Does Election Destroy God’s Righteousness?
“It’s not fair!’ Anyone who has raised children is familiar with these words of accusation. It is common for children to accuse parents of unfair treatment. However, it is a very serious matter to accuse a righteous God of partiality. But whenever the doctrine of election is raised, it brings outcries of “It’s not fair!” from its opponents.
In our last article (Rom. 9:6-13), we observed that the doctrine of election actually establishes God’s righteousness in His dealings with Israel, because it is through His choice of some Jews that He fulfills His word to Israel. Now that Paul had revealed the principle of election within a chosen remnant, he was certain that some of his readers had objections. His answer to the first of these objections forms the content of Romans 9:14-18. The first objection asks the question, “Does election destroy God’s righteousness?” Paul’s approach to the issue unfolded along two lines of thought:
- The Accusation of Sin
- The Appeal of Scriptures
The Accusation of Sin
With keen insight into the human heart, Paul presented the first objection to election in the form of a question: “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness [injustice] with God?” (v. 14a). Having already established the fact that God sovereignly chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, Paul immediately answered the charge that the doctrine of election makes God unjust. The very suggestion of God’s being unjust caused Paul to blurt out, “God forbid” or May it never be! It is unthinkable that a perfectly holy God could commit an act of unrighteousness. The psalmist declared that the Lord is upright having no unrighteousness in Him (Ps. 92:15). God revealed Himself in His law as “a God of truth [faithfulness] and without iniquity [injustice]” (Dt. 32:4). Abraham acknowledged the justice of God when he rhetorically asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right [deal justly]?’ (Gen. 18:25).
Yet, in spite of the numerous biblical references affirming the righteous character of God’s justice, the doctrine of election raises serious doubts in the minds of many people about God’s fairness in choosing one person over another. Without a balanced biblical perspective, the doctrine of election appears to portray God as partial. To show favor upon one person and not another brings outcries of “That’s not fair” from those unfamiliar with the scriptural teaching of election.
The Appeal of Scriptures
To answer this charge against the justice of God, the Apostle Paul appealed to the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul didn’t attempt to rationalize election away or dilute its content by explaining away the obvious meanings of Scripture. Instead, his approach was to allow the Bible to speak for itself. The difficulties involved with election cannot be resolved in the realm of the intellect. In fact, man’s intellectual limitations are the very reason people struggle over election. Since we don’t have the mental capacity to fully comprehend this doctrine, Paul turned to the authority of Scripture to settle the issue.
Quoting Exodus 33:19, Paul wrote, “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (v. 15). Having already illustrated the principle of election by the choice of Isaac and Jacob, Paul now passed over 400 years of Jewish history to the time when God gave Moses His Law. When Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law, the children of Israel were participating in the idolatrous worship of a golden calf. As a result of their sin, judgment fell and 3,000 people were killed (Ex. 32:28).
Following this severe display of His wrath, God revealed to Moses that he had found favor in His sight. But Moses said, “I beseech thee, show me they glory” (Ex. 33:18). In response to this request, God announced to Moses, “I . . . will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (Ex. 33:19). God’s message to Moses was that while all Israel deserved to die, He was a compassionate God who sovereignly bestowed mercy on those He chose. While all Israel deserved to die, God mercifully spared all except 3,000 people.
By using this incident in the life of the Hebrew nation, Paul biblically answered the charge of injustice in the doctrine of election. His point was that if anyone dared to accuse God of injustice because He chose one man over another, then he would have to conclude that God was unjust when He spared the nation of Israel in the days of Moses. If God had given every Jewish person justice, then the Jewish people would have ceased to exist as a nation long ago. Israel owed her national survival to God’s elective purposes in bestowing compassion upon the nation.
The mercy of God in election goes unnoticed by those who object to this doctrine. They erroneously conclude that by selecting some, God is condemning others. But they overlook the fact that the whole human race is already condemned. Since all are born sinful and condemned before a holy God (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:23), all deserve judgment. Election does not condemn a sinful person, but, rather, it serves to deliver some out of the mass of condemned sinners. Instead of being unfair, the doctrine of election is merciful. It is an act of pure mercy and compassion to choose to save a man who deserves to die eternally.
