March 24, 2019

Romans 9:1-29: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: Romans: The Gospel of Grace Scripture: Romans 9:1–29

Romans 9:1-29: The Sovereignty of God in Salvation

Please turn with me in your Bibles to Romans 9. If you’re using one of the Story Bibles we provide, that’s on page 783. We’ve been working our way passage by passage through Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the next passage we come to is Romans 9:1-29. You know, one of the advantages of expository preaching—or preaching that goes systematically through books of the Bible—is that it doesn’t just cover the easy stuff. Expository preaching forces us to deal with passages that are challenging—sometimes very challenging. And this morning, we’re going to see that. Romans 9 may very well be the most challenging chapter in the entire Bible for many people to accept. If you’ve never studied Romans 9 before, let me just tell you: it’s provocative. And as we work our way through Romans 9, I’m going to say some things about God that some people will probably find provocative and difficult to receive. But as you hear me say those things, let me encourage you to ask yourself this: are the things I’m saying in accord with what the Bible is teaching here? Am I accurately interpreting this passage of Scripture? And to the degree that I’m faithfully doing that, then the things you’ll hear this morning aren’t from me but from God himself. Let me say that again: to the degree that I faithfully interpret Scripture, the things you’ll hear this morning aren’t from me but from God himself. 

So far in Romans, Paul’s gone into great detail explaining our salvation. He began by talking about how we were once sinful and condemned before God but that we can be forgiven for our sins through faith in Jesus. Then, Paul talked about God making us more and more like Jesus throughout our lives and then, finally, about the hope we have through Jesus of a glorious future in heaven. All of that was covered in chapters 1-8. Now, here in chapter 9, Paul turns his attention to an issue that was likely on the minds of many of the people who were originally reading this letter. That issue is the question of whether God has failed to keep his promise to Israel. You see, God had promised the Israelites that they would be his people and that the nation of Israel would enjoy amazing blessings with the coming of the Messiah. But now—both at the time Paul wrote Romans and even today—most Israelites haven’t embraced their Messiah or experienced any of the blessings the Messiah offers. So it might appear as though God has abandoned his people and broken his promises. So to sum up the issue: God had promised Israel amazing benefits with the coming of the Messiah, but the vast majority of Israelites aren’t receiving those benefits. So has God broken his promises? 

And here’s why this is an issue that should concern us. If God didn’t keep his promises to Israel, how can we be sure he’ll keep his promises to us? For example, in the previous chapter, chapter 8, Paul went on and on about the glorious future Christians have in heaven. In Romans 8:18, he declared, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” But how can we have any confidence that we’ll really experience that glory if God has a track record of not keeping promises? So Paul spends three chapters of his letter to the Romans, chapters 9-11, taking up this issue of whether God has broken his promises to the Israelites. 

Look at verses 1-6: 1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed.

So there’s an important statement. “It is not as though the word of God has failed.” It’s not as though God’s broken his word. Now, how can we know that? How can we be sure God’s word or God’s promise hasn’t failed? Well, Paul’s going to explain that. And here’s what his explanation is essentially going to be—and this is the main idea of the sermon: God sovereignly chooses some to be saved and passes over others. God sovereignly chooses some to be saved and passes over others. And here’s how we see that unfold in Romans 9. We can see it under two headings. Number one, Paul introduces God’s sovereign choice. And number two, Paul defends God’s sovereign choice. 

Paul Introduces God’s Sovereign Choice

So first, Paul introduces God’s sovereign choice. Let’s continue reading in verses 6-13: 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” 

So remember, Paul’s explaining how it is that God’s promises to Israel haven’t failed even though the majority of the Israelites aren’t saved. And he begins his explanation by stating that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” In other words, not every ethnic Israelite is a true Israelite. There are a lot of people who are biologically descended from Abraham and who are ethnically part of the Israelite nation but who actually aren’t true Israelites in their hearts. They don’t have hearts that trust in God or want to follow God. And that makes them not true Israelites. It would be similar to the way we might describe someone who lives in Pittsburgh but doesn’t really do many of the things most people would expect a loyal Pittsburgher to do. Let’s say they’re a big Baltimore Ravens fan and they’ve never stepped foot in a Primanti Brothers restaurant and they have no clue whatsoever about Pittsburgh’s history as a producer of steel. So, even though someone like that might technically live in Pittsburgh, I’m pretty sure most people in the city would say that they’re not a true Pittsburgher. And in a similar way, Paul’s distinguishing between an ethnic Israelite and a true Israelite with the implication that only true Israelites are the legitimate recipients of God’s promise. So God hasn’t broken his promise because only the true Israelites—the ones who have put their faith in Jesus—are legitimate recipients of God’s promise.

