The Letter to the Romans



31. God's Sovereign Mercy


Romans 9:14-18

Paul has been discussing the fact that God in His sovereignty appoints people, such as Isaac and Jacob, to bear the burdens of His choice of them. People do not decide to become God's "helpers"; He appoints them to their work. To us three-dimensional mortals, God's sovereign choice of people can look unfair. Accepting God's will is part of our growth in faith, but our acceptance is not blind. The Bible gives us many insights into the nature of God's sovereign justice.

In 2 Chronicles 19:7, Israel is called to fear God and to know that there is no injustice or partiality or bribery in God. Humans cannot manipulate Him. He is mighty and awesome, and he defends the defenseless such as the fatherless and widows (Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Psalm 140:12-13)) God illustrated this fact to Abraham before He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. If there had been even 10 people faithful to God in those cities, He said, He would not have burned them (Genesis 18:20-33).

We cannot deceive God or deceitfully misrepresent Him; He is above our machinations (Job 13:5-12). He does not favor people of power because they as well as the poor are all His creations (Job 34:16-20). We cannot discredit His justice; we have no power like His (Job 40:6-9). God is known by His justice; the wicked snare themselves by their own deeds (Psalms 9:15-16). He is faithful in all He does; He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of His love (Psalm 33:4-5). His love reaches the heavens, His faithfulness the skies; His righteousness is like the mountains, and His justice as fathomless as the "great deep" (Psalm 36:5-6). Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne (Psalms 89:14-5; 97:2-3).

Our understanding of justice comes from our relationship with God. "Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it fully" (Proverbs 28:5). Many people look to the rulers of their societies for justice, but it is only from the Lord that we receive justice (Proverbs 29:26).

God deals with His people with graciousness and compassion. He disciplines us, but only with justice (Isaiah 30:18; Jeremiah 30:11). Matthew quotes Isaiah and identifies Jesus as the One in whom God fulfilled His promise of a servant gifted with the Holy Spirit and proclaiming justice, showing mercy to the broken, and leading justice to victory (Matthew 12:18-21). In fact, God demonstrated His justice by sending Jesus to bear our sin and die for our atonement. He showed us that He is the One who is just and the One who justifies (Romans 3:25-26). In other words, God turned our human idea of justice upside down. He became sin for us, died our deaths, and justified us without our having to take the eternal penalty. The curse of sin was fulfilled; Jesus took it onto Himself. Our Creator became our Substitute and Redeemer. Justice has been done, but we the guilty receive forgiveness and mercy. Revelation 19:11-13 pictures Jesus as riding a white horse. His name is Faithful and True, Word of God, and He judges and makes war with justice.

God alone embodies justice. We who know Him begin to understand justice as God sees it, but to unregenerate humanity, God's justice looks arbitrary. In reality, however, it is completely faithful, patient, and merciful. We can trust God to care for people and situations completely, even when we cannot see all that's involved. God is sovereign, and His sovereignty is our comfort and defense.

Paul does not explain God's justice in terms of fairness as humans understand fairness. When Paul talks about God's choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, he appeals to God's sovereignty, not to our understanding of what is fair. We are too limited in our physical, mortal, three-dimensional state; we can't see the whole reality God knows, nor should we. It is arrogance for us to think God owes us an explanation or that we must somehow explain God so He "looks good" to doubters. His love abounds, and His mercy is evident everywhere; "fairness" does not begin to explain God's ways and purposes.


God's Justice and Sovereignty over Evil

God's justice includes responsibility and mercy we would never be able to emulate. If His justice were really "fair" in human terms, none of us would be saved. We are so deeply flawed that we, in our natural state, cannot even see our brokenness. God revealed His sovereign grace to Israel. In spite of their arrogant, "stiff-necked" attitude, God drove out the Canaanites from the land and moved Israel in to claim it and live in it. He told them, however, that He wasn't giving them the land because of their righteousness or integrity; on the contrary, they were disobedient and unsurrendered to Him. God drove out the Canaanites because of the Canaanites' wickedness, not because Israel deserved God's reward. (Deuteronomy 9:5) We also have been saved by grace through faith. Our salvation is a gift; it is not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9). God saved us not because of any righteous things we have done but because of His mercy (Titus 3:4-5). Even Abraham was not called and justified because of anything he did. He believed God, and his belief God counted as righteousness (Romans 4:2-3). God has saved us and called us to a holy life. This call and this salvation are not because of our obedience or allegiance. They are entirely the results of God's mercy and grace. This grace, furthermore, was given in Christ to us before the beginning of time, but God didn't reveal it to us until he sent Jesus. Jesus conquered death and brought the eternal realities of life and immortality to light (2 Timothy 1:8-10).

