Romans 8 ended with the marvellous promise that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. And while Paul’s readers are cheering, because that promise and all of the promises in Romans 8 are so wonderful, Paul is weeping. He’s heartbroken. He has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in his heart, he tells us in verse 2. And the cause of his great sorrow and unceasing anguish is the unbelief of his fellow Jews, who, because of their unbelief, have cut themselves off from the Saviour and everlasting life. Despite all the privileges they enjoyed as God’s chosen people, nevertheless many of them, most of them, have not believed.
And Paul then went on to tackle the theological problem this presents us with. Has God’s word failed? He made all those promises to the people of Israel, but so many of them have not believed. Has God’s word failed? And we saw last time that Paul explained that not everyone who is descended from Abraham and Isaac and Jacob is a member of God’s true people. As Paul put it in verse 6: Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. In other words, not all who are descended physically, or biologically, from the patriarch Israel, are members of the true, spiritual Israel. And do you remember? Paul supported his point by referring to two stories in the Bible. First of all, there was Abraham and his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Well, one son — Isaac — was chosen; the other — Ishmael — was not. Isaac was regarded as the child of the promise and a child of God. Ishmael — though he was biologically related to Abraham — was neither of those things. And then Paul referred to Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, and their two sons, Jacob and Esau. Twin boys. Born at the same time. And yet God chose one; and not the other. ‘Jacob I loved’, God said. It’s as if he said:
I set my love upon him and chose him to inherit all of my promises about eternal life. Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.
In other words, God chose one and he rejected the other.
Teaching of the Lord Jesus
Before moving on I want to point out that Paul is not the only person in the Bible to teach this doctrine of God’s sovereign and electing grace. Some people don’t like this idea that God chose some and not all; and such people say that it’s only Paul who teaches this. You don’t find it anywhere else in the Bible, they say. It’s only Paul; and, since it’s only Paul, we can disregard it.
Of course, we can’t say that, because we believe that Paul wrote his letters under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that Paul’s words, as well as being Paul’s words, are also the very word of God. We believe that; and therefore we can never disregard what Paul wrote.
Nevertheless we can also say that Paul was not the only one to teach this doctrine in the Bible. The Lord Jesus taught the very same thing. In John 13:18, for instance, after the Lord washed the disciples’ feet, and when he began to teach them, he said, very plainly:
I am not referring to all of you; I know those whom I have chosen.
‘Those whom I have chosen’. Then in John 15, where he talks about the vine and the branches, he said:
You did not choose me, but I chose you.
We may sing: ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’. But the only reason we decide to follow the Lord Jesus, and choose him, is because he first chose us.
And then there’s that passage from Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 11, when the Lord issued that marvellous invitation:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Right before he said those things, he said to his Father in heaven:
I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, and revealed them to little children.
The Lord God — who is sovereign and who rules over all according to his purposes — reveals his word and his will for our salvation to some, but not to all. He reveals it to some and he hides it from others.
And then, just one last example. In Matthew 25, the Lord teaches us the parable of the sheep and the goats who are separated: sheep on the right, goats on the left. What’s he talking about? He’s talking about the Day of Judgment, when the righteous and the wicked will be separated forever. And on that day, what will the Lord say to the righteous? Well, the Lord tells us what he’ll say. He’ll say:
Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
Do you catch that? He said, ‘the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’ The Lord was saying the same thing as Paul said in Ephesians 1 where he tells us that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world. And it matches with what Paul has been saying in Romans and how, before Jacob and Esau were born, God made clear that he had chosen one and not the other. What Paul teaches is what the Lord Jesus teaches. And it’s what the whole Bible teaches, because, of course, Paul builds his argument on what God has revealed in the Old Testament about Abraham and his sons and Isaac and his sons. And as we’ll see in a moment, God revealed the same doctrine in what he said to Moses and in what he said to the Pharaoh in the days of Moses. If you’re a believer today, then you owe your salvation to the Lord, who chose you before you were born and had done anything, whether good or bad. You owe your salvation to the Lord, who chose you even before the world was made. God set his love upon you and he said:
I want that person to be with me for ever in glory.
And because he set his love upon you, when the time was right, he sent his Son into the world as your Redeemer; and when the time was right, he sent his Holy Spirit into our life to enable you to trust his Son. And lest any of us should be tempted to boast, the Bible everywhere teaches us that we owe our salvation to God who freely and graciously chose his people for himself, long before we knew anything about him.