But here’s the provocative part. The reason many ethnic Israelites aren’t true Israelites, Paul says, is ultimately because God hasn’t chosen them to be true Israelites. Let that sink in. Yes, they’ve rejected their Messiah. Yes, they have no interest in following God. Those things make it appropriate to say that they’re not true Israelites. But the ultimate reason they’re not included among the true Israelites is because God hasn’t chosen them to be a part of the true Israel. Paul illustrates this by going back into Israel’s history and pointing out how God chose Isaac above Ishmael. Even though both Isaac and Ishmael were biologically descended from Abraham, God chose Isaac above Ishmael as the recipient of his promise and as the son who would experience God’s redemptive blessings. Not only that, but God did the same thing with Isaac’s two children, Jacob and Esau. He chose one over the other—Jacob over Esau.

And Paul goes out of his way to emphasize that God’s choice wasn’t based on anything good or bad in either of these men. Verse 11 states that God made his choice “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or badin order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” In other words, God’s choice was made on the basis of nothing but his own sovereign will. It’s not like God looked down and saw that Jacob was a little more deserving of salvation than Esau. No, God chose Jacob for salvation and not Esau before either of them were even born and on the basis of nothing but his own sovereign will. And if you’re sitting there thinking that that’s a little hard to swallow, I think you’re right. But that’s what Paul says here. And as we’ll see, he’s going to say that even more clearly in the subsequent verses. 

Paul Defends God’s Sovereign Choice

So now that we’ve seen how Paul introduces God’s sovereign choice, let’s look at our second point, that Paul defends God’s sovereign choice. Paul’s introduced us to the idea that God sovereignly chooses some to be saved and passes over others. Now let’s see how he defends it. Look at verses 14-15: 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” In other words, God has the right to choose those to whom he’s going to extend mercy. It’s his decision to make. A lot of times, we assume that just because God has shown mercy to some, he’s somehow obligated to show mercy to all. And yet, that’s just not the case. You might compare it to the President of the United States deciding who, if anyone, he’s going to pardon. Let’s say 1,000 convicted prisoners all write letters to the president asking for a pardon. And let’s assume, for the sake of illustration, that all these prisoners are guilty of the crimes they’ve been convicted of. So does the president owe a pardon to any of these prisoners? Of course not. They all deserve to be in prison. They’ve committed crimes. The president doesn’t have to pardon any of them. And if he does choose to pardon some of them but not others, he has every right do that as well. He wouldn’t be unjust for pardoning 100 instead of the full 1,000. And in the same way, God doesn’t have to show mercy to anyone. Mercy, by definition, is undeserved. God doesn’t have to extend it to even a single individual on the face of this earth. He could send everybody to hell, and that would be a just and righteous thing. That’s what we deserve. And so, when you think about it, the truly astonishing and provocative idea isn’t that God would choose to show mercy to some and pass over others. Rather, it’s that he would show mercy to anyone at all. That’s the question we should be asking. “Why does God show mercy to anyone?” So, the decision of whether to extend or withhold mercy is God’s decision. As he says in verse 15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.

Then Paul continues in verses 16-18: 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. So here again, God has the right to show mercy selectively—“on whomever he wills” as verse 18 states. We don’t have time to really dig into God’s interactions with Pharaoh in the book of Exodus that Paul alludes to in these verses, but suffice it to say that Pharaoh is another illustration of this principle. 

Moving on to verse 19: 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” So let’s look at this objection Paul anticipates. When I read this objection, it confirms for me that we’ve been interpreting things correctly so far. If your interpretation of the first 18 verses of this chapter doesn’t naturally raise the potential objection of verse 19, then you’re not interpreting things correctly. The objection raised in verse 19 should naturally follow from a proper understanding the preceding verses. And I believe the interpretation I’ve been suggesting for verses 1-18 does naturally raise the objection Paul states in verse 19. And that objection is basically this: If God is the one who ultimately chooses who’s going to be saved and who’s not, then how in the world can he still hold people accountable for not being saved? Is that really fair? That’s basically what Paul’s asking in verse 19. 

