[The following article makes use
of the Mounce Greek font.]
Lutheran scholar R.C.H. Lenski wrote a series of New
Testament commentaries that are still in circulation today. His strongly
anti-Reformed stance comes through clearly in his writings. Recently his view of
Romans 9 has been promoted widely, so I felt it proper to provide some thoughts on
Lenski's position in the following paragraphs. I hope they are useful and helpful to
those studying the issue.
First, I was a little taken aback by
the anti-Reformed polemic inherent in Lenskis commentary. I am aware that many Lutherans continue to harbor
that kind of anti-Calvinism (I suppose some Calvinists harbor anti-Lutheran feelings in
turn, though I havent encountered it myself), but what bothered me most was that it
became a predominant theme in all of his comments on relevant passages, especially Romans
8:28ff and then in Romans 9. This resulted in
polemically-derived representations of the Reformed position that are anything but fair. This did, in my opinion, result in exegetical
errors that can be seen by a semi-unbiased examination of the text. For example, his discussion of foreknowledge
is clearly geared against the Calvinistic position, and as such suffers, in that while he
expands his study into all kinds of uses of ginwvskw, he neglects the single most obvious
element of any study of proginwvskw in the NT: the actual usage of the
term and the fact that the only objects of the verb in the NT are Christ, Israel,
and the elect. This simple consideration
forms the basis of the recognition that proginwvskw does, in fact, go beyond mere
knowledge to relationship, a fact borne out by the rest of the Golden Chain of Redemption,
for, ultimately, all who are foreknown are glorified, and nothing can be more
certain than the fact that all the glorified are in Christ and that in a most
Next, while there are elements of the
exegesis that I disagree with in the earlier sections of Romans 9, I would like to focus
primarily upon the central passages, 9:14ff. Only
one issue needs to be raised regarding the previous sections: the key to the
passage that I hardly ever see addressed by non-Reformed exegetes is the relationship
between 9:6 and the rest of the chapter. Paul
is addressing one particular issue in this passage, that being, how is it that so many of
Abrahams physical descendants reject the Messiah?
Why do the great body of Jews reject their Messiah? This is a personal question. Paul, as a Jew, embraced the Messiah personally. Most of his brethren rejected Christ personally. Why? This
issue is paramount.
I will assume
that any person interested in this subject has access to Lenski's commentary, and we will
not reproduce the text here. Relevant citations will be included.
Beginning on p. 605 Lenski emphasizes
the word mercy. This becomes the
over-arching element of his presentation. I
would submit that, eventually, the focus upon the concept of mercy over-rides
the text itself. Paul will, in fact, speak of
mercy both as a verb (ejleevw, a transitive verb difficult to
translate into English, since we have no verb to mercy) as well as an
adjective (in the genitive in v. 23), vessels of mercy. But he uses the verb in parallel with harden
as well, a fact that cannot be allowed to be diminished due to any preconception.
What shall we say
then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!
On page 606 Lenski limits the referent
of What, then, shall we say to a rejection of works righteousness, when the
preceding context is clear that the real referent is Gods freedom expressed in his ejklogh;n
provqesi", His purpose
in election (v. 11). Gods choice
of one over another is utterly free: there is nothing in the creature that limits it or
controls it. This would include works
of merit but is not restricted thereto. What
is missed by Lenski, however, is why such a thought would arise on the basis of what came
before. The objection is clearly raised not
to Gods mercy, but Gods freedom in choosing Jacob over Esau. The element of Gods decretive freedom in
expressing mercy has already been expressed, and will now be repeated, in the
strongest terms, in verse 15.
For He says to
Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I
On p. 608 we
are given a most unusual assertion, where the meaning of the phrase I will have
mercy on whomever I will have mercy is reduced to meaning, I will not demand
works. Here Lenski begins to leave the
text behind and build a whole new meaning. He
himself has already noted that the verb is transitive: it is an action with a direct
object. God mercies whom He
wishes to mercy. The sense is quite different
if we change this action of God to God reserves to Himself the right to offer
salvation without demanding works.
real emphasis of the passage is missing in Lenskis comments: the freedom of God in
expression of His grace. Grace and mercy, by
nature, cannot be demanded, but only given freely. God
is the only source of grace, and He is free in the giving of it. Esau did not receive this mercy: the assumption is
that it was offered, but simply rejected by Esau. But
this is self-evidently not Pauls point, for this shifts the focus from God
who mercies to man who determines if this action of God will, in the end, be
effective. Such is, in reality, to turn the
text on its head.
