All of these form a backdrop for Paul's teaching in Romans 9, for surely all these teachings were well known to Paul. Thus, he is not likely to be ambiguous in his words, for the issues were quite clearly defined already in his day. In this context, he says in the ninth chapter of Romans:
So we see that Paul takes the case of Jacob and Esau as prime examples of God's Election, showing that God chose them BEFORE either of them had done either good or evil. Keep in mind that these are Paul's examples to prove the doctrine; they are not exceptions to the rule. So Esau was NOT rejected on the basis of his evil works, nor was Jacob elected on account of any good works. God is said to have chosen them before birth in order to prove to us that it was NOT "of works" but only "of Him that calleth."
Election therefore means that God is causing, and man is responding to that causal force. This is so clear that we cannot deviate from the plain meaning without doing cartwheels in a swamp. The big objection, both for the Greeks and for the Sadducees, was that of maintaining God's justice. Paul was well aware of this, and so he continues in Romans 9:
Here Paul goes into further detail, though he does not really answer the question of God's justice. Instead, he quotes another Bible story to prove that election determines men's actions. Men may have what they think is "free will," but in reality it is a coerced will. Because Pharaoh had been raised up to glorify God as a vessel of dishonour (9:21), his "free will" was hardly free. God's will was higher and prior to Pharaoh's. Before Pharaoh was even born, God had determined the purpose of his life. It was to glorify God by providing a backdrop for Moses, who was the corresponding vessel of mercy.
One can read the entire story of Pharaoh in the first part of Exodus. Before Moses even appeared to Pharaoh, God had told him that he would harden Pharaoh's heart so that Pharaoh would not listen to him (Exodus 7:3, 4, 13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32, etc.). Every time Pharaoh tried to repent and let Israel go, God would harden his heart (Ex. 10:16, 20, 27). Our natural sense of justice cries out against this. How could God treat Pharaoh or any man that way? How could God then judge Pharaoh for sin? Surely either Paul is wrong, or else we are totally misunderstanding Paul's words! But wait; Paul anticipates these very objections, for they had already been raised many times in his own day. So he continues in Romans 9:
Yes, that is precisely most people's objection. In fact, there would be no objection at all if Paul had only been teaching that God "foreknew" all things. If God had made Esau and Pharaoh into vessels of dishonor on the grounds that He "knew beforehand" how they would turn out, then why would anyone object to Paul's teaching? The very fact that Paul well understood the objection and yet did NOT use the term "foreknew" (Greek: proginosko) compels us to believe the obvious-he meant predestination. That is, God had determined these events beforehand.
And so the reader is compelled to object to God's "unjust" treatment of Pharaoh. If the underlying cause of Pharaoh's hardness of heart were really God's election and predestination, it would appear to undermine any legal case that God might have against Pharaoh. It is what we today would call "entrapment." It would be totally unjust to make Pharaoh pay for the sins he committed under such circumstances. How could God do such things and yet remain just? That is the real question. Romans 9:20-23 continues,
This does not seem to be a satisfactory answer, for Paul only reminds us that such an attitude is one of pride, thinking we are more just than God. Yet we must understand that Paul had already laid the basis for God's justice in Romans five, where he plainly taught that God planned to save all of mankind in the end.
If God had indeed predestined most of humanity to burn in an eternal fire, then yes, indeed, God would be unjust. Only a few with strong stomachs have ever believed this, among whom are Augustine and Calvin. Yet for the majority of men, this has been unacceptable, and other solutions were needed. Unfortunately, instead of questioning the Achan Doctrine of eternal torment, most doubted the doctrine of election and predestination!
And so this has been a confusing mess for most people all their lives. First, they have been deceived by thinking that "hell" is everlasting, rather than age-abiding (aeonian); then to compensate for this error, they must twist Paul's words in Romans 9 to try to justify God. It is no wonder that most people think that Romans 9 is so "difficult" to understand. It is only difficult if one has a prior assumption in his mind that these non-elect will burn forever in a fiery hell. It is always difficult to try to explain how God could use His sovereignty to establish a horrible injustice.
