NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XIII)
Jewish scholar David Stern gives us his view on the roles Jacob and Esau play in our understanding of God’s foreknowledge and election. He points to Rebecca as an important factor in seeing how God’s absolute sovereignty determines such matters and does so independent of anything human beings can contribute. Jacob and Esau were her children. But unlike Ishmael and Isaac who had the same father, were from different mothers. Since Sarah was the one chosen to give birth to a miracle child of promise, it seems logical that she would give more worth to her child than to her housemaid Hagar’s son, even though he was conceived by Sarah’s insistence.
In that case, it would be easy to credit Sarah with giving Isaac the advantage in being chosen as the son of promise. Another factor to be consider is that Ishmael was already fourteen years old when Isaac was born. By that time his personality was already formed and proved to be unacceptable that he be chosen to fill the role of producing the promised seed of Abraham. However, Paul makes it explicitly clear that when it came to Jacob and Esau, God was not influenced by any of these things in making His decision. The fact that He announced ahead of time that He would love Jacob and hate Esau, shows that it was already in the mind of God, something Isaac and Rebecca had no power or influence over. So when God decides, it is written in stone. The only question left is whether or not mankind will accept God’s decisions and work with Him.1
Verses 14-15: So what does this mean? That God is unfair? Heaven forbid! God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I want to show mercy to. I will show pity to anyone I choose.”2
So Paul now asks the obvious question, what does all this mean to us? Is God being unfair? Is it right for Him to prefer one over another? Here Paul addresses the subject of predestination and freewill. This was Abraham’s question when God told him that He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because the inhabitants were so evil, even though Lot and his family lived there. So Abraham responds: “That wouldn’t be right! Surely You wouldn’t do such a thing, to kill the godly with the wicked! Why, You would be treating the godly and the wicked exactly the same! Surely You wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth be fair?”3 Certainly sounds like a sensible question when filtered through human understanding and reasoning. But when seen with God’s purpose in mind, here is what Moses wrote: “He’s called, The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are fair. A trustworthy God who makes no mistakes, He is legitimate and level-headed.”4
That’s why King Jehoshaphat of Judah instructed his judges: “Let your reverence for the LORD always influence your mind; be careful about your decisions; for the LORD our God does not allow dishonesty.”5 Perhaps Jehoshaphat was influenced by the fact that the righteous-minded Job said that God does not twist or distort justice.6 Even Job’s friend Elihu told the others: “Listen to me, those of you who have any sense. Surely everyone knows that God is not deceitful. Instead, He pays people back for what they do and sees that each one gets what their conduct deserves. There is no truer statement than this: God never provokes or is unfair. He alone has authority over the earth and dispenses justice for the world.”7 And the Psalmist adds this: “Adonai is righteous in all His ways, full of grace in all He does.”8
Paul now turns to the Scriptures to support his point of view and reminds his readers in Rome about what Moses wrote after years of experience in carrying out God’s mission for his life. After Moses asked God if he could see His glory, the LORD said to him: “I will make my goodness pass before you, and I will announce to you the meaning of my name ADONAI. Furthermore, I show favor to whomever I will, and I display mercy to whomever I will.”9 When this story is retold, we find that when God let His glory pass in front of Moses, He not only mentioned His name, but said that it defines Him to be full of mercy, compassion, slow to anger, rich in grace, and truth.10 No doubt this inspired the prophet Micah to exclaim: “Is there another God like You, who pardons the sins of the survivors among His people? Who cannot stay angry because He delights in grace.”11
On the subject of God’s choice to show mercy to those He chooses, Early church scholar Apollinaris feels that it is not unfair for God to have mercy on those He wishes to bless, while not making it a universal blessing for everyone else. He does not dispense His mercy in line with the flawed standards of human thinking, but by His own guidelines and divine wisdom. Anyone who is shown mercy receives the benefit of being chosen, not because of their own works, but because of God’s grace and mercy. The wonderful thing about God’s gracious love and mercy, He does not need to ask for advice or permission from anyone before He acts.12
Also, early church scholar Ambrosiaster sees it the same way with a qualifier. He says that God will have mercy on those He knows who will turn and come to Him to be converted and remain faithful to Him. It is alright to ask, “How does He know who they are?” First and foremost, He knows everything there is to know about everyone. His omniscience is unlimited. To this we can add that He does not make mistakes in choosing. If what the Psalmist said concerning how much God knows about us is true,13 then He is quite aware not only of what we need but how we will respond. It is up to God to give or to not to give. One thing He will not do, and that is waste time on those who have no intention of listening or obeying.14
Then, Chrysostom sees God telling Moses that it was not up to him to decide who was deserving of His love. Rather, Moses was to leave that up to God. If that was true back then, how much more should we accept it for today.15 I have seen it in worship services and even on TV and streaming on the Internet. A minister will ask if there is anyone who wants to give their life to Jesus Christ and be saved. Once they give the signal for such people to raise their hand and then stand, there is usually a positive reaction among the congregants. But then the minister will say, “There should be more. Are you sure you don’t want to stand? Come on, I think there should be some more to give their hearts and lives to Jesus Christ.” On the surface, most people do not think there is anything wrong with encouraging people to act upon the call for salvation. But let’s examine this again.