Recognizing the section that is to come
(regarding the Potter and the pots), Lenski launches into an anti-Reformed polemic on page
608. It has God extend mercy and pity
to only a few of the wretched and lost.
the sense of salvific grace, yes: God is free to save His elect people and no one else. To say otherwise is to say that grace must be
given to all equally: i.e., there can be no freedom in Gods giving of mercy and
grace. The result of denying Gods
freedom in giving grace is always the same: Gods grace becomes something that
requires mans cooperative effort to be effective, rather than the powerful grace of
God that brings salvation infallibly to all who are recipients thereof.
Lenski also alleges, For the
great mass of the wretched God has no mercy, no pity but only judgment, damnation. No one knows how many men and women will be
recipients of Gods grace. But one thing
is for certain: to exchange the biblical description of man as sinful rebel for the
wretched is to demonstrate that one is not fairly dealing with the issues at hand. This is seen in what follows, Mercilessly,
pitilessly he lets them perish in their wretchedness, yea, decrees that they shall so
perish. In the mercy and the pity a peculiar
sovereignty is substituted for the blessed quality which makes each what it really is in
God, the response of his nature to mans wretchedness and not at all an answer to mans
works (608-609). To rightly state it,
With much patience for their constant rebellion, showering them with common grace
and the benefits of life, God endures sinners, allowing His sun and rain to fall upon
them, all the while bringing about His own glory in their rebellion, as He did with Pilate
and Herod and the Jews (Acts 4:28). In Gods
sovereign grace is found the incredible condescension that causes Him to redeem a people
unto Himself, all to the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph. 1:6). I note as well that in Lenskis system, God responds
to mans estate: in Pauls teaching, God is the initiator, not the responder. Pauls point is the freedom of God, Lenski
has disposed of this.
Finally, seemingly feeling that he must
finish venting, Lenski writes, The fact that such a sovereignty in God would be the
very embodiment of unrighteousness and injustice is brushed away by simple Calvinistic
denial and by such pleas as that God owes nothing to the non-elect. First, God owes the non-elect their due: eternal
punishment as sinners. He could bring that
punishment to bear immediately, but He does not do so, for He has a purpose He is bringing
about (just as the text will point out with reference to Pharaoh). Despite the delay of His sure punishment, man
continues in his sin, loving it, reveling in it, despising Gods kindness and
patience. Secondly, this broadside is little
more than the very objection raised in 9:19, only garbed in theological terminology. [The following pages in Lenski contain a good deal
of vitriolic misrepresentation of Reformed theology.
So as to be able to focus upon the actual position Lenski presents, I will
ignore the straw-men].
So then it does
not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
Lenskis means of dealing with
Romans 9:16 is most interesting: the passage is said to extend merely to the provision of
mercy, not to the actual realization of salvation. That
is, the offering of mercy is totally of God: there is nothing of man in it. But, of course, thats a tautology: Gods
mercy has to find its source in God. Is that
all Paul is saying? Surely not. Again Lenski, though well knowing that the
participle mercying is active here (just as willing and running
are active), ignores this and limits this to merely an offer of mercy rather than
the actual bestowal of mercy. Remember,
Paul is providing the answer to the question, Why do so many of the Jews reject the
Messiah? How can Lenskis
interpretation of 9:16 fit into answering that kind of question? Obviously, it cannot. Instead, Paul is saying that salvation itself, not
the mere offer of it, not the mere attitude of mercy on Gods part, but the actual
work of salvation, is not based upon the will or activities of man, but upon the action of
God who actually saves.
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh,
"FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY
NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH."
Lenski continues his attempt to defuse
the passages testimony to the absolute freedom and sovereignty of God by saying that
the issue here is the demonstration of Gods righteousness. Surely this came up earlier (9:14), but the answer
has already been given: God is righteous because He is God and because His giving of
mercy is free and sovereign and man is in no position to question Him. Lenskis theology does not allow him to stay
with the text, and this will become even more clear as we proceed deeper into the text,
for his departure from Pauls position will force him to ever more obvious
eisegesis. He writes, The asserting of a sovereignty
that is merciful to some and merciless and pitiless to others does not prove
righteousness, in fact, it does the opposite.
us retranslate in the proper way: The asserting of a sovereignty that demonstrates
the glory of His free grace upon His elect people, and shows justice and holiness to
deserving sinners as well, does not prove righteousness, in fact, it does the opposite. Once we remove the rhetoric, we can see the truth.