In Romans 8 we are told that God Himself subjected all creation to futility, not so that it would be destroyed, but so that He would receive glory and praise at its jubilee.
Most people object to the doctrine of predestination because it is linked to the idea that God has predestinated most of humanity to burn in hell forever. They object to the injustice attributed to God. Such people are to be commended for not wanting to believe in such an unjust God. However, the God of the Bible has merely predestinated certain ones to be saved FIRST. The others are predestinated to be saved LATER.
Meanwhile, there is much "futility" in creation. God subjected creation to futility by His own will. It was a judgment of God upon all creation because of Adam's sin. Yet He did so with a good purpose in mind, because God's judgments are remedial and corrective. Through discipline, God will bring all things to Himself. That which we call evil, God has the power to turn into good, even as Romans 8:28 says,
A good illustration of this verse is found in a story I heard recently. There was a king in Africa who had a close friend that he grew up with. The friend had a habit of looking at every situation that ever occurred in his life (positive or negative) and remarking, "This is good!"
One day the king and his friend were out on a hunting expedition. The friend would load and prepare the guns for the king. The friend had apparently done something wrong in preparing one of the guns, for after taking the gun from his friend, the king fired it and his thumb was blown off. Examining the situation the friend remarked as usual, "This is good!" To which the king replied, "No, this is NOT good!" and proceeded to send his friend to jail.
About a year later, the king was hunting in an unsafe area. Cannibals captured him and took them to their village. They tied his hands, stacked some wood, set up a stake and bound him to the stake. As they came near to set fire to the wood, they noticed that the king was missing a thumb. Being superstitious, they never ate anyone that was less than whole. So untying the king, they sent him on his way. As he returned home, he was reminded of the event that had taken his thumb and felt remorse for his treatment of his friend. He went immediately to the jail to speak with his friend.
"You were right" he said, "it was good that my thumb was blown off." And he proceeded to tell the friend all that had just happened. "And so I am very sorry for sending you to jail for so long. It was bad for me to do this."
"No," his friend replied, "this is good!"
"What do you mean, 'this is good'! How could it be good that I sent my friend to jail for a year?"
"If I had NOT been in jail, I would have been with you!"
When we learn to view all things through the eyes of God, then will we truly know Him. The true knowledge of God begins with a recognition of His sovereignty. The more we know Him, the more sovereign He seems to be. The less we know Him, the more sovereign man seems to be.
Elsewhere in Paul's writings, he confirms the doctrine of election. In Ephesians 1:4-6,
Even as Jacob was elected before his birth, that God's choice might stand not of works-so also were we chosen in Him "before the foundation of the world." We are predestinated and chosen "according to the kind intention of His will" (vs. 5) to be saved first and bring the nations to Christ. Paul says it again in 2 Timothy 1:9,
Paul also writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, "God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation." If we had not been chosen, God may have decreed that we should be born in an idolatrous nation, where the name of Christ had never been heard. If so, our chances of being Christians today would be somewhere between slim and nil. No matter how we slice it, our cultural and religious background, the time and place we are born, and many other factors all make it easy or difficult to find Christ. These are factors outside of our control, determined by the sovereignty of God alone. From a human viewpoint, this is simply not fair, especially if it results in eternal torment for 99% of mankind.
If God were to be fair about it, then He should do with everyone as he did with the Apostle Paul. Who among us would argue with God after being struck down with a blinding light, with Jesus appearing to us face to face? It reminds me of a cartoon I once saw, where a medieval crusader on his horse was pointing his lance at the throat of a Muslim lying on his back. The Muslim was saying, "Hmm, please tell me more about this God of yours!" In the same manner, God also got Paul's undivided attention. If God had coerced every man in this way, I suspect that most of the world would have been evangelized and converted long ago.
