NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XX)
Verse 19: I’m sure one of you will ask me, “If God controls what we do, why does He blame us for our sins?”
No doubt Paul was expecting such a push-back from the congregation in Rome. This is not the first time that he had his message questioned. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them: “Tell me this! Since you believe what we preach, that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying that dead people will never come back to life again?”1 Then later, Paul took issue with them because they quibbled over what kind of resurrected body they would have.2 These Jewish members of the Roman congregation were much like the Corinthians and Christians today. They not only seek to be guided by God’s Word but are aware of all the concepts and philosophies of the world around them. And while it is proper to question the philosophies of men, Paul is agitated that any believer would dare question God’s Word. It seems today that this concept has been completely reversed because some accept man’s humanistic discipline while questioning God’s spiritual discipline. This is fatal to our faith because God’s Word contains His will, while man’s philosophy harbors his wants.
Unfortunately, this disputing and questioning of God’s messengers was not new. That ancient man of faith, Job, had this to say: “Can anyone teach God knowledge? After all, He judges those who are on high.”3 Later, Job would tell his erstwhile friends that God has no equal, that He is beyond the influence of those who want to change Him; His mind is already made up about what He wants said and done.4 For those who dared to question God’s plan and purpose, He had this to say: “At the beginning I announce the end, proclaim in advance things not yet done; and I say that my plan will hold, I will do everything I please to do.”5 And Daniel tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar learned this about his God: “All the people of the earth are nothing when compared to Him; He does whatever He thinks best among the angels of heaven, as well as here on earth. No one can stop Him or challenge Him, saying, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’”6
Chrysostom observes that Paul does everything he can to embarrass any questioner. But instead of him rebutting such critics right away, he shuts them up with further questions. Good teachers use this method all the time. So instead of being led off on a tangent and into other areas not under discussion, they stay on course. It is like a gardener who pulls up the weeds, breaks up the ground before the seed is planted so it can grow much better. Too often some teacher tries to plant a full grown tree so the student has no work to do to make it grow.
Paul is obviously aware that many will form the opinion that God is responsible for our wanting to sin. Early church scholar Origen resists this idea. For sure, no one should resist God’s will for their lives because His will is fair and proper. But whether it turns out for our good or bad things result depends on how we respond with our will. We work with what we know. Only God knows if a person’s attitude will destine them for punishment or direct them to glory.7 Origen doesn’t say God will send that person to be punished, but that unless the bad person accepts God’s offer of salvation they are bound to go to their punishment by choice. Then Ambrosiaster states that Paul first teaches us that God is in control because He is more powerful than anyone else. Next, he teaches us that God is the Father of all and, therefore, does not want anyone to suffer evil. So what God has made us to be He wants to remain as He has designed us.8 So why worry then if God is going to go against His own will. What, if anything, will make us change us from doing good to doing bad? It’s certainly not God. So there’s only one other left, that’s us.
Again, reformer Martin Luther gives strongly worded support to Paul’s opposition to anyone who might question God’s intentions. For him, the Apostle poses this question to point out those who might argue with God in an ungodly and arrogant way. In the wilderness, the people of Israel raged against God and Moses as though they were the criminals. They treated them as though they were on the same level as they. Here the Apostle Paul means to say, “Do you dare dispute with your Creator, defy Him, and judge Him? Are you unwilling to yield to Him at least on one little point?” It is certainly not a sin when a person asks God in a spirit of reverence, humility, and respect: “Why have you made me this way?”9 It is also understandable that in the midst of trials and under extreme pressure a person might utter a word of doubt or question God’s tactics. That’s why their conscience may not immediately condemn them. That’s because our God is not an impatient tyrant or cruel master. In fact, He’s not even that way with the wicked. Luther feels this is good advice for those who are constantly troubled by irreverent thoughts and are greatly alarmed by their weakness in this area.10
John Calvin points to what he feels is the main reason such people would be so upset, and that is when they hear that those who perish have been destined to do so by the will of God. As Calvin sees it, once again Paul adopts the role of an opponent. He saw that it would be hard to stop the mouths of the ungodly from arrogantly complaining that God was being unfair. Paul clearly exposes their thought process in that they were not satisfied with defending themselves, they wanted to make God guilty instead. And once they assigned their blame and condemnation to Him, they then became indignant that God had such great power. They feel like they are being forced to yield to God’s will, so instead, they rebel. That’s because they just cannot give in and acknowledge His sovereignty. So what do they do? They accuse God of tyranny.11
Then Calvin applies the situation that Paul faced to his own time during the Middle Ages in Europe. He claims that the philosophers of his day in their schoolroom classes foolishly dispute what they call God’s absolute and infinite authority to judge and convict. They forget that they are talking about God’s own vow to be fair and equal to all. They accuse Him of exhibiting His unlimited power by throwing all those who disagree with Him into confusion. Calvin then paraphrases what he thinks Paul would have such people say: “Why should God be angry with us? Didn’t He make us what we are? Doesn’t He lead us wherever He wants us to go? What else does He want? Doesn’t He know that by destroying us He is destroying the very thing He Himself made? We don’t have the power to fight back against Him. It doesn’t matter how much we try, He will still have the upper hand. That will make the outcome all that more unfair if He ends up condemning us. That makes it all the more obvious that we are outmatched by all the power He has.”12 We can take this one step further and quote these words as being similar to the philosophy we hear in our world today. That’s is, except for one caveat: today’s philosophers would not ascribe as much power, control, and authority to God as those did back in Calvin’s and Paul’s day.
