God's Sovereignty

by Alan Burns

Part One

"GOD over all." Here is another gentle emphasis on the divine supremacy. First we have had a picture of what Paul would have done if he had been running things. He would willingly be accursed for Israel. Now the gentle impetus of the inspiring Spirit carries his vision to the fact that it is God who is running the universe, and if he once was willing to be accursed, he now wills that God should be blessed. God's plan and purpose was more perfect than his. He who was over all was able, because He was over ALL, to turn Israel's failure into His own success. If He was over all then there could be no such thing as failure from His standpoint. If He was over all then even Israel's failure to respond to this eightfold blessing was part of His purpose. If He was over all He who allowed Israel to stumble was able to raise them up again in His own likeness.

But the ground of His praise is not in the present but in the future. If it were merely in the present it would have been "God over all be blessed." The ground of praise lies in futurity "in the ages." It is as if Paul says, "We look at the present and see failure. We look at Israel and see gloom. But we look on and we see the ages, and up and see God over all, and gloom becomes glory and the thought of curse is changed into tribute of blessing." Much of the "vision" that we read of in current theology is the vision of a cross-eyed man. Orthodoxy, as it exists today, cannot help but make us squint. So we have, been trained to view creation as God's grand experiment. An experimenting God! But this loathsome thought is nursed in the bosom of theological culture, and we who have imbibed its virus have therefore read this sixth verse as if it were a consoling reflection on the part of Paul that despite the failure of that experiment on Israel as a whole, it was not a total failure. "Not as implying that the word of God had altogether failed." If we hold this dishonoring idea we shall have an impression in our minds of God's relation to creation as like that of the owner of a worn out automobile--continually tinkering with it in order to make it go. We would suggest that the right way of reading this verse is "not as implying that the word of God has fallen at all." "And God said, light be, and light was." Genesis one gives us a graphic picture of the efficiency of the word of God in the world of matter. It is not less efficient in the world of mind. It never fails.

How this verse suggests to us the assurance of Isaiah 55: 11! If it has accomplished fully the purpose of God, then God never meant to save the nation, as a nation, at that time. If it had been sent forth to save them all, and had come back with but a little handful of souls, did it accomplish that which God pleased? You see it is the idea of the dilapidated auto again. But the Word of God has never been compelled to go to the garage for repairs!

In Abraham we have a concrete exhibition of Free-will and Sovereignty. As an Arminian he did the best he could: tried to help God out of His difficulty--and produced ISHMAEL! Free-will has filled the world with Ishmaels. When a Christian leaves his appointed sphere of simple witness, and takes a hand in politics to help repair the world, he is marrying Hagar. When he thinks he is called to victory instead of perpetual defeat; and when he thinks the puny might of man can effect what the power of God may alone accomplish--he is marrying Hagar. O beloved reader if "Jerusalem above is the mother of us all," is it not also true that Hagar has been the wife of us all, and Ishmael our offspring? Arminian "ability" was the father of Ishmael, but it took divine sovereignty to produce Isaac from that which approximated physical death.

How powerless the creature is is again emphasized by Paul in the eighth verse. "Children of the PROMISE." The law is a demand--"thou shalt." The Gospel is a promise--"I will." The law was given simply that it might turn us upside down and knock the Arminianism out of us. When it has done so, and when we have taken the law itself into the presence of God, asking Him in grace to turn its precepts into prophecies, its gloom is transmuted into glory. "Thou shalt have no other gods" is a dazzling forecast of that future day when Israel shall really know Jehovah.

And now Paul, still keeping in mind the unfailing potency of the Word which ever accomplishes the pleasure of the Almighty, defines the word of promise in relation to Isaac. "According to this season I WILL RETURN." While God is away, and a state of separateness exists, Hagar is taken and Ishmael born. Man makes a botch of things while God is away. Sin entered while God was away. The serpent spoke, Eve listened, and Adam fell while God was away. Sarah suggested, Abraham hearkened, and Ishmael was born while God was away. But--and this is the quintessence of the gospel, and the hope of Israel and mankind--"I will return."

"I will . . . and Sarah shall"--blessed mingling of promise and prophecy. But notice the wording "according to this season." I know not just what the allusion may be. It may be physical, but it probably transcends the merely physical. At the very least it suggests that there is a schedule according to which God acts, and He always acts according to schedule. Prophecy is God's time-table of history and God's trains are never late. There is a right time for God to act, and the ripe-time is the right-time. God never harvests the crop until it is ripe, and his harvests never rot ungathered in the field--"according to this season I will return."

