A Study of Romans 9:14-16
We now continue our discussion of the truth of predestination as taught in that marvelous ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. And this time we call your attention especially to Romans 9:14-16: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy in whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
Note, in the first place, that this passage is introduced by a most significant question: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?”
Notice, in the second place, that the epistle appeals for an answer to God Himself, and that he does not attempt to solve the problem by his own philosophy: “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
And notice, finally, that the apostle concludes by emphasizing anew the truth of God’s predestinating purpose when he writes: ”So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
Also this time we shall have to go slowly, for the matter is extremely important, and it is our earnest desire to make very plain to all our hearers, whether they will accept this truth or not, that we are nevertheless teaching nothing but the pure Word of God. Surely, in regard to this tremendous truth of predestination our own speculation and philosophy means nothing. We have to be silent, and just listen to the Word of God.
What shall we say then?
Is there unrighteousness with God?
The little word then refers undoubtedly, first of all, to the very immediate context. There the apostle had adduced the example of Jacob and Esau to prove the matter of God’s sovereignty in regard to the salvation of men. Jacob and Esau were of the same parents. They were, moreover, twin brothers. And from a natural point of view Esau had the pre-eminence, for he was the firstborn. Yet, the Word of God came to Rebecca when she went to inquire of the Lord concerning her extraordinary condition that the elder should serve the younger. And this was said unto her before the children were born, neither had done any good or evil, in order that the purpose of God according to election might stand. And this sovereign, predestinating purpose of God was moreover, plainly expressed in that which was written, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated.”
It is in close connection with this example that the question now is raised:
What shall we say then?
If the matter stands thus with the salvation of man in the light of God’s predestinating purpose, what shall be, what necessarily must be our conclusion concerning God?
Shall we say that there is unrighteousness with God, when He chooses the one and rejects the other without regard even to their work?
This is, indeed, an amazing question. Although we certainly cannot agree with Dr. Barth’s interpretation of the passage, yet, from a merely formal point of view, he undoubtedly paraphrases this question correctly when he writes: “Is it not inevitable that from the highest pinnacle of human faith there should ring out the mad questioning cry, ‘Is not such a God unrighteous?’ Yes, is He not indeed a capricious, spiteful demon, seeking to make fools of us all?
Does He not rebel against the law of righteousness which He ought to obey?
Can anything be so revolting to us as the majestic secrecy of one who is incomprehensible, unapproachable, inaccessible, self-sufficient, and completely free?
Must we not all, all of us, cry out instinctively that such an one cannot and must not be God?”
Yes, indeed, the question is very bold and extremely presumptuous. Imagine the audacity and presumption of the creature, of mere sinful man, that would undertake to summon the Must High, the absolute Sovereign of heaven and earth before the tribunal of His own judgment in order to determine whether or not He were guilty of unrighteousness. Such an attitude over against the supreme Judge of heaven and earth is, of course, absurd and absolutely impossible.
But, secondly, what if the answer which we would give to this bold question should happen to be in the affirmative, and we would indeed pass a verdict of guilty in this impossible and inconceivable trial?
Would this, then, change the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty?
Would He not still be God, Who performs all His good pleasure, and would not the ultimate conclusion in such a case have to be that our condition is absolutely hopeless, seeing that Go,
Who is nevertheless God, is found guilty of unrighteousness?
Yet, the question must be put, for the apostle is writing about the truth of God’s sovereign grace, according to which salvation is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth, but of God’s predestinating mercy. And this truth meets with many objections in the sinful heart and mind of man. And it is one of these objections which the apostle intercepts by the question: ”What shall we say then ? Is there unrighteousness with God?”
To be sure, as we have said before, many there are who must have nothing of the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty. First they may make an attempt to show that the Word of God is on their side, and that it teaches no such thing as absolute election and reprobation. And when this fails, — because the language of Scripture is too plain to be denied, — they begin to judge the truth and introduce objections of human invention, arguments that are not derived from the Word of God but from their own mind. The purpose usually is to bring the truth into discredit and thus to show that it cannot be the truth, that it is not acceptable.
The untenableness of this doctrine is set forth. Its absurdity is proved. The cruelty and the injustice that is implied is emphasized. It is called a monstrous, horrible doctrine. And well we are acquainted with some of these objections of the human mind. The opponents never weary of repeating them. If it is true,. they say, that God determines with absolute sovereignty in the matter of salvation of man, if He loves the one and hates the other before the foundation of the world, even before they have done either good or evil, then God is the author of sin. If you teach the doctrine of absolute predestination, you must needs deny the responsibility and freedom of man.
Then you make men careless and profane, for they will say: “If we are elect, we shall be saved and if we are not elect, we cannot be saved anyway.” Then you make of God an arbitrary, cruel tyrant; then your God is devoid of justice and righteousness. And such a God we simply do not want. God is a God of love, and He seeks the salvation of all men. And if men are not saved, it is because they do not want to come to Christ. Salvation is of him that willeth and of him that runneth, not of God that is absolutely sovereign, and sovereignly shows His mercy to whomsoever He wills.
