Romans 9:19-20 – Is it right for God to find fault with unbelieving ethnic Israelites?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

To recap, Paul is addressing an anticipated objection from some hypothetical ethnic Israelites who will not like his teaching that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. This means that many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites are not currently receiving God’s blessing, because they are not trusting in Christ. Paul’s objectors think that God ought to save ethnic Israelites due to their physical descent from Abraham and/or their works. Paul has responded by reiterating that God does not save based on ethnicity (verses 6-9) or works (verses 10-13), and by noting that God has the right to save whomever he wants to save (verses 14-18).

Paul now anticipates a further objection from these ethnic Israelites:

“[19] You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?””

To understand this verse, we will consider the parallel passage in Romans 3. As we have seen, Romans 3 begins in a similar way to Romans 9. In Romans 3:1-2, Paul states that there are advantages in being an ethnic Israelite, and he gives an example of one such advantage. Correspondingly, in Romans 9:4-5, Paul continues his list of advantages of the ethnic Israelite. Back to Romans 3, in verses 5-8 Paul goes on to say:

“[5] But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) [6] By no means! For then how could God judge the world? [7] But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? [8] And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.”

This part of Romans 3 corresponds to Romans 9:19. Verse 7 of Romans 3 is the closest match with Romans 9:19. It asks a question, posed on behalf of an unbelieving ethnic Israelite, as to why this person is being condemned as a sinner, given that this person’s sinful actions have not prevented God from being glorified. God is able to use the ‘lie’ of this person to bring about a proclamation of his ‘truth’, so the person’s lie does not stop God from achieving his purposes and being glorified. The argument is that God is being glorified whether the person sins or not. So, the argument goes, why is God condemning the sinner when the sinner hasn’t prevented God from being glorified? We can see that Paul is very dismissive of such an argument by his statement at the end of Romans 3:8 – ‘their condemnation is just’.

A similar question is being asked in Romans 9:19 – ‘Why does he still find fault? For who has resisted his will?’ Why does God find fault with the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, as none of them is preventing God from being glorified? ‘Who has resisted his will?’ is a rhetorical question with the implied answer: no one has resisted his will. No one is stopping God from achieving what he wants to be achieved, so why find fault in anyone? The unbelief of these ethnic Israelites has actually led to the gospel being proclaimed to the Gentiles. God’s will to proclaim the good news to the whole world has not been resisted. If these ethnic Israelites had accepted Jesus, they would have taken the gospel message to the world themselves. On the other hand, with their rejection of Jesus, God still used this to achieve his will by using their rejection of Jesus as a means to promote the spread of the gospel (see Romans 11:11).

This argument is prompted by the reference to Pharaoh in verse 17, which the ethnic Israelite objectors would have understood as being an example which applied to their situation. Just as Pharaoh’s rejection of God was used by God (by hardening Pharaoh in response to this) to cause the good news that the Lord saves to spread throughout the world, so God has reacted to the rejection of Christ by these ethnic Israelites (by hardening them in response) to promote a spread of the gospel. As we have seen, hardening is an act of judgement against someone who has rejected God, but God’s motivation for doing this is to promote a spread of the gospel so that more people can be saved, even those who have been hardened themselves.

The objector is implying that God should not judge sin, because sin does not prevent God achieving his purposes – God is able to respond to sin in such a way that his purposes are not thwarted by it. Of course, for someone to tell God that he should not judge sin is outrageous. As well as dismissing this line of argument in Romans 3:8, Paul also explains in Romans 3:6 that if this argument were true, God would not be able to judge the world. God would have to leave evil unpunished. This cannot be the case, so the argument can be dismissed.

We get a similarly dismissive response from Paul in Romans 9:20:

“[20a] But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

The phrase ‘O man’ is similar to Paul’s statement in Romans 3:5 that ‘I speak in a human way’. Paul is dismissing the argument as being man-made and not in accordance with God’s ways. It is not the place of these objectors to tell God who should or should not be judged.

