Romans 9:17-20 “For 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.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?
The main issue before us in this ninth chapter of Romans is not a matter of correct interpretation. The meaning of what Paul says in this chapter is amongst the clearest of the whole letter, and among all of Paul’s letters there are few passages as lucid as this chapter. Paul’ language is straightforward. So the issue before us twofold; firstly will we all believe it? However difficult it is will we submit to what it says? Will we receive it and adore the nature of the God it reveals? But the more foundational issue facing us is the inspiration of the Bible so that it says exactly what God intended it to say to its jots and tittles. The main issue is the truthfulness of the Bible. Let us start there because this is where our text starts.


You see Paul’s words to the congregation in Rome? “For the Scripture says . . .” (v.17). What’s the big deal? This is the customary appeal of the apostles, so much so that we hardly notice it. The apostles learned it from the infallible Lord Jesus. For him the Scripture couldn’t be broken; “Your word is truth” he said when speaking to God. So that must also be the Christian approach to the Bible. It is certainly Paul’s appeal here, “For the Scripture says . . .” and because Scripture says it then it is true, and so we must act on what is written. Then Paul proceeds to quote from the book of Exodus and the ninth chapter. What is unusual about that? I will tell you. Who is speaking in Exodus 9? Let us turn to it and see. Let us read the first verse, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, “This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’”’” It is the Lord God who is speaking. In fact for the first 26 verses of that chapter the only spoken words are the Lord’s. Moses is silent; Pharaoh is silent. So in the 16th verse of Exodus 9 it is God who is speaking these words that are quoted by Paul in our text; “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.” But see how Paul introduces them in writing to the Romans; “The Scripture says to Pharaoh . . .” (v.17). In other words, if Scripture says something, if those words are contained in Scripture, then it is the voice of God. Our consciences are bound to believe those words as if it were God himself speaking to us. The actual words of the Old Testament are the words of God, and to reject them is to defy God.
I want to briefly stress the importance of this by showing you that this passage is not a one-off, unique identification of what Scripture says with what the living God says. You remember what my greater argument is here? This chapter is Scripture and it is clear in what it states. As this chapter is the word of God it is a sin against God to refuse what it says. There is every reason to believe it, and the greatest is that what Scripture says in both the Old and New Testaments is what God says, and so it is truth – true truth. So let me briefly show you from three other places where we find the apostles and the early church have this same attitude as Paul in our text.
i] There’s a very cogent reference of Paul in Galatians chapter three and verse 8, “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham; ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’” When we turn to Genesis, whence these words are taken (chapter 22 and verse 18), we see again that it is God himself who is speaking, and yet Paul says to the Galatians that it was the Scripture that was preaching the gospel of world-wide blessings being on their way. So what the Scripture declares God himself declares, and what God himself declares Scripture declares, and you can’t separate the two by a single leaf of Indian paper. Scripture itself could see that God would justify the heathen by faith, and so Scripture preaches. What it announces is God’s very word to Abraham that through him all the nations of the earth will be blessed.
ii] Then again there is that very tender and beautiful prayer of the apostles, that is recorded in the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, we read in Acts four and verse 25, where the apostles are praying and they said to God, “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?’” The quotation is from the second Psalm, the human authorship of which is attributed to King David, and yet it is the Holy Spirit that said those words. The Holy Spirit on the one hand, and David in a state of inspiration on the other are yet indistinguishable in the words that are written down. Through the mouth of David God the Holy Spirit was speaking.
iii] The final reference is from the apostle Paul when he arrives in Rome in the last chapter of the book of Acts chapter 28, and he says in verses 25 and 26: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”’” Paul is quoting words written over seven hundred years earlier by the prophet Isaiah in the sixth chapter of his prophecy. But who does Paul say is the author? God the Holy Spirit was speaking through Isaiah.” So in our text Paul says that ‘Scripture’ says this, but we can see that it was Jehovah God who was speaking. So let us proceed to examine the words that God spoke to Pharaoh.


