Sovereign Mercy


There are two great themes that thread their way through Scripture: God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. While you will not find either expression in the Bible, the truths of which they speak are certainly there. It is the former of these two themes that give concern to many a believer and on which I want to say a little.

   Sovereignty is the right to exercise one’s will—in simple terms to do as I want, to choose, and to decide. Ultimately this belongs to God alone, for the creature’s place is not to carry out his own will, but that of the Creator. While God may put limited sovereignty into the hands of men, such as earthly kings, it is always with restriction.

   Associated with sovereignty are the truths of election and predestination and these create difficulties for many believers. They know that they have been chosen by God in Christ before the world’s foundation (see Eph. 1: 4) and “predestinated [to be] conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8: 29). What creates anxiety is that in many cases they are taught that if God destines and chooses some for eternal blessing, then by inference the rest must have been chosen for eternal damnation. To quote one writer on the subject: “From what has been before us … concerning the election of some to salvation, it would unavoidably follow, even if Scripture had been silent upon it, that there must be a rejection of others. Every choice, evidently and necessarily implies a refusal”. While this may appear to be logical, it is not. It is both illogical and, more importantly, unscriptural, as I hope to show. The reasoning of the above statement is largely based on Romans 9–11, especially the first 24 verses of the ninth chapter. It is to this section of Scripture that we will turn in a moment.  

Mercy and Grace

The difficulties surrounding God’s sovereignty are compounded by reading into the Bible what is not there and failing to give sufficient weight as to what is there. Again, failure to take account of the context and to see why chapters 9–11 are in the epistle increase the difficulties. However, there is one simple fact above all others that removes many of the problems and it is this: God’s sovereignty is expressed in His mercy.

   Now mercy is not grace. There is one distinctive feature of mercy that does not always apply to grace and it is this: mercy always assumes a history of failure. The background against which mercy shines is one of failure, sin or wrongdoing. Without this, the word mercy has no meaning. This is not necessarily the case with grace. Thus we read of the Lord Jesus as a child that “God’s grace was upon him” (Luke 2: 40). You could not say, ‘God’s mercy was upon Him’, for any thought of failure with Him is abhorrent. While the “election of grace” (Rom. 11: 5) shows that grace also marks God’s choice, it is mercy rather than grace that Paul particularly identifies with His sovereignty. Hence “to whom he will he shews mercy” (Rom. 9: 18). Again, it is mercy which brings out the apostle’s adoration in his summing up of this section of Scripture (see Rom. 11: 30–36).

Nations rather than Individuals

Before looking at the detail of Rom. 9, we must be clear as to why chapters 9–11 are in the epistle at all. They are there to show how the salvation proclaimed in the Gospel is reconciled with the special promises given to Israel as a nation. The subject matter is not individual blessing and spiritual salvation, but racial privilege and national blessing. This is clearly seen by the Apostle’s list of national privileges in Rom. 9: 1–5. Previously, Paul has dealt with Jew and Gentile as individuals (see Rom. 1: 18–3: 20) concluding that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3: 23). Now he deals with them nationally. Paul himself is a proof that God has not totally “cast away his people whom he foreknew” (Rom. 11: 2) for he was “as one born out of due time” (see footnote to 1 Cor. 15: 8) showing that just as he was suddenly converted, so ultimately as a nation “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11: 26). The subject matter of these three chapters then is Israel as a nation in relation to other nations. The Church as such does not appear in this section at all. Yes, “in the present time also there has been a remnant according to election of grace” (Rom. 11: 5) and this remnant is in the Church, but the subject matter is Israel and the nations. Again, individuals appear such as Isaac, Jacob, Pharaoh and Moses, but they are only brought before us in relation to the nation of Israel.

A Spiritual Seed not a Natural One

While the promises were given to Israel nationally, they will only be realised in the spiritual remnant of that nation “for not all [are] Israel which [are] of Israel” (Rom. 9: 6). This distinction between Israel according to flesh and according to promise is made using the choice of Isaac over against that of Ishmael. Although both had the same father, Ishmael was born naturally but Isaac supernaturally. This is not choosing Isaac for heaven and Ishmael for hell. It has nothing to do with eternity, but with time and earth. It is God’s sovereign choice of a nation on earth.

