God's FreedomWhile studying Romans 9, I was struck by Paul’s question in verse 14: “Is God unjust?”
In our hearts we already know the answer. God is not unjust. But oftentimes he seems inconsistent. The very examples Paul chooses seem to uphold that inconsistency.
He chooses Isaac over Ishmael.
He chooses Jacob over Esau.
He loves one.
He hates the other.
He chooses one.
He doesn’t choose the other.
To make matters worse, Paul says God does what he does wholly apart from human merit:
He chose Jacob over Esau even though they had the same father.
He chose Jacob over Esau before the twins were born.
He chose Jacob over Esau before either boy had done good or evil.
He chose one and he didn’t choose the other, and it had nothing to do with anything either one of them did. Why does God do things this way? “That his purpose in election might stand” (v. 11). Then Paul says, “She was told,” meaning that God told Rebekah, “The older will serve the younger.”
She was told.
That’s pretty blunt, isn’t it? Not, “She was consulted,” or “God sought her opinion,” or “God inquired of Rebekah which son she thought he should choose.” Nothing of the kind.
She was told.
Before going any further, let me point out that Romans 9 is heavy with emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the problem of Jewish unbelief (a huge issue in the first century) can only be understood in light of the character and promises of God. Romans 9 is all about God’s activity, what he does, how he chooses. In Romans 10 we will come to the other side of the story—Israel’s unbelief and the Christian call to preach the gospel to the nations. But we must not rush ahead of ourselves. We must led Paul speak for himself, and in our study of the text, we must trace his argument and let the chips fall where they may. If we wish to argue with the text, let’s at least make sure we understand what it is saying.
A few days ago President Bush was asked what he thought about the criticisms of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The president said he was aware of the criticisms, but that he had no intention of replacing Mr. Rumsfeld because he was doing a good job. Then the president asserted his authority directly: “I’m the decider.”
I’m the decider.
It has an odd ring to it, but no one can deny the truth behind those three words. The president alone decides who will serve in his cabinet. As the CEO of the country and the Commander in Chief, the president is indeed “the decider.”
God is “the decider” of the universe. And unlike the president, he cannot be impeached and no one can override his vetoes. God chooses Isaac, and nothing in the universe can replace him with Ishmael. God chooses Jacob, and Esau can’t do anything about it.
Then Paul brings up Moses to whom God showed his mercy. To prove his point, he quotes from Exodus 33:19, when Moses pled for mercy after the children of Israel had sinned. Here is God’s answer to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” That meant good news for Israel because God chose to show mercy instead of judgment when his people turned to idolatry.
Finally there is the case of Pharaoh whose heart the Lord hardened (vv. 17-18). But ten times in Exodus we are told that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Nowhere in the Bible does God ever harden anyone who did not first harden himself against the Lord. It is not as if Pharaoh was on the brink of turning to God when God “hardened” his heart. No, not at all. The ten plagues, which were a sign of God’s judgment, should have awakened Pharaoh to his own sinful rebellion, but instead he continually hardened his own heart against the Lord. To say God “hardened” his heart means that God did not intervene but allowed him to go his own way in continued rebellion.
John Stott offers this helpful analysis:
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 some are lost, but that anybody is saved at all. For we deserve nothing from God’s hand but judgment. If we receive what we deserve (which is judgment), or if we receive what we do not deserve (which is mercy), in neither case is God unjust. If therefore anybody is lost, the blame is theirs, but if anybody is saved, the credit is God’s. (Romans, pp. 269-270).
This one sentence comes to the heart of the matter: “The wonder is not that some are saved and some are lost, but that anybody is saved at all.” The Apostle Paul would surely agree with that.
Seven Short Statements
Paul’s argument brings us face to face with the truth of God’s freedom. Although we talk a great deal about freedom, it’s usually our personal freedom in view. We rarely think about God’s freedom, yet that is the major point of Romans 9. When you come to the bottom line, God’s freedom is the only true freedom in the universe. Every other “freedom” is derivative from his freedom in one way or another.
Here are seven short statements that flesh out the meaning of “God’s Freedom":
A. He is absolutely free to do whatever he wants to do.
Because God is God, he can do whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it. If he wants to create a planet, or a galaxy, or even another universe, he just says the word and it happens. He is truly “free” in the absolute sense of the term. This is why he announced himself to Moses as“I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). God is eternal, self-existent, and entirely self-sufficient. He exists entirely apart from the universe he created.
B. He has the right to deal with us any way he chooses.
By this I mean that God was under no obligation to create you or me or anyone else. And he is under no obligation to keep us alive even one more second. He is under no compulsion to save a single member of the human race. No one has a claim on God. He can do what he wants with any of us and no one can successfully second-guess him.
