Romans: God is Not Fair, Part 2 (Romans 9 – 11)

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.)

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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21 Responses to Romans: God is Not Fair, Part 2 (Romans 9 – 11)

  1. Price says:

    Jay, if only I had your steel-trap mind I could differentiate between Fair and Just… It’s just too thin a demarcation for me…. that I can wrap my mind around but unfair just too closely resembles unjust for me to attribute to God…Who am I to suggest even in my own personal thoughts that God hasn’t given me something to which I am entitled or that I have merited according to some doctrine of Fairness… Unequal..yeah.. That’s not unjust.

  2. When we judge God by our human concept of fairness, we will always come up wrong.

    Invariably, humans who cry “unfair” (in human situations) are claiming abuse or neglect. They never use “unfair” in the sense Jay is using it in this series: that God is treating us better than we deserve.


  3. rich constant says:

    one tool i would like to bring forward here Jay,
    when we speak of gods righteousness in reference to fairness,we are talking of a forensic quality of Gods intrinsic nature of righteousness and where and how these words are used must be determined by the contemplative student.
    this seems fairly easy,Right?
    although in Romans 3:22 namely, the RIGHTEOUSNESS of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…
    WELL .
    for the theory of faith only to work through the rest of Romans
    which i believe skews our perception of the mystery reviled.
    the definition of this word is taken as a forensic quality of GOD.
    i won’t get into that ..
    OUR concepts of god have been so subtly altered because of theory’s of doctrine it becomes seriously difficult to distinguished the forest because of the trees.
    we (men) have built castles on sand and not the purpose of the cross.

  4. laymond says:

    As I was told many times when I was a child, and came up on the short end of the stick, “don’t worry about it, it will all even out in the end” and I believe it will.

  5. abasnar says:

    Col 4:1 Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.

    Jay, I think we are not called to play with words. This verse rather plainly states that God is fair. He is also just, and both words are twins to each other. Saying God is unfair is the same as saying God is unjust.

    As I tried to point out in my other post that we are all beggars who don’t deserve the mercy to be called into the vinyard; it is not a matter of fairness or justice whom God calls. God calls us based on His mercy and foreknowledge, and according to a plan that He pursues.

    He called Abraham, because He wanted to make Him a father of many nations and the father of faith. He called Jacob, the second born son, in order to underline the choice of grace rather than the rule of birth.

    You cannot say, because God (seemingly!) arbitrarily choses one and hates the other one, that He is being unfair. Or that by paying the same wage (in a PARABLE) for different amounts of work He is being unfair. No, it is a matter of mercy and friendlyness – we deserve NOTHING good from Him. But He lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the just and the unjust alike.

    Paul BTW is not struggling with the unfairness of God, but with the stuibburn unbelief of the Jewish nation as a whole. They were given so many privileges but failed to recognize their Messiah. And still, it was part of God’s plan (as was revealed in the prophets) that they should fail in order to let the gospel reach out to all nations. The election of Israel as God’s people according to the flesh was to be substituted by an Israel according to faith and Spirit. Paul knew of this plan and he understood it very well – in fact he marvelled over God’s wisdom, but he would never even haven dreamed of daring to call God unfair.

    John the baptist made it clear that God can raise children for Abraham from dead stones. John, the apostle, wrote that we are not saved by our bloodline but by being born again from above. This change in election was foreshadowed and declared many times in the OT, thus the election of the earthly nation of Israel was always meant to be temporary, as a means to an end.

    Rom 11 about the olive tree makes it very clear, that it is about faith and mercy, not about the bloodline. And this is fair as soon as we understand the rules by which God acts. If we misunderstand the rules, we will eventually end up misunderstanding God – and this will tempt us to call God “unfair”. But we should never allow to let our lips pronounce such thoughts, because God is neither unfair nor unjust, as Col 4:1 plainly states.

    Although it is good to be provoked to dig deeper into God’s word, I doubt that such “provocations” need to be “provocative”. Maybe you can find better words to describe our human (carnal) feelings about God’s ways in dealing with us beggars.


  6. rich constant says:

    “Jay, I think we are not called to play with words. This verse rather plainly states that God is fair. He is also just, and both words are twins to each other. Saying God is unfair is the same as saying God is unjust….”

    “…Although it is good to be provoked to dig deeper into God’s word, I doubt that such “provocations” need to be “provocative”.

