“It’s not fair!!” How often have you heard children say that? “Jimmy got two cookies and I only got one. It’s not fair!” But we say it too. “Susan got the promotion at work and I didn’t. That’s not right! It’s not fair!” We are a people obsessed with fairness and when something doesn’t appear to be fair, we feel that something is clearly wrong and want it to be fixed!
The question Paul addresses here in Romans 9 is one of fairness. Why does God choose to save some and overlook others? That just doesn’t seem fair to those whom God left in sin. But Paul helps us to see this morning that what we must focus on when we think of God’s election is God’s mercy. Let’s read Romans 9:1-21. We’ll focus on verses 10-18.
I. It’s important first to understand Paul’s argument as seen in verses 1-10.
In Romans 1-8, Paul has been laying out God’s beautiful plan of salvation. He has pointed to the hopeless condition of our sin and then showed that the only solution is to have faith and believe in Jesus Christ. As a result, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. Moreover, we know that nothing will separate us from God’s love. If we are chosen, then we can know with certainty that we have been saved for eternity.
At this point, Paul reflects on the state of the Jews in chapters 9-11. There is profound sadness in Paul’s words now in chapter 9 since many of his own people, the Jews, seem to have not been chosen for many of them had rejected Christ. But more than that, he wonders how that can be. God had chosen the people of Israel to be His special chosen people. And now it appears that many of them will not be saved. How can God’s specially chosen people not end up being elect?
II. Paul gives the example of Jacob and Esau in verses 10-13.
Verse 10 says that the two sons were from the same parents, both chosen by God. However, Paul says in verses 11-12 “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad--in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls--she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” It wasn’t that God knew Esau would be a bad or Jacob good. In fact, if you remember the stories of Jacob, you know that Jacob was a deceiver and a scoundrel. Yet God chose Jacob to be the one through whom the chosen people would grow.
Moreover, in verse 13 Paul quotes Malachi 1:2-3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Now some have tried to soften this statement by indicating that the verb in Malachi can mean that God loved Jacob more than Esau. But the point is that God chose Jacob to be the heir to the covenant promise and He rejected Esau. A man once told his pastor that he had a problem with Romans 9, where it says, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,’” “Yes,” said the pastor, “there is great difficulty in that verse; but which part of the verse is difficult for you?” The latter part, of course,” said the man. “I cannot understand why God should hate Esau.” The pastor replied, “That verse has often been difficult, but my difficulty has always been with the first part of the verse. I never could understand how God could love that wily, deceitful, scoundrel Jacob.”
Well, Paul says that this was done so that God’s purpose in election might stand. It was God’s plan from the very beginning to save some, but not all. In the Old Testament, God chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob. All along, He is leaving behind many others. This is simply God’s will and plan. The Bible doesn’t explain why God does it in this way. Paul simply says that this is the way God brings about salvation. Now that may seem arbitrary and harsh but the key element is the place of God’s mercy.
III. That mercy of God is seen clearly in verses 14-18.
Paul now anticipates an objection in verse 14: “Is God unjust?” Imagine that I have a million dollars that I want to give away to some of you. The logical thing to do would be to look at each person and make a decision based on each person. Maybe I would decide based on how nice or good they are. Maybe it would be based on how badly they need the money. But now imagine that there are two who are equally nice and have the same need. For a reason unknown to anyone else, I choose one and refuse the other. It’s my money to do with as I choose, yet to many the fact that I chose one over the other would seem unfair. Why chose one? Why not choose both and split it? How does Paul answer this objection about God’s choice?
The answer Paul gives probably is not as satisfying as we would like it to be. Paul simply says that because God is God and He has the right to show compassion and mercy to whomever he wishes. It is God’s grace to spend and He may spend it anyway He chooses. It may not seem fair to us, but it is God’s world and He can do what He wants. What is more important, however, is the element of God’s mercy. Paul writes in verse 15 that God once told Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It is God’s grace to dispense and He will do it in any way he chooses.
The fact is that God is totally just in dealing with all people of all time. What is the condition of man? Sinful through and through. As we saw last week, human beings were in the pit of sin and loving it! As such, we deserve punishment, the punishment of death. What does God do? From that pit of sin, He has chosen to save some. God would be perfectly just to leave us all; but for some reason, reasons of mercy, He chose to save some and the rest he leaves behind justly in their sin. All equally deserve to die, but God chooses to show mercy to some.
This is the point the Belgic Confession makes in article 16. “We believe that all Adam's descendants having thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first man; God showed himself to be as he is: merciful and just. He is merciful in withdrawing and saving from this perdition those whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel, has elected and chosen in Jesus Christ our Lord by his pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. He is just in leaving the others in their ruin and fall into which they plunged themselves. And so Paul says in verse 16, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
Paul then gives the example of Pharaoh in verse 17. This refers to a time in the middle of the Ten Plagues. Pharaoh had promised to release the people if God would remove the plagues. Each time God hardened his heart so that he would not let the people of Israel go. In Exodus 9:15-16, Moses finally tells Pharaoh that God is the one doing this. God tells him that he could have wiped him off the face of the earth. But because God wanted to show his power to all and especially His mercy to His own people, He kept hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh thought he was in control; God points out very pointedly that God is in control. Pharaoh existed to further God’s own ends and God’s ends are to carry out his mighty acts of salvation. The conclusion from verse 18 again is that God will show mercy to whom he will show mercy and will harden those whom he will harden.
That still may not be enough for us and Paul anticipates that as well in verse 19. Someone may say that then it doesn’t really matter what we do if God is the one choosing us. “Who can resist his will?” However, as verse 20 says, “Who are you, a human being, to talk back to God.” God is working out His plan and His purpose. It may not make sense to us why God chooses some and leaves others behind, but it is God’s world and He can do as He wishes.
IV. What are some conclusions to draw from this?
This teaching of election should shape our attitude toward ourselves in three ways. First, election should be an incentive to holiness, not an excuse for sin. There is a great deal of security since God has chosen us but let’s remember we are elect so that we will be holy and blameless. Election forbids sin and insists on holiness.
Second, election should also be a stimulus to humility, not a ground for boasting. Some think that to believe that you are one of God’s chosen people is about the most arrogant thought anybody could entertain. And it would be if we thought God chose us based on our merits. But in fact, God chose us in spite of who we are. Election should never become the ground of pride and assuming privilege.
Third, God’s election has the purpose of saving people to share in His work. We become agents in his purpose. This is a great privilege, but it is a privilege that often brings with it hardship, rejection and loss just as it did for our Lord Jesus.
But what about the fairness of God’s electing some and leaving others behind? We should never become fully comfortable with the Bible’s teaching of election. Now it is true that those who have sinned and rebelled against God are getting what they deserve for they had opportunities to respond but did not. But what the Bible says is that if we were left to our own designs we would do the exact same thing. Still God chooses us to receive the Spirit to move us to accept the gospel. In his book Passage through Sacred History, Don Skinner writes, “The scope of who it is that God means to invite to the feast, you see, is not ours to define. We are not put in charge of the guest list.”
In the meantime, we should press on with our mission activity. Those who believe have been chosen by God to be saved in Jesus Christ. Those who believe have been chosen by God to be the ones who proclaim the good news of salvation to those who do not yet believe. Let’s humbly thank God for the first calling and eagerly serve Him as we fulfill the second one.