In Rom 9:19-24 Paul asks a question using an interlocutor, which is an imaginary opponent who raises objections to Paul’s teachings. In verses 14-18 Paul reveals that in the time of Moses God hardened pharaoh in order to fulfill his purposes. Similarly, in the present day God has hardened Israel to fulfill his purposes. Those purposes include adding a large number of Gentiles to the ranks of the elect. If God has hardened Israel, then the logical question that ensues is, “Why does God still blame us, for who has resisted his will?” (v. 19). The interlocutor’s question uses the plural pronoun “us.” That is because he is speaking on behalf of the people of Israel. The interlocutor is an Israelite who follows the law but rejects Jesus. Paul’s response is to the question of why Israel should be counted guilty for rejecting Jesus if in fact it was God’s plan all along for them to do so.
Calvinist comments on the rhetorical question
Calvinists use Paul’s response to this question in verses 19-20 as proof that Paul does not support the Arminian interpretation of Rom 9. For example, Lutzer says, “If Arminianism were correct, we would expect Paul to answer, ‘God finds fault because men have a free will and therefore could have chosen to be obedient.’ Here is his opportunity to set the record straight. But Paul said nothing about free will” (Lutzer, Doctrines, 214). But if Calvinism were correct, Paul would be compelled to explain how Israelites are deserving of punishment, considering that they were born guilty of the sin of a man who lived thousands of years before them (Adam) and literally had no choice but to sin during their lifetimes, and they have no possibility of salvation because Jesus did not die for them. I eagerly await an explanation of how God is just to judge such people, but I have never heard an adequate answer from a Calvinist, and Paul does not offer one here. To say that Paul asserts the sovereignty of God is insufficient as an answer to the question. So Calvinists are on equal footing with Arminians in that Paul does not give the answer that would validate their doctrine.
Sproul goes further, contending that the complaint would not even be raised by anyone who was not a Calvinist: “We wonder why the apostle raises this objection. This is another objection never raised against Arminianism (Sproul, Chosen, 152).” But why not? If Pharaoh learned that his wickedness was all part of God’s plan, why would he not ask why God still blames him? He could argue that he was doing God’s will and should not be judged for it. Whether one is a Calvinist or an Arminian would not change anything. Sproul’s argument only works if Paul is directly addressing God’s predestination of individuals to damnation, but that is not the case. In the context of Paul’s argument this question makes perfect sense, regardless of one’s soteriology. Let us now look at Paul’s response and see what he is trying to prove.
Paul’s response to the rhetorical question
Anticipating his argument in chapter 9, Paul raised this same question in Rom 3:5: “If our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us?” Paul’s refutes this idea with a reductio ad absurdum: Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? (v. 6). In Rom 9, Paul argues that Israel’s rejection of Jesus is actually part of God’s plan. Since it is part of God’s plan, Israel’s unbelief is serving to manifest God’s glory. When the interlocutor asks why God blames them, he is arguing that God would be unjust to judge Israel for her unrighteousness. Paul already answered this question in 3:6, so he does not need to repeat it here. Instead, he turns the argument on the interlocutor’s head by quoting Scripture that reveals the guilt of the one asking the question.
Paul borrows words from Isa 29:16 and 45:9, and he probably has Isa 64:8 in mind as well. Piper thinks Paul borrows from Isa 29:16 but not 45:9 (but see below), and contends that Paul is simply borrowing a common metaphor and not drawing on the contexts of the passages he cites (Piper, Justification, 194-95). There is no time here to prove that Paul habitually draws on the contexts of the texts he cites (see Hays, Echoes, for a detailed presentation), but it is clear that Paul has connected these three chapters in Isaiah theologically for he uses the same three passages in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. Paul quotes from Isa 29:14 in 1 Cor 1:17, from Isa 44:26 in 1 Cor 1:19-20, and from Isa 64:4 in 1 Cor 2:9. Isaiah 44-45 would be understood as part of a unit, and to quote from different sections within the unit demonstrates that Paul was well acquainted with the contexts of the passages he quoted. This strongly suggests that Isa 29, 44-45, and 64 were read together by the early church to inform each other as to their meaning.
This practice of using one passage of Scripture to inform the meaning of another is probably the single most common exegetical technique used in 1st century Jewish exegesis. But Jewish exegetes carefully scrutinized this process and rejected interpretations that did not do justice to the contexts of the verses being quoted. Even the revered Hillel, for whom the original seven rules of Jewish exegesis are named, is criticized for his employment of this method in the only recorded instance of his use of it (t. Pesah. 4.13f). The claim that Jews of the early Tannaitic period were not respectful of context in their interpretations is grossly overstated, and Paul was always considerate of the context of the text he quoted.
Here in Rom 9:19-21, Paul uses elements from each of these passages, running on the theme of the potter and the clay, to send a message to his interlocutor, and thus to any of his readers who would consider asking the very question Paul poses in verse 19. What is the message he sends them? To find the answer, let us look at the verses Paul alluded to and see how similar they are to the text in Romans.