Years after his conversion, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:16 that his own conversion was "an example [hupotuposis, "a pattern"] for those who would believe in Him for eternal life." Obviously, this does not mean that God will strike all people to the ground in such a violent manner in order to convert them. Yet it does teach the principle that it is God who first elects us from the foundation of the world, and then He follows through by causing us to accept Him. Paul here is the PATTERN, not the exception. No flesh can glory in His sight. We will not be able to strut our salvation before men, saying "I accepted Christ by my own free will." Ultimately, we will all have to humbly agree that, like Paul, He chose us before we chose Him.
When any man receives enlightenment of the Truth, it is an act of God. Paul learned this by personal experience, and such a dramatic event had a tremendous impact upon his view of God's election. We must keep this in mind as we read Romans 9, for Paul wrote this chapter as a result of his own personal experience. Some other Scriptures reflecting this are:
Matt. 11:27. 27All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.
2 Tim. 2:25. 25With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,
Rom. 2:4. 4Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?
John 6:37. 37 All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.
John 6:44. 44 No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws (helkuo, "drags") him.
John 1:13. 13Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God [i.e., God's will].
Having thus established the God is sovereign, we will now begin to show the paradox that man's will also has authority on the earthly level.
Man's Will and its Authority
In the Greek language there are two words that we must look at carefully: dunamis and exousia. The word dunamis means "inherent power," that is, power that is self-derived. A king is said to have dunamis (power) OVER others. To his subjects, the king has power. But in relation to God (a higher Power), the king operates on exousia (authority). In the family, a husband has power over the wife, but in relation to God the husband only exercises authority under God. It is all relative.
Power, or sovereignty, is what one sees when he looks up from his own level of authority. Every man exercises power over some area of life, and yet that same power is only authority under a higher power. Every man exercises authority under a succession of higher authorities, until finally one reaches God Himself, the ultimate and only true sovereign Power of the universe.
In our discussion of man's will, we shall simplify things by ignoring all positions of power or authority except where God is the sovereign Power (dunamis), and man in general exercises authority (exousia) under God. It all began is Genesis 1:26.
This is the beginning of all delegated authority on earth in its primal form. Later, as men began to multiply, he formed more layers of government, each with a different level of authority. Each new authority served to limit man's "free will" further, for now he was bound by more and more laws to restrain him from injuring his neighbor. His will was increasingly coerced by law.
Law and Coercion
A law that has no corresponding judgment or penalty for its infraction is really no law at all. The law must operate on the fear principle to restrain sinners. For this reason, Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:9 and 10,
Only when we are perfected will the law become irrelevant insofar as legislation is concerned. At that point, men will by nature do good; they will be totally motivated by love; and fear itself will be a thing of the past.
Laws are given specifically for the purpose of coercion. On earth, man's will has not been free since the first enforceable law was set down. Whether this was by governmental decree to citizens or simply by a father's household rule to restrain his children, all laws coerce the will of men into a behavior mold. This is meant to limit free will.
There is also the more artful method known as persuasion. While some may think this to be purely a matter of free-will choice, it is not always so. A tyrant may wish to launch a propaganda campaign to persuade citizens to support his policy. Or perhaps some devious powers wish to hide their malicious policies by instituting a "two-party system," such as we have in America. Then they might give those two systems different philosophies in order to attract the majority of the voters, thus denying any other viewpoints any significant power base. At that point, the voters may be deceived into thinking that they are exercising free will by voting for the candidate of their choice, when in practical reality it makes little difference who is elected. The real powerbrokers backstage have already financed and organized both candidates to make sure the public can only choose one of their own two candidates. The voters are made to feel as if they had chosen of their own free will, but it is all an illusion.
To go a step deeper, we are all products of our genes, culture, and education. We carry in our minds countless ideas that we have been persuaded to accept, most of which we learned as children when we were too immature to choose without coercion. Hindus grow up with Hindu values; Muslims with Muslim values; Christians with Christian values. Right or wrong, these permeate our minds as assumptions of truth, and they affect us subconsciously all our lives. It is very hard to rise above our cultural and religious background, where we may exercise free will without being influenced by coercion.
