John Chrysostom on Romans 9

Many puzzle about Romans 9 and what some claim to see as a teaching of “double-edged” predestination, that is, that God predestines some for hell. It is useful to see what the Fathers do with such a passage. Here is an excerpt from John Chrysostom’s sermon on Romans 9 that addresses the subject well and demonstrates that God does not predestine anyone to damnation. The question was raised in a recent comment and I thought the answer worth posting.

Here is some of the most relevant commentary:

Ver. 20, 2l. “Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus? Hath not the potter (Read Jer. xviii. 1–10) power, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?”

Here it is not to do away with free-will that he says this, but to show, up to what point we ought to obey God. For in respect of calling God to account, we ought to be as little disposed to it as the clay is. For we ought to abstain not from gainsaying or questioning only, but even from speaking or thinking of it at all, and to become like that lifeless matter, which followeth the potter’s hands, and lets itself be drawn about anywhere he may please. And this is the only point he applied the illustration to, not, that is, to any enunciation of the rule of life, but to the complete obedience and silence enforced upon us. And this we ought to observe in all cases, that we are not to take the illustrations quite entire, but after selecting the good of them, and that for which they were introduced, to let the rest alone. As, for instance, when he says, “He couched, he lay down as a lion;” (Numb. xxiv. 9) let us take out the indomitable and fearful part, not the brutality, nor any other of the things belonging to a lion. And again, when He says, “I will meet them as a bereaved bear” (Hos. xiii. 8), let us take the vindictiveness. And when he says, “our God is a consuming fire” (Deut. iv. 24; and Heb. xii. 29), the wasting power exerted in punishing. So also here must we single out the clay, the potter, and the vessels. And when he does go on to say, “Hath not the 468potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?” do not suppose that this is said by Paul as an account of the creation, nor as implying a necessity over the will, but to illustrate the sovereignty and difference of dispensations; for if we do not take it in this way, divers incongruities will follow, for if here he were speaking about the will, and those who are good and those not so, He will be Himself the Maker of these, and man will be free from all responsibility. And at this rate, Paul will also be shown to be at variance with himself, as he always bestows chief honor upon free choice. There is nothing else then which he here wishes to do, save to persuade the hearer to yield entirely to God, and at no time to call Him to account for anything whatever. For as the potter (he says) of the same lump makes what he pleaseth, and no one forbids it; thus also when God, of the same race of men, punisheth some, and honoreth others, be not thou curious nor meddlesome herein, but worship only, and imitate the clay. And as it followeth the hands of the potter, so do thou also the mind of Him that so ordereth things. For He worketh nothing at random, or mere hazard, though thou be ignorant of the secret of His Wisdom. Yet thou allowest the other of the same lump to make divers things, and findest no fault: but of Him you demand an account of His punishments and honors, and will not allow Him to know who is worthy and who is not so; but since the same14791479 Such is plainly the sense, but most mss. have τὸ αὐτο φύραμα τῆς οὐσίας ἐστὶ, it is the same lump in regard of the substance. lump is of the same substance, you assert that there are the same dispositions. And, how monstrous this is! And yet not even is it on the potter that the honor and the dishonor of the things made of the lump depends, but upon the use made by those that handle them, so here also it depends on the free choice. Still, as I said before, one must take this illustration to have one bearing only, which is that one should not contravene God, but yield to His incomprehensible Wisdom. For the examples ought to be greater than the subject, and than the things on account of which they are brought forward, so as to draw on the hearer better. Since if they were not greater and did not mount far above it, he could not attack as he ought, and shame the objectors. However, their ill-timed obstinacy he silenced in this way with becoming superiority. And then he introduces his answer. Now what is the answer?

40 Responses to “John Chrysostom on Romans 9”

  1. Michael Bauman Says:

    It odd. Why is that those who profess the pre-destination to damnation are never on the damnation side? Isn’t it kinda like the folks who tout reincarnation are always reincarnated kings, queens, ect. No reincarnated garbage men or murderers. Only the ‘elect’ and the ‘enlightened’ need apply.

  2. shevaberakhot Says:

    This is no “trick question” but it certainly is a thorny issue.

    In my experience, salvation and it’s near cousin justification, are dispensed by a Holy Church in consultation with the Godhead that is found in Jesus Christ Himself.

    As we have seen, there is a sublime dynamism that exists between Church and God that is in a sense, a sign of the times.

