March 4, 2016

An Objection to God’s Sovereignty that Proves It

by Mike Riccardi

In Romans 9, Paul discusses God’s absolute freedom in His saving purposes. He uses the illustration of the twins, Jacob and Esau, stating that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau had nothing to do with either of them. Rather, God chose “so that [His] purpose according to His choice would stand.” This choice was “not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom 9:11). He goes on to say that salvation “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom 9:16), and then supports that claim by referring to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart for the expressed purpose of demonstrating His power and proclaiming His name through the events that followed (Rom 9:17; cf. Exod 9:16). Paul then summarizes his point by declaring: “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom 9:18).

Then, Paul anticipates an objection: “You will say to me, then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’”

First, let us understand the objection itself. Paul’s imaginary (or perhaps not so imaginary) interlocutor has understood all that Paul has said about God up until this point.

  • He understands that salvation is entirely a work of God’s grace, and owes to nothing in man.
  • He also understands that it is God’s will, not man’s will, that is determinative and decisive in salvation (again, Rom 9:16; cf. John 1:13). He asks a rhetorical question to underscore this very point: “Who resists His will?” That is to say, “No one resists God’s will.” “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps 115:3). He accomplishes all His good pleasure (Isa 46:10), and no purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2).
  • The objector also understands that God still holds man accountable. “He still find[s] fault.”

So the question is, “Since no one can resist God’s will, how is it fair that He still finds fault?”

Making Sense of the Objection

This objection proves very helpful in the Christian’s understanding of the nature of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Because whatever our conclusions are about the doctrines of grace, they must make sense of that objection.

And the fact is: the only way that this objection makes any sense at all is if three things are true: (1) Man ought to repent and be saved as commanded by God, (2) Man lacks the moral ability to repent and be saved, and (3) God still holds man accountable to repent and be saved, and will punish them for their failure to do so. In philosophical terms, this objection only makes sense if “ought” doesn’t imply “can”—that is, if commanding something of someone does not necessarily mean that they are able to do what you command. In theological terms, this objection only makes sense if the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are true.

But it is repugnant to the natural mind that we could be held accountable for something that we are unable to do—especially if we claim that it is a loving God that imposes this standard. And so different schools of thought devise alternative understandings of God’s sovereignty in an effort to save Him from what they believe to be unfair.  However, none of these alternatives make sense of the objection in Romans 9:19. Let’s consider these alternatives.


One alternative is universalism. God has required something of humanity that they are unable to do, so he brushes their sins under the rug—after all, kids will be kids, right?—and He lets them off the hook. Now, aside from being patently unbiblical, this position would be to deny that God “still finds fault” with humanity. No one can resist His will, so He simply does not find any fault with them.

Conditional Election Based on Foreseen Faith

Another alternative is to deny that God’s election is unconditional, and rather to assert that it is conditioned upon faith which God foresaw in a particular person. Said another way: He chose them because He knew they would choose Him. Since our natural minds find it unfair to hold people accountable for something they are unable to do, this theological position maintains that we actually were able to do something—namely, believe—that would result in God granting us mercy.

But if this were the case, Paul’s imaginary companion would not have made the objection in Romans 9:19. It would be no mystery as to why God “still finds fault” with those who do not believe. They simply did not have the faith necessary to be elect.

Libertarian Free Will

Still another alternative, akin to the previous, is to claim that God is indeed sovereign, but God has sovereignly chosen to grant a sort-of-sovereignty to humanity in the form of libertarian free will. God commands repentance and faith, and He will find fault in those who fail to repent and believe. But according to this view, those who fail to repent and believe do so because they have the free will to accept or reject God. God did His best, and He would save everybody if He could, but He left the final decision for salvation up to man. In other words, they can “resist His will.”

Here again, we find that the objection in 9:19 would make no sense. There would be no mystery as to why God would find fault with those who reject Him. But Paul’s interlocutor makes the statement (via a rhetorical question) that no one resists God’s will.

