Lesson 35: Romans 9:14-18
Is God Unjust?
by Bob Burridge ©2011
In the Book of Romans the Apostle Paul explains some hard, but important truths. For 2,000 years before Christ, God had specially blessed the Jews. He had given them many advantages, and charged them with safely keeping his word.
Sadly, for the most part, what God gave them was abused, and his word was confused. Jesus had warned that the glory of the Jewish people was about to be ended in judgment. Their temple would be destroyed, and their corrupted worship stopped. Paul too had taught that the coming of Messiah marked the end of their unique privilege. As a Jew himself, the Apostle Paul deeply grieved for their unbelief.
Did this mean that God was not keeping his promise to ancient Israel? Certainly that cannot be possible. God had never promised to save all of the physical descendents of Jacob. God gave his covenant promises to Adam, and later to Noah. But he never intended all humans descended from them to be his redeemed people. From the descendants of Adam and Noah, he chose the family of Abraham and his descendants to represent God’s blessings. From the children of Abraham God only chose Isaac to continue the advantaged line. And of Isaac’s twins, God loved Jacob but hated Esau as we saw in the previous part of this chapter of Romans.
Not all of the Jews by natural birth are the spiritual children of God’s promise. Of all those outwardly associated with the Covenant People, only a remnant of them are redeemed by the Savior. In that sense, within the Visible Church there is God’s Invisible Church, those chosen by God’s grace, those upon whom God set his love.
This is not an easy truth for the fallen mind. The spiritually dead heart does not want to admit its own guilt and its inability to change its own basic nature. He wants to be free to do what he wants to do. He wonders that if God chooses only some to be redeemed and to become his true children, is there injustice in God? Is he unfair?
In Romans 9:14-18 Paul deals with the justice of God in choosing some only. In 9:19-24 he handles more directly the fairness issue which we will take up in our next study.
Is God unjust?
Romans 9:14, “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!”
Justice is one of God’s eternal attributes. It is part of what he is. When he created all things, he built justice into the universe as a moral principle. When he made mankind in his image, God put it into the heart of humans to love justice. The fallen heart corrupts that idea as it does all the qualities that are in God.
Justice describes what happens to lawbreakers. First is assumes that there is a rule, a law, that ought to be obeyed. It assumes that there is a penalty attached to breaking that rule. Whenever the rule is broken, justice demands that the penalty will be paid. Fairness means that the rule, and its penalty, are applied consistently.
Is God unjust or unfair when he rejects Israel as a whole, yet saves some? Is it unjust that he loves Jacob, but hates Esau (Romans 9:13, Malachi 1:2-3)?
Paul dismisses the objection immediately. He says, “Certainly not!” He uses strong words to deny to the very idea that God could be unjust. The Greek phrase here is mae genoito (μη γενοιτο), which literally means, “Let it not be!” It’s like when we say, “Don’t even think such a thing!” One of my Greek teachers used to bring this over into our day by using the American idiom, “Perish the thought.”
Since Romans is an inspired book of Scripture, if no more was said this would be enough. The Bible says here that God is not unjust. Paul had just shown from Old Testament Scripture that God loves some and hates others, that not all descendents of Jacob are the true Israel of God’s promise. Yet God is just. It says so here. That is all we really need.
God in his desire to show us more about this wonder, does not stop there. He explains beyond just telling us the fact. There is a great comfort here for God’s people when they understand this truth. There is a promise here that helps us through hard times and those moments of doubt.
The First Point of Doctrine in the Canons of Dordt, Article 14 on Election and Reprobation, states, “Just as, by God’s wise plan, this teaching concerning divine election has been proclaimed through the prophets, Christ himself, and the apostles, in Old and New Testament times, and has subsequently been committed to writing in the Holy Scriptures, so also today in God’s church, for which it was specifically intended, this teaching must be set forth–with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High. This must be done for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for the lively comfort of his people.” (translated from the original Latin manuscript, adopted in 1986 by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church)
To explain his answer more completely,
Paul again turns to Scripture.
Romans 9:15, “For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.’ “
If God has stated this in his word, it is therefore true and must be accepted. The New Testament regularly cites Old Testament authority to prove its case. The Bible does not engage in abstract philosophical arguments to give authority to its teachings. Neither should we.
God spoke to Moses telling him about his divine prerogative in Exodus 33:19, “Then He said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ ”
This is the verse Paul quotes here in Romans to support the point he is making. Mercy and compassion are shown toward those to whom God desires to show it. It is hard to imagine anything being more clear. God does not treat all humans in the same way. This is directly stated by God himself.
