Notes on Romans 9:14-18

Romans 9:14-18
The assertion of divine sovereignty, though a necessary truth which springs out of the very nature of God, is repulsive to the natural mind. Yet no other thought consists with right, when the subject is duly weighed; and every scheme which man substitutes is unworthy of God and unbecoming to man. The doctrine which denies God His majesty is self-convicted of falsehood; equally so that which would represent Him as indifferent either to sin or to misery. He is light; and light is incompatible with the allowance of the darkness which reigns in the heart and ways of man. He is love; and love is invariably free and holy. Doubtless He is almighty and He will judge the sin which despises or rebels against Him as well as the offenses which the world seeks to deal with. And what is the universal state of mankind, which this Epistle had carefully proved not of the Gentile only, but yet more of the Jew who boasted of the living oracles which condemned his iniquity and transgression? It had stopped every mouth and brought in the whole world guilty before God.
When a sinner is awakened by the Holy Spirit to his own guilt and state before God, he owns this frankly, and justifies God in condemning himself, though crying for mercy which to his adoring wonder he finds already proclaimed to him in the gospel.
But man as such, ignorant of himself and of the true God, disputes the fact of his own utter and inexcusable evil and looks not to God, but rather writhes under His word and cavils at His ways. This, as it is the feeling of natural men in general, so particularly found expression in the probable objection which a Jew might feel. This the apostle confronts. “What then shall we say? [Is there] unrighteousness with God? Far be it. For to Moses he saith, I will show mercy on whomsoever I show mercy, and will compassionate whomsoever I compassionate.” ( Ver. 14, 15.) That is, it is mere mercy and compassion on God's part wherever shown, not only without desert but in full view of the most grievous and destructive demerits. No one who feels his own real wrongs against God ever raises a question of righteousness with Him. Confounded at the sight of his guilty insubjection and disobedience and in short ungodliness, he is struck dumb before the concurrent and continual proof of the astonishing goodness and patience of God, were it only in dealing with Israel. So to the Jew (and of course for the profit of ourselves and all the world) the apostle alleges the solemn and most gracious words of Jehovah to His servant in Ex. 33 So apt a testimony, among almost countless passages applicable in principle, there is not in the Bible.
Consider the circumstances, and the conclusiveness of his answer will be apparent, though at first sight it might seem singular to meet such a question with such a citation. And can anything be more characteristic of divine revelation than this? Haste pronounces that irrelevant and unreasonable which, when fairly and fully searched, proves alone right and true, alone suited to meet man as he is, alone consistent with the character and glory of God.
The national history was scarce begun before all was morally ended by their idolatrous apostasy from Jehovah at the foot of Sinai, where the people with Aaron at their head danced naked before the golden calf. Unrighteousness with God! There was assuredly the grossest unrighteousness in Israel; and what could righteousness with God do but call aloud for their irrevocable condemnation? On that ground the objecting Jew, like the unbelieving Gentile, only shuts himself up to sure and unsparing judgment; for there can be no doubt of man's guilt, and justice on God's side has but to pronounce and execute the sentence of perdition.
Is God then bound to this and nothing else? He must be, on the blindly suicidal principle of man self-righteous yet unrighteous, who in his hurry to blame God forgets that it would be to his own helpless ruin. But God, though He can justly answer a fool according to his folly, may not in His grace. He has resources in Himself on which to fall back.
So in the passage before us the people disowned that Jehovah had delivered them from the house of bondage in their cry, “As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.” (Ex. 32:11And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. (Exodus 32:1).) Thereon Jehovah not only plagued the people for their idolatry (ver. 35), but told Moses to go up thence, “thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt into the land which I sware,” &c. Forthwith Moses pitches the tabernacle without the camp, so that every one who sought Jehovah might go out there. But he does more; he there intercedes for the people, insists that they are Jehovah's people, and would turn the assurance of going with himself into one of going with him and them. “For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? Is it not in that thou goest with us? So shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth.” Then, when Moses beseeches Him to manifest His glory to him, He says “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of Jehovah upon thee and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
Thus the bearing of the declaration is as evident as it is appropriate and unanswerable. For a people in such a case to harbor the thought of unrighteousness with God is a monstrous forgetfulness not only of their actual state in relation to Him but of their only hope in His sovereign mercy. Once before they took the ground of righteousness in accepting the law; but before the tables of stone were brought down, they had forfeited everything by their infraction of the most fundamental precept of the law. Hence hope there could not be, unless in His compassion. They had shown out what they were, and the sooner because of their self-confidence. Now it remained to learn what God is; and this is His word even in presence of the foul dishonor they had done Him: “I will show mercy on whomsoever I show mercy, and I will compassionate whomsoever I compassionate.”