In verses five and six Paul's allusion to the word of God was preceded with a reference to the ages--the hours on the dial- plate of Time. God's clock of the eons, in which the centuries are as moments, is never fast and never slow; nor does it strike outside the appointed hour. "In the fullness of time" Christ personal was born into the world (Gal.4:4). "In the fullness of the seasons" the world of redeemed creaturedom with Christ personal its appointed head will round out to maturity the proportions of Christ mystical--creation's goal. In the fullness of the seasons "God will return," and rehead the Universe in Christ (Eph.1:11.

Arminianism, however, is one of mankind's perpetual diseases, and so we find it thriving lustily in Abraham's descendants who had not learned Abraham's lesson in regard to Hagar. Verse 11 gives us "not of works" and Jacob evidences this. "Jacob have I loved." Why? Analyze him and his history, and find me some reason why you should love him; then analyze him again and tell me the reason why God should love him. Perfection cannot love imperfection: Righteousness cannot love unrighteousness. How then, and why, did God love Jacob who was neither right nor perfect? Here we are touching on the mystery of the gospel. Was Jacob's character so like God's that that was the reason of His love? Think then, if you can, that the God you bow the knee to is merely a Jacob drawn to the scale of the infinite! Well may you shudder at the thought.

The answer has really been given already in the case of Isaac "I will return and Sarah shall." God went away, and Jacob wriggled and plotted and planned, just as Abraham did, in relation to Hagar and Ishmael. God went away, and Jacob tried to help God along by buying the birthright. But God in effect said, "I will return...and Jacob shall."

Well may we contrast the divine promise in Genesis 28:12-15 with Jacob's in verses 20-22. Jacob's was a promise with an "if." God's contained no "if."--and if it had it would have been no promise to frail, erring Jacob. Look up Genesis 32 at your leisure and see what happened when God returned. Then Jacob came to an end of his Arminianism, and clung with a broken thigh to One who would give a blessing that could never be earned.

In Genesis 32 Jacob becomes Israel. In Romans 9 Israel has become Jacob again.

Part Two

"NOT OF WORKS." Not occasioned by effort, physical or mental. Not purchased by deed of hand or heart. Not to be won by a nod of the head or a movement of the will. Not conditioned by the taking of an attitude. Not subject to the saying of a word, or the thinking of a thought. Channelled thru the will, the emotions, the mind, if you like, but not conditioned by them. In God's economies these creature powers act as operating means, though none of them may ever be an effecting cause.

"Not of works"--good, bad, or indifferent. Not of attempt, effort, or intention. How can a deaf man "hear?" How can a paralyzed man "come?" How can a dead man "will?" Human sweat can never earn divine salvation. Human agony can never earn divine repose. Humanity cannot raise itself by tugging at its religious bootstraps.

"Not of works" would sour the sweetness of Heaven itself to a legal soul, and transform Paradise into a Hell to every Pharisee. Much rather would such an one spend an eternity lauding the excellence of one meritorious act of his own than a single moment in self-forgetful wonder at the marvels of the Omnipotent's handiwork! "Not of works" constitutes Heaven's highest glory to the humble soul. It adds melody to its music, and increases the rapture of its joys. If the glory of the Lord so fills the house that the priests may not stand to minister in the Presence, much less may the Pharisees strut and plume themselves where sinless angels veil their faces and adore.

"Where then does the action of my will come in?" Read it again (Rom.9:11). Note how it says nothing whatever of your thinking, your intending, your willing, or your purpose, but "that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works." "Oh, then it is a matter of what God wills?" Yes, now you have it. It is God's intention, God's will, and God's purpose, not yours at all. "Then it is not of me at all?" Read it once more, "not of works, but of Him that calleth." It is not "of him that listeneth," as if the "listening" to the call was a purely human thing entirely "free" and under no determination whatever. The calling includes the listening. The "will to listen" is "of Him that calleth." "He maketh the deaf to hear." Thus it is that when He works He at once places a negative between His working and all fancied human ability-- "not of works."

