I Will Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious

In Exodus 33:18 Moses pleads with God, “Show me thy glory!” And God answers, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name, Yahweh. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”

God’s Glory and God’s Name

Moses asks to see God’s glory. God proclaims to him his name. In other words, if you grasp the name of God, you have seen his glory. God is not playing games with Moses when Moses cries out, “Show me your glory!” and God answers, “This is my name!” The names of God are the manifestations of his glory.

The name in verse 19 is Yahweh, the same name we saw last week (the LORD in all caps in your versions). But this time the name is given a different explanation, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”

“The names of God are the manifestations of his glory.”

In Exodus 3:14, the name Yahweh was explained with the words, I am who I am. Here it is explained with the words, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. Notice how these sentences are both built in the same way. In Exodus 3:14 the focus was on the existence of God — that he is what he is without anything outside himself determining his personality or power. In Exodus 33:19 the focus is on the gracious action of God — that he does what he does without anything outside himself determining his choices. This is what God reveals about himself when Moses asks to see God’s glory.

The Glory of God Is His Sovereign Freedom

Therefore, I would draw out this doctrine for us this morning: it is the glory of God to be gracious to whomever he pleases apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. Or another way to put it would be that sovereign freedom is essential to God’s name.

God is utterly free from the constraints of his creation. The inclinations of his will move in directions that he alone determines. Whatever influences appear to change his will are influences, which ultimately he has ordained. His choice to show mercy to one person and not to another is a choice that originates in the mystery of his sovereign will not in the will of his creature. And Exodus 33:18–19 teaches us that this self-determining freedom of God is his name and his glory. If God ever surrendered the sovereignty of his freedom in dispensing his mercy, he would cease to be all-glorious, he would no longer be Yahweh, the God of the Bible.

Moses’s Astonishing Request

Before we unpack some of the practical implications of this doctrine, let’s put the context into better focus. This will help us see just what implications this doctrine had for Moses.

Back in chapter 32 the people of Israel had rebelled against God by making a golden calf to worship. God says to Moses in Exodus 32:9, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

Moses responds to God (in verses 11–13) with a desperate prayer for the people. He makes his case not on the basis of Israel’s worth but on the basis of God’s worth. “Your name will be profaned among the Egyptians, and your word to the fathers will fall.” God relents. Instead of destroying the whole people, he appoints the sons of Levi to kill three thousand men (Exodus 32:25–29) and sends a plague among the people (Exodus32:35).

Then God resumes his purpose to send the Israelites to the Promised Land. In verse 34, God says to Moses, “But now go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you.” But Moses will not be satisfied with an unknown angel. In Exodus 33:15 he says, “If thy presence will not go with me, do not carry us up from here.”

This is an astonishing request. For God had said in Exodus 33:3, “I will not go up among you, lest I consume you in the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” In other words, God had said that if he goes up with them, he will wipe them out along the way. But Moses says that if God will not go up with them, he won’t go either. Moses is holding out for something unspeakable — that a holy God will have so much mercy upon a stiff-necked people that he will not only go up with them to the promised land, but also, as it says in Exodus 33:16, that God would make them distinct among all the peoples of the earth.

If Moses’s request was unthinkable, God’s answer in Exodus 33:17 was doubly so. He simply says, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” In other words, God says yes, he will go up with this stiff-necked people. He will let the grace that he gives Moses flow over onto this rebellious people.

You can see from Exodus 34:9 that this decision of God to go with the people is pure grace. There Moses says, “If I have found favor in thy sight, oh Lord, let the Lord, I pray thee, go in the midst of us, although it is a stiff-necked people.” The people do not deserve the blessing of God’s presence. They are stiff-necked. But in mercy God is going to give them another chance to follow him in obedience.

Why Does Moses Request This?

Now the question rises: Why, in Exodus 33:18, did Moses prayed to see God’s glory? “I pray thee, show me thy glory.” I think the reason was this: Moses knew that his request for God’s presence with a stiff-necked people would never succeed if it were based on any qualification in himself or in the people. (In Exodus 34:9 he included himself in the sin and iniquity of the people.) So for Moses to have assurance that God would actually be this gracious to Israel, he needed to see some basis in God and not in himself or the people. He needed a glimpse into the nature of God.

He knew God was an all-glorious God. But was this glory of such a nature that it would encourage Moses to believe that God would really be gracious to a stiff-necked people? So Moses says, Show me your glory. Let me have a glimpse into your divine nature. Let me see the meaning of your great name. Show me the foundation of this amazing promise. Give me some assurance that you will indeed grant your saving presence to this stiff-necked people!