Also, God is just. The idea of justice itself comes from what God is. While he selects those to whom he will be merciful and show compassion, he never neglects the demands of justice in so doing. As Paul had also written about God, “He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13).
So then, if all humans deserve eternal damnation and separation from God, how can any be shown compassion and be mercifully delivered without violating justice?
Today we know more than Moses knew about how God justly displays his compassion. Jesus was God in human flesh. He came as the promised Messiah. Only he, as the infinite and perfect God, and as perfect man, could represent those chosen by God, to live and die in their place to satisfy justice for all those to whom God intended to show his compassion.
There can be no principles that limit God other than that which flows from his own nature. Nothing more absolute or eternal than him can possibly exist. Any concept of justice or fairness must come from God himself, not from things external to him. There can be no law that binds the hand of God. A principle that binds must be sovereign over its subjects. If something compels, it is in itself Lord over that which is under it. The highest principle above which is nothing else, is Lord of lords. The Bible tells us that this is the Creator who has revealed himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God incarnate in the person of Jesus. Since God defines justice and fairness, the thought of him being unjust or unfair not only denies that God is God, it makes nonsense out of the idea of the words themselves.
God has compassion upon whom he will. Whatever he desires is by definition right and just. God’s word has established that it is so. There is no need to explain further. The facts of Exodus 33:19 stands by themselves. No more needs to be said. Our inability to reconcile statements, or to comprehend them, is not a valid objection to their being true. The final test is to determine what God’s word says. That is the final word.
What then determines who the
object of mercy will be?
Romans 9:16, “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”
This is a partial conclusion in Paul’s argument. Since it is God alone who decides who will receive his mercy, then it cannot depend upon man. Man cannot be the cause of the mercy he receives if its cause is in God.
First: This mercy cannot be caused by man’s will. It is not by a human’s decision, choice, determination, or receiving that he is saved. It is caused by God alone who has mercy upon whom he will.
Then also he shows that mercy is not caused by man’s efforts. Running is a favorite metaphor Paul uses in several other letters (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Galatians 2:2, 5:7, Philippians 2:16). It stands for the busy work of man in what he sets his mind to want and to do. But all his efforts cannot be the cause of mercy. It is God alone who makes that determination.
Dr. Haldane suggests that Paul might be thinking back to Jacob, the Father of Israel. He desired the blessing that appeared to belong to Esau. He willed it. He wanted it. He ran off to get the venison, disguise himself and deceive his father. Yet in all this, his desires and actions were not the cause of his being chosen. God had chosen that rascal Jacob before he was even born. Before he had done good or evil. If anyone was undeserving of blessing it was that deceiver Jacob. How clear an example God gives us showing that mercy comes by God’s grace, not by man’s choice or effort (Romans 9:11-13).
The Apostle John tells us why some believe and receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. In John 1:12-13 he says, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Of course it is also true that those God truly redeems will both will and run. They exercise faith. They receive Jesus as Lord. They do run to him. However, the point is that these are the effects, not the causes, of God’s mercy. He puts that love and faith into their otherwise dead and foolish hearts. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”
There is always a divine purpose for some
being left in their evil dispositions.
Romans 9:17, “For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.’ “
Paul again uses the Bible. He quotes the example of how God used Pharaoh. Instead of complex philosophical ideas being introduced, Paul looks to what God has said. Man is often tempted to try to explain the existence of evil beyond what God reveals. Some imagine that God is bound by some abstract idea of human freedom. Others imagine that God lays aside some of his sovereign ability to do his own will. But none of these theories come from God’s word. They are the products of the fallen human mind that creatively wants to be in control.
John Calvin wisely cautions us “… never to feel the least desire to attain any other knowledge concerning this doctrine save what is taught us in Scripture. When the Lord shuts his sacred mouth, let us also stop our thoughts from advancing one step further in our inquiries.”
Unwarranted speculation is dangerous, and it is blasphemous to the revealed nature of God. We are not required to comprehend how a thing is done, or how it all fits together. Our duty, which is not possible in yet fallen hearts, is to accept what God plainly says.
