God’s Sovereign Choice – A study on Romans 8:28-9:29 (part 3)

Taylor’s Island, Minnesota. Photo credit: Betsy Quinn

Part One can be found here.

Part Two can be found here.


This is the last part in my series on studying God’s sovereignty in Romans 8:28-9:29. The content and concepts covered already have been challenging. What lies before us has the potential to shake your understanding of God and salvation to its core. I make so bold a statement only because I personally experienced such a stirring. 

Let’s lay the scene once again. Paul, in Romans 8:28-39, asserts that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him and that nothing at all can separate these beloved from reaching their promised glory. Paul introduces us to the “golden chain of salvation” in Romans 8:29-30, which teaches that all of those who are foreknown and predestined by the Father will arrive at glorification—none are added, and none are lost. After assuring the lovers of God that they will be redeemed, Paul abruptly changes direction and speaks about his keen heartbreak for the Jews, wailing that they are not Israel. By this, Paul means that they are not all true “inwardly Jews,” and do not follow in the example of their patriarch Jacob. 

By this point (if you’re like me, at least) you’ve likely started to connect dots and stockpile questions. If the Jews that Paul cries for aren’t true believers, where do they fall on the golden chain of salvation? What happens to anybody who isn’t on the chain? Dare we ask bigger, scarier questions? Does God send people to hell? Does God predestine people to hell? What about free will? Every one of these questions is fair and deserves to be answered. Our Father does not shy away from us when we ask Him bold, honest questions. Jesus extends the same invitation to us that He offered to John’s disciples in John 1:39, “Come and see.” Come and see what the Bible says about free will and salvation and God’s sovereignty. Come and see how all-powerful, loving, and just our Lord is. Christian, come and see how God has saved you. 

Romans 9:14 “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” 

Thank God for Paul. He, too, is willing to ask hard questions of God that we might never dare to ask. He also follows the call to come and see. Who would be willing to question God’s goodness? Paul boldly poses this question. Is God unjust? To question this places much on the line. What if God isn’t just? What if He isn’t all-loving, either? If He isn’t either of these, the mere act of posing this question is dangerous. An unjust, unloving God might decide on His own whim that any mere mortal foolish enough to ask such an offensive question ought to be destroyed. Yet, Paul does not shy away from asking it because he is confident it’s false to begin with. As the author of Hebrews writes in 4:16, Christ invites us to draw near to His throne of grace with confidence. Paul is safe to ask the question because he knows that asking it draws him nearer to a throne of grace. He’s willing to ask the question because he knows it’s false from the start. 

Yet, Paul still must ask the question. Why? Because the content of Romans 8-9 is so challenging Paul knows his readers are liable to doubt everything they know about God. He asks on his reader’s behalf, who may not be so bold as to approach God’s throne of grace. Though He is—and always has been, and will always be—full of grace, Paul realizes his readers may struggle to see it. To speculate, Paul might assume that his readers simply do not understand God’s grace. Paul hopes to not only assert that God is just, but to explain what that justice is like. 

Additionally, since his audience is inclined to question how God’s justice coexists with the truths he’s articulated, he needs to offer a new explanation of justice that accounts for God’s sovereignty in all things and the Jews not receiving their Messiah. Paul’s answer, “May it never be!” is immediately explained in verses 15-18. Pay attention to the identical structure of verses 15-16 and verses 17-18. Both 15 and 17 begin with “For,” signaling that the following material serves as evidence or premises for an argument. Both 16 and 18 begin with “so then,” denoting a conclusion drawn from the previous verse. Paul is chaining arguments together; while collectively these four verses support Paul’s claim that “there is no injustice with God,” the second argument builds on the first. 

Romans 9:15-16 “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”

Understanding Romans requires a deep familiarity of the Old Testament. In verses 6-13, Paul draws heavily from the life of the patriarchs in Genesis. Now, Paul answers his new question by looking to Moses in Exodus. Such reliance on Old Testament citations reveals a key point about Paul’s original audience: to understand Paul’s reasoning, they must have been well-versed in Old Testament stories themselves. As we approach this passage, we ought not expect ourselves to catch the full nuance of Paul’s arguments without having a similar familiarity with the Old Testament passages he cites. 

