God the potter - Romans 9:1-29

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 18th January 2009.

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Well I wonder if there’s anyone here this morning who’s been let down.  Let down badly perhaps?    Maybe it was a marriage partner, a business partner, someone else at work or in your wider family;  or maybe even a fellow Christian.  Despite what you might read in the papers about celebrity splits, there’s no such things as an amicable divorce;  just relative degrees of pain for those immediately involved;  and of course collateral damage to anyone nearby like the children.  And if you’ve been hurt like this in the past, if someone’s broken a promise they’ve made to you, then you’ll be much more searching or perhaps even cynical the next time you’re promised something;  the next time someone expresses their sincere love to you.  And if we’re starting to think like that about human relationships, then there’s a danger we’ll start thinking the same way about God; there’s a danger that we’ll doubt God’s love for us;  a danger that we’ll start to doubt His promises;  there’s a real danger that we’ll starting doubting the very character of God:  question His trustworthiness. 

Link and Introduction

And that’s the central issue that Rom 9 is dealing with.  God’s character;  His trustworthiness;  the reliability of His covenant promises.  So if you’re not already there, then pl turn back to Rom 9 on p [1054/  1758] and look with me at v6:

 6It is not as though God's word had failed.

That’s the central issue in Rom 9.  Because some Christians in Rome were beginning to think that it had;  that God’s word had failed;  that His promises seemed too good to be true.  And if you can remember back to last Aug, we saw that Rom 8 was like the climax of Paul’s argument in the whole of Rome 1-8.  And the point was that, for the Christian, glory is certain;  for those who are aware of their sin;  for those who know of their need of a saviour; for those who trust in JC for the forgiveness of their sins;  for those who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, then glory is certain;  for the Christian, a blessed eternity in the heavenly New Creation is guaranteed;  so guaranteed that nothing can take it away.  And v28-39 of chapter 8 are the climax of the climax.  Look with me at v28:

28  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Or in other words, for the Christian, glory is certain.   Look down to the end of the passage in v38 to see the same point:

38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Fantastic words of comfort from God.  Amazing promises..  But for 1st century Christians in Rome, their immediate question was:  but are they true?    God had made fantastic promises in the OT to His OC people, the people of Israel.    Promises that led to the coming of J;  the coming of the Jewish Messiah that is.   Although all the apostles were Jewish and so were the majority of the early church, the majority of 1st century Jews had rejected J;  overall, the Jews had rejected the Jewish messiah.  And 3 decades after the first Easter, non-Jews were now a majority in the church;  a trend that’s continued to this very day.  How many Jewish Christians do you know?    And in the first 8 chapter s of Romans, Paul had made it crystal clear that there aren’t 2 ways to heaven;  a gentile way through Jesus and a Jewish way through an ongoing Judaism.  No, whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, to receive the forgiveness of your sins and be regarded a true member of God’s people, then you need to accept Jesus.  You need to be a Christian.  Jews and gentiles alike all need Christ.    And so if a Jew rejects Jesus, they’re no longer to be regarded as one of the people of God. 

I wonder of you’ve ever watch a loved one die who you know had consciously rejected the Gospel;  unless they changed their mind at the last minute, their sins weren’t forgiven;  they weren’t one of God’s people;  you won’t be seeing them in heaven.  It feels like being wounded at the very core of your soul doesn’t it?  See how Paul himself describes it in the opening verse of chapter 9:  v1:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, 4the people of Israel.

Paul hurt so much, that if were possible he would have been prepared to spend eternity in hell himself if that had meant more of his Jewish bothers and sisters would accept Jesus and so be saved.  But the main point is even worse as v4 continues:  they, the Jewish people that is, they were adopted as God’s sons.  They had all the blessings of the OC;  the Jews has received God’s promises as Paul puts it in  v4;  promises that v5 reminds us led to Christ himself. 