Romans 9:17 is tremendously
straightforward in Pauls context: God raised up Pharaoh as leader of Egypt for Gods
purpose, not for mans purpose. This
is clearly seen in the phrase o[pw"
ejndeivxwmai, so that I
. There was purpose in
Gods action, and it was a purpose focused upon God. While Lenski dismisses Pharaoh as a minor
figure, a side issue in this passage (p. 614), this misses the point being made. Pauls thought in 9:18-19 flows directly from
the example of Pharaoh. It is the personal
aspect regarding Pharaoh that seems so desperately improper to the non-Reformed exegete,
yet, this is plainly the point of the text. God
raises up Pharaoh so that He might show His power and make His name known
throughout the earth. And how did God do
this? Through the plagues He brought upon
Egypt, prompted by the constant refusal to bow before God, God brought glory to Himself. The patience of God in the case of Pharaoh was not
an extension of saving mercy. Paul clearly
says that God was demonstrating His power in Pharaoh, not just with
reference to him. Paul says God spoke
this to Pharaoh, only strengthening the application.
Lenski asserts that the revelation of
Gods name through all the earth was full of the gospel of mercy
thus mightily carried out (p. 615) But where does the text give this indication? Where is there a proclamation of mercy to Egypt? Lenski speaks of God executing His mercy in
favor of people who believed in Him, when the text plainly states that God makes His
wrath and power known (9:22), just as He did upon the Egyptians. What was grace to the Israelites (wholly
undeserved) was wrath upon the idolatrous Egyptians (wholly deserved).
So then He has mercy on whom He
desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
This tremendously plain passage follows
directly from the assertion of v. 17 regarding Pharaoh.
Lenski engages in two errors that completely reverse the impact of the
verse. First, he draws from his error in v.
16 to simply dismiss as impossible the idea that some of the wretched and lost are
treated with mercy while other wretched and lost ones are treated with mercilessness
(p. 616). As we saw before, this is a great
misstatement of the truth. We are not talking
about the wretched as in the pitiable, the poor, the downtrodden. We are talking about justly condemned rebels who
love their sin and their lawlessness. And
what they receive is pure justice, not mercilessness. We again see the common error of all such systems:
the idea that God is not free in the giving of grace, but must give grace to every
person equally. Lenski did not
establish his position in v. 16, and he fails to do so here as well.
Following this is a lengthy and obtuse
attempt to get around the plain meaning of verse 18 that is based upon the assertion that
the phrase whom He wills He hardens cannot mean that God hardens some of
the wretched and lost in consequence of an absolute eternal decree. It is plain that for Lenski, whatever else might
be said, the Reformed view cannot, by definition, be correct. Hence, some other view must be found. But how much more plainly can words be used? The Greek symmetry is striking:
whom He wishes, He mercies; but whom He wishes, He hardens. The parallel is perfect, even to the point of word
order. Some receive mercy: personal mercy
(again, the transitive verb with the direct object being those whom God wishes). But (adversative use of de;) some receive
hardening, with the verb again being both active and transitive. Those who receive the hardening are, just as the
others, those whom He pleases.
is truly the fact that some are unwilling to believe that God could choose some for
hardening and judgment, and this keeps them from accepting these plain, clear, unambiguous
gymnastics involve the wholesale importation of all sorts of differentiations regarding kinds
of hardening, saying the only kind of hardening God performs is judicial. But what does this have to do with Pauls
point, or the context of Romans 9? Almost
nothing. Reading verse 18 in context with 17
and 19 makes perfect sense: yet Lenskis interpretation atomizes the text, breaking
it into separate segments that are related to the others only when it is convenient for
him to do so.
