He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. —Romans 9:18
Why are we talking about Romans 9? Because it shows us a big God. Big sinners need a big God. We need big acceptance in our sin, big power for holiness, big courage for life. When we have a sense on our hearts of the greatness of God’s love for us, we can face anything. But Bible Belt religion can’t take us there. Bible Belt religion sees God’s mercy as a little thing, something to be expected. Bible Belt religion creates complacency. Romans 9 leaves us in awe. The teaching of this chapter funnels down to this: “Do not become proud, but be in awe” (Romans 11:20).
Romans 9 says that God doesn’t need us. God is all that God needs to be happy. The one living God is complete in himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are not filling up a lack in God. Therefore, our having a relationship with God is his choice. And if God is big enough not to need us, then it’s also true that he gives himself freely. We bring nothing to the table. The Bible says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” (1 John 4:10). The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God is not need, the way we are. So we have no bargaining power, no leverage with him. It is God who has mercy.
The Bible flips our view of God and of ourselves. C. S. Lewis helps us see how far we’ve drifted, especially here in the modern world:
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge; God is the one on trial. Man is quite a kindly judge. If God should have a reasonable defense for being the God who permits war, poverty and disease, modern man is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is the judge and God is on trial.
We make huge allowances for our failings, and we scrutinize God for any suspicious behavior. But putting God on trial blocks out his mercy. He longs to pour mercy out upon us. But the only mercy God gives he gives not as a suspect on trial, not as someone we can put pressure on, but as the King of the universe. Here is how Charles Spurgeon, the nineteenth century preacher, put it:
There is no attribute of God more comforting to his children than the doctrine of Divine Sovereignty…. On the other hand, there is no doctrine more hated by others…. Men will allow God to be everywhere except on his throne. They will allow him to be in his workshop to fashion worlds and to make stars. They will allow him to sustain the earth, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends his throne, his creatures then gnash their teeth; and when we proclaim an enthroned God, and his right to do as he wills with his own, without consulting them in the matter, then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on his throne is not the God they love.
How do you feel about God ruling over you from his royal throne? I am guessing that our real feelings this morning about that real God range from resentment to worship and everything in between. Here’s why that matters. If we are big and God is small in our thoughts and feelings, we will be unable not to obsess about ourselves and our own needs, we will be unable to love others and care about their needs, we will be unable to risk anything for God, because a little God just can’t be counted on for much. A little God ends up a weekend pastime. And that is a false god. He doesn’t exist. The God who is actually there is the full, true, industrial strength living God. He can be trusted when everything is against us, because he is bigger than everything against us and over everything against us, including the us inside us that’s against us. That real God of awesome mercy is the one revealed in the Bible. If you don’t swallow this book whole, if you screen out the parts that scare you, how do you know your god is anything more than a thought in your own mind? And where will you go for mercy, if your god is only a momentary electrical impulse inside your brain?
Romans 9 is about the true God. How is he merciful to us sinners? Last week we saw from verses 1-12 that God’s mercy is selective, not automatic, not universal. There is a reason why the Old Testament people of God failed. God did not choose all of them. He gave all of them outward privilege and opportunity. But he chose some for inward grace and spiritual reality. God chose Isaac, not Ishmael. God chose Jacob, not Esau. All four men were exposed to the gospel. But God mercifully gave Isaac and Jacob a new heart to love him back. God is selective. He has the right to choose his own friends. So do we. Shouldn’t we allow God that right?
This week, in verses 13-18, we’ll see that God’s mercy is free, not deserved. These verses deconstruct our sense of entitlement. But they also create a new sense of wonder and gladness and relief. It is such a relief to stop trying to make God behave and take our place before him in humility and trust. Let’s go there together now. It’s the place of blessing.
As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. —Romans 9:13–18
This is a difficult passage. I know that. It’s difficult for everyone. We need to deal with it. We need God to deal with us. I will try, with the Lord’s help, to be honest and true to this passage and clear in explaining it. Then I will draw some conclusions. Let’s walk through it verse by verse.
Verse 13: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” What on earth does that mean? Paul is quoting the prophet Malachi (“As it is written . . .”), and Malachi is summarizing what God did back in the book of Genesis. So this strong language isn’t Paul’s own personal idea. What he is saying runs through the length of the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that God chooses some and rejects others.
Before you back away from the Bible, think about this. Isn’t life like this? One man is born an Einstein. Another man is born simple. How does that happen? Is God taken by surprise? Or is it his plan? God giving out his blessings selectively is simply a fact of life, and we see it all around us every day. So let’s hold our emotional horses long enough to hear the Bible out. What is it saying?
Jacob and Esau were brothers, sons of Isaac, grandsons of Abraham. Both were exposed to the gospel. But God rejected Esau. That’s what the word “hated” means. It goes with the word “hardens” in verse 18. This is difficult. It’s hard for us to accept this, and here’s why. We’re not shocked that God loved Jacob. We think God should love Jacob and Esau and everybody in the same way. If God would behave himself that way, we could then pronounce upon God an innocent verdict because he’s doing his job our way. But the wonder of verse 13 is not that God hated Esau but that God loved Jacob. Esau and Jacob were different from each other. Esau was macho and visceral and impulsive. He sold his birthright for a bowl of stew when he was hungry. He was driven by his appetites. And which woman here would want a husband like that? Jacob was cunning and sneaky and grasping. He tricked Esau out of his father’s blessing. Which man here would want a brother like that? Would we love either of these men? Is God obligated to love people like them? Is he obligated? I’ll tell you why we think he is. We see the implications for ourselves. Every one of us has a bit of Esau in him or her and a bit of Jacob in him or her. Who of us is clean? But if we have no power over God to make him merciful to us, if God is free to judge us or to love us, if God judging us is right and God loving us is surprising and cannot be expected, if God loves sinners freely and not by demand, then it changes how we treat God. We have to stop bossing him
around and making demands of him and humble ourselves and revere him as God. But
that’s where his mercy comes down!