There are seven whole chapters of Scripture that describe the long conflict between the man who is the representative of God, Moses (the vicar of Jehovah, we can call him), and the most powerful man in the world, Pharaoh. It is showdown time in Egypt. The children of Israel have lived there in the land of Goshen for 400 years, and they have been made a slave underclass. Now is the time for their liberty, God decides. He has promised them a land and he has determined that now they will leave Egypt en masse moving out, a million of them, into Canaan. So God announces this to Moses in the wilderness at the burning bush. He is 80 years of age thinking that his life was over and he has messed it up. Forty years he has been a wilderness shepherd working for his father-in-law, and then God intervened and Moses’ life was really beginning.
Moses, the worshipper of God, goes to Pharaoh, the worshipper of the river Nile and the sun and moon and cattle and crops and the first born. Moses speaks in the name of Jehovah and asks Pharaoh, “Let my people go that they may get out into the wilderness and worship me.” Pharaoh refuses, though God displays to him his supernatural power when he turns Aaron’s staff into a snake. So the battle commences. It is a ten round contest and in every single round Pharaoh is the loser. The first round is the plague of blood; the Nile is turned to blood. Fish die and the water is undrinkable. So much for the mighty god of the Nile, humbled by the Lord. First round to Moses, but we are told that Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. So on it went the next round with a plague of frogs, and the next gnats, and the next flies, followed by the deaths of livestock, the spread of boils, the plague of hail, the plague of locusts, and the plague of darkness – so much for the sun god of Egypt, and finally the death of the firstborn – even the son of Pharaoh. Ten plagues! Ten great humiliations of Pharaoah. Ten victories for Jehovah and his vicar, Moses.
Have you ever asked yourself why there had to be as many as ten plagues – surely it wouldn’t take God ten rounds to knock out Pharaoh? Why this long humbling of this superman? What does our text tells us? “For 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’” (verse 17). Here is one of the examples we meet in history of an encounter between the world’s powerful men and God. Who is the most powerful man alive today? Maybe Barack Obama, or the new chairman of the Chinese Communist Party? All through history there have been men rising up who have, for a few years, been the most powerful men in the whole world, and then like the grass they wither and like the flower they fade away, but God endures unchanging on. Here in Egypt is the prototype of all those later appearances and declensions of big men. God was confronting Pharaoh: it was time to end his people’s slavery. “Time to leave the land. Good bye Pharaoh! We are going, and all your mighty army won’t be able to stop us!” But proud and foolish Pharaoh was stubborn, refusing to do what God commanded him to do. Then, we see in Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, and in God hardening who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, ten destructive encounters with everything that the Egyptians worshipped, how God was displaying his superior power and making his name known not only in Egypt but in all the world. At the time of Moses everyone in the known world had heard of Pharaoh, but few have heard of the Lord. Today nobody knows who this particular Pharaoh was. Egyptologists discuss whether it could be this Rameses or that one, but no one can say, “I know who it was”, but everybody knows of the Lord Jesus Christ and his Father and the Spirit of God. God has displayed his power, making known his name in all the earth.
Pharaoh was full of wrath, but Jehovah can make the wrath of men praise him. Without being the author of evil, God can grab hold of evil dictators and evil men, and get glory for his own name in their humbling. That is what God was doing here. He was rubbing Pharaoh’s nose in blood and frogs and gnats and flies and cows and boils and darkness and death. At the same time as getting a name for himself amongst the nations, he was humiliating this proud rebel Pharaoh. God was giving him ten opportunities for repentance. How many chances do you give your staff, your wife, your children, your fellow members to repent?
Here are two things that may sound contradictory – God humbling proud dictators while God was also giving proud dictators the opportunity to repent. These two things are not contradictory; they go together. Ten times in those chapters in Exodus we are told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart; but ten times also we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. There is God’s sovereignty and there is man’s responsibility. They are both here; both are true. How you reconcile them God alone knows, but we believe them both.
This is in line with what Paul has written in the opening chapter of Romans: “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator . . . Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts . . . Furthermore, since they did not think it worth while to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:24-26, 28). See two forces at work; Paul effortlessly slipping back and fore from the one to the other. One: the Sovereign God worked; he gave them over. Two: they worked; the sinful desires were theirs and in their hearts; they degraded their bodies; they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God. They did it, but then God gave them over to a depraved mind. God was doing it and they were doing it.