Those who charge God with injustice because of this teaching should keep in mind that He would be absolutely just and fair if He never chose anyone to experience salvation. The fact that He chooses some to be the recipients of salvation is attributed to His mercy. If Paul’s objector wants justice, then he is looking for it in the wrong place. Justice cannot be found in the doctrine of election because election is a matter of mercy and compassion. In light of this sovereignly bestowed mercy, it is appropriate to ask, Why did God choose anybody? Paul supplied the answer by stating in the next verse, “So, then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (v. 16). God’s sovereign choice does not depend upon an individual’s desire to be shown mercy (“him that willeth”) or an individual’s efforts to obtain mercy (“him that runneth”). Instead, it depends solely on God’s own will to determine to whom He will choose to be merciful. Far from denying man’s responsibility in salvation (which will be discussed in Romans chapter 10), Paul asserted that, apart from God’s sovereign mercy, no man would ever will to be saved. The apostle had previously revealed this stunning truth to the Christians at Rome when he wrote, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11).
God has not revealed the basis for His selection of one person over another. However, He has revealed that His choices do not make Him unjust. Being sovereign, He has the right to bestow mercy upon whomever He chooses to favor. This also means that He has the right to withhold His mercy from people and instead bestow judgment upon them. Having used Israel and Moses as examples of the recipients of mercy, Paul then turned to Pharaoh as an Old Testament example of a recipient of judgment. Quoting Exodus 9:16 he wrote, “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” (v. 17).
According to the biblical record in Exodus, this particular Pharaoh was sovereignly raised up by God during the strategic period of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in order to display God’s power and proclaim His name throughout the world. That God’s purpose for Pharaoh was fulfilled is evidenced by the children of Israel’s acknowledging in song that the nations around them trembled when they heard of God’s deliverance of His people (Ex. 15:14-15). In fact, every year as the Jewish people celebrate the Feast of Passover, God’s power and name are being proclaimed throughout the world.
Was God unjust because He chose to withhold mercy from Pharaoh? The answer is negative because God can do whatever He wants to do, and whatever He wants to do is right. This was Paul’s point as he brought his argument to a conclusion: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (v. 18). God is perfectly just in choosing to show mercy to one person and in hardening the heart of another by withholding mercy.
We must be very careful not to misunderstand Paul’s words concerning God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh. The apostle was not teaching that God used Pharaoh like a mechanical robot, violating his will and forcing him to do something he never wanted to do. According to the account given in the Book of Exodus, God sent Moses to Pharaoh with the same message time after time: “Let my people go!” And what was the king of Egypt’s response? While at times he appeared to give in to the divine demands, in reality he stubbornly kept refusing to obey. There are at least 15 references between Exodus chapters 7 and 14 to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Sometimes we read that God hardened it (i.e., Ex. 9:12), and sometimes we read that Pharaoh hardened it (i.e., Ex. 8:15). Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart? The biblical answer seems to be that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart only in the sense that the presentation of righteous commands brought out the evil opposition of the king’s heart. In other words, by withholding His mercy, God allowed Pharaoh’s heart to become what Pharaoh wanted it to become – harder and harder. Was God unfair to Pharaoh? No! God found Pharaoh wicked and rebellious, and He simply let him remain in that hardened condition in order to accomplish His sovereign purposes. There is nothing unrighteous in not softening a man’s heart. What Pharaoh received was the justice he deserved, rather than the mercy he did not deserve.
The Application to the Situation
The Jewish people of Paul’s day said, It’s not fair that God should choose some Jewish people to be saved while the majority are condemned. Many today spurn the doctrine of election because of the same concern for fairness. However pure the motives for rejecting this doctrine may be, election does not violate the justice of a perfectly righteous God. It only magnifies His mercy and compassion. The very existence of the Church is based upon God’s mercy in choosing a people to exalt His name. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a people of his own, that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; Who in time past were not a people but are now the people of God; who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
Instead of troubling us, the truths about election should cause us to stand in awe of a sovereign God. We will never understand the mysteries behind election. In the cases of Moses and Pharaoh, we are unable to comprehend why God chose to display mercy to Moses and not to Pharaoh. Both men were sinners. Both men heard God speak and witnessed His miracles. Yet God chose to save Moses and not Pharaoh. We would be wise to view election with praise for the sovereign mercy of God.
In spite of Paul’s thoroughly biblical answer to the objection of God’s fairness in election, he knew that there was still another objection that must be dealt with. In the next article, we will see how Paul answered the objection, If God is totally sovereign in salvation, then why does He find fault with someone who is not saved?