Dr. Richard L. Strauss
May 19, 1991
Purpose: To help us appreciate the God of our salvation, who chose to extend His mercy to the likes of us, and to help us respond to Him wholeheartedly.
Mary has an uncle in Maine whom she is very fond of. I have been with him on several occasions, and I enjoy him too. He's a very likeable person. The only problem is, he doesn't know the Lord. He's heard the gospel on numerous occasions, but has knowingly and willfully hardened his heart against it. He says it may be alright for others to believe that stuff, but he doesn't need it. And he's made it quite clear that he doesn't want any of us to talk to him about it any more. He's getting up in years and only God knows how much longer he has on this earth. We long for him to have the comforting assurance that his sins are forgiven and that he will spend eternity in heaven.
Many of you have loved ones in that same condition. You've pleaded with the Lord to convict them of sin and draw them to Himself. But nothing seems to happen. If anything, they seem to grow more hard and cold toward the things of Christ. And you can't help wondering why God doesn't do more to save them. Is it fair for Him to draw some people to Himself, and not others?
That's the question Paul is wrestling with in Romans 9. He's been talking about the people of Israel, and he's established that they have no claim on God either because of their physical descent or because of their righteous deeds. He has made it abundantly clear in this letter that our acceptance by God is dependent on faith, and faith alone. But in the course of this discussion about Israel, he's suggested that it is also the result of divine choice. Look back at Romans 9:11--"that the purpose of God according to election might stand." He's mentioned choosing Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jacob rather than Esau.
I know he's talking primarily about the nation Israel as a whole and their failure to enjoy God's promises. But it does establish the principle of divine choice, and there are other passages that clearly relate this doctrine of election to individuals and to personal salvation (e.g., John 6:44; Acts 13:48; Acts 16:14; Ephesians 1:4).
Does that mean it's God's fault that some of our loved ones have not come to know Christ? Is it because He just didn't choose them? That's beginning to sound awfully unfair. "Fairness" seems to be the major issue in the next section of this letter. The passage is built around two questions, and the first one is this: Is it fair for God to choose?
Is It Fair for God to Choose?
Romans 9:14. "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!"
NIV says "Is God unjust?" Is God unfair? Answer? May it never be! It is impossible to conceive of such a thing. Because He is God, He cannot be unrighteous or unfair. The fairness of what we human beings do may be open to question, but the fairness of what God does is unquestionable; it must be just and right. He Himself said it to Abraham many years earlier: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25). Moses reaffirmed it: "He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He" (Deuteronomy 32:4). But Paul doesn't just say it and drop it. He proves his answer with two Biblical examples.
The Answer from Moses (Romans 9:15-16)
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.'"
Interesting! This quotation from Exodus 33:19 doesn't make any mention of justice. But it does emphasize mercy, and mercy is the key to understanding the doctrine of election. We have to project our minds back to Mt. Sinai where God was giving the law to Moses. In the valley below, the people of Israel were dancing and playing, sacrificing and worshipping before a gold cow, and God was angry with them. He threatened to consume all of them (Exodus 32:10). That's what they deserved. Justice demanded it. But Moses interceded on their behalf, and "...the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people" (Exodus 32:14). Some would die in the plague that would follow, but the nation as a whole would be spared.
It was shortly after that episode that God revealed Himself to Moses with the words Paul quotes here. He is basically a merciful God. His very character is mercy. When His justice prompts Him to punish sinners, His mercy restrains Him from administering the punishment they deserve. And how can He possibly be accused of being unfair if He doesn't extend that mercy to everybody. Nobody deserves it. No human being has a claim on God. It is only out of the greatness and goodness of His heart that any are spared the punishment they deserve.
Romans 9:16. "So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy."
God's mercy is not the result of any human desire nor any human effort. It finds its source purely in His character, which is mercy.
When Napoleon was emperor of France, one of his soldiers was sentenced to death for some offense. The young man's mother sought a pardon from Napoleon for her son. The Emperor insisted that it was the man's second offense, and that justice demanded his death. "I don't ask for justice," said the mother, "I plead for mercy."
"But he does not deserve mercy," replied the Emperor.
"Sir," cried the mother, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is what I ask."
"Well then," said the Emperor, "I will have mercy," and her son was spared.
If mercy is deserved, it is not mercy. That is a great truth. And since mercy is never deserved, it must be given sovereignly, completely by the will of the one who gives it, not those who receive it. Napoleon made a sovereign choice. He sovereignly chose to bestow mercy on that one man instead of justice, and he would certainly not be accused of injustice because he only did that for the one. And now God makes some sovereign choices. He chooses to extend His mercy to some and draw them to Himself. And since His very nature is merciful, He's constantly looking for opportunities to extend His mercy. He could hardly be accused of injustice for that.
So much for the answer from Moses. Paul has another example to suggest as well...
The Answer from Pharaoh (Romans 9:17-18)
Romans 9:17-18. "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.' Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens."
