The First Objection: “God isn’t Fair!” – Romans 9:14-18
Pastor Mark Hardy April 7, 2013
A mother once approached the great French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had twice committed a certain offense and justice demanded his death. “But I don’t ask for justice,” explained the mother, “I plead for mercy.” “But your son does not deserve mercy,” said Napoleon. “Sir,” cried the mother, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for.” “Well, then,” said the emperor, “I will have mercy.” And he spared the woman’s son.
But infinitely more than Napoleon, our God is not only holy and just, but He is also a merciful God. We see both of these attributes in Exodus 34:6-7 where God proclaimed to Moses, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate (or merciful) and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Whereas God’s “grace” is giving sinners what we don’t deserve—eternal salvation in Christ; God’s “mercy” is not giving sinners what we do deserve—eternal judgment by rejecting Christ. We will see both the holy justice and mercy of God in the passage we will be looking at this morning, but God’s mercy is the central theme.
As we continue on in our study of Romans 9-11, we now come to 9:14-18, the passage of Scripture in which, William Newell correctly observes, “…the human heart rebels most of all.” Then he gives the wise counsel “…it will be our only safe path to receive just as God writes it down, the truth we find here.” (pg. 365) That is my prayer for us. Turn in your Bible to Romans 9.
In Romans 9:14-18 we see three aspects concerning the first objection to Paul’s teaching on the sovereign calling of God.
The first aspect is this:
I. Paul’s Anticipation of the Objection
A. Look at v. 14: What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? (Stop there)
1. Paul has just shown in vv. 6-13 that the word of God, His saving promises to Israel, has not failed since God never promised every ethnic Jew would be saved. But He insured there was a “spiritual” Israel within “ethnic” Israel by sovereignly choosing or electing some to salvation and rejecting others.
2. We saw this last time especially in v. 13 where God Himself said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” And in v. 11 where God chose Jacob over Esau before the twins were even “…born and had not done anything good or bad.”
3. Now knowing from the way he himself once thought as a Jew, as well as, his past experiences with opponents of the gospel, Paul anticipates people’s negative reaction and objections to what he has just said, and so he introduces a defense of his teaching with the opening question, “What shall we say then?”
4. Paul then states the first objection, which whether publicly stated or secretly thought, in essence is this: “God isn’t fair!” Look again at v. 14 where Paul’s rhetorical question embodies this objection, “There is no injustice with God, is there?”
5. The word “injustice” (adikia) here is a comprehensive term for wrong-doing, and speaks of unrighteousness.
6. Now the fact that these people actually think that “God isn’t fair,” that He is unjust or unrighteous in sovereignly electing some to salvation and rejecting others shows that they truly understood what he was saying here in chapter 9!
7. John MacArthur says, “The natural human response is to assert that God was unjustly arbitrary in choosing one over the other long before they would have opportunity to trust or reject Him or to be obedient or disobedient. That natural response, however, is tantamount to saying that there is injustice with God. So Paul asks rhetorically if we have a right to accuse God of being unjust. That accusation has been raised throughout the history of the church and is still heard today when God’s election and predestination are proclaimed.” (pg. 30)
8. The first objection here that “God isn’t fair” really questions the very character of God. If God is truly just and righteous, how could He sovereignly and unconditionally elect some and reject others before they are born and without even taking into account the good or bad things they would choose to do?
9. Paul initially answers this objection in the second aspect concerning the first objection, which is this:
II. Paul’s Rejection of the Objection
A. Look again at v. 14 where Paul concisely and emphatically defends God’s person by declaring: May it never be!
1. As we have seen seven times earlier in Romans (3:4, 6, 31; 6:2, 15; 7:7, 13) this phrase “May it never be” (me genoito) is the strongest negative expression in the Greek, which indicates a recoiling abhorrence, utter shock, and disgust at such a thought.
2. It has been variously translated: “Never!” “No way!” “Not at all!” “Certainly not!” “By no means!” “God forbid!” “Perish the thought!” “Not on your life!” and “Not in a thousand years.”
