R. C. Sproul, in Chosen by God, writes, “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” R. C. Sproul’s point was to show that God was sovereign not just in the ends, but in the means; not just in the results, but in the process. God was sovereign over his promise coming to fulfillment; he was also sovereign over the very details of how his promise comes to fulfillment. For this view, Sproul would often draw his readers and listeners to Romans 9.
R. C. Sproul was famous for going to Romans 9 for his understanding of God’s sovereignty, and it is in Romans 9 where R. C. Sproul first showed me that God’s sovereignty means that God is free to act in ways that defy our understanding and expectations.
1. Position and power do not equal God’s blessing.
In Romans 9, Paul argued for the sovereignty of God in all the details of human existence surrounding God’s promise to save his people. And the challenge to such a view was obvious to those living within the Roman Empire and especially to the people whom Paul addressed in his letter to the Romans, a persecuted Christian church living in the imperial city itself. The challenge is understanding how God could allow an unjust ruler to maintain power. The Roman emperor, likely Nero, was obviously no friend of God. The Roman empire was obviously no friend to Christians. So how could God allow his people to suffer under an unjust ruler who thought himself a god and demanded obedience and loyalty?
Paul’s answer comes not in Romans 13 but in Romans 9. In Romans 9, Paul reminds the Christians at Rome, who likely worshiped in secret, that God had worked in these sorts of circumstances before. God had saved his people from Egyptian bondage through that famous event the Exodus. And God had worked through the wicked Pharaoh to save his people. He wrote, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:17–18).
If you remember the story, God had raised up Moses to save his people from Egyptian slavery. God had called Moses to speak to Pharaoh demanding the liberation of his people with the words, “let my people go.” Throughout the story God worked in a strange way: he hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Moses’ request. God actually made Pharaoh more opposed to Moses’ request; he actually aided Pharaoh’s stubbornness. God guided Pharaoh to oppose his own will.
At one level, the story of the Exodus leads us to wonder if God is against himself? How can God desire the salvation of his people, raise up a deliverer, and not only allow Pharaoh to maintain his unjust rule but actually guide him to be more opposed to Israel’s liberation than before Moses had come to him? Paul tells us the answer. God wanted to display his power in that situation. Through Pharaoh’s stubbornness, God had the opportunity to do battle with the Egyptian sorcerers. He brought the ten plagues upon Egypt, demonstrating his sovereignty over the gods of the Egyptians, and only after thoroughly defeating Pharaoh does God finally bring about the liberation of his people.
In reminding the Roman Christians of this story, Paul taught them that God works both in the powers that be and against the powers that be for his own purposes. He taught them that the Roman Empire was there both for his will and against his final purpose of establishing his new creation kingdom. He taught them that the reign of evil is temporary and that those on the top of society often don’t have God’s blessing or favor, but they are put in a situation where God will display his power through overturning their rule. Paul taught them not to imagine that worldly power and influence was somehow God’s blessing.
Worldly power and influence could also be God’s wrath meant for the destruction of the powerful and influential. The quest for power and influence have led some to destroy themselves, and the attainment of power and influence in others has been their downfall. This has happened over and over in history.
2. God works through the process.
From R.C. Sproul I first learned that God is sovereign and works through ordinary human means, that God is sovereign not only in the results but in the process. God raises up kings but also works in revolutions and reformations. God establishes presidents and also leads others to oppose them. God doesn’t have a political party and he doesn’t have a favorite football team. God is certainly sovereign over American politics, but that doesn’t mean he approves of current political leaders, especially not in everything they do.