A Preface to Romans 9: The Myth of the Free Will

Man comes out like a flower and withers;
….he flees like a shadow and continues not.
And do you open your eyes on such a one
….and bring me into judgment with you?
Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?
….There is not one.
Since his days are determined,
….and the number of his months is with you,
……..and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass (Job 14:2-5).

There are few philosophies that are as ingrained in the human psyche as is the free will of man. It is as common to the natural man as the craving for food, the desire for companionship, and the drive for sex. Left to himself, the natural man would believe in his autonomy his entire life and would die thinking that he arrived at his end on his own accord.

We, however, cannot come to Romans 9 as the natural man does. Before we begin studying this chapter, we must approach it with minds and hearts that are teachable. We must be willing to question our natural philosophies and also be willing to replace them with the doctrines of Scripture. If we do not, we will either come out of Romans 9 hating it, or more likely, will come out of it with ridiculous interpretations. Our best guide for studying Romans 9 is Romans 1-8, which lays a foundation for the hard teachings of the chapter. Since Romans 9 deals with God’s sovereignty over all men, we will look at his sovereignty over natural man and then his sovereignty over his children in these chapters.

The Bondage of Natural Men
Our first encounter with natural men is in the first chapter of Romans. The chapter portrays men whose morality is in constant attrition. Their moral attrition is attributed to nothing–not to their lack of education, their poverty, etc., but it is portrayed as their natural course forged by their natural condition. Not even their knowledge of God sways their destructive course. The Apostle writes:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Romans 1:21-23).

Though they knew God through the natural law, they also knew a portion of the revealed law of God. Again the Apostle writes:

Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (v. 1:32).

This is our first encounter in the letter with a will that knowingly fights against its soul’s own good. The Apostle writes that these natural men know their actions and their desserts, but they do them all the same. They know that they will ultimately answer for their wickedness, but they commend the wickedness that they see in others. They know that their good is not to do wicked acts, yet they continue to do them.

Lest we think that Paul is speaking only of the Gentiles apart from the law in chapter one, the Apostle clarifies this, writing, “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin (v. 3:10).” Again he writes, “There is none who is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God (v. 3:11).” This universal “not doing good” speaks of the bondage of all men apart from God’s divine intervention. Apart from God, all men are bound to sin and can do no good. Though men might “will” to do things that resemble good, they are no more good than graven images are God. Regardless of how we explain or justify the “selfless” acts of good by natural men, the simple truth is that no man apart from God can do any that is truly good and is bound to do evil with every step he takes.

In that same chapter, the Apostle writes, “We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God (v. 3:19).” As is implied in the first chapter, we find that the law exists over natural men, not to be a stepladder to God, but to demonstrate their guilt before a righteous Judge. In Romans 7, we see also that the law over natural man points to life to those who fulfill it. Since the natural man is bound to sin and unable to fulfill the law and thereby attain life, we find the natural narrator through the lens of the Apostle saying, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me (v. 7:10).

In the next paragraph, we find the most vivid portrayal of the natural man’s bondage. In this paragraph, we find a narrative of man who recognizes that the law gives life to those who keep it, who desires that life, and, through the Apostle’s eyes, sees clearly his bondage to sin and his bondage to the flesh. Even in this most enlightened of natural men, we still find that his will is completely and utterly bound, for he laments, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to to do what is right [i.e. so that he might obtain life], but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I continually do (vv. 7:18, 19). Here we find that even the man who is enlightened by the law and its promises is powerless to keep it. Thus he needs a deliverer–one outside himself who is not bound by sin, death, and the flesh to keep the law on his behalf and to break his bonds. Hence we have Romans 8:1-4, but that is beyond our present scope.

Our point in looking at the utter bondage of natural men is so that when we read Romans 9:16, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” or v. 9:13, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” we will have categories for these declarations, and so that we will see that the declarations of Romans 9 are the same as those made in Romans 1-8. Tomorrow we will look at God’s sovereignty over redeemed men.

Categories: Theology

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