3. To Paul, the very suggestion that God can in the slightest degree be unjust or unrighteous is totally unthinkable and blasphemous. John Murray rightly states about Paul’s response, “The thought of injustice with God is so intolerable that it must be dismissed with abrupt and decisive denial.” (pg. 25)
4. Since God Himself is the perfect standard of justice and righteousness, it is impossible for there to any injustice and unrighteousness in Him. Abraham said of God in Genesis 18:25, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”
5. And in Deuteronomy 32:3-4 Moses sang out, “For I proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” (Ps. 7:9; 48:10; 71:19; 116:5; 119:137, 142; 145:8; Jer. 9:23-24).
6. But Paul is not content to simply declare God’s innocence of such a blasphemous charge. He does more in the third aspect concerning the first objection, which is this:
III. Paul’s Explanation for his Rejection
A. Having abruptly and decisively rejected this objection, Paul now gives two reasons why his rejection is justified. These two reasons are introduced with the word “For” (gar) in verses 15 and 17. The first reason is because: God shows mercy to those He chooses. Look at v. 15 where Paul quotes Exodus 33:19: For He says to Moses, “I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY; AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.”
1. This is God’s response to Moses’ request after he had just prayed in v. 18, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” Now to understand what was going on here, we need to grasp the larger context of chapters 32-33, which record the golden calf incident at Mount Sinai.
2. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the two tablets of the testimony from God, his brother Aaron, the high priest, led the impatient people of Israel to melt down their gold jewelry to make an idol of a golden calf that they then all bowed down to and worshipped (Ex. 32:2-6). Now if God had simply acted out of holy justice, He would have completely destroyed all of the Israelites in His burning anger (vv. 7-10).
3. So Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people (vv. 11-13), and as a result, God relents from His intention to fully destroy Israel (v. 14). However, He mercifully puts to death only “about three thousand men” by the sons of Levi as a warning to the others and He preserves the rest (vv. 25-29).
4. Horrified by Israel’s grievous sin, Moses again prays that God will forgive their sin, and if not, offers to sacrifice himself in their place, if God might turn aside His anger from them (v. 32). But God replies that each man will bear his own sin (v. 33), and then tells Moses to go ahead and lead the people to the Promised Land (32:34; 33:1).
5. However, God lets Moses know that because Israel is an obstinate people and He might destroy them on the way, He will not go up with them in their midst (33:3). Instead, He promised to give them an angel to go with them and protect them (32:34; 33:2).
6. But Moses doesn’t have the promise he wants and again prays that God Himself, not the angel, will go up with them to the Promised Land (33:14-16), and also that God would allow him to know God and that God would show him His glory (vv. 12-13, 18) all to assure him of God’s favor to Israel, who are a stiff-necked, idolatrous people (34:9).
7. Therefore in response, God says to Moses in 33:19, “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.”
8. So here we see that at the heart of Moses’ request was the longing to know the glory of God’s name from which flowed the mercy he had just been promised. And his anxiety about Israel’s future is resolved in 34:5-7 when God “passed by in front of him” and personally reveals Himself to Moses as the God who is merciful and gracious.
9. So here in v. 15 Paul quotes the last part of Exodus 33:19 as God says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
10. Although “compassion” refers to the heart attitude and “mercy” is its outward expression, here, mercy and compassion are essentially synonymous.
11. Now how Paul uses this Old Testament passage as a reason to justify his rejection of the objection is by showing that God sovereignly bestows or withholds His mercy as He freely chooses. Just look what He did to the 3,000 Jews at Mount Sinai while letting the rest who deserved death live.
12. Paul finds in Exodus 33:19 a general principle that describes the very nature of God—the way He righteously acts characteristically. And the principle is this: God’s sovereign freedom to bestow or withhold mercy on whomever He desires, apart from anything outside His own will.
13. It is against this ultimate standard that God’s justice and righteousness must be measured. Therefore, God reveals the glory of His name in His unwavering commitment to freely bestow mercy or withhold it as He determines.
14. Although God’s sovereignty may appear to us as cold, cruel, and arbitrary, notice how Paul shows that God’s sovereignty and His mercy are inseparable. Mercy is the positive side of God’s sovereignty in election and refers to the first part of v. 13 where God said, “Jacob I loved.”
15. Never forget that no one deserves or has a “rightful claim” to God’s mercy, as though God is somehow “obligated” to bestow salvation on all equally. Justice is what we all deserve from the infinitely holy God!
