Terry Roberts, one of my In Ministry students, who is also a pastor in Spokane, sent me this picture. It’s typical of his great sense of humor, but still thought provoking. He knows tragedy with the seemingly senseless death of his wife a couple of years ago. I heard John Piper illustrate his sermon on Romans 8:32 (He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him give us all things?) by telling of a troubled young mother. As she drove down a Minneapolis freeway she tried to solve her problems by throwing her baby out the window of the speeding automobile. According to Piper, this horrific act is one of the “all things” given as a grace from the Lord. One way to summarize it is that God uses what He hates to accomplish what He loves. Yesterday I was talking with Josh White, a local church planter (Door of Hope). While he was touring with his band, he heard Piper preach at Bethlehem Church. Piper was presenting his view that God does not allow evil but ordains it. This includes moral evil rapes and child abuse. He wondered at the deadness in people’s faces as they nodded assent.

My own “ship” theory is that God is in overall control, but there is a genuine freedom of the creature both in good and bad things. So things happen that are not the will of God, but nothing happens outside the control of God. God is loving enough and powerful enough to do good in the worst situation. While not everything is from God’s purposed will, nothing is beyond His purpose to do good. Mystery: how can God control the big picture and not the details? What good is God going to do in this evil?

A key biblical point is that God is super angry at moral evil. See Deuteronomy 29:24ff or Isaiah 1 for example. There are times when He uses evil to judge evil as in raising the Babylonians to destroy sinful Jerusalem (Habakkuk 1), or in the crucifixion of Jesus, but mostly sin is against His will (though not out of His control) resulting in His wrath.

Another point is the meaning of the word “sovereign.” Many simply assume this term means that God controls everything that happens so that no act occurs without God having a specific purpose for it. Many who take this view think God allows evil rather than actively ordaining it as Piper asserts. But they agree that God is in control of all that happens.

But the Bible never actually says it this way, I think. Rather sovereign means that God does not give account to anyone (Psa. 33:11). No one can stop Him when He decides to act. He does whatever pleases Him (Psa. 115:3), but not everything that happens pleases Him.

One outcome of this is that evil is against the will of God, but not out of His control. When I want to press my point, I assert that there are genuine accidents such as the combination of genes that results in Down syndrome.

This can be very troubling. One student had been pretty comfortable believing that God controlled everything so life would be good based on Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. But as he realized that the very people who received this promise suffered horribly in Babylonian captivity, it rocked his confidence that life would be good. When he added in my view that there are events that are against or apart from God’s will, he was visibly distressed. “How can I trust,” he wondered.

I affirmed God’s powerful promise that we need fear no evil because He will be with us in the valley of the shadow of death. He will prepare a table of goodness but it may be in the presence of enemies (Psa. 23:4-5).

I am feeling really connected with the disaster of Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan. It killed hundreds and caused billions of dollars of damages in very poor areas of the island, areas near where Sherry and I have been. People prayed for relief (video here). Do they pray to the God who “smote” them? This is what the New American Standard translation of Romans 8:28 says: we know that God causes all things to work together for good.

Or do they pray to the God who is with them doing good even in disaster He did not will? This is what the NIV translation of Romans 8:28 says: we know that in all things God works for the good.

It is one of those foundational questions that we all answer thoughtfully or reactively. Our answers are only partial because the mystery of evil can never be anything but irrational. The greater mystery of the LORD remains. But He tells us He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, faithful, loving, forgiving and just in that the guilty never go unpunished (Exodus 34:6-7).

I’m standing there.

Romans 9

What is the big picture of Romans 9? I think it’s that God is persistent to bless His people even when they sin. The more common Calvinistic answer is something like God sovereignly shapes anyone He wants any way He wants anytime He wants.

Before we start, we have to remember that Paul expects us to understand the Old Testament stories he appeals to. That’s the context of his argument. So let’s look.

The passage follows chapter 8 with its question, “Who can separate us from the love of God?” The answer, “Nothing” encounters the question, “but what about Israel? They are God’s chosen people and now they have failed.”

Paul’s answer is that God has not failed them.

First, not all of ethnic Israel is spiritual Israel (v. 6). It’s always been true that there’s been a faithful remnant within the larger nation. This concludes with verse 8: “This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” Note that Paul is only talking about Jews here. There’s no mention of Gentiles in this passage, despite many who try to generalize it.

Second are questions like, “How did we get to be God’s children? What did we do to earn His favor? What claim do we have on Him?”Verse 11 makes it clear: it had nothing to do with what was done. If it had, things would have been uniformly bad. When you look at the two sons, Jacob and Esau, you see two reprobates: Esau is the despiser. He’ll sell the very birthright of God for a bowl of vegetarian chili. Jacob is the deceiver. Never turn your back on this man. He’ll put a knife in it. If I were God, I’d do the thunderbolt thing and start over.

