This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.
To recap, Paul has been responding to some hypothetical ethnic Israelite objectors who will not like his teaching that God has decided to save all who have faith in Christ. They consider that God ought to save ethnic Israelites due to their physical descent from Abraham and/or their works, and that the current situation of many ethnic Israelites not having God’s blessing of salvation is down to a failure on God’s part to keep his word. Paul responds by demonstrating that the word of God has not failed, as God never promised to save all physical descendants of Abraham, and he never promised to save people based on their own works. Having reminded them of this, Paul goes on to focus on the point that it is up to God to decide who will receive his blessing. The ethnic Israelite objectors therefore have no right to complain about the situation that God’s way of salvation has resulted in many ethnic Israelites currently being outside of God’s blessing.
“ What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means!  For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.””
The ‘injustice’ being alleged by these ethnic Israelite objectors is God’s decision to save those who trust in Christ, rather than saving people based on their ethnicity and/or works. A consequence of this decision by God is that many ethnic Israelites are currently outside of God’s blessing of salvation, due to their lack of faith in Christ. The ethnic Israelite objectors see this as unfair. The accusation of injustice follows Paul’s reinforcement of the point that God has indeed decided not to save people due to their ethnicity and/or their works, which he has illustrated by referring to the examples of Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. The ethnic Israelite objectors are not objecting directly to the examples that Paul has used – these ethnic Israelites would have no complaints about their ancestor Isaac being chosen over Ishmael, or their ancestor Jacob being chosen over Esau. Instead, they are objecting to Paul’s application of these examples, in which the unbelieving ethnic Israelites find themselves in a position corresponding to Ishmael and Esau – they are outside of God’s blessing.
The ethnic Israelite objectors whom Paul is addressing have no right to claim that there is injustice on God’s part due to the situation that many ethnic Israelites are currently outside of God’s blessing. The reason for this is that it is entirely up to God to decide whom he will save. The statement, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy’ is God’s statement that it is entirely up to him to decide whom he will have mercy on. It is important to note that this statement says nothing about how God has decided whom to have mercy on, it simply states the truth that it is God’s right to decide this.
Paul has no need to restate how God has decided to use his right, as it is Paul’s prior explanation that God has decided to use his right to save all those who have faith in Christ (rather than saving based on ethnicity and/or works) that has caused the complaint from these ethnic Israelites in the first place. They think that God ought to save ethnic Israelites because of their ethnicity and/or their works, and Paul is pushing back against this, pointing out that they have no right to tell God how he should go about his business of salvation.
“ So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”
The ethnic Israelite objectors thought that the ethnic Israelites currently outside of God’s blessing of salvation deserved to be in a right-standing with God. These ethnic Israelites really wanted to achieve righteousness, and were working exceptionally hard in order to achieve this. If being in a right-standing with God were based on how much a person wanted to be righteous, or how hard they were trying to be righteous, then these ethnic Israelites would have a stronger case than anyone for receiving God’s blessing. Paul himself acknowledges how much these people wanted to achieve righteousness: ‘for I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but their zeal is not in line with the truth. For, disregarding the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness’ (Romans 10:2-3). The problem for these people was not how much they wanted to be righteous, but that they were trying (and failing) to achieve it themselves by establishing their own righteousness.
Not only did these ethnic Israelites really want to be righteous, they were also working hard in order to try to achieve this. Paul states that ‘Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works’ (Romans 9:31-32). The problem for these people was not that they weren’t trying hard enough, but that they refused to admit that they were incapable of achieving righteousness on their own. If they had done this instead and had trusted in God, rather than trying to establish their own righteousness, then they would be considered by God as righteous (like Abraham was – Romans 4:2-5) and would therefore be saved (Romans 5:9). Instead, these ethnic Israelites find themselves outside of God’s blessing of salvation.