And so, we come to verse 14, where Paul faces an objection. And people are always objecting to this doctrine. And, in fact, maybe all of us want to say to Paul whenever we read these things, we want to say:
And we want to say ‘But’, because this teaching is so remarkable and it’s not at all what we expect to hear. The question is: But why does God choose one person and not another? And why does he not base that choice on what we’ve done? Surely, that’s the fairest thing to do? Surely, that’s the most just thing to do? Choose the one who deserves it; and reject the one who does not deserve it. That’s fair. Right? And that’s the nature of the protest which Paul raises in verse 14. Look at what he wrote:
What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Isn’t he being unjust and unfair? What he’s doing — choosing one and rejecting another — is not right, is it?
And Paul responds with a very strong, ‘No!’ He says:
Not at all!
He won’t hear it. But he doesn’t leave it there. He turns to the Scriptures. And from the Scriptures he explains that the Lord claims the right to show mercy on whomever he wants. That’s in verses 15 and 16. And at the same time, the Lord claims the right to harden whomever he wants. And that’s in verses 17 and 18. And we’ll look at these two sections now.
Verses 15 and 16
First of all, there’s verses 15 and 16 where Paul quotes the Lord’s words to Moses. So, back in Exodus 33, in that chapter where Moses asked God to let his presence remain with them in their wilderness wanderings, the Lord answered and said:
I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.
What did he mean? Well, the child comes to his father, and asks for something. However, pretty soon the father realises his son isn’t really asking. He’s demanding. He’s saying:
Dad, you have to do this for me. You have to!
And the father replies:
No, I don’t have to do anything…. But I will.
And God doesn’t have to show us mercy. He’s not required to show us mercy. After all, we’re all sinners who deserve, not mercy from God, but his wrath and his curse. What we deserve is not mercy, but God’s punishment on us in this life and the next. That’s what we deserve from God, because we’re sinners. And so, God isn’t under any obligation to show us mercy. But, nevertheless, he will have mercy on some.
And then, in verse 16, Paul adds that it — that is, God’s mercy towards us — doesn’t depend on our desire. You know: ‘I really, really, really want it.’ And it doesn’t depend on our effort and the things we might do to commend ourselves to God. No, God’s mercy towards us doesn’t depend on our desire or effort. His mercy towards us depends on nothing but his own mercy. In other words, the reason he’s willing to show mercy to some does not reside in us; it’s not located in us and in who we are and what we have done. It’s located in God. He is free to show mercy to whomever he wants.
Verses 17 and 18
So, in the Bible God claims the right to show mercy on whomever he wants. And he also claims the right to harden whomever he wants. The one who said, ‘Jacob I loved’, also said: ‘Esau I hated’. And so, in verse 17 Paul quotes from Exodus 9 where God said to Pharaoh:
I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
So, there was Pharaoh, who refused to let the people of Israel go. And therefore God sent the Ten Plagues. And by sending the Ten Plagues, he displayed his great power; and people all over the earth would hear of it. And certainly, when the Israelites arrived at Jericho, the people of Jericho were afraid, because they’d heard what God had done to the Egyptians.
So, that’s the story Paul is thinking of. Then, in verse 18, he draws out the implication. He says:
Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
He hardened Pharaoh. Now, sometimes we read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but other times we read that God hardened his heart. And here Paul emphasises how God hardened his heart. And because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, whenever Pharaoh heard that the Israelites had fled, he got all his men and his horses and chariots and they rushed after the Israelites, only to perish in the Red Sea.
What does this show us? That God is free to do whatever seems best to him. He shows mercy to some; he hardens others. And as we’ll see next time, when Paul says that God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden, he’s referring to eternal salvation and eternal condemnation, because if you glance forward, he refers to those who are the objects of his wrath, prepared for destruction, and to those who are the objects of his mercy, prepared for glory.
Now, when we hear this, another objection rises up inside us. We want to say:
But Paul, why does God then blame anyone? If he’s planned everyone’s eternal destiny, and there’s nothing a person can do to change God’s mind, why does he blame a person for not believing? Sure, the reason they don’t believe is because he planned it that way?
That’s the objection that rises up in our minds. And that’s exactly the objection Paul raises in verse 19. And it’s what he deals with in the following verses, which we’ll look at next time.
But for now, if you’re a believer, then you ought to bow before the Lord and give thanks to him for showing mercy to you and for saving you, because if anything is clear from these verses, it’s this: God’s willingness to show you mercy is not because of anything you have done, and it’s not because of anything in you; you’re not better than anyone else or more deserving. But even though you did nothing to deserve it, nevertheless God showed you mercy and he enabled you to believe; and he justified you; and he adopted you into his family; and he has given you the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in his presence. You owe it all to him and his mercy. And so, you ought to humble yourself before him, and cover your mouth lest you boast in his presence, and you ought to give thanks to him.
And, of course, since salvation depends on him, and his willingness to show mercy, then we ought to bow before him in prayer, and pray that he will show mercy to sinners here in Belfast and around the world, so that instead of hardening them to the gospel, he will enable them to believe so that they will be saved.