But God chose the younger to serve the older (verse 12). He did it apart from any merit, any deserving, of any kind. Which is good, since neither had any merit. Then Jacob’s salvation along with that of his descendants will be totally a testimony to the free grace.

What did we do to become God’s children? What did Jacob do to deserve God’s mercy, to be God’s child? Sinful stuff! At most, he depended on God’s promise, accepted His mercy.

There are a couple of lessons here. First, we can never claim anything from God since salvation totally a gift. We didn’t buy anything and can’t claim a refund if things go bad. Being a part of God’s spiritual family does not come by physical birth at all. Second, there’s no one so messed up that God can’t use them, can’t redeem them, if He chooses. If He can use the self-centered Jacob, he can use anyone.

Then we get to a problem passage: verse 13: Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Why did God hate Easu before He was born? That’s a horrible God who would hate someone without any deserving.

But notice where this quotation comes from: Not Genesis, before Esau was born, but Malachi, 1500 years later.

God says, “I have loved you.” But Israel says, “Your love is weird. You just beat the snot out of us in Babylon. Tell us, ‘How have you loved us?'” Maybe if you are going to love us like this, we’d be better off if you would stop loving us!

God’s response is “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” Note that He is not talking about the brothers in Genesis, but the nations that came from them. He decided to love Jacob (renamed Israel later) and still loves him/them. He hates the nation Edom, coming from Esau, because Edom has decided to kill Israel, God’s own children, and God isn’t going to let them do that. He destroyed them, something Malachi goes on to describe.

God goes on loving Israel despite their sin. He protects His children from their enemies not matter who the enemies are.

So we ask, “Why did God hate Esau before he was born??” and get the answer, “He didn’t.” That would be reading the passage as if it had come from Genesis rather than Malachi. The LORD hated Edom because they were set to destroy Israel. He hates Esau/Edom because they are evil and richly deserve His hatred.

Paul then answers the rhetorical question, “Is God unjust?” by quoting from Exodus 33:18 : He will have mercy and compassion on whom He chooses, no matter who sinful they may be. He is not unjust to punish Edom. They richly deserved it. He is not unjust to love Israel despite their sin. He will show mercy to whom He chooses even when they don’t deserve it. There is no place where the LORD takes away a benefit anyone deserves. He never defrauds anyone, never rips off their stuff, never ignores their rights.

The lesson is that no one can (or needs to) earn God’s mercy. It’s His character to give it.

Then the story turns to the other side. What of the hardened folk? What of Pharaoh? God raised him up in order to display God’s glory, something Pharaoh wanted no part of.

In Exodus 4:21 the LORD tells Moses He will harden Pharaoh’s heart. And indeed He does. At chapter 10 it says, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD.”

But the question people don’t think to ask is, “How does He harden Pharaoh’s heart?” The story gives us the answer.

In chapter 5, the LORD, through Moses and Aaron, rather than dropping a rock on this murderous slave master’s head, graciously calls Pharaoh to righteousness (let my people go into the desert to hold a worship festival, not leave slavery and return to Israel). Pharaoh refuses. He cannot acknowledge any rights from the God of the Israelites, of any deity other than his.

In chapter 7, the LORD again calls Pharaoh to righteousness, backing up the call with the staff to snake miracle. Pharaoh’s magicians duplicate the miracle but Moses’ snake eats their snakes. Pharaoh again refuses to respond to the LORD’s gracious call.

God reflects on Pharaoh’s refusal in 7:14, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn; he refuses to let the people go.” Note that He doesn’t say, “I have hardened his heart” as He does later in chapter 10. The process of hardening is proceeding.

The hardening is done as the LORD comes to Pharaoh, the powerful sinner, and calls him to righteousness, backing the call with miracles so powerful that even th
e Egyptian magicians convert at risk of their very lives before a unforgiving Pharaoh (8:19). But Pharaoh persists in refusing the LORD’s gracious urging to acknowledge His power.

On four occasions, Pharaoh tells Moses that the people can go(8:15, 32; 10:8; 24). In the first two occasions, when he gets relief from the plague, he relents and hardens his own heart. In the occasions in chapter 10, Pharaoh still tries to retain a measure of control, not allowing everyone to go. Finally, after the firstborn are killed, Pharaoh gives up and commands them to go worship the LORD. But even then, Pharaoh again changes his mind and pursues the people only to be destroyed in the Red Sea.

The LORD certainly does harden Pharaoh’s heart. He does it be gracing him repeatedly. He graciously calls Pharaoh to righteousness supporting the call with unmatchable miracles. But Pharaoh refused. The more he is provoked by the LORD’s call to righteousness, the more he practices refusal, the harder his heart gets.