But look at his response in verses 20-21: 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 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? Wow. That’s heavy. Paul’s basically saying, “Who do you think you are to ask that question?” Who are we as creatures to think that we have any right at all to act as a judge over our Creator? And not only do we not have that right, who are we to think we even have that intellectual ability? It would be kind of like my two-year-old daughter questioning how fair my rules for the house are. Her brain isn’t anywhere near developed enough to properly evaluate the fairness of those rules. And that’s the case infinitely more so with us and God. He tells us in Isaiah 55:8-9: 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. God’s thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than ours. So who are we to presume that we can sit as a judge over him?

And honestly, it really shouldn’t surprise us that there are some things about God that we just can’t understand. A few weeks ago, I used the illustration of an ant looking up at a human being. When an ant stands on top of his anthill and looks up at a human, that ant can’t even begin to comprehend the thoughts or the nature of that human. He has no clue about the thoughts or nature of the human he’s looking at. And that’s just one finite creature trying to figure out another. How much less are we, as finite creatures, able to comprehend the being and the ways of the infinite God? So why would we be surprised if there are some things about God and the way he operates that we can’t understand?  

So where does that leave us? Well I do believe there’s ultimately some way to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human responsibility. I do believe there’s some way in which God can choose who’s saved and who’s not and, at the same, time justly punish those who aren’t saved. I don’t understand it, but any being that you and I could understand completely wouldn’t be worthy of being called “God,” now would he? God is sovereign in salvation, and he holds people responsible for the choices they make. Both truths are taught in Scripture, so I believe them both. It’s similar in many ways to the Trinity. Every true Christian believes in the Trinity, which is the teaching that God is three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and yet that he’s also one God. And those two truths would seem to contradict each other. How can God be three and one? Nobody in 2,000 years of church history has been able comprehensively answer that question. And yet we recognize that as the teaching of Scripture. In various places, Scripture refers to the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Holy Spirit as God. Yet it also says very clearly that there’s only one God. How can we reconcile those things? We don’t know. But we believe them both because Scripture clearly teaches both. We just chalk it up to the fact that God’s infinitely more complex than we can understand. And I believe we should approach Romans 9 the same way. Rather than trying to explain away what Romans 9 teaches, I believe we should just accept what it teaches and humbly acknowledge that the ways of God are beyond our comprehension. There is a way in which God can determine who is and isn’t saved and at the same time punish people for not being saved. Perhaps in heaven, we’ll understand that. But for now, we just believe both of those things since we see both of them taught in the Bible. 


Now, in the very limited time we have left, I’d like give you four ways I believe we should respond to this idea of God being sovereign in salvation. Now that you’ve encountered what Paul says in Romans 9 about God’s sovereignty, what’s the appropriate response to that? What should that lead you to do? 

Number one is to humble yourself before God. Humble yourself before God. If you refuse to believe something that the Bible clearly teaches about God just because you can’t understand it completely, I believe that’s a sign of spiritual pride. It’s pride to insist on having a god that you can comprehensively understand. So humble yourself before God enough to acknowledge that there are some things about him—such as his sovereignty—that you just can’t explain. 

Number two is to worship God for how great and glorious he is. You know, Romans 9 shows us a God who is God not in name only but in reality. You realize that, right?—that for God to be sovereign really just means that he’s God. We have a God who’s infinitely more glorious than our tiny, ant-sized minds can comprehend. So worship him for being that way. The fact that you can’t understand all of the thoughts and ways of God shouldn’t hinder you from worshipping him. It should drive you to worship him as the God who is truly God. You know, at the end of Romans 11, after Paul spends three chapters unpacking ideas related to God’s sovereignty, he very appropriately closes that section of his letter with a doxology—something that expresses worship to God. He declares in Romans 11:33-36: 33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. That should be your heart after studying the Romans 9. Your heart should just about leap out of your chest in worship and adoration of God—and not in spite of the truths of Romans 9 but because of the truths of Romans 9. Worship God for how great and glorious he is. 

