Is Divine Election Fair? by Pastor John Samson
Ephesians 1:4-6 "just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved."
Perhaps the biggest hurdle people stumble over concerning the Biblical doctrine of Divine Election, is the idea that it just doesn't seem fair. It is the issue I struggled with for many years, as like many others, I had the idea that in order for God to be fair, He has to treat all people equally.
Lets consider this fact though: When a person gives that which he has no obligation to give, he is considered gracious in giving to other people; but he is certainly not considered unjust because he doesn't give to an additional party.
Dr. Michael Horton gives an illustration which makes the issue very clear. He tells of a man who has a million dollars that he wants to give away and he decides to give $100,000 to ten different organizations. An eleventh organization hearing about this act of charity would not have a just case against the man if they were to make the claim that he hasn't been fair.
That's obvious isn't it? The man owes nothing to this 11th organization, just as he didn't owe anything to the ten others he gave to. This 11th organization doesn't have a just claim to that money. The man has every right to do what he wants with his own money and he can give it to whomever he will. That is exactly what takes place in Divine Election.
Romans 9 is a chapter given entirely over to this subject of Election. Paul is explaining why it is that not everyone comes to faith in Christ, even amongst the Jews. He writes:
"I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen." (Romans 9:1-5)
Paul had such a heart for his fellow countrymen that he would have given up his salvation (if that was possible, which, of course, it was not) if it meant that all the Jews would be saved.
He goes on to answer the question of why it is that many amongst God's chosen people Israel have not embraced the Messiah. Did God not have the power to open up their eyes to the truth? Is God now an eternally miserable Deity who has to live with the fact that He failed to woo so many of His people to Himself?
Let's allow the word of God to speak to us as we read the Apostle Paul's words in verses 6-13:
"But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, "In Isaac your seed shall be called." That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: "At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son." And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, "The older shall serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated."
God's word has not failed in any way because God's promises always hold true for the true Israel. However, not all of what we see as ethnic Israel is the true Israel, according to God. "They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." (v. 6) God's saving promises are made only to the true Israel; and Paul is declaring that these promises have never failed.
To explain election, Paul uses the Old Testament examples of Jacob and Esau. The scripture, "Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated" is alarming to many people. Whatever is said about it, we cannot seriously challenge the idea that God had a different kind of love for Jacob than He had for Esau. Yet, what should be absolutely amazing to us is not that God hated Esau. That should not surprise us at all. God had every right to deal justly in Divine wrath with Esau because of his sin. But what should be absolutely breathtaking to us is that He Sovereignly decided to set His love on Jacob. What mercy! What grace!
Why did Jacob receive this amazing mercy from God - was it because of something Jacob did. No, works were not a factor whatsoever in the choice of one over the other. Even though these twins were born in identical circumstances (they were womb-mates), the text makes it clear that before they had lived to do any good or evil, God chose one (Jacob) and not the other (Esau). We are told that the reason for this was "that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls." (v. 11)
Paul then anticipated the inevitable objection that would be raised to this idea of God choosing one and not the other by asking the rhetorical question, "What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God?"
God answers this charge of His Sovereign Grace being unfair by stating, "Certainly not!.... I will mercy whom I will mercy, and compassion whom I have compassion." (Literal Greek of verse 15)
Regarding this verse, Dr. James White writes, "Paul is ready with an Old Testament example to buttress his arguments: Exodus 33. This tremendous passage contains themes that find their full expression only in the New Testament's full revelation of the doctrines of God's free and sovereign grace. God showed mercy and compassion to Moses, choosing to reveal His glory as an act of grace. We must understand, in light of the prevailing attitude of the world around us, that God's mercy, if it is to be mercy at all, must be free. Literally the text speaks of mercying and compassioning, again verbs of action that find their subject in God and their object in those chosen by His decision. It does not say, "I will have mercy on those who fulfill the conditions I have laid down as the prerequisite of my plan of salvation." Both the source of compassion and mercy and the individual application find their ultimate ground only in the free choice of God, not of man."
The sign of a good teacher is to recognize objections to your position before they arise and deal with them ahead of time. This is something Paul does frequently throughout his epistles. When he writes of God's amazing grace in salvation taking place by grace alone through faith in Christ alone (Romans 3-5) it is as if he anticipates what an objector might say in response, namely, "What then, shall we sin then, that grace may increase?" He answers this objection with an emphatic, "God forbid! How can we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6: 1, 2)
The same thing is happening here in chapter 9. Paul has no doubt taught on the issue of Divine election before and knows what people's reaction normally is to the issue of God acting in Sovereign grace in electing some but not all to salvation. It is this - "Paul, that is not at all fair for God to choose one over the other, without any view as to what works they might do. That doesn't seem to fit with how I would run the universe if I were God."
As I allowed the Scripture here to speak to this issue for me, I began to see that if I continued to believe that Divine Election was unfair, I would be actually siding with Paul's imagined opponents who, in v. 14, would raise exactly the same objection that I had myself. I am sure you will agree that siding with Paul's (and God's) opponents, is not a good or wise position to be in, especially for someone who believes and teaches the Bible!
Paul then sums up this apostolic word in v. 16, "So then, (in other words, here's the conclusion) it ("it" refers to the basis of Divine election) is not of him who wills, (man's will is not the deciding factor) nor of him who runs, (nor is human effort) but of God who shows mercy."