But, the majority of Jews has rejected Jesus and so they were no longer God’s covenant people.  And if that’s what happened to God’s OC people, could the same happen to us, the NC people of God.  Can we trust God's promises in chapter 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God and the certainty of Heaven;  can we trust the promises addressed to us if the majority of Jews had had their promised from God put through the shredder like yesterday’s junk mail? Can we take God at His word?  Is God trustworthy.

1.      God’s promises can be Trusted  (v6-13 & 24-29)

And the central point all through v6-29 is yes:  God’s promises can be trusted.  [repeat]
    As he puts it in v6:     It is not as though God's word had failed.

But how?  Well look on to the rest of the verse:

v6b ‘For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.’ 7Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children.

What Paul’s saying here is that not every ethnically Jewish person was a true Jew, a child of God that is.  Even under the OC, God’s children, Abraham’s children, true Jews that is, had always been a sub-set of those who were physically descended from Abraham.  As he goes on to explain in the rest of v7:

On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.

As we saw in our OT reading, Abraham had a son called Ishmael who was older than Isaac.  A son that Sarah’s maidservant Hagar had borne him.  But God made it clear that it was through Isaac and not Ishmael that God’s promise would be reckoned;  would be continued on down the generations that is.  Both Ishmael and Isaac were Abraham’s children but only Isaac was a child of the promise.  Being a physical child of Abraham didn’t necessary make someone one of God’s people;  it never had right from the start.   

And as Paul goes onto explain in v10-13, it was the same for Isaac and Rebecca’s children;   because as we know from our OT, Isaac and Rebecca had twin boys:  Esau and Jacob.  But as v11 tells us:

“before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God's purpose in election might stand: 12not by works but by him who calls—she was told, "The older will serve the younger."

In other words, just like Isaac and Ishmael, it was Jacob and not Esau who would inherit God’s promises, even though Esau was the oldest.  And just in case wee thought that in Ishmael's  case it was because he was born illegitimately, v11 make it crystal clear that God had made his choice of Jacob even before the twins had been born;  born that is from the same parents.  And v13 rams the point home by quoting from the prophet Malachi which we looked at last Spring:

13Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

The word hate here is being used in the same way Jesus uses the word when he says that unless we hate our parents, then we can’t be His disciples.  And the point is that it’s an extreme way of saying we must love Jesus even more than our parents;  or we must put God first as we were thinking about last week in our FS.  And it’s the same with God hating Esau and loving Jacob:  the point is that, before they were even born, God had chosen Jacob to inherit the promises;  or to think of the opposite, God had rejected Esau as being a child of the promise before he’d even been born.  So coming back to the main point of v8:  not all Abraham’s physical children were true children of God;  not all ethnic Jews were true Jews, but only those God had specially called;  only those God had specifically chosen that is.  Or to go back to the language of chapter 8, only those who’d been predestined back in eternity. 

The true children of God had always been a subset of those who had some association with the people of God.  It's true today in the church and it was the case in the OT church of Israel.  Whatever badges of church membership we might have, whatever our background, only those who are called, only those who are chosen by God are the true Israel, the true children of God that is. And Paul picks up the thread of that argument in v24-29, by quoting 2 OT prophets to make his point.  Look with me at v27 to see the point:

 27Isaiah cries out concerning Israel:  Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved.  28For the Lord will carry out his sentence on earth with speed and finality."

Paul’s saying that the idea of a subset or a remnant within Israel has always been the case not just at the time of Ishmael and Esau, but all though the OT including the prophet Isaiah’s time.  Isaiah was warning the people of his day to repent of their sins, otherwise God would carry out his punishment, the punishment of the exile.  Even though by Isaiah 's day, the ethnic nation of Israel had grown to a great number, like the sand by the sea in fulfilment of those promises to Abraham, only a remnant, only a subset, would be saved;  a remnant chosen by God’s grace. 

