What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! 15 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.” 16 So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. (v.14-16)
Our readers might find it useful to compare and contrast Art Sippo’s comments on this text with my own from my response to Dr. Norman Geisler in The Potter’s Freedom. First Sippo’s commentary:
This is a classic statement about the sovereignty of God. Notice what this DOESN’T say. It does not say that God will condemn whomever he wills to but only that he will be merciful on anyone whom he chooses. This is why the Council of Orange in 529AD determined that God predestines the righteous to glory but does not actively predestine the wicked to perdition. This council’s teaching was defined as official Church teaching by the Popes contemporary to it and reaffirmed later at the Council of Nicea II in 787AD.
Now, my own:
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 Testaments full revelation of the doctrines of Gods 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 Gods 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.
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 natureof 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.
Now in response to Sippo’s comments, the very thing that he says Paul doesnot he will say, in almost those explicit words, in verse 18, when he says God mercies whom He desires, and hardens whom He desires. There is no question that there is not an equal ultimacybetween election and reprobation: that is, it is a false accusation to say that Reformed theologians believe in a direct parallel between these two divine actions. One requires the extension of divine grace and mercy in the forgiveness of sins and all the accompanying divine acts involved in the salvation of the elect; the other requires no such extension but rather merely the application of justice and wrath in such a fashion as to bring glory to God through the condemnation of the wicked (as we will see in the example of Pharaoh that follows). But this issue aside, does Sippo actually believe God will be merciful “on anyone whom he chooses”? Does God’s mercy actually save those to whom He is merciful, or is this a non-salvific mercy? The Council of Orange was, in fact, addressing soteriological issues, so, by citing it, isn’t Sippo admitting that Paul is, in fact, addressing the ultimate issues of salvation and damnation? Which will it be?
Compare this very light, shallow commentary offered by Sippo as a Roman Catholic with the insights of one Sippo describes as one who taught “demonic” doctrine, John Calvin:
In order to remove this difficulty, Paul divides his subject into two parts; in theformer of which he speaks of the elect, and in the latter of the reprobate; and in the one he would have us to contemplate the mercy of God, and in the other to acknowledge his righteous judgment. His first reply is, that the thought that there is injustice with God deserves to be abhorred, and then he shows that with regard to the two parties, there can be none.
But before we proceed further, we may observe that this very objection clearly proves, that inasmuch as God elects some and passes by others, the cause is not to be found in anything else but in his own purpose; for if the difference had been based on works, Paul would have to no purpose mentioned this question respecting the unrighteousness of God, no suspicion could have been entertained concerning it ifGod dealt with every one according to his merit. It may also, in the second place, be noticed, that though he saw that this doctrine could not be touched without exciting instant clamours and dreadful blasphemies, he yet freely and openly brought it forward; nay, he does not conceal how much occasion for murmuring and clamour is given to us, when we hear that before men are born their lot is assigned to each by the secret will of God; and yet, notwithstanding all this, he proceeds, and without any subterfuges, declares what he had learned from the Holy Spirit. It hence follows, that their fancies are by no means to be endured, who aim to appear wiser than the Holy Spirit, in removing and pacifying offences. That they may not criminate God, they ought honestly to confess that the salvation or the perdition of men depends on his free election. Were they to restrain their minds from unholy curiosity, and to bridle their tongues from immoderate liberty, their modesty and sobriety would be deserving of approbation; but to put a restraint on the Holy Spirit and on Paul, what audacity it is! Let then such magnanimity ever prevail in the Church of God, as that godly teachers may not be ashamed to make an honest profession of the true doctrine, however hatedit may be, and also to refute whatever calumnies the ungodly may bring forward.