Is the God who elects unjust? Rom. 9:14-18
In the previous verses, we showed that Paul’s answer to the problem of Israel’s lostness in light of the election of Israel as a nation is that God’s promise did not depend upon physical descent but upon God’s sovereign election of individuals in that nation to salvation. There is Israel and then there is Israel, an Israel within Israel (6). That is, national election is not election to salvation. There is another election, the election of a remnant within Israel, that guarantees salvation (cf. 11:5). This election is an unconditional election of individuals to eternal salvation. We argued that this is the only way to really make sense of this text, and that attempts to turn this election into something else (an election of nations or an election of individuals to historical tasks) doesn’t do justice to the logic of the passage.
One of the reasons we can know we’re on the right trajectory here is that when you bring up unconditional election, people instinctively react by saying, “That’s unfair!” I’m not saying that’s the only objection, but it makes its appearance pretty routinely. Guess what is the next question raised in this text? “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” (14). Paul apparently often faced this question when he defended God’s faithfulness to his promise, and so he anticipates the objection and answers it in the verses we will be considering today.
Now few (if any) of Paul’s Jewish kinsmen would have objected to God electing the nation of Israel. But they would have objected to God electing individual Israelites over others. To them, this would have appeared unfair and unjust, and so Paul now pivots to answer this objection as well.
It is worth while pointing out that Paul has gone from defending God’s faithfulness to defending God’s righteousness, from standing up for God’s commitment to his promises to standing up for God’s commitment to his character. Paul knows that the gospel will never be believed in the way it ought if the God to whom it directs us is not worthy of our trust and worship. Do you remember how we ended last week? We ended by saying that we should not only believe in the doctrine of unconditional election but that we should delight in it. You are not going to delight in it if you think God is unjust or unrighteous. So it is crucial that we dig into the apostle’s argument to understand how he answers this objection.
Of course the answer is that God is not unjust – “By no means!” To support his answer, Paul quotes two OT passages to defend the fact that God is righteous in sovereignly choosing some to eternal life while passing over and hardening others (he quotes Ex. 33:19 and Ex. 9:16). The first quotes comes in verse 15 and the second in verse 17. From these two passages, he makes two deductions, one about salvation (verse 16) and the other about reprobation (verse 18). So I’m going to look at this passage in terms of Paul’s defense (15,17) and Paul’s deduction (16,18).
Paul’s defense (15, 17)
How does Paul defend against the objection that unconditional election makes God look arbitrary and unjust? That is the question the apostle is seeking to answer. Now in verse 13, Paul, quoting Mal. 1:2,3, not only says that God loved and chose Jacob but also that he hated and rejected Esau. In other words, we not only have to deal with the fact that God chooses some to everlasting life, but also that he passes over others and leaves them to perish. The apostle therefore deals with both aspects of this problem. How is God just in choosing some to salvation? The answer comes in verse 15. And then, how is God just in hardening others? The answer to that comes in verse 17.
Before we look at these passages and Paul’s answers in detail, I want to make what I think is a very important observation. The apostle is talking about God bestowing mercy. The giving of mercy implies something about the objects of mercy, namely, that they are in a miserable condition. And what is that condition? I think it is obvious, isn’t it? It’s the condition of sin. God doesn’t owe any of us a thing, because we are all sinners. Human sinfulness is universal, something that not only is taught in this epistle but is also taught by our own experience. As a result, none of us need justice, we need mercy. God could be perfectly just and send every human being to hell. But God is not only just, he is also merciful. He is both perfectly.
I think that’s important because when people react to election by saying it makes God arbitrary and unjust, they are forgetting that we are all in need of mercy. Mercy is not something that God owes anyone. If he chooses to bestow mercy on one and not on another, what right do we have to judge him? To make it so that God must give the same mercy to one as to another is to act as if God owes us something. But that is not the case at all. God owes sinners nothing except judgement. The puzzle is not that God saves one but not another; the puzzle is that he saves anyone at all.
How God is just in saving some but not others (15)
The answer is verse 15: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” This looks as if the apostle is simply restating the problem! Objection: “When God shows mercy to whomever he wills, that makes God look unjust.” Answer: “No, because the Bible says that God shows mercy to whomever he wills.” How is that an answer?
The are two ways this text functions as an answer to the objection. The first way it functions as an answer is from the authority and truthfulness of Scripture. I think one thing the apostle is saying is that though God sovereignly showing mercy may look arbitrary and unjust, we know it isn’t because this is precisely how the Scripture describes God. In fact, this is the way God describes himself, for this is God telling Moses who he is, when Moses asks God to show him his glory.