16. And as I’ve said before, if we got what we really deserved, things would be a million times worse than whatever we may be going through right now—we’d all be in hell. Since sinful people deserve God’s condemnation, they are not wronged or treated unjustly if God chooses to withhold mercy from them.
B. Paul then draws a logical conclusion from what he has just said. Look at v. 16: So then it (i.e. God’s bestowal of mercy) does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.
1. Perhaps no statement in all of Scripture so completely brings sinful man to an utter end. Whereas the word “wills” (thelontos) speaks of the source of an action in one’s inner desire or attitude, the word “runs” (trechontos) refers best to the actual execution of that desire—human effort and activity.
2. Together, these terms sum up the totality of man’s capacity to earn or deserve God’s saving mercy, which amounts to absolutely zero! Paul is simply reiterating the last part of v. 11 where he says, “…not because of works but because of Him who calls.”
3. Salvation is never initiated by human will, choice or effort. Instead, it always depends “…on God who has mercy.”
4. Those who receive God’s mercy receive it solely by His grace. It’s all of God, and He freely bestows it on whomever He chooses.
5. As we saw before, Paul is not here negating human responsibility, but he is opposing the false assumption that human will, choice or effort is the basis of God’s free choice.
C. The second reason why Paul’s rejection of this objection is justified is because: God uses evil to display His glory. Look at v. 17 where Paul now quotes Exodus 9:16: 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.”
1. When Paul says “the Scripture says” he personifies the Scripture whereby it means the same thing as “God says.” Therefore, these words are from God to Pharaoh through His servant Moses after the sixth plague of boils on all the Egyptians.
2. As the king of Egypt, Pharaoh assumed that everything he said and did was by his own free choice to serve his own purposes. And yet, notice that God tells him “I raised you up” (exegeira), which means that Pharaoh’s place of prominence in history was sovereignly determined.
3. This is also true of other kings and nations (Num. 24:19; 2 Sam. 12:11; Job 5:11; Isa. 5:26; 7:18; 10; 44:28; Jer. 50:41; Hab. 1:6; Zach. 10:8; 11:16). For Proverbs 21:1 declares, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.”
4. Although Pharaoh didn’t recognize Yahweh, he would end up being another unwilling big shot that would fulfill the sovereign purposes of God. He would be used by God to accomplish God’s redemptive plan for Israel in their exodus out of Egypt.
5. Look at what God says His purpose was in raising Pharaoh up, “…to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.”
6. God’s “power” (dunamin) relates to both His mercy and His judgment. It was God’s miraculous power that brought about Israel’s deliverance and it also brought judgment on Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
7. God’s “name” (onoma) refers to the sum total of all His attributes—who He is in His person, what He does, and His reputation. Remember that God is committed to revealing the glory of His name.
8. It was Pharaoh’s proud arrogance and adamant opposition that became the occasion for the demonstration of God’s miraculous power in the ten plagues inflicted upon Egypt (Ex. 7:14-13:16), and particularly in the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea and the safe passage of Israel on dry land (13:17-31).
9. And just as God predicted, the demonstration of His power in delivering His people from Egypt caused His name to “…be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” The other nations heard about Him as the awesome and fearful God and were terrified (Ex. 15:14-16; Josh. 2:9-11; 9:1, 9; 1 Sam. 4:7-8; Ps. 78:12-13; 105:26-38; 106:9-11; 136:10-15).
10. Now how Paul uses this Old Testament passage as a reason to justify his rejection of the objection is by showing that God’s justice and righteousness are vindicated in God’s sovereign freedom to reveal the glory of His name not just primarily in mercy, but also in judgment. God used the evil Pharaoh to display His glory.
11. Therefore, God’s holy justice is the negative side of God’s sovereignty in election, which refers to the second part of v. 13, “Esau I hated.” We also saw this in Exodus 34:7 where God said that “…He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”
D. Paul then draws a logical conclusion from what he has just said, as well as, from the entire paragraph. Look at v. 18: So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
1. Here we see both the positive and negative sides of God’s sovereign choice—His mercy and His hardening. Notice the strict parallelism: Just as God has the sovereign freedom to bestow mercy on “whom He desires,” so He has the sovereign freedom to harden “whom He desires.”