    Maybe you can find better words to describe our human (carnal) feelings about God’s ways in dealing with us beggars…”

    i just haft to ask…
    please don’t take this the wrong way,Please.

    in your leading thought on this comment, as you read what have you clearly said, you have done , at least to me.

    there are to me” rules of engagement”
    in discussion, one is not to be emphatic on a subject.
    and everyone should participate at there level of understanding.
    there are no stupid questions…or comments,and people like me that are driven to find out what not right is.
    the scriptures clearly state
    “seek and you will find”
    what are the rules,a loving good hart with an honest exchange of ideas to bring a clearer understanding of our situation in relation to “gods good” and the how and why
    God can be good and allow evil to exist.
    which brings up a question of gods sovereignty.
    our fellowship in in the Spirit allows us to plumb the very depth’s of god into the mystery that
    just people that are afraid to say “I am sorry I don’t know”
    also enter into a discussion and become pedagogical.

    to me the hardest, also seemly almost impossible task, for me was to find was a teacher, that i could respect including the patience and knowledge to deal with MY ignorance.
    i ran out of tools. and needed to re tool myself. new (to me) words to express specifically what i thought.
    once i started to pray with a sincere loving hart the spirit led me to a a narrative theologian.
    and the funny thing is i had no idea the word “narrative” had anything to do with a bible study.

    ya see i am forth gen. Texas tradition anti everything Church of Christ member. and yes sir re sir i knew my bible…

    if you don’t know what the word pedagog means.
    25 years ago i would spell it rich constant.


  7. rich constant says:

    as a note
    this is from a study, and commentary i was reading in 1990-2.
    which started for me in 1973.
    and i finished up with for me anyway in 2009. thank god”.
    on faith in Christ or the faithfulness of Christ.

    Burton Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

    “…ROM>chap 1 Verse 17
    For therein is revealed a righteousness of God from faith to faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall five by faith.

    First, the expression “a righteousness of God” should be read “the righteousness of God,” as in KJV and RSV. One may only conjecture as to why the English Revised Version (1885) translators gave such a rendition, especially in view of the fact that they rendered the parallel expression a moment later, in verse 18, as “the wrath of God.” Barmby noted that “`A wrath of God’ has no intelligent meaning,” F27 and the same is true of “a righteousness of God.” As Barmby noted, the two expressions simply mean “God’s righteousness” and “God’s wrath.”

    Regarding the broader question of “the righteousness of God,” if this refers to the righteousness imputed by God to human beings (forensic righteousness), or the eternal righteousness of God’s character (intrinsic righteousnesS), the evidence indicates that the latter is meant, not only here, but throughout Romans. We shall not go into the exhaustive dissertations of scholars on this place. The writer finds himself in strong agreement with Barmby; and, therefore, Barmby’s critical exegesis is summarized in that commentator’s own words. Convincing as Barmby’s analysis is, however, the overriding consideration in accepting the “righteousness” of this verse as a reference to God’s intrinsic righteousness, rather than to man’s forensic, or imputed righteousness, is found in Romans itself (Romans 3:25,26), where God’s righteousness in “passing over the sins done aforetime” is the real key to the meaning of “righteousness” throughout the epistle, plainly referring to an attribute of God, and not to any imputed righteousness of people; and even in the places where the latter is spoken of, the great consideration in the background is always God’s intrinsic righteousness. A paraphrase of Barmby’s summary on this question is:

    It is usual to interpret this as meaning man’s imputed or forensic righteousness; but if Paul meant that, why did he not use the words he used in Philippians 3:9, where he WAS speaking of that? The phrase suggests the sense in which the words are continually used in the Old Testament. The quotation from Habakkuk does not refute this meaning. The Old Testament usage of the term “righteousness” in Psa. 18:2 undoubtedly means “God’s righteousness”; and the constant use of the phrase in a known sense in the Orr would naturally lead us to think that when Paul used it, he would have used it in the same sense. It is maintained in this commentary (with all due deference to the distinguished ancients and moderns who have held otherwise) that not only in this opening passage, but throughout the epistle, this phrase means God’s own eternal righteousness, and that even in passages where a righteousness that is of faith is spoken of as communicated to man, the essential idea beyond is still that of God’s own righteousness including believers in itself. F28…”

  8. Jay Guin says:


    I’ll be getting to Romans 3 in a few posts, and then I’ll take up God’s justice.

    If I give an undeserving child an ice cream cone, that’s grace, not justice. If I don’t give her equally undeserving brother an ice cream cone, that’s just. He has no claim on my generosity. But from his perspective, I’m being very unfair.