Paul’s first premise for God’s justice is a quotation from Exodus 33:19. The declaration itself is powerful, but its original context adds to its weight. This verse is the climax of a story that unfolds through Exodus 32-34: the construction of the golden calf, God’s anger with Israel, Moses’ intercession on Israel’s behalf, and the renewal of the covenant. God told the Israelites to go forward and take the land of Israel. However, God informed them that He would send an angel before them to defeat their enemies instead of going with them Himself. God declares that the Israelites are “obstinate” and liable to destruction by His hands if He should go with them. Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, asking God “how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (33:16). 

Here, Moses’ request is for God to display His glory to the nations. God replies “I will also do this thing of which you have spoken; for you have found favor in My sight and I have known you by name” (v17, emphasis mine). Next, Moses asks the Lord to show His glory to himself. What a bold request, and how incredible it is that God allows it! Exodus 33:19 is God’s response to Moses’ final request: “And He said, ‘I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.’” 

This entire account in Exodus incredibly displays two things: Israel’s unworthiness of God’s favor, and God’s unwavering love for Israel. Above all else, God assures Moses that His handling of mankind is a product of His will. If Israel had had to earn God’s mercy, they would have received wrath. Despite their grumbling, their construction of a golden calf, and their disregard for His miraculous deliverance and ongoing provision, the Israelites receive grace and compassion. Paul comments on this, adding that mercy “does not depend on the man who wills (referring to human desire) or the man who runs (referring to human effort)” but exclusively on God’s own choice. Keep in mind that the focus of this dialogue is to display God’s glory. 

Romans 9:17-18 “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”

Paul expands his argument by including a quote from Exodus 9:16, where God reveals both His plan and His incredible sovereignty to Pharaoh. God had already explained His plan to Moses and Aaron in Exodus 7:1-5.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, then I will lay My hand on Egypt and bring out My hosts, My people the sons of Israel, from the land of Egypt by great judgments. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst.” (Emphasis mine)

God admits to playing an active role in the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Paul simply states exactly what Exodus shows: God hardens hearts according to His own will. 

I realize how absolutely startling this truth might be. How could God hardening hearts possibly prove that there is no injustice with Him? You may be inclined to believe just the opposite, that God is horribly unjust for doing such a thing. You may go so far as to think that if this is true, God is to blame for people sinning. How could God raise someone up (or “allow [someone] to stand” as Moses writes in Exodus 9:16) to intentionally destroy them?

If these are questions you find yourself asking, know that I understand where you’re coming from. This may sound nothing like the Jesus you know; this might sound like an entirely different God than the one you thought you knew. Paul was likely writing to an audience that was feeling many of the same emotions and thinking some of the same objections you are now. Again, Paul asks a question on his audience’s behalf. 

Romans 9:19 “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?””

The exact question Paul is addressing here focuses on the apparent contradiction in justice. Paul has asserted that there is no injustice with God and that God is totally sovereign, even to the point of hardening hearts. The objection is, How can someone be found guilty by God if it’s God who hardens their heart in the first place? I want to make sure we’re fully aware of the assumption behind this question. The assumed answer, or the presupposition behind the question, places the guilt on God. This objection accuses God of causing us to sin and says that it is His fault we defy His will. 

Paul’s answer is nuanced. Ultimately, he will answer the second question by repeating his stance: no one resists God’s will.Before he gets to that, though, he has to address the presuppositional accusation of God’s guilt. You might find his answer to the first question surprising. 

Romans 9:20-21 “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? 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?

Rather than giving a legal defense of God, Paul cuts straight to the heart of the issue. God, as humanity’s Creator, has the right to deal with us however He pleases. Paul’s response is reminiscent of God’s rebuke to Job in Job 38-41. See God’s questioning in Job 40:2 “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it” and again in verses 7-9 “Now gird up your loins like a man; I will ask you, and you instruct Me. Will you really annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? Or do you have an arm like God, And can you thunder with a voice like His?” Humans are in no position to accuse God of injustice. 