"Not of works . . . Jacob." That proves it, doesn't it? We have already considered the marvel of God's love to Jacob. We should not, however, be guilty of the grave error that has disgraced so much of our thought on this subject, by thinking that God went out of His way to specially hate Esau. Nor, on the other hand, should we imagine for a moment that He had to force Himself to love Jacob. Humanity does that. Deity never. There is no compulsion in His love. There is no venom in His hate. The simple difference between God's relation to Jacob and to Esau was that He looked upon Esau as He was, and He looked upon Jacob as He was to be. He regarded Jacob in the future tense, whereas for the time then being He chose to regard Esau in the present tense alone. It was not a mechanical love in the one case, and a mechanical hatred in the other. His love to Jacob and His hatred to Esau both flowed freely and naturally from the perfections of His Being. His love was not weakness, nor was His hatred wickedness. His love for Jacob, and His hatred for Esau were both of them exhibitions of His justice. He did not lower the laws of His righteousness in order to love Jacob, nor did He make them more drastic so that He might hate Esau the more intensely. He hated Esau because He was a loving God! Nor would He be a God of love except He hated everything that was not good for Esau, and as long as Esau, was allowed to cling to those hateful, hurtful things, so long did he thrust himself into the sphere in which God's anger burned. Love must hate all that which challenges its authority. And all this is really anticipated by Paul when he queries, "Is there unrighteousness with God?" "Far be it," cries the great apostle as he flings the base suggestion aside. "No, no," he would say, "He is righteous when He loves, He is righteous when He hates, in all that He does He is the God all holy. God may have hated Esau, but He did not make him hateful. This on the principle that while you have to grow roses, orchids, and other flowers of fragrant bloom, weeds grow themselves. No one has ever had the slightest trouble in growing weeds. But before God could love Jacob He had to do a lot of gardening.

Nor need we hesitate to recognize the fact that if it is not our listening but God's calling, not our working but God's willing, then why He should choose to give this one and not that the listening ear, or work His will in one and not another is an enigma which human reason is not able to solve, and which divine revelation does not offer to explain. So we are prepared for the way that Paul gives mere prying curiosity a stinging slap in the face. Nor, indeed, was this Paul's, but God's rebuff to mere idle questioning. Why I, should have been born in the nineteenth century and not in the first; why I should have been born in America and not in the wild mountains of Afghanistan; why I should have been nursed by a Christian mother instead of a cannibal one; these are alike the workings of that "purpose of God according to election." "It is not of him that willeth." I chose neither the twentieth century, the American continent, nor the Christian mother. I didn't will them. I didn't work for them. God willed them, and I'm here. The same God who wills generation wills regeneration; and my being in Christ is no more a matter of my willing than my being born in America is, or was, a matter of my choosing.

We should not think that any one moment of time can tell all that may be told of God. The full scroll of all the ages alone will suffice to reveal the eonian God. The volume of a solitary era can never reveal what takes the whole library of the eons to make plain. So if we read in an introductory chapter that God hated Esau, we learn in a later, fuller one, that He loved the world, and so He must have loved the man He hated. Though the waves may roar on its surface, the ocean is untroubled in its unfathomed depth. Nor could Esau, nor Pharoah, nor Nero, nor Judas work or will themselves out of that cosmic love, any more than they could either work or will themselves into it. God hates, but He is not hatred. He both loves, and is Love. We may attempt to state the difference between His love and His hatred thus: His hatred is dispensational, His love is eternal; His hatred is as temporary as is the sin that calls it forth, and on which it rests; His love is as eternal as the righteousness on which it feeds. Hatred is a passing phase: Love an eternal revelation. Jacob have I loved for ever, but Esau have I hated for a time.

But if Jacob was a vessel of mercy and Esau a vessel of wrath we have the same vivid contrast shown in God's word to Moses, and His message to Pharaoh. He speaks of mercy to the one, and of wrath to the other. Here Moses is the vessel of mercy and Pharaoh the vessel of wrath. What Moses willed is not of sufficient consequence to have passing mention in this fifteenth verse. Four times over God says "I will." "I will have mercy...I will have mercy; I will have compassion...I will have compassion." You can't squeeze man into it sideways. Its language is foolproof. It locks my willing and my listening outside. It evicts everything except myself as the passive, inert recipient of undiluted grace.

It would seem as if the main purpose of our institutions for training theologians was to impart an ability to dilute scriptures like the seventeenth verse with a stream of apology and equivocation. They cannot be said to justify their existence. But, theologians notwithstanding, let us note that God's will is just as prominent here as it is in the case of Moses. "For this cause I have raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, that my name might be declared." And the absolute control of the All-Ruler is shown by the kind of illustration chosen by Him to illustrate His supremacy in the sphere of will. As clay in the hand of a potter so is man in the purposes of his Maker. Does the illustration prove more than our creeds allow us to think, or teach? The solution of the difficulty is simple. Either cut out God's illustration, or man's creed. One must go.

