Thinking Biblically About the Hard Truths of God

A biblical Christian should never shape his beliefs according to the teachings of a preacher over against the Bible. Ever. There are some doctrines though which the majority of evangelical Christian scholars have, throughout history, discerned as plainly taught in Scripture, in spite of opposition from those outside the Church and even by many inside the fold of the Church. One such disputed doctrine is the biblical teaching of election–that salvation ultimately depends not on human will and decision but on the will and predestining choice of God.

Some Scripture plainly teaches this:” 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (Joh 1:12-13 ESV)

There is a tension in the Bible found even in this one passage: that salvation happens to an person who “receives” Christ and “believes in his name”, but also that being born again, being saved, becoming a “child of God” ultimately depends not on human will (“the will of man”) but on God’s will (“of God”). It is legitimate to study the Bible and wrestle with how these two truths fit together. But it is unbiblical and even dangerous to deny what the Bible teaches. Likewise with the implication of the doctrine of election that God predestines some people to be saved and others to remain under judgement:

” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 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? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom 9:18-24 ESV)

These verses are in the Bible. They teach that God according to his free choice and will (“whomever he wills”) created some people to be saved and others to be examples of His justice and wrath upon sin (“one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” v 21) and that God’s choice in whom to choose for salvation was prior to the later choice of individuals whether to receive the Gospel or not (“prepared for destruction” v 22 and “prepared beforehand for glory” v 23). Many verses can be found in the Bible which seem to give a different view, but Scripture cannot be pitted against Scripture for all of it is inspired by the Spirit of God and is God’s Word. There are many possible ways to resolve the tension between the need of each individual to choose the Gospel and the predestining choice of God; between the love of God for the whole world and the choice of God to create some people for the purpose of judgement; between God’s will to reveal His wrath on some created for that purpose (v 22 above) and the fact that He takes no delight in destroying people He lovingly created. Some of the explanations fail to satisfy people who sincerely struggle with this tension in the Bible. For me, I found that after some years God helped me to see that when the supreme worth of His glory begins to be understood, solutions to these sorts of questions of fairness (from a human perspective) begin to seem less difficult.

In the end, the Christian must submit to the authority of the Bible in all things and ask God for understanding and peace of mind when understanding fails. Let God be God and do not accuse the “Potter” of injustice. “Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” (Rom 9:20)

9 Comments

  1. Are these the hard truths of God or the hard truths of the Apostle Paul? I’ve always found this passage in Romans 9 to be disquieting and incongruous with the rest of the message of Yahweh’s unconditional love which is supported most importantly by giving His son to ALL of us. I also have personally heard many and read many more testimonies of salvation from former God haters/atheists/ persecuters of His people, etc. To me, this dispels any notions of God ordained predestination. – Dave Williams, Hague Sk.

    1. Thanks Dave for your comment. I appreciate the intellectual honesty in your words: that upon reading Romans 9 and understanding Paul’s meaning there and its implications, you conclude that it does not seem to fit with what you understand of the rest of the Bible. It is a good thing that you at least have not refused to see what Paul is actually teaching in that passage. He is teaching, in Romans 9, that salvation is the result of God’s predestining ordination and sovereignty, as he also teaches in Romans 8:
      ” 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom 8:28-30 ESV)

      In fact, many other passages of Scripture teach this same doctrine, so that one cannot simply “dispel any notion of God ordained predestination” without also dispelling any notion of the inspiration of Scripture: Acts 4:28; Eph 1:5, 11; Matt 24:22, 24, 31; Mar 13:20, 22, 27; Lk 18:7; Rom 8:33; Rom 11:7, 28; 2 Tim 1:10; Tit 1:1; 1 Pe 1:1, 10; 1 Co 1:9; Gal 1:6, 15; Gal 5:8; Eph 3:11; Heb 9:15; Acts 13:48; Ex 4:21; Ex 7:3; Ex 9:12; Ex 10:20, 27; Ex 11:10; Ex 14:4, 17; Deut 2:30; Josh 11:20; Joh 12:40; Dan 4:35; Isa 14:24; Isa 46:11; Jer 49:20; Jer 50:45; 1 Sam 2:7, 8; Act 17:26; Gen 45:5-8; Gen 50:20; Josh 7:14; 1 Sam 6:7-10, 12; Prov 16:33; Isa 44:7; Mat 10:29, 30; Luk 21:18.

      However, there is a difference, of course, between unconditional love and unconditional approval. A loving father might still be faced with the tortuous decision of having to throw his own son out of the home due to a truly destructive and evil pattern of behaviour on the part of the son whom he unconditionally loves. Understanding this distinction is important when thinking about God and how He has revealed Himself in His Word.