Things were no better in the apostle's day. For the people had meanwhile so gone on in idolatrous rebellion that God at length swept them away, first Israel by the Assyrian, then Judah by the Babylonian. And now the returned remnant were under Roman bondage and had been guilty of rejecting their Messiah, as well as of quarreling with God's grace to the Gentiles. It is plain then that man is apt to be most self-righteous when he has least reason for it. “Not this man but Barabbas” cried they all. “We have no king but Caesar” answered the chief priests. Their moral degradation was complete; their faith was null and void. Ill would it have become such a people at such a time to ask “Is there unrighteousness with God?” It is just there, however, that the human spirit is most ready to dispute with God.
But the word is exceedingly broad and deep: where does it put any man? where the sinner? We Christians should surely know that only grace saved or could save us, as it called us with an holy calling, not according to our works but according to His own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began. When a soul is truly broken down and judges itself with integrity and a spiritually enlightened con science, how sweet is the feeling that there is righteousness nowhere fully, truly, and intrinsically but with God, confessing its own manifold and utter unrighteousness, and welcoming His own expression of sovereign mercy! It is only hard self-righteousness which holds out and disputes. Faith bows before the God of mercy and blesses Him. If only low and bad enough in my own eyes, I shall be but too thankful for the mercy that was sovereign enough to come down and find out me; if I can rest on the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, for such a sinner as myself, shall I pare down or narrow the indiscriminate riches of His grace to any other? “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.” There may be an allusion to the frustration of Isaac's notorious wish, and of Esau's efforts to gain through the chase, and of Jacob faulty enough to lose all by his trickery but for sovereign mercy which secured to him the promise. It is certainly the conclusion of grace against man's vain confidence in his own will and exertion.
But the greater the grace, the greater the sin of resisting God in it. Hence the other side needs to be presented. For the God who shows mercy is the judge of all, and will prove what it is to set at naught all that He is. So Pharaoh did of old; and what was the consequence? “For the scripture saith to Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might show my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.” (Ver. 17.)
The king of Egypt was a thoroughly selfish, cruel, and profane man when God first sent him a message by Moses and Aaron. The effect of the summons on such a spirit was to bring out his blasphemy against Jehovah and more savage oppression of Israel. And as sign and his miracle told on his conscience, but evil desires and counsels prevailed, Pharaoh became incomparably worse till the obduracy of the king shocked his servants, and even after the concession was wrung out, false hopes of vengeance on Israel lured him and them to find a grave within the opened waters of the Red Sea. God thus made a most striking example of Pharaoh, not a mere exposure of his malice, but of His own power on that background, so that His name might be thus told abroad in all the earth. Never does God make a man bad; but the bad man Pharaoh, made yet worse by his resistance of the most striking divine appeals, He made manifest, raised up as he was from among men to such a height, that his downfall might tell on consciences far and wide throughout the world. Hard at first, God sealed him up at length in a judicial hardening; as He warned the Jews by Isaiah should be the case with their impenitent hearts, and so He executed it when they rejected Christ (John 12), and the Holy Ghost's appeal in the gospel. (Acts 28:25-2825And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, 26Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: 27For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. 28Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles, and that they will hear it. (Acts 28:25‑28).) “So then to whom he will he showeth mercy, and whom be will he hardeneth.” In both cases the unrighteousness is solely with man, who is, as far as he is concerned, irremediably evil and ruined; before God acts either in grace or in judgment for the display of His own great mine to the wide, rich, and endless blessing of all who heed His word. He is always holy but always free. On the other hand, fallen man is always evil and deserves condemnation. God freely acts in grace here, freely acts in judgment there, that any soul may beware of provoking His indignation and learning what He is in his own destruction, and that the guiltiest of sinners may know that no man is too far gone to be beyond reach of His mercy. I speak of man as such, not of such as have believed through grace.