Romans 9:14-18 “What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
In the previous verses Paul has made his statement about the distinguishing love of God, Jacob loved but Esau hated, and he then draws the congregation at Rome into his argument. “What is your response to this?” he asks them. “What then shall we say? Shall some say this, ‘God is unjust’?” You hear it all the time. The builder came into our kitchen on Wednesday and asked what was the latest about the tiny baby born prematurely a week ago. Then he added, “Why do these things always happen to good people? . . . Don’t they?” he added. Then he added with a grin, “I’m thinking of becoming evil . . . only joking.” I told him, “God never promised we wouldn’t be tested.” Let me start with this statement . . .
- DIVINE ELECTION IS NOT A BARRIER TO DIVINE JUSTICE.
i] In providence. Think of Job; no man as righteous as he in all the world. A godfearing, blameless man, and yet what trials God permits to come into his life, losing his family, all his possessions and even his health. His wife turns against him and his friends say to him that all this is his karma. He is getting what he deserved for secret sins, and that he ought to confess them now and justify what God has done to him. Yet Job knows he has maintained his own integrity and done nothing whatsoever that merits he be broken in these ways. We are drawn into the scenario; we are told what Job doesn’t know, that God has permitted Satan to bring these griefs into his life to show to Satan that Job trusts God for who God is, not for the riches that God has given to him. That commits us to Job; it commits us to supporting him. “I am a Job man; I am with him. I stick to Job.” He is like a fellow suffering Christian today for whom we are praying that his faith doesn’t fail. We find ourselves enduring the pain and the false accusations that Job’s friends lay on him. God has not told Job what he has told us. Our extra knowledge gives us patience with Job when he starts naturally to waver and crack under the pressure. We don’t say, “Come on! Pull yourself together!”
Not knowing why God should have allowed our pain, I think, is one of the hardest parts of all. You can take just about anything, if you knew why. We were visiting a home this week and we went with the husband to pick up the wife from her weekly visit to the local hospital, and we asked ourselves why she was suffering such a long depression. She is our age and is one of the most loving, kind and godly women we know. We know that there are secret things that belong to God and that he very seldom answers the question why. It is not that there are no answers, it’s just that you and I probably wouldn’t be able to comprehend the answer if God were to tell us right now. There will come a time for him to tell us the answer. Jesus told Peter once that what the Lord was doing Peter couldn’t comprehend just then, but that he would know later on. It would not be an eternal enigma to him. We have to learn to trust God without yet knowing why he has permitted this or that. The devil can whisper that God is being unjust, and we are even thinking, “Lord explain yourself,” calling God into account.
The key question is not ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’ The key question, I guess, is, ‘Do you worship a God who is worthy of your suffering?’ The major theme of the book of Job is not ‘Why do Christians suffer?’ but ‘Why do men serve God?’ If God were to strip us of everything then most of us I believe would still go on loving and worshipping. When we are doing so, taking Job’s words and saying, “Though he slay me yet will I trust him,” then we are giving the lie to the devil and we are glorifying God. Far more important than any explanation for what we’ve had to pass through is our experience of the nearness of God. You might have a million questions to ask God, but when you’ve met the living God they all flee your mind and they don’t seem to matter. That’s the way to get things into perspective. That is what happened to the psalmist called Asaph. He was troubled as was the builder who was in our kitchen on Thursday, that good people suffer and the wicked prosper. The whole thing was too painful for Asaph until he went into the sanctuary of God. He came into the presence of God. He listened to God’s Word. ‘Then’ he says ‘I understood . . .’ (Psalm 73:17). He didn’t just feel good, he knew God, and knew God’s word. He had an understanding of what lay before godless men and what lay before the godly. He put those trials and testings in the light of eternity,
People are usually more anxious to get rid of a problem than they are to trust in the purposes of God in sending us a problem. Warren Wiersbe has written a useful book called Why Us? It’s a reply to an unhelpful book called When Bad things Happen to Good People. So he called his book, Why Us? And subtitled it When Bad Things Happen to God’s People. There he speaks of a friend who found herself in a sea of troubles. Dr. Wiersbe visited her and was attempting to encourage her one day, and he said, “I want you to know that we are praying for you”. “I appreciate that”, she replied, “So what are you asking God to do?” Dr. Wiersbe found himself struggling for an answer and he mentioned some things. “Thank you”, she said, “but please pray for one more thing. Pray that I won’t waste all this suffering”. One helpful booklet is written by my friend John J. Murray whose thirteen year old daughter Lynda Joan died of a brain tumour. It is called Behind a Frowning Providence (Banner of Truth) and is only 30 pages in length. So it often seems that God is being unjust in providence, but there are other ways in which God may seem unjust . . .
