God made a curious statement to Moses in the Old Testament (Exodus 33:19), and Paul repeats it in the New Testament not once, but twice. The first repeat is found in Romans 9:15.
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.
Though the wording is slightly different, the second is in verse 18.
The topic is Mercy and the context is Service in both passages.
It’s an interesting statement because it sounds restrictive, as if God is selectively rather than generously merciful. Makes it sound like some are in and some are out.
Interpretations vary but some take it to an extreme suggesting there is no rhyme or reason, no formula for who receives mercy and who doesn’t. God shows mercy only to a select few and reveals no reason for the choices He makes.
If you’re lucky enough to receive mercy, be grateful. If not, sorry.
The Romans passage does mention specific people: Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Even nations are named: Gentiles and Israel. And sure enough, in each pair, one is selected and the other is left out.
But what in the world does that mean. Mercy is a broad topic. It is expressed often and generously throughout the Bible.
The Old Testament taught that even animals are to receive mercy (Proverbs 12:10).
Jesus taught that God’s provision of sunshine and rain unconditionally to all of humanity is an expression of His mercy (Matthew 5:43-45).
But Jesus also taught that mercy is conditional, that we must show it if we are to receive it (Matthew 5:7).
What Jesus didn’t teach is that mercy is shown with partiality, that it is shown to some and withheld from others for no good reason at all.
We can’t afford to generalize or speculate, but that is exactly what some tend to do.
For example, the Roman’s passage is often quoted to support the idea that God unconditionally elects certain people to be saved and abandons everyone else to damnation (Calvinism). In other words, He mercifully saves select individuals and withholds salvation mercy from everyone else for no other reason than His personal decision.
Forget rationale, the idea grates against decency.
I’ve made this point elsewhere but Romans 9 is all about service. Personal salvation is not in view. But even if Romans 9 were focused on salvation the argument wouldn’t hold up.
I agree, the wording is definitely restrictive. The context clearly indicates God is making choices between two options, choosing one and leaving the other. You can’t deny this, but even the context limits how far you can extend the restriction. Choices had to be made in each case but the question is about what?
Many Kinds of Choices
Calvinists read Romans 9 and immediately think “Salvation” but that’s not the only issue that involves choice. God made many choices just designing the world in which we live.
He chose to put trees in the forest, grass in the fields and animals of all kinds on land and in the sea. He chose nostrils for humans and trunks for elephants.
He chose diversity.
And then He chose to limit His choices by giving us the opportunity (not to mention the ability) to make choices of our own. He allowed Adam to choose names for all the animals and then accepted the names he chose.
God calls, and we choose to obey, or not. It’s a choice.
Choice or Toggle
It is true that Isaac was chosen instead of Ishmael and Jacob was chosen instead of Esau, but it’s worth noting that God didn’t choose between Israel and the Gentiles. It was more like a toggle. He toggled from Israel to the Gentiles and will eventually toggle back, and the toggle was for service, not salvation.
God worked through Israel in the Old Testament and He works through the Gentiles in the New, but wherever the toggle lands, neither was condemned. Salvation is available to both Jews and Gentiles at all times.
But even the other choices were different to what Calvinists say. God chose Isaac to be the head of a nation. It had nothing to do with personal salvation. Choosing Isaac was not the same as condemning Ishmael.
Can anyone definitely say Ishmael never believed?
We all agree that he was NOT the child of promise but rather the child of the flesh, but does that mean he wouldn’t, or worse, couldn’t believe? How far can we take the allegory?
Is there anyone reading this article who wasn’t a child of the flesh before they were born again?
The answer is obvious.
Ishmael was only metaphorically the Child of the flesh. He represented natural born humanity or, in other words, every person who wasn’t Isaac.
Ishmael was no worse than we are and no less capable of believing.
Isaac, on the other hand, is the metaphor of transformed humanity, but the important point is their allegorical status was based on the circumstances of their birth and had no implications for their personal salvation.
Ishmael wasn’t condemned by the circumstances of his birth any more than Isaac was saved by the circumstances of his.
But those very circumstances dictated the choice between the two. Could God have chosen Ishmael to be the head of the nation? Could Isaac be rejected? Was a choice really necessary or was Isaac the only qualified option?
Calvinists are correct in one point. Neither child earned the right to be chosen but the choice had nothing to do with salvation. Every Calvinist makes that assumption but there is no reason for it other than the need to justify the doctrine of unconditional election.
You could make similar arguments about Esau.
It’s a stretch. One must be short sighted and obsessive to take the wording of Romans 9 and constrict it only to salvation and apply it only to the so called elect.
It all sounds rather ominous till you realize the passage is talking about service, not salvation and the two issues are very different.