   This sovereign choice is made more acute when we come to Esau and Jacob for not only had they the same father but they also had the same mother and were twins. Now notice that as yet the word mercy has not appeared in the text because they had not “done anything good or worthless” (v11) and, as said previously, mercy always requires a past history. The quotations of vs. 12, 13 need special attention. That of v12 takes us back to Gen 25: 23: “And Jehovah said to her, Two nations are in thy womb, And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; And one people shall be stronger than the other people, And the elder shall serve the younger”. It is Esau and Jacob as the heads of two nations, and not as individuals destined for eternal blessing or eternal damnation. Esau, as the greater or elder of the two to be born, came from the womb first. Search the OT record and there is no instance of Esau ever being subservient to Jacob personally. Indeed, the very reverse is true (see Gen. 32: 3–5; 33: 3). The elder serving the younger is national and not individual and refers to God’s ways on earth in time and has nothing whatsoever to do with eternal purpose.

   What about the statement “according as it is written, I have loved Jacob, and I have hated Esau” (Rom. 9: 13)? Firstly, notice that word according. Paul is using the passage from Mal. 1: 2, 3 to establish his argument that the greater shall serve the less, which is a national prophecy and not a personal prediction. Turning to the prophet I read “I have loved you, saith Jehovah; but ye say, Wherein hast thou loved us?” (Mal 1: 2). Ask yourself who is the “you” and the “us”? There is only one answer—Israel as a nation. Again, read on to v4 and the words “We” and “They” clearly show that Edom is the nation and not the person Esau. But, you may say, surely the words “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith Jehovah, and I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” (vs. 2, 3) refer to two individuals? Yes, but as the representative heads of the two nations in the same way that the name Jacob is used for the nation in Rom. 11: 26 and Edom is referred to as Israel’s brother in Num. 20: 14. Again, these words of love and hatred are held back until the complete OT history has run its course. They are in the last book of the OT and not the first. God never said ‘I will love Jacob and hate Esau’. No, it is the past tense, when their history has been fully worked out[1].  

Moses and Pharaoh

Paul now anticipates a challenge to God’s righteousness. Has God the right to act in this way? To answer this Paul goes back to the history of Israel and accordingly mercy is introduced in this section for the first time: “For he says to Moses, I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy” (Rom. 9: 15). This quotation comes from Ex. 33: 19 just after the idolatry of the golden calf (see Ex. 32: 1–10) when God proposed to consume the whole nation and begin again with Moses: “I will make of thee a great nation” (v10). Israel had forfeited everything and the only remedy left was God’s sovereign mercy.

   The apostle now turns to Pharaoh to further illustrate his theme. As with mercy, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart required a previous record, a history of unbelief and opposition. Was Pharaoh born for God to display His wrath and power in him? The Bible does not say so. The word is “For this very thing I have raised thee up from amongst [men], that I might thus shew in thee my power, and so that my name should be declared in all the earth” (Rom. 9: 17). Pharaoh was raised up from among men on earth, meaning that he already had a history and a pathway of sin when God took him up—he was not born to it. God had said “I will harden his heart” (Ex. 4: 21) but not before he was born, and this was only carried out after he had repeatedly rejected God’s testimony through Moses and Aaron. God is absolutely fair, and there is no unrighteousness with Him. Note too that the objective of God’s hardening was “so that my name should be declared in all the earth” (Rom. 9: 17, my emphasis). Once again, we are dealing with earth and time, not heaven and eternity.  

The Potter and the Clay

In response to the assumed question “Why does he yet find fault? for who resists his purpose?” (Rom. 9: 19), Paul insists on God’s sovereign rights. He does so by asking four questions (see vs. 20–24). Now it is important to note that they are questions and not statements. While an affirmative answer is expected to each so that God’s rights are acknowledged, it is never actually said that God always carries out the particular action proposed in the question.

   “O man, who art thou that answerest again to God? Shall the thing formed say to him that has formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Or has not the potter authority over the clay, out of the same lump to make one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour?” (vs. 20, 21). No one would think to dispute the absolute authority of a potter over his clay. Does God purpose a vessel for destruction or assign a person to eternal fire (incidentally prepared for the Devil and his angels, not men—see Matt. 25: 41)? What potter would make a vessel with the prior object of destroying it? Such a man would be a maniac and God is no maniac! A potter may ultimately destroy a marred vessel, but that would never be his purpose in making it in the first place.

