But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? —Romans 9:20
Why are we looking at Romans 9? Because we want reality with God. Not theory, not our own preferences, but truth and honesty and reality with the living God. We want to know who God really is, and who we really are, and how God has mercy on people like us. We are not asking God to diminish himself. We are welcoming God to be fully God to us, in all his mercy. Nothing less than full-strength God can save us.
It is possible to come to church and get involved and everything seems fine, when underneath is a hidden purpose, even an unselfconscious purpose, to manage God, to control God, to get God to behave the way I want so that he makes my life a little better this week. Why should God go along with that? Will God pour out his mercy on our terms or on his terms? It is possible to come to church with a false purpose – to get a religious trinket, a lucky charm, to enhance our own will. Let’s confess that impulse in our hearts. We don’t want it. We want reality with God. We want the mercy of no one less than the living and true God. And he gives it freely!
When we read Romans 9, every one of us feels something inside. Many of us feel an impulse of resistance. We probably felt it a moment ago, when I read the passage. It’s a reflex action in our hearts that pulls back, it looks for some way of escape, it whispers to our minds, “There must be a way to get around Romans 9.” When that feeling rises up, let’s pay attention to it. It’s telling us we are not trusting God as much as we thought. The Bible is pulling that up to the surface, because God is drawing near to us in mercy. He wants to help us get past our resistance and trust him and love him the way he really is. Romans 9 is calling us to a deeper place of awe before God, because that’s where his blessing comes down.
Let’s take this difficult passage step by step. Let’s be honest about it. I am guessing there are basically three responses among us today. One is worshipful trust in God. Second, a struggling openness. Third, outright rejection and refusal. If your heart-response is rejection, I hope you’ll move today to a struggling openness. If your heart-response is a struggling openness, I hope you’ll move today to worshipful trust. If your heart-response is worshipful trust, I hope you’ll thank God, because you didn’t get yourself there. Left to yourself, you’d still be in Sodom and Gomorrah (verse 29). So then, what is God showing us about who he really is, and who we really are, so that we can trust him more deeply than ever before?
Two weeks ago we saw that God’s mercy is selective, not automatic (verses 1-12). Last week we saw that God’s mercy is free, not deserved or earned (verses 13-18). This week we’ll see that God’s mercy is mysterious, not explainable (verses 19-29).
Verse 19 starts it out by showing us something in ourselves that we need to face: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does God still find fault? For who can resist his will?’” Why does that question come up? Because of verse 18: “So then God has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” This question in verse 19 is not because someone hasn’t been paying attention but because they have. How can God judge us for what he controls? That’s the question. It’s an understandable question. But Paul doesn’t answer it. He rebukes it.
Verse 20: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Paul likes our questions. He has been answering our questions since chapter 6. Romans 1-5 is Paul’s theological lecture. Then he pauses in chapters 6-11 for a long Q & A session. All he’s doing throughout chapters 6-11 is answering our questions. He respects our questions. He wants to satisfy our questions. But this time he doesn’t answer the question; he rebukes it. Why? I think we know. As we read Romans 9, we too start answering back to God. Do you see the verb “answer back” here in verse 20? In Classical Greek that verb was used as a mathematical term, meaning “to correspond to,” the way 2 + 2 corresponds to 4. Do you see how that helps us see ourselves? We don’t even have to try, but it’s automatically inside us that we respond to God as if our thoughts could answer to, correspond to, take a place equal to, God’s thoughts. Here are God’s thoughts: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will harden whomever I will.” Here is our thought: “Why does he still find fault? Who do you think you are, God, to be so unfair to me?” When that challenge rises up in our hearts, as if we could corner God and demand an accounting from him, as if we were on his level – it’s a form of hostility toward God. It isn’t trust; it’s rage. It isn’t a question; it’s an accusation. It’s a way of distorting God’s ultimacy into something fatalistic and dehumanizing and mechanistic. That’s why Paul rebukes it. It’s a hypocritical question, not a sincere question. It attacks God for denying human responsibility, but the objector couldn’t even ask the question without having human responsibility. If we’re just machines in a robotic universe, why raise a moral objection against a God like that? Only responsible human beings can ask that question. So it’s really a strategy for blaming God for the sins we really are responsible for. C. S. Lewis wrote,
As long as a man is thinking of God as an examiner who has set him a sort of paper to do or as the opposite party in a sort of bargain – as long as he is thinking of claims and counterclaims between himself and God – he is not yet in the right relation to God. He is misunderstanding what he is and what God is.
