What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all!
Romans 9 is the standard passage to refer to when it comes to talking about the sovereignty of God. If you agree with Romans 9, you agree that God has absolute supremacy over everything – even us, and our wills. We humans are control freaks. We have control over a lot of things, and sometimes that just serves to puff us up – we proudly assume that we have control, we often try to limit God into a small box called our desires. Romans 9:18 sums up the entire debate on the sovereignty of God that Paul is illustrating in this passage – Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden [Romans 9:18|Article]. The question of God’s justice is raised in Romans 9:14, because in the preceding verses before this, from Romans 9:6-13, Paul preaches on the unconditional election of God. It is a cruel truth to preach, especially to the Jews, in saying that not all of Israel are Israel [Rom 9:6]. Essentially, not all Jews will be saved simply because of their race or their nationality. Not because their ancestor was Abraham. God chooses some and not others, just as he had chosen Jacob and not Esau; Isaac and not Ishmael. In this study, with close reference to Paul’s counter argument, we will take an in depth study on this question altogether – is God just?
What then shall we say? – Such exclamations are not rare in the book of Romans – Romans 6:1, Romans 7:7 – this is a form of expression that Paul frequently uses when he is about to refute an argument. The argument itself was not from Paul, however, he merely picks up the question from somebody else – it could have been anybody, or everybody, since he certainly deemed the question common and important enough to require proper addressing. Most likely somebody has asked a question like that before – Is God unjust? That wouldn’t have been surprising at all, would it. In fact, perhaps you and I have asked that question before. Without the truth of the gospel, without a deeper understanding of God, it would have been the natural conclusion that a man can make – that God is indeed, unjust. But, before we go on, perhaps we need to identify what it is we mean by justice.
Is God unjust? – The question, in all it’s simplest terms, is, is God just? And the direct context to which this question was raised was the assumption that God chooses the objects of his mercy according to the good pleasure of his will. In more casual words, this is basically asking, is God unfair? The Bible has countless of mentions of ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’. God loves justice [Psalms 33:5]. He is a God of justice [Isa 30:18]; he executes justice [Deu 10:18]; his righteousness is declared by the heavens [Psa 50:6]. When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers [Proverbs 21:15]. Justice is what separates the righteous from the unrighteous. Justice is what the Bible promises God will exact to the unrighteous. Yet, even as the Bible tells us that God is undoubtedly just, this entire passage in Romans 9 is perhaps difficult for us to reconcile. I believe that this boils down to two premises that must be accepted:
1. God cannot possibly be unrighteous;
2. What he said to Moses is true – I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion [Romans 9:15].
Now, the rest of this article will be spent resolving the conflict that seemingly rises between these two premises. After all, Romans 9:15 doesn’t sound very fair, does it? At first glance, it doesn’t seem like there’s any justice in that. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like God has justified himself for that. It feels like a whim, an unreasonable act.
Not at all! – Matthew Henry simplifies it further – whatever God does, must be just. There is simply no doubt in it. God cannot be unjust. God cannot be unrighteous. Though we have defined justice, are we sure that this God’s justice is the same as ours?
The righteousness of God versus the righteousness of men
What do you think? I don’t know about you, but personally, the righteousness of God is something I’ve tried, but always failed to understand. Indeed, in humanly eyes, sometimes God seems extremely unfair. I would say it is because I am unable to see the big picture, or I’m simply looking at the short-term, and when given time, we usually look back and stand in awe at the foresight and great plans that God has rolled out for us. I quote you Paul’s analysis of his own people in Romans 10 – Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness [Romans 10:3]. Note that in this verse, there are 2 kinds of righteousness mentioned – the righteousness of God, which they (the Israelites) did not know and hence did not submit to, and the righteousness that they had established on their own – their own righteousness, their humanly righteousness – which is, our humanly concept of what’s justice, what’s fair, what’s not.
Unfortunately, it is hard to understand the righteousness of God. Jonah, a man who was so close to God that he knew God’s intentions was to save and not destroy Nineveh, failed to understand the righteousness of God. By Men’s definition of justice, God should have destroyed Nineveh. A lot of times, we are like Jonah, standing outside the city and waiting, waiting, waiting – for God to perform humanly justice on our enemies – based on the concept of justice that we have established. Donald Grey Barnhouse uses this analogy, which I will paraphrase out of memory:
A little boy has a pet dog, which he loves greatly, spends a lot of time with, and even shares his bed with at night. One day, the boy opens the door to his shed just in time to see his father shooting his dear dog to death. Raging and bewildered, he fumes at his father, ‘why did you kill my dog? I hate you! I hate you!’ The father tries to explain, but the little boy will not listen, for the image of his father shooting his dog was deeply burnt in his mind. In accordance to his concept of right and wrong, his father has been caught red-handed, and was in the wrong. There was to be nothing else to say. For the next 10 years, the little boy continues to reside in his father’s household, spends the money that his father earns, eats the dishes that his father prepares, enjoys the love that his father pours on him; at the same time, still bearing the hatred, bitterness and grudge against his father, who had killed his dog. In time to come, when he has grown much older and understands what’s rabies, recalling the symptoms that his dog has showed, and looking at clips of how infected dogs could have harmed their owners and how by law, his father was required to kill the dog – only then will he understand, shell-shocked, that his father had saved him, and that his concept of right and wrong had been too limited at a time when he did not even know what rabies was.
Many times, we’re that little boy, aren’t we? God does something seemingly against us, and we rage against God, not understanding. It’s not like we do not try to understand, but often, we simply could not – it was a knowledge that has yet been revealed to us. And while we continue to harbour that bitterness against God for the blow that he has struck us with, some of us continue to enjoy his blessings, continue to bask in his love for us, continue to worship and serve.
We are limited. We are often myopic to the big and long-term things that God does for us, simply because God’s scales and our scales are of vastly different scales. God measures justice with a lot of other considerations than we do. We expect our justice to be immediate, because our time is so limited, but God does not run on a clock. When we are faced with acts of God’s that we simply cannot reconcile with our concepts of justice, then perhaps, the only thing to do is to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding [Prov 3:5]. Let us keep the faith that God is just. Whether we see it or not, let us believe in his justice, and he will repay. If we could just only focus our sights on the cross, and not worry about the righteousness of God, but instead concern ourselves with upholding a righteous life, if we would just focus our attentions on doing what we have been charged to do, and not worry about what God will do – perhaps that is sufficient.