God Saves Whom He Wills

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So, here’s the summary of where we’ve been so far. God’s word has not fallen, even though Romans 9:3 says most Jews are cursed and cut off from Christ. And the reason it hasn’t fallen is because from the beginning the promise was based on God’s free election of children of promise, not children of flesh. And then he gave two Old Testament illustrations: Isaac, not Ishmael, Jacob, not Esau. That’s been the argument so far.

And now comes Romans 9:14–18, and he asked this fateful question, “Is there then injustice or unrighteousness on God’s part?” And his answer is no. It is almost the same as after Romans 9:3. He said, “Is there then a falling, a failing of the word of God?” And his answer is no. And now he asks, “All right, I’ve given my answer with my heavy explanation of unconditional election of some Israelites, not others, as the beneficiaries of the promise. Does that mean God is unrighteous?”

The Righteous, Merciful God

Now, how he argues for the righteousness of God here is very involved and not easy to grasp at first glance. So let’s see what Romans 9:15–18 say by way of argument. “For,” there’s the keyword, right? Always for. No, there’s no. No, by no means there’s no injustice in the way he has chosen Jacob and not Esau and Ishmael and not Isaac. There’s no injustice because God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

Now in 1979 when I took my sabbatical from teaching to write that book, I said I had to write. Everything in that book was intended to explain that word right there. For. I just didn’t get it. How is that an argument for the righteousness of God? It looks like just another statement of the problem.

How are you arguing, Paul? You’re arguing. You say there’s no injustice on God’s part because God says to Moses, “I’ll have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I’ll have compassion on whom I have compassion.” I just throw up my hands. I spent nine months trying to figure that word out. And then writing about it. So, that’s what we’re going to come back to.

And then he says, “So,” therefore, now he’s building the argument back up. “So,” “for” was an argument and now he’s drawing a conclusion. Romans 9:16: “So,” in view of what I just said in Romans 9:15, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

So, his inference from “I’ll have mercy on whom I have mercy,” and now he’s drawing out an inference. So, this mercy, this it here, this compassion, this mercy does not depend on human willing or exertion. You see the connection? “I have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” What’s the decisive cause in that moment? God is. “I do what I do, I pity whom I pity,” therefore it’s not human will. That’s decisive. That’s the argument between Romans 9:15–16.

The Decisive Impetus

Mercy depends not finally, ultimately, decisively on human willing. There are dozens and dozens of passages in the Scripture that say God responds to you, gives you more grace, gives you mercy in response to things you do. This is not contradicting that. I like the word decisive; it’s very helpful. The decisive, final cause of whether you experience mercy or not is not you. It’s not your will, and this is literally not your running. This is willing or running, this is things you do, this is things you will. So, this would include faith.

It is not anything that you will or exert that is the decisive impetus, the final, decisive impetus in whether you’re a beneficiary of mercy. It is, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” And then comes again, the word “for.” For. So he’s going to give another argument. The first argument was Moses — a word to Moses — and the second argument is going to be Pharaoh. See that, I’m putting it in yellow again. “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’” (Romans 9:17).

There’s the argument, “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.” In other words, “I am handling you and raising you up for my purposes. It’s not rooted in you and who you are. It’s my purposes. I raise kings up, I raise pharaohs up, I raise Moses up, pastors up for my purposes. For this very purpose that I might show my power in you and my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

And then he has another “so.” See that”so” here. There’s “so,” there’s “so.” “Then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Romans 9:18). So, the two green ones are the conclusions and the two yellow ones are the arguments. That’s the structure of the passage. All of which is intended to say you are not unrighteous, by no means are you have any injustice or unrighteous in electing Jacob over Esau, Isaac over Ishmael, or anybody over anybody.

And his two arguments are Moses and Pharaoh. And his two conclusions are from those arguments. Romans 916: it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God. And conclusion, Romans 9:18, he has mercy on whom he wills and he hardens whom he wills. And I think it would be fair to say, I think you can see this, that mercy here corresponds to the word to Moses, and hardening here corresponds to the word to Pharaoh, because he hardened Pharaoh’s heart over and over in the 10 plagues.