  3. Lucy Says:

    Ok, I have kindof a dumb question for you, Father. Are there translations of St. John Chrysostom and others that are more readable? I don’t think of myself as that much of a lightweight (which is probably an erroneous assumption on my part), but I had to read that out loud to make sense of it. And as much as I would love to forward this to certain friends with whom I have discussed this subject, I know there’s no way they could read and understand that (too many of us were raised on the NIV🙂 ).

    As I read it, the message is to yield to God and not to question what we see as people destined for destruction, but to trust that the potter who forms us all has purpose and intention, but not in such way as to free us from the responsibility for each to do the best with what he has been “formed” into. And also that we should not read too much into Paul’s example. I’m sure that’s a very simplistic reading, but did I get the main jist?🙂

    Congratulations on your grandchild’s baptism!

  4. Karen C Says:

    Romans 9:15 “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’
    16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

    Matthew 5:44 “‘But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,
    45 ‘that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
    46 ‘For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
    47 ‘And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
    48 ‘Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.'”

    As I have reflected on Reformed/Calvinistic vs. Orthodox interpretations of Romans 9, it has always struck and encouraged me that verse 15, (and in its context in Exodus) neither says or implies, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will damn whomever I will damn.” It is clear that it is God’s intention and desire always to show mercy–He who “makes His sun rise . . . and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” If we don’t somehow understand even His judgment as mercy, then especially the latter passage in Matthew 5 makes no sense, and ultimately we end up inadvertently supporting a case for the “righteous” man somehow earning God’s mercy by his own righteousness (a contradiction in terms), instead of God out of the perfect freedom of His will bestowing it unconditionally on whomever is willing to receive it, which is the clear meaning of the gospel.

    The bottom line of the meaning of Romans 9 for me is that God is perfectly trustworthy. Even though many in their sin and ignorance may choose to reject Him, He is indeed perfectly worthy–precisely because He has shown Himself (fully in Christ) to be a God of infinite mercy and compassion–of our complete and unquestioning trust and obedience.

    I think it is important to remember that the scandal in the minds of the Jews who rejected Jesus (and which it seems to me St. Paul is seeking to address in Romans 9) was NOT, “God, why would You predestine some of your creatures to damnation?” It was, “How dare you (Christ and His Apostles) preach that God is showing His mercy on the GENTILES simply because they are trusting Him to do so?! Surely that is unjust! Is it not only WE, the chosen people, who obey the Law of Moses who rightly deserve God’s blessings?!”

  5. shevaberakhot Says:

    Congratulations indeed Father!
    🙂

  6. Isaac of Syria Says:

    Michael,

    Its funny that you should mention that. I remarked to my wife some time ago that you never meet a staunch Calvinist who doesn’t assume he is among the elect.

  7. Edward Hunter Says:

    With regards to the comments of Michael and Isaac,

    Interestingly enough, one of my professors from college knew a Jewish man who spoke openly (and in a very convincing way) of the fact that he knew himself to be on his way to hell. He acknowledged the goodness of God and the coming judgment, but felt himself to be incapable of repenting or even of desiring to repent.

    Which makes me wonder, can someone be truly convinced of God’s truth and yet refuse to repent? I mean, could it be that his religion was just a nice little philosophical head game? After all, you would think that true belief would stir him to action, especially being as he claimed to believe in his coming, eternal torment.

  8. Patty Joanna Says:

    Michael–Being on the right side of predestination reminds me of Lake Wobegon–“Where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the children are above average.” Your observation made me smile, and humor has its roots in truth.

  9. AR Says:

    A lot of Calvinists doubt their election. I would be surprised to meet an evangelical of any sort who had never “doubted their salvation.” However, they are expected to talk with complete certainty about everything including their experience, admitting only to past doubts. This confidence is often seen as a display of faith.

    As to whether someone could find themselves unable to repent, the sciptures seem clear that we all make ourselves slaves to sin by obeying it (the Calvinist, following Original Sin, would say ‘by being born of Adam’s race.’) Either way the man in bondage to sin is hardly a free person; doctrines about free will mean little to him. He does not find it within himself to repent or do good to the extent that will attain salvation. That is why many find teaching about election helpful – it’s the idea that God can re-create you right out of that slavery if he so chooses. Many present-day Calvinists believe that God only chooses those who are saved; he simply declines to choose those who are not. He “has the right” to do so based on man’s sinfulness and impenitence. Of course, I cannot countenance that idea any more. It starts out by talking about God’s freedom and the power of his grace, which is good. But it leaves you with a God who commands that you do whatever good is in your power to do, but does not do so himself. In the Lord’s Prayer we are told to pray that God forgive us as we forgive others. Though this must be partly to remind us to forgive I think it must also be to teach us that we should not imagine God less capable of goodness than ourselves.