There's that mercy again. God's sovereign choices always involve His mercy. But Pharaoh was not the object of God's mercy, was he? Well, in a sense he was. God spared him far longer than justice would have dictated. And the result of God sparing him was ten plagues that caused the Israelites to be mercifully delivered from bondage, and demonstrated irrefutably to the world that God was more powerful than the armies of Egypt or any of the gods of Egypt. His name was declared in all the earth.
But wait a minute--it still doesn't seem fair for God to harden some people just to accomplish His own purposes. I think it's important to recognize that God is never said to harden anybody who did not first harden himself. If you will read through the account in Exodus, you will see that Pharaoh is repeatedly said to have hardened his own heart (Exodus 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35). As one author puts it, "God's hardening follows on what Pharaoh himself did. His hardening always presupposes sin and is always part of the punishment of sin. God could kill the sinner immediately when he sinned, but he usually does not. But he shuts him up to the effect of his sin, so that the person who hardens himself is condemned to live as a hardened person" (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, p.361).
That's what happened to Pharaoh. He was no puppet on a string, just doing what God made him do. He made his own decision to harden his heart. And God simply sealed him in his decision, then used that decision to magnify His own glorious name and to extend mercy to Israel.
But I'm sure some of you are still concerned about verse 18: "Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens."
God extends His mercy to those whom He sovereignly chooses. Is that fair? Is it fair for Him to choose of His own will and not tell us on what basis He chooses? I like the answer this author suggested: "If God does not reveal the principle on which He makes His choice, that is no reason why His justice should be called into question. He is merciful and compassionate because such is His will" (F.F. Bruce, Romans, p. 188). You see, God isn't obligated to tell us everything that goes on in His mind. He has good reason for the choices He makes, and someday we'll understand it. Meanwhile He simply asks us to trust Him.
"Alright," you say, "maybe it's fair for God to choose those on whom He will bestow His mercy. But that leads to another obvious question...
Is It Fair to Hold Us Responsible?
Romans 9:19. "You will say to me then, 'Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?'"
That's a reasonable question, isn't it? If God extends His mercy to some and hardens others, then how can He possibly blame us for what we do? Are we not simply doing what He moves us to do and what we cannot avoid doing?
Wouldn't that be like insisting that your son carve his name on your lovely mahogany dining room table, then punishing him for doing such a stupid thing? That's not fair! Again, Paul offers two answers.
The Answer from Sovereignty (Romans 9:20-24)
Read 9:20-21. "But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, 'Why have you made me like this?' Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?"
This is probably the one truth about God that we mortal beings dislike above all others. God is absolutely sovereign; He can do whatever He pleases, He answers to no one for what He does, and He has no obligation to explain to anyone the reasons for His actions. We just don't like that. We want to know why? And we don't appreciate being likened to clay that is pushed around by the potter any way He pleases--making one pot for a noble use and another for a menial use. We are people, with opinions, and feelings. We have rights.
We may not like it, but the fact remains: He is the potter and we are the clay. He has a right to do with us as He pleases, and in His wisdom, He will always do what is best. So it would be impudent of us to reply against him, talk back to Him, contradict Him, question His actions, accuse Him of injustice.
Romans 9:22. "What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction."
Please notice carefully: Paul does not say that God prepared these vessels of wrath for destruction. They made their own choices (just as Pharaoh did). But God does endure them far longer than they deserve, allowing them time to store up wrath in the day of judgment, so that He may display His righteous wrath against sin and make His power known.
Romans 9:23-24. "And that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?"
There's that mercy again. Believers are "vessels of mercy." And while God did not prepare the vessels of wrath for destruction (verse 23), He did prepare beforehand these vessels of mercy for glory. And that includes all of us who have put our trust in His Son for our eternal salvation--Jew or Gentile.
Remember again, Paul is dealing primarily with the failure of the nation Israel as a whole to respond in faith to their Messiah. God did not break His promises to them. He continued to hold those promises out to them faithfully. But many of them refused to believe His promises. They rejected His offer of life in His Son. But that didn't catch God by surprise. He was in full control of the situation, even their rejection, and He used it to extend His mercy to others--both Jew and Gentile--"even us whom He called." There it is again: divine election. We may not like it. We don't understand how on one hand God can choose to extend His mercy to some and not others, and yet on the other hand insist all people can have the freedom to believe or not believe and be held responsible for their decisions. But that's what the Bible teaches.
Unfortunately, this has become the source countless theological arguments. I can remember arguing about it back in seminary days (especially when I was a sophomore and knew everything). I read a story about a group of theologians who were discussing divine election versus free will. The argument got so heated that the two factions just walked away from each other. One poor fellow, not sure what he believed and which side to follow, stood there for a minute, then finally made up his mind to join the election crowd. When he arrived, they asked, "Who sent you here?" "Nobody sent me," he replied. "I came of my own free will."
"Free will!" they shouted. "You can't come in here of your own free will. You belong with the other group."
So he turned and went toward the free will group. When he tried to join them, one of them asked, "When did you decide to join us?"
"I didn't decide. I was sent here," he answered.
"Sent here!" they shouted. "You can't join us unless you choose to by your own free will."
And so he was excluded from both companies (Tan, 5317).
