Mercy or Compassion?

or hardening?

Romans 9:14–18 (ESV)

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

This passage makes two critical points. First, it’s all about mercy and compassion. Everyone deserves condemnation.

If God saves anyone, it’s either mercy or compassion. Thus, there can’t be any injustice on God's part. Injustice would be condemning the innocent. That’s not possible here.

Second, using Pharaoh as an example, Paul points out that everything that happens is according to God’s plan. God even raised up Pharaoh for the purpose that His name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

And notice how this plays out at the end of this passage. It’s not mercy vs. condemnation; it’s mercy vs. hardens. This recalls how the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart before Moses.

But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. — Exodus 10:27 (ESV)

This displays a magnificent and complex interplay between God’s sovereignty and justice. God foreordains the means as well as the ends. This parallels how Paul described the law as making sin “exceedingly sinful.

But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. — Romans 7:13b (NKJV)

As we explained previously, this sentence contains two purpose constructions. God’s purpose there was like putting a magnifying glass on sin. That seems to be the point with Pharaoh too.

This is both wonderous and troubling. God makes a point of accentuating the separation between the saved and the unsaved. He wants hardened people to be super hard, sin to be super sinful.

This reveals an agenda we rarely talk about—clarity. God leaves no room for doubt.

So, the LORD makes sure that those He condemns are clearly worthy of condemnation.

But there’s a problem; God made them worthy of that condemnation. Doesn’t that make Him ultimately responsible for their actions?

This takes us to what I consider to be the high point of Romans—tomorrow.

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Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.