And so the point is that all through the OT, God had made it clear that not all ethnic Jews were true Jews, true children of God.  And so when Jesus turned up and most of the Jews rejected him, rejected God’s word, rejected God’s prophet, rejected God plan of salvation, this was nothing new;  it’d been going on for centuries.  Ethnic Jews, who had all the amazing privileges Paul described in v4&5 had a long history of rejecting God’s word and so proving they weren’t really the true people of God anyway.  The fact that most 1C Jews rejected the long-promised Jewish Messiah isn’t surprising;  it’s deeply depressing, as Paul reminds us in v1-4, but not surprising, not new and not contrary to God’s word.    God’s Word and His promises can be trusted.  He hasn’t gone back on them.  He hadn’t rejected his true children in Paul’s day any more than he did in Isaiah’s day.  God’s word is true;  His promises are trustworthy then and now.    And so coming back to the promises in chapter 8:  if you’re a true child of God, if you’re a genuine Christian, if you have repented of your sins and trusted in J’s for their forgiveness, then for you, glory is certain;  nothing can take away the hope you have of eternal life in the heavenly new creation.  For you, glory is certain:  God’s has promised it, and God’s promises can be trusted.

And in a broken world where words and promises don’t mean very much, that’s immensely reassuring isn't it?  We’re so used to being let down and having our hopes dashed.  But in Christ, we can have absolute confidence;  not because of anything we’ve done, but because God has promised it to us in Christ.  And God always keeps His promises.    How reassuring is that?

2.      God’s election is Just (v14-18)

But some of you might have noticed that we skipped over v14-23.  And others might be thinking, well yes I can see Paul’s argument, but it all depends on God choosing us doesn’t it.  And the answer’s yes.  Unless we accept the Bible’s doctrines of election and predestination, then we can have no assurance of heaven.    But it’s still a difficult doctrine to swallow isn’t it?  When first came across this as a young Christian, I went to my vicar, and said:  6 months ago. I decided to become a Christian;  but I’ve been reading these passages that seem to say that actually it was God who choose me.  Have I read the Bible wrong or is that what the Bible’s really saying?  And the vicar say: yes that’s exactly what the Bible’s saying.    But it’s not just modern people who’ve struggled with this doctrine.  Even since the Garden of Eden, people have wanted to assert their independence from God and limit His sovereignty, and so Paul spends v14-23 helping us come to terms with this teaching. 

So first in v14-18 we see that God’s election is Just.  God’s election is just.    Look with me at v14:

‘What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!’

Why is Paul so sure?  Because God’s choosing isn’t a matter of justice but mercy. Look at v15 to see the point:

‘For he (that’s God) says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.’ 

Earlier in Romans we’re learnt that we’re naturally hostile to God.  We don’t treat God as he deserves.  In fact, in chapter 3 we learnt that whether we’re Jews or Gentiles, we all deserve his wrath and judgement because of the way we’ve treated God. That is what justice requires. However, throughout the OT God has revealed himself as both just and merciful;  as both just and compassionate.  And so in His compassion and mercy, all through the OT, God has chosen to save some people from His just judgment.   Those who’ve been spared His judgment aren’t any better than the rest;  they didn’t deserve His mercy;  if they did, then  it wouldn’t have been mercy would it?   

Now I know most of you wouldn’t, but just image you’ve parked on a double yellow line;  just for 10 minutes, but when you come back there’s a traffic warden writing out a ticket.  Oh please let me off;  I’ve got a headache, the cat’s sick and I’ve just been made redundant or whatever sob-story you make up.  And just suppose, I know it’s a bit implausible, but just suppose that that the traffic warden forgets her targets for the day, has pity on you lets you off.  She rips up the ticket and moves onto another car that’s parked a few yards up the road.  Does the fact that she’s let you off mean that she has to let every other person off that day?   Would she be unjust to give someone else a ticket for parking on a double yellow line when she’s let you off?    Of course not.  The others deserved their parking tickets and so did you;  but you received mercy and they didn’t.    There’s no injustice in others receiving their tickets.  They got what they deserved.  It’s just that you got off;  you received mercy. 

