Rest in God’s Sovereign Work – Romans 9:22-24

by Roger McCay
16 February 2020
Sermon Passage: Romans 9:22-24
Link to Audio Version

The story is told of an imagined day when the sun did not rise.

Six o’clock came and there was no sign of dawn. At seven o’clock, there was still no ray of light. At noon, it was as black as midnight. No birds sang and only the hoot of an owl broke the silence. Then came the long black hours of the afternoon. Finally, evening arrived, but no one slept that night. Some wept, some wrung their hands in anguish. Every church was thronged with people on their knees. Thus they remained the whole night through. After that long night of terror and agony, millions of eager, tear-streaked faces were turned toward the east. When the sky began to grow red and the sun rose, there was a loud shout of joy. Millions of lips said, “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” because the sun had risen after one day of darkness.

Might the consistency and familiarity of God’s blessings dull our gratitude? Indeed. Additionally, such might have us come to think that we are entitled to God’s blessing, whether it’s the sun shining in the sky, or, more to the point, our salvation.

Ingratitude, due to an attitude of entitlement, is a serious problem, especially when it comes to pew sitters. Ingratitude inspires no worship, no fear of the Lord, no following of Jesus, no incentive to love God, no incentive to love our neighbor, no incentive to evangelize. Ingratitude extinguishes any possibility of rest in God’s work. It is the child of unbelief, failing to grasp and believe the magnitude of what God actually did to save his people.

Last week we looked at Rom. 9:14-21, honing in on the Scripture’s teaching of God’s sovereign justice and mercy. A particular aspect of this is in what is called double-predestination, the doctrine that God chose some to eternal life (the elect) and some to eternal perdition (the reprobate). It is undeniably a hard teaching, one that many people shy away from. However, following Paul’s example, it is important we look at reality, and not linger in the realm of wishful thinking.

Accordingly, in v. 21, Paul asks a rhetorical question in order to make his point concerning the elect/reprobate, and God’s sovereign justice and mercy:

21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

Paul’s point was this: God is the Creator. He is sovereign. We are his creatures, made from the same clay. We have all sinned against God. We all deserve his wrathful judgment.

The main issue is not that the Creator made some people for “dishonorable use.” The real question is, “Why did God select some people for honorable use?” As we saw, the answer lies in God’s sovereign will. He saves who he wants to save because those are the people he wants to save. Like I mentioned last week, that’s all we really need to know.

Nonetheless, Paul continues to elaborate on this point. He wants to make sure that not only do we really understand it, but that we really, really, really, really understand it and can’t wiggle out of it. In the process, God provides a counter to ingratitude and a motivation for grateful worship.

Hence, Paul gives a reason why some people are chosen by God for honorable use (the elect), and others are chosen for dishonorable use (the reprobate). Posing the reason as a question, he first asks in vv. 22-23:

22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?

Some see this as only a hypothetical question. However, context shows that Paul is emphasizing that this is exactly what is going on. The question is consistent with Paul’s rhetorical style. He uses questions as a rhetorical device over and over throughout the letter to the Romans as a method of highlighting his various points. Is it not true that a rhetorical question makes a point much stronger than just stating it outright? Further, his point here in vv. 22-23 makes complete sense, as the contextual logic is absolutely consistent with how God used the situation of Pharaoh to display his power and name in all the earth (vv. 17-18), and how Paul continues on in the passage.

The question phrased as a statement might look like this: God desired to show his wrath and make known his power. Since God desired to do this, he has endured with much patience those people (“vessels of wrath”) prepared for destruction. He did this in order to make known the riches of his glory to those people (“vessels of mercy”) whom he has prepared beforehand for glory.

Paul further clarifies (Verse 24):

24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles.

Paul is not just talking about the Jews here. It would have been typical for the Jews to assume that they were the “vessels of mercy” and the Gentiles were the “vessels of wrath.” Or, based on Paul’s lamentations in vv. 1-5, they might have thought that “vessels of mercy” only referred to a remnant of the Jews among the nation of the Jews. Paul, however, at this point, has moved from the particular view of the Jewish nation to the larger view of both Jew and Gentiles (v.24). God chose a people for himself to be “vessels of mercy,” selected from the entirety of humankind.

After the fall in Genesis 3, God crafted from Adam and Eve’s sinful descendants two types of people: “Vessels of mercy” and “Vessels of wrath.” “Vessels of mercy” are all the people God chose and called (the elect) from all humanity, preparing us beforehand for glory. Romans 8:28-30, what is called the “Golden Chain,” touches on this sovereign work of God:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Notice the last word. God prepared his people (a distinct and deliberate action on his part), choosing us in his loving foreknowledge, before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). He then went through the steps of the Golden Chain, predestined, called, justified, and glorified.