There is no question that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to used the Word of God to convict. So how does the call or encouragement of a human being add anything to what the Spirit can do? Having faced that same situation multiple times myself, I felt satisfied to leave that work to the Holy Spirit. Did I often wish that more would have come forward? Yes! But not by my invitation, but by that of the Spirit. If they come because I may have convinced them, what could I do once they arrived at the altar? I’ve even had one minister tell me that he became a pastor because that’s what his family wanted him to do and he was never comfortable in that role. In other words, he had received no call to the ministry from God. He finally left the full-time ministry and continued to serve God as a layman while also carving out a career as a noted mathematician in accounting. Either we can trust God and His Spirit to get the job done, or we can’t. We must each decide which it will be.
Martin Luther points out that when God said to Moses that He would have mercy on whom He chooses to have mercy, that rather than this showing God as a partial and biased deity, it presents Him as a caring, compassionate, and considerate God. For those who are proud and think themselves worthy, this is a hard thing to hear, but to those who are humble and feel worthless, it is a sweet sound to their ears.16 In fact, Luther contends, that for this very reason the Lord will have mercy when it is appropriate since His justice is based upon His will. Not only that, but since our God is Supreme Goodness, and good all the time, He is incapable of doing anything that is evil. The only reason some people think that when God’s will is evil is when it goes counter to their own wishes. But the fact is if they would just yield their will to God’s will, even if it means the rejection of their request and even the realization that what they asked for is considered greedy, still they suffer no harm because in the end God’s will is done. People who do this will discover that those who wait patiently for what God wants for them, everything turns out better than it would have had they received what they first asked for.17
But Luther is not finished since this subject touches him deeply. He continues by saying that when God says He will have compassion on whom He is compassionate, this means He will give grace, in time and in life to those concerning whom He purposed from eternity to show mercy. In doing this, God is not unjust. This He willed and was pleased to do from eternity, and His will is not bound by any law or obligation. God’s freewill, which is subject to no one, cannot be unjust. Indeed, it is impossible that it should be unjust. God’s will would be unjust only if it would transgress some law, and that means that God would go counter to Himself.18
John Calvin also adds the fact that sinners cannot encounter God’s wisdom without becoming defensive and ask a lot of questions. Not only that, but one of their most asked question about anything God said or did is, “Why?” Because of that, we find that whenever the Apostle Paul opened a discussion on any of God’s great mysteries, he constantly had to deal with the many absurdities that always seem to occupy the minds of those listeners who looked for ways to blame God for their situation. This is especially true of those who, when they hear what the Scriptures have to say about predestination, end up being entangled by what they feel are many inconsistencies and stumble over numerous impediments that they themselves place in their own path. Predestination is something that the mind of man cannot resolve or extricate itself from without confusion. It is one thing to be curious, but there are those who are so suspicious that the more they dig into a subject the more they get lost in the fog of uncertainty and cannot find what they are looking for.
1 David H. Stern: op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Exodus 33:19
3 Genesis 18:25
4 Deuteronomy 32:4
5 2 Chronicles 19:7
6 Job 8:3
7 Job 34:10-13
8 Psalm 145:17
9 Exodus 33:19
10 Ibid. 34:6
11 Micah 7:18
12 Apollinaris of Laodicea: Pauline Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Psalm 139
14 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 16
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 138
17 Luther: ibid., p. 139
18 Luther: ibid.