A Study Of Romans 9:15-16

We are still discussing the text from Romans 9:14-16, and this time we must call special attention to the words: “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. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

The sin which the people of God had committed at Sinai in worshipping the golden calf was a principal sin: they had violated the covenant of God in the very spot where they had heard the thunder of God’s voice and trembled; at the very moment when God made His covenant with them, they had manifested the perversion of their wicked heart, making gods after their own heart and worshipping them.

At Sinai carnal Israel broke God’s covenant; there they commit the sin that will follow them all through the desert and all through their history, until it reveals itself in its final horror when they crucify the Son of God. And when Moses, the servant of God, came down from the mount and called upon the faithful to pass through the camp and take vengeance, three thousand fell by the sword of the sons of Levi.

But Moses realizes that this cannot be the end of the matter; and, therefore, he intercedes for the people with God. He confesses the sin of the people before the face of Jehovah and pleads for forgiveness. He bears the people on his heart, for in pleading for their salvation he uses words similar to those employed by the apostle Paul in the opening verses of this chapter: “O, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin –; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.”

This prayer of Moses certainly cannot be answered, and the Lord replies: “Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.”

Nevertheless, He commands His servant to lead the people unto the place which the Lord had promised to give them for an inheritance; but He will not go up in their midst, but will send His angel that should go before them. This is reiterated in the words of chapter 33:1-3; there the Lord commands Moses once more that he must lead the people into the land of promise. And once again Jehovah emphasizes that He Himself will not go up in the midst of Israel, for they are a stiff-necked people, “lest I consume thee in the way.”

Now, we must remember that all this was entirely new to Moses. He could not understand. To him the people of Israel as a whole were the people of God. To them Jehovah had given the promise that He would make them heirs of the land flowing with milk and honey. Them Jehovah had delivered with a strong hand from the house of bondage for the very purpose of bringing them to the promised land.

How then could it be possible that God would consume the people and destroy them in the wilderness?

Can the promise of God become of none effect?

And when the people mourn because they heard that Jehovah would not go up in their midst, and deeply humble themselves before the face of God, Moses enters into the tabernacle once more to plead more earnestly for Israel, for God’s forgiving mercy upon them, and for His presence with them: “If thy presence go not up with me, carry us not up hence.”

And Jehovah heard the supplication of His servant and granted His request Himself to go up with the people in their midst. It is in this connection that the servant of God approaches the Lord with that amazing prayer: “Show me thy glory.”

He would see the goodness of the Lord.

Had not the Lord intimated that He would consume the people in His wrath if He would go up in their midst?

Hence, he must have the promise that the Lord would go up with them in His favor. God must be gracious to them. And, therefore, he would see the goodness of God for His people. And it is in answer to the prayer of Moses that the Lord says to him: “And I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Exodus 33:19. It is these words that are quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:15, in order to prove from Scripture that God is merciful in absolute, sovereign righteousness.

Even these words have been given an Arminian twist. Interpreters that would by all means avoid the consequence of absolute predestination explain that the Lord had said before to Moses that He would blot out of His book him that sinneth. Hence, the words quoted by the apostle from Exodus 33:19 can only mean that whereas God would blot out the unfaithful and violators of His covenant out of His book, He would be gracious and merciful to His faithful covenant people. True, He would not be gracious to all; Moses must not imagine that all the people as they are encamped at Sinai are true people of God, and that God cannot consume a large number of them. He will be merciful, however, to them that keep His covenant and are therefore, worthy of His compassion.

But how evident it is that such an interpretation is guilty of distorting the plain meaning of the text. First of all, how impossible is such an interpretation. The text would then mean: I will blot out of my book him that sinneth, but I will be merciful to him that sinneth not.

But why should there be need of mercy and compassion and grace for him that sinneth not?

And where is he that does not sin?

Would in that case not all be blotted out of God’s book?

Who then could be saved?

Secondly, how contrary to the meaning of the words as they stand is such an explanation of the text: for the Lord does not say: I will show mercy to him that is worthy of my mercy, and I will have compassion on him that deserves my compassion. But: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. His will, His sovereign will alone is emphasized in the text. And finally, how contrary to the entire text in Romans 9 is this Arminian interpretation of the text. The whole context deals with God’s sovereign determination in the matter of the promise: not all are Israel that are of Israel, because it pleases God to mke separation even between the seed of Abraham, according to His predestinating purpose. How strange, then, that in such a connection the apostle should of a sudden refer to the worth of man as the basis of God’s mercy to him.

Besides, what occasion is there in the light of this Arminian interpretation for the question that introduces the words of our text?

“Is there then unrighteousness with God?” We can understand that this question should arise if Paul here teaches that God sovereignly chooses and rejects; but we cannot see any reason for this question if the Arminian interpretation must be adopted, and Paul merely teaches that God is merciful to him that is worthy.

And therefore, we will have to maintain that the apostle quotes these words from the Old Testament as proof of the fact that God Himself maintains His sovereignty in bestowing His mercy on whomsoever He wills. The cause of the distinction whereby some are saved, while others are not, even among them that are called Israel, even in the Church of Christ on earth, as it is established in the line of the generation of believers, is not in man: it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but only of God that showeth mercy. All boasting is strictly excluded.

