The book of Romans is the Holy Spirit inspired explanation of the gospel of salvation by grace. It goes against the natural man’s false belief of being able to merit God’s favor through the will or works of the flesh. The gospel is offensive to the natural man and is foolishness to him. It embitters those who are perishing (Acts 14:2); gets accused of confusing whole cities (Acts 16:20-21); sets cities in an uproar through those who oppose it (Acts 17:5); upsets the world (Acts 17:6); divides congregations (Acts 19:9); fills men with rage (Acts 19:28-29); and is viewed by the unsaved religious as a dangerous heresy (Acts 21:28).
All throughout the book of Romans the apostle Paul has been making the Biblical case for the gospel of salvation by grace which runs contrary to the whims and wishes of the flesh. He established the total inability of man in Romans 1-3 including the truth that the Jews were also under sin and were just as unable to merit God’s favor as any uncircumcised Gentile. In Romans 3:24-31 the truth of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus was proven as the only means that God can forgive and remain just. In Romans 4:1-25 the truth of salvation by grace was proven from the life of Abraham who was saved by grace and not by works (Romans 4:1-8); and not by circumcision (Romans 4:9-12); and not by the Law (Romans 4:13-16); and not by personal ability (Romans 4:17-25).
The book of Romans deals with the truth that salvation by grace is based upon unconditional election or else it is not by grace. Those who maintained that salvation is based on conditional election thought that Paul was preaching that God saves on the condition of doing evil rather than doing good and concluded that he was preaching that men should do evil in order to be saved (Romans 3:8). This resulted in Paul being slandered as a preaching against the Law and giving a license for sin. He dealt with this error in Romans 5, 6, and 7.
Paul wasn’t preaching any form of conditional election because salvation is by grace and not by any type of work – he was preaching unconditional election which establishes salvation by grace. So in Romans 8 Paul began to deal with the truth of both the suffering and security of the true believer who has been unconditionally elected by God and saved by grace. They will suffer because of their faith and their proclamation of the truth of salvation by grace and will be secure because of the Lord’s faithfulness.
It was in Romans 8:28-30 that Paul introduced the truth of unconditional election. Romans 9:6-33 is Paul’s Biblical case for unconditional election. Here he established the truth that election isn’t based on physical descent (Romans 9:6-10) or personal desire (Romans 9:11-13). The truth of unconditional election which establishes salvation by grace raised the question of God’s justness or fairness. If God chooses unconditionally then isn’t He unfair or unjust (Romans 9:14). Paul answered that question Biblically showing that God, by His free-will, can have mercy on whom He desires and can harden whom He desires while remaining totally just (Romans 9:14-18).
It is the truth of unconditional election that magnifies the truth of man’s total inability to do anything to earn or merit God’s favor. Man is so helpless and incapable because of his sin that he cannot act morally to rehabilitate himself and he cannot act willingly to exonerate himself. There is nothing he can do to merit God’s favor. He deserves damnation and that is all that he can or will ever earn.
The truth of man’s total inability – that he is incapable of doing anything to merit God’s favor – raises the question of man’s culpability. The question is that if man is incapable then how is he also culpable. If man is incapable then how can God hold him responsible? This is the argument that if men don’t have “free-will” then he is a robot and God made him the way he is. In other words, if man doesn’t have “free-will” then God is the one to blame for man’s sin, his inability, and his unwillingness to be saved by grace. Romans 9:19-24 is Paul’s answer to prove that inability doesn’t remove man’s responsibility. Man is culpable but not capable!
The faulty reasoning (Romans 9:19): If salvation is by unconditional election based on God’s will to have mercy on whom He desires and harden whom He desires then how can he still find fault because who can resist His will? If I’m incapable how can I be held culpable? Isn’t my hardness God’s fault? This is the faulty reasoning of the opponents of the gospel who haven’t understood that their inability to do good doesn’t remove their responsibility for sinning. God doesn’t make men sin and therefore men are responsible for their sin. Since the fall of man into sin all men sin because all men are born with a sin nature. Man is totally incapable of freeing himself from sin but is totally culpable for his sin. Man is not a helpless robot doing what he really does not want to do – he is a helpless sinner doing exactly what he wants to do! The wages of sin is death. Inability does not remove responsibility!
The proper reasoning: Man is not capable (Romans 9:20-21)! Notice in verse 21 the words “same lump.” There is no difference in the clay in which a potter decides to make a vessel for honorable use or for common use. Because all men are sinners from the same lump it is totally up to God what he does with each one. Here we see that man is incapable and that his only hope is the mercy of God.
Man is culpable (Romans 9:22)! Here the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction took an active role in the hardening of their hearts. The Greek verb rendered “prepared” is passive. God is not the subject doing the preparing – men are (see Romans 2:5)!
Mercy is God’s choice (Romans 9:23-24)! Against the backdrop of the truth that man is not capable but he is culpable, God demonstrates the riches of His glory and the riches of His mercy by saving men apart from any merit or work of their own. Those that God saves He prepared beforehand for glory! Here the Greek verb for “prepared” is in the active voice and God is the subject and the One doing the preparing. Men are culpable but not capable! God saves by grace; owes salvation to no man; and enables those whom He has prepared beforehand to receive the love of the truth so as to be saved.