Q&A: Clay vs. Potter

Clay vs. Potter

Question

How can God reasonably hold people responsible for what he decrees? It's the old Romans 9:19 objection. Paul never answers the question! He just says, "Don't question God." But I think it's a legitimate gripe to say that it's unreasonable for God to find fault with someone for having a hard heart if God himself has done the hardening! Am I sinful to question God?

Answer

It's an interesting problem, isn't it? And Paul's argument is very interesting as well. As I see it, the fact that Paul argued this way indicates that it is reasonable argument. But that leaves us to figure out why and how it is reasonable.

My take on it is as follows: Paul asserts two things: 1) God is righteous and just; and 2) God does whatever he wants. His point is that because God is righteous and just, whatever God does is also righteous and just. Thus, if it doesn't look righteous and just to us, it only means we're wrong. This might seem a little harsh until we remember that back in chapters 1-2 Paul already taught us that our nature is to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18ff.). Therefore, our own intuition that God is acting unjustly is suspect. Our sin clouds our reasoning, preventing us from rightly evaluating God's actions.

Paul has another argument too. He points out that as our creator, God has an innate right to do with us whatever he pleases. In our modern western culture, this tends to strike our ears oddly. Our inclination is to think that we possess certain rights simply because we exist as sentient, rational beings. The problem is that the Bible never says we have such rights. Rather, it always ascribes all the rights to God. In the ancient context in which the Bible was written, this was not an uncommon idea. For example, kings had great sovereignty over their lands, and were accountable to no one but higher kings and to God. They did not think in terms of the inalienable rights of all men. Of course, if we stop to trace our own western feelings of inalienable rights, we soon find out that they are grounded in God's volition (e.g. "All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights" [Declaration of Independence]). Somewhere along the line we dropped God from the equation, and erroneously started to feel like our rights could hold God's sovereignty at bay. According to Paul, however, because God created us he has the sovereign right to do with us anything that he pleases, regardless of what we might think or feel about it. That's what prompts Paul's statement in Romans 9:20. We simply do not have the authority to question God's actions.

Really, I think Paul's refusal to answer the questions "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?" (Rom. 9:19) indicates that he sees the questions primarily as rejections of God's authority rather than as rejections of God's righteousness. The fact that he defends his argument by appealing to God's rights as creator supports this interpretation.

On the whole, I think the picture we get in the early chapters of Romans is that people do what people want to do. We reject God because we don't like his rules, and because we hate him (cf. Rom. 8:5-8). His decree to harden us does not conflict with our own evil desires. Rather, his decree accords with them. In general, his decree respects our wishes and desires by allowing us to pursue the evil we love.

In the case of God actually hardening hearts, as was the case with Pharaoh, I see the hardening as an act of temporal judgment. God does not need to wait until the judgment day to execute judgment against people. He can do some now if he so chooses, and this is not wrong. So, after Pharaoh had demonstrated himself to be wicked, God stepped in and executed temporal judgment by hardening Pharaoh against God even further. The same will happen to all unbelievers eventually. In hell they will grow to hate God more and more, and they will continue to sin against him worse and worse as their hatred grows. In Pharaoh's case it just began to happen somewhat sooner. Then too we need to consider that in chapter 11 Paul spoke of God hardening the Jews who were not elect, as well as of God partially hardening other Jews who would eventually come to faith. The former case I see as parallel to Pharaoh's hardening, while the latter seems more like a sovereign manipulation of circumstances to ensure that the gospel was taken to the Gentiles. It was not judgment, but divine timing. As I read Romans 11, the same Jews who were partially hardened eventually came to faith.

Given that Paul teaches that no one would turn to God if God did not first regenerate that person (e.g. Rom. 8:1ff.), the fact that God hardens people does not prevent them from receiving the gospel. The fact is that they would not accept it anyway. Rather, the hardening serves to accomplish God's purposes in other ways, such as spreading his name throughout the whole earth (Rom. 9:17) and bringing the Gentiles to faith (Rom. 11:7ff.). Paul never indicates that the hardening that God performs prevents faith in anyone. He does imply, however, that the hardening leads to further sin for which the person is responsible. But even in this, the hardened person is in agreement with the sin. He is not a puppet whose hand God has forced. We might well see this as God giving the hardened person exactly what that person wanted, but that does not somehow absolve that person of guilt in what he does with his newfound hardness of heart.

As an illustration, imagine a person who prays, "God, I hate you, but I want to hate you even more." God might respond to that prayer by removing from that person any ability to have pleasant feelings about God (I would call this an act of temporal judgment). As a result, that person goes on to hate God with incredible vigor. He is guilty for this new hatred even though God contributed to his increased ability to hate. Those whom God hardens may truly desire to sin more and to hate God more, even though they may not express it in those terms.

I should add that this argument about hardening is not water-tight. But it seems reasonable and not improbable to me. It really is a difficult subject. Personally, I fall back on the first argument Paul made: God is righteous, therefore whatever he does is righteous even if I can't see how. For me, it is enough to be able to provide one possible explanation of how God's actions might not contradict his nature. If I can deflect the arguments that try to prove that God does contradict his character, I feel I have done my job. I don't feel pressed to prove precisely how God really does work, because I don't think the Bible gives me enough information to make an ironclad case for any such answer. In doing this, I'm placing the burden of proof on the one who would prove that God cannot rightly condemn people for doing what God has decreed, but not denying a responsibility to offer a reasonable explanation of God's character to troubled Christians. Still, there comes a point when I have to say, "I don't know exactly how it works, but I trust God to do the right thing."


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.