But now we must hasten to explain that last part of our text: “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

It ought to be very plain that the pronoun it by which the apostle introduces these words refers to nothing less than eternal salvation. Those that deny the truth of God’s sovereign election and reprobation interpret the preceding verses, that deal with Jacob’s election, as having reference only to a national distinction and to temporal blessings, and not to eternal salvation. Jacob’s distinction consisted merely in this, that God would establish the theocracy in the line of his descendants. And it stands to reason that they are constrained to interpret the words of our text in the same fashion. I will not try to refute this false interpretation again. It is refuted by the very words of our text: for let us notice that the apostle is not writing about distinctions between one nation and another, but plainly refers to members of the same nation, to Israelites in the natural sense of the word. The words, “I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, and will have compassion on whom I will have compassion,” express according to the context in Exodus 33 a distinction God freely and sovereignly makes between individuals of the same nation; persons, not nations, are distinguished by the mercy of God. And this applies certainly to verse 16. The text means: it is not of any individual, of any man that wills or runs, but of God that showeth mercy to attain salvation. Eternal salvation is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.

God’s mercy is His eternal will to bless, to make happy. God is merciful, and He is the most blessed God in Himself. And He wills Himself as the most blessed God. This virtue of God according to which He knows and wills Himself as the most blessed is His mercy, considered apart from any relation or attitude of God toward the creature. And with respect to man God’s mercy is His will to reveal His own blessedness by making man partaker of it, causing him to taste it, so that he also becomes blessed in God. And if such a man is in a condition of misery, God’s mercy reveals itself in the deliverance of that miserable man from all his misery, and bestowing upon him the blessing of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The mercy of God, the will of God to bless us in the highest possible degree, is centrally revealed in the cross and resurrection of the Savior. And that mercy of God is abundant according to Scripture. It does not reveal itself merely in delivering us from our misery and bringing us back to a former state, but it leads us on to the highest possible glory and bliss, to the inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away. It blesses us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. This it is, according to all Scripture, that flows from the mercy of God, which is from everlasting to everlasting upon those that fear Him. And therefore it is to this salvation, consisting in the forgiveness of sin, righteousness, and the glory of eternal life, that the apostle refers, when he writes: “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

And thus the apostle emphatically reasserts that God is absolutely sovereign in bestowing His mercy on whomsoever He wills.

For what else could these words mean?

He that willeth is certainly the man that is willing to receive the grace of God, that longs for the salvation of Christ, seeks for it, knocks at the door of the kingdom of God, asks for the blessing of God’s mercy. And he that runneth is the man that has entered into the strait gate and is already running the race, walking in the narrow way. The figure of running is derived, as more often in Scripture, from the running in the race. It denotes an earnest endeavor, keen interest in the salvation of God, the strife to enter in, to attain to the goal, the battle of faith, of walking in the way of sanctification.

The apostle, therefore, asserts in the 16th verse that salvation is not of him that wills it, desires it, and seeks it, and asks for it; nor of him that earnestly endeavors to attain it, and strives to enter in; but only of God that showeth mercy. Now it is very plain that these words cannot mean that he who wills, seeks, and knocks, and earnestly desires to be saved, and prays for it, and he that strives to enter into the kingdom of God and the rest that remaineth for the people of God, shall not be saved. For, first of all, the very opposite is true, according to all Scripture.

Whosoever will shall surely be saved. He that fights the battle of faith shall surely have the victory. He that runs the race shall surely receive the crown. Nor does the apostle deny this in the words of our text. But he says that salvation is not of him, but of God that showeth mercy. The ultimate source of anyone’s salvation, the reason why a man is saved, must not be sought in the fact that he wills or runs in distinction from others that do not will and do not run; it lies only in the mercy of God. Not to man, not to his will or endeavor, it must be attributed that he is saved and that God is merciful to him; but to the sovereign mercy of God alone.

That mercy is first, not the will or endeavor of man. That mercy of God is the ultimate cause even of a man’s running and willing, his seeking and knocking and praying, of his entering into the strait gate, and of all his earnest endeavor to obtain the crown of life. If it were not so, man could not be saved. Never would we of ourselves, we, who are dead in trespasses and sins, repent of sin, become broken-hearted, seek the grace of forgiveness, and wash our garments in the blood of the Lamb. It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth; it is only of God that showeth mercy, even that a man wills and runs. That mercy precedes his willing and all his running. It is the deepest cause of his willing and of all his striving to enter into the kingdom of God.

Such is the plain meaning of the apostle’s words.

And this is true consolation for every sinner that truly comes to Christ, as well for every believer that strives to enter into the rest that remaineth for the people of God. When you see a man bowing his head with shame and beating his breast in consternation, and when you hear him utter the prayer of the publican, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” then you must not say to him, “God will surely be merciful to you, for you will and desire to seek His mercy”; but you may tell him this: “Brother, God surely was already merciful to you, for that repentance and sorrow over sin, that contrition and that prayer for mercy were not of you, but of God that showeth mercy.” And the same may be said to the believer that earnestly strives to persevere in the way of sanctification. When you ask the question why one willeth and another willeth not, why one runneth and persevereth and another does not, the only answer of the Word of God is that God is merciful to whom He will be merciful, and hath compassion on whom He will have compassion. He is absolutely sovereign in the bestowal of His mercy. Therefore, he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.

By Herman Hoeksema

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