God gave them over”: you cannot quarrel with the justice of that, can you? When God hardens people’s hearts, he is just giving them over to what they’d made up their minds to do. He simply solidifies what is there already. No one will be in hell who does not want to be there. They hate being there, but they still don’t want to be with Jesus because they hate him too. We are told that what happened in Egypt was that Pharaoh was swept into hell not by one choice that he made, but a proud anti-God mindset that again and again, feeling the power of God and hearing the request of God, said “No!”
David N. Jones in last year’s Aberystwyth Conference quoted from C. S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce, where that Ulsterman teases out what hell is like. “This, of course, is literature, not theology, and not the last word on the doctrine of hell. But C.S.Lewis talks about the ‘grumbler’ becoming a ‘grumble’. You start off as a bit of a grumbler, thinking at first that you can stand apart from that mood and criticize it. But eventually, as you give in to the mood continually, it takes over, and the grumbler becomes a grumble, until in the end all that is left is a grumble – not a man in the image of God any more, but a grumble, just grumbling on for all eternity” [David N. Jones, Overflowing Grace, Bryntirion Press, 2012, p.25). Similarly the whinge eventually makes a man a whinger; the drink makes a man a drunkard; the cynicism makes a man a cynic, the unbelief makes a man an unbeliever, and so on.
Here is a man who is addicted to pornography. This is a huge problem today because of modern technology and the ease with which people can get on line. The man makes a decision to access that page on the worldwide web. It is his decision, he presses the button, he is tempted and he views it. Again and again he presses that button, and every time he does so he is making a decision. In the end what does this unclean, lecherous man become? Filth! As the tree falls, so it lies. That is hell. People don’t just drop into hell through some trap door that suddenly opens; it is much more predictable than that. Some of you are on your way to hell right now, because of the decisions you are continually making. You are digging your heels in against God’s Word; you are defying your conscience; you are hardening your heart as Pharaoh did, and the choices you’ve been making are drawing you into hell. Pharaoh was swept into hell not on the basis of divine predestination but through the choices he himself made. God was patient with him, giving him many opportunities to repent and to change his mind, but over and over again we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Are you hardening your heart? That is the path that leads to self-destruction. Maybe you are on that path now – and there, but for the grace of God, I would be, and so would many of us be, because we are all made of the same stuff. If anybody is lost, the blame is theirs; but if anybody is saved, the credit is God’s. So deliverance is by grace, not race; faith, not physical descent; mercy, not merit. If you are self-confident enough to want God to be just and fair with you, then none would be saved because, as Paul argued, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). There is none who does right, no, not one, neither Jew nor Gentile. We are all in the same boat, and that boat is not Noah’s ark.
Paul anticipates another objection from someone else on the fringes of the congregation in Rome. He responds to the protest of one of them; “One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’” (v.19).What the apostle Paul says by way of reply is this, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (v.20), and that seems to me to be the total Biblical philosophy of this great issue of reconciling God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility. We have to affirm with all our might the foreordination of God. We preach it because it is a great Biblical proclamation. We affirm it because it enshrines that whole principle of the graciousness and invincibleness of God’s application of redemption. We are dead in sins with hearts of enmity against God and left to ourselves we would all be with those angels who rebelled against God, in chains of darkness awaiting judgment. But God purposed that a multitude of men and women as many as the sands on the seashores would turn from their sins and trust in the saving work of Jesus. We affirm that divine decision to be a saving act of a loving God. We affirm it because it is a precondition of the intelligibility and the comprehensibility and logicalness of the universe in which we live. It is in Christ the eternal Word that all things cohere. Our Lord is behind and above and beneath all things. God works all things after the counsel of his own will.
Notice that Paul nowhere modifies his commitment to foreordination. He doesn’t face the man raising the objection “Why does God still blame us?” to say to him, “Oh I hadn’t thought of that . . . then let me qualify foreordination.” He lets it stand, that foreordination that comprehends every physical movement in the universe. It comprehends the movement of every galaxy; it comprehends the movement of every atom. It lies behind the fall of the sparrow. It lies behind every good human decision. It lies behind the decision of the brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt, in other words, behind every sinful human decision, so that Joseph could say to them, “It was not you who sent me here but God.” It is an utterly comprehensive foreordination. We do not solve the problem of God’s sovereignty over our lives and over this cosmos by diluting it so that we have effectively denied it.
