Love and Hate, Sovereignty and Freedom: A Copernican revolution in Romans 9

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A lot of people struggle with Romans 9. It isn’t the easiest of Bible passages to follow as Paul delves into some deep and complex reasoning. However I think the primary problem that people have with the passage are the following verses that we might find uncomfortable; not so much difficult to understand as hard to accept.

13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”[1]

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”[2]

Those verse raise questions about fairness and justice, questions that Paul appears to acknowledge but chooses not to respond to instead rebuking us for daring to challenge God. WE are according to him like clay in the potter’s hand. He as owner has the right to determine what he will do with us.

The struggle we have is

  • It seems unfair that God would choose to love some and to hate some. This is made worse because he seems to do that before we are even born.
  • It seems unjust that God would hold people responsible for what they are already predestined to do.

So, how do we make sense of this passage and how do we live with the discomfort it brings. It’s there in the Bible so we can’t just tear it out but does that mean we have to like it?  I think the answer begins by recognising that Paul chooses not to answer the questions we want to ask intentionally.

Our fairness and justice questions take us into the world of philosophical debate. It’s the question about what to do with our free-will and God’s sovereignty. How can the two co-exist? Paul chooses not to try and go back pre time, pre-fall and grapple with the question of God could predestine our lives and yet hold us responsible for the decisions we make.  This is because Paul’s intention is not to get into philosophical speculation but rather to say things that are pastorally helpful His aim is to be practical and that must include a level of patience and willingness to acknowledge that there are so many things we cannot know or understand this side of eternity. These things would blow our finite minds. Paul focuses on what we can know..

What Paul does is encourage us to get our perspective and our gaze in the first place. First of all our perspective.  For centuries, people thought that the earth was fixed at the centre of space and the sun, stars and planets rotated around it. That kind of fitted with what we could observe but wasn’t a 100% perfect fit and so some observations required complex models and explanations. Then along came a guy called Copernicus and said “try this. What if the earth and all the planets revolve around the sun?”  Then things began to make sense and all the fiddly explanations were no longer needed.

We are often pre-Copernican. We live and act as though the Universe revolves around us.  From that perspective, life is about me and my free will. I know there is a God and he is sovereign but he and his sovereignty revolve around me. They have to be accommodated to my understanding of what it means to be free.  My freedom is about my autonomy, my sovereignty.  God and his plans have to fit in.  Often this needs complicated explanations such as middle knowledge, open theism and process theology.

Along comes Paul and says “You’ve got it wrong.  You are the creature, God is the creator. Everything revolves around him.” Paul exhorts us to stop trying to fit our understanding of God’s sovereignty in with our understanding of human freedom and responsibility. Instead we should make God and his sovereignty the fixed point, our lives revolve around him and things will only slot into place when we start seeing how our freedom and responsibility fit in with God’s sovereignty.

Then there is our gaze. We are now invited to look in and see what God’s purpose is, how and why he uses his sovereignty.  Notice two things here. First of all why is that God chooses Jacob and rejects Esau? It’s not some kind of hip dip do game of favourites. Rather, God has a purpose. It is through the choosing of Jacob that the promised Saviour would come. That’s where our gaze is to be fixed.

This helps us to ponder and gaze further. We could ask all sorts of questions about why this person and not that person but that’s not where our gaze is meant to be.  Paul says that those rejected and subjected to judgement serve to highlight the wonder of God’s sovereign grace to us. It’s a bit like when the spotlight falls on the lead dancer and the lights shining on the other ballerinas go dim, all eyes are on the lead. When we see others rejecting Christ, our focus is not meant to be on election, the rights and wrongs of some not being saved and how we know, Rather, the focus is meant to be on the Gospel. The horror and tears of wrath and judgement serve to emphasise the beauty and glory of grace.

My response to Romans 9 is not meant to be ongoing philosophical debate nor self centred pride. Instead this passage should provoke in us greater trust and gratitude in Christ.

[1] Romans 9:13.

[2] Romans 9:22-23

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