Because of our recent move, all of my blog series books, with one exception, are currently buried in a precariously leaning pile of papers, files, and office supplies in the spare bedroom. The exception? Erasing Hell, by Francis Chan. Consequently, that’s the series I’ll cover for this weekend’s blog. If you would like to start at the beginning of the series, the first blog is Book Review: Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell « www.whatgoddoes.com, and there’s a link at the bottom of each page for the next blog in the series.
What if God…?
Chapter 6, called “What if God…?” begins with a cursory look at Romans 9, particularly verses 22-23, a chapter that “has caused [Chan] more confusion than any other.” How refreshing Chan’s transparency is! He begins by admitting his confusion. Chan explains that Romans 9 is easy to understand, in itself, but what he finds confusing is the “newness” of it. Why is it “new?” Because “it’s a passage that isn’t preached often,” Chan writes, therefore, believers may ask themselves, “Is this saying what I think it’s saying?”
This is a great beginning for a chapter, in my opinion, because in the first paragraph, not only is the author of the book admitting confusion over the passage he intends to explain, but Chan proposes a brilliant question, the ultimate question, the very question that can help him overcome his confusion over Romans 9.
Sadly, that’s as far as Chan goes in the right direction before he retreats back into the dark and confusing land of what-I-think-it’s-saying. And I must add that I totally disagree with the idea that this passage of scripture hasn’t been preached often. It’s been beat to death by preachers over the centuries. The erroneous ideas that orthodoxy has attached to this passage of scripture are so ingrained in the Churchian psyche that it if it isn’t preached, it is assumed.
So, what, exactly does Chan think-it’s-saying?
Matthew Henry writes a typical example of the traditional interpretation of this passage:
The apostle, having asserted the true meaning of the promise, comes here to maintain and prove the absolute sovereignty of God, in disposing of the children of men, with reference to their eternal state. And herein God is to be considered, not as a rector and governor, distributing rewards and punishments according to his revealed laws and covenants, but as an owner and benefactor, giving to the children of men such grace and favour as he has determined in and by his secret and eternal will and counsel: both the favour of visible church-membership and privileges, which is given to some people and denied to others, and the favour of effectual grace, which is given to some particular persons and denied to others.
Chan seems to agree with the traditional interpretation, which includes both truth and error.
- God is absolutely sovereign.
- God is the owner and benefactor of humanity.
- God gives us grace and favor according to His will.
- God eternally disposes of people.
- The garbage-people get tossed because God has chosen to deny them “effectual grace” for salvation.
It is no wonder to me that people can read this passage and feel confused about Who God is or what God does, especially given the fact that people most often read it only in the translation that has been recommended to them by their local Christian bookstore or pastor and because people most often read it with a set of preconceived ideas about what certain key words mean.
Is this saying what I think it’s saying?
Take for example, the phrase, “the objects of His wrath, prepared for destruction.” According to Henry and Chan and a bunch of other preachers and Bible teachers, “the objects of His wrath” are the souls of people you love, and “destruction” could be something as horrifying as eternal torment, and as if this were not ugly enough, add to it the idea that God has “prepared” them for this specific purpose.
How wonderful it is that Chan might actually read this blog. Just the other day I got a blog comment from the author of a book I referenced, so it certainly is a possibility. I hope and pray Chan does read, because I have a message for him, an answer to the first question posed in Chapter 6.
No. It is not saying what you think it says.
So what is Paul trying to say, then?
I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at some of the terms first and then put them all together IN CONTEXT.
Romans 9:22-23 in the English Standard Version that Chan uses in the book (with the terms that I’ll address in bold):
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?
- There is no English word in this translation for a very important word that appears in the Greek. The missing word is “de,” a conjunction that can mean, “on the other hand” or “but,” and according to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it is used “universally, by way of opposition and distinction; it is added to statements opposed to a preceding statement, it opposes persons to persons or things previously mentioned or thought of.” Keep this in mind for later, when we examine the scripture quote in context.
- The English word “desiring” is from the Greek word, “thélō,” meaning, “wanting what is best (optimal) because someone is ready and willing to act.”
- The English word “show” is from the Greek word, “endeíknymi,” meaning, “to make fully evident, showing conspicuous proof which demonstrates something as undeniable.”
- The English word “wrath” is from the Greek word, “orgḗ,” meaning, “settled anger that proceeds from an internal disposition which steadfastly opposes.” The root word is “oragō,” which implies that the anger is “not a sudden outburst, but rather (referring to God’s) fixed, controlled, passionate feeling against sin . . . a settled indignation.”
- The English word “power” is from the Greek word, “dynatós,” meaning, “able, describing what is made possible because of the power (ability) exerted by the subject.”
