Rest in God’s Sovereign Justice – Romans 9:13-21

by Roger McCay
9 February 2020
Sermon Passage: Romans 9:13-21
Link to Audio Version

You may remember the news from a few years ago, when the PCUSA wanted to change the words of the song “In Christ Alone,” so that they could include it in their new hymnal, titled Glory to God. The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song had been working on the hymnal for three and a half years at the time. They wanted to include the song, but only if they could change one lyric from saying “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” Well, the songwriters’ (Keith Getty and Stuart Townend) refused to allow that change. They thought it was too great a departure from the original hymn. As a result, the PCUSA dropped the song from being included in their hymnal.

Now, while the PCUSA has gotten some heat over this from Bible believing Christians, they actually got the idea for the change from the Baptists. The Celebrating Grace Hymnal, a Baptist hymnal published in 2010, had already changed the verse to the altered text: “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” So, the PCUSA committee members thought the authors had already, once before, authorized the change. Come to find out, the Baptist hymnal was changed without the songwriters’ approval.

Perplexed over the reasoning behind wanting to change the lyrics, Keith Getty asked, “Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God?”[1]

Good question. Yet, the “In Christ Alone” embarrassment for the Baptists and PCUSA folks is not really all that surprising. Some people, who are affiliated with God’s church, do not like to talk about God’s justice and wrath, much less about hell and damnation. They want to focus on love, faith, prosperity, heaven, soft clouds, and rainbows, as talking and singing about such things makes people feel good. They want everybody to think happy thoughts and bolster attendance with good feelings. That talk about God’s justice and wrath might make people feel bad, and have them run for a “safe-place.”

People underplay God’s justice. And, if you think that gets people spun up, wait until you bring up the doctrine of double-predestination. This is the Scriptural teaching that not only does the Lord justly destine some people to salvation and eternal life (called election), but he also justly destines some people to eternal perdition in hell (called reprobation). Furthermore, God does not make his decision on who is elect or reprobate based on anything whatsoever that person will ever do (good or bad) or their heritage. He chooses based on “his most wise and holy counsel of his own free will” (Westminster Confession of Faith III.1-3).

We touched on this doctrine last week, in Romans 9:1-13. Paul sums up the concept of double-predestination, election and reprobation, with his quote of Malachi 1:2-3 in v. 13 saying, “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Before either of them was ever born (v. 11), God had determined their eternal destinies and elected one to salvation and the other to perdition.

Verse 14: “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!”

Now, as I implied, despite the Bible’s teaching of election and reprobation, some people object to God’s way of doing things. Paul was dealing with this long ago, and there is a long history of it, which I won’t go into now. Paul also understood that this doctrine is difficult to wrap one’s mind around along with its emotional elements (vv. 1-5). Yet, Paul does not sweep it under the rug and replace it with rainbows and unicorns. Rather, he addresses the hard reality of God’s double-predestination head-on with the question, “Is God unjust, then?” In other words, Is the Lord just some arbitrary God creating people to damn and creating people to glorify? Does God’s elective purpose mean he is unfair? Paul emphatically answers “By no means!”

Consider this. One reason the doctrine of election might not seem fair is that we do not see ourselves as criminals in God’s courtroom of justice. Yet, measured by God’s law and his perfections, we are criminals (James 2:10). We are rebels deserving death (Rm. 6:23; 8:7-8). An illustration some use is this:

Suppose 25 men are on death row. Suppose every one of them is a proven serial killer. Suppose the evidence was irrefutable, and that each had even taken people to discover the bodies and that they had each discussed the killings. Now suppose that the governor decided to release one of them. Would you be thinking, “Hey, wait a minute! That is not fair. If you are going to release one of them you need to release every one of them!”

Not one in a million people would think that. Most would consider it a travesty of injustice for that man to be set free as though he had never done anything.

We must see election against the backdrop of our sin, our criminal activity against God. It would have been perfectly fair and perfectly just for God not to elect anyone.[2]

Election, however, is not about God’s justice. It is about God’s mercy.

This is exactly what Paul is driving at in his illustration concerning Moses in v. 15. Paul quotes God’s statement to Moses, on Mt. Sinai, right after the Israelites made the golden calf in the wilderness (Ex. 33:19).

15 For [God] says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”

God chose to have mercy on the Israelites. It was certainly not because they deserved it. It was because he chose to be merciful, to relent. Hence, v. 16,

16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

We cannot choose ourselves for God’s pardon from death row. He chooses who is pardoned, extending his mercy to his elect people according to his will, not ours. 

On the other hand, the Lord chooses the people who receive the justice they are due—the reprobate. Paul illustrates this reality, from the Scriptures, with the Lord’s dealing with Pharaoh in Exodus. Verses 17-18:

17 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.”

The whole sequence of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus is rather striking. When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh and requested that the Israelites be let go, Pharaoh initially would not acknowledge God and refused the request. Then, at further requests, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. After doing this a few times, it came to the point that the Scriptures say God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God abandoned Pharaoh to his own stubbornness as a judicial act.

This is similar to what Paul talks about in Rm. 1. God “gave them over” to their own depravity as an expression of his wrath. Wrapped up in God’s punishment for sin is the abandoning of people to their sins along with all the misery and death sin brings.

In Pharaoh’s case, rather than God choosing to have mercy, God chose to harden him. The result was disastrous for Pharaoh, as the plagues occur, his firstborn is struck dead, and his army is destroyed while pursuing the Israelites.

Was there a reason for hardening Pharaoh’s heart? In v. 17, Paul reminds us of God’s purpose. God, through Moses, told Pharaoh why he was dealing with him in such a way. It was to make Him an example before the world; to show God’s power; and to cause God’s name to be proclaimed in all the earth (Ex. 9:16).

