Trusting What God Says

Romans 9:6-18

September 14, 2008 | Brian Bill

In May 1995, Randy Reid, a 34-year-old construction worker, was welding on top of a nearly completed water tower outside Chicago.  He unhooked his safety gear to reach for some pipes when a metal cage slipped and bumped the scaffolding he stood on.  The scaffolding tipped, and Reid lost his balance.  He fell 110 feet, landing face down on a pile of dirt, just missing rocks and construction debris.  When paramedics arrived, they found Reid conscious, moving, and complaining of a sore back. Apparently the fall didn’t cost Reid his sense of humor. As paramedics carried him on a backboard to the ambulance, he had just one request: “Don’t drop me.” 

I suspect that some of you feel that way today.  Even though He has saved you from the big fall, you wonder if perhaps God is going to drop you as you struggle with trusting Him.  Will God really come through for you?  Can you and I really trust Him to keep His promises?  Let’s take this to a deeper level and let me verbalize three questions that many of us have asked at one time or another.

  • Has God’s Word failed?  This has to do with his power.
  • Is God faithful?  This has to do with His promises.
  • Is God fair?  This has to do with His purposes.

Last week we learned that evangelism will have little effect if we don’t love the lost.  Following the example of Paul in Romans 9:1-5, we must cultivate two qualities.  First, we’re to have a love that is sincere, sorrowing, and sacrificial.  Second, we must treat people with great respect as we look for points of connection so we can point them to Christ.  We passed out Kleenexes as a reminder that God wants us to cry for the unconverted.  As one woman left the service she showed me her Kleenex – it was covered in makeup and was wet from her tears.  Let’s take a few minutes to hear from a couple of you.  How did you sorrow for the unsaved this past week?

As we move into the bulk of Romans 9 this morning, let me warn you up front that this section of Scripture may be hard to swallow.  In light of that, let’s keep Isaiah 55:8-9 in mind: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”  It’s my prayer that by the time we’re finished today, you’ll be more willing to trust the God who will never drop you.  

In the Apostle Paul’s day, many people were wondering if God had somehow dropped the Israelites because so few of them had put their trust in Jesus as their Messiah.  I like how Pastor Larry Sarver explained why this was such an issue to people back then: “Imagine a situation where a certain man is the founder and owner of a large, profitable corporation.  This man has many children in his family, and he makes a general promise: ‘My children will always have a seat on the Board of Directors of my company and nobody but my children will have a place on the Board of Directors.’  This is his promise, this is his word.  Now suppose many years after making this promise some of those who received this promise were not placed on the Board of Directors while at the same time this man went and got people living on the streets and made them his Board members.  Wouldn’t it seem that he had not kept his word?  Wasn’t it unfair to place people from the streets on the Board instead of those who had grown up in his own home?

“This imaginative situation is very similar to the real situation for the Israelites.  The Gospel Paul proclaimed made clear that many Jews would not be included in God’s promised blessings and that many Gentiles would be included.  To them it seemed that, if this were true, God was being unfaithful and unfair.  After all, God had promised that the descendants of Abraham would be the recipients of these blessings. In a sense, they felt that God owed them or was obligated to them.  Paul writes chapters 9-11 to address these concerns and to explain that God is faithful, God is fair, and that God owes no one anything.”  

I might add that this promise was to His children – it’s just that not all of Israel was in fact, part of His family – and Gentiles who received Christ were.  Paul hits this head on in the first part of verse 6: “It is not as though God’s Word had failed.”  The word “failed” means to “fall out of, to fall down, or to drop.”  God’s word will never hit the ground.  It also means that God’s Word will never fall powerless.  This is the main point of the entire chapter.  No matter how disappointed we may be, God’s Word has not failed, nor will it ever fail.  Numbers 23:19 puts it this way: “Does he speak and then not act?  Does he promise and not fulfill?”  Isaiah 55:11: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”  Jesus stated it strongly in John 10:35: “…the Scripture cannot be broken.”

God’s Word will not and cannot fail but that leads to two crucial questions: 

  • Is God free to do whatever he wants? 
  • Is God fair in the way he treats people?

Before we dive in, let me insert a couple sidebar points.

  • The doctrine of divine election will be introduced today and will be fleshed out in subsequent sermons.  This is by no means the final word but this truth cannot be dismissed or denied.  I urge you to put aside any preconceived prejudices or theological theories so we can just let the Scriptures speak as we seek to get to know God better.  Our first focus should be this question: “What does the Bible say?” before we ask the follow-up question: “How can this be so?”
  • Paul’s examples come from the Old Testament.  Many of us know more about Barack and Joe, and John and Sarah then we do about Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Esau, Moses and Pharaoh.  Paul is assuming that his readers are familiar with these Old Testament characters.  I encourage you to read more about these key personalities from the Bible this next week.

God’s Freedom Seen In …

1. His choice of Isaac over Ishmael. 

Look at Romans 9:6-9: “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated, ‘At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.’”

