If we read Romans 9, as I think we should, to be speaking about “God’s purpose of election,” or choosing, or picking out those among the sinners who deserve the wrath of God to receive His mercy and compassion (Romans 9.15), and those whom He would predestine to be called, justified, and glorified (see Romans 8.29-30), and those whom He would predestine for adoption as sons before the foundation of the world (see Ephesians 1.4-5), then the question of Romans 9.14 is the only natural question for sinful mankind to ask: “Is there injustice on God’s part?”
Before we examine Paul’s answer to this question, we must first admit that we sinful humans have a tendency to examine the holy, creator God through the lens of our experience. In other words, we judge God by our human understanding of reality, rarely considering that our fallen minds might be misconceiving reality. For example, in our minds, genuine love is when two people care for each other and commit themselves to a mutually benefitting relationship. Our society cannot understand how anyone could think that a loving, committed relationship between two people, regardless of gender, could be considered wrong. So, we take our definition of “love” and re-read the biblical texts about homosexuality so that God is “loving” by our definition of “love.” We take our understanding of “love” and force the Word of God to fit into our construct of love, especially in areas of human sexuality, the eternality of hell, the problem of evil, and the inclusion of heaven for all. And we do the same for our understanding of “justice.”
Justice, according to the dictionary, is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” To be clear, “just” is “acting or being in conformity with what is morally upright or good.” Injustice, then, would be the violation of right or of the rights of another. What Paul is asking is God violating the laws of justice by electing some to mercy while leaving others in condemnation? Is God failing in His administration of what is morally right? Is God failing to impartially administer merited rewards or punishments? Is God unfair?
There is no way to properly understand God’s purpose of election (Romans 9.11) without having to ask this question from a human viewpoint. Is seems unfair to us that God does not allow us the opportunity to merit or earn salvation. How can God just willy nilly pick some to be saved and overlook others, particularly those who are basically good people? To answer that difficult question, we must nail down some basic principles.
First, God is completely just in judging sinners and condemning them to hell for their rebellion against His divine rule. The Scriptures state the gospel very plainly,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1.18 ESV)
For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23 ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2.1-3 ESV)
When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, (2 Thessalonians 1.7-9 ESV)
When the God of all creation judges humanity, and pours out His wrath upon sinners because they have refused to acknowledge Him as God, because they have followed the ways of the Evil One, and because they have rejected the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, He is totally and completely just.
Second, God is completely merciful and compassionate to choose to rescue some sinners from the judgment they deserve. To illustrate his point, Paul quotes from Exodus 33. In this part of the exodus story, the people have just built and worshipped the golden calf. As a result, God tells Moses that He is through with those “stiff necked people” (Exodus 33.3) and that He would no longer go with them lest He “consume them on the way.” Moses then intercedes for the rebellious people, not because the people were worthy, but because of God’s promises to go with them. Here is what happened after Moses interceded for the people,
17And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33.17-23 ESV)
In this portion of the exodus journey, the Lord is right and just to consume the stiff-necked and rebellious children of Israel. But, He decided to have mercy and compassion upon them even though they did nothing to deserve it. Paul recalls this story to restate God’s purpose in election, which he does in verse 16. Here is how the various translations render this verse:
So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy. (KJV)
It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. (NIV)
So then it does not depend on human will or effort, but on God who shows mercy. (HCSB)
So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. (NASB)
So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. (NRSV)
So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (ESV)
The word translated “will” means “to will, have in mind, intend; to be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure” (Thayer’s Greek Dictionary). The word translated “effort or desire” literally means “to run” but is used metaphorically to mean “to exert one’s self, strive hard; to spend one’s strength in performing or attaining something; the word occurs in Greek writings denoting to incur extreme peril, which it requires the exertion of all one’s effort to overcome” (Thayer’s Greek Dictionary).
God will have mercy on whom He has mercy so that His mercy and election will not depend on what humans purpose or resolve to do nor upon how hard humans strive to overcome a situation of extreme peril.
Third, God is completely just in using the sinfulness of sinners to demonstrate the glory of His name. To further illustrate God’s purpose in election, and to further answer the question of unfairness, Paul continued with the exodus story, but turned his attention on Pharaoh. When God called Moses to rescue His people from Egypt, He told Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will not let the people go” (see Exodus 4.21). As the story unfolds, we are repeatedly told of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart:
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (7.3)
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (7.13-14)
Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened (7.22)
Pharaoh hardened his heart (8.15)
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (8.19)
Pharaoh hardened his heart (8.32)
The heart of Pharaoh was hardened (9.7)
The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh (9.12)
Pharaoh hardened his heart (9.34)
Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (9.35)
The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh (10.1)
The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (10.20)
The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (10.27)
The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (11.10)
The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (14.4)
The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart (14.8)
Three times we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, five times we are told that his heart was hardened, and eight times we are told that the Lord hardened his heart. Much has been written about who was responsible for the hardening of his heart, and the question rightly belongs in the discussion of Romans 9. Did Pharaoh harden his heart because it had already been hardened by the Lord or did the Lord harden his heart because Pharaoh had already hardened it? Which came first? Paul’s point seems to be quite clear, “For this very purpose, I raised you up…” What was the purpose? To demonstrate His power and that His name might be proclaimed in all the earth. So then, the conclusion of the question about the justice of God is: God has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.
The conclusion of the matter is that the answer Paul gives is not very satisfying to the souls of humans who are conditioned to demand our rights and to be treated fairly. Of course, by fairly, we mean that God should overlook our sinfulness and have a high regard for our few righteous deeds. Or by fairly, we mean that God should judge us based upon our merit, but of course, overlooking our sins. Or by fairly, we mean that God has no right to choose who will be the objects of His mercy just by what He determines will best proclaim His name in all the earth. In all fairness, God should consider our rights, but ignore our sinful rebellion, when administering His mercy. In all fairness, the Creator should bend to the will of the created.
Whether we like it or not, the biblical teaching of Romans 9 is that God has chosen to demonstrate His mercy and compassion on some sinners while leaving His wrath to remain on most. This is exactly how it was understood by the early Baptists, who stated their confession in the London Baptist Confession (1644),
God had in Christ before the foundation of the world, according to the good pleasure of His will, foreordained some men to eternal life through Jesus Christ, to the praise and glory of His grace, leaving the rest in their sin to their just condemnation, to the praise of His justice. (Article III)
There is no conflict between the justice of God poured out upon sinners who deserve His wrath and the mercy of God poured out upon sinners to whom He has chosen to be merciful.