I'm having a prolonged conversation with two friends who disagree with me on election. I have no idea if they read this blog or not, but I'll try and keep things anonymous. I'm not interested in beating up on them behind their backs (so to speak), but some thoughts have come out of this that I want to share, and perhaps even develop more fully here.
I can think of several places in Romans (I'm sure there are more) where Paul stops the flow of the argument to anticipate a reaction from the reader:
- Romans 6:1 "what shall we say then? shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?"
- Romans 7:7 "What shall we say then? [is] the law sin?"
- Romans 7:13 "Did then that which is good become death to me?"
- Romans 9:14 "What shall we say then? [Is there] unrighteousness with God?"
- Romans 9:19 "Thou wilt say to me then, Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose?"
These are very useful checkpoints in the book. While they serve a rhetorical purpose, they also serve an exegetical purpose: they tell us how the apostle expects us to react to what he has said. So, for example, in Romans 6:1, he anticipates that our reaction will be, "should we just keep sinning?" Alan Gamble says Romans 6:1 is the test for whether we're preaching the true Gospel, or just preaching good works. When Paul presents the Gospel, he expects the reaction to be "why not just keep sinning?" If people don't ask that after our Gospel messages, we're just preaching good works.
I realized that I had developed a theology of Romans 9 that no one would find offensive. If I explained Romans 9:1–18, no one would hear my explanation and conclude that God was judging someone who didn't have a choice. But when Paul taught Romans 9:1–18, that was exactly the conclusion. The fact that my understanding of Romans 9 wasn't offensive proved it was wrong, because Paul's is entirely offensive. If you read Romans 9:1–18 and don't react by saying, "how can God judge someone who doesn't have a choice?" then you have missed the point.
Interestingly, Romans 9:20 doesn't give an explanation for how God is just misunderstood. Paul doesn't say, "No, you misunderstood me, of course God is fair." On the contrary, he says, "how dare you judge God?" (Romans 9:20). I can't think of very many places where the Scripture presents a difficulty and then doesn't answer it, but Romans 9:19–20 is one of those places. It tells us that our reaction to Romans 9:1–18 will be indignation, then it tells us we need to shut up and sit down. (OK, that's a pretty loose paraphrase.)
So yes, if we find Romans 9:18 offensive, then we probably understood it correctly. But of course we shouldn't stop there. William R Newell says, "a believer’s heart is not fully yielded to God until it accepts without question, and without demanding softening, this eighteenth verse [Romans 9:18]" (Romans, Verse by Verse, p. 369).
There was a day I realized quite clearly that I very much demanded "softening" of Romans 9. I remember realizing that my problem with Romans 9:1–20 wasn't that I had difficulty understanding it, but that I had difficulty accepting it.
That was a humbling day.
Now, I'm not saying my friends don't have hearts yielded to God. My point is that I very clearly remember when God used these verses to show me that I wasn't submitting to Him. I needed to accept my place isn't to judge God, but to accept that He is my judge. God is God, I am just a man, and not a terribly remarkable man at that.
It think that's pretty close to a working definition of repentance (Job 42:1–6).
I thought that might be helpful to share.