Yet equally we affirm the responsibility of man. “You sold me into slavery,” Joseph said to his brothers. It was not God who did it, but his own brothers. Peter says to the men whom God had determined beforehand would crucify his Son, both the Romans and the Jews, that they with their wicked hands had taken and slain him. Neither Peter nor Paul says that God doesn’t find fault with Joseph’s brothers or with Caiaphas and Pilate and the mob. Paul lets God’s sovereignty stand. All things are foreordained and yet God finds fault. There is God’s sovereignty and there is also human responsibility, and there is within responsibility that element of freedom which responsibility demands, and if we are loyal to the teaching of the Bible then we will take both of those elements. We affirm the foreordination of God and the responsibility and freedom of man. You might hear the claim that, “Calvinism affirms the divine sovereignty while Arminianism affirms human responsibility.” That is a gross over-simplification. Every Christian is called upon to look at all the Bible, and to seek to understand what all Scripture teaches because it is all given by inspiration of God. It contains no booby traps, and no embarrassments.
I would hold today, in the present climate – or as the BBC newsreaders say at the end of their news reports from London, “ . . . and now we’ll go to where you are . . .” – and where Wales is just now is gripped by a most dangerous mentality. We are bringing into behaviour science, and into sociology, and into criminology, and into education a great stress on determinism. In other words, men and women are all being encouraged to believe that they are victims. They are the prisoners of their backgrounds, and the prisoners of their circumstances, and prisoners of the heredity and their DNA, and prisoners of their environment, and prisoners of their education. They are all victims. They are not responsible for how they live and the choices they make. I would say that in a climate of this kind the gospel pulpit needs to be emphasizing unmistakably both these truths, that our God reigns, that he does according to his will amongst the armies of heaven and here on earth. Yes! But that we also emphasize the Bible’s declaration of human responsibility, that man does answer to God, whatever his background, whatever his DNA, whatever the laws of psychology. Man has that freedom from his genetic make-up, and from his education, and from his own character, and from his sexual desires, and even from his parents’ abuse. Man has a true freedom in all those directions that leaves him answerable to God for the choices he makes, and the words he says, and the deeds he does. In many ways it is just because God is sovereign that man is responsible; the creature answers to his Creator. Man who lives and moves and has his being in God must answer to that God.
My concern today is that we have no right to solve the problem of how we reconcile divine sovereignty with human responsibility by dissolving the problem, by denying on the one hand God’s foreordination, or denying on the other hand man’s responsibility. Both of these elements stand on their own independent evidence. Each is a great affirmation of God’s revelation in Scripture. We must let them both stand. But when we come to asking how do you reconcile them, well the Dutch may have their theories, and the Scots have their suggestions, and the Americans their philosophies, and there may be schools of opinions and theological arguments as men look at the question, but no man has the right to stand and say, “Here is the theology of the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility” because no such theology exists. There may be theories but there cannot be a theology because that reconciliation is a secret thing that belongs to God. There is no way it can be found out.
But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (v.20). You understand that whenever the teaching of the Bible is clearly stated then you’ll find the natural man talking back. There was objection in the first century and there is objection today. It is the same with other doctrines which magnify the grace of God. For example if you preaching a full free justification by faith in Christ through grace alone, leading to the complete pardon of the sins of all who believe, then people are going to complain that this doctrine will lead to people continuing on in sinning. “That doctrine will lead to license,” they will say. If they hear that caveat then the preachers will take comfort knowing that they have preached free justification fully, but of course that they also need to overcome people’s misunderstandings and answer their concerns. So it is here. Paul answers the objector, but see what he says, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?” (v.20). What limitations are a mere man’s! In our understanding of God and understanding ourselves we are pygmies. How limited our understanding compared to the total lack of any kind of limitation in God.