Verse 14 reads our minds and how ready we are to put God on trial and accuse him of being unjust: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!” Is God just, is God right, to be God over us? Paul has no problem with God being fully God over us. Why? Verse 15: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” Where does that quotation come from? God said that to Moses right after Israel made the golden calf and worshiped it as their Savior. They rejected their real Savior God, because they could manage a little god of their own invention. But Moses asked God to forgive them, and God did – amazingly. They rejected God, but God did not reject them. They slapped him in the face after all his kindness, but he still loved them. Why? Because here is how God thinks: “I will have mercy not on those who deserve it but on those I choose, and I will have compassion not on those who treat me well but on those I choose. I have all the motivation within myself that I need to love the worst sinners. They don’t need to qualify for my mercy. It’s up to me alone.” That is how God thinks. He chooses to love sinners for reasons of his own glory. He loves us freely. He doesn’t have to. He chooses to. If you are in Christ, he will never stop loving you, sins and all, because what you deserve wasn’t his reason to begin with. What’s more, God’s choice is not like the lottery – sheer chance, mechanical luck, computer-generated math. God’s choice comes with all his heart. The word translated “compassion” here is also used in the Old Testament for a mother’s womb, a place of warmth and safety and care. In God, sovereignty and sensitivity come together.
Here’s the whole point of verse 15. God’s choices are just, because God’s choices are the standard of justice. Do you see the logic here? Verse 14: “Is God right to love selectively?” And verse 15 does not answer that question by saying, “God is right, because what he’s doing conforms to our standards.” Verse 15 is saying, “God is right, because who gets his mercy is up to him.” God simply being God is right. I think of it this way. God is like the author of a story. He isn’t inside the story. He’s writing the story. He puts into his story bad people. Some of those bad people change by the power of mercy. Other bad people don’t. And the author has every right to tell the story his own way. It’s what authors do. If you have a problem with God being like that, and many people do have a problem with it, you might want to keep this in mind. This Author also chose to enter into his own story. He became one of the characters by his own choice. And he suffered injustice at the hands of the other characters. Here is the point. God is sovereign, but he is also involved. And how can that be wrong? We’re the ones who need to see our wrongs.
Paul helps us make an adjustment in our attitudes, in verse 16: “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.” Do we have free will? Yes. Do our exertions matter? Yes. But only God is ultimate. We are not on his level. Our will and our exertions never counteract God or cancel him out. We never corner him or force his hand. God is ultimate over us. This truth is wonderful, and here’s why. If the trajectory of your life does not ultimately depend on your will or exertion but on God who has mercy, then there are no hopeless cases. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. God can love even you. God has all the motivation he needs to act wonderfully for any sinner at all. Look beyond yourself, your sins, your righteousness. Put your hope in God. He loves people who can muster no will and no exertion. It’s his will and his exertion that make all the difference for you.
The Bible is showing us the awesome mercy of God. God loves freely. If we think we can outflank him or run his life for him or defeat him, that’s a problem – but not for God. Verse 17 speaks again from the Old Testament:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
You know the story. Pharaoh refused to let God’s people go. He thought he was playing with all the trump cards. But in his arrogance he overlooked something. He was in the story at all, so that God could display his own power on earth. And today, apart from scholars and historians, who remembers Pharaoh except as a bit-player on the stage when it was his turn in God’s great drama? This is encouraging. All the big-shots and dictators and megalomaniacs who think they run the world and treat people like dirt – they are serving God’s purpose. They aren’t frustrating the plan of God; they’re inside the plan of God.
Paul sums up the point of it all in verse 18: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” That verse changed me. I was in grad school. One night before my professor’s lecture on Romans 9, I had to read this chapter. I had always avoided it. In fact, a friend in college told me one day he had found a new way to read Romans. Read chapters 1-8, then skip to chapter 12 and keep going. It works. It worked for me. Just one problem. That isn’t the Bible that exists. And now my professor was requiring me to read this chapter in the original Greek text. So there I was that night, in my study in Dallas, reading slowly word by word, and I did not see this verse coming. I walked right into it. And something happened to me at that moment. God touched me, and I was stunned. Before that moment, I loved God sincerely. But the way I saw reality, I was big, and he was small. He was there, but as a mere helper over on the side. I was central, and everything that mattered to me depended on me. I was not letting God be God to me. I was screening his grandeur out – not deliberately but in ignorance. Then this verse flew in under my radar and exploded my whole worldview. Suddenly I was small and over on the side. God was big and central and glorious and merciful. And at that moment, more than ever before, I just wanted to get down low before him and worship. For me, that’s when a lot of things began to get better.
What is verse 18 saying? It is not saying that we aren’t responsible for ourselves. But it is saying that only God is God, and he has the right to be God. Only God can show us mercy. Only God can judge. If we bow low before him, we will experience his mercy. But if we defy him, we will not defeat him or even evade him.
There is a heaven, and there is a hell. And no one gets into heaven by obligating God. The only way is God’s mercy through Christ crucified for sinners. Our part in that is to stop putting God on trial and humble ourselves and receive Christ with the empty hands of faith. That awe before Christ – God has promised that’s where his mercy comes down.
In one of C. S. Lewis’ stories a girl named Jill walks into a clearing in the forest. She’s thirsty. She spots a stream not far away. She also sees a lion, the Christ-figure, sitting there beside the stream:
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I – could I – would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without realizing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
I am not asking you to understand God. I am asking you to receive God. Will you trust him enough to come near? He does not promise not to change you. He does promise to have mercy on you. And his mercy is free.