ii] In salvation. Here is a person who has lived a decent life by the kind providence of a merciful God. He has never cheated on his wife. He gives to charity. He is a good neighbour. His children love him. He has worked for forty years. There he was a good colleague and an intelligent man, yet he never bowed to Jesus Christ. He did not trust in him; he rejected the good news of a Saviour born, and when he died he went to hell. Yet here is another person and he has broken every one of the ten commandments; he has been a violent man, a thief, a liar and an adulterer. Through him peoples’ marriages have been bust up. He’s had four or wives besides other women. He has never done an honest day’s work in his life. He has spent years in prison. Then in the last months of his life he is overwhelmed with his guilt and remorse. He reads the Bible and cries to God for mercy and all his sins are forgiven and he goes to heaven. It all seems so unjust that the good man has gone to hell while the evil man goes to heaven. Is God unjust to do that?
What do you understand by ‘good’? What and who defines a man as a ‘good man’? God is the one defines who and what is good, not us. We acknowledge a man’s outward actions and his decent life, and we all respect such people, but this is God’s creation. We all live and move and have our being in God, and all of us have within us the conscience that God made. God has also inspired his Word, the Bible, and he offers it to us. What does he say about what is good? In this letter before us, in the epistle to the Romans chapter three and verses 10 through 12 we read, “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous. No, not one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks after God. They have all turned aside. They have together become unprofitable. There is no one who does good, No, not so much as one.” How does God see things out there? How many good guys are out there? None, not even one. We all have turned away from God, rejected him as our Creator and Ruler, and crowned ourselves to be our little kings. We are all rebels in God’s sight, and that implies that none of us has reached his standards. Hell will be the next stop for all of us.
But why go there? Why should any one of you go there? God has shown his love and mercy in his Son the Lord Jesus coming into the world, living the life of the truly good man, and by dying as the Lamb of God in our place at the cross, satisfying God’s justice for our imperfection. Both good men and bad men can be saved, but only if they confess that they are all alike baddies, and place their trust in Jesus alone for their acceptance by God, that his death has bought our pardon. Thus alone, goodies and baddies can go to heaven.
What about the good guys then? There aren’t any, no really righteous men from God’s point of view, except the man Christ Jesus alone. All the other so-called good guys trust no one but themselves. They think they have no need of God because they think they can run their lives themselves, and they might even out-smart God in his judgment scheme. But when the judgment throne is set and we all appear before him then good guys don’t appear so good measured by God’s standards. Good guys need forgiveness too. They need the gospel. Cheer up good guys . . . you’re worse than you think, and God’s grace is even bigger than you’ve ever imagined. In other words when we truly see the sin in our lives (and I’m not just talking about Technicolour sins here but things like the sins of omission, pride and self-sufficiency), it is then that we see how much we need Christ. A small view of your sin will result in a small Christ. A big view of your sin will bring you to a big Christ. When we are blind to our sins we think we have no need for forgiveness, and we are making Christ’s death on the cross worthless, just another horrible action of men. I need Christ every day. I need Thee oh I need Thee, every hour I need Thee. Every day I need to die to myself and my selfish desires and cling to Christ.
I read this testimony this week. I wish the lady were here and then I would get her to give it to you now, “Before I was a Christian I was extremely active in many good causes; I volunteered to help animals and disabled kids. I even saved the environment. I put myself on the line for political prisoners; I went into schools to help teach children how to read; I fund-raised; I gave to charity, etcetera, etcetera. I honestly thought myself a very good person. Not one time that I was doing those things was I doing them for the glory of God. I was doing them partly because I knew they needed to be done, but also to a large extent because they validated my self esteem. They made me feel good, and noble, and justified.