The only way we can have a real relationship with the real God is to allow for mystery. But when we rise up to demand an explanation from him and we assume a posture of demandingness before God – for one thing, it just doesn’t work. It’s exhausting and depressing. It’s a perfect place for burnout. But we all understand this frustration with God. Romans 9 confronts us there and wants to set us free. As we read this chapter, God is with us, loving us, wooing us, calling us to let our guard down and focus on his mercy more than on our questions, and open up. If he didn’t love us, we wouldn’t even be reading Romans 9. So let’s trust him. Mercy comes down to the low place of trust.
Let’s look honestly at this rebuke in verse 20: “Who are you, O man?” A good question. And the answer is, we are dust before The Eternal One. When God revealed himself to Moses, Moses had to take off his shoes on that holy ground. When God revealed himself to Job, Job had to backpedal on some things he had said. When the risen Christ revealed himself to the apostle John, John passed out. Is God supposed to fear us? Is he supposed to be swayed or out-argued or impressed? Is he supposed to explain himself to us? To us? God is merciful, but not that way. God is merciful as God. He will be true to who he is. He is free to be merciful, and he is free to judge. If your heart judges God, you will still end up a part of his plan. And if your heart loves God, it’s because God has loved your heart into loving him, because your heart is no different from the shrieking hatred of the most bitter atheist. What are you, next to majesty of God, except a sinner who needs mercy?
Now that we know who we are, we are ready for reality with God. Paul takes us there in three steps. The first step is in verses 20b-21:
Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?
If Paul didn’t believe in the ultimacy of God over us, if he did believe that human will is strong enough to counteract God, he would have said it. If Paul believed in free will the way many people today do – free will being uncaused will, autonomous will, independent of God – if Paul believed that, he lost a golden opportunity to say it. The question he’s answering is this: “Is it okay for God to be sovereign over us?” Paul could have said, “You don’t understand. I am not teaching the sovereignty of God over us. I believe the way you do, that we have free will in the sense that our will can cancel out God’s will.” Paul could have said, “I agree with Morgan Freeman in ‘Bruce Almighty’ – that God can’t mess with free will.” Romans 9 was the perfect place to say that and avoid the controversy and get everyone comfortably on board. But Paul didn’t say it. Why? Because he didn’t believe it. God is ultimate over us. That’s at the heart of the gospel. It’s wonderful news. Here’s why.
If we are the clay, and we are, and God is the potter, and he is, then people like us who are out of control have a hope beyond ourselves. You’re at home with your wife and you criticize her and find fault with her, and you don’t even know how to have a good fight so that something redemptive comes of it, because you never saw it in your home when you were a kid, and all you know is dysfunction, but you don’t like it and you tell yourself that as a Christian you should be better but you aren’t, and you’ve tried to change but you can’t, and you’re beginning to fear you never will, and you sit there in front of the TV surfing the channels with the remote because you don’t even know how to restart the conversation with your wife, and you sit there on the sofa as a lump – you see the word “lump” there in verse 21 – you sit there as a lump of defeatedness and sadness and confusion – God is standing before you today to say, “You have a hope.” There is a Savior God who, like a potter, can reshape you into a magnificent husband, for his glory. Whoever you are, whatever you’re facing, when you can’t bring yourself under control, God can. Look to him, put your hope in him, submit to the hand of the Potter, and he will make you a vessel for honorable use. We don’t understand how this works. There is mystery here, and we all know that. But it does work, because God makes it work. He promises mercy to the weak, the broken, the guilty, who turn to him. What a wonderful hope we have in a God who is not under us, not competing with us, but over us in mercy and power! That’s reality with God. It’s who we really are, and it’s who God really is.
The second step into reality with God is in verses 22-23, where Paul says something even more striking:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory –
The key words are “show” and “make known.” God, the pottery craftsman, puts his work on display. He shows us the fullness of who he is. Do you see five things about God here in verses 22-23: wrath, power, patience, glory and mercy? God reveals the full range of who he is. He’s not embarrassed by who he is. He is revealing who he is. He is not cutting back on himself here or there. He is offering himself to us as God. And here is why we can be happy about God being all that he is.
