by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Many people in this world believe in fate or destiny. They feel there is a specific role chosen for them which they must play, whatever their personal choice. John Calvin taught that God predestines some people to be Christians and, if so chosen by God, there is nothing that a person can do to avoid their destiny. We often call this belief Unconditional Election.
To be consistent, the opposite destiny is also upheld by those believing in Unconditional Election. The person not elected to become a Christian is predetermined to reject the Savior. Their ultimate destiny is Hell. I pity the people who believe in a God who sends people without any chance on their part to alter their destiny. Perhaps this is why some of these same people now deny the existence of Hell; they too are uncomfortable with the thought. Thankfully, the Scriptures do not teach this belief.
Often, they cite Romans 9 to prove the teachings of the Calvinist. Let us examine this chapter in detail to see if Paul believed in a predetermined fate.
The theme of Paul's lesson in Romans 9 is to show the Jews that just because they were born a Jew was not a guarantee of salvation. Often the Jews proudly proclaimed they were children of Abraham, the father of faith (John 8:33, 39). In Romans 9:6-9, Paul points out that Abraham more children than Isaac. God gave only Isaac the promise. What happened to Ishmael or Abraham's other six sons? Could we claim that Isaac was someone so special that God just had to give the promise to him alone? No, the Lord made the promise long before Isaac was even conceived. We can only conclude that simply being a descendant of Abraham doesn't guarantee selection by God.
Isaac, in turn, had two children, yet only one of them was selected for the reception of the blessing (Romans 9:10-13). Again, God made the selection before Esau and Jacob were born. Paul tells us that this was done purposely. It shows that God's purpose is accomplished not by the righteousness of man but through God's own will.
It almost sounds like God has chosen who He loves or hates before they are even born. However, notice that God did not say He hated Esau before he was born. The statement that Paul quotes comes from Malachi 1:2-3, which the prophet wrote long after Esau's life had ended. God chose Jacob to receive the blessing. Jacob served God throughout his life, so God loved Jacob. However, Esau rejected God, so God hated Esau.
Some, Paul said in Romans 9:14-16, may think that God was being partial and unjust to these people. Why should God pick one person over another? However, you need to notice that God did not pick Esau for punishment. He merely selected Jacob to receive His blessings. This is why God stated He could have mercy on whomever He chose to show mercy.
God is in total control of His creation. He makes and enforces the rules as He sees fit. Suppose a wealthy man went up to a young man in your congregation and said, "I'll pay all of your college tuition." Would you conclude that the man is biased against everyone else in your congregation? Does this mean that he doesn't like any of the other young men? Some people would see it this way. Too often, people take offense where none has been given. Instead of grumbling about why we were not picked, we should rejoice with our brother that he will benefit from such generosity.
Paul then addresses a case where God preselected a man for His wrath in Romans 9:17-18. God raised up a king so that He might tear him down. Rather than receiving God's mercy, God hardened him to reject Him.
Before going further, you must understand that God ordains all kings. No government exists except by the will of God (Romans 13:1). It is God who selects and puts kings into power (Daniel 2:21).
We then must consider why God placed such a wicked man into power over the nation of Egypt. He could have raised up a Pharaoh who looked kindly on the Israelites; a ruler who would not give them severe burdens; a man who would have freed the Israelites, when asked, without a fuss. However, such a king would not have driven the Israelites to willingly follow Moses. If their lives were pampered, many would have preferred staying behind. A kind ruler would not have given God the opportunity to display His great power, causing the other nations to fear Israel and their God - keeping them safe from invasions for many years.
When you read the account of Moses and Pharaoh carefully, you see that God played Pharaoh like a violin. Suppose you ruled a country where slavery forms the basis of its economy for hundreds of years. Then, someone comes in demanding the freedom of all these slaves. Would you ruin your kingdom to set these slaves free? Would you even give them a few days off, knowing they would likely escape?
God gave Pharaoh a series of choices, but they were ones where one choice was totally unacceptable to Pharaoh. God knew in advance which choice Pharaoh would make. You parents reading this ought to take notes if you haven't learned this lesson yet. People are happier if they believe they control the decisions in their lives. "Would you prefer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch or liver and onions?" It doesn't take a mind reader to know which choice the child will make. Yet, the child thinks, "I pulled a fast one on Mom. I got out of eating liver!"
God hardened Pharaoh's heart because the choices God gave Pharaoh had obvious answers. Notice that each time Moses approached Pharaoh the demands became greater and greater. Each time, Pharaoh refused the demands. He developed a habit of saying, "No!" Yet, every time, Pharaoh had a choice. Pharaoh chose to be stubborn, but God put him in a situation where being stubborn was the "better" choice.
What Paul is showing us is that God gets His way. His will is followed by the righteous, as with Isaac and Jacob, but God's will is also obeyed by the wicked.
Have you ever played the game of chess? Each move that a player makes leads to a set of possible responses by the opponent. Often several choices will lead to the same result no matter which choice you make. Good chess players see the possible consequences to their moves in advance. A really good player will select their moves to direct their opponent to do things their way. Yet, throughout the game, each player has free choice in the moves he selects.
In a way, God is the "ultimate" chess player. He knows every possible consequence of each move He makes. He chooses his moves to direct circumstances to lead to the results that He desires, no matter what choices man makes on his behalf. God is confident of the ultimate outcome because He knows what every possible response will be to His decisions.
In Romans 9:19, Paul addresses the question, "How can a wicked person, such as Pharaoh, be punished if God backed him into a corner?" Always remember that God does not make any person wicked (James 1:13-16). Each evil person chose to be wicked. However, God will, at times, put a wicked person into situations that will expose his wickedness for everyone to see (Proverbs 21:1). Pharaoh was not a good man turned bad. He was a wicked man who was forced to show to the world what he was like inside.
We cannot blame God for our lives, as Paul continues in Romans 9:20-21. We may not receive any great favors from God. Rich blessings may not come our way. Just as the Jews learned, the blessings from God are not automatic or guaranteed. The real question is what will we do with the things God has given us?
God has the right to use us as He sees fit. His decisions do not give us the right to rebel if we don't like God's choices. "Why wasn't I born into a rich family?" "Why wasn't I born pretty (or strong, or athletic, or talented)?" Would you like to know something? I don't know. But what will you do with your life as it is?
As Paul points out in Romans 9:22-23, we often look at life backward. We see God hardening Pharaoh's heart, but we miss how often God gave Pharaoh a chance to change his mind. Have you ever wonder why God used ten plagues? God could have freed the Israelites with just one or two displays of His awesome power. However, but using ten plagues, God shows us the richness of His mercy toward Pharaoh. No one could ever say that Pharaoh never had a chance.
Paul wrote Romans 9 to prove that the Jews did not have a monopoly on salvation. In fact, he shows that God had chosen to give salvation to another people (Romans 9:30-33). What made the difference in selection? Their faith in Jesus Christ. It was not God's selection of certain individuals, but His selection of the type of person He desired to bless. So what are you waiting for? The choice is up to you.