Satisfied with Sovereign Mercy

The Christian’s Hope in God’s Unsearchable Purpose

Author Note: Before you read this, I encourage you to pick up your Bible and read Romans 9:1–18 and Exodus 33:12–34:9. This will keep the context fresh before you as we attempt to see the inner-workings of God’s sovereign mercy to poor and needy sinners.

God brought me to himself in a marvelous moment almost five years ago. And when he did, one of the first small group studies I attended in my local church was on Romans 9–16. This happened just weeks after my conversion.

As many already know, Romans 9–11 isn’t the easiest read in our Bibles and there is much debate regarding its theology. I have even heard of people who have abandoned the faith for the doctrine presented in these three chapters. Furthermore, I know Christians who deny the free election of God presented in this portion of Scripture, yet claim other portions with full affection. So, how did this land on me nearly five years ago, being only a few weeks old—an infant—in the faith?

My Testimony of God’s Revealing Work

For starters, this was the first time that I had ever even heard of such teaching being biblical. One of my high school teachers scorned men like John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and their “evil” doctrines of predestination. And as an unbelieving sixteen-year-old, I too thought it preposterous. But for some reason—that reason being the Holy Spirit’s work in me—this time I found myself becoming intrigued with this teaching.

The clear doctrine of God’s eternal predestination landed on me hard. I became an utter wreck for two days. I found myself asking, along with Paul’s opponent, “Is there unrighteousness with God” (Rom 9:14)?[1] One day I remember frantically calling my friend who was discipling me at the time because I had just listened to a radio preacher explicitly deny the sovereignty of God over man’s salvation. I was very confused.

Yet, the Lord carried me. As we progressed through chapter 9, 10, 11, and into the remaining portions of Paul’s Epistle, God was teaching me to love his sovereignty—and not over just salvation, but over all things. I began to see God’s sovereignty as a firm foundation to stake my entire life on and as a warm blanket to take refuge in when bitter cold troubles come. Shortly thereafter I went on a two-month trip to North Africa—and I carried this doctrine with me. In short, God was teaching me that this teaching was foundational for understanding who he is and who we are. But somewhere along the way (over the course of about 3 years or so) God’s sovereignty became merely familiar to me—that is, until this semester’s Greek exegesis course, where we are sentence diagramming and arcing through Romans 9–11.

While doing my Greek homework in Romans 9:14–18 and supplementing with John Piper’s The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23, my study of God’s free election has given rise to higher affections and a deeper dependence on the mercy of Christ for the whole of my life.

The fundamental step in being satisfied with sovereign mercy is recognizing that such mercy is bound up in the very nature of God himself and is itself righteousness. That is, as we will see below, God’s free mercy is righteous precisely because he is God. Or to put it another way, the only mercy God can bestow is righteous mercy.

Paul’s Use of Exodus 33:19 in Romans 9:15

What follows is an attempt to answer the question of how Paul’s quotation of Exodus 33:19 is used to support his claim that there is no unrighteousness with God for his unconditional election.[2] How is the quote from Exodus 33:19 in Romans 9:15 used to support Paul’s claim that there is no unrighteousness with God?

Five points can be made:
1. The logic can be traced as follows: Because of the seemingly unrighteous situation that Paul presented in Romans 9:6–13 (i.e., God said before Jacob and Esau were born or had done anything good or evil that he would cause the older [Esau] to serve the younger [Jacob]), he poses the question, which anticipates a negative answer: "Is there unrighteousness with God,” Paul answers himself: "By no means!” Then he proceeds to support this claim by citing God's words in Exodus 33:19: "I will mercy whomever I mercy and compassion whomever I compassion."

2. What is striking is not only that this is a response to Moses's question: "Please, let me see your glory" (Exod 33:18 CSB), or that this is a part of "all my goodness" (33:19 CSB) that will pass by, or even that Yahweh is directly showing Israel—his stiff-necked people (32:9; 33:3)—mercy in the present context (32:9–34:9), but that this, by witness of 34:6–7, is a part of what it means to be God himself. Yahweh himself is the “glory” of 33:18 and the "goodness" of 33:19 that passes by and is clarified in 34:6–7.

3. Therefore, since God's name proves himself to be compassionate and gracious (34:6), and if his compassion and grace are constrained by nothing except God's pure freedom, then part of what it means to be God is "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" (CSB). Exodus 33:19 is therefore bound up in the passing by of God’s name in 34:6–7. That is, according to these texts, a part of what it means to be God is that he is gracious to whom he wills and compassionate to whom he wills.

4. Therefore, in the context of Romans 9:15, Paul is using Exodus 33:19 as supporting material to prove that there is no unrighteousness with God in his unconditional election of Jacob and reprobation of Esau (and accordingly, Israel and others). Paul, therefore, knowing the context of Exodus 33:19, does not merely appeal to a historical act of God's free election (e.g., the Israelites present need of mercy in 33:12–15), but rather he appeals to the very name of Yahweh.[3] Thus, in short, God's righteousness is upheld because he is Yahweh and to show mercy and compassion whomever he wills is bound up in his very nature. Therefore, any opposition to such appeal to righteousness proves a misconstrued understanding of God's righteousness (See Piper, The Justification of God, 91–101).

