God plays by the same rules He sets for us. When He created and ordered the universe He established not only physical laws, He also established moral laws. And His moral laws are absolute and unchanging because they express His unchanging character. God isnt simply asking us to behave a certain way, Hes asking us to become like Him. This means that right and wrong are standards which apply not merely to us, but to God Himself. He is not above His own moral laws, but, of course, He has a vastly different perspective from ours.
Some people when reading this passage assume Paul is warning us that we dare not question God on matters of justice. After all, they say, He is God so He can do anything He wants, and the way in which they say this seems to mean He cant be held to the same moral standards to which He holds everybody else. But if that were true He would be a tyrant. Tyrants are people who do what they want because they have so much power no one can stop them. Tyrants answer to no standards at all beyond their own desires. But the Bible pictures God very differently. It reveals a deity completely consistent with His own standards because they express His eternal character. So lets listen again to Pauls words and this time hear him call us to trust God, to drop our defenses and rest in His arms even when we dont understand what He is doing.
What does Paul say?
To understand the flow of Pauls thought lets begin at verse 14:
v14 - Paul anticipated someone challenging his claim that God does not award eternal life based on someones works. In verse 11 he said works had nothing to do with choosing Jacob over Esau. God made that choice based on His foreknowledge of Jacobs faith, not anything Jacob did, good or bad. To any of Pauls readers trying to earn eternal life by obeying all the rules in the Law of Moses, this would seem unfair. After all, hadnt God promised to bless those who obeyed His Law (Dt 30:15-20)? Is God unjust? they might ask, to which Paul answers, Absolutely not!
v15 - God has always given mercy to people who dont deserve it. He told Moses no one had a right to demand mercy from Him, but then gave mercy to Israel even after they worshipped the golden calf.
v16 - The lesson we should learn from this is that no one can earn or deserve Gods mercy. He gives it as a gift to those who repent and believe. Thats Gods purpose and choice (v11) which He determined before He made the world.
vs17-18 - There are also people to whom God doesnt give mercy. Its those like Pharaoh who stubbornly refuse to repent. When they reject Him, He rejects them by withdrawing His Spirit which leaves them in even greater darkness (hardened). As the Lord of unbelievers, as well as believers, He reserves the right to use unbelievers to spread His gospel. He had used Pharaoh to increase His reputation in Egypt and the surrounding nations. And as Paul wrote this letter He was using the violent hostility of some Jews to force Jewish believers to carry the gospel to responsive Gentile communities. In other words, God was using hardened hearts to serve His larger purposes.
v19 - Paul also expected someone to argue with him saying it would be unfair for God to punish people for the evil things they did after he hardened them. How could He find fault with those who violently persecuted believers when He was using their anger to spread the gospel? Lets remember for a moment how personal this question is for Paul:
Acts 22:1-5, 17-22 Acts 22:6-11 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Paul had been the most violent, hardened opponent of the gospel.
Does hardening cause sin?
Those asking, Why does He still find fault? based their challenge on the assumption that hardening people meant God was making them do evil things. They must have pictured Him placing evil impulses into peoples minds and then judging them for doing the very things He prompted them to do. That, of course, would be unjust, but that was not what God was doing. Admittedly, He was using their hostile actions to serve His own purposes, and, admittedly, He amplified the intensity of their anger by withdrawing more of His presence each time they rejected His call. Their flesh grew stronger and demonic influence less restrained, but none of that makes God responsible for their evil actions. Who resists His will? they ask. The truth is, nearly everyone resists His will during this season of earths history, including a third of the angels (Rev 12:4, 7-9), and even the earth He created (Ro 8:19-22).
Pauls answer (v20)
As we listen to Pauls response we recognize he does not directly answer this moral challenge. Instead he asks a question of his own:
who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded (plasma) will not say to the molder (Greek: plasso), Why did you make me like this, will it? By asking this question hes not warning us never to question God because He might get angry. Hes redirecting our attention back to Gods character and superior knowledge. He uses the illustration of a potter to remind us that God sees the world from a very different perspective from ours. As the Creator, His knowledge is so superior to ours we are like clay trying to understand the potter. God knows far better than we what is just, loving and needed in a particular situation. So we would be wise to trust Him when we are confused about what He is doing, rather than question His character. We can rest assured that Hes doing whats best.
Basically, Paul is asking those who are questioning Gods justice to be humble and trust Him, to stop accusing Him and reflect on who it is they are judging. Obviously, their thinking is clouded by false assumptions about His character. They are sure Hes powerful, but they are not as confident He is just. And dont we still struggle with those same issues today?
Are there two standards?
Does God play by a different set of rules? Does being divine mean the standards of justice that He applies to us, dont apply to Him? Does His great power mean He is above His own Laws?
1) First, lets listen to what God commands us: Deuteronomy 16:18-20.
2) Now, lets listen to a conversation between Him and Abraham: Genesis 18:16-33. (50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10)
- Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?
- Obviously, a human can appeal to God based on a common understanding of justice. The plain principles of justice are not something beyond our comprehension.
Greater knowledge does not change right and wrong, it makes the distinction clearer. Yes, Gods omniscience gives Him a different perspective on reality, but it doesnt give Him a different set of rules. Lets reflect for a moment on His great knowledge:
Psalm 8:3, 4
Isaiah 55:8, 9
Job 38-41; 42:1-6
Unveiling Gods heart
Job was full of confusion when he tried to understand God based only on what he heard about Him, but that confusion went away when he actually saw Him for himself. The same is true for us. All doubts about the goodness of God went away when He revealed Himself to us in human flesh. In His Son, we have seen His heart perfectly. John 1:14, 18 John 14:9
This is the bottom line. I may not understand whats happening or why, but in the midst of my confusion I can still trust God. If I were as good and loving as He, if I were able to see the situation as He sees it, I hope I would do exactly what Hes done. (But be careful not to make Him responsible for something He hasnt done.)
So when issues like Jacob and Esau, or the hardening of Pharaohs heartor the loss of a loved one, or the cause of natural disasters, or why wrong people win wars or elections or lawsuitsconfuse us, we dont have to question Gods justice or blame Him for the evil things that happen. We can respond humbly and with trust:
We can be careful to interpret confusing passages of Scripture by the light of other, clearer passages.
We can maintain a to be answered later file. We dont have to wait to go on in our walk with God until some ethical confusion is cleared up.
We can joyfully recognize that His knowledge is vastly beyond our understanding and trust that He will certainly do what is just and right.
We can respond this way, because we have seen Him, not just heard about Him with our ears.
1) Are there passages of Scripture that trouble you and make you question Gods character? How have you responded?
2) Is there an area of your life where you are trusting God, even though you dont understand whats going on? Tell us why you trust Him?