These objections and arguments of human invention are as old as the truth. Wherever the truth of divine predestination was taught and preached, from the earliest times of the history of the Church, it met with bitter opposition. And our text shows that this was the case even in the times of the apostles. Paul knows that the truth that God is sovereign in the matter of salvation will not be received by the sinful heart and mind of man, that it will meet with opposition in the world. Men will raise objections against this teaching. And some of the most weighty of these objections he therefore considers in this chapter. In our text he intercepts the objection that there is unrighteousness with God if He loves Jacob and hates Esau without regard to their works.
What shall we say then?
Is there unrighteousness with God?
And the apostle answers immediately and emphatically: “God forbid.”
But is this answer sufficient?
Must there not be more than a simple denial of God’s unrighteousness?
Must not the people of God meet arguments with arguments on this score?
To be sure, attempts have been made to do so. God-fearing people have tried to show that God’s sovereign predestination is justifiable, and the attempt was well-meant. A very common mode of defense was, and still is, that which proceeds from the fact that all men have sinned and, therefore, are worthy of damnation.
God is not obliged, therefore, they say, to be merciful to any still less to all. No one could accuse Him of unrighteousness if He would leave all men in their damnable state. How much less does the indictment hold how God is merciful to some and saved them to the glory of His sovereign grace.
And we must admit that there is an element of truth in this argument, but it is no final and satisfactory answer.
For, to say the least, could not God have prevented the entrance of sin into the world?
And seeing that it is certainly according to His own counsel that sin came into the world, is there then no unrighteousness with God when He sovereignly determines to leave some in their damnation and prepare them as vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction?
We shall, therefore, not attempt to meet the arguments of the opponents with any human reasoning. We shall not presume to justify God by summoning Him before the bar of human reason and clearing Him of all guilt. For God is always God. He is always Judge: He is never defendant. We are always judged by Him; but He cannot be judged by us. Neither do we justify Him, but He always justifies Himself.
We can never say anything of ourselves about God. If we do, we will surely lie found liars. Thus, we are always thrown back upon the Word God Himself. If we would know God, Who is really God, the living God, we must needs listen, never speak. If then, we would have an answer to the question, if in all sincerity arid truth, and not in an attitude of rebellion and opposition to the truth, we put the question: Is there then unrighteousness with God? –we shall have to turn to the Holy Scriptures for an answer and inquire what God will say.
And this is exactly what the apostle does in the words our text. ”Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses….” It is the Most High Himself that answers the question and He answers it by emphasizing His sovereign prerogative as God and as the Lord of all. For that is the implication of the answer: ”I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” It must be plain that these words which are quoted from Exodus 33:19 merely emphasize that God is sovereign in His mercy, and that in His sovereignty He is righteous.
Let us briefly analyze and review the situation that is called to our mind by the words of Exodus 33. They were spoken first of all to Israel as a nation, as they had been delivered with a mighty hand from the house of bondage in Egypt, had been led through the Red Sea and were now encamped at Mount Sinai. And the people had grievously sinned: they had violated the covenant of God by making and worshipping the golden calf. Jehovah threatens to destroy this people that had rebelled against Him and trampled His covenant under foot. But Moses pleads for mercy. And he pleads not only that God will forgive the sins of His people, but He also implores the Lord that He Himself will go up before the people and lead them to the promised land. And Jehovah heard the supplication of His servant, and granted his request.
Still he is not satisfied. He must have not the mere assurance that Jehovah would go up with them and be in their midst, but he wants the promise that the Lord would go up with them in His favor. God must be gracious to them, He must be good to Israel. That goodness of Jehovah he would see. And he beseeches Him: “Show me thy glory.” And even this bold request the Lord will grant His servant. He will make all His goodness to pass before Moses, and He will proclaim before him the Name of the Lord. Yet, even so, Moses must learn to understand that this goodness is not for all that are called Israel, that Jehovah is sovereign in the dispensation of His mercy: “And I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Exodus 33:18,19.
These last words are quoted by the apostle in the words of our text. And their meaning is very plain: God maintains His sovereignty in bestowing His mercy on whomsoever He wills, even making separation between Israel and Israel. The answer of God to Moses, who is anxious about the people of God in the desert, is: yes, God is merciful unto His people; but He will not be merciful unto all these people: they are not all Israel, though they be of Israel. And the question, who belong to the true Israel of God and who do not, is not determined by the worth or will of man, but only by the sovereign will of God.
He is merciful to whom He will be merciful, and hath compassion on whom He wills. Such is His sovereign prerogative, and there is no unrighteousness with Him. That is His own Word. And His Word comes to us and we believe. There is no unrighteousness with God, and God forbid that we should ever say or think that there is. But He is merciful unto whom He will be merciful. It is not of him that willeth, neither of him that runneth. Humble yourselves before Him. For if you will and run, it is solely of God that sheweth mercy. Of Him, and through Him, and unto Him are all things; to Him alone be the glory forevermore.
By Herman Hoeksema