Then at that time, through the lives and words of some real Christians, I came to know the one good Person, the only one who could save me from my pride and arrogance, the Lord Jesus. My behaviour has changed since I’ve known Him. Outwardly I suppose I seem less ‘wicked’, but I still know that I don’t deserve heaven, though I’m grateful Christ has opened the way for me to be there with him. If I’d remained a ‘good’ person, content in my own righteousness, I’d have joined all the rest of the ‘good’ people who are now in hell, folk who were so sure that their own lives would save them that they never turned away from their unbelief and self-righteousness and never turned to Christ, like the people who keep on and on about their ‘cause’, their righteousness, the rest of the world’s wickedness, people who still sneer at God and don’t want to hear about Christ. That is also the conversation of hell, and that would have been my fate if Christ had not saved me from myself. But heaven is full of ‘bad’ people, who came to recognize their sin and need, and repented of it and fell into the arms of Christ for mercy and forgiveness, and I don’t mind spending eternity with people who were once guilty of murder, torturers and drunkards and rapists who had confessed their sins and looked to Jesus for mercy even on the last day of their wretched lives.” So it often can seem that God is unjust in who God chooses to save and take to heaven, even the dying thief in the last hour of his life. But there are other ways men charge God with being unjust . . .
iii] In condemnation. There is a book about hell, written by Dick Dowsett and published by the O.M.F. which is entitled, God, That’s Not Fair, and there is another written by John Benton, published by the Evangelical Press with the title, How Can a God of Love Send People to Hell? Why did those men write those books with such titles? Obviously it was because they heard people protesting that it would be unjust for a God of love to put anyone in hell; “That is obscene,” people say. Such a punishment would be out of all proportion to the crime, people were saying. Our sins are so small, they were saying, and the judgment for them was so severe. So people refuse to believe in hell. How do we reply? You know what we say, that they must consider who God is, how overwhelmingly awesome and tremendous is his character. Sometimes he causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble . . . We try to grasp something of the vastness of the creation, ten times as many stars in the heavens as the sum total of the grains of sand in the earth. Yet all of that unimaginable cosmos floats as a speck before the terrifying immensity of God. When you see who you are dealing with then what a weight you carry of the guilt and shame that is your own sin as it is placed in the presence of this indescribably holy Lord, the God who cannot look at iniquity.
What do we owe to God? Everything that we have and everything that we are. He gave us life, and he sustains that life in us all day by day. We are all under an infinite obligation to him, and so our sin is an infinite evil because it defies the God to whom we’re in debt for everything. He is infinitely lovely, and immensely loving, and when we get set on ignoring him and doing everything our way then we’ve set out on a pilgrimage in which we are ever saying, “No!” to God. Such an endlessly evil course warrants an eternal just response by the Holy One condemning such a spirit.
Think of this, that there is no sanctifying and illuminating and transforming power in dying. Mere death does not make an unholy person holy, a God-ignoring person a God-loving person. There is no consecrating energy in death to make a sinner a disciple. The rebel is a rebel still, The blasphemer is a blasphemer still. The stony hearted is stony hearted still. You go on sinning. The God you have defied all your life you go on defying when you breathe your last. Death has not changed your affections or your imagination or your will. So the God whose wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men while they live on earth continues to reveal that divine rectitude towards them after their death. But I cannot expect you who are not Christians to appreciate how serious sin is. Yet your ignorance, and lack of alarm for being unconverted, simply shows how far from God you are. You are out of touch with God, and out of touch with truth. You are living in a fantasy “let’s pretend” world where the living God does not exist. You are like a drunk feeling no warmth or cold, feeling no pain, feeling nothing, just dazed in a stupor. That’s no measure of good health. You are like a man or woman who has taken an Ecstasy tablet and so you feel every movement and hear every sound and see every colour in some exaggerated way, but it is all unreality. Sin brings blindness and numbness and indifference to every sinner. You have no idea what the consequences of sin are while you are living without God. Being without God is being without truth. So you have no standards by which to say that it’s unfair that the Father of lights should condemn people to hell. Sin is so serious that it brought God into this world in his Son Jesus Christ and it nailed him to a cross. That was the only way you could be saved from hell. God alone is equipped to tell us what sin deserves and to administer what it deserves. So it might also seem to you that God is unjust in how he condemns all that is mean and cruel and selfish and violent and idolatrous and unbelieving. But there is yet another issue in which defiant men raise the voices and accuse God of being unjust. They object to his decree of election.
iv] In election. This is what we see here, Paul has taught this truth in the previous chapter and more fully here, and he expects one response to be, “God is unjust.” Now if the real meaning of these words was that God loved Esau less than Jacob then very few people would get agitated. That interpretation would be quite understandable. Of if Paul were writing about two nations, the Israelites and the Edomites, and God had preferred one nation to the other we wouldn’t have thought that to be shocking, but if he is distinguishing between two men who happened to be twin brothers one he loved and the other he hated then instinctively we say, “I protest! Unfair!” How does Paul respond? “God forbid!” It is the strongest form of denial at Paul’s disposal. “Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (vv.15&16). Election harms nobody, he is saying. Billions of favoured Christians are treated wonderfully, they are given new hearts, and made a new creation; they are justified through the righteousness of Christ; they are adopted into the family of God and they cry to God ‘Abba! Father!’ They are united to Jesus Christ for ever, the One who is preparing a place for them. Those not chose are simply treated utterly fairly, every consideration taken for the lives and decisions. They get what they wanted, that is, never to be in the presence of God. That is hell.
