Romans 9 and God’s Sovereignty over Salvation


Salvation is wholly in the hands of God. God is in control from the choosing, to regeneration, to the quickening of our hearts so that we may believe and repent, to our justification, sanctification and glorification. This rests on His sovereignty on all creation, including our salvation and free will.

Romans 9 is actually a very good passage for this discussion. I wouldn’t embrace and rest on God’s sovereignty over our salvation if not for this chapter. But I admit that it involved wrestling and struggling with the difficult truths that are laid plainly in it.

The most troubling ones include questions on God’s justice and human freewill and responsibility. Surprisingly, both questions are raised and then answered in this chapter. And the more I study it, the more I am convinced that God is indeed sovereign and just, and that we are still responsible when we reject Him.

Is God unjust in His choices?

Beginning verse 9, tension arises. God promises to Rebekah that she will bear children through Isaac and that her older son will serve the younger. There is no problem with the first promise, but the second one immediately shows God’s sovereign choice.

The tension comes from the fact that God chose or “loved” Jacob and rejected or “hated” Esau even before they were born. And God’s choice was not based on any action or work done by either, but solely on His character as the “one who calls” for the fulfilment of his “purpose of election.”

With this reality laid bare, the first objection naturally springs up. In verse 14, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” In modern times, this question is usually framed as, “Is God unjust for choosing to save some and not others?”

Interestingly, the answer is a quick, “By no means!” No! God is not unjust in this action! How so? In verses 15-17, the Scripture appeals not to human logic or reason but to the very character and purposes of God.

First, God is not unjust because he “has mercy.” This is the reason He says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Paul’s point is, we can rest in God’s actions relating to salvation because we know that it is motivated by His perfect mercy and not on anything else, especially “not on human will or exertion.”

That is, whatever God does, He calls us to trust Him because He does so as a merciful God.

Second, God is not unjust because His purposes, even if we do not understand them completely, are always good and they are for the glory He deserves (v.17). Thus, His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, though at first seems illogical (How will Pharaoh let God’s people go if God hardened his heart?), served to show God’s power (through the 10 plagues), so that His “name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

God is not unjust because His actions are motivated by mercy. And He is not unjust because His purposes are always good, for the glory of His Name. With both answers, Scripture affirms God’s justice in His actions towards people’s salvation. Paul punctuates this part of the discussion by reaffirming that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (v.18).”

Now, what can I do with this very difficult conclusion? It is written in His Word and I can only trust His mercy and His good purposes, while acknowledging the glory He deserves even if I still cannot fully comprehend His actions.

Is God ultimately responsible for sin?

Starting verse 19, the second objection is addressed, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist His will?”

Put in modern terms, “If God is the one who wills a person to believe and not to believe, then is He not responsible for my sins?” “Doesn’t this eliminate my free will and so I am not accountable for rejecting Him?” “Where is justice if God willed that I do not believe in Him?”

Again, Paul gives an interesting answer. He appeals first to the sovereignty of God (v.20-21), then he gives a fine distinction between God’s relationship with His elect and the non-elect (reprobate). Finally, he caps the discussion with God’s purposes once more (v. 22-23). 

First, verses 20-21 lay down God’s sovereignty in all things. As the Potter, He has every right to mold the clay into His liking. At first this may seem frightful. Is God a tyrant? Are we but automatons? But earlier we have seen that God is merciful (v.16) and His purposes are good and for His glory (v.17). Thus, we can trust that His actions are not evil despite His sovereignty.

Paul even reminds us of our place in v.20. We are creatures and He is the Creator. As such, God is not indebted to us in anyway. He is only indebted to Himself. Thus, we are in no position to judge His choice or actions as wrong only because we cannot fully comprehend them.

Second, Paul, moves to lay down a fine distinction between God’s relationship with the elect and the non-elect in verses 22-23.  A common misunderstanding is that God symmetrically works with the elect and the non-elect in bringing about His purposes.

That is, He works to produce righteousness in the elect to bring them to salvation. And in the same way and manner, works evil or causes the reprobate to sin in order to bring them to destruction. This is not how God works. If we accept this, then God becomes the Author of evil and sin. He becomes unjust in the sense that He punishes people for sins which He caused them to do. This is not the God we worship.

Instead, when we examine verses 22-23 we see that He “endured with much patience” the vessels of wrath (non-elect) and “prepared beforehand for glory” the vessels of mercy (elect). What these verses show is that God’s relationship with the elect and non-elect is not a symmetrical one but a positive and negative relationship.

That is, God actively works in the hearts of the elect to bring them to faith and salvation, and He passively works with the non-elect by not intervening in the sinfulness of their hearts. In short, God works righteousness in the corrupt hearts of the elect, but He allows the corrupt hearts of the reprobate to continue on the chosen path of sin.

The negative relationship is made more obvious in Romans 1:18-32. Three times we read that the people who chose sin despite God’s revelation of His eternal power and divine nature (the reprobate) experienced being “given up” to the “lusts of their hearts,” “dishonorable passions,” to a “debased mind” to continue on their sinning.

The passage shows a passive negative action from God, a non-intervention, in that He “gave them up” to continue on their default sinfulness. It’s not as if these people are neutral and God infused sinfulness into their hearts as in the symmetrical relationship. Instead, they are already sinful by choice and the only thing God did was that He let them be. He “gave them up” in their sinfulness. He did not “make them” sinful.

The reason this positive-negative relationship is true is because it rests on the revealed truth that humans by nature are sinful. “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5).” We are not neutral beings. Our default condition is sin.

Having this clarified view of God’s relationship with the elect and non-elect eliminates the problem of human responsibility for sin. God is not the author of evil or sin and He is not unjust in punishing those who sin, because by virtue of His passive negative relationship with them, ultimate accountability still rests on the people who chose to continue in sin.

The diagram below is helpful to differentiate the Symmetrical and Positive-Negative Relationships:

Finally, to cap this lengthy discussion, Paul goes back to the purpose of God in all these things (vv.22-23). We see that He has chosen some for righteousness and left others to their sinfulness to show His justice in His wrath, His power and the riches of His glory.

It’s a full circle. This entire passage dealt with the heavy implications and questions of God’s sovereign choosing by beginning and ending with His character. In the final analysis, we see that even if we cannot fully comprehend God’s actions, we can fully trust in Him because He is a just, merciful, powerful and glorious God. We know for a fact that He will never do anything evil and will always do good for the glory of His Name.

His sovereignty necessitates that everything in the universe be under His divine control. Yes, that includes our free will. This is not a problem because God gave us enough freedom within the bounds of His sovereignty.

It may seem that this is not free will, but the fact of the matter is, unrestricted freedom is anarchy. Even our practical experience of freedom shows that it has limitations. This is also the case in the spiritual realm. We are free so long as we do not cross God’s divine control.

At the end of the day, I would rather that my free will be under God’s sovereignty because I trust His character more than mine. Afterall, one of the worst things God can do is to leave me to my sinful state. Because if He does, I can never muster enough power from my will, heart, mind or being to turn from sin and turn to Him. All I can do is to call out to Him to give me grace, for only by it can I truly believe, repent and be saved. 

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