      God is Love. Yes, it is essential to His eternal character and nature. So all that He does is in accord with His loving character. Yet God is Holy. Holiness is also essential to His eternal character and nature. So all that He does also accords with His holy character. Part of what it means for God to be holy requires that He be perfect in justice.

      Now if the greatest and most valuable thing in the Universe is God, then the highest and best action for a creature is to worship God and give Him glory. To truly worship God entails worshipping Him in truth: giving Him glory for who He truly is, for all of His attributes (including His love and His holiness and His justice, etc.). To give God glory only for His love while disregarding His justice is a form of idolatry: making God out to be something He is not; worshipping one’s own imagination of God rather than the God who truly Is.

      So if God’s love motivates Him to reveal Himself to His creation so that He can be worshipped and glorified for who He truly Is, then it follows that God would then be right to reveal Himself in such a way that all of His attributes are glorified. That is what Paul is arguing in Romans 9: that God elects some creatures in order to display His justice and holy wrath for sin, while also electing some creatures in order to display His love and mercy. Even God’s sovereign election and decrees reveal an essential quality of God to be glorified: His grace–that all He does is undeserved, unearned, and unilateral.

      About atheists coming to salvation, this of course does not disprove election, but actually confirms it: how does a God-hater come to love God? Not of his own doing, that’s for sure! Did God choose him to be saved because He foreknew that the atheist would choose to believe in Jesus? No. If God foreknew anything about the atheist, all He would have seen is unbelief and hatred towards the idea of God. The atheist is then saved as the result of faith in Christ proceeding out of new birth which happens by God’s grace alone–electing, predestining grace.

      I will post shortly on the topic of God’s love for “all the world” and how we should understand this with regard to the doctrine of election. For now, though, let me leave you with an encouragement from Scripture about some Scripture that is hard to understand and difficult to accept.

      In Romans 9:22-23, Paul speaks of the patience of God, putting up with the wickedness of much of humankind in order that He would allow enough time for all of His chosen children to receive His mercy, come to know Him and to love Him. So God’s patience, Paul teaches, is for the purpose of God’s plan of salvation. Peter refers to this very teaching of Paul in 2 Peter 3.

      “15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2Pe 3:15-18 ESV)

      As you struggle with the incongruity of Romans 9, Dave, please remember that Peter conceded to his readers that Paul is hard to understand on this topic among others. And please remember that Peter acknowledged these writings of Paul to be Scripture when he compared the way some people misinterpret them to the way they also misinterpret “the other Scriptures”.

    2. Thanks Dave for your comment. I appreciate the intellectual honesty in your words: that upon reading Romans 9 and understanding Paul’s meaning there and its implications, you conclude that it does not seem to fit with what you understand of the rest of the Bible. It is a good thing that you at least have not refused to see what Paul is actually teaching in that passage. He is teaching, in Romans 9, that salvation is the result of God’s predestining ordination and sovereignty, as he also teaches in Romans 8:
      ” 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Rom 8:28-30 ESV)

      In fact, many other passages of Scripture teach this same doctrine, so that one cannot simply “dispel any notion of God ordained predestination” without also dispelling any notion of the inspiration of Scripture: Acts 4:28; Eph 1:5, 11; Matt 24:22, 24, 31; Mar 13:20, 22, 27; Lk 18:7; Rom 8:33; Rom 11:7, 28; 2 Tim 1:10; Tit 1:1; 1 Pe 1:1, 10; 1 Co 1:9; Gal 1:6, 15; Gal 5:8; Eph 3:11; Heb 9:15; Acts 13:48; Ex 4:21; Ex 7:3; Ex 9:12; Ex 10:20, 27; Ex 11:10; Ex 14:4, 17; Deut 2:30; Josh 11:20; Joh 12:40; Dan 4:35; Isa 14:24; Isa 46:11; Jer 49:20; Jer 50:45; 1 Sam 2:7, 8; Act 17:26; Gen 45:5-8; Gen 50:20; Josh 7:14; 1 Sam 6:7-10, 12; Prov 16:33; Isa 44:7; Mat 10:29, 30; Luk 21:18.

      However, there is a difference, of course, between unconditional love and unconditional approval. A loving father might still be faced with the tortuous decision of having to throw his own son out of the home due to a truly destructive and evil pattern of behaviour on the part of the son whom he unconditionally loves. Understanding this distinction is important when thinking about God and how He has revealed Himself in His Word.