Election is not the cause of anyone going to hell, for election is unto salvation. See how Paul answers the objector here. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy. I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” That is what election does. It brings the abundant mercy and compassion of God to the multitudes. Non-election isn’t responsible for the damnation of sinners. Sin is what sent Judas and Hitler and every sinner like them to hell, and all without exception were rebels who wouldn’t come to Christ for salvation. Not one person going to hell will long to be going to Jesus in heaven. No one will go crying, “Jesus have mercy on my soul.” Not one. As I have often said to you that if there were one then I would go to hell with him.
Do you understand that it doesn’t follow that because election is unto salvation that non-election is unto damnation. It is sin and guilt and the divine justice that are the cause of damnation. So I say that election harms no one but brings salvation to a company of people so vast that no one is able to number them.
An angel in heaven asks a newly arrived Christian, “Why are you in heaven?” “Because of the mercy of God,” is the answer. The angel always gets the same answer. Here comes a slave trader who abused the women slaves on their long journey to the Caribbean. This wretched man was converted in a storm in mid-Atlantic and lived a very different life afterwards. “Why are you here?” “I’m a debtor to mercy alone,” he says, Here is Jonathan Edwards’ wife, the most godly of women who from a child knew God and served him and loved her neighbour as herself. She has accepted the loss of her children through illness and the heart-ache of her husband being voted out of his church, and his premature death, without any bitterness towards God. The angel asks why she is there. “Tis mercy all immense and free and O my God it found out me,” she could say. In no Christian who enters heaven does the reply come, “It was my desire to come here and by my own efforts I got here.” Not one. Paul says, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (v.16).
So, election is not unjust, because everyone in hell did not want heaven, and will have been fairly judged for their own choice to sin and to ignore and reject of God in spite of his glory all around us and our internal voice of our conscience. There is just one text carved into the walls of hell, “True and righteous are thy judgments O Lord.” And the one theme to all the songs sung in heaven is, “Jesus the name high over all . . . glory to him . . . amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” Paul in our passage imagines some man crying out that God is being unjust to choose many sinners to join him in heaven. It is not justice we want from God. It is grace we must have, and you cannot earn or command grace to come to you. It is the free gift of God earned by what the Son of God did in love for us and applying all God’s benefits to our lives by the gracious Spirit. If that grace does not come to us because of Jesus it will never come to us at all.
So who is man to tell God that he is unjust? God is God the Creator and sustainer of all of life. Can’t he do with his creation and all his creatures just as he pleases? Isn’t the cardinal fact of the gospel that God saves us. We don’t save ourselves. Salvation isn’t a wage to be earned; it is not a reward to be merited; it is not a gold medal earned through years of training, or a good degree earned through years of studying. It is a gift freely bestowed on the undeserving. And once we grant the fact that salvation is a gift, we are logically compelled to accept the doctrine of election. For if it is a gift – a gift mind you – then God can dispense it as he pleases. He not only has this prerogative but according to Scripture, he exercises it. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (v.15). God is indebted to no one. He is not obligated to save anyone. He could treat every sinner like he treated every rebel angel and send every one to hell and still be just, for salvation is not a matter of justice, but a matter of grace, and grace is a gift and a gift is given according to the will of the giver.
2. DIVINE ELECTION IS NO BARRIER TO SALVATION.
Somebody may well ask, “What about the person who wants to be saved but can’t be because he is not one of the elect?” Let me say emphatically that such a person doesn’t exist! He never has! It would be impossible for a person to desire salvation and not receive salvation, for you see, the very desire for salvation is itself an indication that God has created that desire in his heart. Lydia in Philippi heard Paul preach and she responded to Paul’s message by believing it and wanting to be baptized. What caused that? Was it that she was worthier, smarter, more moral or more religious than the other women there? No. It was because God opened her heart and made her desire salvation. If God has given someone such a desire for salvation, then God will see to it that this desire is met and satisfied and fulfilled. If a person desires to know Christ as Saviour, that is a sure sign that God has already begun the work of grace in his heart; and that work, having been begun, will be brought to completion – that is what Paul later wrote to Lydia in Philippi and to all her fellow Christian in a wonderful letter (Phils. 1:6). You are creating a phantom not a real person when you imagine this figure who sighs, “Oh, I want to go to heaven but I can’t because I am not one of the elect.” No such person has ever existed.