2. As much as we squirm at that and want to resist this aspect of God’s sovereignty, both are true! Beloved, there is no semi-sovereignty of God, just like there is no partial total depravity. God is either sovereign in everything or He is not sovereign at all.
3. Now both God’s mercy and His hardening here have to do with the eternal destiny of individuals not corporate nations. The word “mercy” often speaks of eternal salvation (Rom. 9:23; 11:30-32; 15:9; 2 Cor. 4:1; Eph. 2:4; 1 Tim. 1:13, 16; 2 Tim. 1:16, 18; Tit. 3:5).
4. And the word “hardens” (sklerotes), which occurs 14 times in Exodus 4-14 and literally means to make hard, metaphorically means to make stubborn, obstinate, and spiritually unreceptive to the gospel that hinders people from being saved (Rom. 2:5; 9:22-23; 11:7, 25; 2 Cor. 3:14; 4:3; Eph. 4:18).
5. Also, notice in this passage the double use of the singular “whom” in v. 15, the double use of the singular “the one” in v. 16, and the twofold singular “whom” again in v. 18. If Paul were talking about corporate nations he would have used plural pronouns.
6. Here Paul is applying the principle of God’s hardening established with Pharaoh to his immediate concern, the hardness of the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day, and thus this is the issue why they are not saved (11:5-7, 25).
7. Douglas Moo states, “God’s hardening, then, is an action that renders a person insensitive to God and his word and that, if not reversed, culminates in eternal damnation.” (pg. 597)
8. Now some say that God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was only a response to Pharaoh first hardening his own heart. But a careful analysis of Exodus 4-14 reveals that God’s hardening of Pharaoh both precedes and follows Pharaoh’s self-hardening.
9. In Exodus 4-14 we see that Pharaoh was passively “being hardened” by God according to His sovereign will (4:21; 7:3, 13-14, 22; 9:35), Pharaoh also hardening himself (7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 19, 28, 32; 9:7, 34-35), and God then judicially hardened him as a consequence of his sin (7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), which was similar to what we saw in 1:24, 26, 28 when God “gave them over” or confirmed them in the sinful things they already chose for themselves.
10. God’s bestowing of mercy and His hardening hearts are not equivalent acts. First we need to understand that everyone is sinful and deserves hardening and condemnation, but God gives mercy to some who don’t deserve it.
11. And God’s hardening is not making a soft, sensitive heart to God into a hard, stubborn heart. It is confirming the hardness in those who already by their own sin deserve condemnation.
12. Therefore, in choosing unconditionally those on whom he will have mercy (or love—v. 13a) and those whom he will harden (or hate—v. 13b) God is not unjust or unrighteous. As we have already seen, this is simply the means by which He declares the glory of His name.
13. Now it is humanly impossible to figure out logically with our finite, fallen minds the perfect balance of Scripture between the full sovereignty of God in mercy and hardening and the full responsibility of man. But if we want to remain biblical, we must believe both are true and live with the unresolved tension because both are revealed in Scripture.
14. John MacArthur summarizes well when he states, “Moses was a Jew, whereas Pharaoh was a Gentile; but both of them were sinners. Both were murderers, and both witnessed God’s miracles. Yet Moses was redeemed and Pharaoh was not. God raised up Pharaoh in order to reveal His own glory and power, and God had mercy on Moses in order to use him to deliver His people Israel. Pharaoh was a ruler, whereas Moses’ people were slaves under Pharaoh. But Moses received God’s mercy and compassion, because that was God’s will. The Lord’s work is sovereign, and He acts entirely according to His own will to accomplish His own purposes. The issue was not the presumed rights of either men but rather the sovereign will of God.” (pg. 35)
In closing, no one deserves God’s mercy. The wonder is not that some are saved and others are condemned; it is that any one is saved at all since all are sinful and deserve condemnation. Therefore, if anyone is condemned, the blame is his, but if anyone is saved, the credit is God’s. Praise God for His inexplicable mercy and grace in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross which is our only hope of salvation.
May we who have received Him as our Savior and Lord, worship Him with humble and grateful hearts for all He has done for us. And may those who haven’t received Him, do so before it is eternally too late. For God has promised in Romans 10:13, “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”