But while we note the variety and difference that exists here, we should not overlook the fact that, vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy though they be, both vessels are made by the Potter "out of the same lump." Thus Esau and Jacob, one "loved" and the other "hated," were "out of the same lump." Moses before the throne, a servant of God, and Pharaoh upon the throne an enemy of God were, both of them, despite the differences that lay like yawning chasms between them, "out of the same lump." A certain unity lay back of, and beyond, the differences which were developed in the two kinds of vessel. How such a simple phrase can puncture the bombast of human pride!

In the verses that follow, where the contrasting divisions of the human race into Jew and Gentile, are referred to, it is well to remember that such distinctions can be traced back, past their differences, to a common source and a common humanity in Adam. Both Jew and Gentile, though one be nationally a vessel of mercy and the other a vessel of wrath, are ultimately "out of the same lump." And not only so but the vessels of wrath at one time become vessels of mercy at another; and those who were vessels of mercy then become vessels of wrath now. This seems to be purposely shown in the fact that whereas in chapter nine the Gentile Pharaoh's heart is hardened, in chapter eleven (v.25) the position is reversed and while the Gentiles become vessels of mercy it is now Israel's lot to be "hardened." That God's final purpose in His universal pottery is not to make some "vessels of mercy" and some "vessels of wrath" is clear in 11:32 where His declared will is not to have mercy on some but on ALL.

In chapter ten (v.12) Paul reverts, it would seem, to the same thought. All national and moral difference between Jew and Gentile is brushed aside. "For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek." Why? Because they are "out of the same lump." That, too, is the lesson of this epistle's earlier chapters where, as regards sin, as here in regard to grace, the same phrase summarizes the historical lessons of racial degradation.

"There is no difference" (Rom.3:22). Man is levelled as concerns both guilt and grace. Social class, intellectual attainment, and national distinction are alike annihilated by the "no difference" of holy writ. The very figure of the clay from which the potter molds his vessels suggests to us the truth of man's earthly origin. "Dust thou art." Potter's mold! Yes, and in that handful of red earth which the mighty Potter moulded into human form, in that "same lump" lay, dormant and potential, the myriad varieties of saint and sinner alike. Moses and Samuel and David the king were there. There also Isaiah, Daniel and Jeremiah. There the Twelve, with the heroes and martyrs of the early church. The fools and the philosophers of all earthly time were there. The heroes and the cowards, the noble and the base, monks and martyrs, pirates and priests lay waiting the moment when they would be molded into the part they were destined to play in the drama of the ages.

And thus is there "no difference." But if all have come "out of the same lump," this involves the added thought that the vessels, however much they differ, are all made by the same Master Potter. "For the SAME LORD over all is rich unto all that call upon Him." The Potter is the Lord of the Clay. At least in Scripture He is; but in theology the clay is the lord of the Potter, if indeed it needs a Potter at all when it becomes what it wills and wishes to become! The vessels are out of "the same lump," and they have the "same Lord." Glory to His Name!

Is not this idea also in the background of chapter eleven? There we have two trees; one "good" and the other "wild;" one a "tree of mercy" and the other a "tree of wrath;" nevertheless, as both vessels are out of the same lump so also are both trees, despite their difference, olive trees. One is a "good" olive tree which we presume, like all good olives, has become so through cultivation; the other has simply been left to itself. So was Israel in Egypt no different physically, morally or spiritually from their Egyptian masters, and we can find as little reason for loving whining, murmuring, and rebellious Israel, as we can for loving their father Jacob in an earlier day. But God put Israel under "cultivation." This was the Master Gardener's pleasure as making one vessel a vessel of mercy was the pleasure of the Master Potter.

Just one more scripture in the eleventh chapter which reminds us of the Potter in the ninth. "For if the firstfruits be holy so ALSO IS THE LUMP." Not some of the lump but "THE LUMP." Vessels of wrath do not constitute the "firstfruits." Pharaoh is not a specimen of the art of God. "Christ the firstfruits." Is He holy? Then "if the firstfruit be holy, the lump also is holy." But did He enter into and become part of that same lump?" "As the children are partakers of flesh and blood he also himself took part of the same." The art of the Master Potter is shown in the firstfruits Christ, and in Him is exhibited the goal and the destiny of the human race.

Beyond the mystery of "the lump," we have the still deeper mystery and truth of man's origin as sketched in that miniature Bible of Romans 11:36. "Out of the same lump" may humble us in the dust. "Out of the same God"--we bow in adoration before our heavenly Source. We are not merely one with the clay, one with our fellow-creatures that the same Artist-Lord has formed from the same material as ourselves but--surpassing wonder of wonders--we are one with the heavenly Potter Himself.

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