Suppose I had something in my hand which I offered to you sincerely. “Would you like to have this? Please take it. I am offering it to you.” But you considered it to be of no value at all; it was absolutely useless to you. Then suppose I said to you, “All right I am going to give it to your brother.” You would have no right to grumble or complain because you refused it. You didn’t want it in the first place. You understand my point, that the unbeliever, the non-Christian, says by his attitude and his behavior in life that he doesn’t want God and he doesn’t want Jesus Christ, and he does not want a salvation of grace. If he wants them he can have them. Christ has never yet turned away any man who came to him; in fact he says, “He that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37). Hear me, please! As well as saying all I have about the divine election let me say this. If you sincerely want him, you can have him. You can receive him now into your life. He is here and he is offering himself to you. “Open the door and I will come in,” he says. If you don’t have him it’s because you don’t want him. Jesus said to the sinners in Jerusalem, “I would have protected and saved you, but you would not come to me.” So don’t create the man who says, “I want him but I can’t have him because I don’t know whether I am elect.” No one knows whether they are elect until they believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and open every door of their lives to his coming in and setting his throne up in their lives. Your faith in Christ is the mark of your election.
3. DIVINE ELECTION IS NO BARRIER TO EVANGELISM.
Then there is always raises another question: why then preach the Gospel to any, if those that are going to be saved are going to be saved and those that are not going to be saved are not going to be saved? Why then all this talk about evangelism and missions, and why all this excitement about preaching and the giving of an invitation to accept Christ as Saviour? Doesn’t election cut the nerve of evangelism? Not really. Let me share with you a grand illustration of my friend Wilson Benton who once preached in this church. Please think about this. Think about it honestly for just a moment. Let me ask you this question, do you expect to be alive next Sunday? Really now, tell me the truth. Do you expect to be alive next Sunday? Do you feel that God will grant you another week of life on earth? You really do, don’t you? Of course you do, everyone here expects to be alive next Sunday. Well then, let me tell you that you needn’t eat tonight, and you needn’t eat Monday or Tuesday or the next day; you don’t need any food all week long. You don’t need to take any liquid into your body, and you don’t need to get any rest, and you don’t need to take any medication that you may have been taking. Why? Because if God has predestined you to be alive for another week then it really doesn’t matter what you do.
Now isn’t that ridiculous? It is downright stupid, isn’t it? If you expect to be alive next week then you are to apply the means that God uses to sustain life. You expect to eat, to drink, to get rest, and take medicine, if necessary. The same principle holds true in election. God has not only ordained the end, the salvation of millions of people. He has also ordained the means whereby that salvation is actualized and realized; and according to the Bible, God has ordained that it’s the proclamation of the Gospel as the means he has appointed to bring people out of the darkness into his marvelous light.
Now does that cut the nerve of evangelism? On the contrary, the doctrine of election encourages evangelism. It is the greatest possible motive for bearing a true and faithful testimony. It is an awesome thing to realize that God may have included you in his eternal plan for the salvation of some other person. Does that make you want to sit down and twiddle your thumbs? Of course not! It makes you want to tell everyone you meet that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
And in closing that is what I want to tell you. Romans 9 is followed by Romans 10 and in Romans 10 we are told that the word of the gospel is not far away. It is here. It has been here as you have read these words, and it has not gone away yet. You have not missed it. We read what the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write; “‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame’” (Roms 10:8-11). Don’t sit around worrying about whether you belong to the elect or not. The Bible never tells you to do that. What it does tell you to do is to repent and to believe the gospel and confess, “I am a Christian.” Do you want the forgiveness of sins? Do you want everlasting life? Do you want the sure hope of heaven? Then receive Jesus Christ as your Saviour and these things are yours. God offers him to you. One thing is certainly true of everyone here, that there will be no sitting on the fence. You either receive him and be saved, or else you will reject him and go to hell. Now, what will you do with this Saviour who is Jesus Christ?
25th November 2012 GEOFF THOMAS