“Justice,” defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.” It is also described as “the quality of being just or impartial.” We often hear the cry for justice ringing out across the globe. People who feel that they are being treated unjustly protest with signs and raise their voices in unison as they cry out, “No Justice! No Peace.” Even if we do not join public protests, we sometimes think to ourselves, “that’s just not fair.”
Evidently, the justice, or fairness of God was being questioned by some in Rome. Before we get to our Scripture this morning let me ask you a question. Let’s say that during the fires of a couple of weeks ago, there was a house on fire with an entire family trapped inside. They were all doomed to die in the fire. A brave fire fighter was somehow able to break through the front door and rescue two of the little children in the house before he was overcome by the thick smoke on his way out of the house. Before he could get back inside the house, and rescue the rest of the family, all of them died. Would there have been a public outcry for the fire fighter’s job? Would he have been tried in court for allowing the other family members to die? No, we would have been grateful that he risked his life to save any of the family members.
Let me present you with another scenario. There was a man who robbed a bank. While the bank heist was going down shots were fired and an innocent patron of the bank was shot and died at the scene. Police were able to identify the man and he was arrested. The man went to court, he had his opportunity to present his case, and once all of the arguments had concluded the jury came back and pronounced him “guilty.” When the sentence was read it was death by lethal injection. While the man was still standing before the judge, someone from the courtroom stepped forward and said, “Your Honor, I would like to ask permission to take the place of the man who has just been given a death sentence. I will gladly take his punishment upon myself in exchange for his freedom.”
The family of the woman who had been shot and killed all stood up and protested. Her husband said, “You Honor that is not fair! You can’t do that! He needs to pay the penalty for what he has done. He should suffer like my wife suffered.”
“It’s not fair!” “That’s not right!” “There is no justice in this life.” Have you ever heard that phrase? Have you ever spoken any of those words when you felt like you were being done wrong? In our relationships with other people we find injustice going on all the time and all over the world, but many years ago there were those in Rome who were questioning the justice of God. Paul asks the question, “Is God unjust?” Then he answers with a phrase that he uses ten times in his letter to the Romans. The phrase, “Not at all,” in the NIV is the Greek phrase, “?? ???????” (me genoito). The phrase is translated by the KJV as “God forbid” and in the NAS as, “may it never be!” It is the strongest use of language in Greek that one can use to stress the negative. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Romans 9:14-24 and see what we can learn.
14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. 19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ ” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? 22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction? 23 What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory– 24 even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:14-24 NIV)
The question of the “fairness” of God didn’t stop with the folks in Rome. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t hear someone raise the question, “If God is good then why…?” “If God is good then why did my grandfather die of cancer? If God is good then why didn’t He answer my prayers for my sister? If God is good then why can’t I get a break?” All of these statements, and many, many more, are really an echo of the question that was being raised by some of the people of Rome, “Is God unjust?” The answer to that question has not changed since Paul wrote so clearly, “Not at all!”
When we set out to answer the question, “Is God unjust?” we must make sure that we begin at the right starting point. We have already discovered in our study of Romans that each and every one of us is guilty as charged. For any of us to be shown mercy is a marvel in and of itself. Justice, if you remember, is getting what we deserve. If we are all guilty, as Paul has already stated, then to get what we deserve would be nothing less than punishment for our guilt. Paul wrote to the believers at 1st Church in Rome and said,
10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11 there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. 12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.” 14 Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 ruin and misery mark their ways, 17 and the way of peace they do not know.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18 NIV)
Just a few verses later in Romans 3, Paul wrote, 23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23 NIV) For anyone who thinks that what Paul has stated is an anomaly, then you need to become more familiar with Scripture. Throughout God’s Word we see this truth broadcast over and over again. In Psalm 51:4-5 we read,
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:4-5 NIV)
In Ecclesiastes 7:20 we read,
20 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. (Ecclesiastes 7:20 NIV)
In Jeremiah 17:9 we read,
9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NIV)
Last of all, in 1 John 1:10 we read,
10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:10 NIV)
Scripture is very clear that we are sinners. Even though we like to grade on the “curve” and compare ourselves to others when discussing our “goodness,” God does not grade on the curve. Either we are perfect and without sin or we are sinners. In Ezekiel 18:4 we read, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” Earlier in our study of Romans we learned how sin and death entered the world. Paul wrote in Romans 5:12.