The second error
made by Lenski (and by Arminians as well) is found in his citation of Exodus 4:21. Lenski completely misreads the text by saying,
In Exod. 4:21 the Lord tells Moses the final outcome: I will harden his heart;
and all those wonders refers to all of them that Moses was to do before
Pharaoh (p. 617). But note what the LORD really says:
The LORD said to Moses,
When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which
I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people
go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus says the LORD, Israel
is My son, My firstborn. So I said to you, Let My son go that he may serve Me;
but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn. (Exodus 4:21-23)
These words are
spoken to Moses before he ever sees Pharaohs face. There is nothing in this text to indicate that God
here is merely giving Moses the final outcome.
In fact, it is patently clear what is going on in the passage. God tells Moses, before Pharaoh has even heard His
demands, that He, God, will harden Pharaohs heart for a purpose. And what is that purpose? The very purpose we saw in Romans 9:17! He will harden Pharaohs heart so that
he will not let the people go.
seen in that it goes on to say, Then you shall say to Pharaoh and this
is followed with the identification of Israel as Gods firstborn, along with the
promise to kill the firstborn of Egypt. It
was Gods intention to carry out all ten plagues against Egypt so as to
establish the Passover and the national identity. Through
these God constantly reminded Israel of His power and His ability to deliver. Mercy was shown in the Exodus account not to
Pharaoh and the Egyptians but to the undeserving, stiff-necked Israelites. Pharaoh was not rejecting offers of mercy and
hence becoming more and more hardened, as if he could have relented after the first plague
and all would have been well. Such a concept
is simply absent from both the Exodus narrative as well as Romans 9. Paul is blunt and honest: God has sovereign right
over the pots. That is why it is wrong to say
Gods promises have failed, and this explains the reason why so many Jews reject the
Messiah (9:6). He is about to give the final
illustration of this truth.
You will say to
me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?"
had heard the objection before. Lenski offers
little comment, but I would only point out one thing: who is it that hears this objection
lodged against their preaching and teaching? The
Lutheran? The Arminian? No. It
is the Reformed person who constantly hears this objection.
If Paul had to deal with it, and most modern preaching never hears it
raised, does this not say something important to us?
is more, it needs to be emphasized that the questioner is raising the obvious objection. Some have gone so far as to attempt to say that
this person has misunderstood Paul, for example. But
nothing in verses 20-24 indicate this. The
answer Paul gives to this question goes to the very root of the issue. It is the common lot of man to attempt to judge
God. It is common for pots to attempt to
enter into judgment with the Potter. The
objection is not based upon a misunderstanding of what Paul has said: it is based upon a
sinful error regarding who man is and
who God is.
On the contrary,
who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder,
"Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a
right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another
for common use?
Lenski deals with
these two verses together as a whole, hence I follow his lead. There is almost no exegesis offered here by
Lenski: when one looks at pages 620-621, all three main paragraphs of commentary are
anti-Reformed polemic, nothing else. In
essence, he reduces the entire two verses to one issue: blame. He writes that the figure deals only with
one point, that of blame: as the potter cannot be blamed by any vessel which he turns out
for dishonor instead of making it like another for honor, so also God cannot be blamed by
any man whom he hardens instead of saving him
.The tertium of the potter and
his two vessels extends no farther. For the
figure of the potter and the clay could not picture the self-hardening of Pharaoh and of
the Jews in permanent obduracy against Gods mercy, which self-hardening called forth
Gods judicial hardening (p. 621). This
is necessary eisegesis, for Lenski has already shown himself unwilling to hear the passage
in its own context. Lets note just a
few of the errors and how these will result in one of the most incredible examples of
eisegesis in the next section.
connection between the objection and the answer is lost on Lenski. The response of Paul explains why it is that man
is in no position to judge God: man is the pot, God the Potter. What does a potter do? A potter creates pots. The potter has utter, total, complete,
unquestioned freedom to do with the pots as he wishes.
There is no basis upon which pots can question the potter, since they are
dependent, totally, upon the potter for their existence.
There is a fundamental ontological distinction presented here: the Creator
and the created. To say that there is a
common law or rule that governs both the Potter and the pots upon which the pots can bring
a charge of injustice against the Potter is absurd.
Yet this is the very foundation of all accusations of injustice against God. Men want to say God is just by human standards. God says He is just by nature.
response completely ignores the text of the passage.
The Potter is active here: He 1) has a right over the clay (genitive
of subordination) and 2) He makes (poih'sai)
both kinds of vessels.
God is the one who makes the vessels.