How did this part of Israel’s history come to happen as it did? This man who became the Pharaoh was born into the royal family of Egypt. He was raised to develop the dispositions he displayed toward God and the Israelites. It was this man who came to rule Egypt at just that right time. Only one answer is possible. Israel’s history, even her Egyptian captivity, was the decreed providence of God. All that Pharaoh was, made him the perfect tool for displaying God’s mercy toward Israel. It was God who raised him up to be the person disposed to act exactly as he did. It was not Pharaoh who determined that the Exodus would take place as history records. It was the eternal and unchangeable sovereign good pleasure of God.
God tells us that there was a divine purpose in it all. When six of the plagues had been sent upon Egypt, and four more were yet to come, God gave these words to Moses to say to Pharaoh in Exodus 9:16, “But indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.”
God could have removed Pharaoh long before the first plague was sent. But God later explained in Exodus 33:19 to Moses, that Pharaoh’s stubborn and evil heart became the means by which God would show his power in delivering his people who could not deliver themselves. God would declare the glory of his divine nature, his holy name. This would be a testimony to all the earth, not just to the Jews but to us gentiles thousands of years later. Children even today learn of God’s power by hearing the story of the plagues, the passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, and God’s deliverance.
The verse Paul had quoted just a moment ago from Exodus 33:19 said the same thing. It was all done to display the glory of God’s name, that he has mercy upon whom he will. This is the revealed fact Paul appeals to. This is what God himself explained.
Next, Paul adds the negative side.
Romans 9:18, “Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.”
Here Paul concludes his reasoning from Scripture explaining God’s rejection of Israel. He repeats for a third time, God’s prerogative to show mercy on whom he will, but to this he adds the negative side. He eliminates any possible misunderstanding. If God has mercy upon whom he will, then there are those upon whom he does not show mercy. Those become hardened by the absence of God’s restraint upon their hearts. Being left to hardness, they are used to demonstrate God’s power and holy name. This has been proven already in the verses Paul has quoted.
By hardening, Paul does not mean that God made an innocent Pharaoh become wicked. He left him to the disposition of his own fallen soul. Pharaoh received nothing that was not justly deserved.
Dr. Charles Hodge explained about God’s work in the heart of this Egyptian leader, “He did not make him wicked; he only forebore to make him good…”
God is not obligated to bestow his mercy upon anyone. God’s nature demands that he must always be just. This is why a Savior was necessary to redeem us who are all unworthy in Adam. God’s nature involves a mercy that is a prerogative of his good pleasure. His redeeming grace does not apply to all fallen humans. We do not know this by implication or by the constructions of Theology. The Bible directly tells us.
Oh how this infinite nature of the Creator is so far above us! It is beyond our comprehension. In Psalm 139:6 we read, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is high, I cannot attain it.”
Of course we could look into many more cases in Scripture about how wicked hearts are hardened. We could study more into the details of Pharaoh’s heart and of the sovereign workings of God. We could examine how God hardens the hearts of those who are left in sin. Paul does not go into all that here. That would detract from the simplicity of his argument. He has quoted Scripture, and by this his point has been made. It is clearly true because God in his inspired word says so.
God’s dealings with Israel are not unjust. He would be a “Just God” if he had left us all in the condemnation of sin which we deserve. He may exercise his prerogative and show mercy and compassion upon whom he will.
How tragically foolish when men blame God when they sin. They reason as if it is the Lord’s fault for not stopping them. They assume that if God had a good purpose in their rebellion, then they cannot be held responsible. However, here God tells us that he held Israel responsible for her rebellion and blasphemy.
Paul’s reasoning is beyond objection. He uses God’s inspired word. God is not unjust in hardening Pharaoh, or the hearts of the apostate nation of Israel, or of the apostate modern Christian church. God is not unjust in saving some who deserve eternal damnation, because Jesus settled the debt of justice in the place of them according to that eternal plan. He has mercy upon whom he will, and whom he will he hardens. All are used in his plan to declare his power and glory.
Have you been touched by the mercy of God? Has he made you aware of the offense of your sin before his holy eyes? Has he made you see the wonder of the Cross of Christ? Has he made you hungry for righteousness. Do you desire to obey his moral principles in every way you can? Has he humbled you to repentance when you fail? The Eternal God did not have to do that. It was his divine prerogative to show mercy. You deserve as did Pharaoh, Esau, and all those not redeemed in Christ, to be justly left with your deserved guilt, and to be hardened in your heart against God.
What marvelous grace rescues us, and will not let us go! What comfort and hope is ours, who in Christ learn to rest in God’s compassion rather than in our own devices. Take time to thank God for his undeserved grace.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)