A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 9:14-18. Question 2: Is God unjust?
Granted that God’s promise has not failed, but has been fulfilled in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in their spiritual lineage, is not ‘God’s purpose according to election’ intrinsically unjust? To choose some for salvation and pass by others looks like a breach of elementary justice. Is it? *What then shall we say? Is God unjust?* Paul’s immediate retort is *Not at all!* (14). He then goes on to explain. *For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’* (15). Thus Paul’s way of defending God’s justice is to proclaim his mercy. It sounds like a complete *non sequitur*. But it is not. It simply indicates that the question itself is misconceived, because the basis on which God deals savingly with sinners is not justice but mercy. For salvation *does not…depend on man’s desire or effort*, that is, on anything we want or strive for, *but on God’s mercy* (16).
Having quoted God’s word to Moses (15; Ex. 33:19), Paul now quotes his word to Pharaoh (17; Ex.9:16), although it is noteworthy that he writes of what *the Scripture says to Pharaoh*, since to him what God says and what Scripture says are synonyms: *’I raised you up for this very purpose*, that is, ‘brought you on the stage of history’, *that I might display my power in you and that my mane might be proclaimed in all the earth’* (17). Indeed, the refrain in the narrative of Pharaoh and the plagues is ‘so that you may know there is no-one like the Lord our God’ (E.g. Ex. 8:10; cf. Ezk. 6:7, 14, etc).
Paul sees these divine words to Moses (15) and Pharaoh (17), both recorded in Exodus, as complementary, and sums them up in verse 18: *Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy* (the message to Moses), *and he hardens whom he wants to harden* (the message to Pharaoh). Dr. Leon Morris rightly comments: ‘Neither here nor anywhere else is God said to harden anyone who had not first hardened himself’. That Pharaoh hardened his heart against God and refused to humble himself is made plain in the story (E.g. Ex.4:42ff.; 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 17, 27, 34f.; 10:3, 16; 11:9, 13:15; 14:5). So God’s hardening of him was a judicial act, abandoning him to his own stubbornness (E.g. Ex. 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), much as God’s wrath against the ungodly is expressed by ‘giving them over’ to their own depravity (1:24, 26, 28). The same combination of human obstinacy and divine judgement in the hardening of the heart is seen in God’s word to Isaiah (‘Make the heart of this people calloused’), which Jesus applied to his own teaching ministry and Paul applied to his (Is. 6:9f.; Mt.13:13ff.; Mk. 4:11f.; Jn. 12:39f.; Acts 28:25ff.).
So God is not unjust. The fact is, as Paul demonstrated in the early chapters of his letter, that all human beings are sinful and guilty in God’s sight (3:9, 19), so that nobody deserves to be saved. If therefore God hardens some, he is not being unjust, for that is what their sin deserves. If, on the other hand, he has compassion on some, he is not being unjust, for he is dealing with them in mercy. The wonder is not that some are saved and others not, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing at God’s hand but judgment. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgment), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust. If therefore anybody is lost, the blame is theirs, but if anybody is saved, the credit is God’s. This antinomy contains a mystery which our present knowledge cannot solve; but it is consistent with Scripture, history and experience.