C. He doesn’t have to treat me the way he treats my next-door neighbor.
Many people struggle with this concept because they think that because God did something for a friend or a neighbor or a loved one, then God must be bound to do the same thing for them. But it doesn’t work that way. God can deliver your neighbor from cancer and you may die of cancer. Or vice versa. Envying your neighbor because he has something you don’t have is a waste of time because God treats us as individuals, not as groups. The truth is, he might do for you exactly what he’s done for someone else, or he might do more or he might do less or he might do something entirely different. He’s God. He can deal with us the way he wants.
D. He doesn’t have to treat me today the way he treated me yesterday.
This principle needs to be stated carefully. Since God’s character never changes, we know that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is always gracious, always loving, always holy, and always just. His ways are always perfect. However, that doesn’t mean that what happened to me yesterday is a pattern or guarantee for what will happen tomorrow. God’s character and his love for me will never change. How that grace and faithfulness and love is expressed varies widely from moment to moment. One day I may need a remarkable answer to prayer. The next day I may be in the valley of suffering, waiting on the Lord to deliver me. He’s always the same God but he does not display himself in my life the same way all the time.
E. He can answer my prayers any way he chooses.
Everyone who has prayed very much understands this truth. One night we fish and catch nothing. The next day our nets are filled to breaking. I may be in prison one night and an angel may come to set me free. Or God may send an earthquake to deliver me. Or I may die in prison as many Christians have over the years. A loved one with a dread disease may be spared by God for several years, only to die from that disease eventually. One day I may sense God’s Spirit working powerfully in my life. Another day I may plod through the doldrums. So it goes for all of God’s children. Our God is infinitely creative in the way he deals with us as he brings us to spiritual maturity. There are bright days and dark nights, and both are from the Lord.
F. He will not tolerate any rivals to his throne.
This is one of the clearest themes of the Bible. There is only one God and he demands our exclusive worship. After reminding the Jews that he had delivered them from Egypt, God made this the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ESV). That’s clear, isn’t it? No other gods, period. God is Number One. And there is no Number Two.
G. He is not obligated to live up to my expectations or to explain himself to me.
This may be the most important statement regarding God’s freedom. He doesn’t bind himself to do what we expect him to do. As a matter of fact, God continually surprised his people in the Bible. He cast Adam and Eve out of Eden and then made garments to cover their nakedness. He sent a flood and gave Noah a rainbow. He parted the Red Sea, arranged for daily delivery of manna and quail, and then had the sons of Korah swallowed up by the earth. Jesus rebuked Peter, allowed him to see the Transfiguration, predicted his betrayal, restored him, and then predicted the way he would die. Everything happened just as God promised, but nothing worked out the way people expected. He’s the God of great surprises.
And he doesn’t have to explain himself to us. There are many questions we would all like to ask. I have a handful of my own. Almost always our questions revolve around suffering, sadness, the death of loved ones, and times of personal disappointment. I have found that the greater the sadness, the less likely we are to fully understand it. Small things we can figure out on our own. Great losses are hidden in the mind and heart of God. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
He is far bigger than we imagine, his presence fills the universe, he is more powerful than we know, wiser than all the wisdom of the wisest men and women, his love is beyond human understanding, his grace has no limits, his holiness is infinite, and his ways are past finding out. He is the one true God. He has no beginning and no end. He created all things and all things exist by his divine power. He has no peers. No one gives him advice. No one can fully understand him. He is perfect in all his perfections.
There is nothing we have, not even our praise and worship, that adds in the least to who God is. He did not create us because of any lack in himself, as if we were created because God was lonely. To paraphrase A. W. Tozer, were every person on earth to become an atheist, it would not affect God in any way. The belief or disbelief of the human race cannot change the reality of who God is. To believe in him adds nothing to his perfection; to doubt him takes nothing away.
Time is God’s Brush
He rules all things everywhere at all times. Nothing escapes his notice. Nothing is beyond his control. He is beyond time and space, yet he controls them both. Ravi Zacharias put it this way: “Time is the brush with which God paints his story on the canvas of human history. Eternity is the perspective from which we view the painting.” This is our God!
As we consider who God is, we are eventually led to a very humbling truth, one that is not mentioned often and is hardly believed when it is taught: God does not need us for anything. If any concept flies in the face of contemporary Christianity, this is it. Down deep inside, most of us want to feel that we are important and necessary. And we like to think that God must have needed us, or else why would he have created us? In the absolute sense, God doesn’t “need” anything or anyone. He didn’t create us because he was lonely and he didn’t save us because heaven was empty. He does not need our worship or our obedience or our missionary service or our prayers or anything else we do in order to be God. There is no lack of any kind with him. This is a very humbling, and for some people, a very frustrating truth. But ask yourself this question: Do you really think God can’t get along without you? What if you and I just disappeared, poof, just like that? What if we had never even existed? Do you think the universe depends on us for its survival? Hardly. When the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his cheering disciples as he entered Jerusalem for the final time, he replied, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). If he wants to, God can cause the trees to clap their hands and the mountains to sing out his praises. He can make the rocks sing his praises if he wants to.