Isa 29:16 – “You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what
is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows
Isa 45:9 – “Woe to him who quarrels with his maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds
on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making’? Does your work say, ‘he has no
Rom 9:20-21 – “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who
formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this’’? Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same
lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”
Both Isaiah texts talk about clay and the potter and ask if the clay will bring a criticism against the potter who formed it. The words in Rom 9:20, “shall what is formed say to him who formed it,” are a verbatim quote from Isa 29:16. The words “what are you making” (Isa 45:9 LXX) and “why did you make” (Rom 9:20) are also identical in the Greek. Paul intends the reader to recall these texts in Isaiah as they read Paul’s words in Romans 9. In Isaiah 29:16, Israel, who hides its own plans from God (v. 15), is treating God as though He is no greater than His creation, which, in fact, is tantamount to denying that He is the all-knowing creator. Isaiah 45 contains a prophecy of Cyrus, whom God calls “anointed one,” the same word used of the Messiah. Here, God uses a wicked king to glorify Himself and carry out His own purposes, and these purposes are “for the sake of Jacob, my servant” (v. 4). This is strikingly similar to God’s use of Pharaoh in the exodus, which Paul refers to in Rom 9:16.
It seems that Paul, in issuing a correction, rather than an answer to his interlocutor’s question, intends to point out that the questioner is out of line to even ask such a question as, “why does God still blame us?” The question itself, like the complaint in Isa 29 (“he did not make me…he knows nothing”), reveals a mentality that regards God as something less than the all-knowing creator. Rather than answer the question, which would admit its validity, he corrects the questioner, who has a wrong concept of the sovereign God. God uses strange and wondrous ways of executing His will in the earth. When He used Pharaoh, the Israelites did not complain, but when He used Cyrus, they objected (Isa 45:9). Similarly, when God used another “anointed one,” (Heb. meshiach) namely Jesus, Israel objected, and rejected their own Messiah. Paul is classifying Israel of his day with Israel of Isaiah’s day. Both are in a state of apostasy, and both are rejecting God’s ways of redeeming His people. So Paul is not interested, at this point, in vindicating God in His righteous judgment of sinners. Rather, he is revealing the sinfulness of those sinners, whose resistance to God is illustrated by the nature of their complaints against Him.
Everyone understood that Israel in Isaiah’s day was wrong. They were guilty of sin and resisting the words of the prophet. Concerning them no one asked, “why does God still find fault?” Remember, God told Isaiah that these people would be blind and deaf to his words (Isa 6:9-10). So if Israel in Isaiah’s day is guilty despite their questioning of God’s justice, so are the Jews in Paul’s day. There is no teaching in Judaism or in the NT that Israel in Isaiah’s day was judged because of God’s sovereign predestination and not because of their own sins and rebellion. Just as God hardened Pharaoh, yet Pharaoh got what he deserved because he was a wicked man, and just as God blinded Israel in Isaiah’s day, but Israel got what they deserved because they stubbornly rebelled against God and his meshiach, so also has God hardened the Jews in Paul’s day, but they are getting what the deserve because they rejected and killed their own meshiach, Jesus.
Israel is lost, having rejected her messiah. This is according to God’s plan, who has hardened Israel so that through her resistance to God, the gospel will go to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, Israel is guilty and deserves judgment because her hardness is the result of her own unbelief and rebellion against God. It is wrong-headed to claim innocence because their unbelief conforms to God’s eternal plan. That argument in effect is an argument of the ends justifying the means, which is precisely what Paul refuted in Rom 3:5-8, when an almost identical question was raised about God’s justice in judging sinners. Paul does not answer the question because the question is illegitimate. Therefore, it is erroneous to argue that Paul’s answer does not suit the Arminian position.
But Paul does go on to give some clarification about the matter. He suggests that God is patiently enduring the vessels of wrath (unbelieving Israel) so that he can bring in a host of Gentile believers (Rom 9:22-24). This is how God’s purpose is being fulfilled. Israel’s rejection of Jesus opens the door for the gospel to go to the Gentiles. Both Israel’s rejection and the Gentiles’ acceptance were prophesied in the Scriptures (see Rom 9:25-29), so God’s word has not failed. Everything is working out according to his plan.
As a final nail in the coffin against the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9, Paul asks at the end of the chapter why Israel has not found the way of righteousness, despite pursuing it. Paul’s answer, if he had Calvinistic leanings, would have been simply because God did not predestine them to it. But that is not what Paul says. Instead, the reason Israel is not saved is because “they pursued it not by faith, but as if it were by works” (9:32). This is why Paul argued against works throughout chapter 9. The Jews are pursuing God’s righteousness through works, but that was never the way it was supposed to be. Instead of willing or running, Israel should have simply believed. Faith is what makes the difference between who is saved and who is lost.
Richard Hays. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven and London: Yale, 1989.
Erwin Lutzer. The Doctrines that Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines that Separate Christians. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998.
John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
R.C. Sproul, Chosen By God. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1989.