God’s Name

How does that argument work? That’s the question. How is God’s righteousness shown in this? So, let me try to do what takes two hundred pages to do in this book, but I think it can be seen by anyone. This quote right here in Romans 9:15, “I will have mercy. I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I’ll have compassion on whom I have compassion,” is a quote from Exodus 33. So, I’ll put that here. Moses said, “Show me your glory,” to God on the mountain. Show me your glory. And God said, “All right, I will make all my goodness pass before you and I will proclaim before you the name, my name, the Lord.”

He’s saying, “Show me your glory.” God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and I will show you and proclaim to you my name, Yahweh.” And then I think he unfolds the name, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” And I think that’s an unpacking of his name and his glory, because you remember what he said about his name back in Exodus 3?

Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, the God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they asked me, what is his name, what will I say to them? And God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent you” (Exodus 3:14).

Now, that “I Am Who I Am” is a statement of the meaning of God’s name. If you knew Hebrew, you’d know that the word Yahweh or Jehovah or usually translated capital L-O-R-D, is built on the verb hayah which is the verb be. And so he’s saying the name I want to be called, six hundred times in the Old Testament, is a name that essentially means “I Am Who I Am.” Which is expanded by “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” See the similarity in grammatical structure there? “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious” because he just said, “Please show me your glory.” And God says, “I will proclaim my name,” and then he says, “I’ll be gracious to whom I’ll be gracious. I’ll show mercy on whom I’ll show mercy.”

Which is just like saying here, God said, “My name is I Am Who I Am. I Am Who I Am. I do what I do. The point of both of those is nobody makes me what I am. Nobody shapes me, nobody governs me, nobody controls me. Nobody influences me decisively. Everything I am flows from me. What I do flows from me. I am God.”

That’s what it means to be God. That’s what it means. No other being in the universe is like that. Otherwise, they’d be God. God is the kind of being who, in his name, his essence, in his essential glory, is free. He’s free. Absolutely free from all constraints outside himself to determine what he is or what he does.

That’s the point of the name here in Exodus 3:14. And it’s the point of the name and the glory here in Exodus 33:18–19. “I’ll be gracious to whom I’ll be gracious.” God is declaring his freedom in the disposal of mercy, his absolute freedom in showing mercy as the heart or an essential component of his glory or his name. Now that’s what it took me several months to see as I went back then.

The Essence of Unrighteousness

Let’s see. I’m jumping the gun here. I got to go. As I went back to Romans 9:14, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice [or unrighteousness] on God’s part?” No, there’s not. Why? Because God. Now I’m going to paraphrase this verse here. Paraphrase that. Because God declared to Moses that an essential part of his glory is his freedom from human constraints, influences in the giving of his mercy. That’s the first step in his argument for why there’s no unrighteousness with God, because his glory consists in his freedom. His glory consists in his having no constraints from outside.

Now my next question was, does that have anything to do with righteousness or justice? How does that argue that you are righteous in acting that way? And so I began this long, long process of studying the righteousness of God to see whether Paul had a view of righteousness that would make sense out of that. And now we jump forward to Romans 1: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). In Greek, the word justice and righteousness are the same word: dikaiosuné.

So, I keep going back and forth. But they’re the same. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness,” So, what does unrighteousness do? “Suppress the truth.” Holds down the truth. What truth in particular does righteousness specialize in holding down, suppressing. So that they are without excuse. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21).

What did they do? They “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” — especially the one in the mirror — “and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). What is that teaching? It’s about Paul’s understanding of righteousness.

And I tried out, and then tried to confirm elsewhere, this understanding, righteousness is a commitment to glorify God as God and to not exchange his glory for anything, and to esteem the glory of God above all things, and value God for what he really is. You would be unrighteous, you’d be not right not to treasure the glory of God above all things, since it is more valuable than everything else.

So, it’s not right, it’s unrighteous to look at the glory of God and say, “Nope, I’d rather have the mirror or the idol or anything else.” That’s the essence of unrighteousness. Now, is that what it’s for God? This is the way my mind works. I’m still trying it out to see if it works. If I’m onto something with Paul here.

Sin Defined

So, here’s one of the most important paragraphs in the Bible. You know this verse: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So, sinning and falling short of the glory of God seem to be explaining each other here. What is sin? Sin. This word falls short of is always a little ambiguous, isn’t it? What does that mean? Like an arrow goes, falls short. But what does that mean?