To this, God responds in verse 19, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name Yahweh; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” In other words, when Moses asks to behold God’s glory, God reveals as of first importance his name, which he explains with the words, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious.”

So in its Old Testament context the declaration of God’s absolute freedom to be gracious to whomever he pleases is intended to give Moses hope and assurance that God indeed can and will be gracious to the stiff-necked people of Israel and go with them to the Promised Land.

Theology and Everyday Life

The Bible never gives us glimpses of God’s nature merely for intellectual discussion. It opens the name and glory of God to our understanding in order to help us revere God and love him and trust him and obey him. So when God stands before Moses and uncovers his innermost soul — the glory of his absolute divine freedom — he is doing it for a very practical purpose, namely, to give Moses encouragement to get on with his mission of leading a stiff-necked people on to the Promised Land.

“The deepest doctrines have to do with everyday life.”

The deepest doctrines of God have to do with everyday life. Theology is the most relevant and practical of all the human disciplines. If that isn’t our experience, it’s either because our theology is untrue, or because we go about it in a spirit of irreverence and make a game of it. The doctrines of God revealed in the Bible are of immense personal, practical, and eternal importance. Oh how we need to study the name and glory of God. The God of Exodus 33:19 is virtually unknown in popular American church life today.

The practical relevance of God’s freedom for Moses leads to some practical implications for us too. But before we unpack some of these, let’s define our doctrine more precisely and survey its wider biblical foundation.

The Doctrine of Unconditional Election

We’ve stated the doctrine of this text with these words: It is the glory of God to be gracious to whomever he pleases apart from any constraint originating outside his own will. Or God’s sovereign freedom is essential to his name. When this doctrine is applied to the salvation of individuals, it is called unconditional election. Election refers to the choice God makes of whom he will save, and unconditional refers to the fact that his choice is not based on any condition or qualification that individuals have. It comes from the mystery of God’s sovereign will.

Last week we tried to ask the question why God is the way he is, and the answer we received from him was, I am who I am. There is nothing outside God that makes him the way he is. His being originates in himself. He simply is who he is from everlasting to everlasting. We can worship in awe, or we can rebel in unbelief.

This week we try to ask the question why God was gracious to me, and the answer we receive from him is, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. There is nothing outside God that constrains his gracious election of me. His choices originate in himself. He chooses freely apart from any conditions in us. We can stand in awe of his sovereign freedom and worship with gratitude. Or we can rebel against this absolute authority and confirm that we have been passed over.

The doctrine of unconditional election is rooted in the nature of God. His very name, his innermost glory, is this: I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. If God were not free in the grace he gives, he would not be God. This is his name!

Five Passages on Unconditional Election

Of the many passages in the New Testament that provide the wider biblical foundation of this doctrine let me mention only five.

1. Romans 9:14–18

This chapter so captured my mind and heart about fifteen years ago that I wrote a book trying to understand it. The book is The Justification of God. In the preface I said:

As soon as my doctoral studies were completed in 1974 I devoted myself to write a book on Romans 9. The God of Romans 9 took me captive while I was yet in seminary. No other picture of God ever commended itself to me as more true to what the Creator must be. If there is a God, he must be the God of Romans 9. After seven years of effort to understand this chapter it still seems to me that its essence is this: God’s righteousness consists in his being an all-glorious God, and refusing to be anything less than all-glorious. It has been the delight of my life in these years to behold this God and to ponder his awesome sovereignty. If this book had never been published it would still be a treasure to me. No one asked me to write it. Few people knew it was emerging. The Grand Subject drew me on. And to him I owe all “the willing and running.”

“The basis of God’s mercy to me is not my own will, but his will.”

In Romans 9:14–18, Paul asks,

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 it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God who has mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for this very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Paul draws out of Exodus 33:19 the same doctrine we have. The basis of God’s mercy to me is not my own will, but his will. When I choose God, it is because he has first chosen me. My will is not sovereign and self-determining. God’s is.

2. Acts 13:48

Luke records for us Paul’s preaching in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia. Then he interprets for us how we should understand the response to this message in Acts 13:48: “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”

In other words, it is not the belief of the people that determined whether God would ordain them to eternal life. Just the opposite: the prior ordination of God determined who would believe. Faith is a gift of God’s grace and saving grace is given to whomever God wills — unconditionally.

