EDITOR'S NOTE: Just joining the discussion? You can read part 1 here as well.

As we examine Romans 9:18-28, it helps to remember that Paul is grappling with the difficult problem of Jewish unbelief. Why have so many Jews rejected Christ if he is indeed the Jewish Messiah? This was no abstract theological issue to the Apostle Paul. His heart was broken by the reality that so many of his friends and loved one were going to hell. We may be tempted to focus on the controversial aspects and to forget the human reality behind these words. I’m convinced that Paul wept when he wrote Romans 9. These words come not from some theoretical discussion in a seminary classroom; they come streaming from a broken heart.

Let’s plunge into this text and discover together God’s answers concerning the difficult question of predestination.

Answer # 1: God has the right to do as he wills.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ’Why did you make me like this?’ “ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? (vv. 19-21).

These verses sound harsh to modern ears tuned to talk of personal freedom. We live in a “Do your own thing” era in which the highest human value is to seek your own happiness. Our heroes are those men and women who have put personal happiness above every other consideration in life. If you don’t believe that, when was the last time you heard someone say they were getting a divorce because they weren’t happy in their marriage? You hear it all the time. Personal happiness is our national excuse for doing whatever feels good to us at the moment. Against all such me-centered thinking stands Paul’s unanswered question, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” There is no answer because the question answers itself: No one can talk back to God.

The illustration from the world of pottery-making is clear enough. The potter sits at his wheel watching the lump of clay as it spins in front of him. With one tiny touch, he creates an indentation; with another slight touch he produces an intricate swirl. By the barest changing of pressure, the potter radically alters the shape of the clay. What emerges may be an object of dazzling beauty, such as a Ming vase. Or it may be a rather ordinary, unremarkable coffee cup. Both come from the same clay. One is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars; the other is worth 25 cents. What made the difference? The potter’s hands.

Don’t overlook the main point. The coffee cup can’t say to the potter, “I wanted to be a Ming vase.” It doesn’t work like that. From one lump the potter has the right to shape the clay any way he likes. The same is true for us. We’re not all the same. In fact, God makes each one of us unique from everyone else in the world. Some have more intelligence, others less. Some are born into one race, others into another. Some are tall, others short. Some have musical skill; others can repair diesel engines. Some love to fly kites, others prefer to knit sweaters. Some will become leaders, others will live mostly in the shadows. That’s the way life is. And that’s not just the result of sin in the world. You’re different because God made you that way. No one can talk back to God and say, “You blew it.” Number one, he didn’t blow it. And number two, even if you think he did, he’s not taking any complaints from you or me.

That’s answer # 1: God has the right to do whatever he wants to us and in us and through us and with us.

Answer # 2: God delays his punishment to some in order to show his mercy to others.

What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory? (vv. 22-23).

These verses teach us that although God is always just, he doesn’t always treat everyone in precisely the same way. That almost sounds un-American because we are used to hearing that all men are created equal. That’s true in one sense and not true in another. It’s true that we are all created in God’s image which gives us dignity and worth. We’re “equal” in that we are all significant to God.

But these verses specify two different groups within the human race. One group is called the “objects of wrath.” They are said to be “prepared for destruction.” The other is called the “objects of his mercy.” They are “prepared in advance for glory.”

W.H. Griffith-Thomas has a helpful word at this point:

The contrast here between “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy” should be closely examined. The “vessels of wrath” are described generally as “fitted to destruction,” that is, fitted by themselves, through their own sin. On the other hand, the “vessels of mercy” are described very significantly as those which “He had afore prepared,” that is, God through His grace and mercy prepared them. Men fit themselves for hell; but it is God that fits men for heaven. (Romans, p. 148)

There is a great mystery here. However, these verses make it abundantly clear that not everyone is going to heaven. Some people are simply “prepared” for destruction. They live in such a way that their only possible destination is hell. It’s easy to think of examples: Hitler comes to mind. Or we might think of someone like Saddam Hussein. 

But Paul’s thought isn’t limited to those we consider gross sinners. It really includes all of us. Left to myself, I deserve to go to hell. Left to yourself, you deserve hell. No one deserves heaven. If you go there, you go as a gift because someone else paid the price of admission for you. You aren’t good enough to get in on your own. Mercy means receiving something you don’t deserve. Paul’s point is that if God were just and not merciful, we’d all go to hell together. But since God is just and merciful, he delays his judgment on sinners in order to show mercy on those he is calling to salvation. He gives everyone more time to be saved.