I think we should go back. We should go back to Romans 1:23 where we exchange the glory of God. So, the glory of God is offered to me, is my treasure, and my most highly prized beauty and reality in the world. And I take it and I sell it, like Esau, just sell it for a bowl of oatmeal. That’s sin. That’s the meaning of sin. Sin is what you do when you are valuing anything more than God. That’s what sin is. It accounts for all sinning. Sinning.

But the disposition of sin is preferring anything to God. That’s sin. I think that’s implied here. All have sinned and exchange, they lack, they fall short of the glory of God. And of course, now God doesn’t leave us, in his love he doesn’t leave us like that. They are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward. So, God’ sends Christ, his Son, into the world. “God puts him forward as a propitiation” (Romans 3:25). That means he’s going to take away his own wrath by causing his wrath to be poured out on Jesus and his blood shedding to be received by faith.

And now comes the key sentence. “This was to show God’s righteousness.”Oh, so we’re going to get some insight maybe in what is Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness in putting Jesus on the cross? This was to show righteousness. So God felt he needed to show his righteousness by putting his Son on the cross because we had sinned, we had all sinned, and everybody’s perishing.

And this sin is an exchange of the glory of God. And so righteousness demands, it seems, that he show itself by sending his Son. This was to show God’s righteousness because, in his divine forbearance or patience, God had passed over former sins.

God Passed Over Former Sins

Now, how do you explain that because here? God put Christ forward in death to absorb his wrath as a demonstration of his righteousness. And the reason he needed to demonstrate his righteousness like that is because he had passed over former sins.

What does that tell us about the righteousness of God? When it says he passed over, it’s like David seeing Bathsheba, having sex with Bathsheba, getting her pregnant, tries to make everybody think it was Uriah by getting Uriah to come back from the battle where he’s faithfully serving David, go down, sleep with his wife, so it’ll be his baby and nobody will really know. Uriah won’t do it, and so David has him killed.

So now he’s committed adultery and he’s committed murder indirectly. And he thinks, “Phew, got that solved.” And takes her and marries her, and he marries her quick enough so that maybe nobody will do the math at the nine-month point and it will be okay. Okay. You’re kidding me, David. You’re insane. Sex makes men insane. And I mean I have seen it make men utterly insane. Men do the most irrational things. Pastors who get in affairs do absolutely irrational things, inexplicable things, just like that.

You think this is going to be a song. So Nathan is sent to David, the prophet. Tells him a little story about a guy who has one little sheep, he’s poor, and the man next door to him has lots of sheep, and a guest comes and he needs a sheep to kill to have dinner. And he steals the sheep from the man next door and kills it to feed his guests when he’s got his own sheep.

Nathan says, “What do you think about that?” David’s furious. “We’ll take care of that guy.” And remember what he said, “You are the man.” That’s a pretty brave prophet. Tell the king, you’re the murderer, you’re the adulterer, you just condemned yourself. And to David’s incredible tribute, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said, “Why have you despised the Lord?” He despised the Lord. Sin is a despising of the Lord.

Then he said, then Nathan said, “The Lord has taken away your sin.” Now put yourself in the place of Uriah’s father. That’s me, I am Uriah’s dad. And I get wind of what he did in sleeping with my daughter-in-law and killing my son. And Nathan says to him, “You’re forgiven.” Any judge on the bench in Hennepin County, where I live, who says to a rapist and a murderer, “We’ll let it go. You can go back and be king.” That judge is off the bench because he is unrighteous, he’s unjust. Everything in us cries out, “You can’t do that. You can’t just kill people and rape people and then have some prophet come along and say, God forgives you.” What?

And this text says right here, God passed over that. And guess what? He’s done it a million times, and lots of them in your life. You are sitting here breathing and not in hell because he’s passed over your sins. He’s passed over your sins. And every one of those sins, according to Romans 3:23, is a falling short of, a demeaning of, a belittling of the glory of God.

The Unswerving Commitment of God

In Paul’s thinking, God’s righteousness is his unswerving commitment to uphold the worth of his glory. And if a thousand, ten thousand, millions of people trample his glory in the dirt and he forgives them and takes them into his family, something’s got to happen to make that just. And the answer is, he sent his Son.