Then the third way we should respond to Romans 9 is this: express unparalleled gratitude toward God. You know, I remember as a kid playing different Mario games. I played these games on a Super Nintendo, so that tells you how long ago it was. And usually on these Mario games, there were these bonus levels you could unlock by doing different things. And that’s kind of the way I see Romans 9 functioning. This chapter and the many other passages in the Bible that talk about God’s sovereignty should unlock new levels of gratitude toward God. They help us see even more clearly that salvation isn’t something we’ve earned for ourselves through our merit or gained for ourselves through our wisdom—being wise enough to put faith in Jesus. Rather, salvation is truly a gift of God from beginning to end. He gave it to us not because we had managed to make ourselves more suitable recipients than others but simply because of his own sovereign choice. That should elicit our deepest gratitude.  

Then finally, the fourth response to Romans 9 is to share the gospel with confidence. You heard me correctly: share the gospel with confidence. One of the most common hesitations people have about embracing God’s sovereignty is the fear that embracing God’s sovereignty will lead us to neglect our mission of sharing the gospel with people. After all, if God’s already chosen who’s going to be saved and who isn’t, why would we try to persuade people to be saved? Wouldn’t that just be a waste of our time since everything’s already determined anyway? Well, rest assured that evangelism most certainly isn’t a waste of our time, and I promise, Lord willing, to thoroughly explain to you why it’s not in two weeks when we talk about Romans 10:14-15. But for now, the extremely short answer is that God has issued a sovereign decree not only of who will be saved but also of the way in which they’ll be saved—which is through us sharing the gospel with them. He’s decreed not only the end but also the means to the end. That’s why we share the gospel. God has both a chosen people and a chosen plan, and we’re a part of God’s chosen plan for bringing his chosen people to salvation. And since we have no idea who God’s chosen and who he hasn’t, we share the gospel with everyone. That’s the very short answer. And if you’re still trying to grasp what I just said, you can listen to the recording on the Internet later or you can wait for me to unpack it more in two weeks. 

So God’s sovereignty in salvation shouldn’t be a deterrent from sharing the gospel. In fact, as I originally said, it’s quite the opposite. God’s sovereignty should actually be an encouragement for us to share the gospel with confidence. We can share the gospel with the confidence that God will indeed draw his chosen people to himself and lead them to respond positively to our message. There’s a level of success that’s, in a sense, guaranteed. We see this in Acts 18. Paul’s trying to spread the gospel in the city of Corinth and is facing some heavy opposition. So, in order to keep him from becoming discouraged, Jesus appears to Paul in a vision. Here’s what he says. Acts 18:9-10: 9 And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Did you hear that? That’s God’s sovereignty. “I have many in this city who are my people.” So understand what just happened there. Jesus used the truth of his sovereignty not to deter Paul from evangelism but to encourage him to evangelize. He basically guaranteed Paul a certain level of success. So as you embrace what Romans 9 says about God’s sovereignty, you should be equipped to share the gospel with even more enthusiasm and confidence. 

And on that note, if you’re here this morning and you haven’t yet put your trust in Jesus, I’d like to invite you to do that. It would be a grave mistake to come away from Romans 9 with some kind of a fatalistic attitude toward your own salvation. Remember the twin truths we talked about: not only is God sovereign, he will also hold you responsible for your decisions, and rightly so. If you’ll allow me to be quite blunt, that means if you reject Jesus, you will end up in hell, and it’ll be nobody’s fault but your own. Thankfully, however, God gives an open invitation for anybody who desires to be saved. In the very next chapter of Romans, Romans 10:13, Paul states clearly “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That invitation is for you. So take your focus off of God’s role and start thinking about your role. Your role is to put your trust in Jesus. Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for your sins and rose from the dead in order triumph over sin and death once and for all. And he now invites you to put your trust in him for rescue. Don’t give yourself a headache worrying about whether he’s chosen you or not. That’s silliness. Just receive the gift of salvation he’s offering you. Then you’ll know that you’re chosen. Let’s pray.

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Romans 16:1-16: The Bond We Share

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Romans 16:1–16 Series: Romans: The Gospel of Grace

Jul 21