      God is Love. Yes, it is essential to His eternal character and nature. So all that He does is in accord with His loving character. Yet God is Holy. Holiness is also essential to His eternal character and nature. So all that He does also accords with His holy character. Part of what it means for God to be holy requires that He be perfect in justice.

      Now if the greatest and most valuable thing in the Universe is God, then the highest and best action for a creature is to worship God and give Him glory. To truly worship God entails worshipping Him in truth: giving Him glory for who He truly is, for all of His attributes (including His love and His holiness and His justice, etc.). To give God glory only for His love while disregarding His justice is a form of idolatry: making God out to be something He is not; worshipping one’s own imagination of God rather than the God who truly Is.

      So if God’s love motivates Him to reveal Himself to His creation so that He can be worshipped and glorified for who He truly Is, then it follows that God would then be right to reveal Himself in such a way that all of His attributes are glorified. That is what Paul is arguing in Romans 9: that God elects some creatures in order to display His justice and holy wrath for sin, while also electing some creatures in order to display His love and mercy. Even God’s sovereign election and decrees reveal an essential quality of God to be glorified: His grace–that all He does is undeserved, unearned, and unilateral.

      About atheists coming to salvation, this of course does not disprove election, but actually confirms it: how does a God-hater come to love God? Not of his own doing, that’s for sure! Did God choose him to be saved because He foreknew that the atheist would choose to believe in Jesus? No. If God foreknew anything about the atheist, all He would have seen is unbelief and hatred towards the idea of God. The atheist is then saved as the result of faith in Christ proceeding out of new birth which happens by God’s grace alone–electing, predestining grace.

      I will post shortly on the topic of God’s love for “all the world” and how we should understand this with regard to the doctrine of election. For now, though, let me leave you with an encouragement from Scripture about some Scripture that is hard to understand and difficult to accept.

      In Romans 9:22-23, Paul speaks of the patience of God, putting up with the wickedness of much of humankind in order that He would allow enough time for all of His chosen children to receive His mercy, come to know Him and to love Him. So God’s patience, Paul teaches, is for the purpose of God’s plan of salvation. Peter refers to this very teaching of Paul in 2 Peter 3.

      “15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2Pe 3:15-18 ESV)

      As you struggle with the incongruity of Romans 9, Dave, please remember that Peter conceded to his readers that Paul is hard to understand on this topic among others. And please remember that Peter acknowledged these writings of Paul to be Scripture when he compared the way some people misinterpret them to the way they also misinterpret “the other Scriptures”.

    3. I am wondering about your example of the “loving father.” You said, “However, there is a difference, of course, between unconditional love and unconditional approval. A loving father might still be faced with the tortuous decision of having to throw his own son out of the home due to a truly destructive and evil pattern of behaviour on the part of the son whom he unconditionally loves.”
      This example shows a father who loves his son, but because of the son’s poor choices, the son must suffer the consequences of his actions. Although, the father still loves the son, he cannot approve of his actions and the son gives up the benefits of relationship with the father. However, if the son comes back, asking forgiveness, and is willing to submit to the father’s authority, the father would certainly allow him back in the home.
      This is EXACTLTY how God responds to us, He loves us and wants a relationship with us, but bad choices (especially choosing to reject Jesus)put us in a position where we cannot reap the benefits of His love.
      Your own example totally argues against a God who chooses ahead of time, before someone is even born to “throw out” some of the ones He has created!!!

    4. Hi Teena, thanks for the comment. I’m afraid you’ve misread my reply to Dave. If you had read it more carefully, you would have seen that the father/son illustration was only used to show the distinction between unconditional love and unconditional approval. It was not illustrating the doctrine of election. That “God chooses ahead of time” is not actually open for debate: the Bible is replete with God’s own final word on this subject. For example (c.f., the many more Scripture references provided in my comment above),
      ” 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? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory– 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom 9:21-24 ESV)
      God “made” one person for honorable use, the other for dishonorable. God “prepared beforehand” each person for either salvation or judgement. Your argument is not with me, but with the Bible, unless you opt to conclude that passages which teach election don’t belong in the Bible? But if you choose that route, you will have to scrub quite a lot of Scripture (as I pointed out in my comment above).

    5. Joe, I did not misread your post and I assure you that I did read it carefully. I did not say that you were trying to use the father/son illustration in reference to the doctrine of election. What I was pointing out, however, is that your illustration was a perfect one AGAINST the doctrine of election.
      By the way, That “God chooses ahead of time” who will be saved and who will not is ABSOLUTELY up for debate!
      Romans 9:21-24 has nothing to do with the salvation of individuals but deals with God’s choosing of nations. God is saying that He can and will grant salvation to the gentiles if they recieve it by faith, and that He will extend mercy to the Isrealites if they do not continue in their unbelief, because of the promises He had made to them.
      My “argument” is not, as you say, with the Bible, it is with your biased interpretaion of it.