God's sovereignty and holiness are the ultimate values in the universe. From our perspective, we think that our welfare is of ultimate concern. We interpret our salvation as evidence that God values us above all else, and His ultimate purpose is to save and give us redeemed and fulfilled lives. We imagine that God can only bless and satisfy; He would not punish or hurt or even use evil for His purposes. Yet the Bible teaches us that God is sovereign over everything, even over evil. This reality does not mean God is evil or generates evil, but it does mean He uses evil in the accomplishment of His purposes. What Satan and unregenerate men mean for harm, God intends for good and for the saving of lives (Genesis 50:20).

When God was preparing the circumstances for Israel to leave Egypt, God spoke to Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron. He told him that He could have sent a plague that would have wiped him and his people off the face of the earth, thus freeing Israel to go without opposition. "But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," God said (Exodus 9:13-16). By allowing Pharaoh to play out his hand of cruelty and deception, God clearly intervened in Israel's circumstances. It could never be said that through a fluke of nature or chance or by Pharaoh's altruism Israel was released. Rather, their escape from Egypt was clearly the result of direct interventions by their God. His reputation preceded them as they traveled to Canaan, and the pagans were afraid of and respected the power of Israel's God before they met Israel. Exodus 15:13-16 says that as God led His children through the land into enemy territory, the people and their chiefs would be terrified and paralyzed because of the stories of God's divine destruction of Pharaoh and his army. Until Israel had passed and was established, the nations would fear God as Israel approached. Joshua 9:9-10 tells the story of God sending Israel to war against the Gibeonites. God, however, took responsibility for the enemy's slaughter; He threw the Gibeonites into confusion, allowing Israel to rout and destroy them. As the Gibeonites floundered, God sent a hailstorm, and more people died from hailstones than from the swords of Israel.

When the spies in Jericho found refuge in Rahab's home, she told them that she and her people had heard how Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land and had destroyed the Amorites. They were afraid, she said, because their God was God in heaven above and earth below (Joshua 2:10-11). Later, when the Israelites in their arrogance took the ark into their battle against the Philistines, the Philistines were afraid. The remembered what Israel's God had done to the Egyptians at the Red Sea. The Israelites were not honoring God on this occasion, however; they were using the ark as a talisman for good luck. God allowed the Israelites to lose and the Philistines to capture the ark. They sent it back to Israel, though, when the ark's presence caused them to develop tumors that killed them (1 Samuel 4:5-8).

God's will and God's glory are what all creation ultimately exalts. Even the evil and destructiveness of sin is under God's sovereign command; deliberately evil people cannot do what God does not allow. We are not to question God's authority over creation. Verse 18 of Romans 9 reminds us that God has mercy on some and hardens others according to His will. For example, told Moses to do all the wonders He commanded him to perform before Pharaoh, but God warned Moses in advance that He would harden Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 4:21). In Exodus 7:3-5 God explains His apparently arbitrary hardening of Pharaoh by explaining that Pharaoh's hardening would be followed by judgments on Egypt so the Egyptians would know that God is Lord. He would glorify Himself through His judgments against Pharaoh and his army, and the Egyptians would know He was God (Exodus 14:4). What appears initially to be God destroying and sending judgment on people is ultimately for the purpose of drawing people to recognize and honor Him as the one true God.

Deuteronomy 2:30 explains the story of Israel on its way to Canaan seeking permission to pass through the territory of Sihon, king of Heshbon. Sihon refused permission, but Moses explains that God made Sihon's heart stubborn in order to give him into Israel's hands. Joshua 11:16-20 gives details about Joshua leading Israel as they conquered and settled the land of Canaan. None of the northern kings except the Hivites of Gibeon made treaties with Israel. Joshua and the people defeated all of them as God had commanded Moses they should. God hardened them in order that He might destroy them completely. God's destruction of these people was not arbitrary as it might have appeared on the surface. He destroyed them because they were intractably evil and unrepentant, refusing to acknowledge Him as God and Israel as His people. The purpose of God's leading Israel into Canaan was to show the pagan world that there was a God more powerful, more merciful to His people than any gods they knew. Israel's conquering of Canaan under God's direction was a revelation of God to the world that surpassed any that had ever happened before.