Now this is important because we need to be people who believe what the Bible says even when we don’t understand. If the Bible is God’s word, then we can trust him to tell us the truth even when we cant see why. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t try to understand and see as far as we can into the truths of Scripture. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to make sense of Scripture. But it does mean that when we come up against something that we find hard to accept or difficult to understand, we should still be willing to receive it, if for no other reason than it is what we are taught in the inspired Word.
But that’s not the only way it is an answer. The second way if functions as an answer is from the revelation of God’s character that the Scripture gives us. The context of Exod. 33:19 is Moses’ request to God that he would show him his glory (ver. 18). Why did Moses ask for this? The reason why Moses asked this is because God had threatened, because of the sin of Israel (chap. 32) to not go up with the people to the promised land (33:2,3). In verses 12-16, Moses intercedes for the people, asking God to go personally with them, to which God responds positively in verse 17.
So in verse 18, in asking God to show him his glory, Moses was not asking for a mystical experience. He was asking for a further confirmation of God’s favor to him and to Israel, a confirmation rooted not in Israel’s competence but in God’s character. This is confirmed by Moses’ response when God does show him his glory (Ex. 34:9), for he says that “now I have found favor in your sight,” and he reiterates, on the basis of God’s revelation of himself, his plea that God would go with them and show them favor.
Therefore, when God says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19), God is revealing to Moses his glory and name; thus, his character. So what we learn is that it is fundamentally God’s nature to sovereignly dispense mercy and wrath. And since you cannot separate God’s attributes, you cannot speak of God’s righteousness outside the context of his sovereignty in dispensing mercy.
In fact, what does it mean for God to be righteous? It doesn’t mean that he confirms to an external standard, for that would be to put the standard above God and make it God. For God to be righteous means that God acts in such a way to call attention to and preserve the glory of his name – a glory which consists in sovereignly giving mercy and wrath. As John Piper puts it, “It is the glory of God and his essential nature mainly 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.”
So the argument goes like this: verse 15 is a defense of God’s righteousness because God is righteous when he acts in a way consistent with the glory of his name, and this glory is inseparable from his sovereignty in bestowing mercy. Thus the unconditional election of some Israelites to salvation, an example of God sovereignly showing mercy, is not an obstacle to God’s righteousness, it is rather an indispensable instance of it.
How God is just in the hardening of sinners (17)
This is also an argument that God is righteous. The “for” at the beginning of the verse functions as a second argument that God is righteous in election. But there is a positive aspect and a negative aspect to this. If God elects some but not all, that necessarily means he rejects others. The positive aspect (“Jacob have I loved”) is defended in verse 15 and the negative aspect (“but Esau have I hated”) is defended in verse 17. He does it by quoting again from the OT, this time Ex. 9:16: “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.’” God is not only sovereign in showing mercy but also in meting out wrath. God didn’t raise Pharaoh up to put his mercy on display, but to put his judgment and power on display.
How can God be righteous in refusing to show mercy to some? In hardening Pharaoh, God is acting righteously because he is acting in such a way that calls attention to the glory of his name, in this case the glory of his power, displayed to all the earth. We must keep in mind that God acts righteously when he acts consistently with the publication of his glorious attributes. This is why Paul says in Rom. 3:25, 26, that it was necessary for God to declare his righteousness in the propitiation of Christ. It was necessary because God had passed over sin. And sin is coming short of the glory of God. It is the belittling of God, and when God passed over sin it looked as if he was participating in the belittling of his own name. The only way his righteousness could be defended was to repair the dishonor done to his name by sin by pouring out his righteous wrath on his Son in the stead of those who sins had been forgiven.
The hardening of Pharaoh is consistent with God’s righteousness because by it God is making his glory known, specifically, the glory of God’s power. But again, I also want to point out that Paul is simultaneously silencing his opponents by the Scripture. How do we know that God is both just and sovereign in salvation and in damnation? We know he is because this is the way Scripture represents God.
However, this is not all Paul has to say. From each OT passage, he also draws deductions, which really are the same deduction, but from different angles. So that brings us to our next point.
Paul’s deductions (16, 18)
God is sovereign in salvation: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (16). What is the “it” of verse 16? Surely it is the promise of God that guarantees the salvation of the elect. What that means is that our salvation does not depend ultimately upon ourselves but upon God. It is important for us to see that. It is the reason why God’s promise will not fail. It is the reason why God’s elect will infallibly be saved. It is because in the final analysis, it depends on God, not us.
