NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XXVI)
At this point, we have several early church scholar’s views on what Paul is saying here about patience preceding mercy and glory. For instance, Chrysostom feels that the Jews mistakenly believed that if anyone accused them of being saved only by the goodness and mercy of God it would somehow bring shame to them. After all, look how hard the Jews worked to fulfill every word of the law – including the marks over and the dots under the Hebrew letters, and all the sacrifices, rites, rituals, ceremonies, and feasts they attend in order to prove their worth. Paul rejected such thinking. If saving the Gentiles, despite their lack of virtues and values is glorious, how much more glory would this bring to the Jews through whom God was already being glorified?1
Augustine offers the view that by giving to the Gentiles what they did not deserve, God obviously wanted His grace to be seen as gratuitous and, therefore, genuine. By the same token, by not distributing His grace randomly to everyone, He showed which one He had called. Because of that, God is seen as being good and kind as a result of the benefits He gave to some by withholding punishment until He can be good to others. This confirms that it is proper when giving what a person deserves, and being fair when something that is not merited is still given without injury being suffered by anyone.2 What Augustine seems to be saying is that while God had every right to judge the Gentiles as heathens and punishing them for their ungodliness, instead He offers grace to those who responded to His call, and keeps the door open for those who are still to be called.
When early church French Bishop of Arles looked at this he concluded that at our first birth, we were vessels deserving of God’s wrath but when we were born-again we became vessels of His mercy. Our first birth destined us for certain death but our second birth restored us to life. In fact, before we were saved and baptized our bodies were sanctuaries of the devil but after being saved and baptized we became Temples of the Holy Spirit. Knowing this should make the meaning of our salvation more valuable now that we are indeed living and are true temples of God. As Stephen said at the time of his martyrdom: “God does not dwell in temples made by human hands,”3 but in the soul made according to His own image and fashioned by His own hand.4
Reformer Martin Luther takes Paul’s words here as saying that God has patience with those vessels of dishonor so that He might, thereby, have time to make them His elect and fit for glory. Luther believes that God endures their foolishness by allowing them to be proud of themselves; to rule and reign during times when His elect are dealt with harshly, such as occurred under Pharaoh. Many such infidels thought that even though they knew they were doing wrong, since they became sinners because of Adam and not themselves, that God would not punish them. In doing so, they arrogantly presumed that they had somehow reestablished themselves with God by their own free will. But now they learn that grace alone has the power to raise them up above anything they gain through their freewill.5 From Luther’s perspective, Paul still has the potter/clay relationship in mind. God does not throw away someone He chose just because He finds imperfections in their character, but rather, puts them back on the wheel of transformation so He can reshape them. This may be hard at first, yet, when He finishes His work, then, because of grace they will be fit to be used to bring glory, honor, and praise to their heavenly Potter. On the other hand, those who are destined to experience His indignation are also subject to His power, and that also brings Him glory.
John Calvin focuses on this last factor of how vessels are made for God’s glory. He writes that the word “glory,” which is mentioned here twice, should be understood as referring to God’s mercy as a metonymy6 of cause and effect. Meaning, the main reason God receives glory is because of His acts of kindness. That’s why Paul told the Ephesians that after having being adopted to the praise of the glory of His grace, that they were then sealed by the promised Holy Spirit.7 He wished to show that the elect are instruments or vessels through whom God exercises His mercy. In doing so, God will be given honor, praise, and glory for being who He is. Paul then emphasizes the fact that God expressly prepares His elect for glory. And having already talked about those vessels prepared for destruction, there is little doubt that the preparation of both vessels are in line with the secret counsel of God.8
It is certainly hard for anyone to think that God would purposely allow children to be brought into this world who from the beginning is inexcusably and irreversibly bound for destruction and torment. If He sent His Son to die on the cross for all those who will believe, how can any be held back because they have been divinely predetermined to suffer such fate? We can see more clearly what Calvin is advocating here by looking at what happened on Mt. Calvary between Jesus and the two thieves being crucified beside Him. At first, both joined the crowd in their ridicule of the sign above Him labeling Him as a pretender to the throne. But before long, one of them saw the light and came to believe and was accepted by Christ, while the other died in the darkness of sin. Was this a surprise to God? Certainly, not. If He knows us before we are born, He can certainly see ahead to when we die and know that based on our makeup and mindset whether we will turn to Him for salvation or turn away from Him and go into punishment.
But Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke sees what Paul says here as applying to the Jews. He notes that the Jews were destined for discipline long before, but the best time for that to happen was after He prepared the believing Gentiles for redemption to glory. But first, the Messiah‘s scepter was to be raised above and beyond Zion.9 The preachers of the Gospel would be supplied by the Jewish nation, and from Jerusalem, their sound would go out all over the land. That’s why the Jewish state was to be preserved for such a time as that despite its religious corruption. That time would come when the Messiah would appear among them as both God and man. Not only that but even during that time the Apostles would establish churches deep into Gentile territory. However, the Jews fought against it and blasphemed those who preached the Gospel, thereby, rejecting the One who died to redeem them. They countered the offer of divine grace with increased stubbornness.10 As a result, fewer and fewer Jews were impacted by the enrichment of grace while the number of Gentiles increased rapidly. This was how the grace of God was demonstrated, as He bestowed the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy.11
Robert Haldane makes a very salient point here that should be appreciated by all those who have been redeemed, called, and chosen. He writes that it is implied in this verse that the awful ruin of the wicked will make it possible for the riches of Divine mercy in saving the elect to be displayed more spectacularly. Since both the righteous and the unrighteous were originally scheduled for God’s judgment and punishment, the deliverance of the elect from that situation to be made heirs of glory wonderfully illustrates how limitless is His mercy. The salvation of the elect is nothing less than mercy, pure mercy. It is also wonderful mercy when we consider what condemnation and doom they deserved and would have experienced, had they not been delivered by God through Jesus Christ.12
This fits so well with the story that is told of John Bradford (1510-1555) the English evangelical preacher who was standing alongside the road as a group of prisoners were being led from the dungeon to their place of execution, a custom that was instated for two reasons: First, to expose the prisoners to public shame where their victims and self-righteous citizens could shout curses upon them; and second, for everyone to see what shame would come to any of those watching if they too committed such villainous deeds. As they passed by, it is reported that John Bradford bowed his head and said: “There but for the grace of God go I.”13
Albert Barnes focuses on the fact that none of this is by chance or left up to fate. He indicates that we are brought face to face with the reality that God deals with believers and unbelievers in remarkably different ways. Paul makes it clear that God Himself has prepared those He loves for glory. As far as the unbelievers are concerned, they are being primed for destruction. Paul uses the Greek word katartizō which the KJV translates as “fitted.” It means to be tailored as with a suit, or framed as a picture readied for display. Thayer in his Greek Lexicon states that as used here it means “put in order, arrange, adjust.” That sure can create a picture in one’s mind. Paul does not confirm by whom or what agency this is being done. But he does say that God waits with great patience while it is being done.
As far as the righteous are concerned, God prepares His people for glory, commencing with their redemption, and continues with their sanctification on their way to glorification.14 As far as the renewing of the heart and the sanctifying of the soul is concerned, it is an act of goodness, worthy of a kind and generous God, and not subject to objection by anyone. How could any person complain about a plan designed to make people better? And since the sole designer is God through His electing love, His involvement with this class of people is easily justified. What Christian would complain because God has chosen them, renewed them, and made them pure and holy. Since this is an important part of God’s plan of salvation, it is easily defended against those who raised the question found in verse 19.15
Karl Barth opens the door a little wider for us to see how vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath are composed. First of all, people must be made aware of the fact that in God’s eyes they are vessels of dishonor. Without such a revelation they are incapable of acknowledging Him, let alone listening to Him. When people are open to receive His revelation they must either accept its truth that there is such a thing as being saved with everlasting life, or its truth that there is such a thing as being lost with everlasting punishment. Barth wants to know if anyone who is now a believer ever came to a different conclusion through revelation? The very fact that they are now children of God, is precisely because they recognized that they were once vessels bound for destruction because no one can try to become righteous on their own without forfeiting their lives and future.16 That’s when an absolute miracle occurred, their eyes were opened and found that they had passed from death unto life as new creatures in Christ Jesus. This helps us see that God does not play around when it comes to our salvation. He doesn’t give up easily. Even if He has to make us uncomfortable and even miserable to get our attention He will. And by loving Him for loving us, our salvation becomes a reason for rejoicing in spite of what He had to put us through to keep us from dying and being eternally separated from Him.17
1 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 16
2 Augustine: Gift of Perseverance 12.28
3 Acts of the Apostles 7:48
4 Caesarius of Arles: Sermon 229
5 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 142-143
6 Metonymy is a figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related. For instance, what the Western Allies did to Nazi Germany can be viewed either their glorious victory over or their glorious defeat of, the enemy.
7 Ephesians 1:13
8 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Psalm 110:2
10 Romans 9:33; 10: 3; 11:11, 12, 15, 28, 30.
11 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 187-188
12 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 485
13 A Treatise on Prayer: by Edward Bickersteth, Hooker & Agnew, Philadelphia, 1841, p. 60
14 See 1 Thessalonians 5:9; 2 Timothy 1:9; see also Ephesians 1:4-5, 11; Romans 8:28-30; Acts 13:48; John 1:13
15 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Exodus 4:24–26
17 Karl Barth, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.