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A Reformed Response to the Comments of R. C. H. Lenski on Romans 9

 


by James White

[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 Lenski’s 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 haven’t 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 intimate fashion.

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 Abraham’s 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.

Romans 9:14

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 God’s freedom expressed in his ejklogh;n provqesi", His “purpose in election” (v. 11).  God’s 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 God’s mercy, but God’s freedom in choosing Jacob over Esau.  The element of God’s decretive freedom in expressing mercy has already been expressed, and will now be repeated, in the strongest terms, in verse 15.

Romans 9:15

For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION."

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.”  The real emphasis of the passage is missing in Lenski’s 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 Paul’s 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.”  In 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 God’s giving of mercy and grace.  The result of denying God’s freedom in giving grace is always the same: God’s grace becomes something that requires man’s 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 God’s 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 man’s wretchedness and not at all an answer to man’s 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 God’s 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 Lenski’s system, God responds to man’s estate: in Paul’s teaching, God is the initiator, not the responder.  Paul’s 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 God’s 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].

Romans 9:16

So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

Lenski’s 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, that’s a tautology: God’s 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 Lenski’s 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 God’s 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. 

Romans 9:17

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 God’s 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.  Lenski’s 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 Paul’s 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.”  Let 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 Paul’s context: God raised up Pharaoh as leader of Egypt for God’s purpose, not for man’s purpose.  This is clearly seen in the phrase o[pw" ejndeivxwmai, so that I might show….  There was purpose in God’s 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.  Paul’s 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 God’s “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). 

Romans 9:18

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:

a[ra ou\n o}n qevlei ejleei',

o}n de; qevlei sklhruvnei.

Literally, “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.”  It 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 words.

Lenski’s 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 Paul’s point, or the context of Romans 9?  Almost nothing.  Reading verse 18 in context with 17 and 19 makes perfect sense: yet Lenski’s 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 Pharaoh’s 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 Pharaoh’s heart for a purpose.  And what is that purpose?  The very purpose we saw in Romans 9:17!  He will harden Pharaoh’s heart “so that he will not let the people go.”  This is seen in that it goes on to say, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh” and this is followed with the identification of Israel as God’s firstborn, along with the promise to kill the firstborn of Egypt.  It was God’s 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 God’s 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.

Romans 9:19

You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?"

Paul 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?

What 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.

Romans 9:20-21

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 God’s mercy, which self-hardening called forth God’s judicial hardening” (p. 621).  This is necessary eisegesis, for Lenski has already shown himself unwilling to hear the passage in its own context.  Let’s 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.

First, the 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.

Next, Lenski’s 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 Lenski’s view, the Potter’s 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 one’s exegesis.

Third, the perfect symmetry of the “honorable vessel”/ “common vessel” image is lost in Lenski’s position.  Only God can make a vessel unto honor, and that by grace.  If it is in God’s 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 God’s sovereign power.  Lenski and other anti-Reformed writers focus upon the negative idea, “Oh, isn’t 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 pots…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 passage’s 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:

Romans 9:22-23

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 glory.

Again I refer you to the exegesis offered in The Potter’s Freedom.  Lenski’s response is amazing, though consistent with the errors that have been piling up in the desperate attempt to avoid the only possible conclusion to Paul’s 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 them.”

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 God’s 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.”  Lenski’s 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 eij" ajpwvleian) and “prepared beforehand for glory” (prohtoivmasen eij" dovxan) “reach back only in time, into the lives of those concerned, and not back into eternity.”  Such logically follows the removal of the Potter’s 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 falls.


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