Nikki Symasek from Birmingham, Alabama writes in to ask: “Dear Pastor John, my 13-year-old son Drew is a deep thinker. This morning at breakfast we were reading in Deuteronomy 10. When I got done reading, Drew looked at me — visibly frustrated and a bit emotional — and said, ‘Mom, why does the Bible contradict itself? In Deuteronomy 10 it says, ‘The great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality,’ yet in Romans 9 it says, ‘Just as it is written Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.’ How is that not showing favoritism and partiality?’ I tried so hard to answer his question going back to God’s infinite wisdom, sovereignty, goodness, predestination, and desire to bring Himself glory, trusting him when we don’t completely understand. But as you read Romans 9 it doesn’t get any easier to swallow — God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy. I am not sure I gave him such a great explanation. I said, ‘Well son, I believe you just asked me a question that I would like to Ask Pastor John.’”
The first thing I have to say is, may the Lord give this 13-year-old a humble and teachable spirit to go along with his sharp mind. I love sharp minds and they are a great weapon in the hand of the Lord when they are wielded with a humble and wise arm. He is off to a good start with such a discerning mother. So, praise God for that.
Our Impartial God
So, yes. It is a really good question. God is impartial, not just in the Old Testament, but the New Testament. Let me just underline it through these texts:
Romans 2:11 says, “God shows no partiality.”
Ephesians 6:9 also says, “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening knowing that he who is their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with him.”
It says in Colossians 3:25, “The wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”
In every one of these cases the Greek word prosoplasia — literally “a receiving of face” — means that God does not receive or regard a person’s appearance. He does not base his approval or blessings on considerations that are irrelevant to the choice he is making, like a person’s face. So, we need to be really clear with what we mean.
Partiality and Impartiality
What does he mean by partiality and impartiality? Let me use an illustration for the 13-year-old if he might be tuning in: You and your friends are trying out for the school or the neighborhood baseball team. What would it look like if the coach who must choose who gets to play was partial — that is, not impartial? It would look like this: Your coach would show partiality if he chose the white boy and not the black boy even if the black boy was a better player, or if he chose his own son even if his own son was a worse player, or if he chose a boy because the boy’s father paid him money behind the scenes. Impartiality doesn’t mean you treat everyone alike. Everyone can’t play ball. Everyone can’t get on the team. It means you don’t base your favorites on irrelevant considerations like race or wealth or your kinship.
“Impartiality does not mean treating everyone the same — it means basing your treatment of others on the right kind of considerations.”
Here is another illustration. I think a 13-year-old can get this one as well. If you are a judge in a courtroom and you must decide a murder trial, judges are supposed to be impartial. In fact, the picture of justice has a woman blindfolded. You are going to say, “What in the world does that mean?” Impartiality does not demand that the guilty defendant gets to go free because you have to treat everybody the same and everyone else gets to leave the courtroom and walk out — the criminal who has been convicted and found to be guilty gets to go free because we can’t be impartial here. We have to treat everybody the same and he gets to go free because everybody else is going free.
Nobody thinks impartiality means that. Impartiality demands that the judge not base his verdict on irrelevant considerations like race or wealth or intelligence or reputation in the community. If the judge favors his own race, or if he favors wealthy people or intelligent people or famous people, he would be partial and not impartial, and he would be a lousy judge and unworthy to be judge.
So impartiality does not mean treating everyone the same. It means basing your treatment of others on the right kind of considerations: Did the defendant actually kill the man? If he did, then he goes to jail. Is the kid a really good ball player? Then he should be on the team.
God’s Hidden Wisdom
Now, the question is about God’s choosing to save people. He never, never bases his choice (whom to save) on the basis of irrelevant considerations. He never says, “I will choose Asians to save, not Hispanics.” He never says, “I will choose wealthy people to save, not the poor. I will choose the educated to save, not the uneducated.” Or even, “I will choose the good and not the bad.” God simply doesn’t base his choices on those kinds of considerations. If he did, then he would be guilty of being partial and he is not partial. That is the point of 1 Corinthians 1:26, isn’t it?
Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–30)
So God’s choice is based on his own hidden wisdom. God works “all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). He does not base his choices on irrelevant considerations but on “the counsel of his will.” He is free to choose whomever he will and his reasons are never owing to our goodness. How could they be? We are all sinners deserving of death. Yet he chooses freely to save some.
The very meaning of grace in Romans 11:5 is that the reason he chooses us is not in ourselves. It is not in our own virtue or our own sinfulness. It is in his counsel and he is wise in all that he does because he is guided by the highest considerations. And what is that consideration? Well, it was hinted at in that text we read from 1 Corinthians 1:26–30. What choices will keep humble, sinful men from boasting in themselves? And what choices will bring people to praise the glory of the grace of God?