Who is Romans 9:22-23 talking about? (A response to Greg Boyd)

Who is Romans 9:22-23 talking about? (A response to Greg Boyd) January 20, 2013

I’m one of the “pod-rishioners” of the popular Michigan pastor Greg Boyd. One thing I love about Greg is his earnestness in wrestling with aspects of the way the gospel has been framed that bother him. He’s very open about the fact that it’s often inconclusive wrestling. A lot of times I agree with him on the problem he’s identified but differ on the solution. One such occasion was several weeks ago in his sermon “Does God play favorites?” Greg confronted the infamous favorite verse of Calvinist double-predestinarians, Romans 9:22, where Paul talks about people who are God’s “objects of wrath created for destruction.” I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way that Greg dismantled this verse, because its context points to a much better answer than just saying “This seems out of character with Jesus’ nature” or making a comparison with Jeremiah’s potter house prophecy in Jeremiah 18, which were Greg’s two approaches.

Romans 9:22 is often proof-texted out of context to support the double-predestinarian Calvinist claim that much of humanity, perhaps even the vast majority, have been created by God to serve as reprobate extras in the salvation drama of humanity. In other words, their pre-doomed existence serves to create meaningful challenges and character foils for the predestined elect, the small group of people whose sins Jesus actually died to forgive. Verse 23 is used by people who espouse this claim to explain why God creates people who are damned from birth: “to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.”

The way that some of the most hard-core Calvinist pastors like the famous Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards have explained how God “makes the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy” is to speculate that this might refer to the way that those in heaven are given the privilege of watching the torture of the damned, which is what Edwards describes in his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”:

You shall be tormented in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb; and when you shall be in this state of suffering, the glorious inhabitants of heaven shall go forth and look on the awful spectacle, that they may see what the wrath and fierceness of the Almighty is; and when they have seen it, they will fall down and adore that great power and majesty.

Obviously the image of heavenly inhabitants falling down to worship God in celebration of torture is the most disgusting depiction of heaven that you could possible conjure, which is why it’s attractive to the “manliest” of disciples among us, those who follow the Kantian caricature of “objectivity” that says truth is whatever is most disagreeable to our sentiments. Boyd says rightly that this interpretation of Romans looks nothing like Jesus. But I don’t think he offers a better alternative that effectively accounts for Romans 9:22-23.

Romans 9 expresses Paul’s profound grief at the way that his fellow Jews have rejected Jesus as their messiah. And they haven’t just politely declined to become Jesus’ disciples, but rather have persecuted Paul and his fellow apostles ferociously. By the time Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, he had nearly been killed many times for what he was preaching. He describes this in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

So when Paul talks about “objects of wrath” in the context of grappling with an explanation for the disbelief of his people, this isn’t an abstract category. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to understand the “objects of wrath” as Paul’s Jewish persecutors and other Israelites throughout history who have persecuted their prophets. This seems consistent with the comparison Paul makes in Romans 9:17 to the Egyptian pharaoh who had oppressed the Israelite slaves. In setting up this section, Paul says in verse 6 that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” The “objects of wrath” could be defined as those who are descended from Israel without being Israel.

This explanation would fit with the very particular grammar of verse 22 that many eager Calvinists seem to skate right over: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath?” The emphasis is not on the display of God’s wrath but on the patience with which God bore objects of his wrath. The grammar suggests that it’s God’s patience and not His outpouring of wrath that fulfills the purpose of “making the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy.”

Verse 24 adds that these objects of mercy are called “not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles.” Subsequent verses use the prophets to debunk Israel’s exclusivity of election. What this suggests to me is that Paul’s polemical agenda is to argue that God’s preservation of the Israelite people throughout history doesn’t constitute their unconditional approval by virtue of birthright.

“Bearing with great patience the objects of his wrath” refers to the fact that God preserved not only the Israelites who emulated the faith of Abraham, but also the Israelites who persecuted their prophets and made themselves objects of wrath, not because God wasn’t going to hold them accountable for their sin, but because God needed enough of a viable nation to work with in order to accomplish the eventual extension of the gospel to the Gentiles.

Even a cursory look at the context of Romans 9 shows that Paul is not making a universal statement about double-predestination in Romans 9:22-23 but giving a providential explanation for God’s patience with the disbelief of much of Israel for the sake of the evangelism of the Gentiles, a point which he continues to reiterate throughout the stream of discourse in Romans 9-11.

Regardless of how satisfactory this answer is, the two most important words in Romans 9:22-23 that almost everyone ignores are “What if.” Paul gives a very different level of force to what he is saying by framing it as two “What if” questions rather than making very direct, unequivocal statements which he does in plenty of other places. It is remarkable how many double-predestinarians have completely ignored these two critical words.

The bottom line is Paul was grieved that so many of his people are rejecting the gospel and persecuting him. He’s grappling for an answer and throwing out possible explanations. It seems like certain Christians want the Bible to be more distasteful than it is in order to give them an excuse to flex their theological muscles and show how tough they are. Paul didn’t write what he did to give us muscle-flexing opportunities. In fact, he would probably say that the reason people who do that haven’t been struck by lightning yet is because “God bears with great patience the objects of his wrath.”

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