And it’s the same with God.  If, in His infinite wisdom, God decides not to save someone, , then they’re only receiving what they deserve;  eternal punishment for their sins;  if we don’t accept that we all deserve this then we can’t be a Christian;  because unless we accept that we’re a sinner in need of God’s mercy then we haven’t understood the Gospel.  God isn’t being unjust in not choosing some;  rather, He’s being extremely merciful to those He does decide to choose;  people like you and me, if you’re a real Christian that is.  God’s promises can be trusted.  Those promises depend on God’s election, God choosing His people that is.  And as we’ve seen in v14-16, God’s election is just. 

3.      We are still accountable to God (v19-23)

But some of you might still be feeling uncomfortable with this doctrine;  if God chooses, and is ultimately in control of who becomes a Christian, doesn’t this mean that we’re like robots?    What about our moral choices, our decisions;  how can we be accountable to God if He’s decided everything in advance?  And Paul’s answer in v19-23 is that, despite God’s just election, we’re still accountable to God.  We are still accountable to God.  Look at v19:

19One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" 20But 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?'  21Does 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?

When we come to the Bible, we can’t have a pick and mix approach;  we can’t say, well I like that bit, but not that;  the Bible’s is crystal clear that we are morally accountable for the choices we make;  so if we break God’s laws, as we all do, then we’re morally accountable to the God who made us.  The fact that God chose some of us to receive his mercy doesn’t undermine our moral responsibility. 

And if we think about it, we know that’s true logically.  Just supposing someone is born with a genetic predisposition to paedophilia;  someone has an inbuilt tendency towards doing wrong things to children.  If that person act on their inclinations when they’re a grown-up, are there still responsible for their actions?  Of course they are.  You can’t excuse wicked behaviour because you inherited some bad genes. 

So if you’re with the Romans in v19, God’s answer is v20:  who are you O man to talk back to God.  Or in other words, how dare you question my character, my justice, the way I’ve made my creation.  I am the Creator and you are my creatures;  and never forget it.

You aren’t God, I am.  Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'  And the answer is of course not.  It would be preposterous for the creature to start telling the creator how he should’ve made His creation.   God’s election is just.  And we’re still morally accountable to the God who made us.

It’s a bit like when I tell Bethan to hold my hand when we cross the road.  And often the question is: “Why?”  And my response is:  ‘because I say so’:    I’m the daddy and I make the rules of this house.  And that’s basically what God’s saying in v20-21.  As a parent, we have our children’s best interests at heart and so we make up rules for their benefit.  Or at least we should do.  But sometimes, it’s helpful to explain our thinking isn’t it?  “I want you to hold my hand while we crossing the road so you can be safe”. 

And if we as human parents have good reasons for making up household rules, then how much more does our morally perfect Father, the creator of the universe have good reasons for everything he does.  And just like a human parent, sometimes God lets us have a glimpse of His thinking.  Look back to v17:

17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth."

And we get a further potential glimpse in v22.   Everything God does glorifies His name and furthers the eternal good of His chosen people.  We will never fully understand God, because we are finite and He’s infinite.  When we’re pondering these deep things of God, we need to step back and have an injection of humility;  to reflect on the greatness and the perfection of God; to reflect on our smallness and sinfulness.  God longs to teach us and reveal more of Himself to us.  

But if we approach Him with pride, with arrogance or with impertinence, then he’ll discipline us with the slap of v20.    But if we’re truly one of His children, then nothing can separate us from His love;  we are morally accountable to the God who made us.  But His promises of salvation can be trusted;  his election is just;  and so one day, in His perfect timing, we will be with Him in the morally perfect New Creation, no doubt about it;  if we’re one of His true children.   And if that’s you, then let’s reflect on the closing verses of chapter 11;  look with me at 11:33:

33Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments,  and his paths beyond tracing out!  “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?"  Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Let’s pray.

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