Many are instantly outraged at the notion that God is unfair, and many believe that saying such a terrible thing will raise doubts in those who believe in God. And yet it’s true, and I think it best that we worship the God who is, not a romanticized version of God.
The fact is that God repeatedly declares that he elects some and not others —
(Rom 9:6-16 ESV) 6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”
10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad–in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls– 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
God elected the Jews and, until Jesus, no one else. He chose Isaac over his older brother Ishmael and Jacob over his older brother Esau. When Jesus came and God established his Kingdom, he invited the nations — the Gentiles — in, and yet most Jews rejected Jesus and the Kingdom.
For Paul, a devout Jew, it was hard to imagine how God could have put a plan in place that left out most of the Jews, his chosen people. Paul’s heart ached for his fellow Jews —
(Rom 9:1-3 ESV) I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
And in Romans 9 – 11 Paul struggles with the unfairness of it all. He is not so much dealing with free will as with a plan that seems to have gone awry. Why did God’s plan seemingly fail, when God had elected the Jews?
(Rom 11:1-5 ESV) I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Paul concludes that, as had happened so many time in Jewish history, God had preserved a remnant even though most had rejected God — in this case, by rejecting Jesus. And this is the nature of God’s grace, Paul says in v. 5.
God saved a remnant — by grace — because God keeps his promises to Abraham. It’s undeserved, but God graciously made certain that a remnant would remain. But God’s hand did not stretch out to preserve the entire nation.
(Rom 11:20b ESV) 20 They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear.
Those without faith are lost — even God-fearing Jews who attend synagogue and worship at the Temple but who reject Jesus — and the Gentiles are grafted in solely by their faith in Jesus, not by their merits.
Paul sees the rejection of Jesus by the Jews as part of God’s cosmic plan —
(Rom 11:17-20a ESV) 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20a That is true.
All this is very hard to follow if you start from the premise that everyone must be treated the same — that is, if God must be fair. He’s not bound to be fair. He is bound to be true to his nature; God must be good and loving and truthful. God must be at least just.
So how is it good and loving to be unfair? Well, that’s a question that can only be answered as Paul has answered it — by trusting that God knows the future better than we do and that God knows what’s truly best.
Good parents aren’t always fair, either. Different children need to be treated differently. Some children respond best to strict discipline. Some respond best to leniency and freedom. Some children need constant affirmation. Some respond best to their own internal affirmation. Some respond well to instruction. Some have to learn the hard way. Some can be trusted to drive at 16 — earlier if the law allows. Some can’t be trusted to drive until they’re 25. Some can handle money at 12. Others can never handle money.
And those of us with children are all too familiar with the cries of “Unfair!” from the other child. But the other child is, after all, a child and not capable of seeing the bigger picture.
To God, we are children, and we must approach his wisdom with the greatest of humility — which is hard, because, well, we’re kinda full of ourselves. We are too impressed with our own smarts and not impressed enough with God’s. When we see God acting in ways that bother us, rather than judging God, we should feel the weight of God’s judgment. His ways are not our ways, and he is wiser than we can ever hope to be.
That should not stop us from struggling to understand God better. There is wisdom to be found as we struggle with such questions; but it’s a wisdom found in submitting to God’s higher wisdom rather than in looking down on God — rather like a 5-year sneering at his “foolish” parents. Our parents get smarter as we get older, and God will make better sense as we grow in understanding. And while we are waiting on a deeper knowledge of God, in faith, we have to learn humility and patience.
We’re not done. We’ll next venture into the earlier chapters of Romans. But as we hop, skip, and jump through Romans, we just need to remember that the idea is for us to be conformed to God’s image — not for us to remake God into the image of man.
And as we study Romans a bit more, we’ll not come to fully understand God — as though that were possible — but we’ll gather some tools that will help us to understand him better.
(For a more thorough discussion of Romans 9 – 11, check out the series on Election, which covers the three chapters in detail.)