However, it is also important to note that this doesn’t rule out our willing or our exertion. God’s election does not mean that our wills go into neutral. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything. When the apostle concludes that it does not depend upon our willing or exertion (lit. “running,”), he is not saying we don’t will or run; he is simply saying that our willing and running are not the decisive reasons we are saved. We still receive Christ (cf. Jn. 1:12-13; Col. 2:6) and choose him. We must still strive to enter into the kingdom of God (cf. Lk 13:24). We are commanded to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 17:30). The gospel comes to you with imperatives, imperatives that we are responsible to obey, and which we will obey if we are to be saved. But again, what it means is that the decisive reason we are saved is not to be traced to our wills or efforts. At the end of the day, if you are saved, the reason is to be found in God’s sovereign mercy. The imperative of the gospel offer finds its success in the indicative of God’s sovereign grace and mercy.
If God had looked down through the annals of time to see what we would have done independently of his grace, he wouldn’t have seen anyone receiving Christ and believing in him; he would have only seen people rejecting him. For anyone to be saved, God had to do something, not just to provide salvation and leave it up to us, but actually to interpose himself into the equation of our willing and running, and to effectually draw us to himself. We need God to save us, for all our efforts by themselves will never bring us to the throne of grace. The phrases “the one who wills” and “the one who runs” are meant to sum up the totality of man’s capacity. Search man for the capacity to save himself and you are not going to find anything. The willing is a reference to “inner desire, purpose, or readiness to do something” and the running is a reference to the “actual execution of that desire.” The problem is not that we don’t will, but that we want the wrong things; our hearts are turned in on ourselves, so that salvation is not of the one who will or runs, but of God who shows mercy.
Now we must not think that this undermines our freedom and turns us into robots. For unless God interposes and changes our hearts, we would remain slaves to sin. There is no freedom in that; freedom can only be found when our wills are set free from the power of sin by the grace of God. God does not operate us like puppets; he regenerates us so that we freely choose him and desire what is good and right and true.
An objection to this is that if this is so, what is the purpose of all the exhortations of Scripture? And what is the purpose of evangelism? In answer, we must remember that the power of the gospel does not lie in the preacher but in God – it is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). In other words, the exhortations, whether to believe or obey, are not effective because of us; they are made effective by God. The exhortations of Scripture are not proof that we can somehow save ourselves; rather, they are proof that God relates to us as thinking beings with agency, and that when he effectively draws us to himself, he does so not by suppressing our wills but by enabling them, not by robotically manipulating us, but by opening our eyes to the beauty and truth of Scripture.
So there are two sides to this doctrine. On one side, we are told that we would never have been saved apart from God’s decisive work in us. But on the other side, we are told that we will never be saved unless we believe the gospel and repent of our sins. They are both true. The way we engage both these truths in our experience is by believing and repenting and obeying, but doing so in reliance upon the mighty grace of God. And we evangelize and share the gospel, not trusting in our powers of persuasion, but in God’s faithfulness in drawing his elect to himself; it is why Paul wrote, “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). What gave Paul his confidence and his zeal? It was the doctrine of election! So this is not really an objection at all; if anything, the doctrine of election is a reason to evangelize and pursue holiness.
God is sovereign in hardening: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (18). God is not only sovereign in salvation; he is also sovereign in reprobation. This is a reference to Pharaoh’s hardening as the antitype of the hardening of Paul’s own nation (cf. Rom. 11:7).
Now some people try to take the edge off of this by saying that Pharaoh was hardened by God only after Pharaoh hardened himself – but this view cannot be sustained in the narrative in Exodus (cf. Ex. 4:21; 7:31 with ver. 13). However, I do think that we should say that God’s hardening does not mean that he forces men to sin. Rather, God’s hardening happens to men and women who, like Pharaoh, are sinful already. God’s hardening is therefore his leaving them in their sin (but not based on any particular degree of sinfulness for he hardens whom he chooses). As Douglas Moo puts it, “God’s hardening does not . . . cause spiritual insensitivity to the things of God; it maintains people in the state of sin that already characterizes them.” God’s hardening as well as his mercy both assume the sinfulness of humanity; both acts of God find men already in sin. In showing mercy, he saves sinful men to be delivered from their sin; in hardening, he leaves sinful men to perish in their sin.
Conclusion: what effect should this have on us?
The doctrine that God has mercy on whom he pleases and hardens whom he pleases, and that he does this out of a commitment to uphold the glory of his name, this doctrine does more than any other to abase man and exalt the God as supreme. So it should keep us from being man-centered, which is essential since God created the world (and us) to display his glory, not ours. We need to get a view of God that is chiefly interested in seeing his name and his glory and rights esteemed and valued and declared, even if it minimizes and diminishes our own importance and rights and comforts and worth. And this chapter is a good place to start.