Paul gives us an answer right away about the possibility of God’s Word failing.  In fact, he answers it three different ways to show that spiritual Israel is a smaller subset of physical Israel.  There has always been a smaller remnant inside the larger group.  God’s promise was never meant to be realized in the entire nation, but only in the true (elect) Israel within Israel.  Here’s how he says it:

  • For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.
  • Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children.
  • It is not the natural children who are God’s children.

Paul said it this way earlier in the book of Romans, in 2:28: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly.”  This is contrary to what most Jews believe – they think they’re in just because of their ethnicity.  Let me demonstrate using the whiteboard.  This large circle represents physical Israel while this small circle in the middle of the larger circle represents spiritual Israel.

This passage reminds us that although Abraham was the father of Ishmael and Isaac–only one son (Isaac) was the son of the promise.  One was chosen and the other was passed over by God

There’s only one difficulty with this illustration.  Isaac was the son of Abraham and his wife Sarah, while Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar.  Paul next moves from the example of two half-brothers to twin brothers.

2. His choice of Jacob over Esau. 

Let’s look now at verses 10-13: “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-she was told, ‘the older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”

We don’t have time this morning to go into a detailed description of the relationship between Esau and Jacob, but I do want to hit a few highlights.  Isaac married Rebekah and when she became pregnant she realized that she had twins within her.  Even before they were born they started fighting.  Rebekah wanted to know why this was happening so she went to the Lord for the answer.  Listen to God’s response in Genesis 25:23: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 

God is establishing that even before the twins were born, the younger was elected to be exalted in order to promote God’s purposes.  The word “election” means “to select out from a number, to pick out.”  He could just as easily have chosen Esau over Jacob.  They were twins and Esau was older, which means that by all customary rights and privileges he should have been the main heir of the father’s blessings.  But God chose Jacob.

Many people have stumbled over Romans 9:13, which is a quote from Malachi 1:3: “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated…”  Here are a few things to remember that may help us understand the meaning of this strong statement.

  • In his heart, Jacob hungered after God.  Even though he was a schemer and a scoundrel, as he matured in his faith, he grew to trust God.  Esau, on the other hand, placed no value on spiritual matters.  He despised his birthright and treated God with utter indifference.  Having said all that, one cannot get past the fact that God did this choosing before they were even born.
  • Many commentators suggest that the words love and hate should be used in a relative sense.  In the Hebrew idiom, if a father had two sons and gave one the inheritance it was said that he loved one and hated the other.  God loved Jacob so much that, in comparison, it seemed as if He hated Esau, or loved him less.  Jesus presented this same idea in relation to following Him.  In Luke 14:26, He states that in order to be His disciples we must “hate” our family and self.  He’s not saying that we should actually “hate” family members but that we should love them less as clarified in Matthew 10:37: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
  • We must avoid accusing God of injustice.  The love/hate contrast is used to illustrate God’s sovereign election and we can’t get away from the biblical doctrine that He elects and chooses in order to carry out His plans.  Deuteronomy 32:4: “He is the Rock, His words are perfect, and all His ways are just.  A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He.”
  • God’s purposes always promote His glory, even if we don’t understand what He is doing.  The real question is not why God rejected Esau but why he chose Jacob.  He elected to lavish mercy on the deceiver Jacob, even though he deserved justice.  Esau simply received what was coming to him.  Without mercy Jacob would have been passed over as well.  Likewise, we are all born objects of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3).  It’s only through His electing love that we receive mercy.  Everything comes back to God and no one deserves salvation.  If you got what you deserved, you would go to hell. And so would I. 

The amazing miracle is that God saves anyone.  No one deserves it.  Why some are chosen and others are not is the mystery of mercy. But if you are saved, remember this: You don’t deserve it. God didn’t choose you because of your good looks or your good life.  Your religious background had nothing to do with it. Your intellect mattered not at all to Him. If you are a Christian, it is because of God’s free grace and marvelous mercy–and nothing else at all.

That’s why He’s called God. He can do whatever he likes. He’s God and we’re not.  Let’s pause here and ponder this for a moment.  Some of you have a huge struggle with God’s sovereignty.  Are you angry toward the Almighty about something that’s happened to you?  Have you allowed some bitterness to come between you and Him?  It’s time to get this straightened out.  Are you ready to settle this right now?

We come now to the second crucial question: Is God fair in the way He treats people? The answer again is yes–although it may not seem fair at first glance.

God’s Fairness Seen In … 

1. His mercy to Moses. 

Let’s continue in verses 14-16: “What shall we say then?  Is God unjust?  Not at all!  For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’  It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”

God is totally fair and his justice is not tarnished by divine election

Should we even entertain the possibility that God might be unjust?  The answer Paul gives is literally translated, “God forbid!  Perish the thought!”  God is totally fair and his justice is not tarnished by divine election.  Moses wasn’t a very likely candidate—but God chose him.  He didn’t choose to be a great deliverer.  It was God’s plan and purposes that made Moses what he was.  God chose to show mercy to a man who didn’t particularly deserve it.  Friends, God does not show mercy to us because of our will or our works either.