Analysis of how some others have interpreted Romans 9:19

Some interpret verse 19 differently, and this comes from a misunderstanding of the previous verses. They interpret verse 18 (which states that God has mercy on whom he desires and hardens whom he desires) as meaning that God chooses arbitrarily whom to have mercy on and whom to harden (i.e. God’s choice is made without any reference to the people). They misunderstand the statement that God has the right to choose whom to have mercy on / harden as meaning that God makes this decision not based on anything to do with the people (e.g. who has faith in Christ and who has rejected him). With this view of God’s arbitrary mercy/hardening, they understand the objection of verse 19 to be an objection against God’s arbitrariness. It could be phrased like this: “why has God hardened me but had mercy on that other person, based on nothing about either of us? That’s unfair!” The phrase “who has resisted his will?” in verse 19 (sometimes translated as “who can resist his will?”) is seen as saying that no one has the power to resist God’s will to have mercy and harden arbitrarily. A person who has been arbitrarily chosen to be hardened couldn’t have done anything to resist being hardened and can’t do anything to reverse the situation of being hardened because God’s will was to harden him, so he is condemned to punishment. The objector is seen as objecting to God’s arbitrariness and is told in verse 20 that he is not allowed to ask such a question.

Of course, the problem with this interpretation is that it is built on the incorrect understanding that Paul has just taught that God chooses whom to have mercy on and whom to harden arbitrarily (i.e. without reference to anything about the people). In fact, Paul has simply been asserting that God has the right to choose whom to have mercy on or harden, without specifying in these verses how God decides whom to have mercy on and whom to harden. When we are careful not to add this incorrect understanding of God’s arbitrariness to the text, we see that the best understanding of verse 19 is as explained above.

In fact, if Paul had been teaching that God arbitrarily chooses whom to have mercy on and whom to harden, the objector would have a reasonable point to make in objecting to this! The Bible says that God judges fairly and does not show partiality (Romans 2:2, Acts 10:34-35), so for God to show partiality in arbitrarily choosing some people for mercy and some people for hardening based on nothing about them would go against God’s own standards. Thankfully, we don’t have to face such a dilemma as Paul was not teaching God’s arbitrariness. Paul has already explained in Romans that God gives righteousness “to all who believe” (Romans 3:22), and that “to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). God has therefore sovereignly decided to show mercy to everyone who trusts in Christ. This is not showing partiality as everyone is given the ability and opportunity to trust in Christ through the gospel, rather than some being excluded from the outset. No one deserves God’s mercy, but he has graciously chosen to show mercy to anyone who trusts in Christ. God has the right to choose people in this way and anyone who would prefer for him to choose in a different way has no justified reason to complain. I, for one, am very glad he decided to do it this way!

Another indication that this other interpretation of verse 19 is wrong is that it has the ethnic Israelite objectors protesting about the hardening of Pharaoh. The hardening of Pharaoh is not something that most ethnic Israelites would have been very upset about, as he had put their ancestors under such harsh conditions in their slavery in Egypt. The interpretation put forward above has the ethnic Israelite objectors objecting in respect of the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day, rather than objecting about God’s treatment of Pharaoh. As explained in the previous post, Pharaoh was referred to by Paul as an example that illustrated aspects of the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites.

In the next post, we will consider the structure of Romans 9:6-29, which will help in our understanding of this passage.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

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4 thoughts on “Romans 9:19-20 – Is it right for God to find fault with unbelieving ethnic Israelites?

  1. Pingback: Romans blog series – Contents | The Predestination Station

  2. Pingback: Romans 9:17-18 – God’s right to harden – Pharaoh | The Predestination Station

  3. Pingback: Structure of Romans 9:6-29 | The Predestination Station

  4. Pingback: Romans 9:20-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have a right to criticise God’s judgement? – The potter and the clay | The Predestination Station

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