The apostle, having asserted the true meaning of the promise, comes here to maintain and prove the absolute sovereignty of God, in disposing of the children of men, with reference to their eternal state. And herein God is to be considered, not as a rector and governor, distributing rewards and punishments according to his revealed laws and covenants, but as an owner and benefactor, giving to the children of men such grace and favour as he has determined in and by his secret and eternal will and counsel: both the favour of visible church-membership and privileges, which is given to some people and denied to others, and the favour of effectual grace, which is given to some particular persons and denied to others.
Now this part of his discourse is in answer to two objections.
I. It might be objected, Isa. there unrighteousness with God? If God, in dealing with the children of men, do thus, in an arbitrary manner, choose some and refuse others, may it not be suspected that there is unrighteousness with him? This the apostle startles at the thought of: God forbid! Far be it from us to think such a thing; shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Gen. 18:25; Rom. 3:5, 6. He denies the consequences, and proves the denial.
1. In respect of those to whom he shows mercy, Rom. 9:15, 16. He quotes that scripture to show God’s sovereignty in dispensing his favours (Exod. 33:19): I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. All God’s reasons of mercy are taken from within himself. All the children of men being plunged alike into a state of sin and misery, equally under guilt and wrath, God, in a way of sovereignty, picks out some from this fallen apostatized race, to be vessels of grace and glory. He dispenses his gifts to whom he will, without giving us any reason: according to his own good pleasure he pitches upon some to be monuments of mercy and grace, preventing grace, effectual grace, while he passes by others. The expression is very emphatic, and the repetition makes it more so: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. It imports a perfect absoluteness in God’s will; he will do what he will, and giveth not account of any of his matters, nor is it fit he should. As these great words, I am that I am (Exod. 3:14) do abundantly express the absolute independency of his being, so these words, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, do as fully express the absolute prerogative and sovereignty of his will. To vindicate the righteousness of God, in showing mercy to whom he will, the apostle appeals to that which God himself had spoken, wherein he claims this sovereign power and liberty. God is a competent judge, even in his own case. Whatsoever God does, or is resolved to do, is both by the one and the other proved to be just. Eleeso on han heleo—I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. When I begin, I will make an end. Therefore God’s mercy endures for ever, because the reason of it is fetched from within himself; therefore his gifts and callings are without repentance. Hence he infers (Rom. 9:16), It is not of him that willeth. Whatever good comes from God to man, the glory of it is not to be ascribed to the most generous desire, nor to the most industrious endeavour, of man, but only and purely to the free grace and mercy of God. In Jacob’s case it was not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth; it was not the earnest will and desire of Rebecca that Jacob might have the blessing; it was not Jacob’s haste to get it (for he was compelled to run for it) that procured him the blessing, but only the mercy and grace of God. Wherein the holy happy people of God differ from other people, it is God and his grace that make them differ. Applying this general rule to the particular case that Paul has before him, the reason why the unworthy, undeserving, ill-deserving Gentiles are called, and grafted into the church, while the greatest part of the Jews are left to perish in unbelief, is not because those Gentiles were better deserving or better disposed for such a favour, but because of God’s free grace that made that difference. The Gentiles did neither will it, nor run for it, for they sat in darkness, Matt. 4:16. In darkness, therefore not willing what they knew not; sitting in darkness, a contented posture, therefore not running to meet it, but anticipated with these invaluable blessings of goodness. Such is the method of God’s grace towards all that partake of it, for he is found of those that sought him not (Isa. 65:1); in this preventing, effectual, distinguishing grace, he acts as a benefactor, whose grace is his own. Our eye therefore must not be evil because his is good; but, of all the grace that we or others have, he must have the glory: Not unto us, Ps. 115:1.