There is much here we don’t fully understand. But look at this nuance. Do you see the passive verb “prepared” in verse 22 – “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,” that is, people going to hell? And do you see the active verb “he has prepared” in verse 23 – “vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory,” that is, people going to heaven? The people who end up in hell prepared themselves for it. They can’t blame God. But the people who end up as God’s prize works of ceramic art, so to speak, in heavenly glory – those are the one “he has prepared.” God is not the Creator of evil. He is the Creator of glory. But still, Romans 9 shows us that God is in control of evil. And that is good news.
What if God were not in control of evil? What if God didn’t know what to do with it? What if evil were running around the universe like a sniper with its high-powered rifle, putting us in its crosshairs, and God couldn’t do a thing about it? How could we ever have a gospel to believe in, good news to cheer us up in a universe like that? If you try to rescue God’s reputation by saying he isn’t using evil in any sense, then you end up creating a bigger problem than the one you’re trying to fix. I don’t understand how God handles evil. But I know what the Bible says. And the Bible is clear that God, who does not create evil, still uses it for his own glory. And that means we are safe right in the midst of powerful evil, because God is there, and God is more powerful. Jesus was safe when evil crucified him. God was using the most horrible evil in all of human history to do the most beautiful thing in all of human history. And then Christ rose again. He rose up from it all. God is able to do what we cannot do. He is able to pick evil up in his hands and accomplish good with it, and when he’s finished with it, he does away with it, and his hands are clean. We can’t do that. Evil overwhelms us. But God overwhelms evil. He uses it to display the fullness of who he really is. And the way Paul asks this question here in verses 22-23, “What if God . . .” – he is inviting us to think about it. What if God is really like this? Would we prefer him to be otherwise? Aren’t we glad God is all that he is? There is so much mercy for us when we take our place before him in trusting humility.
The third step into reality with God is in verses 24-29, where Paul shows how God is at work in the story of the Jews and the Gentiles:
even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,
“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’
and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’”
“And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my
there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’”
And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” And as Isaiah predicted,
“If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring,
we would have been like Sodom
and become like Gomorrah.”
Paul is quoting from the Old Testament, because the ultimacy of God over us runs throughout the Bible. What is God doing throughout the length of history? He is calling people to himself, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. He is taking vessels of wrath and reshaping them into vessels of mercy. The resistance built into the clay isn’t defeating God; it’s proving the power of his mercy. Verse 26 declares it boldly: “In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” Do you know what means? It means, “In the very condition that disqualified us as God’s people – that is exactly where God enters in to make us his people.” We don’t prepare ourselves. God takes us as we are, in all our sin and stupidity, and by his own mercy redefines us as his children. In ourselves, we would retell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are no different. Like us, they were nice, friendly, dutiful, evil, helpless people, just trying to get by and doing some really bad things along the way. We are all worthy of the same divine judgment. And in fact, it takes all the power of “the Lord of hosts” – “the Lord Almighty” (NIV) – to hold us back from rushing into Sodom and Gomorrah all over again. This has always been true of God’s people. It’s the ongoing story, which is why Paul applies these ancient words from the Old Testament to us today. It’s still true of us that we are not offering God any opportunity, except to be merciful. It’s not just that evil, as a philosophical problem, is within God’s control. This is personal. My evil is in his control. Your evil is in his control. It’s not as though God does so much for us, and then we close the gap with our contribution. We have nothing but sin. God has everything in his mercy. He is enough to be our total Savior. In the very place where we sit in our failure and shame and sorrow, it is there that God declares us his family. That is reality with God.
The greatest mystery lying behind it all is this. At the cross, the Son of God got really, really involved in our evil. It became very personal for him. He absorbed our evil into himself and took into himself the blow of God’s punishment for us. The cross became Sodom and Gomorrah. The Son of God so identified with us in our evil that the fire and brimstone of God’s judgment rained down on him, so that the mercy of God could rain down on us. Don’t treat the sovereignty of God over us as a philosophical football to kick around. The Bible presents it as good news for sinners to embrace to the depths of their hearts. Bow down. Trust God. You’ll never fully understand him. But if you’ll trust him and receive him through Christ crucified, he promises to show you a mercy too big for you ever to understand. And isn’t that what you really want?