Dr. White continues, "This divine truth, so offensive to the natural man, could not find a clearer proclamation than Romans 9:16. We truly must ask, if this passage does not deny to the will of man the all-powerful position of final say in whether the entire work of the Triune God in salvation will succeed or fail, what passage possibly could? What stronger terms could be employed? The verse begins, "so then," drawing from the assertion of God that mercy and compassion are His to freely give. Next comes the negative particle, "not," which negates everything that follows in the clause. Two human activities are listed: willing and literally "running," or striving. Human choice and human action. Paul puts it bluntly: it is not "of the one willing" nor is it "of the one running." Paul uses two singular present active participles. The fact that they are singular shows us again the personal nature of the passage. The interpretation that attempts to limit Romans 9 to "nations" cannot begin to explain how nations "will" or "run." In contrast to these Paul uses a present active participle to describe Gods act of "mercying," showing mercy. Man may strive through his will and his endeavors, but God must show mercy." (The Potter's Freedom)
"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?"
After the summation that God "mercies" whom He wills and hardens whom He wills, Paul anticipates a further objection that would be raised to his line of reasoning, namely that God is finding fault. How can God find fault with the non-elect, when, if all that Paul writes is true, then the non-elect are not responsible for their unbelief, God is. Why? Because both the elect and the non-elect are doing only that which is God's will. And here is the kicker: They cannot resist God's will!
This seems, at first glance at least, to be a strong argument against Paul's teaching. Its also the one raised in our own day to this exact teaching. Lets keep in mind that Paul brings up this objection, knowing that it would be voiced by those who would not embrace Paul's apostolic message here in Romans 9. What we should not do, if we want to understand and believe the Scriptures, is to agree with this objection, and make it our own. Paul only raises the objection to dismantle, destroy and annihilate it, with apostolic authority, once and for all.
"The example of Pharaoh was well known to any person familiar with the Old Testament. God destroyed the Egyptian nation by plagues so as to demonstrate His might and power in the earth, and key to this demonstration was the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Before Moses had met with Pharaoh the first time God told him: When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. (Exodus 4:21)
It was God's intention to bring His wrath upon the Egyptians. God's actions were not "forced" by the stubborn will of the Egyptian leader. God said he would harden Pharaoh's heart, and he did. Listen to the impudent response of this pagan idolater to the command of Moses:
And afterward Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me in the wilderness.'" But Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and besides, I will not let Israel go." (Exodus 5:1-2) Is this not what God said he would do? Will someone suggest that Pharaoh's heart is "soft" here? No indeed, and Moses well knew that God was behind this for when the Pharaoh then increased the work load of the Israelites, Moses complained to God in Exodus 5:22. Why complain to God if, in fact, God had nothing to do with it and it was all just a matter of the Pharaoh's "free will choice"?
This provides the background of Paul's citation of Exodus 9:16. The portion of truth that here stings the pride of man is this: it is more important that God's name be magnified and His power made known than it is any single man get to "do his own thing." Pharaoh was surely never forced to do anything sinful (indeed, God probably kept him from committing many a sinful deed). He acted on the desires of his wicked heart at all times. But he is but a pot, a creature, not the Potter. He was formed and made and brought into existence to serve the Potter's purposes, not his own. He is but a servant, one chosen, in fact, for destruction in the waters of the sea. His destruction, and the process that led up to it (including all the plagues upon Egypt), were part of God's plan. There is simply no other way to understand these words.
Paul then combines the fact that God showed undeserved compassion and mercy to Moses (Exodus 33) with God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 5) and concludes that whether one is "mercied" or "hardened" is completely, inalterably, and utterly up to God. The verbs here are active: God performs these actions. He mercies whom He wills and he hardens whom He wills. The parallel between mercy and hardening is inarguable. We may like the mercying part more than the hardening, but they are both equally a part of the same truth. Reject one and you reject them both. There is no such thing as preaching God's mercy without preaching God's judgment, at least according to Scripture." (James White - The Potter's Freedom)
Let's now read verses Romans 9:14 - 24 in full to follow the flow of Paul's argument, remembering that Paul is continuing to address the issue of why some have not come to have faith in Christ:
"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?"
Paul's answer to the objection is to point out that God is God, and man is man, and man has no business telling God what to do with His creation (v. 20). "Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?" (v. 21)
The implication in Paul's question here is that yes, indeed, God as the Potter has every right to make what He likes from the clay. Though man will shout loud and long about what seems to be man's lack of freedom in all this, God's answer is to shout back, "What about My freedom as the Potter?" In Romans 9, Paul contends for the Potter's freedom to have mercy on whom He will.
Jesus Himself used an illustration that is very helpful to us along this line. In His Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), He talks about the workers coming at different times of the day and at the end of the day, when each worker receives his wages, all who worked received the same amount. The owner says, "I can do what I want. It's my money." The point being then that the owner has every right to dispense his money as he will, and also God has every right to have mercy on whom he will.
So the issue of fairness is a reasonable question to raise but I believe God's Word in Romans 9 forces us to conclude that fairness is not an issue. "Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!" (Romans 9:14).
We must always keep in mind that grace can never be earned and mercy by definition can never be deserved. If we really want what is fair, all of us will be sent to hell. If we ever think that everyone, or even one person, deserves mercy, then by definition, we're not talking about mercy anymore, but of justice. Mercy can never be demanded. It is always given at the gracious will of the one showing it. Let's always remember that in Divine Election, a person either receives justice, or they receive mercy, but absolutely no one receives injustice! God is not obliged to give equally that which He is not obliged to give at all.