   Looking at the detail, v21 refers to a potter and the words are honour and dishonour, not good and worthless (as in Rom. 9: 11). Note too that we only have a single lump of clay in the illustration. What does that tell us? That the clay itself has nothing to do with the final vessel. These words honour and dishonour refer to the future use of the vessels: the former to be used by persons of distinction at say a king’s table, the latter by humble households[2].

   Vs. 22–24 must be considered with great care. We must not make Scripture say what it does not say. We must also remember that they form part of a question: “And if God, minded to shew his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much long–suffering vessels of wrath fitted for destruction; and that he might make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he before prepared for glory, us, whom he has also called, not only from amongst [the] Jews, but also from amongst [the] nations?” Scripture does not quite say that God has exercised this right, but it does insist that He has the right to do so. It does not say that the vessels of wrath of v22 were prepared beforehand for destruction. The words before and prepared are only used of the vessels of mercy. There is no thought of previous preparation in the vessels of wrath. Clearly, vessels of wrath are contrasted with vessels of mercy. The wrath is God’s wrath and the mercy is God’s mercy. Both assume a background of sin. In the case of the vessels of wrath it says that God “endured with much long–suffering …”. How slow God is to act in regard to such vessels as Pharaoh! What is to be made known in the case of the vessels of wrath is “his power”; in the case of the vessels of mercy it is “the riches of his glory”—the Creator will exhibit His attributes in all His creatures.

   Note too that there is nothing of faith mentioned in the text. We are dealing with God’s sovereignty and not man’s responsibility. Hence Paul goes on to say “us, whom he has also called” (v24). God’s calling comes under the heading of His sovereignty—as Paul says later “For the gifts and the calling of God [are] not subject to repentance” (Rom. 11: 29)—that is, they are irrevocable. While God’s sovereign calling is individual as well as national, there is no thought expressed in Scripture that God ever destines any individual for eternal damnation, either in Rom. 9–11 or elsewhere.

Does Choice assume Rejection?

Finally, what of the claim that choice in some always implies rejection in others? If a man’s height is the standard for a certain task, then those who meet the standard will be chosen and those who do not will be rejected. But this example does not illustrate God’s sovereignty, for the man himself (his height) determines the outcome. In Scripture “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3: 23, my emphasis).

   Nebuchadnezzar was an absolute monarch (see Dan. 5: 19) invested with unprecedented sovereignty. Suppose that he had decreed that death would be the fate of all who committed a certain offence. Five men committed that offence, were found guilty, and awaited execution. The king decides to exercise mercy to two of the men as his sovereign right. Does the choice of these two mean that the other three are rejected? No, for the choice is not determined by anything in the men themselves. Their past action determines their future, unless the king acts in mercy. Thus it is with God: “So then [it is] not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shews mercy” (Rom. 9: 16).


All blessing for man, whether national or individual rests on God’s sovereign mercy so that Paul concludes: “For as indeed ye” that is, the Gentiles, “[also] once have not believed in God, but now have been objects of mercy through the unbelief of these”, that is, Israel, “so these also have now not believed in your mercy, in order that they also may be objects of mercy” (Rom. 11: 30, 31). In the light of this can we not join with the Apostle and exclaim “O depth of riches both of [the] wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable his judgments, and untraceable his ways! For who has known [the] mind of [the] Lord, or who has been his counsellor? or who has first given to him, and it shall be rendered to him? For of him, and through him, and for him [are] all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen” (Rom. 11: 33–36)?

[1] Furthermore we should interpret the words love and hate in the light of Luke 14: 26. Ex.20: 12 had said “Honour thy father and thy mother”, but the Lord in Luke 14: 26 says “If any man … shall not hate his own father and mother …”. The Lord was not setting aside the commandment but stating that if a man’s affection for Himself did not make his respect for his father and mother seem as hate, then he could not be His disciple. It is a question of what is relative, rather than what is absolute.

[2]  We also have vessels to honour and dishonour in the great house of 2 Tim. 2: 19–21. There the vessels of gold and silver are vessels of value and place honour on the house; the vessels of wood and earth are of little value and relatively are vessels of dishonour. Note that the vessels of dishonour may be believers or unbelievers.