Romans 9:14-16, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion,[a] but on God, who has mercy.”
Romans, perhaps more than any other epistle from Paul, shows us just how thoroughly the Apostle worked out his theology. As he argues his points, he anticipates objections and questions, answering them before someone else can raise them. We see this in Romans 6, for example, when Paul sees that his preaching of the gospel of justification by faith alone would lead to charges of antinomianism (that is, obedience to God is optional) from those who misunderstand him and from those who are hostile to the Lord’s free declaration of righteousness for all who believe only in Christ. In Romans 9, the Apostle foresees the questions that his doctrine of election raises, and he answers them as well.
You will recall that Paul begins the chapter by addressing the question as to whether God’s plan to save Israel has failed because so many ethnic Israelites—the Jewish people— did not believe in Jesus the Messiah. The Apostle’s immediate concern in Romans 9—and indeed through the end of Romans 11—is to deal with the Lord’s plan for the Jews given their rejection of Jesus. Yet, as he points out that God never promised to save Jews simply on account of their Jewishness, he realizes that his argument has ramifications for the Gentiles’ salvation as well. Paul knows his readers will conclude that the Lord’s promise to save only some of the descendants of Abraham, the first Jew, means that He also intends to save only some Gentiles. Moreover, this means that as with God’s choice of Isaac and Jacob, His choice to save certain Gentiles is based only on His purpose of election and not on who they are or what they do (9:1-13).
Paul understands that once readers put two and two together, they will ask the same question many of us asked the first time we heard of God’s sovereignty in salvation: Is God unjust to choose to save some people and not others (v. 14)? The Apostle answers with an emphatic “no,” but He does not explain how the Lord shows justice toward those whom He elects to salvation. This is because election to salvation is not a matter of justice, but of grace—though God’s salvation does not set aside His justice. A person can merit justice, but mercy and grace by their very definition are free and unmerited. Questioning the Lord’s justice in choosing only some for salvation assumes that He owes redemption to all sinners, but if redemption is by grace alone, it can never be owed. To give mercy to some and not others would be unjust only if mercy is owed, but mercy cannot be demanded; otherwise it ceases to be mercy (vv. 15–16).
Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans: “If grace is owed, it is not grace. The very essence of grace is its voluntary character. God reserves to Himself the sovereign, absolute right to give grace to some and withhold that grace from others.” If we demand that God show grace, we misunderstand grace. Only when we are clear that grace is free can we know that we are wholly undeserving of salvation, and only then can we be truly thankful that the Lord has redeemed us.