Psalm 105:24-25 states that God made His people to be too fruitful for their foes to conquer, and He turned the enemies hearts to hate His people. In other words, God's blessing polarized people. Those who were willing to see and honor the sovereign power and majesty of God honored and supported Israel and Israel's God. Those who stubbornly refused to bow before God's sovereignty, however, became harder in their hearts and more settled in their hatred of God. When people are confronted with the reality of God's power and grace and exclusivity, they either respond in humble surrender or they become more and more resistant, lashing out at those who accept Him.

Isaiah prophesied that God would make people calloused, blind, and deaf so they would not be healed. This resistance would happen until their cities and houses were ruined, but, he promised, there would remain a "stump in the land"-a few faithful ones who would cling to their trust in God's promises. Jesus quoted this passage when He told the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:14-15. God would scatter the seeds of the gospel before all people. Some would hear it and give it a nurturing place to grow in their hearts. Others would not let it take root, and they would become hard and angry, no longer indifferent to God's truth but actively antagonistic toward it. John 19:39-40 also records Jesus quoting from this passage in Isaiah, applying it to the Pharisees and Jews who refused to believe Him even with the personal evidence that He was the promised Messiah.

In Isaiah 63:17-19, Isaiah explains why God allowed Israel to wander and harden their hearts for so many years in exile. The people had become despairing and had apostatized. Where was God, they wondered? Isaiah reminds them that they are God's people. Even though He disciplined them by allowing them to wander far from Him and far from their land, He had not treated them as pagans. He still ruled over them-and He did not rule over the pagans or give the pagans His name. Even in their apostasy, the Israelites were still God's people. He still called them by His name, and their circumstances were His provision for their discipline and their reawakening to His sovereign love and mercy.

God's sovereignty over evil ensures that nothing happens without His permission. Further, His sovereignty means that even evil is ultimately used in the accomplishment of God's will. What man means for evil, God means for good and for the saving of lives (Genesis 40:20).


Sovereign over the Saved

God's sovereignty extends over evil and good. His will is accomplished not only through the wicked who resist Him but also through those who are saved. While His sovereignty looks arbitrary to us from a limited, time-bound perspective, we can know that He is not capricious. Romans 9:22-24 and 2:4 tell us that God is patient with even the objects of His wrath for the purpose of bringing repentance. His patience is an evidence of His mercy which He showers on those "whom he prepared in advance for glory". The implication here is that many of those who are the objects of His mercy appear to us to be "prepared for destruction", but God knows hearts, and He patiently woos even people who seem entrenched in evil. In fact, all of us were at one time objects of His wrath. His patience and mercy are the grace He lavishes on all of us.

Isaiah speaks for God in 75:1 as He addresses apostate Israel and declares that God showed Himself to them even when they did not ask for Him. Further, God not only called and responded to apostate Israel, He called even those who were not His people. Hosea 2:23 says God would show love to those He called "Not my people" and finally make them His people. Both Paul in Romans 9:25 and Peter in 1 Peter 2:10 apply this text in Hosea to the mystery revealed in the new covenant: the Gentiles coming into the church and becoming God's people.

No one turns to God from his own desire. We are all born objects of God's wrath (Ephesians 2:3). It is God who draws us to Jesus (John 6:44) whose words are "spirit and life". Even so, some do not respond to Him, and God has known from the beginning who would betray Him. (John 63:65). Jesus said that He would draw all men to Himself when He was "lifted up", or crucified (John 12:32). It is the love and mercy of God demonstrated through Jesus' sacrifice for us that awakens a response in our sinful hearts. When Jesus declared that He would all draw all men to Himself, there were not only Jews but Gentiles present in the crowd (John 12:20). This statement was not only His revelation of His sovereign power over men's hearts; it was also His assertion that all men-Jews and Gentiles-would come to Him.