Thus, in Pharaoh and in the Israelites, we have two examples—one of God’s justice and one of God’s mercy. Yet, in both incidents, the culprits deserved justice.

That is the case for everyone. We all deserve God’s justice. Nobody deserves God’s mercy. Nobody deserves to be saved. John Stott put it like this:

If therefore God hardens some, he is not being unjust, for that is what their sin deserves. If, on the other hand, he has compassion on some, he is not being unjust, for he is dealing with them in mercy. The wonder is not that some are saved and others not, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing at God’s hand but judgment. [3]

Where in that is there room for personal desires or works to earn God’s mercy? Nowhere! As v. 18 says, “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” Can it be said any clearer?

God remains perfectly just. His mercy remains a wonder. Even in his mercy, justice takes place. The only way God’s people can receive mercy is for their sins to be punished, for his wrath for their sins to settle upon someone. To take that just punishment, God provided his own Son, Jesus, to procure our mercy, dying on the cross, receiving God’s justice, the wrath of God that we deserve.

Knowing this, the perplexity of Keith Getty is highlighted, “Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God?” Christians will never experience God’s wrath. Jesus took that wrath upon himself, so that we might receive God’s mercy.

With that in mind, let us cast off any pride we might have. Let us cast off any idea that we are somehow responsible or deserving of our salvation in Jesus.

God’s choice means we do not have to rely on our uncertainty in choice or our imperfect works. As his adopted children, we don’t ever have to worry about our relationship with him. He did it all. We receive all these blessings of his mercy and grace through faith. Rather than shrink from God’s wrath, let us embrace his love expressed in Jesus Christ. Because God is just, we must rest in Him.

Having defended God’s justice, Paul next defends God’s sovereign will. Verse 19:

19 You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”

How can God find fault when he hardens whomever he wills? Who can resist? Is it not unfair to Pharaoh to be held accountable for his evil actions since he was used by God, and even brought glory to God?

Paul answers this complaint with a question, hearkening back to God’s answer to Job. Verse 20: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God?” Kent Hughes elaborates:

Tiny man – whose life is just a breath, whose history proves over and over that despite all his learning and technological triumphs he repeatedly makes colossal errors and falls into unspeakable barbarisms – this puny man stands before the God who knows the end from the beginning, who has never learned anything because he knows everything, who is the perfection of wisdom and love – and talks back to him. How absurd![4]

In questioning God’s actions, attitude is what really matters. It is perfectly okay to ponder over God’s works and actions when you are looking to know him better and to better understand salvation. In pondering God’s election and asking questions of it, or whatever mystery the Scriptures hold, when done in humble perplexity before God (in a loving quest to know Him as He is), you question with the right attitude. However, questioning God in a quarrelsome, accusing way, manifesting a spirit of rebellion against Him, is a refusal to let God be God—a reprehensible attitude.

Paul shuts such a person’s mouth posthaste, by putting her in her place. He does this by the illustration of the potter. Taking imagery from Jer. 18 and Isa. 45, Paul writes in vv. 20-21,

20b Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

Can you imagine Sam Williams sitting down at his potter’s wheel, dropping a hunk of clay on it, wetting it, spinning it, crafting exactly what he wants from it, and then his creation (be it a vase or a bowl, or what have you) starts talking to him questioning his judgment? “Why have you made me like this?”

Sometimes, the adult just has to tell the child. “It’s because I say so.”

Look, the thing is, God is the Creator. He is sovereign. We are his creatures. We have all sinned against him. We all deserve judgment. The clay of mankind is sinful and dishonorable. The issue is not the reason why some are made for “dishonorable use.” The real question is, “Why are some selected for honorable use?” The answer lies in God’s sovereign will. He saves who he wants to save because those are the people he wants to save. That’s really all we need to know.

Our duty before God in this? He says, “Trust me.” And, he tells us that his will to choose us lies in his love. Eph. 1:4-6:

4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.

My friends, embrace God’s love. Trust in him. Trust in him to be faithful to his promises to save those who believe in him. Call upon him as Lord, and follow Jesus. God is faithful, as we saw last week in Rom. 9:6-13.

God is merciful. Trust in his mercy. Trust in Christ Jesus to have taken your sins upon himself, suffering God’s wrath on your behalf, crucified on that cross. His death was according to God’s justice. He died so you might receive God’s mercy. As Abraham rhetorically asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25).

God is sovereign. Trust in God’s sovereignty. Rest in God’s sovereignty. Take comfort in the fact that he is utterly in charge, has the power to enforce his will, and, according to his perfect will, never, ever, makes a mistake. Not a single soul will be lost to him that he has chosen. If you are a disciple of Christ, trusting in Jesus, that means you. Because God is sovereign, we must rest in Him.

When you think about it, double-predestination, God’s sovereign choice in election and reprobation, is absolutely terrifying. It is understandable that people shy away from such things. Yet, as the Scriptures say, “The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom.”

The answer to such proper fear is not to deny or ignore the Lord’s revelation of how he works. The answer is to trust in the Lord’s promises and rejoice in his gracious mercy, according to the reality the Lord has revealed, and not according to wishful thinking.

In God’s sovereign justice, we find mercy. In our trust in him, let us live as a people set free from death row: humbly thankful to the one who took our sentence of death upon himself; humbly thankful to the one who set us free. Let us live our lives glorifying God, and enjoying him forever. Because God is merciful, we must rest in Him.


[1] Jim White, “Removal of Song from a Hymnal Because of Reference to an Atonement Theory Is Drawing the Ire of Some,” last modified September 9, 2013,

[2] Found this in the old Pastor’s Copy of the Inquirer’s Class book at MPC.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 269.

[4] R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 178.