And when Christ dies, God says to the entire universe, “I don’t take your sin lightly, and I don’t take the trampling of my glory as though it were nothing. I uphold the worth of my glory, and I vindicate my commitment to myself and my glory by making sure my Son bears the entire just punishment of all that sin, Bathsheba and Uriah, are on Christ if David is in heaven.” And I believe he is. David is in heaven.

Well, who paid? Because justice pays. And the answer is Christ paid. Let’s read it again. See if you see that. God put forward as a propitiation, a wrath bearer, a wrath remover, by his blood, he put him forward to be received by faith, not works. This was to show God’s righteousness because he had passed over those God-belittling sins and righteousness never, never, never, never passes over. God-belittling sins without a payment.

All wrongs will be righted either on the cross or in hell, and therefore the meaning of the righteousness of God, I concluded, at its essence, there are other uses that broaden out from this, but at its essence is God’s doing right by himself, never denying himself, always upholding and esteeming and valuing and loving his glory above all things so that if it gets trampled in the dirt, something’s got to be done about that and it’s done on the cross or it’s done in hell. And that gave me the key to the argument in Romans 9. I wonder if you’re with me.

God’s Freedom to Act

Let me confirm the direction we’re going. So at this point in my thinking, I’m looking for other confirmations. Am I on the right track of divine righteousness? So, righteousness, I’m arguing, in God is essentially his unwavering faithfulness, his unwavering commitment to uphold the name or the worth of his glory.

So, here in Psalm 143:11, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!.” And you know how parallels work in Psalms. This seems to shed light on that. They’re almost interchangeable. “For your name’s sake, preserve my life. In your righteousness, bring me out of trouble,” I think confirms that God’s righteousness is essentially his acting for his namesake. God would never let anything happen to his name that he doesn’t make right in the end, doesn’t vindicate in the end.

So, I think I’ll skip that text and just get back to Romans 9:14. Okay. How then does this argument work right here? There is no injustice or no unrighteousness on God’s part. Why do you say that, Paul? How can you say that after what was just said about Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael? After you just said, God elects people apart from any human distinctives at all before they were born had done anything good or evil. And you’re saying that’s just, that’s righteous?

And he says, here’s my argument. “God said to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I’ll have compassion on whom I have compassion,” which is a statement, in its context, that the glory of God consists in his freedom to show mercy on whom he will. That’s who he is. That’s his glory, that’s his name.

Then you bring in the meaning of righteousness that he has. His righteousness is his commitment to uphold that name, uphold that glory. Which means God is not acting in unrighteousness, he’s not acting in injustice when he upholds his glory by acting in freedom, which he does in election.

That’s it. That’s my argument. That’s the way I think Paul is thinking here. In other words, for God to be God, for God to be God, he must be free. He wouldn’t be God otherwise. His glory, name, Godness consist in freedom from anything outside himself in the decisive causes of his action.

He is the cause of his mercy, he is the cause of his hardening, he is the cause of all that he does. And that’s what it means to be God. And therefore that’s what it means to be right to act in accordance with. And so it’s right that it does not depend on human willing or exertion, but on God who has mercy.

The Mystery of Hardening

And then, see whether you agree that Romans 9:17 about Pharaoh confirms that way of thinking. For he’s going to support God’s freedom now. Freedom. This is the conclusion he draws here. He has mercy on whom he wills and he hardens whom he wills.

The argument for that is in his freedom. The Scripture says to Pharaoh: “For this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). “My purposefulness in what I do with you, Pharaoh, is not coming from you. You are not decisively determining how I treat you.”

What’s determining it is a purpose that I have. And my purpose is to show my power and show my name, uphold my name, uphold my glory. And so I think the point of Romans 9:14–18 is that whether in the case of Esau hating and hardening, or whether in the case of Jacob showing mercy or Isaac showing mercy and Ishmael not, the point there is, that is not unrighteous, because righteousness consists in God’s unwavering commitment to uphold his glory and his glory consists in his Godness and his freedom, and therefore that’s the way righteousness must act. And if that sounds a little puzzling to you, see whether this might be the sticking point. We almost always, with regard to ourselves, think now what’s right for me to do in this moment?

