This week, we return to the ninth chapter of Romans. Remember, if this text raises any questions for you as it surely will, there is a collection of sermon manuscripts preached several weeks ago where we tried to answer those questions. Feel free to take a copy. In verses 6-13, which we covered last week, Paul makes the point through the lives of Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau that God saves people on the basis of His sovereign choice and not in anything individuals do or even believe. This controversial claim leads Paul more deeply into a discussion about the character of God and the more detailed the discussion becomes, the more humbled we are as see more and more the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation.
Let’s read Romans 9:14-18. Paul says, “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. 17For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." 18Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
As we move into verses 8-14, Paul begins by answering a hypothetical question which he poses about God’s righteousness. “…Is God unjust?” The word translated “unjust” is literally “unrighteous.” For God to be righteous is to be faithful to or consistent with His character. The aspect of God’s character is in view is his justice. The question is, if God chooses people like Isaac and Jacob while passing over people like Ishmael and Esau, is he being faithful to his character? That is, in choosing certain people before they were even born to be saved over other people, is God committing an injustice? In light of this question about the perceived injustice of election in verse 14, it is ironic many people refuse to accept the plain meaning of Paul’s teaching on election because they claim, “My God would never do that—its just not right.” That’s a curious reason to reject this teaching on election in light of the fact that right up front, Paul anticipates that objection and answers it. He doesn’t leave any room for anyone to reject this teaching on the basis that it contradicts God’s sense of justice.
Notice, as soon as Paul asks this question about God being unrighteous, He never again in this passage even uses the word “justice” or “righteous.” The key concept of the entire treatment is God’s mercy. He uses that word repeatedly through these verses. Why do you suppose Paul defends God’s righteousness or justice by focussing on God’s mercy? If we understand the answer to that question, the truths in this text will be much easier for us to embrace and appreciate. Let’s very briefly look at these two concepts of justice and mercy which are really two sides of the same coin. Justice is evident whenever people get what they deserve. When a murderous villain is let off the hook on a legal technicality or because he has brilliant lawyers who can convince a jury to believe foolish arguments, our sense of justice is violated because the perpetrator did not get what they deserve.
Well, as it relates to all fallen humans who live before a holy, just God, ALL deserve to die and go to hell. “The wages of sin is death.” God’s just punishment for sin is eternal damnation. Whenever that occurs in the life of a lost person, God has been perfectly just. The condemned sinner has committed countless capital crimes in God’s court of justice and they simply get what they deserve. This is justice. Mercy on the other hand, is the with holding of punishment to those who deserve it. When a criminal is convicted and then pardoned, they have received mercy. Their crimes deserved justice in the form of punishment, but they received mercy instead.
We can all agree with this conceptually, but most of us do not on a day to day basis live with this concept firmly engrained in us. If we did, then our sense of propriety would not be wounded by the fact that God passed over Esau and Ishmael, thereby simply giving them what they deserved. Indeed, if we had a clear understanding of the horror of living as a sinner before a holy, just God, what would jump out at us from this text would NOT be God’s justice given to Ishmael and Esau. What would amaze us would be that God chose two people like Isaac and Jacob before they were born and declared them free from his punishment for their sins. Not only that, but He also granted them the high honor of the status of Patriarch within His chosen people. That’s mercy and that is what is remarkable to Paul. If we had a truly balanced, biblical perspective of what it is for a sinner to live before a holy, just God, that would be amazing to us as well. As a result, we would spend far less energy wrestling against the plain meaning of this passage of Scripture.
Paul in verses 14-18 gives two more examples from salvation history to prove that God, in electing some and passing over others, is not unjust but is indeed displaying part of his essential character. The gist of Paul’s argument in these verses is, not only is it not unjust for God to elect some and reject others, it is simply an expression of who He is. Notice in the two examples he uses to make this case, he does not choose obscure reference from Hebrew history. He goes back to the narrative of the most famous and well known event in the history of Israel, the Exodus. And with both examples, Paul chooses texts where God Himself is speaking about His own character. These truths are not read into God or imposed on Him by others, they are His own witness about Himself. In choosing those kinds of texts for support, Paul is telling us that Romans nine should have a profound influence on us as we shape our ideas about the character of God. These character issues related to election are not on the margin of God, they reach the very center of who He is.