Let me use this illustration of Donald Grey Barnhouse. A small boy had a dog which he loved dearly. He played with it and the dog slept beside him at night. One day the boy looked out of a back window just at the moment of seeing his father shooting his dog. The boy screamed and rushed downstairs. The father caught up the boy who kicked and beat his arms against his father. “You killed my dog. You killed my dog. I hate you. I hate you.” The father carried the boy into the house and said, “Son, let me explain why I had to kill him . . .” But the boy ran from his father, screaming, “I hate you. I hate you. You killed my dog.”
The boy couldn’t get over what his father had done, but after some days calmed down enough for his father to tell him that the dog had contracted rabies. He was given clippings which showed that at the time the dog was killed there’d been an epidemic in the neighbourhood, that a mad dog had bitten several children, and that some of them had died. He even read a clipping which stated that the dog had bitten several other dogs in the neigh­bourhood and that it was necessary for the owners to destroy those pets. He began to realise how warped were his opinions of his father. He had carried that resentment against his father in his ignorance, yet now he could understand that his father was acting in wisdom and love, and that his pet dog might have bitten him and caused his own death.
It’s not necessary to pursue the parallel further. God is the Creator of the universe and our Creator. We stand before him as creatures. Everything that he does is right, while nothing that we do is right unless it is energized by his Spirit, and done in line with God’s will for us. He has all knowledge, and we lack exhaustive knowledge except what we learn from him that he loves us and he will never wrong us in anything that happens. What Christ said to his disciple in another circum­stance could be applied to God the Father here. Peter didn’t want the Lord to wash his feet and Christ had to insist, saying to him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but after­wards you will understand” (John 13:7). The same is true of concerning the sovereignty of God. The fact that the Father tells us that he has his reasons for something has to be entirely enough for his children. If there are those who complain that God is finding fault with what God himself has decided – then that only reveals their own rebellious hearts. As long as we have God’s Word that he works all things after the counsel of his own will, that should suffice.
The last thing in the world that any man should desire is divine justice. I wish I could convey to you a feeling of the depth of gratitude which I have toward God that I’ll never have to encounter the naked flame of the divine rectitude. I cast myself on God’s grace, his mercy, his pity, and his compassion. My dealings with God are all via the cross of Christ. I go to God and speak to God by the Mediator, never in my own name. My name is rubbish in his eyes. I am saying that there is no unrighteousness with God. It is unthinkable that there should be injustice in God. When God pardons our sins John tells us that he is being faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness because pardon comes to a repentant sinner through the cross work of Christ. He was judged justly and I was pardoned for my guilt has been dealt with. He died in my place and so henceforth I live for him and with him. We shall find, as we continue in life, that all of man’s objections will be met and found empty. God assures us that he knows what he’s doing. Paul assures us that life “does not depend on man’s desire or effort but on God’s mercy” (v.16). We must say that salvation is not of the ‘willer’ or of the ‘runner’, but of the great ‘Pitier.’ Would you rather the desire for salvation be in your own cold heart or in the great loving heart of the God who sent Jesus to die for our sins?
It is in his heart and will alone? Yes. It is not my eloquence stirring you. It is not the momentum of being moved by this morning’s testimony and baptismal service. You are absolutely in God’s hands. Can he save me or damn me as he will? Yes. Then cry to him, “O God, save me from the wrath to come – from eternal torment – from banishment from your presence. Save me, O God! What would you have me to do? Oh what would you have me to do, that I may find your favour and live?” Then comes the answer to you:—“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved; for whosoever believes in him shall never perish, but shall have eternal life.”
O that God might bless this divine truth to you. Spurgeon said that he had never preached this doctrine without there being conversions, and he believed he never would. At the sound of these truths God will cause his word to attract your hearts to Jesus, or will affright you to go to him. May you be drawn as the bird is drawn by the lure, or may you be driven as a dove when hunted by the hawk flies into the safety of the cleft of the rocks. Jesus is stretching out his wings and calling to you to come for safety in the scret place of the most high. May you be sweetly compelled to come. May my Lord fulfil this desire of my heart. O that God may grant me your souls for my hire; and to him shall be the glory, world without end. Amen.
2nd December 2012   GEOFF THOMAS