    If a receive a free lottery ticket, and later find out that the lottery is rigged and I never had a chance, I’d cry “Unfair!” not “Unjust!”

  9. Jay Guin says:


    People routinely cry “Unfair!” when others get more free stuff than they do. If I take 3 of my four very-well cared for, somewhat-spoiled children to DisneyWorld but leave the fourth at home with a sitter, even though he is as well-behaved as the other boys, he’ll cry unfair, even though the trip is pure generosity on my part. In fact, most people would brand me a terrible parent if I were to do that!

    And so, fairness as humans judge things is not just about neglect. It also applies to unequal generosity.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    I’m headed toward Romans 3. We’ll get there in a few posts.

  11. abasnar says:

    @ Rich Constant

    I did not mean to sound harsh, but aside from “rules of engagement in a discussion” there are “rules” on speaking about God. I see it as provocative to call God “unfair” in the sense I tried to explain.

    It is my impression that Jay did not ask a question here, but (at least to a degree) made up his mind, so he proposes a conclusion rather than a question. At least that’s how I read his posts. Jay assumes that people will be “instantly outraged” at his wording – I am not outraged, but I am a little “disturbed”. He is a fine and deep thinker who tries to honor God in every way – I do respect that. But claiming “God is unfair” is not honoring God – yet I understand that a lawyer is even more inclined to read and understand the scriptures with “legal glasses” and a “legal mindset”. This is by no means the same as being “legalistic”, but here (in my opinion) Jay fails to understand God’s ways with us humans. And thus he calls God “unfair”.

    But God is fair, just and merciful. If God does not deal with us according to “legal justice” (as we’d deserve), this does not mean that He then is unjust. Mercy “overrules” justice, but does not contradict justice! In fact it is a different aspect of God’s justice (or righteousness).

    For instance:

    Rom 3:21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–
    Rom 3:22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
    Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
    Rom 3:24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
    Rom 3:25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

    So, when we get what we actually don’t deserve (!) God is being revealed as “righteous”! And righteous is the same word that is translated as just (e.g. Col 4:1 – ESV). And the word translated as fair in the ESV (also Col 4:1) is a synonym to just, a “twin” to the thought of “equity”.

    Now, why is this so? Why is God righteous when He does condemn us – but also righteous when he forgives us? Fair, when we get what we deserve, and also fair when we receive mercy instead of deserved punishment?

    Because the Law was not given in order to save us! It came after Abraham received the covenant and after Moses led Israel out of Egypt. Our relationship with God is not based on the Law, but shall lived out in harmony with His Law. Our children are not our children, because they obey us – but because they are our children, they ought to obey us. Yet, obedience is not the foundation of our realtionship. If we treat our kids only according to what they do and don’t do, we may call ourselves “just” or “fair”, but then we don’t deal with them like parents anymore but rather like a judge or policeman.

    Now, God is righteous/just/fair when He forgives us, because this is in harmony with Him being our Father. He does not desire to treat us according to the Law and to condemn us! He looks for us, He goes way out of His way to meet us where we are! And it breaks His heart (as our Lord Jesus wept when He neared Jerusalem) when we reject His generosity. See, God is righteous, even when he does not judge us according to our misdeeds, because He is in harmony with His character when doing this.

    In other words: Righteousness, fairness or justice are defined by God’s whole being and not by our human understanding and experiences, not even by the Law of Moses. Because although He gave the Law, He also said: The Sabbath is for man and not vice versa. Again: Mercy overrules the Law. And thus God’s righteousness is revealed. (BTW: I do agree with the commentary you quoted above)


  12. Bryan says:

    I can see some of what’s being called unfair in the OT in God’s seemingly arbitrary selections of one person over the other. Although we look hard for reasons, the text lays out no real reason for the selection of Able over Cain. Or Jacob over Esau.

  13. Price says:

    Jay, I could hardly agree more with your last post…. I lost both my parents at age 10… I believed in God but boy was I angry…All the way to about age 40…. He was totally unfair.. Who does that to somebody who goes to church 3 times a week, private Christian school that they couldn’t afford to pay for and volunteering for everything under the sun… Not a fair God…Not a loving God… It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God, I just didn’t care anymore about what He had to say… What good did it do…Yeah. I know about the human side of it…

    I also know that He showed up in my life in ways I was taught didn’t happen anymore… at age 40 God showed up… And on a mission trip I heard an audible voice, if only to me when privately complaining about a situation….”You don’t know what I know.” From that moment on I have given every doubt or frustration back over to a God that knows more than I do…than I ever will…

    I no longer worry about Fair…or Just…All I need to ever know is that the Creator of everything that I know…Loves me.. If that’s not enough … that’s not His’s mine..