However, even if we could do so, our views are determined by more than just culture and education. Even the very time and place we were born will affect such things as whether or not we even hear of Jesus Christ. Millions have been born in remote countries for thousands of years. Yet it is common to hear churches teach that such people will be tormented in hell forever. They try to remove blame from God by placing it on men who did not go preach to them. This reduces the problem, but does not resolve it. Even if the first century Church had been 100% successful in fulfilling the Great Commission, there still would have been millions who had already died without Christ. Their only crime was that they were not born into an Israelite family who worshiped the God of the Bible.
To blame such a person for not knowing the true God is unjust. How can one say that such a person rejected God "of his own free will," when he did not choose his own parents, nationality, or religious environment? As a consequence, many have been led to speak of free will as being an illusion. We cannot escape the fact that our wills have been directly coerced by parents, teachers, and governments since birth. The coercion began indirectly even before birth, when God predestined when we should be born, to what parents, in what nation, and to what religious, cultural and legal environment.
All of this coercion is accomplished either by authority or the illusion of authority. Authority itself, by its very nature, is coercive; the more authority one has, the more personal "free will" he appears to have, and the more he may limit the freedom of will for others by coercive laws and commands. Coercion is not evil in itself; it merely exists and can be used for either good or evil. In fact, because God delegated all authority over the earthly realm to man in Genesis 1:26, it must be "very good" (1:31). The point is that we must recognize that there is really no such thing as absolute free will so long as man's authority is exercised on earth. Yet at the same time, we must also recognize that man's authority is very real, and that the more authority one has, the more "free" his will seems to be.
The King of Babylon was once of the opinion that his will stood above all others, and that he was in fact the sovereign of the earth. No man had authority over him; no man could coerce him; he made the laws and thus stood above them in authority. It appeared as if his will approached total freedom. Then God stepped in and demonstrated to him and to the world that even the earthly "king of kings" must recognize the sovereignty of God (Daniel 4). Paul put it this way in Romans 13:1:
We have also seen earlier that the climax of history will come only when Jesus has extended His rule to encompass the whole universe and has subdued all enemies. Only then will He give the Creation Kingdom back to His Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28) in its pristine state.
We shall deal with the question of liability and responsibility in the next chapter when we can treat it fully. Meanwhile, though, let us establish the fact that sovereignty, the ultimate dunamis, belongs to God in heaven, while authority, exousia, belongs to man here on earth. Both are operative; both are real; yet they are realities of a different plane of existence. These distinct realities are also described by two other Greek words denoting God's will (desire) and God's overall plan, or blueprint for history.
God's Will (Thelema) and God's Plan (Boulema)
The will of God is in a way subordinate to His plan, or the blueprint of history. The Greek words to describe each in the New Testament are thelema ("will") and boulema ("plan").
The word thelema is used about 60 times in the New Testament. It is usually translated "will." It denotes the will in the sense of the desire or wish. However, the word boulema refers to one's resolve. It goes beyond a mere desire. It denotes the actual plan, the intention, or the outworking of the will. It is only used twice in the New Testament, but in both cases we can note its distinction from thelema.
For example, in Acts 27:43 Paul was being taken prisoner to Rome. A storm had arisen, and the ship was grounded on a reef. The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners in order to prevent them from escaping.
Fortunately for Paul, the Centurion had more than a willing desire to save Paul. He also had the power to command and to carry out his plan (boulema). This indicated more than a mere desire to save Paul's life. He carried it out as part of his plan. The second passage where boulema is used is much clearer, for we already quoted it in Romans 9:19, in regard to Pharaoh:
You see, the will (desire) of God was expressed in Moses' statement: "Let My people go." Pharaoh was able to resist God's thelema will, or desire. The story of Pharaoh makes that obvious. But there was a boulema plan, or intention, that Pharaoh knew nothing about, and this he could not resist, for this was in the mind of God, not in the will of man. It was bound up in the sovereignty of God, not in the authority of man. And this plan is perfectly expressed in verse 17, where Paul quotes from Exodus 9:16 below:
It was God's will that Pharaoh let Israel go. But it was in God's plan that Pharaoh should resist God's will. Thus, God hardened Pharaoh's heart in order to carry out that plan. This may seem like a terrible contradiction. Why would God create His own opposition and harden Pharaoh's heart, causing him to resist the will of God? It is no more contradictory than with the two covenants. The Abrahamic covenant gave men the inheritance by unconditional promise, while the Mosaic covenant made it conditional. This is not contradictory, but rather a paradox, as we saw in chapter eight.
