Romans 9:14-16 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Romans 9:14
  • Romans 9:15
  • Romans 9:16

In light of God’s decision to love one brother and hate the other, we might wonder, “Since God chose Jacob over Esau, doesn’t that make God unfair?” Paul’s answer is clear, “No!” God told Moses that it’s up to Him who He chooses to show mercy and compassion to. We can’t earn God’s favor or His mercy. It’s God who extends it to us.

Paul answers an incorrect assertion likely to be made by the competing “authorities” that God is unjust if He in fact decided beforehand that those of faith inherit the promise, while other Israelites do not, but there is no injustice in God. As with other objections to Paul’s teaching of faith from the competing Jewish “authorities,” Paul uses the scripture to refute them. Paul shows that God already did something like this when He chose Jacob over Esau. God is just doing something similar with Israel. Paul answers the question whether God is fair. After all, these men weren’t even born yet when God decided which one to love. Neither brother had done anything to earn or lose God’s favor.

Paul resoundingly says, “God is not unjust. He has made it clear that He gives mercy and compassion to whomever He chooses.” Why? God is God. Throughout his letter to the Romans thus far, Paul keeps hammering the point, “It’s not about keeping rules. It’s not about keeping rules.” Rules don’t justify us in the presence of God. No amount of deeds is enough to justify us in God’s presence, only the work of Jesus can. Being justified in the presence of God comes through faith. Also, living righteously on a daily basis comes by faith: Obeying God and living justly is accomplished through faith (Romans 1:16-17). We did not conceive of faith, and we certainly did not conceive of God’s plan to send His Son to die for our sins. It is always God who stoops down to help us, to show us mercy; otherwise we waste away our lives, whether we think we’re “good” or “bad.”

It’s interesting to note the context of Paul’s quote in verse 15, when God is talking to Moses and says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The Israelites have been rescued from slavery in Egypt (by God), Moses has gone up on the mountain to talk with God, and in Exodus 32 the Israelites impatiently demand a golden idol to worship. In response, God wants to wipe them out entirely, and start His chosen nation from Moses’ line. Moses asks God to spare the Israelites, and despite their total disregard for God’s commands, God says then He will deal compassion and mercy to whom He chooses. Despite total betrayal, God shows grace. Our default position as humans is sinfulness. We do nothing to earn God’s mercy; we deserve no favor. God shows favor anyway, as He wills to show it. For it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 

In the same way, God showed favor to Jacob in a way He did not show to Esau. Neither deserved God’s favor, but Jacob received it by inheriting the promise God gave to Abraham to father a great nation. It is important to note that the subject is the inheritance of the blessing promised to Abraham. It is clear from the earlier chapters of Romans that the grace of God to be justified in His sight is offered completely freely, with no strings to anyone who will receive it by faith. The Greek word charis is sometimes translated “grace” and other times “favor.” God gives His favor to whomever He chooses, but when it comes to being justified in His sight through the blood of Jesus, clearly God offers that to mankind freely to all who believe.

Biblical text

14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 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 does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.

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