    The only remaining question, for me, is whether it is not in God’s power, then, to save all. And I think the answer must be found somehwere in the frailty of the created being’s makeup, rather than in God’s power. That is, we cannot be both what we are and also a creature that could survive the sort of thing that would ensure our salvation apart from the slow process of assent and apprehension that we now find ourselves pursuing. And for whatever reason, it was better in God’s eyes that we be what we are.

    This was a stimulating and helpful quote from St. Chrysostom.

  10. AR Says:

    Ugh, that should not have been a smiley. “…blah blah blah Adam’s race, Big Grin blah blah blah…” Hardly the proper sort of sentiment, what?

  11. November In My Soul Says:

    Too deep for my tired brain. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

    Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.

  12. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Probably the most damning thing in the essay to the Calvinist interpretation of the passage is that little footnote pointing to Jeremiah 18…

  13. shevaberakhot Says:

    The entire Bible including Jeremiah 18, the New Testament (including the Book of Revelation) is saying this, to all mankind:

    “God is Merciful. Repent and turn from your wicked ways, for if you don’t, you will surely die.” (*)

    (*) Death here, is understood in it’s fullest meaning i.e. in the finality of separation from the living God, in His “one-storey universe”.

  14. shevaberakhot Says:

    It seems to me, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is an attempt to de-institutionalise the not-quite “one-storey” doctrine of purgatory — another thorny doctrinal question that has troubled the communion of saints for centuries.

    My interpretation of scripture, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that we are called to full communion with the ever living God, in the here and now.

    By definition, this involves disengaging from all that is not of God, in the here and now.

    We also have to be spiritually mature enough to avoid the boomerang effect of disagreements, as we move to a broader and fuller communion with each other and with God — this must become the overriding consideration. Holy Orthodoxy in my view, offers all this and more.

    Lord, purge me of everything that is not from You.

  15. shevaberakhot Says:

    Clarification on my previous post:

    What I meant to say was that Holy Orthodoxy is a sure antidote to doctrinal discord.

    Ultimately “the way” as Jesus Christ preached it, is more about doing than saying and of course, nothing can be greater than full communion with a Holy God — we are not called to spend eternity counting angels, but to adore a God who is worthy of worship.

  16. James Says:

    Michael Bauman & Isaac of Syria, I have met strict Calvinists who considered themselves dammed. The setting is a counseling one, in which men and women with sexual orientation issues, having come from fundamentalist families and having assumed they are “made that way”, read these teachings as their own damnation. It’s often very difficult to help them out of this painful thinking, especially as it often begins in childhood.

  17. mic Says:

    “…It starts out by talking about God’s freedom and the power of his grace, which is good. But it leaves you with a God who commands that you do whatever good is in your power to do, but does not do so himself.”

    Well said AR!

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Lucy,

    That’s sounds right to me. It’s a 19th century British translation, but at the moment I don’t have access to another. By the way, I’m back home, filled with joy, though tired. 2 days fo flying and one day of visiting is not the way to do it – but it’s was all I could do. God willing, I’ll have a post later today.

  19. AR Says:

    James, that’s so sad. What can you say to someone like that? I mean, you’re dealing with so many issues at once. How do you deal with homosexuality as sinful while assuring someone that God loves them the way they are while re-educating them on Divine Providence?

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    James’ poignant illustration shows the damage that bad theology can do – it intends good, but in such situation it simply adds insult to injury and no hope. Very tough pastoral work, no doubt.

  21. shevaberakhot Says:

    Regarding Fr. Stephen’s point about bad theology, it occurred to me the other day that certain kinds of fasting and some doctrines, if scriptural, are idolatrous and associated with demonic activity:

    “And therefore God sends on them a power that deludes people so that they believe what is false”

    2 Thessalonians 2:11

  22. shevaberakhot Says:

    Correction: “if unscriptural” (line 2).

  23. Theoden Says:

    Father Stephen and James,

    Good posts.

    I think you’ll find that mature and godly pastors who are in the Reformed tradition handle the doctrine carefully and wisely. It is used, most often, for comforting doutbful, but *faithful*, souls and showing them that God doesn’t let go of his beloved children. It is used, primarily for encouragement. It should never be used to lead someone to despair or presumption to sin.

