Saturday, September 12, 2009

John Piper on Romans 9

John Piper's exegesis of Romans 9 exemplifies the Reformed understanding of God's Sovereignty, and his concluding chapter superbly summarizes his thesis. The question upon which the whole of his reflections on the chapter were predicated he expresses thusly:

"The roots of this study go back to my perplexity about how Rom 9:15 (“For God says to Moses: I will have mercy on whomever I have mercy and I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious”) could be an argument (γαρ) for Rom 9:14 (“There is no unrighteousness with God, is there? No indeed!”). How could this quote from Ex 33:19 support Paul’s assertion of God’s righteousness? What is Paul’s justification of God?” [1]

Before he proceeds in detailing precisely how Paul’s argument follows, Piper examines the contextual background which prompted Paul to consider an imaginary objection to God’s righteousness. In Romans 9:1-5, Paul acknowledges that his kinsmen have – by and large – rejected the gospel. In 9:6-8, he anticipates an objection to the truthfulness of the gospel on the grounds that it has failed to procure Old Testament promises by purporting a distinction between the nation of Israel and the children of promise. That Paul is clearly speaking of individual salvation, then, is indisputable (cf. 9:24-10:4).

To support this contention, Paul is prompted to cite an Old Testament example of God’s freedom to distribute soteric grace in whatever manner He sees fit; that is, His election of men is unconditioned. That in its original context the prophet Malachi used Esau and Jacob to represent nations is in nowise an insuperable objection to the argument that Paul is, in the context of Romans 9, referring to a salvific election of the twins, for Paul regularly uses Old Testament passages to suit his purposes (Romans 3:9-12, cf. Psalm 14) and, as was mentioned, in the context of Romans 9 Paul is chiefly concerned with addressing the eternal destiny of the Jews.

Upon consideration of these things, Piper then phrases as follows an objection to which we may imagine Paul replies in 9:14:

“Between Rom 9:13 and 14 we may imagine an objection being raised. It apparently sounded like this: if God, in determining who will be the beneficiaries of his mercy, does not base his decisions on any human distinctives that a person may claim by birth or effort, then he is unrighteous. The assumption seems to be that divine righteousness would require that God elect persons on the basis of their real and valuable distinctives, whether racial (Jewishness) or moral (keepers of the law).” [2]

Of course, Paul denied God is unrighteous, so, upon quoting Exodus 33:19 as his premise for such a conclusion, Piper begs the question: how does this passage function as a evidence that God is righteous? The thesis of Piper’s book begins to form as he examines the context of the Old Testament citation. He notes that God’s glory is connected to His name and goodness such that, in reply to Abraham’s appeal to God to show His glory, one sees:

“…God’s glory and his name consist fundamentally in his propensity to show mercy and his sovereign freedom in its distribution. Or to put it more precisely, it is the glory of God and his essential nature mainly to dispense mercy (but also wrath, Ex 34:7) on whomever he pleases, apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. This is the essence of what it means to be God. This is his name.” [3]

Hence, the question of God’s justification in unconditional election shifts to relating in what sense God’s righteousness is connected to His glory and name. Piper’s thesis, revealed halfway through his book, is that “the righteousness of God must be his unswerving commitment always to preserve the honor of his name and display his glory.” [4] In other words, by citing Exodus 33:19 to vindicate God’s right to love Jacob and hate Esau prior to either having done any work, Paul argues that such a sovereign display of power is in accordance with God’s eternal purpose, which is to manifest the riches of His glory to those who are His vessels of mercy by means of mercy, a display only possible against a backdrop of execution of justice on vessels of wrath (cf. 9:22-23). God’s righteousness, then, consists in His upholding that which infinitely worthy (viz. His glory).

In order to assess the validity of such a thesis, Piper examines whether or not Paul indicates such an understanding of God’s righteousness elsewhere in Romans, and concluded that there is indeed precedent for this belief. One example is found in Romans 3:25-26, in which the point is made that God’s forbearance of sin is only justified due to the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Sin, the breaking of God’s law, is a scorn of God’s glory, so only through Christ’s sacrifice can the Father be said to actually uphold the infinite worth of His glory – that is, act righteously – simultaneous to seemingly allowing sin to be performed with impunity.

Concluding the witness to the veracity of his thesis is Piper’s study of the following verses of Romans 9. He particularly notes verses 16-18, in which Paul again references Exodus:

“Here the scope of God’s freedom to show mercy and to harden was described in more detail and the reference in Rom 9:17 to God’s purposes in dealing with Pharaoh was found to cohere remarkably with our interpretation of Ex 33:19. In 9:17 Paul cites Ex 9:16: “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: For this very thing I raised you up, that I might show in you my power and that I might proclaim my name in all the earth.” It can scarcely be overemphasized, for the sake of Paul’s justification of God, that in Rom 9:15 and 17 Paul employs Old Testament texts in which the exercise of God’s sovereign freedom, in mercy (33:19) and in hardening (Ex 9:16), is the means by which he declares the glory of his name! This is the heart of Paul’s defense: in choosing unconditionally those on whom he will have mercy and those whom he will harden God is not unrighteous, for in the “electing purpose” he is acting out of a full allegiance to his name and esteem for his glory.” [5]

1. John Piper, The Justification of God, (Baker Academic, 1993), pg. 217.

2. Ibid., pg. 218.

3. Ibid., pgs. 218-219.

4. Ibid., pg. 219.

5. Ibid., pg. 219.


Simon Finley said...

Good post. I think you captured Piper's argument well.

Small point, your final sentence reads: 'This is the heart of Paul’s defense: in choosing unconditionally those on whom he will have mercy and those whom we will harden God is not unrighteous, for in the “electing purpose” he is acting out of a full allegiance to his name and esteem for his glory.”'

Instead of "we" in "...those whom we will harden..." I think you meant to type "he".

Ryan said...

Appreciate the correction, even if this post is 3 years old!

Simon Finley said...

haha. No problem.