In Lenskis view, the Potters hand is forced by the behavior of
the pots as to what kind they will be! This
comes out clearly in the next verse as well. In
essence, Lenski turns the passage on its head. His
position removes the logic from the answer Paul is offering to the objection of v. 19. The answer is found in the sovereignty of the
Potter over pots. By taking out the very
substance of the response we are left with no answer at all, for men resist His will
all the time, and it is in fact the will of the pots that ends up determining if they are
going to be a pot unto honor or a pot unto dishonor!
Such is the result of allowing a system to determine ones exegesis.
Third, the perfect symmetry of the
honorable vessel/ common vessel image is lost in Lenskis
position. Only God can make a vessel unto
honor, and that by grace. If it is in Gods
power to do this for some, why not for all? Because
it is the right of the Potter to do with the pots as He pleases. This is the fundamental issue that causes
rejection of the plain meaning of this text. Men
desire to have control over themselves. They
reject their creatureliness, and instead insist upon limiting Gods sovereign power. Lenski and other anti-Reformed writers focus upon
the negative idea, Oh, isnt it horrible that God would create common vessels!
instead of seeing the real wonder: What a marvel that He would create vessels of
honor without having to do so at all, and lavish such love and grace upon them, despite
their corruption! Such is the common
response of man.
What is truly amazing is the way in
which Lenski gets around the clear and obvious connection between verses 21 and 22. He first treats them separately. He insists that vessel unto honor and
vessel unto dishonor refers not to purpose but to character. This is truly an amazing assertion. Potters make pots for purposes: Lenski says these
are all the same pots, its just that some end up honorably and some end up dishonorably. To work, the image would have to be that God makes
generic pots, all the same, and some end up being used honorably and some end up
being misused. The end would have to
be in sight, not the freedom of the Potter in making them! Such eisegesis completely ignores the passages
own assertion that God has a RIGHT over the clay to make DIFFERENT kinds of pots! The silence of Lenski at this point speaks
volumes. This leads directly into the
clearest example of eisegesis in the section:
What if God,
although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much
patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make
known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for
Again I refer you to the exegesis
offered in The Potters Freedom. Lenskis
response is amazing, though consistent with the errors that have been piling up in the
desperate attempt to avoid the only possible conclusion to Pauls argument. The key to his entire (and lengthy) attempt to
escape the weight of the text is this: When
the latter are described, a perfect passive participle is used: fitted for
destruction, which hides the agent who, therefore, is not God Satan fitted
When I first read this I could only
stop and re-read it again. How could someone,
following this text, ostensibly offering an exegesis thereof, all of a sudden
introduce a whole new agent, not once mentioned anywhere in the text, and by so doing
completely destroy the obvious, intentional relationship between vessel of
honor/vessels of mercy and vessels of dishonor/vessels of wrath? Lenski avoids even attempting to make a
pretense of seeing the connection between 21 and 22.
It is simply ignored. But the
honest exegete cannot do so. Next, he ignores
the obvious relationship that exists between the first clause of the sentence and the
passive participle he focuses upon and makes the hidden agency of Satan. God is said to be willing to demonstrate His wrath
and make His power known (as He did with Pharaoh and the Egyptians). Yet He withholds that wrath that is properly due
to whom? Vessels of wrath prepared for
destruction. And why does He delay this wrath
and endure with much patience these vessels? So
that He might display the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy which He prepared
beforehand for glory. These are the
elect: the demonstration of wrath on the non-elect shows Gods grace toward those
that He freely and fully pardons. Will this
not be the case in eternity to come as well? The
sole difference between the person
bowing in humble adoration of God in eternity and the person undergoing eternal torment
away from the presence of God is the five-letter word, grace. Lenskis scheme says no, all are offered
mercy, all are offered grace, but it is the character of the vessels that
determines, in finality, the difference. Hence,
the vessels of honor are somehow better, in the final analysis, than the
vessels of dishonor, and the distinction is again made to reside in the creature,
rather than the Potter.
Lenski insists that both actions of
prepared for destruction (kathrtismevna
and prepared beforehand for glory
reach back only in time, into the lives of those concerned, and not
back into eternity. Such logically follows the removal of the Potters
freedom in making pots, to be sure. But it likewise has no foundation at all in the
text. Given what is said in Romans 8:28-31 and Ephesians 1:3-11, this assertion