Readings: Romans 8-10.
I have to admit, I’ve found these last couple of blogs a real challenge to write. Romans is such a rich book, full of deep theological truths and foundational doctrines of our faith. Paul writes passionately and powerfully; affirming our salvation, testifying about God’s grace, glorifying Jesus. There is so much to draw out of today’s chapters that it almost seems impossible to choose something for this blog!
One of the questions I grew up with as a child was about the Exodus. Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Did Pharaoh have a choice in any of what happened, or was he controlled by the will of God – compelled to be stubborn until his firstborn son was killed and then he himself died? Of course, we’re told that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to display his glory to the world and to the Israelites. Paul brings some context to this.
Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,
“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”
So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.
For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.
Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”
No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. (Romans 9:14-24, NLT)
This question about Pharaoh is also a question about those who die without choosing to follow Jesus. It is asked by believers and non-believers alike, although perhaps in different ways. “He was a good person, how can you say he isn’t in heaven?” That’s a valid question, and yet in some ways it isn’t. Paul almost rebukes the Romans for asking just such a question. Who are we to argue with God?
We may never fully understand, but that’s the point. We are only human, and God is far more than human. He is supreme over all things; he created the heavens and the earth; he is the ultimate judge; he provides for all our needs; his ways and thoughts are higher than ours. It’s possible to see this as unfair, because we like to know the reasons why things happen so we can judge for ourselves. However, with God we cannot hope to understand all of his purposes and plans. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart doesn’t make God unjust.
All this hits upon one of the most contentious debates in the Christian faith – free will against predestination. Are our choices governed by the will of God, and therefore not our choices at all, or does the will of God have room for multiple outcomes based upon our choices? The Bible tells us that God created us to have free will, but it also tells us that God is absolutely in control and knows our choices before we make them. As to whether that means God has pre-ordained our choices or is simply aware of them ahead of time, we simply don’t know.