Yesterday I received the sad news that the brother of a dear friend died from a sudden heart attack. My friend is grieving because of the loss of his brother and because he does not know if his brother was saved or not. He fears that he was not. What can we say in such a situation? I begin with the words of Genesis 18:25, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” When my father died over thirty ago, the minister who conducted his funeral comforted me with that verse. I take it to mean that God will make no mistakes in his dealings with humanity. No one will go to hell by mistake. It’s not possible that God will somehow get the files mixed up or hit the wrong button and send someone to the wrong destination. The Judge of the all earth will do what is right–not just in the mega-sense but also in dealing with my father and with my friend’s brother and with all our loved ones and with each of us individually. There will be no mistakes in eternity. Everyone who truly belongs in heaven will be there. No one will be in hell except those who truly deserve to be there. God’s grace will take care of those who go to heaven. God’s justice will take care of everyone else.

Charles Spurgeon applied this great truth to himself:

I believe the doctrine of election, because I am quite sure that if God had not chosen me I should never have chosen him; and I am sure he chose me before I was born, or else he never would have chosen me afterwards; and he must have elected me for reasons unknown to me, for I never could find any reason in myself why he should have looked upon me with special love. So I am forced to accept that doctrine.

But does this doctrine not destroy all incentive to evangelism? Here is Mark Dever’s answer:

I understand that some worry that if we accept the Bible’s teaching on election we will never evangelize. Should we not also be worried that if we reject the Bible’s teaching on election we will never be humbled enough to make Christianity look like anything worth having? I love Spurgeon’s humility. I love his boasting in God. I think it is attractive. I think it is motivating to evangelism. I think it displays God’s love. A biblical doctrine of election highlights our poverty and Christ’s riches, our weakness and Christ’s strength, our need and God’s supply.

I know of a man who came to Jesus Christ after many years of people praying for him. For a long time, he seemed so close, but he couldn’t quite make the decision. Then someone shared the gospel with him and he said, “I’m not going to accept Christ tonight. I’ll do it next Wednesday.” He said he needed more time to study the death and resurrection of Christ. When the next Wednesday came, that man said, “Okay. I’m ready. Let’s do it.” And he gave his heart to Jesus Christ. His first words after he prayed to receive Christ were, “I feel like a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders.” Who was behind that? God! He gave that man more time to think about Christ. And when he did, he was saved. That’s how God’s grace works.

Answer # 3: God determined to show mercy to both Jews and Gentiles.

Even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles. As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ’my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ’my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ’You are not my people,’ they will be called ’sons of the living God.’ “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality.” It is just as Isaiah said previously: “Unless the Lord Almighty had left us descendants, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah” (vv. 24-29).

At first glance, you may say, “What’s the point of all these Old Testament quotes?” They speak to one of the primary objections against predestination. Many people think that predestination means that only a few people will be saved. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has determined to open the doors of heaven to the whole wide world. Anyone who believes in Jesus can be saved. In Paul’s day that meant that salvation was not just for the Jews, it was also for the Gentiles. Today there are approximately 13 million Jews in the world out of a total population of 6.5 billion people. Who are the Gentiles? That’s everyone who isn’t Jewish, which is roughly 99.999% of the world.

If God had said, “I’m only going to save the Jews,” he would still be fair because no one deserves to be saved. We couldn’t complain if salvation were limited to a small group if that’s what God had decided to do. Remember, no one can talk back to God. But he didn’t do that. These verses teach us that God opened the door of salvation to everyone! Hosea prophesied of a day when God would say to those who were not his people (that is, the Gentiles), “You are now my people.” God has opened the door of salvation to the world. Anyone who wants to can walk right in. Will there be any Jewish people in heaven? Absolutely. But not every Jewish person goes to heaven. These verses use the term “remnant,” which describes a smaller group out of larger population. Paul’s point is that we shouldn’t be surprised by Jewish unbelief because the Old Testament predicted it in several passages.

But don’t miss the greater point. God is so determined to populate heaven that he has invited the whole world to join him there. Anyone who wants to can go to heaven.

Jew or gentile.

Slave or free.

Male or female.

Rich or poor.

Young or old.

Educated or illiterate.

Healthy or sick.

None of those things matter with God. In his great mercy, God has opened the door and included the whole world in his invitation. All he is waiting for is your RSVP. 

Next week, we'll look at three conclusions we can draw about predestination.

This article published on May 25, 2011. Content provided by Keep Believing Ministries.