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned– (Romans 5:12 NIV)
Sin entered the world through Adam’s sin and since the time of Adam every person who has ever lived, except for Jesus, was born a sinner. You may ask, “Well, how do you know that Jesus never sinned?” I’m so glad you asked. Once again, Scripture is our authority, our source of information, our guide. In 1 Peter 2:22-25 we read,
22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:22-25 NIV)
Apart from Jesus each and every one of us is guilty of the charge of sin. If none of us ever received anything from God, other than judgment, God would be perfectly justified because we are guilty. We don’t like that, some of us don’t accept that, and still others try and justify themselves by comparing themselves to others, but the truth is that we need to accept that we are sinners, flawed through and through, and God is just in His assessment of our status. James Montgomery Boice writes about why accepting this truth is so important for us. Dr. Boice says,
Because it puts us, fallen human beings, in our proper place, which is the only position from which we can begin to learn about spiritual things. The very nature of sin is wanting to be in God’s place. But as long as we are trying to be in God’s place, we will never be able to hear what God is saying to us. We will be arguing with Him instead. In order to learn, we must begin by confessing that God is God and that He is therefore right and just in His actions, even though we may not understand what He is doing. (James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Vol. 3. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. 1993. pg. 1069)
Dr. Boice is so right. We can’t learn a thing as long as we place our opinions above God’s truth. It is imperative that we humble ourselves, recognize that we don’t even begin to understand, and have a teachable heart so that we can learn God’s Truth.
Romans 9 is a curious chapter. The entire chapter is dedicated to two questions about God. The first question concerned the promises of God. The Old Testament is full of God’s promises to the Jews and yet there were some in Rome who were troubled because not all of the Jews were responding to the Gospel. Paul answered them by saying,
6 It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. (Romans 9:6 NIV)
He made it very clear that not all who were ethnic Jews were children of God. Paul says that God’s promises were not for those who were merely physical descendants of Abraham, but rather, God’s promises are for those who are “spiritual Israel,” those who have been “chosen” by God. He then goes on to give examples of this by pointing out that God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau.
This doesn’t mean that God didn’t have a plan for Ishmael and Esau. If you read the story of their lives then you will see that God did have a plan for them, but they were not the children of the promise.
In our Scripture for today, beginning in Romans 9:14, Paul asks, “Is God unjust?” Because God chooses one and passes over another, is God unjust? Absolutely not! As we have already seen, justice is doing what is right. If God gave us what we deserve all of us would receive only what we have earned which is punishment and being banished from His presence.
Paul follows his answer about God’s just actions by quoting from Exodus 33:19. Take a look at Romans 9:15-16 with me.
15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. (Romans 9:15-16 NIV)
It is interesting that Paul uses Moses and Pharaoh as examples of God’s justice and mercy. The quote, as I mentioned, comes from Exodus 33. In Exodus 32 we find that Moses had been on Mt. Sinai a little too long to suit the people’s liking. So, in their impatience they decided to make gods for themselves. They went to Aaron with their idea and then we read that Aaron told them to give him all of their gold earrings. In Exodus 32:4-6 we read.
4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. (Exodus 32:4-6 NIV)
Now, wait just a minute! After all that God had done for them they were willing to make their own so-called gods out of earrings and give them the credit for freeing them from 400 years of slavery in Egypt? You have got to be kidding me!
God tells Moses that the people are corrupt and that He is going to wipe them out and start a new nation with Moses. God doesn’t wipe out all of those who were guilty, but 3,000 do die in God’s judgment. Was God unjust in taking the lives of 3,000? No, He was perfectly just in His actions towards the 3,000, but He was merciful to all the rest.
In Exodus 33, the chapter from which Paul got his quote, we find that God is still going to give His people the land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land, but He will no longer go with them because they are stiff-necked, rebellious, corrupt people. Moses pleads with God and we read in Exodus 33:15-17.
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” (Exodus 33:15-17 NIV)
After all that happened, the complaining, the ingratitude, the rebellion against God, why would God decide to go with these stiff-necked people any where? Mercy. Not because of their goodness, but because of His mercy. Not because of their faithfulness, but because of His mercy. Oh, the mercy of God is sweeter than all of the supposed goodness of humanity combined.
It is easy for us to draw a very thick, bold line in the sand and say that God has mercy on some and He rejects or hardens others, but I want to encourage you to take a deeper look at Scripture. Let’s take a look at Romans 9:17-18.
17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Romans 9:17-18 NIV)
In this Scripture we see that God raised up Pharaoh just as God had raised up Moses. Who put Pharaoh in charge of the land of Egypt? God did. Why did God raise Pharaoh up? To display God’s power in him and to proclaim His name in all the earth.
Pharaoh had rejected God. Each of the ten plagues that were visited upon Egypt was an attack on the false gods of Egypt, but Pharaoh clung to his worthless gods instead of turning to the true and living God. Pharaoh had rejected God even though Romans 1 tells that from the creation God has made Himself known. When Moses went to Pharaoh and gave him the message to let God’s people go, he responded in Exodus 5:2.