2. His justice to Pharaoh. 

We see this in verses 17-18: “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.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Let’s remember two facts about Pharaoh: First, he was a pagan and never becomes a believer. Second, Pharaoh hardened his own heart ten times against the Lord

God raised up Pharaoh as the ruler of Egypt. When Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh said, “No.” Not just once but over and over again.  So God used his stubbornness as the backdrop against which he displayed his power to the entire world in the 10 plagues.  

Is that fair?  Sure it is. Pharaoh got what he deserved–total destruction in the Red Sea.  Think of it this way. Did Moses deserve mercy?  No, but he received it anyway.  Did Pharaoh deserve mercy?  No, he deserved God’s justice. And that’s what he received.  Don’t miss the stated reason behind His mercy to Moses and His justice to Pharaoh — God’s power was put on display so that “His name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”  The word “proclaimed” means to announce everywhere, to publish abroad.  I’m excited for our “Go Global” mission’s festival coming up in 35 days!  I trust that you will take full advantage of all that will be offered and that your family is already using the booklet to become more familiar with the four missionary couples who will be with us.

God is completely free to do whatever he wants

The case is settled. God is completely free to do whatever he wants. And he is completely fair in the way he treats each person. We all deserve God’s judgment. The fact that anyone receives God’s mercy is nothing short of a miracle.

Making It Personal

When you stand back and survey this passage, it is easy to understand why some commentators call it one of the most difficult in the entire Bible. It raises many questions about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Let me close by making five summary statements.

1. It humbles us by putting us in our proper place. 

Salvation begins with God, not with us. We often talk about freewill as if that were the central issue of life, but these verses ignore it altogether. Don’t get me wrong. The Bible does teach that we all have choices to make, and we’ll get to that in Romans 10 but the central issue is God. Without God choosing us we would never choose him.  We can either respond to God’s sovereignty with rejection and anger or with submission and praise.  Incidentally, God does not feel the need to resolve all our questions about election, predestination and His sovereignty.  But, He does want us to be humble.  He calls us to believe, even when we don’t understand.

2. It glorifies God by putting him in his rightful place as the ruler of the universe. 

This text states it with almost shocking bluntness. He shows mercy on whom he wants to show mercy, and judgment on whom he wants to show judgment. God does exactly what he wants to do. No one can question him. No one can stand against Him or overrule Him. The only person in the universe who truly has freewill is God. All of his creatures are limited.  God is therefore glorified when we proclaim His absolute and unlimited freedom in all things.  In Exodus 3:14, God says, “I am who I am” and as such He has the right to deal with us any way He chooses.  We would do well to memorize Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.”

3. It challenges us to consider the basis of our relationship with God. 

This passage teaches us that not everyone is going to heaven. Isaac is in, Ishmael is out.  Jacob is in, Esau is out.  Moses is in, Pharaoh is out.  Just because you call yourself a Christian doesn’t mean you are truly born again. Just because you go to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you truly are a child of God.  Let’s come back to the whiteboard.  Which circle are you in?

No one goes to heaven on the basis of their race, their family background, their ethnic affiliation, or their church membership. None of that matters to God. The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus Christ personally. Salvation begins when you lay aside your trust in yourself and your background and come humbly like a little child to Jesus.  Salvation is not about fair; it’s about mercy.  If you want fair you’ll get hell; if you want mercy you’ll gain heaven.  What will it be for you?  Are you going to trust your merits or God’s mercy?

4. It gives us assurance of salvation and eternal security. 

The one who saved us will bring His work to completion (Philippians 1:6).  Knowing that God chose you for salvation means that He will keep you secure for eternity.  If it was all about Him at the beginning He will keep you safe until the end.  Referring to this section of Scripture, John Piper writes: “Paul doesn’t deal with controversial doctrine in the abstract – as if it would simply be interesting to know – he deals with it because it is needed to help us understand and enjoy God’s faithfulness.”  God’s mercy doesn’t come to us because of what we’ve done and therefore it cannot be lost because of something we do.

5. If we won’t accept God’s mercy we will one day face his justice. 

I’m reminded of the story of the judge who announced to the accused man standing before him, “Sir, you have nothing to fear in this courtroom. We will make sure that you receive justice.” To which the man replied, “I don’t want justice. I want mercy.” The only way any of us will ever go to heaven is through the mercy of God. But God will not force his mercy on you. If you persist in refusing God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ, if you insist on going your own way, then at length you will not receive mercy. You will face God’s justice.

It was C.S. Lewis who reminded us that there are only two possibilities in the universe. Either a man says to God, “Thy will be done,” or God says to man, “All right then. Your will be done.”  If you choose to do your will in this life instead of God’s will, then one day you will face God’s justice. 

Did you hear the ominous warning on Friday from the National Hurricane Center?  In very strong words, officials made this statement: “Flee now or face certain death.”   We could say it his way: Put your faith in Jesus now or face certain death.  Have you ever believed on Jesus Christ as your only hope for eternal salvation?  Let’s skip ahead a chapter to Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

God’s Word cannot fail because He is faithful and He is fair…and He will never drop you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?