Objections to predestination are nothing new. While writing to the Romans, Paul brought up predestination in order to demonstrate how God’s promises did not fail when not every Israelite embraced the Messiah (9:3, 6, 11). But the classrooms of seminaries and the foyers of church buildings often reverberate with comments like, “Well predestination can’t be true because then it would mean–” and then fill in the blank.
In Rom 9:14 and 9:19, Paul mentions what are perhaps the main objections to divine predestination. First, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” (Rom 9:14a). This is a character issue. For some, predestination seems to go against God’s righteous character. The charge would be: “To choose one person for salvation and not another is unjust; and since God never does anything unjust, He would never engage in Calvinistic predestination.” But is that Paul’s conclusion? Let’s read the entirety of Rom 9:14: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!” Oh, really? Not unjust? How is that possible? Paul explains: “For he [God] says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,'” quoting Exodus 33:19.
Therefore, Calvinistic predestination is not unjust, because God claims the freedom to give mercy to whomever He wants. Notice what Paul did not say: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Yes, predestination violates His righteous character.” Paul says no such thing, but he certainly could have, if he felt it was a legitimate answer. After all, initial exposure to predestination often provokes the “how-can-that-be-within-God’s-character” question. But the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did not believe that divine predestination calls God’s character into question. In fact, Paul reminds his readers of God’s own declaration: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” Since no one deserves God’s saving mercy, it is not unjust that He does not give it to everyone.
Paul raises and answers a second objection to predestination: “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?'” (Rom 9:19). This raises the issue of human culpability. In other words, how can people be held responsible as sinners when God has chosen some and not others for salvation? This seems to also raise the classic issue of man’s will: does predestination remove the possibility of genuine decisions? Are we not simply robots fueled and guided by divine decrees?
I think you’ll agree: Paul certainly raised a good question. I know I’ve asked that question myself, and others have also raised that question in predestination discussions. But Paul’s answer might surprise you, in that he doesn’t directly answer the question–he answers the question with another question: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (Rom 9:20). When I used to rant about how predestination would destroy God’s basis for condemning us since our choices would no longer be real, I never realized what thin ice I was skating on! Talking back to God seems like a formidable and dangerous activity, yet Paul accuses the questioner of 9:19 with back-talk.
Two observations stand out in Paul’s response. First, Paul addresses the questioner as “O man” and explains that he/she is talking back to “God.” In other words, we need to remember who is God and who is not! We are but man. So are we in any position to accuse God of anything? If predestination is true, can we legitimately charge God with any wrongdoing? The answer is clear from the text: No, we cannot. Second, Paul’s thoughts on the matter center on the issue of God’s rights as the Divine Potter: “Does 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?” (9:21). It all boils down to whether Scripture affirms God’s right to elect whom He wants. And Paul thinks that God has the right to do anything, and that whatever God does will never be unjust. Who are we to ever give advice, instructions, or rebukes to the Potter? We are the clay.
Romans 9:14-21 affirms powerful and controversial statements about God’s election of some, but not others, to salvation. The section affirms that divine election does not contradict God’s righteous character (9:14-18), and divine election does not prevent God from holding unbelievers responsible for their unrighteousness (9:19-21). So during a discusson of divine election, if someone says, “It’s outside God’s character for him to predestine some to salvation,” or, “If Calvinistic predestination is true, people don’t make real choices and thus cannot be held responsible for their sins,” gently point them to Rom 9:14-21. Paul raised those objections and then dismissed them!
Paul affirmed God’s freedom to give mercy to whomever He wants (9:15, 18), and the apostle affirmed God’s rights as the Divine Potter to do whatever He wants with the clay (9:21). If Paul says God has a right to do something (even if the action seems initially objectionable to us), shouldn’t the apostle’s reasoning be sufficient for us?