(1.) What God did with Pharaoh. He raised him up, brought him into the world, made him famous, gave him the kingdom and power,—set him up as a beacon upon a hill, as the mark of all his plagues (compare Exod. 9:14)-- hardened his heart, as he had said he would (Exod. 4:21): I will harden his heart, that is, withdraw softening grace, leave him to himself, let Satan loose against him, and lay hardening providences before him. Or, by raising him up may be meant the intermission of the plagues which gave Pharaoh respite, and the reprieve of Pharaoh in those plagues. In the Hebrew, I have made thee stand, continued thee yet in the land of the living. Thus doth God raise up sinners, make them for himself, even for the day of evil (Prov. 16:4), raise them up in outward prosperity, external privileges (Matt. 11:23), sparing mercies.
(2.) What he designed in it: That I might show my power in thee. God would, by all this, serve the honour of his name, and manifest his power in baffling the pride and insolence of that great and daring tyrant, who bade defiance to Heaven itself, and trampled upon all that was just and sacred. If Pharaoh had not been so high and might, so bold and hardy, the power of God had not been so illustrious in the ruining of him; but the taking off of the spirit of such a prince, who hectored at that rate, did indeed proclaim God glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders, Exod. 15:11. This is Pharaoh, and all his multitude.
(3.) His conclusion concerning both these we have, Rom. 9:18. He hath mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. The various dealings of God, by which he makes some to differ from others, must be resolved into his absolute sovereignty. He is debtor to no man, his grace is his own, and he may give it or withhold it as it pleaseth him; we have none of us deserved it, nay, we have all justly forfeited it a thousand times, so that herein the work of our salvation is admirably well ordered that those who are saved must thank God only, and those who perish must thank themselves only, Hos. 13:9. We are bound, as God hath bound us, to do our utmost for the salvation of all we have to do with; but God is bound no further than he has been pleased to bind himself by his own covenant and promise, which is his revealed will; and that is that he will receive, and not cast out, those that come to Christ; but the drawing of souls in order to that coming is a preventing distinguishing favour to whom he will. Had he mercy on the Gentiles? It was because he would have mercy on them. Were the Jews hardened? It was because it was his own pleasure to deny them softening grace, and to give them up to their chosen affected unbelief. Even so, Father, because it seemed good unto thee. That scripture excellently explains this, Luke 10:21; and, as this, shows the sovereign will of God in giving or withholding both the means of grace and the effectual blessing upon those means.
II. It might be objected, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Rom. 9:19. Had the apostle been arguing only for God’s sovereignty in appointing and ordering the terms and conditions of acceptance and salvation, there had not been the least colour for this objection; for he might well find fault if people refused to come up to the terms on which such a salvation is offered; the salvation being so great, the terms could not be hard. But there might be colour for the objection against his arguing for the sovereignty of God in giving and withholding differencing and preventing grace; and the objection is commonly and readily advanced against the doctrine of distinguishing grace. If God, while he gives effectual grace to some, denies it to others, why doth he find fault with those to whom he denies it? If he hath rejected the Jews, and hid from their eyes the things that belong to their peace, why doth he find fault with them for their blindness? If it be his pleasure to discard them as not a people, and not obtaining mercy, their knocking off themselves was no resistance of his will. This objection he answers at large,
1. By reproving the objector (Rom. 9:20): Nay but, O man. This is not an objection fit to be made by the creature against his Creator, by man against God. The truth, as it is in Jesus, is that which abases man as nothing, less than nothing, and advances God as sovereign Lord of all. Observe how contemptibly he speaks of man, when he comes to argue with God his Maker: “Who art thou, thou that art so foolish, so feeble, so short-sighted, so incompetent a judge of the divine counsels? Art thou able to fathom such a depth, dispute such a case, to trace that way of God which is in the sea, his path in the great waters?” That repliest against God. It becomes us to submit to him, not to reply against him; to lie down under his hand, not to fly in his face, nor to charge him with folly. Hos. antapokrinomenos—That answerest again. God is our master, and we are his servants; and it does not become servants to answer again, Titus 2:9.
