“For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” (Romans 9:15-16)
In the midst of this chapter declaring God’s sovereignty in election and salvation, we find this profound exaltation of the mercy and compassion of God. Sometimes we get an idea in our minds that we deserve a lot more than we truly do. The truth is that we don’t deserve anything other than the wrath of God, and anything less or better than that is in God’s holy hand to disperse or withhold, according to his own will. When we consider what we truly deserve, that should make us ever more grateful for what we have been freely given by the Lord.
There’s a story about a lady who went to a photographer to have her picture made. When she saw the result, she didn’t like it. She took it back to him and said, “You’ll just have to take this over.” He asked, “What’s wrong with it?” She said, “It doesn’t do me justice.” He looked at the picture and looked at her and said, “Lady, you don’t need justice; you need mercy!”
Sometimes, we can be like the naïve lady and her picture. We might think that we want to be treated fairly, to have justice. However, when we see the gravity and weight of our sin and shortcomings before a holy God, knowing the penalty for that transgression is his eternal wrath, our cry is not for justice, but for grace and mercy.
The Holy Spirit anticipated carnal man’s objections to God’s total sovereignty in the choosing (election) of a people to save. “What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid.” (Rom. 9:14). We might at first blush think that it’s not fair for God to choose to bestow his love and favor upon Jacob but to pass over Esau in his ruined state. As Americans, we demand justice; I demand that I be treated fairly. However, as a minister friend of mine said recently, “Amazing fairness” is not a very sweet sound to me. However, when we feel our sin and believe our only hope of salvation is in God’s mercy, it’s then that “Amazing grace” is such a sweet sound to our ears and heart.
In Luke 18:9-14, we find a Pharisee and a publican’s prayers being contrasted. The self-righteous Pharisee listed off his own perceived spiritual resume of why the Lord should bless him. He really thought he wanted “fairness” from the Lord because he incorrectly viewed himself as righteous by his own works and deeds. He had either forgot or was willfully ignorant of the truth in the Old Testament scriptures that his righteousnesses were no better than filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), and there was none that did good and that even included him (Ps. 14:1-3). In his mind, he wanted the Lord to grant him what he had earned from his good works because he thought that “fairness” would get him not only a great pat on the back from the Lord but the ultimate reward of entrance into heaven.
In contrast, we see the publican knew all too well what the end result of justice and fairness for him would be. No doubt this publican had dealt very “unjustly” and “unfairly” with the taxpayers in Judea, and he knew that if he was held to the same standard of fairness by God, he would miserably fail that test. He knew he was a sinner. Consequently, he believed his only hope of salvation for such a sinner as him was the mercy of God. “And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.” He knew that justice before God would result in a guilty verdict, and then he would be legally obligated to pay the penalty of that offense in full. Therefore, he didn’t trust his own works to satisfy the Lord; he knew his only hope was the mercy of God.
Sometimes when asking for leniency in a sentencing hearing, a defendant might tell the judge that “I deserve mercy.” Well, by definition, mercy is “not giving one what they do deserve.” Therefore, if one is given what they deserve then, by definition, mercy cannot be extended to them. However, God’s mercy is extended to the elect by not giving them what they do deserve, which is punishment in the eternal lake of fire. Our God is so good that he doesn’t only extend to us mercy (not giving us what we do deserve) but he also blesses us with grace (granting us what we do not deserve). Beloved, before God we do not want justice or fairness; that would only end in our eternal ruin and suffering. By the work of Christ, God has seen fit to shew mercy unto his children, not because we’re good boys and girls and deserve it, but because it seemed good in his sight to be merciful to us.