    Me…I’m satisfied… If you are ever in doubt read Psalms 139… Thank you for being real..

  14. Jay Guin says:


    Thanks so much for sharing that story (meaning “true story,” of course). God does not easily fit into the human conception of fairness — not because he’s evil but because his goodness is beyond our grasp.

    (Isa 55:8-9 ESV) 8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

  15. guestfortruth says:


    what happened with the exagesis of Romans 3?

    Chapter 3 Affirms the universality of sin and begins to explain the only remedy for sin.

  16. Jay Guin says:


    It’s coming, but it’s several posts away. I’m taking Romans 1 thru 3 in order.

  17. Nate says:


    I stumbled onto your blog last week and have really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I grew up in the Church of Christ but would over the past few years have come to consider myself a Reformed Baptist (if a classification is indeed necessary). As such, this topic is especially interesting to me since I’ve had to work through what the Bible says about election and my own feelings that God is unfair. I wanted to comment on one thing you said in a response…

    “If I give an undeserving child an ice cream cone, that’s grace, not justice. If I don’t give her equally undeserving brother an ice cream cone, that’s just. He has no claim on my generosity. But from his perspective, I’m being very unfair.”

    You’re example is right on about grace and justice. I think the area where this example breaks down a little bit is that you’re assuming that man wants salvation through Christ like a child wants an ice cream cone. In Romans 3 Paul tells us that none is righteous and no one seeks for God. In Romans 8 Pauls talks about those who live in the flesh have their desires set upon the things of the flesh. It really helped me to understand that God is actually giving unrepentant sinners what they desire by letting them chase after their fleshly desires. Therefore, it’s very unlikely that the unbeliever would accuse God of being unfair – for all God did was allow them to fulfill their own desires.

    Again, I appreciate your blog – keep up the good work!

  18. Randall says:

    Thanks for that.

  19. Jay Guin says:


    I agree that the unbeliever wouldn’t accuse God of being unfair. It’s the believers who do this. This is what leads to such doctrines as universalism and available light. These are efforts to soften the impact of our failure to evangelize and do missionary work as we should. And I think they stem from a false notion that somehow grace and salvation are deserved — because we conclude that the opposite — damnation — is unfair. But it’s fair. The unfairness of God is in saving us, as we sure don’t deserve it.

  20. Alabama John says:


    On October 10, 2009 you wrote a wonderfully fair scriptural examination on Available Light.

    Even those like myself that hold to that belief cannot argue with your final conclusion.

    There is no doubt that any belief of every man can be improved upon and made more perfect.

    Ultimately, that is what we all strive for.

  21. Christopher says:

    Jay wrote:

    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.

    If we were all identical in our being and actions, we probably would all be treated the same way. The most difficult passage Romans 9, to me, is in verses 19-21, because it seems to imply that Paul accepts the premise (in the hypothetical question he poses) that God controls our actions. D’Souza (in his book on suffering) argues from this passage that God is not obligated to give us anything. And if He was like a human potter, with no moral obligation to the clay he works with, he would be right. It is because God claims to be perfectly good, to love all He has made and to want all to be saved that we may see Him as obligated to us in some regards – not because He needs to repay us for anything we have done, but because He has given us His word.

    The great problem for faith is not that bad things happen to people, but that God does not seem to ever deliver them from their suffering. The problem, in other words, of God not demonstrating His power (on which Paul tells the Corinthinans it should rely) these days. The CoC has long maintained that the purpose of miracles were to confirm the spoken word, before it became scripture. I don’t necessarily buy that argument any longer. It may be expressing a form of godliness while denying its power. To argue that all one needs to have and maintain faith is a book is to ignore what that book teaches. I mean, consider the various “signs” God provided to people in the Bible as a basis for their belief. Even Jesus told some Jews that if they didn’t necessarily believe what He was telling them, they should at least believe on the evidence of the miracles being performed. He even appeared to a stubborn Thomas to allay his doubts. The world will never be evangelized as it was in the first century until this problem is solved. People don’t want a get out jail free card nearly so much as they want a friend in God who will help them in their need, even when everyone elsr won’t.

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