This article is part of a series that looks at how we address difficult or confusing pieces of scripture with young people. Read the last articles in the series here.
We live in a culture that has come to believe that what seems fair and what is right are one in the same. Our culture as a whole sounds a lot like my four-year-old son who says, “Why does Livy get to stay up late? It’s not fair.” Whether or not it is fair is irrelevant. It is right because his sister is older. It is also right because I am the father, and it is up to me when my children go to bed.
Perhaps this is the real problem we have run into in our self-reliance-obsessed culture. We cannot accept a God that is answerable to no man – a Creator God who is sovereign over all. Just as my children still seem to wrestle with the idea that I do not need to explain myself to them, people at large seem to wrestle with the idea that God the Father does not need to explain Himself to us.
Nowhere have I seen this more than in the realms of sovereignty and election. One of the scriptures I see people struggle with the most is this one right here:
“For He tells Moses: I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Romans 9:15 ESV).
One of my favorite Bible Study moments with the teens in my ministry happened when a student asked me what Jesus meant when He said, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that they may look and look, yet not perceive; they may listen and listen, yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back – and be forgiven” (Mark 4:11-12). She wasn’t so much asking what it meant as she was struggling with what it meant: God has given to some understanding of the secrets of the kingdom, but not to others. That discussion led us to the passage in Romans 9, and upon reading it my students were even more disturbed.
When we finished examining this difficult truth, my students were no longer dismayed. As a matter of fact, they were even more excited about God and who He is. They were even worshipful. Allow me to share with you what I shared with them.
When we ask how God could say or do such a thing as choose some to receive mercy and compassion and not others, we are not asking anything new. Paul was addressing the heart struggle we have with this when he wrote it in Romans. He wrote this to respond to an anticipated question, “What should we say then? Is there injustice with God?” (Romans 9:14). This was the natural question that would arise from his explanation of God’s love for Jacob and rejection of Esau (Romans 9:6-13). Paul’s response was simple. It was the same answer God gave Moses. “I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Romans 9:15). What did He just say?
Let me paraphrase it: I can do whatever I want.
We struggle with that as humans. It isn’t fair. How can one person be shown mercy and yet not another? And if the only way one can be saved is through that mercy, “Why then does He still find fault?” (Romans 9:20). Great question. Almost good enough to put God in His place. Or at least, the place many think He belongs in – their pocket.
Yet, God is God. Paul doesn’t bat an eye. He responds with all of the righteous indignation such an arrogant question demands.
“But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory?” (Romans 9:20-23).
I like to call that piece of scripture “The Sovereign Smack-down.” It is very similar to the one Job received in the Old Testament. “Who is this who obscures My counsel with ignorant words? Get ready to answer Me like a man; when I question you, you will inform Me. Where were you when I established the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding” (Job 38:2-4). I would encourage anyone who hasn’t to read Job 38-41 in its entirety. It puts God in His place and us in ours. God is God, we are not. He does what He wants because He can. But we cannot forget that, no matter our circumstances, He is also infinitely wise and good.
The best part is that while God can do whatever He wants, He chooses to do more than we could ever ask or deserve. That is what mercy and grace are all about. Our infinite God and Creator chose to hold back the punishment we deserve and instead offered us eternal life we could never earn on our own. He did all of this on His own shoulders by sending His own son into the world to die. Can you imagine?
Our sin has earned us eternal separation. We deserve Hell. Adam and Eve were eternally separated from God for biting a piece of fruit. How much more have we earned eternal separation for all we have done? And rather than leaving us as we are, separated and fit for Hell, Jesus came to make atonement for our sin in the only way possible – the cross. On the cross, eternally punishable sin was paid for by an eternally perfect God. And He withholds the right to extend the promissory note of that payment to anyone He wishes…not on a whim or because He’s just mean – because He knows what is good and best. That may not sound fair, but it is undeniably right.
Let me close with this. The only people I have ever heard argue about this are those who have indeed been chosen to receive God’s mercy. But what if, instead, we turned this majestic truth into a reason for unending praise? That God, who owed us nothing, chose us – us, who gave Him nothing in return. We receive everything for no reason other than God’s great love for us!
The same student who had wrestled with this issue in the beginning, ended our study this way:
I asked, “So how does that all make you feel?”
“Awesome! I can’t believe He chose me!” she said.