    6. Hi again Teena. Well I guess I’m glad that you did not misinterpret me. Sorry for assuming you did. However, the route you have chosen to follow in trying to hang on to the notion that human will is sovereign in salvation is still dangerous and unbiblical. Just because you don’t understand the testimony of God’s Word on the theme of election does not mean the subject is open for debate. The reason it is not open to debate is because God has already spoken on the matter and His Word is decisive in teaching that salvation ultimately depends on His electing will, not on yours or mine.

      You are wrong about Romans 9 in saying that it “has nothing to do with the salvation of individuals” but is about “God’s choosing of nations”. Up until the end of Romans 8 Paul is showing that God is faithful in His dealings with the Gentiles (i.e., the non-Jewish “nations” literally) in His judgment of their sin, in His salvation of those who believe in Christ, in His prior election of them, justification of them and eventual glorification of them. Then in chapter 9, Paul asks the question, (a paraphrase) “If God saves the nations like this, doesn’t that make Him guilty of breaking His promises to Israel?” Paul asks this because his heart is broken that so very many Jews had rejected Christ in spite of the Old Testament promises that the Messiah would save Israel. So yes, in part Romans 9 has to do with nations. But though God blesses families and groups and nations, His salvation is for individuals as you know. Salvation entails a personal, individual new birth, belief in Christ and relationship with Him. So you are wrong in reading Romans 9 as having nothing to do with the salvation of individuals. Your argument fails to take into account,
      1. verses 6-8 specifically move the discussion from a question of ethnicity (i.e., national heritage) to one of individuals;
      2. verses 10-13 illustrate on the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures that salvation is a matter of God’s individual election of individuals, using Jacob vs. Esau as an example.
      3. In verse 15, where Paul quotes Moses from Ex 33:9, the Greek pronoun “hon”, translated “whom” as in “on whom I have mercy” and “on whom I have compassion”, is a singular pronoun, not a plural pronoun. Meaning, “I will have mercy on THE ONE I have mercy”, etc.
      4. verse 17 illustrates God’s election of individuals with the example of an individual, Pharaoh, who was chosen by God to be an example of God’s just wrath on one individual while also justly providing a way of salvation for many individuals (through the exodus of Israel).
      5. In verse 18, the same Greek pronoun, “hon” is used to summarize the argument thus far and is a singular pronoun–God has mercy on the individuals He wants to and He hardens the individuals He wants to.
      6. Thus verse 16 puts it plainly that salvation does not depend ULTIMATELY on what any individual chooses/wants but on what God chooses/wants; it depends on His will, not yours or mine.
      7. In verse 19, the pronoun “who” as in “who can resist His will” is again singular referring to any individual.
      8. In verse 20, Paul rebukes the questioner opposing the doctrine of election in verse 19 by referring to such a one as an individual, i.e., “Why have you made ME like this?”
      9. In verse 21, it specifies the election of individuals referring to “one vessel” for prepared by the Potter for one use and “one vessel” prepared for another use.
      10. In verse 24, Paul concludes that all such individuals whom God elected for salvation are chosen without discrimination on the basis of national origin but individuals from Jews and the rest of the nations (i.e., “Gentiles”) alike.

      People who object to the Bible’s teaching on election often falsely assume that if God chooses whom to save then salvation is not legitimately offered to those who trust in Christ (have faith) but that we are more like robots. This however is a false dichotomy. The Bible teaches that we are counted righteous on the basis of our faith in the atoning work of Christ. The question Paul answers in Romans 9 is that if this is true, then how could God’s promises to save Israel be legitimate? According to the popular way of thinking in Israel at that time, justification by faith seemed incompatible with God’s covenant promises to the nation of Israel. His answer is that while justification is by faith on the part of the individual, that faith itself is the result of God’s gracious choice to save some while hardening others.

      So yes, your argument seems to be with God Himself and His Word, whether you realize it or not. And again, as I responded above to Dave, this doctrine is hardly limited to Romans 9 but is found throughout the Bible.

    7. Thanks Joe for your lengthy and considerate reply to my statements. I don’t want to write a reply until I’ve studied through all the scriptures you listed and have formulated my thoughts from there. We are currently going through a stressful time of selling our business so focussed brain power for these study’s will be hard to come by.

    8. Thanks Dave. Will pray for a beneficial sale and succesful resolution to that season of your life! God bless you as you lead and provide for your family.

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