That God created us is an act of his sovereign will. That we are saved is a miracle of sovereign grace. That he accepts our worship and rewards our obedience is a miracle of sovereign love.
Before going on, I should add one or two clarifying points. The result of the teaching just given is to destroy all human pride and to leave us lying in the dust. We must come to the place where we understand that there is nothing good in us. Apart from God’s kindness, there is no reason for him to use us at all. If God “needs” us to do his work, it is only because he has ordained to work through us to accomplish his will. We are blessed beyond measure that God should allow us the honor of praising him, serving him, and proclaiming his glory to the nations.
I recognize there is much more we need to know about who God is than what I have said here. The Bible is filled with rich truth about our Heavenly Father. As we move through Romans 9-11, we will talk a great deal about his mercy and grace. Chapter 10 deals specifically with the issue of human responsibility. However it is crucial that we get ourselves firmly grounded in the truth of God’s absolute, unquestioned, totally free sovereignty. God does exactly as he pleases, all the time, everywhere, in every situation, in all parts of the universe. Always has, always will. In a profound sense, his ultimate will is always being done. He’s God. That’s the way it has to be.
As I have pondered this truth of God’s freedom, many applications come to mind. Properly understood, it ought to lead us to a calm confidence in God even in the midst of unspeakable tragedy. And it should make us bold in our witness and strong in our prayers. And if we believe this, we will find the strength to persevere over the long haul, knowing that even our foolish mistakes cannot cancel God’s plans for us.
All of that is true, but it does not seem to touch the core issue. There is a fundamental choice that each of us must make every single day. It goes something like this. We can reject God’s sovereignty and decide to fight against it. But that rebellion leads inevitably to anger, bitterness, despair and finally to a hardened heart. I know a few believers who have chosen this path. Some end up dropping out of church altogether because they are so angry they cannot come to worship anymore. In my experience, however, most of the people who choose this path stay in church and end up as very angry Christians. They are hard to talk to because they are secretly (or not so secretly) fighting against the Lord. Usually they have suffered an enormous personal loss and cannot find a way to reconcile what they lost with the God they have always worshiped. So they come to church Sunday after Sunday, sitting in the pews, singing the hymns, praying the prayers, going through the motions, but their hearts are not in it because down deep, they are angry at what God has done. They have the “wounded spirit” spoken of in Proverbs 18:14. It is very difficult to help them unless God’s Spirit softens their heart.
There is another choice we can make. If we accept God’s sovereignty as true, and if we submit ourselves to God, and if we acknowledge that he is free do what he wants to do, that submission leads on to joyful praise. The truth of God’s freedom ought to lead us to praise and worship. If it doesn’t, then we haven’t fully understood the biblical teaching. It is not that we will praise God directly for the pain and sadness around us or for the sinful acts of others. But we will praise God that he is able to work in, with, and through everything that happens, both the good and the bad, to accomplish his will, to make us more like Christ, and to bring glory to himself. To say that is to say nothing more than what Romans 8:28 clearly teaches.
So these are our choices with regard to the truth of God’s sovereignty:
Rejection and Anger
Submission and Praise
Shortly before my friend Peter Blakemore died, I saw him for the last time at a pastor’s prayer meeting on the National Day of Prayer. I hadn’t seen Peter in a while because he had been struggling with cancer. I knew he had been through an awful ordeal, but I had no idea how bad it was. When I arrived at the prayer meeting, I knew almost everyone there because they all pastored churches in the same area. There was one man sitting in a wheelchair with two young men around him. Because his back was to me, I didn’t know who it was till I sat down in the circle. Then I saw it was my friend Peter Blakemore. Peter was the pastor of the Harrison Street Bible Church in Oak Park. Before Peter was the pastor, his father had pastored that church for over thirty years. Except for his years in college and graduate school, Peter spent his whole life in Oak Park. When he completed his education, he came back to Oak Park to join his father at Harrison Street Bible Church. And when his father died, he took over the pastorate in his father’s stead. Peter Blakemore was one of the gentlest, kindest, most gracious men I have ever known. He was about forty years old when he died. He left behind a wife and seven children. He was stricken with an extremely rare form of cancer. They sent samples to various places around the country, hoping to find a cure. He had gone through a variety of treatments but nothing worked. The cancer finally had taken over his body with a vengeance. And there he was at the National Day of Prayer with two of his sons.