2. By resolving all into the divine sovereignty. We are the thing formed, and he is the former; and it does not become us to challenge or arraign his wisdom in ordering and disposing of us into this or that shape of figure. The rude and unformed mass of matter hath no right to this or that form, but is shaped at the pleasure of him that formeth it. God’s sovereignty over us is fitly illustrated by the power that the potter hath over the clay; compare Jer. 18:6; where, by a like comparison, God asserts his dominion over the nation of the Jews, when he was about to magnify his justice in their destruction by Nebuchadnezzar.
(1.) He gives us the comparison, Rom. 9:21. The potter, out of the same lump, may make either a fashionable vessel, and a vessel fit for creditable and honourable uses, or a contemptible vessel, and a vessel in which is no pleasure; and herein he acts arbitrarily, as he might have chosen whether he would make any vessel of it at all, or whether he would leave it in the hole of the pit, out of which it was dug.
(2.) The application of the comparison, Rom. 9:22-24. Two sorts of vessels God forms out of the great lump of fallen mankind:—[1.] Vessels of wrath—vessels filled with wrath, as a vessel of wine is a vessel filled with wine; full of the fury of the Lord, Isa. 51:20. In these God is willing to show his wrath, that is, his punishing justice, and his enmity to sin. This must be shown to all the world, God will make it appear that he hates sin. He will likewise make his power known, to dynaton autou. It is a power of strength and energy, an inflicting power, which works and effects the destruction of those that perish; it is a destruction that proceeds from the glory of his power, 2 Thess. 1:9. The eternal damnation of sinners will be an abundant demonstration of the power of God; for he will act in it himself immediately, his wrath preying as it were upon guilty consciences, and his arm stretched out totally to destroy their well-being, and yet at the same instant wonderfully to preserve the being of the creature. In order to this, God endured them with much long-suffering—exercised a great deal of patience towards them, let them alone to fill up the measure of sin, to grow till they were ripe for ruin, and so they became fitted for destruction, fitted by their own sin and self-hardening. The reigning corruptions and wickedness of the soul are its preparedness and disposedness for hell: a soul is hereby made combustible matter, fit for the flames of hell. When Christ said to the Jews (Matt. 23:32), Fill you up then the measure of your father, that upon you may come all the righteous blood (Rom. 9:23), he did, as it were, endure them with much long-suffering, that they might, by their own obstinacy and wilfulness in sin, fit themselves for destruction. [2.] Vessels of mercy—filled with mercy. The happiness bestowed upon the saved remnant is the fruit, not of their merit, but of God’s mercy. The spring of all the joy and glory of heaven is that mercy of God which endures for ever. Vessels of honour must to eternity own themselves vessels of mercy. Observe, First, What he designs in them: To make known the riches of his glory, that is, of his goodness; for God’s goodness is his greatest glory, especially when it is communicated with the greatest sovereignty. I beseech thee show me thy glory, says Moses, Exod. 33:18. I will make all my goodness to pass before thee, says God (Rom. 9:19), and that given out freely: I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. God makes known his glory, this goodness of his, in the preservation and supply of all the creatures: the earth is full of his goodness, and the year crowned with it; but when he would demonstrate the riches of his goodness, unsearchable riches, he does it in the salvation of the saints, that will be to eternity glorious monuments of divine grace. Secondly, What he does for them he does before prepare them to glory. Sanctification is the preparation of the soul for glory, making it meet to partake of the inheritance of the saints in light. This is God’s work. We can destroy ourselves fast enough, but we cannot save ourselves. Sinners fit themselves for hell, but it is God that prepares saints for heaven; and all those that God designs for heaven hereafter he prepares and fits for heaven now: he works them to the self-same thing, 2 Cor. 5:5. And would you know who these vessels of mercy are? Those whom he hath called (Rom. 9:24); for whom he did predestinate those he also called with an effectual call: and these not of the Jews only, but of the Gentiles; for, the partition-wall being taken down, the world was laid in common, and not (as it had been) God’s favour appropriated to the Jews, and they put a degree nearer his acceptance than the rest of the world. They now stood upon the same level with the Gentiles; and the question is not now whether of the seed of Abraham or no, that is neither here nor there, but whether or no called according to his purpose.