Justice and Mercy

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

- Romans 9:14–18

Since predestination refers to God’s determining the destiny of something beforehand, the concept can cover everything that happens in creation. Every human act in history, every raindrop, every movement of subatomic particles—it all was predestined by our Creator from all eternity (Eph. 1:11). However, most of the time Christians talk about predestination, they are talking more narrowly about the doctrine of God’s election to salvation and condemnation, His choice of who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. When it comes to this doctrine, there are many passages that can be examined to evaluate whether the Lord chooses people based on His foreknowledge of their decisions or based on His will and good pleasure, and among the most pertinent of these is Romans 9.

The most common objections raised against the Augustinian, or Calvinistic, doctrine of election are “That’s not fair” and “That makes God unjust.” Perhaps you uttered these objections before you were convinced of the Augustinian position. Maybe you currently voice these objections. Either way, these objections are not new. Paul answered them two thousand years ago when he wrote Romans 9.

Having affirmed that God’s choice of Jacob for redemption and His not choosing to save Esau was made before either man was born or could do anything good or bad (Rom. 9:1–13), Paul sees that some will utter a protest about the justice of God. The Apostle goes on to explain that the Lord’s election of some to salvation is not a matter of justice but a matter of mercy and that God is free to show mercy to whomever He will. In other words, mercy is not something that can be demanded. Mercy that is obligated is not mercy. We can never merit mercy from our Creator.

True, mercy is not justice, but it is not injustice either. Consider two categories: justice and nonjustice. Everything that is not justice falls under the category of nonjustice, including mercy and injustice. Whether a person receives mercy or injustice, he has not received justice. But note that mercy and injustice are not equivalent. If a leader shows mercy and pardons one convicted criminal and not another, he has not dealt with the nonpardoned individual unjustly. The one not pardoned still deserves his sentence. He is not being treated unjustly if the sentence stands; he is simply not receiving clemency. In passing over some for salvation, God is still dealing with them justly because they have earned their condemnation.

Coram Deo

Ultimately, in the case of the one to whom God shows mercy, justice is still done. The elect are as worthy of condemnation as the reprobate, but Christ bore the condemnation of the elect in their place (2 Cor. 5:21). The Lord’s predestination of mercy for some also includes the predestination of justice, for He predestined Christ’s atonement to pay for the sins of His elect (Acts 4:27–28). Because Christ atoned fully for believers, God does not demand that we atone for our sin.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 16:20
Psalm 86:15
1 Timothy 1:12–17
Jude 2

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