Given the fact that this text speaks so loudly about God’s Person, it is incumbent on every true Christian who loves God and wants to know Him better to come to terms with this text. We do not have the option of simply passing this text over in our devotions because it is controversial. We are more free to do that with questions like, “What does Paul mean in First Corinthians 15 when he speaks of baptizing for the dead?” That reference and issue IS obscure. But we dare not do that here with Romans nine. We must come to grips with this and if you do not agree with this Reformed view, that’s up to you. But there must be reasons for your understanding which reflects that you have searched the Scriptures to honestly answer these basic questions about the character of God, the One whom we claim we want to know more than anything.
The first reason Paul gives for why God is not unjust in electing and rejecting people is taken from an encounter between God and Moses in Exodus 33. Moses is meeting with God after He has broken the original tablets of the Ten Commandments in response to the Jews’ worship of the golden calf. He is back with God on the mountain and in the section Paul quotes, Moses makes two requests to God. First, he asks that God go with them into the promised land so that the Jews would be clearly seen as God’s chosen people—those people who have been given special favor from God. God graciously assures Moses that he will go up with His people. Then Moses makes a personal request of God. He had spent quite a bit of time with God, but had not seen his glory—that is, a direct vision of God’s Person and he asks God to “show me your glory.”
In verse 19 of Exodus, God responds to Moses’ personal request. Remember, this was a huge request Moses makes of God. God had never done this for a fallen creature, yet he agrees to do it for Moses because He has a unique level of intimacy with Moses. That is, He had shown a unique level of mercy and grace to Moses. God says to Moses, “I Myself will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” I think God said that to indicate that this special private showing of His glory—this unspeakable privilege, was given to Moses NOT because of anything he had done. (How could a sinner, even Moses, ever DESERVE this kind of encounter with God?) God uniquely revealed Himself to Moses because He had sovereignly chosen Moses to show this special degree of grace and compassion. Moses had been sovereignly chosen by God for this honor. Paul uses this text from Exodus in Romans nine to show that part of God’s essential character is His freedom to display his goodness to some and to withhold it from others according to His sovereign purpose.
This concept is much easier for us to embrace if we keep in the front of our minds the truth that God is the Creator and we are His creatures. As such, he has the freedom to do with us as He chooses. Now, His character is such that He is not capable of being cruel or unjust to His creatures. But it wasn’t cruel or unjust of Him to show Moses His glory and conceal it from everyone else. There is nothing cruel about that. He simply chose to show Moses a special level of grace and not give that grace to others. And there was nothing unjust about it because the sinners who had made the golden calf at the bottom of the mountain were deserving of death.
Paul’s point in this text about salvation is, God does this same kind of thing with salvation. If we think about salvation from this justice/grace pattern, it becomes clear that for God to choose to save one sinner is an act of indescribable mercy and grace. The fact that he chooses to withhold that grace and mercy from others and allow His justice to punish them for their sin is His sovereign right as the Creator and if that makes us uncomfortable, then so be it. God is under absolutely NO obligation to give salvation out on an equal basis to everyone. That would imply that God owes salvation to some people and He does not. He owes it to no one. Out of his mercy, he gives it SOME, none of whom deserve it.
We know this is Paul’s point because in verse 16 he continues, “It does not, therefore depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” There is nothing humanity can do to be saved. That means that we can do nothing to cooperate with God in our salvation. Its not a team effort—God and us. Its God choosing and bringing his choice into existence by transforming a person’s heart and making them His own. It is popular today to think of our salvation as a cooperative effort between God and man. Verse 16 eliminates that possibility. Our salvation is not in any way dependent upon what we want or what we do, but wholly on the mercy of God.