    It reminds us, additionally, that it’s God’s Spirit that converts people and that our trust should be in his power, not our eloquence or apologetic skills. Simiarly, living under the canopy of God’s election gives us courage to humbly yet confidently proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, because the God who turns hearts of stone into flesh has, among the nations, a people waiting to be called out. Indeed, his grace is beauiful, ravishing and invincible. He will build his church in his own good time.

    The doctrine should not be set over and against the call for repentance and baptism, the necessity of living faithfully in the Church, reading the Scriptures, praying, participating in the Eucharist, or the need to be tranformed into Christ’s image.

    A similar Calvinistic doctrine, of Providence, has also been misread as fatalism or determinism. Again, the primary goal of this doctrine is to comfort, stimulate us to obedience and cultivate graditude and perseverance. To know that adversity does not come upon us by chance, but, rather, from the hand of a loving Father who wishes to shape us into in the image of his Son, but the Spirit’s power is cmofort indeed.

    I think the Heidelberg Catechism would be an interesting document to peruse as a cross-cultural-theological experiement for some Orthodox folks. It has a warm and very pastoral tone to it. It comes from the German Reformed tradition.

    Peace,

    Theoden

  24. Isaac of Syria Says:

    James,

    My comment was flippant if that wasn’t clear. I was thinking of those who happily embraced the notion that God picks some to be saved and some to be damned and there is nothing they can do about it. I think the doctrine is destructive and pernicious and points to a god which can be described as nothing short of evil. It is a good example of why straying from “right-teaching” can cause untold damage.

    Theoden,

    I don’t find the TULIP of 5 point Calvinism comforting.

  25. Damaris Says:

    My husband and I once conducted a Sunday school class on Romans, where we inevitably discussed Calvinism versus Arminianism (at that time the only two choices we knew). We reached the conclusion that each side was anxious to preserve an essential truth. Calvinists wanted us to remember that God is always sovereign and not held hostage against his will to our choices. Arminians wanted to remind us that we are accountable for our actions and choices. When one of those truths is detached from the other and blown out of balance, our Christian life will be distorted.

    The great challenge is always keeping things in balance: mercy and righteousness, boldness and humility, fear and trust. Any virtue out of balance with other virtues, it seems to me, becomes a vice.

  26. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes. Quite. The Orthodox position on these matters which was developed somewhat at a distance, seeks to maintain that balance.

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    Isaac,

    In point of fact, Orthodoxy says that double-edged predestination is, more than just mistaken, it is, in fact, a heresy. I can see as Theoden says that a good and caring pastor would try to use it as pastorally as possible – but it is also useful to know that the Orthodox Church sees it as not just a language or perception problem but as, in fact, heresy.

  28. Theoden Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Point noted about Orthodoxy’s view of it as heresy. Fair enough.

    I also think that double-predestination is not, necessarily, saying that God creates people in order to damn them. Rather, the thought lies that looking at fallen humanity in Adam, the *just* response from God would be judgement for all people. God’s mercy and grace saves some, not all humanity. (I think Orthodoxy is not universalist either). Where Calvinists, some Lutherans and all Augustinians differ with the rest of the Church is that those who are ingrafted into Christ are chosen and given the gift of faith. The Spirit awakens faith. All glory is given to the Father though Jesus Christ. The Reformed perpspective looks back and marvels that someone spiritually dead (not merely sick) would embrace Christ and then attributes the cause of faith to God. It remains hopeful towards all people and proclaims the Gospel. We don’t begin with immutable decrees and say there’s nothing we can do about our spiritual state. Why are some chosen? It’s a mystery. Are those who are exluded from paradise responsible for their sin? Yes. Much like the origin of evil, it’s a mystery. We understand God created all things, yet he is not responsible for evil or sin.

    It’s also a little bit like the mystery of prayer. We pray for the conversion of unbelievers and God uses/anwers our prayers. And yet….and yet…..for a Calvinist *logically* how can we affect the immutable purposes of God by our prayer? And for some one who believes in free will, why would God answer our prayer and convert someone, seemingly mechanically overpowering their will in order to please us? Neither makes sense, so to speak.

    Well..we know that God answers prayer. And we know that those who come to Christ are drawn freely to him. So we pray anyway.

    We don’t pray, “Lord, reveal yoursef to Tom so persuasively so that he can make a freely informed decision.” Nor do we pray, “Lord, obliterate Tom’s resaon and will and make him a clone for thy glory.” We tend to pray, “Lord, rescue Tom, reveal yourself to him, show him your beauty, overcome his resistance and make him yours.”