The Genius of Grace

And so, if we are to make any sense of the objection Paul raises in Romans 9:19, we cannot explain God’s sovereignty and man’s inability by appealing to conditional election or libertarian free will. This objection only makes sense if the Calvinistic doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace are true.

But how is that fair? How can God command that which is impossible, and still hold people accountable? How can He command people to be born again, even though the new birth depends entirely upon “God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16)? Well, to the questioner who seeks to impugn the righteousness of God, Paul’s answer is a stinging rebuke: “On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God?” (Rom 9:20). If you seek to find fault with God’s character, you have a skewed understanding of righteousness, for there is no injustice with God, by definition. (Rom 9:14; cf. 3:5b–6). You, a creature of the dust, are contending with your Creator, and Paul says you better put your hand over your mouth fast.

But there is a way to ask the question out of a sincere desire to understand God and worship Him for how He has revealed Himself. And if the question is asked in that spirit, I believe there is a clear answer. And that is: God grants to His people what He requires of them. This is the genius of grace. By commanding something of everyone that is impossible for them to do, God magnifies mankind’s true helplessness and inability related to our spiritual condition. And because He commands only what is possible for God Himself to accomplish, He magnifies His own sufficiency and fullness of glory. As Paul goes onto explain, He does this “to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy” (Rom 9:23).

By granting what He requires, God displays Himself as all in all. He places humanity in our proper position, as needy beggars eager to receive from His hand. Then, as our benefactor, He grants what He requires and thus captures our affections, so that we see Him as altogether lovely, altogether worthy, and altogether wonderful.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • You’re making me worship, Mike! Thanks for this post. Greatly enjoyed it.

    • Rachel

      lol 🙂

    • Curt

      My thoughts EXACTLY, Michael C!

      Thank you, Mike R!!! 🙂

    • Jane Hildebrand

      Michael, a guest (Bobby) paid you a compliment below. Didn’t want you to miss it. 🙂

  • Brian Morgan

    Sweet truth Brother. I have never chewed on the arguments before from that verse. Good stuff. Makes me think of the Old Covenant. Here are the laws you must keep. Keep them and live. Break one, and die. God knew none could but that His Son would indeed come and fulfill it all. Yet that was their standing agreement. (And they declared they would keep it…..multiple times). But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1Cor 15:57. Amen!!

  • Greg Lawhorn

    Great post, Mike. This is THE key question for virtually everyone who limits the Potter’s freedom. The Greek text of verse 20 is even more emphatic: “Oh man, on the contrary, who are YOU to criticize GOD?”

    If the questioner of verse 19 is a believer, then he criticizes Yahweh for the gift of eternal life: “God couldn’t have done it without me.”

    And if the questioner is an unbeliever, then he himself proves the need for Yahweh to grant life and faith: “God has no right over me.”

  • 1cor118

    Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Paul refers to Pharaoh, regarding the working of God’s sovereignty. Is this action specific to God determining salvation (lack thereof) of Pharaoh, or toward the deliverance of Israel? Your article points refer to Rom. 9:16, with God being determinative in Pharaoh not being saved, and if that is why God hardened his heart, then OK, God hardened his heart so that he would not enjoy salvation. Is that hermeneutically the point of that Genesis narrative and of Paul’s rehearsing it?

    • Good question.

      No, Paul’s point isn’t that God was being determinative in Pharaoh’s salvation or lack thereof. He brings up the interaction with Pharaoh as an illustration, to illustrate that God is absolutely free and His actions are influenced by nothing other than His sovereign electing purpose, which displays His greatest glory.

      Having illustrated that principle (not only with Pharaoh but also with His choice of Isaac and not Ishmael and Jacob and not Esau), Paul applies it to the salvation of individuals when he speaks of vessels of wrath and vessels of glory (Rom 9:22-24), which fits the context of his lamenting that individual Israelite brothers being cut off from Christ (Rom 9:3).