Beyond that textual evidence, if salvation was a cooperative effort, that would give us something to boast about. Calvin expressed the axiom, “Where there is mutual cooperation there will also be reciprocal praise.” We see this every week after the play off games. The winning team members who cooperate together in the victory quite appropriately gush with praise for their team mates in post game interviews because football is a cooperative team sport and success is secured by a comprehensive team effort. Mutual cooperation brings reciprocal praise.
If salvation is a cooperation between God and the sinner, then we will see that same kind of scene played out in heaven. God and the sinner will meet in glory and slap each other on the back with reciprocal praise, telling each other things like, “I couldn’t have done it without you.” What a revolting notion it is that in glory a sinner would actually have the right to boast in the fact that their effort or their faith or their ANYTHING empowered God to do something. Yet if salvation is a cooperative effort between God and the sinner, they would have a perfect right to boast about their contribution before God. Scripture is crystal clear on that point, “…no one may boast before him” and “Let Him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
A second reason Paul gives to show that it is not unjust for God to elect some and reject others is found in verse 17 where he speaks of how God related to Pharaoh. God is quoted from Exodus 9:16 where he says to Pharaoh through Moses, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” God’s interaction with Moses shows that it is part of his essential nature to show mercy to some people. God’s interaction with Pharaoh, like his relationship to Ishmael and Esau, shows that it is also part of God’s essential nature to withhold his mercy from others. This is what has been called the “negative” side of election.
God tells Moses, “I raised you up for this very purpose…” That means God had a set purpose and intention and that he directly acted in Pharaoh’s life in such a way that He might display his power. God didn’t happen to just look down on Pharaoh and say, “I will be able to show all my wonders to the world with a stiff necked person like this. What a lucky coincidence that such a stubborn man happens to be in power.” NO! Paul says that God intentionally, proactively raised up this man to act against Him. We know that is exactly what happened in the Exodus. If, on the first request from Moses to “let my people go” Pharaoh would have said, “Sure, go right ahead.” There would have been no plagues, no parting of the Red Sea; no wonders would have been necessary. But because Pharaoh was obstinate, God showed his power in a way (we know from the book of Joshua) that the entire eastern world knew about. His glory was manifest. God chose, he “raised him up” and worked in his life in a certain way so that he might perform a specific role in salvation history. And that role was to be like an anvil on which God could pound to show forth the power of his blows. Pharaoh was raised up to be God’s foil by which he could demonstrate His wonders.
There is no mercy. God with holds that. There is only justice and God is always quite entitled to dispense justice to a treasonous sinner like Pharaoh, or any sinner. God in His mercy showed his glory TO Moses and He was completely free to do so. God in His justice showed his glory THROUGH Pharaoh and he was just as free to do that. In verse 18, Paul concludes this section and in so doing gives us more insight into what he actually did with Pharaoh. After he has used these two very different examples of Moses and Pharaoh he says, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”
You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to see that Paul summarizes God’s dealings with both Moses and Pharaoh in this verse. According to his own will and purpose He gave mercy to Moses and He hardened Pharaoh. The question is, what is meant by the phrase “he hardens whom he wants to harden?” One scholar rightly defines “hardening” as a spiritual process that “renders a person spiritually insensitive and without reversal will lead to eternal damnation.” Did God actively act on Pharaoh in such a way as to CAUSE HIM to be desensitized to the reality that there was no hope in hanging on to the Hebrew slaves? And was it a God-induced insensitivity that caused him to repeatedly resist Moses’ pleas for liberty when it was clear to anyone with a lick of sense after the first couple of plagues that to fight the God of Moses was a futile venture?
In Exodus chapters 4-14 there are ten occasions when the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. That is, God actively worked to desensitize Pharaoh to the spiritual reality of his overwhelming power. There are ten more references to hardening in that section where it is says either that Pharaoh hardened his heart or his heart was hardened in a passive sense but without mentioning God. From that data, some argue that it was Pharaoh who hardened his heart and all God did was respond to Pharaoh’s desire to harden his heart against God. In other words, it is argued, that God is simply reacting to what Pharaoh did and gave Him what He wanted, a hard heart.