Let’s look a little closer at Mercy.
Saving souls is not the only way God expresses mercy. The natural world is a daily reminder that He is both good and merciful: Good because He created it and merciful because He maintains it.
The Sun, the rain, air, gravity, the laws of agriculture and so on are all things we need desperately but none of us deserve. When God gives us what we don’t deserve, we call that mercy.
The Wages and Atonement for Sin
Historically, God provided more than creation.
The wages of sin is death, and everyone is a sinner. Sin deserves God’s immediate judgment. Instead, God mercifully withholds judgment and provides not only what we physically need, but also the opportunity to believe every day.
And God even paid the cost for that.
John said Jesus was the atoning sacrifice for our sins (believers), and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (unbelievers) 1 John 2:2.
By extension, that means that the people in the Romans 9 passage who Calvinists say were passed over, weren’t. Each received mercy: Ishmael, Esau and Pharaoh. Each benefited from rain, sunshine, gravity and agriculture for as long as they lived. According to John, Jesus died for each one on the Cross.
However, it is also true that we are individuals and God relates to us personally. Some things, like rain, He provides for everyone, but other things He does for some and not others. The Exodus is a good example.
God mercifully delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage, and it was a great offense to Pharaoh and Egypt when He did. He couldn’t bless one without hurting the other. Israel was lifted up, and Egypt’s demise was inevitable.
Destroying Pharaoh and his army was an act of mercy. With the salves gone, Pharaoh’s economy and leadership were over. How could he sustain the power of Egypt without an economy and how could he sustain an economy without slaves.
But the important question is could God be merciful to Israel without judging Pharaoh? Does anyone believe Pharaoh would have accepted a peaceful resolution?
If God blesses you in some way, your enemies will be disappointed. His blessing, though, isn’t necessarily a zero sum effort. Blessing one person isn’t the same as hating the other.
Mercy Is Not A Synonym For Salvation
Salvation always requires mercy but mercy doesn’t always involve salvation?
God was merciful to Israel. He delivered them from slavery but this was not evangelism in the traditional sense. No doubt, some Israelites became believers during the Exodus, and some Egyptians too, but there is plenty to indicate that many didn’t.
Collectively dancing naked before a golden calf is not what you expect from new or long standing believers.
Opportunities Are Expressions of Mercy
The offer to serve requires just as much mercy as the offer of salvation. The great privilege of humanity is two-fold. One, we – as in all of us, no one left out – have the opportunity to get saved. What a blessing that is, and Jesus made this abundantly clear more than once.
Verily, verily I say unto you, he that hears my word and believes on Him that sent me has everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation but is passed from death unto life. (John 5:24)
That’s the first privilege. The second is we then have the opportunity to do something meaningful. Instead of being treated as damaged no-counts, we are privileged with options to serve.
God is merciful in that He doesn’t hold grudges. He calls us to service, and the offer to serve requires just as much mercy as the offer of salvation.
We deserve neither salvation nor service but both are choices and neither is an option.
Paul’s calling and ministry were opportunities motivated by God’s mercy (2 Corinthians 4:1)
Like all opportunities, it requires a response (Romans 12:1). God shows us mercy and in response we present out bodies a living sacrifice.
Finding your place of service requires prayerful searching. It may take years to find it but the opportunity to serve is not only an undeserved privilege. It is also an expression of God’s mercy.
Mercy Is Qualified For
Mercy is a paradox. It’s never deserved, but it’s never free.
Someone makes it possible for mercy to be shown in the first place. That’s Jesus. His work on the Cross opened the door to heaven’s mercy.
But human response is needed to ratify its effect. No one deserves mercy – if you deserved it, it’s not mercy – but it always comes at a price. Jesus made it possible but there are conditions. For its effect to be enduring, something else is needed.
Paul was shown mercy in spite of his blasphemy because he acted in ignorance (1 Timothy 1:13). In other words, he had integrity. He did the wrong thing (persecuting Christians) but he did it thinking it was right to do.
God was mercifully patient with Paul, waiting for the right moment to confront the issue, but if Paul hadn’t complied, the mercy would have ended.
Of course, we don’t like to think that way. It’s difficult for us to visualize a scenario in which Paul refuses God’s call, but there is no guarantee.
God’s call is an expression of mercy, but obedience is needed to extend mercy’s effect.
Let’s look at it from the perspective of someone who received and then lost mercy.
The unmerciful servant was shown mercy because he sincerely pled for it (Matthew 18:21-34). He later lost mercy and experienced full judgment because he refused mercy to others who needed it in the same way he did.
The question is not is God willing to show mercy to everyone, but is every person willing to access it?