Paul’s analogy accentuates this reality. He equates God with a potter and humanity as His clay. There are three major aspects to this analogy that each deserve our full attention. First, we see the comparison of potter and clay. Second, we see the homogeneity of the clay. Third, we see the potter’s use of the clay for two different ends. 

First, let’s look at the gap between potter and clay. I think this analogy is particularly effective in communicating the concept of holiness, God’s “wholly other”-ness. Consider the difference between potter and clay. What do they have in common? How are they equal? Isaiah 55:8-9 best describes the gap between Creator and created: 

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,

Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

So are My ways higher than your ways

And My thoughts than your thoughts.”

Humans attempting to know the will and power of God is as ridiculous a scenario as clay demanding answers from its potter. As its creator, the potter can do whatever he pleases with the clay. Even if there were to be any objection to how the potter uses his clay, the clay itself cannot object. Think about this scenario literally: how could clay, an inanimate lump of wet dirt, bring a claim against the potter that’s molding it? It literally, physically cannot. Again, as ridiculous as it is to imagine clay objecting to its potter molding it, Paul calls humanity’s questioning of God equally absurd. 

If I may take a brief aside, let me ask you: do you agree with Paul’s first counter? Do you believe that God is so much higher than you that you have absolutely no right to accuse Him of injustice in how He deals with His creation? Is the God you worship and pray to and believe in this same sovereign, all powerful, “Creator of heaven and earth” God? Know that if your answer is “No,” then your god is not the God of the Bible. As harsh as that may read, I will not deny it. The whole Bible attests to a God who has this level of authority, and a human race that is as comparatively small and powerless as described above.2Is not the whole Bible a declaration of God’s glory and man’s smallness? Do you see yourself in this? Do you consider yourself this small in comparison to God? Please take a moment to reflect on these questions. 

Second, we see the homogeneity of the potter’s clay. It’s easy to skip over, but Paul inserts a critical detail in verse 21: “the same lump.” Soon, Paul will specify two distinct products the potter makes with his clay, but he deems it necessary to point out that by nature, there is absolutely no difference in the clay. It’s all one lump. Some of the clay from this one lump is set aside and used to make “one vessel for honorable use” and another lump, no different than the first, is set aside to make “another [vessel] for common use.” This analogy should immediately remind us of Romans 9:7-13. Paul goes to great lengths to show that there was no real difference between Esau and Jacob; they were twins, born from the same parents. 

Third, let’s pay particular attention to the contrast between vessels of honorable use and vessels of common use. I find it interesting the the translator chooses to use the word “common.” The greek word used describing the “honorable” vessels is τιμὴν (timēn), while the word translated as “common” is ἀτιμίαν (atimian). Literally, this second word translates to “not honorable” or “dishonorable.” The contrast is stark; these two vessels are intended for opposite uses. 

This analogy puts together every aspect of Paul’s argument from Romans 9:6 to the present verse, drawing conclusions from Romans 8:28-9:5, and building off of everything he’s written in Romans thus far. At last we begin to see the full scope of this greater reality. God, as Creator, has full authority to do what he pleases with humanity. There is no distinction between humans, whether Jew or Gentile. All are equal under sin. God, by His own will, loved Israel (His chosen people) and hated Esau. His discretion is intentional and He has very clear ends for both of these groups. Israel is set apart for honor, while Esau is destined for dishonor. This is the plan God had from before His first act of creation. 

As hard as this is to swallow, notice how incredibly gentle Paul has been in working his way to the final conclusion. Even now, he softens the blow by using an analogy. The following three verses finally say exactly what Paul means—the culmination of everything we’ve looked into. 

Romans 9:22-24 “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? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles.”