As a consequence, man is judged only on the level of his obedience to the thelema of God, for this is the level of his authority. God takes full responsibility for that which He does according to His boulema plan. Yet because the boulema of God is a primal force which directly determines man's ability and desire to obey God's thelema, God holds himself ultimately responsible and liable for the actions and salvation of His creation. That is one reason why He came to pay the penalty for sin Himself, and we will deal with that topic later.
The Paradox of Soul and Spirit
The question of whether man's will is free or if "fate" determines events has been a matte of debate for thousands of years. Persia, Greece, and Judea all had different "denominations" which reflected both extremes as well as a middle-of-the-road view. In Judea the Sadducees, who denied the existence of the spiritual world (Acts 23:8), believed in total free will. The Essenes believed that all things were predestinated by God and denied any free will. The Pharisees stood in the middle, believing a little of each and all of none.
The Pharisees attempted this by watering down the two extremes. Predestination was understood as being mere foreknowledge, and free will was limited by God's ability to overrule at times. Yet all they did was to make the problem less glaring, but it was at the expense of both predestination and free will.
The main problem Christians face is that the Bible appears to teach all three views. Paul clearly uses the term "predestination" and fully defines it in Romans 9. However, he also makes it clear that man is responsible and liable for his own sins in an eonian ("age-lasting") judgment.
Paul had studied the rather sour philosophy of the Stoics who taught "fate;" he had learned the "friendly" philosophy of the Epicureans who taught total free will; and he had learned Pharisee doctrine, which taught foreknowledge. He knew all their arguments, which forced him to bring the biblical view into a much tighter focus. Such controversy hardly existed while the Old Testament was being written.
The Bible speaks of man choosing whether to serve God or not. The question is not whether man has a choice, but rather whether God has predetermined that choice. The question is not whether man has a will or not, but rather whether God has left it totally free or if He has coerced it by circumstances outside of his control. It is well known that if a man is a highly intelligent manipulator, he can quite easily predetermine the choices and decisions of those who are weak minded or less intelligent. God is the ultimate Intelligence, having ultimate power to bring creation to its intended end. God could easily have converted all men to Himself immediately, if He had chosen to do so. A few simple demonstrations of power would have done the job.
But God decided to make it more difficult, because the greater the challenge, the greater the glory in victory. He decided to win the world by His love, rather than by fear of His mighty power. This would take longer, of course, but in the course of history, men would love Him in return when they saw His love manifested in His people. Religions tend to convert men through fear. God converts men by love.
The authority God has given to men on earth is limited by God's sovereignty. Sovereignty is self-derived power; authority is authorized by a higher power and is therefore limited and subjected by that power. Man does not have sovereignty. Therefore, his authority is limited, and his liability for his actions are limited according to his level of authority.
God disciplines men and judges them according to their level of authority. God holds Himself liable in the highest sense, because He alone is sovereign. As creator, He is ultimately responsible for His creation and its actions. It was therefore built into the plan of God from the beginning that Jesus Christ would come to die for the sins of the world. God held Himself liable for our sins and for the sins of the whole world.
In our daily lives we must act as if we have total free will. And yet, if we are to understand the mind of God, we are to see God in all things. The real question is that of liability for sin at the great judgment. Our liability is limited by the limited nature of our authority. Only unlimited authority can be judged with unlimited liability. This is the justice and mercy of God. What began in Eden shall end at the Great White Throne.
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