Take a closer look. Is glorified, at the end of v.30, written in the future tense? No! “Glorified” is in the past tense (Aorist in the Greek), the past tense. Not only did the Lord prepare beforehand all things for the good of his people—for our glory … Not only did he prepare for our glory, but our glorification is so certain, the Scriptures refer to it as a done deal. From our perspective, we don’t see it. From God’s perspective, who sees the end from the beginning, we are glorified. It is as good as done. The reality of what is to come is as real and completely known to him as the reality of what is right now.

Romans 8:28 helps us understand, to some extent, God’s purpose for the “vessels of wrath.” What does it say? God works all things for the good of his people—those who are called, … who are those who love him. By the way, remember for whom it is that God works all things for good when you quote this. He does not work all things for good for everybody.

Outside of the Lord’s will and work towards the good of his chosen people, exist the “vessels of his wrath.” These people are the swath of humanity destined to perdition (the reprobate, both Jew and Gentile), whom have been prepared for destruction (like Esau and Pharaoh).

Now, as the reprobate were “prepared for destruction” rather than “prepared beforehand for destruction,” we see that God did not have to go to great lengths to prepare beforehand the reprobates’ fate. It took an unfathomable amount of sovereign preparatory work from pre-history and sovereign work throughout all time (redemptive history), including the sacrifice of the Son of God … It took all of that for Lord to save his chosen people. Reprobates, however, fulfill their destiny by sinning against God until the end, when they get what they deserve due to their sin. Human responsibility for sin ends in condemnation for sin (like Esau and Pharaoh). Their own evildoing prepares them for their destiny of God’s wrath.

Once again, this is a very hard, terrifying teaching. God displays his wrath and power against people he crafted for that very purpose. He did this in order to magnify the riches and glory of his mercy and blessings upon his people.

In some way, the fate of the reprobate is part of God’s working all things for the good of his people. If it was not, the all things of 8:28 would not be all things. R.C. Sproul adds, “There is a sense in which even the wickedness of the wicked is redeemed by God to be a blessing to the righteous.”[1] Contemplating this, we could fill a book, maybe many books, with all sorts of reasons for God’s keeping the reprobate around. And, well, God did, already, fill a book on this topic (the Bible). The Scriptures teach, throughout, that God overcomes the evil of his enemies and he works it for the good of his people, by his grace. They go about doing evil; God then overcomes it and works it for good.

A very clear example of this marvel, from the Scriptures, is found in Joseph’s words to his brothers (Gen. 50:20), concerning the evil they did towards him. You may remember how Joseph’s brothers, Jacob’s sons, the patriarchs of the tribes of Israel, sold Joseph into slavery because they were jealous of him. They hated him, so they sold him to some passing Ishmaelites, who then, in turn, took him to Egypt and sold him there. Over the course of events, troubles, blessings, and an interpreted dream, Joseph was raised up by Pharaoh and put in a position to store up grain against a coming famine. Providentially, as a result, his preparations would save Egypt and his family, ironically including his brothers who sold him into slavery. So, it came to pass that, Joseph, forgiving his brothers after his father’s death, said to them:

20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

Now, the Scriptures make it clear that not only has God called a people to himself for whom he works all things for good, but God also has always allowed vessels of wrath to be intermingled with his vessels of mercy.

We first get a sense of this with Cain and Seth (Gen. 4-5). Also, think of Noah and his family. God mercifully preserved them from his wrath—the flood. Yet, even from that remnant of humanity not all were of good seed. Shem received the blessing; Japheth was blessed to a lesser extent. Yet, Ham, Canaan, was cursed (Gen. 9:25). We see it with Abraham, one man called by God from out of all of humanity. We see this again with Isaac then Jacob, both of whom God chose over their brothers as heirs to the promise. Later in the OT, with the Israelites (God’s holy nation (Ex. 19:6)—“holy” meaning “set apart,” a remnant nation among the nations united by God’s Mosaic covenant), God demonstrates that he always keeps a remnant for himself, even when the nation, overall, had gone over to evil in violation of the covenant.