Even still, Paul approaches this as gently as possible. Instead of just throwing the truth right in his reader’s face, he starts with a hypothetical question in verse 22. “What if this were true? Would that make sense? Does that fit with the rest of Scripture? What would that mean for you and me? What then?” What a question it is. Paul suggests that God desires to demonstrate His wrath and make His power known by destroying the vessels set apart for common use—he continues to use the analogy, since it is almost too much to bear if said up front. Yet, there is a delay. God practices incredible patience, “enduring” the very existence of these vessels of wrath. Allowing sin to go unpunished for a time is burdensome to the Lord. Look to Psalm 7:11 “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” 

Have you considered how fiercely God hates sin? Do you know how eager God is to eliminate evil and destroy the devil and those who live in unrighteousness? Have you thought about how offensive it is to God that there are created things that do not worship Him? Proverbs 15:9 reads “The way of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.” Isaiah 59 speaks of humanity’s sin blinding them from God as they live in lawlessness; this troubles God, as Isaiah 59:15b says “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice.” Or read Isaiah 53:8-11, and see God’s pleasure in crushing Jesus when He had taken on the sins of His people.3 

If God is so zealous to enforce righteousness and punish sin, why has he delayed? Verse 23 provides the answer, not as a hypothetical, but as an affirmative: “He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy…” Here is the macro perspective of God’s plan for humanity. This was His intent all along. Just as in Exodus 33, God’s motivation is to manifest His glory to His beloved. Every person’s eternal destiny, whether salvation or damnation, serves as an exhibit of God’s glory: total justice, and incredible mercy. Paul moves from abstract to personal by emphasizing that the vessels of mercy include “even us,” himself and his audience. 

Again he echoes the chorus of Romans—the Jew first, then the Gentile—and ties the whole book thus far into what he’s just explained. When read in isolation, this chapter can seem obscure, confusing, and irrelevant. Some Christians fully accept Romans 1-8 but hesitate to agree with what we’ve just outlined. However, Paul seems to remind us with this refrain that Romans 9 is a coherent aspect and natural progression of his theology. Paul’s theology is not unfounded. Romans 1-8 necessarily leads one to Romans 9. In fact, even the prophets lead to this conclusion. All that he has explained in this chapter has been supported by the Old Testament. So far, he has drawn from the Law (or the “Torah”, the first five books of the Old Testament). Now, Paul looks to Hosea and Isaiah in the next five verses. 

Romans 9:25-26 “As He says also in Hosea,

“I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ And her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’”

“And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of the living God.”

If you aren’t familiar with the book of Hosea, I encourage you to take some time to read it. Any summary I could offer fails to do this incredible account justice. Paul cites two different passages from the minor prophet. Verse 25 quotes Hosea 2:23, while verse 26 quotes Hosea 1:10. Like in Exodus 32-34, Hosea also shows Israel’s unworthiness of God’s favor, and God’s unwavering love for Israel. God calls His prophet to marry a prostitute and have children by her, literally naming them “not loved” and “not my people” to show Israel how unfaithful they had been and how wrathful God had become by their sin. God declares His judgement on Israel’s sin, but promises to redeem and reclaim His people. 

Israel shall suffer for her wandering from God, but God will rescue and restore her. Hosea’s generation would have understood the surface level prophecy: Jehu and the northern kingdom will be destroyed, but Judah will be delivered. Paul illuminates God’s higher meaning: the work of Jesus extends to those outside of Israel, not His people. Even they will become “sons of the living God” through faith. 

Romans 9:27-29 “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly.” And just as Isaiah foretold, “Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity, we would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.”

Here Paul cites two passages in Isaiah. First, in verses 27-28, Paul quotes Isaiah 10:22-23. Second, he quotes Isaiah 1:9. Both initially applied to the same historical events that Hosea wrote about: Assyria will annihilate the northern kingdom and only a remnant from Judah will survive. Both gain a higher meaning with the coming of the Messiah and the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. Paul’s reference to Isaiah 10:22 would have been especially startling to his contemporary Jewish audience, much in the same way Romans 9:6 and 8 would have been. Isaiah and Paul clarify God’s promise to Abraham,4 contrasting children by birth and children of faith. God’s judgement will be executed fully. For the remnant, that wrath was poured out entirely on Jesus as He hung on the cross. For the rest, God patiently waits for Christ’s return and the final day of judgement. 

Isaiah 1:9 reminds us that even the remnant is “cut from the same lump of clay.” Outside of God’s sovereign choice, there is no difference between remnant and rejected. All the way through, God is the One who receives credit for the salvation of the elect. He knew them. He chose them. He was incarnated as a human and lived a sinless life so that He could pay their wage of death. He calls them. He applies that justification to them. He sanctifies them. He will glorify them. It always was, always is, and always will be His work. 