2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2 NIV)
When the first plague began Pharaoh was unconvinced of God’s mighty power and his heart was hardened. In the story of Pharaoh we find that he hardened his own heart and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This reminds me of a truth that we learned back in Romans 1. In Romans 1, Paul makes it very clear that God has made Himself known and yet people have turned away to pursue what they want rather than to worship the one true and living God. As a result, God “gave them over” to what they desired. Be careful what you desire my friends.
I want to show you God’s mercy at work in the life of Pharaoh. In Exodus 8, during the plague of frogs, Pharaoh was overwhelmed. We read in Exodus 8:8.
8 Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Pray to the LORD to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices to the LORD.” (Exodus 8:8 NIV)
Do you know what happened? God sent Moses to pray for Pharaoh and the plague ceased. Did Pharaoh fall on his knees and worship the Lord as he waved “good bye” to the Hebrew slaves? Nope. Take a look at Exodus 8:15.
15 But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. (Exodus 8:15 NIV)
As soon as Pharaoh saw there was relief, he hardened his heart and refused to listen. I’m just wondering…does that sound like any of us? Have you ever been in turmoil and as a result you poured your heart out to God like crazy? You made all kinds of promises to God, but once you experienced relief you began to suffer from amnesia? Don’t feel alone, Pharaoh suffered from the same malady.
During the fourth plague, the plague of flies, Pharaoh once again felt the weight of the power of God as flies swarmed his royal palace. Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron and said, “I’ll let you go and worship just pray for me.” Moses said that he would pray for Pharaoh as soon as he left his presence. Moses prayed and we learn that not one fly remained. Even with this great demonstration of God’s mercy, Pharaoh acted like a fool. We read in Exodus, 32 But this time also Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:32-1 NIV)
During the seventh plague, the seventh opportunity for Pharaoh to witness the power of God and turn to Him in repentance and worship, a plague of hail like Egypt had never witnessed came upon the land. Once again, Pharaoh was overwhelmed and he called for Moses and Aaron. In Exodus 9:27-28 we read,
27 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron. “This time I have sinned,” he said to them. “The LORD is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong. 28 Pray to the LORD, for we have had enough thunder and hail. I will let you go; you don’t have to stay any longer.” (Exodus 9:27-28 NIV)
Moses said that he would pray to God and God would stop the plague. Moses also said, 30 But I know that you and your officials still do not fear the LORD God.” (Exodus 9:30 NIV)
During the eighth, ninth, and tenth plagues Pharaoh summoned Moses when he found himself overwhelmed with God’s mighty power, but even after the tenth plague when Pharaoh lost his firstborn son, Pharaoh still didn’t bow. He let the people go only to change his mind and go after them.
How many opportunities did Pharaoh have to come to his senses like King Nebuchadnezzar and turn from his wayward ways, but he would not. Paul shows us that even with hard hearted folks like Pharaoh, God’s mercy is still evident. There will come a time, if we continue to harden our hearts towards God’s call, that He will give us what we desire and harden our hearts even harder.
God showed mercy to Pharaoh the moment he asked for mercy. The problem was that Pharaoh was only playing games with God and so are many of us. We give God “lip service,” but we never truly give Him our hearts. Those of us who cry out for “justice” have received more mercy than we can even imagine.
I have learned a very valuable lesson this week about the “election” or the “choosing” of Almighty God. God is not capricious in His actions. He is merciful. You may say, “Well, shouldn’t God be merciful to all people instead of only a few?” James Montgomery Boice gives the best answer to that question that I’ve heard.
The operative word in the question is ‘should.’ It means ‘ought,’ ‘must,’ or ‘necessary’ if justice is to be done. But as soon as we use that word, we are back in the realm of justice, and we are no longer dealing with mercy. ‘Should’ implies obligation, and obligation has to do with justice. If there is any ‘should’ in the matter, the issue is no longer mercy. We are talking about justice, and justice, as we have already seen, can do nothing but send every human being to hell. It is not justice we need from God. It is grace. (James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Vol. 3. Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. 1993. pg. 1072)
I see in Scripture that whenever someone genuinely turns to the Lord with a sincere repentant heart that God responds with wave after wave of mercy and grace. We see this with King Nebuchanezzar in Daniel 4. King Nebuchadnezzar had no desire to humble himself before the Lord. He was his own man living in his own way. Then, a “plague” came upon his own life and it had its desired effect. We read in Daniel 4:34-37.
34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” 36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:34-37 NIV)
How about you? Have you asked out loud if God is just? I hope this morning you have come to see that His name is Mercy. He has been so merciful to you and me. Won’t you confess your need to Him this morning and turn from your ways? Won’t you ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and receive the mercy of His salvation this very morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
April 26, 2009