      So, maybe a little paraphrase of his argument might help:

      “[9:3] I am in mourning over the fact that so many Israelites, my kinsmen according to the flesh, are cut off from their Messiah and do not enjoy the salvation that is found in Him alone. [9:6] But don’t think, because the great majority of Israel rejects Messiah, that God’s promises have failed. All those whom God has chosen to receive salvation have received it and will receive it. [9:7-13] Just as He made a discriminating choice between Isaac and Ishmael, and between Jacob and Esau, with respect to who enjoys the blessings of the covenant promises, so also has He made a discriminating choice with respect to the New Covenant — whether among Jews or Gentiles. Not all will receive salvation, but only those whom God’s chosen. Just like His choices between the brothers, it has nothing to do with personal merit or human response, but depends entirely on God’s sovereign purpose and choice.

      “[9:14] Is it unfair for God to do this? Of course not! How could you charge God with injustice? [9:15] Don’t you remember that He’s always acted like this? He told Moses He would be merciful to whomever He wished to be merciful. [9:16] So you see, salvation doesn’t depend on man’s will or man’s work, but on God’s mercy. [9:17-18] Just like was the case when He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He raises people up to accomplish His will and put the glory of His sovereign power on display.

      “[9:19] ‘But, you ask, ‘how can God hold people accountable for what they’re unable to do?’ [9:20-21] If you’re asking to accuse God of injustice, remember who you are and whom you’re speaking of. God can do what He wants with what He’s made. [9:22-23] But if you’re asking humbly and sincerely, God has ordained even the destruction of the wicked to display the fullness of His glory — His justice, wrath, and holiness, right alongside His love, mercy, and grace — to those whom He’s chosen.”

      Hope that helps.

  • Scott Christensen

    Excellent! Should of had you vet my book!

  • New Centurion

    Wow that was really great! I’ll bookmark this and to send to my Arminian friends. I’m so glad my salvation is not dependant on me. Thank you!

    • Jason

      It really is striking to realize just how thankful we should be for our salvation, when we realized that God didn’t owe us a thing.

  • Gary V

    Thanks for this. A very helpful insight.

  • Evangelical Christian

    It is like telling a pickle to not be a pickle anymore. The pickle has no ability or means to stop being a pickle. No pickles are allowed in the salad. Any pickles found are not deemed fit to go into the salad and are thrown into the rubbish bin and burned. If God, the Creator of all decides to change that pickle into the cucumber fit for the salad, then praise Him for doing a work impossible by any other means. He then sends the pickle back into the puckle barrel of death to tell others of His saving power to transform…completely unable to be turned back into a pickle, covered by His grace to do the works proclaiming His saving power before the new cucumber goes into the salad. Most pickles in that barrel laugh, others are given the ability to believe it. God then keeps repeating that process over and over until the salad is full and its time for the feast. Oh man, now I’m hungry.

    • LoL. Something like that. But with analogies like that, you’re sure to get into a pickle. Stick with the Potter and the clay. 🙂

      • Evangelical Christian

        It was worth a shot!

      • Evangelical Christian

        One day, I will tell you the tale of the 144,000 grape tomatoes

  • Moises Rubio

    This post was awesome. The richness of God’s mercy are so much more greater than what we know. Thank you!

  • Bobby

    Mike, you hammer the reality of God’s sovereignty with frequency and intensity.
    That is a good thing. Thank you.

    Months ago, I was suffering severely through a struggle with the lack of assurance.
    During that time, I think it was September or October, Eric Davis wrote an article on Arminianism and its hazards, which I read. It struck a nerve and I expressed my fear over my lack of assurance.

    Michael Coughlin replied to me with wonderful advice that I’ve not forgotten.
    It was to read 1 John daily for a month. 🙂

    I never thanked you appropriately Michael. Thank you.

    Eric Davis replied and provided me with this link.

    Eric, I never appropriately thanked you either. That article resonated with me and still does today. It brings tears to my eyes and praise of God to my heart and mouth. Thank you.

    I’m sharing my experience and the responses that I was given, because I know first hand that if one of is reading an excellent post like this while struggling with assurance that it can be frightening.

    Thank you all

    • Oh Bobby that’s wonderful testimony. Thanks for saying something.

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