And rightly we think of something outside ourselves telling us what to do because we’re not God. We can look at our Bibles, look at the US Constitution, ask mom, go to our pastor. “Help me know what’s right for me to do.” Who does God ask? You have to put yourself, and this is almost impossible to do, in a situation of being God and say, “Now how would God decide what’s right?”

He wrote the book. There’s no criterion outside God to determine righteousness. Therefore, righteousness is acting in accordance with the infinite value of who he is. His glory. Rightness is doing right by God, doing right in accordance with who you are, doing right in accordance with the value of your glory.

So, that’s what we’ve been developing here. I think this is about as deep as Paul goes in his doctrine of the nature of God. We could talk about God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart and how he goes about that. And maybe the one thing that might be helpful would be this right here, “He hardens whom he wills.” There’s another stumbling block, right? It’s like “Jacob, I hated, Esau I hated. What is it? You harden whom you will. You harden whom you will. You decide freely whom you’re going to harden. Is there any clue in the Bible that we can find out how he does it?

So, I just put these verses out here as a remote possibility. See what you think. In Isaiah 63, “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?.” “Make us wander.” “Harden our heart.” “Fear you not.” “Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage” (Isaiah 63:17). So, there’s a statement not in Pharaoh but Israel, that God is hardening them.

And then notice, this is just a few verses later, Isaiah 64:7 comes close after Isaiah 63:17. “There is no one who calls upon your name” — he’s describing what’s the result of this action here — “who rouses himself to take hold of you.” Nobody. “For you have hidden your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities” (Isaiah 64:7). I’m content to let it be a mystery here of how God can harden and that person still be guilty. How can that be?

Original Sin

If he freely hardens whom he wills, how can the hardening person, which is what the next verse is going to say, right? Romans 9:19, why does he still find fault? Paul knows exactly the sequence of our thoughts here. And I’m jumping the gun on a possible way of looking at it. Let’s put it like this. One of the biggest unsolved problems I have in theology in the Bible is where did the first sin come from? I don’t mean Adam’s; I mean Satan’s, Lucifer. Because as soon as Adam and Eve appear on the scene, you got a tempter.

And so there’s a partial explanation of their sin right there. But where did they come from? Where did Satan come from? And I think the Bible implies, and would be natural to assume, God didn’t create him evil. He became evil. How did that happen? And my answer is, I do not know. I don’t have any way of explaining that. If you put a name on it like he had free will, that’s not an explanation; that’s a name. That’s putting a label on a mystery.

The question is whether it’s a biblical label. I doubt it. Because whatever he had, something moved him away from God. And I’m suggesting that this picture right here, God hid his face from us and made us melt in the hands of our iniquities, is another way of talking about his hardening. Hardening sounds very proactive, like God does it all. Hiding your face and melting into iniquity look indirect. And both are said to be true here.

And all I note to say is maybe, maybe, and this is just wild speculation, that in eternity God allowed, in some inscrutable way, some kind of cloud or unknowing, unseeing past between him and Lucifer, who was greatest, highest angel, so that he couldn’t see clearly the glory of God anymore. And his default was to fall in love with the next most beautiful thing, himself. And he should have waited.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock. (Psalm 40:1–2)

He should have waited, and he didn’t wait. Now that doesn’t solve the problem. It just, to me, looks like a kind of pointer to this is where I am able to sleep at night where he says there are more things, there are more things in God’s capacities to do what he does justly and righteously than you can imagine. If it’s not something like this, then it’s something else.

And here are two things. I don’t want you to leave this seminar saying, “John Piper believes that innocent people suffer or innocent people go to hell. Or at the last day, God judges people in an unrighteous way because he throws them into hell, people who don’t deserve to be there.”

However God does it, whoever goes to hell deserves to go to hell, and in hell will not be able to offer any objection to the justice of it. And if that seems inconsistent with unconditional election, then I’m asking you to live with it. I’m just asking you to live with the inconsistency in your head. I don’t think it’s inconsistent in God’s head, or you can keep working. Read Jonathan Edwards who thinks he could figure it out, and maybe he did and I just couldn’t follow it. And he comes as close as anybody, I think.