter and the clay as well as the wisdom in Proverbs 16:9. Paul testifying of God's right to make a vessel for his purpose of mercy or his purpose of wrath is not disputed, but His heart, like the potter, didn't start molding it for a vessel of wrath until after it spoiled. Did the potter still make use of it? Yes. Similarly how God makes use of Pharoah. Amazingly the vessel still has an opportunity to "turn from its evil". And as Paul writes, "if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again." God is so patient:


22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? - Romans 9:22


Question: If there wasn't an option to repent what would be the purpose of God being patient? If God's intentions were to create vessels of wrath from the start, then why would said vessels wear on His patience? Wouldn't they be doing what He wanted thus aligned with His desired result? Remember the potter in Jeremiah 18 started out molding the clay with a different objective in mind. God did too:


27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. - Genesis 1:27


24 Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. - Matthew 13:24


29 Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.” - Ecclesiastes 7:29


Nobody was intended to be a vessel of wrath, God's patience shows that, consider what Paul and Peter wrote about God's patience in 1 Timothy 1:16 and 2 Peter 3:9. But God "although willing" used those who chose unbelief, those that "spoiled" (cross reference Rom. 1:24, 26, 28, "God gave them that...") to be allocated for a different purpose:


23 And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, - Romans 9:23


Some take this to mean that God showed vessels of mercy how good they have it by contrasting them with vessels of wrath which demonstrate how bad it could have been. I would argue that isn't what is being spoken of here. If one needed to know how bad it could have been they need only consider Jesus Christ and what He endured for us. If we were to say that Jesus didn't have it as bad as it could be then we are saying that Jesus didn't pay the penalty in full. Jesus paid it all...♫. Therefore the invitation to be a vessel for honorable use is available to all.


20 Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. - 2 Timothy 2:20-21


I believe the vessels of wrath were used for God's purpose. By way of judicial hardening to the Israelites God brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to believers, to make known to us the promise of the Messiah, the riches of His glory, the power of the gospel for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16). Pharaoh was used in this same way (to make God known in the whole world), it's no coincidence that Paul uses that example in this same passage.


Some have argued that God desires to make vessels of wrath because it glorifies Him. It does glorify Him in showing He doesn't condone sin and that He is indeed a God of justice, but what do they demonstrate that isn't demonstrated on the cross? That phrase "although willing" and that word "patience" in v22 will tell you that them being vessels of wrath is not His original intent (Ecc. 7:29). The potter too started out with a different intent in mind (Jer. 18:3). While God indeed uses vessels of wrath and they do glorify Him, I would argue more so do vessels of mercy, even to the point of drowning out any remaining glory stemming from vessels of wrath.


But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory, so that the sons of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of the glory of his face, fading as it was, how will the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory? For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory. 10 For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory. - 2 Corinthians 3:7-11


Question: Which is more glorious, a God who desires to save some, or a God who desires to save everyone and therefore enacts a plan that freely offers salvation to all? A God who loves some, or a God who loves all? (cf. Prov. 19:11, Psa. 86:5, 15, 103:8, 145:8, Exo. 34:6, Jonah 4:2).


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