That is emotionally appealing, but not likely for at least a couple of reasons. First, it never explicitly says anywhere that the reason God hardened Pharaoh’s heart was in response to Pharaoh’s hardening. That idea brought in from outside the text. Second, what IS mentioned and is critical in this discussion is found when God tells Moses about Pharaoh in Exodus chapter four and chapter seven. These verses both occur BEFORE the plagues and in both these verses God predicts to Moses how Pharaoh will respond to the plagues He will bring on Egypt. In both cases, God tells Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” That shows us that God’s premeditated intention was to bring these plagues off by hardening Pharaoh’s heart Himself.
God has mercy on those, like Moses He chooses and He hardens whom He wants to harden like Pharaoh. And God is not the least bit unjust of God in the least in doing so. Paul’s point is in fact, it is perfectly consistent with His character to do so. To some, He manifests His holiness and justice and to others He shows forth His mercy and, as we saw last week, He decides who gets what according to His purpose in election.
One reason this text is troubling to many is because this truth clearly shows that the salvation of people are not God’s ultimate priority. If saving people were at the top of His agenda, He would never reject anyone. God’s top priority, as we’ll see more later, is showing forth his glory, His sovereign authority and purpose in salvation. God doesn’t exist for us, we exist to glorify God. That is very humbling. This takes nothing away from the vast, unmeasured depths of God’s mercy. The fact that a holy God would save even one person is an unfathomable act of mercy. He sent His Son to the Cross so that his JUSTICE might be satisfied as he placed our punishment on Him. And He shows that MERCY as He washes the stain of sin off of His children using the precious blood of His Son.
If anything, this text should cause us to treasure and prize God’s mercy more than ever before. Because we see from Romans nine that God was under NO obligation to show forth his mercy to US and the way we know that is because this text tells us that He doesn’t show it to everyone. And the presence of those others who have not received his mercy should make us see the wonder of being saved even more profoundly! Instead of questioning the validity of this depiction of God who would actually, as the Creator of the Universe, have the nerve to reject some people, we should be dancing in the aisles that the Holy One of Israel, when under no obligation of any kind, stretched out His hand of mercy to save you and me.
If we have an intellectual or emotional problem with the fact that chooses to show mercy to only certain sinners, then it would follow that we should have perhaps even greater conflict with God over those numerous occasions when He, in graphic, shocking ways, refused to show mercy to His own children who He loves. And the Bible is full of those kind of instances. We could think here of Moses. He serves God tirelessly and with utmost faithfulness for 40 years and suffers tremendous, continual abuse from these stiff necked people he is called by God to lead. And in Numbers 20, exasperated from the complaints of these people, Moses makes one mistake and pounds a rock to get some water. In response to this one lapse, God says “…you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” And when Moses later pleads with God to reconsider, God said, “I don’t want to hear this, don’t speak of it again.” One mistake, NO MERCY!
What about Aaron? He serves God for many years as His priest, but when his two sons Nadab and Abihu are caught clowning around with the incense altars, God executes them on the spot. One mistake, NO MERCY to his priest. How about Ezekiel, a faithful prophet if there ever was one. And God comes to him in Ezekiel 24 and says, “Ezekiel, your wife—the one who is the light of your eyes—the love of your life…” “With one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears.” He tells him to keep his groaning down and not to mourn for his wife who He will take. Ezekiel hadn’t done ANYTHING wrong, but God was doing something through her death that was bigger than His desire not to hurt his servant. And when she died that same night, Ezekiel did just what God said. He didn’t shed a tear.
If you’re a student of the Bible, you could add several more examples of God refusing to show mercy to His children when everything within us cries out for Him to do that. You will also know that not one of these individuals ever railed against God for not being fair. They understood that as God, He has a right to do with them or their loved ones whatever He chose.
One application to this teaching in Romans nine is for us to be reminded once again that God is bigger than we are and will not stay in any of our “Minnesota nice” boxes. He is not nice or fair. He is gracious and merciful and loving and just and holy and our duty is to, like Moses and Aaron and Ezekiel and countless others, accept Him for who He has revealed Himself to be in Scripture and reverence Him for He is a glorious God who shows forth wondrous mercy.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
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