We’ve been churning through the OT historical books for two and a half years now in the evening service. A repeated and constant theme is God’s patience with Israel throughout their history. Those in rebellion against God were exponentially more numerous than those faithful to him. Yet, God, often after letting them suffer for their own folly, kept on saving them. Why? It was for the sake of his remnant, vessels of mercy, according to God’s covenant of grace (e.g. 2 Kings 19:18). The birthing of generations of evil people provided a place for the remnant of God’s people to survive and thrive. Vessels of mercy grew up among the vessels of wrath. God’s Word was preserved by the nation. The seed of the Lord who would one day save the world was protected and nurtured. Despite (with rare exception) evil king after evil king, leading both the northern and southern kingdoms into evil, “the lamp of David” was always before God (at least in Judah – 1 Kgs. 11:36), and God kept his covenant promise to David of an eternal throne (2 Sam. 7). God tolerated the evil reprobate of Israel and Judah so that King Jesus would one day be born and save his chosen people—vessels of mercy.

Why? In order to magnify the riches and glory of his mercy and blessings upon his people.

Jesus, in his parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30) refers to this same intermingling of the reprobate with the elect within the remnant of his church, which is the continuation of the holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). As Jesus tells the parable, he makes the point that Satan sows weeds into the field where Jesus has already sown his seed (the wheat). James Boice comments,

“In other words, the devil places his own counterfeit Christians among true believers to hinder God’s work…. The devil is going to bring forward people … so much like true Christians, though they are not Christians, that even the servants of God will not be able to tell them apart.” [2]

This is the reality in which we now live, my friends.

When Jesus returns in judgment, bringing the consummation of his Kingdom, it will be as he says at the end of the parable in v. 30:

Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Like the weeds that are pulled to suffer God’s wrath, leaving the wheat to enjoy the glory of God’s eternal kingdom, so it will come, when the Lord returns, that two men will be working a field. One will be taken—for perdition (the weed). The other will be left behind—for glory (the wheat). Two women will be working in a mill. One will be taken—for perdition (the weed). The other will be left behind—for glory (the wheat). [Matt 24:40-41]

God’s work in the world has always pointed to this consummation of history with the return of Christ bringing his Kingdom. The Lord has always allowed the reprobate to remain mingling with the elect. The OT and NT are absolutely clear on this concept.

So, Jesus, with whom Paul is in harmony, teaches that God is consistent. Not only does humanity as a whole consist of the elect and reprobate, but the Church, as the continuation of Israel, also has people within it that are vessels of mercy and vessels of wrath—the wheat and the weeds.

Why? In order to magnify the riches and glory of his mercy and blessings upon his people.

With the teachings of these truths in mind, Paul, here, in Romans 9, hones in on God’s revelation of his patience towards “vessels of wrath.” We, disciples of Christ, true believers, know that we deserve perdition. We witness the reality of the utter destruction of sin as testified to throughout the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. We also witness first hand God’s wrath, his giving people over to their sin as punishment, as described in Rom. 1. Witnessing such things, we come to understand what an unfathomably glorious wonder God’s mercy and blessings are towards us, his chosen people. We deserve God’s wrath for our sin no less than the worst reprobate ever. Yet, God saved us from his wrath, sending Jesus, his Son, to suffer God’s wrath on the cross for our sins.

God’s wrath on the reprobate puts in perspective God’s wrath on Jesus Christ at the cross. It also puts in perspective the magnanimity of God’s mercy upon us, the riches of his glorious grace.

How does such a demonstration and knowledge affect us? Ingratitude wrapped up in a false sense of entitlement? No way. Ingratitude is a sign of unbelief and a sign that wrath is near. Trust in Jesus people. So trusting, then follow Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbor. Be grateful for what God did for you and live lives of joyful gratitude.

Lives of gratitude drive us to worship. Lives of gratitude instill in us a heartfelt desire to live now and forevermore in the way that glorifies God, as we enjoy him forever. Don’t base your certainty of salvation on your church attendance (not that that excuses you for skipping church). Base your certainty on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Base it on the grace of God given to you, which you have received through faith.

My friends, how do you know whether you are wheat or a weed? Well, ingratitude is a sign you are in danger, as it is the result of a lack of faith. An entitled attitude is also a sign that wrath is near. You have done nothing and there is nothing so special about you that entitles you to deserve the free gift of God’s mercy and salvation. Get over yourself.

Search your heart. Repent any ingratitude you might find. Repent any sense of entitlement you might harbor. If you truly repent, the Lord truly forgives—humbled before God, you will find (in your genuine faith and repentance) that you are blessed wheat. Let us live our lives as a people of gratitude, resting in Christ’s work, God’s grace, trusting in him to save us. Let us, in our heart, love him and glorify him expressed in every word and deed, every day.

Because God sovereignly works all things for the glorious blessings of his people, we must rest in Him.

[1] R. C. Sproul, The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 175.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 239.