This is why Paul says ‘it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’. ‘Him who wills’ refers to a person who desires to be righteous. ‘Him who runs’ refers to a person who is working to try to be righteous. Although there is debate about what exactly Paul is referring to (the words ‘it is’ are not actually present in the Greek), the point being made is that the source of ‘it’ is God, not a person who desires to be righteous or a person who is trying to achieve righteousness. Given this context, the word that fits best as a word that could be used instead of ‘it’ in the translation is ‘righteousness’. The verse would then be stating that righteousness is not achieved by people desiring it or working hard for it, but righteousness is given by God as a gift in an act of mercy (see Romans 4:1-8). The source of the righteousness is God, not the person.
In context, the people desiring and/or working hard to achieve righteousness are the unbelieving ethnic Israelites. Paul is saying that righteousness is not achieved by these people but it is instead given as a gift by God. Paul is therefore again stating that it is up to God who he will bless with being credited as righteous, so the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have no right to complain about this situation.
Paul’s teaching in this verse that God is the source of righteousness does not tell us anything about how God has decided whom he will bless with this gift. It simply explains that it is up to God. Of course, we know from what Paul has said already that God has decided to credit as righteous all who trust in Christ. All people who trust Christ to save them rather than trying to achieve righteousness themselves will receive God’s mercy and will be credited as righteous.
Verse 16 (‘not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’) is Paul’s third central “not… but…” statement in Romans 9. The first was ‘not the children of the flesh… but the children of the promise’ (verse 8). The second was ‘not because of works but because of him who calls’ (verse 11). The “not… but…” statement in verse 8 is the central teaching of the “not based on ethnicity” section of verses 6b to 9. Similarly, the “not… but…” statement in verse 11 is the central teaching of the “not based on works” section of verses 10 to 13.
Each of these central “not… but…” statements is surrounded by an example which illustrates the central teaching. The examples each involve two people: one who receives God’s blessing in the example and one who does not. The first statement (verse 8) is surrounded by the example of Isaac and Ishmael. The second statement (verse 11) is surrounded by the example of Jacob and Esau.
The same structure is being used in verses 15 to 17. The central verse 16 has a “not… but…” statement, and it is surrounded by an example involving two people: Moses (verse 15) and Pharaoh (verse 17). Verse 14 (‘is there injustice on God’s part?’) acts as an introductory question to the section, similar to how verse 6a starts its section off with an implicit question (“has the word of God failed?”). Verse 18 provides a conclusion to the section.
The verses on Moses and Pharaoh are therefore illustrating the central statement of ‘not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’. It was God who decided to have mercy on Moses. He did this not because of Moses’ own efforts, as can be seen from the context of the quote in verse 15, which is from Exodus 33:14-19:
“ The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’  Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.  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?’”
This response from Moses shows that he is not relying on his own efforts to convince God to bless him. Instead he is admitting that, without the Lord, he would be no different from anyone else.
“ 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.’”
The Lord grants Moses’ request, not because Moses has worked hard for this, but because Moses humbly acknowledges that he has nothing in himself to boast about. God has chosen to bless people who respond in this way.
“ Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’  And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.””
Because the Lord is pleased with Moses and his humility, the Lord chooses to bless Moses and grant his request. Moses did not deserve this blessing, but God has the right to choose whom to bless and he chose to use his right to bless Moses.
As with the previous central “not…but…” statements in Romans 9, while the central statement itself relates to salvation (in the context of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites from Romans 9:1-5), the example surrounding each central statement does not itself relate directly to salvation. (This is discussed generally in the overview of Romans 9:6-13 and specifically with respect to verses 6-9 and 10-13.) Instead, the example is used to illustrate the way God made the choice (e.g. ‘not because of works’) rather than what the choice was about. For the example with Moses, we can see that the choice being made by God was not a choice of whether to save or damn Moses, but it was a choice about whether or not to accept Moses’ requests for God’s Presence to go with him and for God to show him his glory. Just as God accepted Moses’ requests for reasons that were not based on Moses’ desire to be righteous or his efforts in trying to be righteous, so God’s choice with respect to salvation is also not made based on these factors.
In the next post, we will consider the situation with Pharaoh.
This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.