Is God Unjust to Choose Some People for Salvation and Not Others?

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. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

-Romans 9:14-18

By saying that God chooses to save some people and not others “not because of works,” Paul anticipates the charge that God is unjust for doing so. To answer this objection biblically, he deftly turns to Moses and the book of Exodus. There we discover that the Israelite people, numbering a few million, are enslaved to a cruel tyrant named Pharaoh who ruled as the most powerful man on earth and was worshiped as a god. God called Moses to proclaim to the pharaoh God’s demand that his people be released to worship him freely. To authenticate Moses’ divine call, God promised to allow him to perform miraculous feats.

This initial demonstration of spiritual power was important for the validation of Moses’ ministry. The Egyptians were dualistic; they believed there were two realms, the seen and the unseen, a physical world in which people lived, and a spiritual world that was filled with multitudes of demons posing as gods and spiritual beings. They believed that magic and sorcery were the means by which the spiritual world intersected with the physical world. Therefore, Moses’ miraculous wonders would have meant to the Pharaoh that Moses worked for a powerful god, or perhaps the God.

The Exodus account to which Paul refers introduces the concept of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, a subject that appears nineteen more times in upcoming chapters. (Ex. 7:3, 13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 12, 34–35; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 13:15; 14:4, 8, 17.) Some of these verses say that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, while others indicate that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. Still, some theologians have said that the wording merely reflects the Hebrew understanding of the world, and that the issue is largely one of semantics because they would have seen every action as ultimately a work of God.

The question that has erupted from these verses is whether God could have overridden Pharaoh’s will, hardened his heart, and then punished him for his sin. If God had done that, then God would have been unjust and morally responsible for making Pharaoh sin yet still punishing Pharaoh for doing what he was forced to do. Likewise, any abusive father who throws his child across the dinner table and then spanks him for spilling his milk is unjust and cruel.

Paul is emphatic that God did in fact harden Pharaoh’s heart, and so we must accept that truth. Still, the question of how God hardened Pharaoh’s heart is incredibly important if the justice of God is to be defended. The answer is that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart with patience and grace. God did not need to send Moses to Pharaoh on multiple occasions to invite Pharaoh to repent of his sin and free the Israelites. God did not need to perform miracles in front of the Pharaoh to prove his power and sovereign rule over even the pharaoh. Furthermore, God knew that Pharaoh’s heart was hard and that in asking him to repent and come under the leadership of the real God, Pharaoh would only grow all the angrier and more hardhearted. Therefore, it was grace that hardened Pharaoh’s heart, similar to heaping burning coals on the head of one’s enemies, as Jesus said.

Subsequently, God remains gracious and is not unjust. The responsibility for the hard heart is ultimately the unrepentant, sinful Pharaoh who repeatedly rejects God’s offer of grace. Thus, the truism of the Puritans rings true that “the same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay.”

Has God’s grace ever hardened your heart or anyone’s you know?

This is an excerpt from Pastor Mark’s Romans 8-9 commentary Duck Duck Doom. You can get a free e-book copy on our store here.

To find the new, free Romans 6-11 digital study guide for individuals and small groups, hear Pastor Mark’s entire sermon series on Romans, or find a free mountain of Bible teaching visit or download the Real Faith app.

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