5. Finally, the logic could simply be retraced as follows: There is no unrighteousness with God in his free and unconditional election precisely because his name is (i.e., he is) Yahweh: “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”


What does one do with this theology? How should this impact our lives? Seeing that this profound truth of God’s election is bound up in his very name, we should first call out to God in praise for his unsearchable depths, just like Paul:

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?'

'Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?'

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:33–36).

Our hearts should first marvel at such unsearchable truth. Then, instead of forsaking explicit commands in the Bible like prayer and evangelism, we ought to rather walk in confident obedience that our Heavenly Father is working all things for his glory. When the tides of sorrow billow in, rest on this doctrine, knowing that in Christ your heavenly dwelling is secure. When Satan tempts you to despair and tells you of the guilt within, look to Christ, who has caused you to be dead to sin and alive to God (Rom 6:11; Eph 2:1–10)—he who loved you first (1 Jn 4:10, 19). When your unbelieving friend won’t accept the gospel, trust in the Lord and keep telling him about Jesus.

The doctrine of election presented in Romans 9–11 should, in short, cause every Christian everywhere to happily submit their whole lives to the all-wise authority and rule of God, placing their complete dependence upon him for everything, the least of which is certainly not the salvation of their souls.

[1] It should be noted that the Greek μὴ in Romans 9:14 suggests a negative response. That is, by posing the question himself, Paul makes known the answer to his question: “No, there is no unrighteousness with God.” It is a rhetorical device common in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Rom 3:3–5; 9:14; 11:1, 11). I note this because I was standing in the opponents place legitimately asking this question like many Christians and non-Christians today.

[2] “Unconditional” is a slippery word. God’s election is “unconditional,” with reference to humans, in the sense that the objects of his election have done nothing to earn the election. Yet, his election is conditional, with reference to God, that those whom he elects are his own children. Yet even still, this must be further qualified because it is God who grants his children their identity as children. It was not that Israel was anything good that the Lord set his affection on her, but it was only because he loved her and swore his oath to her (Deut 7:7–11). Therefore, Israel’s election depended wholly on the affection of God. Likewise, the New Testament presents God’s election as unconditional with reference to man (Eph 1:4–6; 2:1–10; Rom 9:1–18) and conditional with reference to God (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:10, 19).

[3] Piper draws attention to the connection between the name of God (“I am who I am” in Exod 3:14) and the rhetoric of 33:19 (“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious ...”), noting that this is “an example of the Hebrew formula called idem per idem (Piper, The Justification of God, 82). Other examples include Exod 4:13; 16:23; 1 Sam 23:13; 2 Sam 15:20; 2 Kgs 8:1. Moreover, Piper, quoting Brevard Childs, says, “The circular idem per idem formula of the name—I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious—is closely akin to the name in Ex 3:14—I am who I am—and testifies by its tautology to the freedom of God in making known his self-contained being (ibid.). Furthermore, Piper, gleaning from Brevard Childs and George Bush, finds support from two points that claim Exodus 33:19 communicates the essence of God’s name: (1) There is a parallel between the idem per idem formula found in Exod 3:14 and 33:19; (2) Piper says, “Bush points out that the very same pair of words (“be gracious” and “show mercy”) used in 19cd is used in 34:6 as an explication of the name of Yahweh … [Bush] is therefore correct in concluding that ‘the meaning [of 33:19] is: “I will proclaim myself in passing by thee as the Lord whose prerogative is to be gracious to whom I will be gracious and to have mercy upon whom I will have mercy. This shall be the substance of what I will proclaim respecting the import of that great and fearful name.”’” (ibid., 84). Yet Piper sees even more support for this claim: “Not only does the pair, ‘grace’ and ‘mercy,’ define Yahweh’s name in 33:19 and 34:6, but even the indefiniteness of the idem per idem formula of 33:19 is preserved in the peculiar content of the formulation of God’s character in 34:6, 7.” (ibid., 84–85). In other words, just as the phrase “I will be gracious to whomever I will be gracious” is unspecified, so also Exod 34:6–7 is unspecified regarding the recipients of God’s grace and compassion (unlike Exod 20:5–6, where “those who hate me” are explicitly the ones who receive God’s wrath and “those who love me and keep my commandments” are those who receive God’s steadfast love). This last point further clarifies the relationship between Exod 33:19 and 34:6–7 and provides “good ground for construing [33:19] as an explication of the name of Yahweh … that is, of ‘his self, his real person’” (ibid., 86). In short, Exod 33:19 is a shortened version of God’s name, while 34:6–7 is a more expanded declaration (see ibid.).