    Thank you all for your gracious and irenic tone.

    Theoden

  29. fatherstephen Says:

    Theoden,

    Indeed thank you for your gentle responses. I occasionally run into Reformed fire-brands (as there are also Orthodox fire-brands). The mystery that the human heart would resist the grace of God (for we believe it is given to all) is truly great. St. Isaac the Syrian who ultimately was a universalist believed that all would finally be saved – but that is a view held by only 2 Church fathers that I know of who were not condemned for it.

    We enter into deeply mysterious territory in all of this. I think the Orthodox concern is always to affirm the Goodness of God (not just His Sovereignty) and even to recognize that His Sovereignty and Power are manifest in the Cross and His humility rather than in a manner that man would imagine.

    May God give us all grace to yield before His humble presence and give Him the worship that belongs to Him alone.

    Peace,
    Fr. Stephen

  30. Theoden Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I like your way of putting it…that one of the great mysteries is, indeed, why the human heart would resist the grace of God, manifest in the humility of our Lord on the Cross.

    Thank you for your kind words and your hospitality on this site. I come here, mostly, to find resources to heal my wounded heart. It’s been a long dark night of the soul for me.

    Peace,

    Alan

  31. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    Rather, the thought lies that looking at fallen humanity in Adam, the *just* response from God would be judgement for all people.

    Hi Theoden,

    I want to be gentle if I can, and surely Father Stephen will delete this post if it contributes negatively to the discussion. But I do want to say something about this. For the view of justice I have heard in some Calvinist circles, in my experience, seems to teeter toward a genuine hatred of humanity – that man deserves nothing but eternal unimaginable suffering and that if God would simply damn us all he would be good and just and perfectly within his rights, and we should still give him glory in such a situation, and that grace is sheer and arbitrary gratuity. But the story of the scripture is that the glory of God is inseparable from the vindication of man before all powers in heaven and earth. God’s justice is gracious, and his grace is just.

    I think many Calvinists understand that one cannot separate God’s attributes from each other, and I imagine you are one of them. So I would be very careful to think of God’s justice only in legal terms of what kings might do to rebellious subjects – for there is also an intrinsic justice of a father in longing for the reconciliation with a wayward son.

  32. William Says:

    It seems that “justice,” biblically, has much less to do with human legal notions of consequences and recompense and exchange (though this is there, too). It has more to do with rightness, straightness, making things as they should be, as they were meant to be. I like Wonders for Oyarsa’s final point, which is supported by the parable of the Prodigal Son. One could look at that parable and say this is what God’s justice looks like, nothing like man’s justice. One could also look at it and cry out with St. Isaac the Syrian, who said:

    “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, he says, ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or is thine eye evil because I am good?’ How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!”

  33. Wonders for Oyarsa Says:

    In that case, Isaac the Syrian, is using “justice” in the more legalistic sense (and thus he can say that God is not just). The way the Bible uses the word “justice” is restorative – putting things right.

  34. William Says:

    Yes. I think we can look at justice both ways, but we have to remember words like St. Isaac’s when we think of justice juridically.

  35. William Says:

    And we also have to consider that God’s compassion and mercy is just, even juridically.

  36. fatherstephen Says:

    Myself, I think these concepts are not easily categorized. God’s mercy, God’s justice, are not easily understood or explained. God’s justice is nothing like our justice, nor is His mercy like ours. He is unfathomable in that sense – even though we can know Him. The more we know Him, the less we can say.

  37. Robert Says:

    I am getting a bigger box. He was getting cramped in there. 🙂

  38. William Says:

    I think that’s true, and I think that’s what St. Isaac is getting at when he says, “Do not call God just.” He’s not saying God is not just, but that God being just is something different than what we have in mind when we say God is just. His justice is largely or entirely unknown to us.

  39. Theoden Says:

    Wonders,

    You are right in saying that God’s justice is never isolated from is other glorious attributes, and also, that, though his justice has legal dimensions, it certainly transcends that.

    I’m also aware that the Western understanding of the Atonement rests more heavily on concepts of justice and satisfaction than does the Eastern.

    Peace,

    Theoden

  40. Tre' Says:

    Karen C posted

    “As I have reflected on Reformed/Calvinistic vs. Orthodox interpretations of Romans 9, it has always struck and encouraged me that verse 15, (and in its context in Exodus) neither says or implies, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will damn whomever I will damn.””

    But verse 18 says “So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the hearts of whomever he wills.”

    So I see it as more than implied.

    Peace

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