There’s no question that on principle, God is good. If that were not the case, the world could have no beauty or joy. But great works of art are evidence of God’s goodness: Michaelangelo’s sculpture and paintings, DaVinci, Lucas Cranach, the music of Schtz, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and many other examples going back even to the pagan artwork of ancient Greece and Rome. They are a dim reflection of beauty from God. But then consider Creation: the magnificent ordering of life on a vast scale; the intricate dance of heavenly bodies in outer space; the perfect tuning of many physical constants and conditions so that this world is an ideal home for us. Such magnificence is lovely to behold even while it’s too much for us to understand. There’s no question but God is good.
Yet even in the midst of this evidence for God’s goodness, there is also evil, like the shadow cast by a dark cloud over part of the Earth, while everything else is bathed in golden sunlight. People suffer. Orderly systems give way with violence. And in Romans chapter 9, even among the people chosen by God from the time of Abraham, many of them fail to recognize their Savior. We heard last week how this can be: God bestows the gift of salvation through faith in the Gospel. But some refuse to believe it.
Today Paul asks another question. Does this mean that God is unjust? It’s an easy question for some, but hard from the wrong perspective. Since some are saved, but not others; since evil continues in the world, is God unjust? The answer must begin with the truth about what we deserve and the truth about what God has done for us. Our salvation is not of us, who may or may not do well. It’s of God, who has mercy.
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?
Is there unrighteousness with God? He seems to arrange that some people will come to faith in His Word and be saved, while others will not. We can’t resist Him. So it seems that He’s picking favorites, like the skewed justice of earthly government.
But that appearance is in the eye of the beholder. We need to remember a few things in order to see the situation better. Way back in Romans 1–4, Paul made it clear that none of us deserves anything good from God. Thereafter, Paul also made clear that God has provided a Savior for every last sinner. Jesus accomplished His task assigned by the Father, so that the sins of the world have been atoned, every last one.
Another thing to remember is that God bestows the gift of salvation through the message of the Gospel. He conveys it through preaching and teaching, and through the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In Romans 1:16, we read that the Gospel “is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”
Finally, we should remember that there’s a difference between God knowing all things that will happen, and God causing all of those things to happen. As Peter confessed in John 21:17, God knows all things. But even though God is all-powerful, He doesn’t force His will upon Creation in every detail. That God knew what clothes you would choose today did not make it necessary for you to choose those clothes. That He knew someone would commit a crime did not make it necessary for that person to commit the crime.
God has given mankind a will of his own, so that some of what happens is a consequence of what man wants, rather than what God wants. Much of what happens is contingent upon the will of man and its effects in the world.
God knows what we will choose long before we choose it, yet He still made us and provides all that our lives need, up to the moment of each choice, while allowing us to make the choice — even when it’s against His will. In Creation, God set up the natural laws that govern all things, so that they are His laws. As Paul preached to the Athenians (Acts 17:28), “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” Those natural laws are still working according to God’s will in chemistry and physics when a murderer inflicts a mortal wound upon another person, or in biology when an adulterer conceives a child out of wedlock, or when a drunkard uses far too much of an intoxicant. God concurs materially with those things without being the author of the evil. He provided those materials and those natural laws even when He knew they would be abused, and what harm would come from the abuse.
If we remember those things, then we can understand much better the problem that Paul’s addressing in our text. It’s not so much a question of whether God has chosen favorites among people, some to be saved and others to be damned. In fact, He denies this Himself, saying He (1 Timothy 2:4), “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” No, the hard thing to understand comes instead from His great patience and mercy. It’s hard for us to endure unrighteousness and unfairness, who ourselves are unrighteous and unfair. How must that be for God, who is eternally perfect and just? Yet He still concurs materially as we do what is evil, bringing injustice and sin into His creation. Why such patience? Because of mercy.
Paul quotes from Exodus 33, where God answered Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” His purpose and our salvation are not found by crushing and extinguishing evil throughout the world. They are found in His mercy and compassion. This was made possible by the fact that God Himself endured human suffering and injustice, becoming the Substitute for sinful man to satisfy His perfect justice.
The example of Pharaoh serves as an illustration, because Pharaoh stubbornly resisted God time and again in Exodus chapters 7–12. Don’t you suppose God knew he would do that? Of course He did! Yet that foreknowledge didn’t make it necessary for Pharaoh to resist God. God’s plan to deliver Israel from Egypt was contingent upon Pharaoh’s own will. God incorporated Pharaoh’s hard heart into His own designs for the benefit of the Israelites, even hardening Pharaoh’s sinful heart further to show His glory when He rescued the Israelites from his hand.
This may be harder for us to consider rightly when we’re talking about people we never knew ourselves. So let’s make it personal. How about you? Do you realize that you are descended from people like Pharaoh? You are descended from generations whom God knew would reject Him! Now, you might be a little mad at God for letting them exist anyway, though they would finally have to perish eternally. But do you see what He has done? Today, you have received His mercy. He gives you His forgiveness. Rather than complain about how God has used His almighty power, our place is to receive His compassion, and be amazed at the mercy that He has shown us. He endured those unbelieving generations with much patience for your sake. You are the objects of His mercy.
This is how you can be sure that you are loved by God: because it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God, who shows mercy.
Soli Deo Gloria