19You will say to me then, "Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; 23and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory - 24including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved.'"
26"And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they shall be called children of the living God."
27And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; 28for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively." 29And as Isaiah predicted, "If the Lord of hosts had not left survivors to us, we would have fared like Sodom and been made like Gomorrah."
30What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; 31but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33as it is written, "See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."
Two big questions are in the background: Who is ultimately in control? And, Is God fair? These questions are posed not exactly in these terms but they are the operating questions in the minds of Paul's Jewish interlocutors.
The issue, once again, is God's election of Gentiles who are now becoming part of God's covenant people, in contrast with the many Jews who are refusing to believe in Jesus as YHWH's Messiah. The answer for why this is the case (recalling yesterday's passage) is God's mercy on whomever He chooses to show mercy. Human will or human effort is not determinative w/r/t salvation/election. So, who is ultimately (borrowing a term from George W. Bush) the decider? It is God.
That seems unfair! If God wills a certain way, who in the world can resist His will? Now this question is worded exactly in these terms in verse 19. It seems unfair because our human will is not considered. Fairness implies that we humans should be consulted about such matters as great and grave as salvation. If we humans had some input, if we humans were part of some divine election committee, then it would seem fair. How can God act unilaterally? To this query, Paul basically gives a very Job-like (Job 38) answer, "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?"
God is God and we are not. As Creator, God creates whatever He likes. As Redeemer, God redeems whomever He chooses. We are not God's equal partners. We are not God's co-creators, nor are we God's co-redeemers. Creation and Redemption are the works of the Triune God alone. We are created and we are redeemed. We are recipients and not initiators of creation or of redemption. The fairness question drops out once we understand God's singular role in creation and redemption.
Underlying the fairness objection is the presupposition that human will or work ultimately matters. Perhaps a bit more clear: our sense of fairness derives from our presumption that our will or work should be the deciding factor, even in the area of salvation. This was the mindset of the Israelites. The Apostle Paul points out that the Israelites (many, not all) misconstrued how they approached the Law (Torah). They approached the Law (the Old Covenant promises and statutes) on the basis of works, and not on the basis of faith. What does this mean? Basis of works is a mindset and perspective that takes God's Law/Word as something that you do for which you get compensated. Think of a job for which you get paid. You do the job by fulfilling certain duties and activities and in exchange you earn a certain amount of money. Work --> Payment. On the other hand, basis of faith is the mindset and perspective that takes God's Law/Word as a means of trusting in God that God will continue to be faithful and loving towards you. The counterpart to "payment" for faith is "gift." The gift of God's good grace. Faith --> Grace. It's possible to misconstrue faith as a form of "works," thinking I deserve God's grace because I have faith in Him! But faith is not presumptuous like that. Faith is open-ended. Faith is grateful. Faith does not demand. Faith makes room for God to act in whatever way He chooses.
So, what we see in the fairness objection is something not entirely innocent, but it's a little insidious, something self-centered, something grounded in human pride, demanding from God what He gives out of His love and mercy. Demanding love and mercy is odd sounding, isn't it? Rightly so. We cannot put God in our debt; we cannot demand from God that which He gives freely, joyfully, out of His compassion.
May the Lord give us eyes to see God correctly and His gracious grace correctly as well. Amen.