3. John 10:26

This is very similar. In Acts 13:48, we learned why some people do believe. In John 10:26, Jesus tells us why some people don’t believe. He says, “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” In other words, your believing does not make you a sheep. Being a sheep enables you to believe. You do not make yourself into a child of God by your own initiative to believe. God makes you into a child of God so that you have a nature that can believe (John 1:13). He is gracious to whom he will be gracious.

4. Ephesians 1:4–5

“God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He predestined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:4–5). God preserves his freedom in the dispensing of his grace so that when we boast, we will boast in the Lord and not in ourselves. All his choices are for the sake of the praise of the glory of his grace.

5. Second Peter 1:10

If the glory and the name of God is his sovereign freedom, how then should we think about our believing and our obedience? Peter gives us the answer. He says, “Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall.” In other words, our zeal of faith and obedience does not make us elect. It confirms that we are elect. Faith and obedience are a gift, and the possession of the gift is a confirmation of the favor of the Giver. God is not moved to choose us because of our faith. We are moved to have faith because God has chosen us. He is gracious to whom he will be gracious.

So the doctrine of unconditional election is not the product of an isolated text. It has a broad biblical foundation — much broader even than we have seen here. And this is what we should expect since the doctrine is rooted in the very name of God and is the heart of his glory.

Four Practical Implications of This Doctrine

Now we must turn finally to some practical implications of this doctrine on us.

1. Humility for the Best of Saints

There is no doctrine that tends more to the humility of the saints than the doctrine that every virtue they possess is owing to the sovereign grace of God. Oh how we need to dwell on the truth that our faith is an absolutely free and unmerited gift. It will make you tremble when you realize how utterly dependent on God you are.

You were dead in trespasses and sins, unable to lift the little finger of your will to please God (Romans 8:7–8; Ephesians 2:1; John 15:5). And God, in absolutely free and unconditional grace, set his favor on you and made you alive. He took out your heart of stone and gave you a new heart of flesh, with a will to believe and obey. Therefore, every act of faith and every hint of obedience is the work of God’s grace in your life. This should humble us to the dust, and cut out of our lives every motion of pride. The doctrine of unconditional election means humility for the best of saints.

2. Hope for the Worst of Sinners

This is what the doctrine supplied to Moses. Moses needed hope that God really could have mercy on a stiff-necked people who had just committed idolatry and scorned the God who brought them out of Egypt. To give Moses the hope and confidence he needed God said, I gracious to whom I will be gracious.

In other words, since my choices do not depend on the degree of evil or good in man but solely upon my sovereign will, no one can say he is too evil to be shown grace. The doctrine of unconditional election is the great doctrine of hope for the worst of sinners. It means that when it comes to being a candidate for grace, your background has nothing to do with God’s choice.

If there is anyone here today who has not been born again and brought to saving faith in Jesus Christ, do not sink into hopelessness thinking that the excessive rottenness or hardness of your past life is an insurmountable obstacle to God’s gracious work in your life. God loves to magnify the freedom of his grace by saving the worst of sinners.

Turn from your sin; call upon the Lord. Even in this message he is being gracious to you and giving you strong encouragement to come to him for mercy. The doctrine of unconditional election means hope for the worst of sinners. “Come, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

3. Help for the Cause of Missions

If this doctrine means hope for the worst of sinners, then it also means help for the cause of missions. David Brainerd, the young missionary to the Native Americans in New England 200 years ago, drew strength from this doctrine again and again, as have hundreds of other missionaries.

“Salvation does not finally depend on our will or exertion, but on God.”

On Monday, June 25, 1744, Brainerd wrote in his journal, “I was enabled to cry to God for my poor Indians; and though the work of their conversion appeared impossible with man, yet with God I saw all things were possible. My faith was much strengthened.” Missionaries never need to despair as though any people or tribe were too hard or evil for God to revive. He will be gracious to whom he will be gracious. And so it does not finally depend on the will or the running of the missionary or the people, but on God. There is always hope for the worst of sinners and so there is always help for the cause of missions.

4. Homage to the Name of God

The name of God is I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious. His sovereign freedom is his glory. If we knew God for who he really is, we would be a different people. Oh how full of reverence and lowliness and meekness we would be. We would stand in awe of the absoluteness of his sovereign freedom. We would bow low in his presence. We shrink in fear from any attitude which belittles him. And we would rejoice with unutterable and glorified joy that he has set his favor on us.