This is where I will end my study. By no means do I consider this to be an end of any discussion you might want to have, or the end of any questions you likely still want to ask. We haven’t even made it to the end of the chapter! Still, I feel this is a fair place to draw the line. My primary focus was God’s sovereignty in the election of His beloved. Paul, having laid this theological foundation, continues his discussion on why the Jews have not received the gospel (and whether or not they ever will) up to Romans 11, where he concludes with a famous benediction: 

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

I hope that what you have read and learned in our exploration of Romans 8:28-9:29 has given you a deeper appreciation for God’s wisdom and knowledge. I hope that the declaration “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” carries a new weight that both humbles and comforts you. There is definitely more to be said, and I would love to go more in-depth on this topic by answering some lingering questions. If you click here, you can read a few questions I had when I first read Romans 9 and the answers I found after talking with my pastor. Feel free to reach out to me with more questions, too! I love writing and talking about all this, as I’m sure you can tell. 

Before sending you away, I’d like to give you a ton of resources that I found helpful while looking into this topic. 

“The Mystery of Iniquity,” a short essay by RC Sproul https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/mystery-iniquity/

“I Wish I’d Heard a Sermon On… Election: What’s That About!?” A sermon by James Forsyth, senior paster of McLean Presbyterian Church http://mcleanpres.org/sermon/i-wish-id-heard-a-sermon-on-election-whats-that-about/  

“Erasing Hell,” A short book written by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinke, written partially in response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” https://www.amazon.com/Erasing-Hell-About-Eternity-Things/dp/0781407257 

Ligonier Ministries has a series of videos released in 2015 that meticulously walk through reformed theology. While all of them are good, the ones on unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace are especially pertinent. 

Unconditional Election: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mg42ZdLOdyI 

Limited Atonement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQ3N8YTjEpc 

Irresistible Grace: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loXh8PqrR3Y 


1 In one sense, this is false. The Bible talks at length on mankind resisting the will of God and His Holy Spirit. In another sense, God’s calling is entirely irresistible. As John Piper puts it, “whenever God pleases, he overcomes your resistance. He can let you resist him as long as he wants, but when he decides, he triumphs.” See his sermon: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-free-will-of-the-wind/excerpts/is-grace-really-irresistible 

See the entire book of Job, Daniel 3, Psalm 8:4-8, Psalm 144:1-8, Isaiah 220-22, Matthew 8:5-13, Matthew 19:23-26, James 4:14; these barely scratch the surface.

Peter highly regards the patience of God in delaying the pouring out of His just wrath. See 1 Peter 3:17-20 and 2 Peter 3:3-9. Note, the word “any” in 2 Peter 3:9 can be a source of confusion. Some absurdly interpret this verse to support universalism, even after verse 7 clearly foretells of “the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” Others believe this verse expresses God’s desire to save all humans. This view presupposes that the crucifixion of Jesus atoned for the sins of all mankind, but that one must make a confession of faith to receive God’s mercy and apply Christ’s sacrifice to oneself. This theology has several problems which I cannot address now in full. I will at least acknowledge that this interpretation cannot coexist with Paul’s explanation of atonement and election expressed in Romans. 

Keeping Romans 8-9 in mind when reading this verse provides welcome clarity. Those included in “any” are all those included in the golden chain of salvation—those whom God foreknew and predestined, and who have yet to be called, sanctified, and glorified. That he only refers to the elect here is proven when he writes “The Lord…is patient toward you” (emphasis mine). Peter’s audience is not the whole world, but rather, as he addresses in 2 Peter 1:1 “To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” God’s patience, then, is for all those who have saving faith.

4 This promise is mentioned several times in Genesis (12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:4-5, 18-21; 17:1-8, 15-16, 19; 18:10, 14; 22:15-18) but this particular wording is a reference to Genesis 22:17, the last restatement of the promise after the sacrifice of Isaac. 


“Seven Questions on Free Will” can be found here.

2 comments on “God’s Sovereign Choice – A study on Romans 8:28-9:29 (part 3)”

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