Verse 19, “For who can resist his will?” is usually taken to mean everything that happens, including sin and the atrocities that characterize life in this broken world, is ultimately God’s will. So they answer Paul’s question with “No one.”Everything that happens is God’s will for no one can resist Him.

In fact the answer to Paul’s rhetorical question has more layers than that. The first answer is to who resists God’s will is, “hardhearted idiots like Pharaoh.” No wise person would ever resist the will of the gracious compassionate LORD. His will is the best thing we could ever do. The second layer is, “but not even the most powerful people can get away with resisting God, for in the end, God’s justice will reign.” Even Pharaoh gets killed in the end, but only after he resists God’s gracious call to righteousness time after time.

Then we go to the potter story. The point of the potter is that God will not give up in His desire to bless His people, even when they go off into sin.

Romans 9:20 appeals to Isaiah 29:16 and 45:9-11. In both cases Isaiah’s point is, “Who are you to question the loving wisdom of the LORD? Who are you to say you know what is good for you better than the gracious God who made you and the whole earth?” Israel, whom the LORD showered blessing on, has persisted in idolatry and injustice despite the LORD’s gracious pleas to them for centuries. Now He is punishing the hardened, blatant sinners who are acting like Pharaoh rather than like Moses, just as they did in the desert. And once again, when the LORD’s patience finally runs out, they complain about His “injustice”!

This is anything but the common understanding that the LORD makes people do everything that they do under the theology of meticulous providence.

Look at Isaiah 29:15-19 The first word is to sinful Israel: “Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?'” This is the idiot child who thinks God does not see what he’s up to, does not really know what’s happening, is the ill-informed god of post-conservative theology.

Isaiah asks these idiot children, who dare think the LORD is a lot like them, “Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? In other words, Isaiah is asking, “Did you really think the gracious, righteous LORD of the universe is like you? Do you think you can get away some sort of meticulous providence driven answer that what you are doing is the will of God??”

Far from the LORD being the one who designed the characters and actions these persistent sinners, He is the gracious LORD who will not give up on them.

Even in the context of their hardened, blatant sin, His message is, “Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (29:17-19).

What is the message of the potter story? In Isaiah 64:6-12 it is that despite all the sin which has brought the terrible punishment, the LORD is still the Maker of Israel, and we can hope for His mercy in due time. The message certainly is not that He’s the one who willed us to be sinful for His ultimate glory, as meticulous providence tries to argue.

The point is even more clear in Jeremiah 18. Again in the context of terrible punishment because of persistent sin, the LORD tells Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house to learn of the Potter. Jeremiah observes the potter at work: “And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand.” Like Israel in the Potter’s hand, the pot project is going bad. What will the LORD do? Throw out the clay? Be satisfied with a spoiled pot? Not at all.

The potter shows the heart of the Potter: “he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.”

So the LORD speaks to Jeremiah “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the LORD. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” What does the Potter do? He smashes down the ruined pot that has been spoiled despite His shaping work. He sends sinful Israel to Babylon. But He’s not done. He carefully, lovingly reshapes the pot into something beautiful.

The following four verses make it clear that we are not lifeless clay, shaped by the potter to be what He wants, no matter what we do. Verse 7-8 point out that if the LORD announces destruction on sinful people and they repent of their sin, He will relent and not destroy them. On the other hand, verses 9-10 point out the opposite: if the LORD announces blessing on a nation, and they resist Him and persist in sin, He will relent the blessing He intended for them.

So the message of the potter is not that everything is the result of the will of the LORD, not that we are lifeless clay shaped by an arbitrary potter. Rather the message is that the LORD will continue to do His gracious shaping work even when our resistance spoils His work.

The LORD makes ruined things beautiful again.

Verse 22 describes God’s attitude toward objects of wrath as “enduing with much patience.” It does not say He rejected them out of the sovereignty of His will. Neither does it say that He prepared them for destruction, though many read it this way.

Verse 23 is the contrast: He has prepared others for mercy, not bec
ause they have earned His favor, but because He is the merciful one.


Those who are condemned, hated, rejected get there solely because they have rejected God. Anyone who puts the priority of rejection with the LORD has desperately misread the Bible. So no one can charge the LORD with injustice. Whoever is under His punishment is there because of human sin. Anyone who joins Israel is whining when they feel the sting of His rod of discipline shows only their own skewed sense of justice.

When we look at the OT stories, we see that the LORD extends grace and mercy to sinners simply because He is like that, not because we have done something to render Him gracious. It’s the pagans who argue that we must do some religious duty to render the gods merciful.

The lesson of Romans 9 is that even when God’s people are under His punishment because of their sin, it does not mean He has ceased to be merciful. The restoration of Israel shows His covenant loyalty and give us comfort with life sucks. God is persistent to bless His people even when they sin.