The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 Second Edition by John Piper, Baker Book House, (1993), 245 pp. paperback
Reviewed by Brian G. Hedges
Former staff member of Life Action Ministries, Brian Hedges is currently engaged in itinerant preaching. Brian and his wife, Holly, live in Lubbock, Texas
In a sermon entitled "I Will Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious," John Piper confessed that when a junior in seminary, "Romans 9 came on me … like a tiger and consumed me. And I live in the belly of that tiger. It has captured me. And when I finished my studies, I was so bound by this chapter, I took seven years to write a book on it" [Dr. John Piper, "I Will Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious" (Desiring God Ministries: Minneapolis, MN, Sept 23, 1984 AM)].
That book is The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, and Christian academia owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Piper for his effort.
The author begins by stating his aim, which is "an attempt to understand how Paul defends the righteousness of God in Romans 9:14-23" (p. 15). This necessarily brought him face-to-face with the great theological task of understanding Paul's own theology regarding election and whether it pertains to the historical roles of nations or the eternal destinies of individuals. And what follows is a penetrating exegetical and theological masterpiece of scholarship in defense of the reformed doctrine of election.
Chapter two commences with a thorough exegesis of Romans 9:1-5, which sets the context of the entirety of Romans 9--the argument of which, Piper states, "is so tightly woven that understanding one stage depends on understanding the others" (p. 17). His conclusion as to the meaning of these first five verses is that "it appears that what God has guaranteed is in fact not happening--the end-time salvation of Israel. Has then the word--the reliability--of God fallen, and with it the Christian hope as well?" (p. 46). In other words, the integrity of God in keeping His covenant promises is at stake.
This necessitates Paul's argumentation in the following verses. Piper picks that argument up in chapter three as he examines verses six through thirteen and "The Purpose that Accords with Election." The key question is: what is "the purpose of God … which stands" (Rom. 9:11) in spite of the damnation of most of ethnic Israel? The answer is, of course, the purpose "according to election." But then the big question is "predestination of whom to what" (p. 56)? Nations to certain historical roles, or individuals to eternal destinations? Piper does not arrive at his answer quickly. He carefully constructs his arguments with detailed exegetical consideration and honest interaction with modern New Testament scholarship.
His conclusion is "that God's purpose has not failed because it is an 'electing purpose' by which God aims to preserve his complete freedom in determining who will be the beneficiaries of his saving promises, the 'Israel' within Israel (9:6b). "It is therefore a "purpose maintained by means of the predestination of individuals to their respective eternal destinies" (p. 73).
The next question to be tackled by Piper is the main one, namely, what does Paul mean when he defends the righteousness of God in verses fourteen through eighteen? Chapters four through nine are devoted to finding the answer to this question. This Piper does by examining Exodus 33:19 (quoted in Rom. 9:15) in it's Old Testament context (chapter four), posing the problems of verses fourteen through eighteen (chapter five), looking at the concept of God's righteousness in the Old Testament (chapter six), and closely studying Paul's conception of God's righteousness in two other key passages from Romans: Romans 3:1-8 (chapter seven) and Romans 3:25-26 (chapter eight).
Chapter four, which deals with Exodus 33:19, reveals a stunning insight into the nature of God's name and glory, which "consist fundamentally in his propensity to show mercy and his sovereign freedom in its distribution" (p. 88). Or, stated in its most precise form, "it is the glory of God and his essential nature to dispense mercy (but also wrath, Ex. 34:7) on whomever he pleases apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. This is the essence of what it means to be God. This is his name" (p. 88-89).
Chapter nine concludes the exegesis of verses fourteen through eighteen. The stunning conclusion of these chapters reveals the heart of the book and the uniqueness of Piper's contribution in the interpretation of Romans 9:14: God's righteousness is "his absolute faithfulness to act for his name's sake and for the preservation and display of his glory" (p. 150).
Chapter ten is called "The Rights and Purposes of the Creator" and deals with verses nineteen through twenty-three. "The basic concern of this chapter is to inquire whether the thought of Rom. 9:19-23 coheres with the interpretation of Rom. 9:1-18" (p. 183) developed in the previous chapters. But it also adds further insight into the whole question of theodicy and why God sustains and endures the "vessels of wrath fitted to destruction" (Rom. 9:22). Piper concludes that the ultimate purpose of God in this "double predestination" is that his glory might be displayed in the showing of mercy. He rejects a symmetrical view of reprobation and election, inferring from verse 23 that even the wrath of God is made to serve the glorious display of God's mercy.
Offering a possible explanation for the passive katertismena in verse 22 (after affirming the Divine agency in the preparation of vessels for destruction), Piper says that God's "heart is engaged differently in different acts, loving some deeds in themselves, and inclining to others only as they are preferable in relation to greater ends (cf. Lam. 3:33). If this is the case, Paul would be implying that not wrath but mercy is the greater, over-aching goal for which God does all things" (p. 213-214). The final conclusion reached is that in God's desire to display His glory in showing mercy, "he must place it against the backdrop of wrath" (p.220).
Chapter eleven is a helpful conclusion which summarizes in four pages the argumentation of the entire book. It would be advisable to read this chapter first and last, for it serves as a roadmap to the rest of the book.
The merits of this book cannot be overstated. It is both a logical and deductive study of what has been called "the most neglected chapter in the Bible," as well as a passionate plea to be centered on God in all of our theology. Those who know Piper's other more popular books (Desiring God, The Pleasures of God, etc.) will see in this book the rock-solid foundation for his God-centered worldview. The one possible demerit is that the Greek and Hebrew are not transliterated. This might make the book intimidating or uninteresting to many a pastor or layman. But even so, the work to get through it is well worth it, and the value of Piper's scholarship will be felt for many years to come by exegetes, theologians, and pastors.