Adam Clarke also comments on those who, like Adam, blamed their fall into sin on Eve who in turn, blamed it on the snake. Clarke sees the Apostle Paul introducing a Jewish critic to make an objection similar to that in Romans 3:7: “How can God condemn me as a sinner if my dishonesty highlights His truthfulness and brings Him more glory?” In other words, if God’s glory can best be seen and recognized when we are obstinate and rebellious, and He then allows us to become more and more hardhearted and hardheaded, why should He turn around then and find fault with our behavior? Furthermore, why would He then punish us for doing the very thing out of which He gets so much joy and pleasure?13 It’s like accusing God of making a death wish for everyone in spite of the fact that He says He’d rather keep them alive. These are clearly the corrupt thoughts of degenerate individuals, all meant to somehow delegitimize and discredit God as the sovereign ruler of the universe.
In this verse, we have a question that the Apostle does not answer until the next several verses. Robert Haldane sees this and notes that here the Apostle Paul confronts a third objection or deflection on the part of these objectors. The first one was that God is unfaithful, (verse 6). The second was that God is unjust, (verse 14). This third is that God is severe and cruel, (verse 18). So if God were to show mercy, or if He were to harden according to His sovereign pleasure, why, then, it may be asked, would He find any reason to accuse someone else for what’s going on? So here in verse 19, Paul formulates the only response based on the logic that such people who think this way can come up with. Their question is simple: How can God find any fault in what we did since it was His will? Who can He point at that resisted His will? So in other words, if God wants people to sin, and if He is all-powerful, is He not then the author of sin? Haldane finds the objection raised here in the Scripture to be the same he was hearing in his day. And it could not have been written more clearly than the way Paul wrote it here. Paul will answer much of this in the coming verses. But it involves pointing out how people with such disrespect for God can dare argue with Him who is in effect, their Creator.14
H. A. Ironside sees the questions asked here as being those of a fatalist. Especially one who has come to the conclusion that God’s will is irresistible and they are being moved around by His will, not theirs. So as far as they are concerned, they have absolutely no responsibility for what happens to them. Today they call it Karma and others say it’s fate.15 That’s why they see it as unfair that God would find fault with them. How can God judge them when they have no say over their lives. If God’s will is irresistible, then let God be responsible for what happens. So they would say to Paul, “Where does my moral responsibility come in?”16 In other words, if God is responsible for all that takes place then why should I suffer if things go wrong? Likewise, if someone decides that since they are not interested in religion or the Bible or salvation, they should not then be held responsible for their immoral actions the same way as those who are inclined to believe in God. In so doing, they dismiss the idea that there are universal rules of conduct established by an Almighty God to which all believers and unbelievers will be held accountable.
1 1 Corinthians 15:12
2 Ibid. 15:35
3 Job 21:22 – Complete Jewish Bible
4 Ibid. 23:13
5 Isaiah 46:10
6 Daniel 4:35
7 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Verse 20
10 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 141-142
11 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Calvin: ibid.
13 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 185
14 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 480
15 Karma is taught in Hinduism and Buddhism as the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence that ends up deciding their Fate which is the development of events beyond a person’s control, regarded as determined by a supernatural power.
16 H. A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.