This unforeseen fact of the Gentiles being included in God's people is the mystery revealed n the New Testament. In Romans 10:20 Paul quotes Isaiah 65:1, the text where God says He called unrepentant Israel to Himself when they were not looking for Him and revealed Himself to them, and applies that prophecy to God's revelation of Himself to the Gentiles. In fact, the New Testament is full of statements of God's foreknowledge of and faithfulness to those who would be His. For example, Romans 11:2 says God did not reject His people (both Jew and Gentile) whom He foreknew. Ephesians 1:4-6 states that He chose us in Him before the creation of the world, and 2:4-5 reveals that His great love for us made us alive with Christ when we were dead in our sins.

Paul stresses that our salvation is entirely a work of grace from God, and it was already a fact before the creation of the world. We contribute nothing to being saved, and He does not save us because of any merit in us. He admonishes Timothy not to be ashamed to testify about the Lord. God called us to a holy life and saved us because of His mercy and grace which was given to us "before the beginning of time." This eternal grace has now been revealed to us through Christ who "destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:8-10). John writes in Revelation 17:8 that there are those whose name were not written in the book of life from the creation of the world.

God's knowledge of our sin and also of His plan to save us has been a fact from eternity. God did not scramble to amend His law when mankind sinned, trying to find a way to save us. The idea that many of us learned (or at least heard) that when Adam and Eve sinned, Jesus appeared three times before the Father pleading for permission to come to earth to die for us, is heresy. Jesus never had to plead with the Father to become our Redeemer. The triune God knew from eternity that Jesus would become a human and die. The plan was a fact before God created the world. God has also known from eternity who would and who would not accept His grace.


The Role of Human Choice

At the same time we know God is absolutely sovereign over all creation and all human outcomes, we also know that the Bible commands us to choose life and truth and Jesus. This apparent contradiction has fueled arguments between the Calvinists and the Arminians for hundreds of years. Before we can even comment on the issues, we must see what the Bible says about human choice.

In Deuteronomy 30 we read the account of Moses presenting Israel with the blessings and cursings God set before Israel: blessings if they kept His covenant and honored Him, and cursings if they dishonored Him. In verses 19-20 Moses begs the people to "choose life" so they and their children might live in the land and love the Lord. They responded, of course, by saying they would do all God commanded-but they broke their promises.

Several years later, Joshua renewed the covenant with Israel as they began to inhabit Canaan. Joshua 24:14-15 records Joshua telling Israel to serve the Lord; but, he says, if they don't want to serve Him, they must choose that day whom they would serve. "As for me and my house, " he declared publicly, "we will serve the Lord."

By this time, Israel had already demonstrated her persistent inability to keep her promises to God. In verses 19-22 Joshua tells them that they are incapable of serving the Lord. The people protest, promising to do all God commanded. Joshua responds by saying they have just witnessed against themselves with their promises.

The tension that reveals itself in these passages is that of Israel wanting to be obedient, wanting God's blessings, but also of being unable to honor their own choices.

Years later David calls on Israel not to harden their hearts as they did in the wilderness when God disciplined them by making them wander for 40 years while the disobedient generation died out (Psalm 95:6-8). Proverbs 28:14 further emphasizes the point that people have responsibility for the condition of their hearts by saying that the man who fears the Lord is blessed, but he who hardens his heart falls into trouble.

If people have responsibility for their hearts' hardness or receptivity, then why could Israel not honor her commitments to serve the Lord?

Jeremiah begins to offer some insight into this dilemma. In 29:13 he speaks God's words: "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." Apparently the ability to choose to honor God is related not just to a desire to do the right thing but to a willingness to commit one's entire heart and attention to knowing God.

John the Baptist came with the last Old Testament prophetic message: Repent and be baptized. (Matthew 3:1-2) People had to choose to repent; it would not happen automatically. Repentance involves deep admission of one's sin. This surrender of the dark places of the heart must be involved in seeking God with one's whole heart, as Jeremiah said.

John records a somewhat enigmatic statement of Jesus in 7:17. "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." In this statement, Jesus is linking a person's choice to obey God with knowing who He is. In other words, it is only when we are willing to risk obeying what we know to be God's will even when we don't feel confident of the outcome that we finally come to understand who He is and experience the miracle of His care and provision. We will not see or understand or have our questions answered until we choose to obey Him.

John 14:9-11 records the incident of Phillip asking Jesus to show them the Father. Jesus replied that seeing Him is seeing the Father, because He is in the Father, and the Father is in Him. Then He challenges Phillip to believe Him when He says He is in the Father and vice versa. At least, He said in effect, if this truth is hard for you to believe, believe the miracles that prove what I'm saying. The spiritual breakthrough Phillip desired would not be possible until he committed himself to belief in the truth about Jesus.

