The Sovereign Mercy of God

That’s Not Fair!

Here is how Paul says it, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?” (Romans 9:14 ESV)

This isn’t the first time Paul has taught this or wrote about this. Paul preached and taught everywhere he went. He knew how people generally responded to what he was saying.

Here we are on an important point. The fact that Paul immediately addresses the sense that election seems unfair proves that unconditional election is what he was actually teaching. We see the same in verse 19 when he addresses the objection, then “who can resist his [sovereign] will?” If he wanted to clarify what he was saying, he could have done so to make sure everyone knew he wasn’t suggesting that God was the ultimate decider in salvation. But he does the opposite. He doubles down.

“Is there injustice on God’s part?” I don’t suppose we are that different from the first-century folks who viewed justice through a lens of fairness. Sameness. To the modern man this increasingly means that everyone must be the same. Same opportunities. Same outcomes. Participation trophies for all. Everyone must be the same or we cry out, That’s not fair!

This is the world I am living in currently with a six-year-old and a four-year-old. “Daddy, why does Kiralee get more Cheez-its than me?” “Daddy, Madeline didn’t pick up as many toys as I had to pick up!” Last night there was a kerfuffle over toothpaste. One had red toothpaste; the other had blue. The one with the blue toothpaste said to me, “Why does she get to have the red toothpaste?” And I thought to myself, a sermon illustration! You know what I never hear? “Daddy, why does she get to have more peas than me?” Ever notice that?

Our outrage over fairness is very subjective. What Paul says is, the human measure of fairness isn’t ultimate to God. Can we really accuse God of not being fair? Of being unjust to save Isaac or to save Jacob? To save anyone and not save everyone?

Paul’s response is one he’s used before in Romans. It is the strongest objection allowed by the Greek language. God forbid! No way! May it never be so! OK Paul, prove it. Prove that God says he doesn’t give mercy to everyone the same.

“For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” (Romans 9:15)

When did God say this? In Exodus 33 when Moses asked to see God’s glory. God says no man can see my face and live. But he does agree to show Moses the backside of his glory, to declare his name to Moses, and then says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19) This declaration by God means God reserves unto himself the right to grant mercy and compassion to whomever he desires.

Paul’s conclusion from this is, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (Romans 9:16). In other words, the category of justice or fairness is entirely the wrong category. The basis of salvation is the will of God and the mercy of God. This isn’t a justice issue, this is a mercy issue.

We should be forever joyful that is a mercy issue and not a justice issue. Let’s go back to that womb of Rebekah. There is little Esau. There is little Jacob. Which of them deserved to be saved? Neither. So, what would be justice? Both Esau and Jacob under the wrath of God forever? If God shows mercy to Jacob and not to Esau, is there an injustice done? Has Esau been wronged? If you begin with the presupposition that Esau deserved God’s grace and deserved to be saved, then if he isn’t saved, that’s injustice. But if Esau’s life and sin deserved God’s wrath and God gives him what he deserves, is there an injustice done? No.

What about Jacob? Jacob deserved wrath, but God chose to place his grace and mercy on Jacob and paid the price for Jacob’s guilt via Jesus’ death on the cross. Is God unjust to grant mercy?

That’s the point. We really don’t want justice. If you read Romans 9 and shake your fist at God and say, I don’t want mercy, I want justice, if God answers that prayer, you go to hell.

My journey into these doctrines was blessed by the teaching ministry of R.C. Sproul. I attended a conference where he explained mercy and justice by telling a memorable story of when he was a college professor and had a class of 250 freshmen. On the first day of class he went through the syllabus and said,

“You have to write three short term papers, five pages each. The first one is due September 30 when you come to class, the second one October 30, and the third one November 30. Make sure that you have them done by the due date, because if you don’t…unless you [have a medical emergency], you will get an F on that assignment.” 

The day came when the first paper was due. 225 had it with them. 25 didn’t. Those who didn’t have it done pleaded with Professor Sproul, give us a few more days. We’re freshmen. We’re stupid. This is all new. He relented and said, you have three more days.

The second term paper date came and this time 200 had it and 50 didn’t. He said, “Where are your papers?” Well, you know…midterms, homecoming…. They pleaded with him. He relented and said, you have three more days.

The third due date came and this time 100 students came with the term paper and 150 didn’t. They came in to class cool and calm. He said, “Johnson! Do you have your paper?” “Don’t worry about it, Prof, I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.” Sproul took the grade book and said, “F.” Nicholson, do you have your term paper? “No.” “F.” Then someone shouted, “That’s not fair!” Sproul said, “Fitzgerald, was that you?” “Yeah, it’s not fair.” Sproul said, “Weren’t you late with your paper last month?” Yeah. Sproul said, “If it’s justice you want, it’s justice you will get.” He changed his grade from October to an F. He looked around the class and asked, “Who else wants justice?”[1]

The minute we think we are entitled to grace we leave the realm of mercy and enter the realm of justice. As sinners, we don’t want justice. No. We want and desperately need mercy.

So, then it doesn’t depend on human will or exertion. What’s the “it”? Salvation. The Greek word for exertion is trek. It’s like a run requiring exertion. We are not saved by our will or choice or sweat, but we are saved by God who has mercy. And we should be glad or in perfect fairness, we all to go hell. As someone has said, “If we end up in hell it’s our fault. If we end up in heaven, it’s God’s fault.”

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2019 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] R.C. Sproul, “An Inalienable Right to Grace?” www.ligonier.org, December 9, 2011.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

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