Frankly, I have no desire to argue about it anymore. I'm perfectly comfortable to leave it with the Lord. He says He has mercy on whomever He wills. And He also says, "...whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (Revelation 22:17). I, in my finite mind don't understand how those two truths fit together, but I'm totally confident that in His eternal mind they do. Maybe He will explain it to me when I see Him. Come see me when we get to glory and maybe we'll have a Bible study on it then.
That's the answer from sovereignty. Paul also offers the answer from Scripture.
The Answer from Scripture (Romans 9:25-29)
He quotes two Old Testament prophets, Hosea and Isaiah, to show that this rejection of the Jews and acceptance of the Gentiles had been predicted beforehand.
Romans 9:25-26. "As He says also in Hosea: 'I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.' And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people,' There they shall be called sons of the living God."
You see, God chose to make people, who were once excluded, His very own. He has the right to do that because He's God. And in Romans 9:27: "Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel, 'Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant'"--just a small number--"'will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness because the Lord will make short work upon the earth.' As Isaiah said before, 'Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom and we would have been made like Gomorrah.'"
It is only of God's mercy that all in the nation were not destroyed, and that a remnant, a small number, were saved. You see, the amazing thing is not that God fails to extend His mercy to everybody, but that He extends it to anybody. That's the amazing thing: that He extends His mercy to any of us who are totally unworthy of His favor.
But doesn't this doctrine discourage people from coming to Christ. Won't they say, "I'm not sure I can trust Christ as my Savior. I may not be one of the elect." I don't think it works that way at all. I think that's just a subterfuge. Actually, it works just the opposite.
I read about some sales psychologists who got surprising results when they put this notice in the window of a Paris department store: "Shopping only with special permission of the management. Permits issued upon application." Although prices were no lower than in other shops, the store's sales jumped 400 percent (Tan, 17).
People want to be part of a special, select group. If you're afraid that you may not be one of God's elect, all you need to do is acknowledge your sin and avail yourself of God's mercy and put your trust in Christ as your Savior from sin. I encourage you to do that right now. Receive Him as your Savior from sin and its eternal condemnation, and He will save you. So just trust Him, and you will demonstrate yourself to be one of God's chosen ones.
And if you've already put your faith in Christ as your Savior, just knowing that God chose you ought to send you out of here today just as high as a kite, rejoicing in the Lord, feeling like a king. Remind yourself of this through the afternoon today, and tomorrow when you go to work or school or wherever you go on a Monday. "God chose me! He chose me! Of all the people in the world, He chose me. I'm one of His special people."
You know, that's going to do fantastic things for you. It's going to make you feel good. It's going to help you relate to other people more kindly and lovingly and gently, and with greater acceptance and tolerance. You'll treat your wife or your husband better. You'll treat your kids better. I mean, just to know that God considers you a very special person that He chose--remind yourself of it often. It wasn't because there was anything inside you that made you worth choosing, but because He is a God of mercy. Praise God!
That ought to heighten your love and appreciation for Him, as well as your degree of commitment to Him. Undeserving as we are, He chose us. Oh, we ought to want to live for Him, turn our lives over to Him, let Him take control of us, surrender our wills to Him. Commit ourselves to becoming, by His grace, the people He wants us to be. Think of it! He chose you!
Meanwhile, we need to keep praying for those friends and loved who don't know the Savior--praying that God will bring people and circumstances into their lives that will turn their hearts to Him. We need to keep on praying for Uncle Howard because God is waiting to do some good things in answer to prayer.
I, uh, I guess I'm going to tell you this. I'm not sure that I should; I don't have permission to. But [Pastor] Scott Last's dad went to be with the Lord this week on Friday. We've been praying for him because we didn't think he knew the Lord. Just a couple weeks ago, in a group of fellow sailors--he's a sailor--they were talking about heaven and how to get there, and Scott's dad gave a radiant testimony of a clear understanding of how to get to heaven. And Scott just leaped with joy. He was there and heard it with his own ears.
God answers prayer. God is waiting to do some good things in answer to prayer. Don't stop praying. Pray that God will bring people into their lives, circumstances into their lives, anything to help them understand the issue and to turn their hearts to Him. Because... "whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Let's bow together prayerfully in his presence. With our heads bowed reverently before God, let me ask whether you know Christ as your Savior. Have you made this decision? Are you putting your faith, your confidence for eternity not in any good thing you've done, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ: His death at Calvary, His resurrection from the tomb? Have you put your confidence in Him alone? That's how we assure ourselves of heaven. None of us deserves it. Jesus paid for it. So, while the wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Will you receive this gift today? Will you put your faith in Him?
Just settle it prayerfully right now. "Lord, I'm a sinner." Tell Him in the quiet of your soul right now, will you?
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe Jesus died in my place and paid for my sin. Lord, I'm trusting You know. Come into my life and save me from sin."
Did you know that's what life was all about? To prepare us in this way for eternity. Don't pass up this opportunity to settle this once for all.
Oh, God, I pray that if there are some here who have resisted for one reason or another, may this be the day that all obstacles are broken down, and that they would cast themselves upon Your mercy and Your grace for their eternal salvation. God, save them, I pray. In Jesus' name, amen.
Continue to ROM 19: The Right Way