We bowed our heads and as we prayed, I noticed a strange sound, a sort of rubbing or thumping in a rhythmic fashion. I didn’t know what it was. Peter Blakemore was the last one to pray that day. And he said, “Lord, you know I’ve asked you to heal me of this cancer. And if you do heal me, I will stand up and give you the glory. But if you decide to take me home to heaven, Lord, I’m going to be faithful to you by my life and by my death so that in all things you might be glorified.”
When the prayer meeting was over almost everybody left the room. There were just four of us left–Peter, his two sons, and me. We talked for a while. He told me a little bit about the treatments. Just recently they had heard from the doctors that there was a new kind of tumor growing in his lungs, and the doctors couldn’t even figure out what it was. They said it’s one of two things. If it’s one thing, you’re going to live one to three weeks. If it’s another thing, you’re going to live two or three months. The tumor had grown inside his lungs to the point that it had broken two or three of his ribs. While he was praying, he was hunched over in the wheelchair. The rhythmic thump I heard was the sound of his oldest son rubbing his father’s back to lessen the pain a little bit. Peter told me that the previous Sunday he had preached at his own church for the first time in eight weeks. He preached from the wheelchair on Romans 11:33,“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” “Do you know what that means, Ray?” Peter said it’s like tracing the stars in the skies. When you look up at night and see a star, you know that it is on a path, but if you just look at it, all you can do is see where it is now. You can’t really tell where it has come from or where it’s going to go. And he said, “So it is with the Lord. No one can tell where he started out. No one can tell where he’s going to go. All you know is he’s right there and you’re right there with him, and the future is in his hands.” Then he added, “I told my people last Sunday ‘I have shown you how to live. I’m now going to show you how to die.’” These were his final words to me: “All my life I’ve preached about the grace of God. I’ve had a hard time getting people to listen. Now I don’t have any trouble because they’ve seen the grace of God at work in my life.”
We said farewell and his sons wheeled him out of the room. It was the last time I would see him alive. Two or three weeks later he passed from this life into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. I thought about what he said and I’ve thought about it many times since then. Who can trace the path of the Lord? You can’t. I can’t. No one can. It is enough to know that we belong to him. He knows what he’s doing. He knows where we are. And when it’s all over, we will be exactly where he wants us to be, with him forever in heaven.
What’s going to happen today or tomorrow? I don’t know. What’s going to happen next week or next month? I don’t know. What’s going to happen next year or ten years from now? I don’t know. But I know someone who does.
Nothing happens anywhere in the universe by accident. There is no such thing as luck or fate or chance. God is at work in all things at all times to accomplish his will in the universe. He does whatever pleases him. I understand why some people rebel against a high view of God’s sovereignty. The paradox is this. People who rebel against God usually do so in the name of freedom. They want the freedom to go their own way, follow their own desires, do whatever they want, when they want, with anyone they choose to do it with. Ironically, this sort of “freedom” leads only to slavery. They end up enslaved to sin, chained to addictive behaviors, and locked in the prison house of unrelenting guilt and shame. There is no freedom in rebellion against God. There is only slavery
But when we submit ourselves to our Heavenly Father, when we finally say, “Lord, you are God and I am not,” when we bow before him, through our tears if necessary, then (and only then) do we discover true freedom. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Those whom the Son sets free are free indeed.
Our basic problem is that we have allowed God to be everywhere but on his throne. No wonder we are unhappy and frustrated and unfulfilled. No wonder life doesn’t work right. How much better to say with the psalmist, “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker!” (Psalm 95:6). There is coming a day when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (see Philippians 2:9-11). If that day is coming, then why not get a head start and bow your knee and confess that God is God and Jesus Christ is your Lord?
Here is a simple phrase that captures this truth: “The Lord is God and there is no other.” Can you say those words? I challenge you to say that sentence out loud right now. Make it a public affirmation of your faith.
The tragedy is that it takes us so long to learn this basic truth. Greg and Carolyn Kirschner, who served for many years as missionaries in Jos, Nigeria, wrote about the importance of prayer in the Nigerian culture. They pointed out that the Nigerians seem more naturally aware of God than most Americans. They saw this sign painted on the side of a bus: “Man no be God.” That sums it up, doesn’t it? You aren’t God, you never were, and you never will be. The sooner we realize that fact, the better off we’ll be. And here’s the good news. If you really mean it, then you can take a deep breath. Now go and rip that big G off your sweatshirt. You don’t have to be God anymore. Let God be God and all will be well. Perhaps some of us need to say, “Oh God, you win. The battle is over. I’m going to stop fighting you.” If you need to say that, do it right now. There is abundant joy for those who will admit the most fundamental truth in the universe: He’s God and we’re not. Amen.