- The English words “has endured” are from the Greek word, “phérō,” meaning, “to bear, carry (bring) along, especially temporarily or to a definite (prescribed) conclusion.” (The Greek word in this context is aorist indicative active, which means that it is not limited to the past, but can continue in the present and future.)
- The English word “patience” is from the Greek word, “makrothymía,” meaning, “long-passion, i.e. waiting sufficient time before expressing anger. This avoids the premature use of force (retribution) that rises out of improper anger (a personal reaction).”
- The English word “vessels” is the same word translated as “jars of clay” in 2 Cor. 4:7. (“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”) It is used almost exclusively in scripture to describe a container that holds something.
- The English word “destruction” is from the Greek word, “apṓleia,” meaning ”destruction, causing someone (something) to be completely severed – cut off (entirely) from what could or should have been, apṓleia (‘perdition’) does not imply ‘annihilation’ (see the meaning of the root-verb, 622/apóllymi, ‘cut off’) but instead ‘loss of well-being’ rather than being.”
- The English words “in order to” are from the Greek word, “hína,” meaning “for the purpose that, looking to the aim (intended result) of the verbal idea, the semantically marked (dramatic) way of expressing purpose in Greek.”
- The English word “glory” is from the Greek word, “dóksa,” (from dokeō, “exercising personal opinion which determines value“) meaning, ”glory, conveys God’s infinite, intrinsic worth (substance, essence).” The word literally means “what evokes good opinion, i.e. that something has inherent, intrinsic worth.“
Putting it all together, in context…
The English Standard Version really messed up.
Chan makes a big deal out of the Paul’s statement, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” Although this is true of God, it is not the point that Paul is making. But people who read the English Standard Version, or most other translations of scripture for that matter, will not understand this. Why? Because Paul actually began, not by writing, “What if God…” but by writing, “If, on the other hand…”
This means that this impersonal potter-and-clay idea of God ought to be contrasted with the way that God actually chooses to deal with humanity. Paul is demonstrating a concept that is opposite and distinct from the preceding potter-and-clay concept.
So, God has something in mind for humanity that goes way beyond potter-and-clay, that is, He is “wanting what is best (optimal) because someone is ready and willing to act.”
What is this good thing God has in mind? To make fully evident, showing conspicuous proof which demonstrates something as undeniable.
What does God want to make evident? What does God want to prove? His “settled anger that proceeds from an internal disposition which steadfastly opposes.” It is not some ”sudden outburst,” it is God’s “fixed, controlled, passionate feeling against sin . . . a settled indignation.”
As it is right now, there are plenty of people who don’t believe or understand that God is stewing over injustice. If God could not be trusted as One Who wants “what is best,” then we would all have reason to be very, very terrified of God.
God reveals something about Himself that puts His settled anger into perspective. He makes known “what is made possible because of [His] power.”
What does He make known? What does God show us about Himself? What is made possible because of His power? He patiently carries or brings along something temporarily, to a definite (prescribed) conclusion.
What does He endure or bear or carry? He patiently carries vessels or jars of clay. He gives our bodies breath and is intimately involved in forming and shaping the clay through each day of our lives. Human life is for many a practice in the loss of well-being, a cutting off from God.
Why would God consider this a good thing? God is “looking to the aim” or “intended result” or “purpose.”
What is the purpose? To make known the riches of His glory. The value of God! He is teaching the human race to exercise personal opinion, to have a good opinion of Him, to recognize His inherent, intrinsic worth. Imagine that. If, on the other hand, the Potter designs the clay differently, some to honor (recognizing the value of God) and some to dishonor (not recognizing the value of God), because God is teaching the clay to know and understand, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Now, remember that Paul began his thought, “If, on the other hand…”
Paul loved writing conditional statements (in logic, a conditional statement is “if this, then that”). We have to scroll down the page to find the “then that” part of Paul’s statement. We have to scroll past this,
Those who were not my people I will call “my people,”
and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved.”
And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,”
there they will be called “sons of the living God.”
to find this:
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone…
You have to remember that Paul used to be a fierce enemy of people who believed in the Messiah. He was old-school Israel, all about the law, believing that Gentiles were excluded from the Kingdom of God, because they were not God’s “chosen” people.
Don’t Chan and friends do the same thing Paul used to do when they count the vessels of dishonor as excluded from any spiritual hope? Jesus came to seek and save the lost (destroyed/apṓleia).
Which makes more sense? to ask, “Is this saying what I think it’s saying?” and then force yourself to believe something horrible about God, that the Spirit of God is telling you in the core of your being is NOT true of God, because you’ve been handed a bad translation and a long tradition of erroneous interpretation - OR – admit that what you think it says isn’t what it actually says?