In apparent contrast to His invitations to believe in Him, Jesus says in John 15:16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last." Here Jesus is saying that his disciples were not following Him because they had desired and chosen to follow. He Himself chose them before they knew they would follow Him. Further, He, not their own decisions, appointed them to bear fruit for the kingdom. In this passage Jesus is echoing the truth of God's sovereignty. Our responsibility to choose Him must first be preceded by God's call on our lives. Without God's choice of us and call to us, we would not even consider the idea of choosing Him. His calling is our equipping.

Not only does the Bible confirm that we have a responsibility to choose Jesus, it also clarifies that our choice can lead us away from God. Romans 1:18-21 clearly says that God's invisible qualities have been clearly seen and understood in all that has been made. Yet God is even now revealing His wrath on those who have suppressed the knowledge of Him by their wickedness. Suppression is not unconscious. To suppress the knowledge of God, one must deliberately refuse to know. Unlike ignorance, suppression implies having knowledge available. Ephesians 4:18-29 echoes this idea. Unbelievers, Paul says here, live in futility, darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of ignorance that results from hardened hearts.

Suppressing the knowledge of God leads to ignorance of Him, but that ignorance is not excusable. It was an ignorance of choice, not of a lack of opportunity. Hebrews 3:7-11 quotes Psalm 95:7-11 and calls people "Today" not to harden their hearts if they hear God's voice. If they do, they will be like Israel when they hardened their hearts in the desert, and God was angry with them and declared they would never enter His rest.

God's sovereignty is involved with our freedom to choose. While Scripture is clear that we must consciously choose God in an act of true surrender, it is equally clear that God is sovereign even over all our choices. While we cannot fully explain this paradox, we must accept both facts: God is sovereign over all, and our choices have eternal consequences.

Without God's sovereign intervention in our lives, we would be unable to choose freely. Our sinful hearts would never have a desire to seek God. As Jesus told the disciples, we do not choose Him; He chooses us. Only when the Holy Spirit calls us to embrace the knowledge of God do we become free actually to choose. Free choice, after all, is only possible after the sovereign intervention of God.

God's sovereignty is absolute. There is nothing He does not know. All things happen under the umbrella of His permission and knowledge. At the same time, our freedom to choose is a fact. We are asked to choose whom we will serve, to believe in the Lord Jesus, and we will be saved. Both God's sovereignty and our freedom of choice are Biblical facts. We must accept the paradox of this reality and live with the knowledge that our choices have eternal consequences. At the same time, nothing surprises God, and He is at work in everything, accomplishing His eternal will. Our response to this seeming contradiction must be humble surrender to God, allowing His Spirit to give us the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding (Colossians 1:9).



God is asking you to accept the reality of His sovereignty and also of your responsibility to make choices. The fact that you are reading this commentary of Romans 9:14-18 demonstrates that God in His sovereignty has already touched your life and awakened your spirit to desire to know what His word says. He has awakened your ability to choose. Now you must decide what you will do with your knowledge of His word and His will. Will you stake your life on it, or will you use God's word as a philosophical tool to intellectually juggle in order to endorse your own view of reality?

Until you see God as absolutely sovereign over all creation and all reality, you will not see Him as being more powerful than the worst disasters and human crises. If you do not see God as sovereign, then you ascribe to evil more power than it really has.

Some of us were taught that God cannot prevent evil from happening or He would be unjust. This view makes God the puppet of Satan, rather like a powerless parent who has abdicated control to a self-centered, unruly child who can always get his way.

No, God does not passively allow Satan to do his deeds. Rather, He could stop him if He wished to do so. The fact is that God honors people's choices, but He uses them-whether they are good or bad-as part of the circumstances which He will redeem and through which He will glorify Himself.

God is asking you to humble yourself before Him and to accept His call on your life. He is asking you to surrender your fear of losing control of your life, of becoming someone you don't recognize-He's asking you to allow Him to make you His and to give you His power to exercise your freedom to choose.

God's call to you is to freedom in Christ, not to bondage to Him.

Praise God for choosing you and for sovereignly ordaining your life. Praise Jesus for taking the curse for you and for making your future certain. Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing your spirit to life and for making you God's child.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Copyright (c) 2006 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 21, 2006.
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