GOD’S SOVEREIGN MERCY THE SOURCE OF ALL OUR BLESSINGS
Rom_9:16. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.
THE Apostle, being about to declare the rejection of the Jews, and the calling of the Gentiles, introduces his subject with a most solemn appeal to God, that he had “continual sorrow and heaviness in his heart,” on account of the unhappy state of his Jewish brethren. He knew that the subject would be very painful to the Jews; and yet he could not, consistently with his duty to God, conceal it from them: but he strove as much as possible to lessen the offence it would occasion, by assuring them of his unbounded affection for them, and his willingness to endure any thing, if it might but be subservient to their eternal welfare.
The subject as treated by the Apostle is no less offensive to the great mass of nominal Christians, than it was to the Jews: for he insists so strongly on God’s right to dispense the blessings of his Gospel according to his own sovereign will, that the proud heart of man cannot endure it. We are apt to think we have a claim upon God; and that he is bound to do for us all that he has at anytime done for his most favoured servants: and, when we are told, that he has a right to do what he will with his own, we deny him that right, and accuse him of injustice, precisely as the Jews themselves did. But the servant of God must speak, whether men will hear, or whether they forbear: he must declare to men the whole counsel of God, “even though briers and thorns be with him, and he dwell among scorpions.” At the same time, it should be his most anxious endeavour to “speak the truth in love.” This we would do. God knoweth that it is painful to us to give offence; yet not so much on our own account, as on account of those who are not able to receive our word. We would gladly do, yea, and suffer too, whatever should be necessary for their welfare: but still we cannot conceal the truth, or “keep back any thing that is profitable unto men.” We entreat however, that, if we speak any thing which may not at first approve itself to those who hear it, they will give us credit for seeking conscientiously their best interests, according to the light that God hath given us.
The words of our text are evidently a conclusion drawn from a preceding argument. To view them therefore aright, we must consider,
The statement on which the conclusion is founded—
Having intimated the danger to which his countrymen were exposed of perishing in unbelief, he anticipates an objection which they were disposed to make; namely, That they were in no danger, because, as descendants of Abraham, they were interested in the covenant made with him, and were heirs of all the blessings which were promised to him and to his seed: and that, consequently, if they were to perish, “the word of God would have been of no effect [Note: ver. 6.].” To this the Apostle replies, that the promises were not made to Abraham’s natural seed, but to his spiritual seed, who should be partakers of Abraham’s faith: and that, as they were yet in unbelief, they had no part or lot in Abraham’s blessings [Note: ver. 7, 8.]. This he proceeds to prove to them,
From undeniable and acknowledged facts—
[The blessings of the covenant were not given to all Abranam’s natural seed, even in the very first instance. Ishmael, who was born according to the course of nature, had no part in that covenant; the blessings of which were restricted to Isaac, who was born many years afterwards, not according to the common course of nature, but solely by virtue of an express promise. Here then was a proof, even in the immediate children of Abraham, that persons might be lineally descended from him, and yet be left without any interest in the covenant made with him.
But a further, and still stronger, proof of this took place in the children of this very Isaac, to whom the promise was restricted. His wife Rebecca bare him twins: and whilst these children were yet in the womb, and “before they could possibly have done either good or evil, it was said to her, The elder shall serve the younger [Note: ver. 9–12.]:” which prophecy was accomplished to their latest posterity, as the Prophet Malachi attests, saying, “Jacob have I loved; but Esau have I hated [Note: ver. 13. with Mal_1:2-3.].” Now if they should think that in the former instance respect was bad to the character of the two children, Ishmael and Isaac, and that the decree was founded on that, such a notion is altogether excluded from the present instance, because the children had done neither good nor evil; and the reason of the decree is expressly said to be, “that the purpose of God, according to election, might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.”
Here then an exclusion of a part of the natural seed is further proved, and that too by the sovereign disposal of God himself, irrespective of the characters of the persons respecting whom the decree was made. How much more therefore might those of Abraham’s descendants who should continue obstinate in unbelief, be excluded from the blessings of that covenant, which they themselves were so averse to embrace.]
From the express declarations of God himself—
[The Jews in the Apostle’s days trusted in the words of Moses, which they interpreted as comprehending all the Jewish nation without exception within the bonds of the covenant. To Moses therefore the Apostle has recourse; and appeals to what God himself had spoken to him. As in the foregoing instances God had exercised his own sovereign will in appointing who should, and who should not, be partakers of his covenant, so, in his communications with Moses also he had claimed to himself the same right, and declared that he would act in the same sovereign way: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion [Note: ver. 15. with Exo_33:19.].” Here God considers all the human race as in a state of guilt and misery, no one of them having any claim on him for mercy, or any thing that could entitle him to a preference beyond his brethren: and he declares, that as he would exercise his own sovereign will in dispensing his blessings to them, so he would have his sovereign grace and mercy acknowledged by all who should receive them.
This point is further confirmed by the Apostle’s adducing what God had spoken also to Pharaoh. God had exalted Pharaoh to the throne of Egypt, and had invested him with the most arbitrary and unbounded power. Such power was necessary, in order that there might be full scope for the rebellion of man, and the consequent triumphs of God over him. God knew that there were in the heart of Pharaoh all those dispositions which would resist him to the uttermost; and that he would thus call forth eventually those judgments which God, for his own glory, had determined to inflict on the oppressors of his people: and, whilst Pharaoh was in the very act of rebellion, and hardening himself more and more against his God, God said to him, “For this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.” The Apostle, having cited this in confirmation of what he had said respecting Moses, asserts in yet stronger language than before, “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.”
Thus the Apostle has proved beyond all contradiction the unquestionable right of God to give, or to withhold, his blessings, according to his own sovereign will and pleasure.
But before we proceed to the conclusion which the Apostle draws from hence, we would guard what has been already spoken from any misconstruction. Though God’s right to give or to withhold his blessings is asserted, together with the actual bestowment of them according to his sovereign will, yet he never withholds his blessing from any creature who humbly seeks it at his hands; much less does he ever infuse evil into the mind of any man in order to glorify himself in his destruction. His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart consisted in leaving him to himself, and to the unrestrained exercise of his own evil dispositions: and if we were all left as Pharaoh was, we should harden our own hearts precisely as Pharaoh did. In a word, God’s blessings are never dispensed but in a way of grace; his judgments are never executed but in a way of righteous retribution.]
Having thus stated the argument on which the Apostle’s conclusion is founded, we come to the consideration of,
The conclusion itself—
The conclusion is justly formed from the premises. It is indeed a humiliating conclusion, and a truth which our proud hearts are very averse to acknowledge; but still we must join issue with the Apostle, and say, “It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
Let not this however be understood, as though it sanctioned any want of exertion on our part—
[God does not here forbid us to will or to run, nor does he exempt us from the duty of both willing and running: no such thing is here expressed, nor can any such thing be deduced from it. How grievous is it that any should be found impious enough to cite this passage as discountenancing exertions on our part! In the whole sacred records, from the beginning to the end, there is not to be found one single word that can warrant such an idea as this. On the contrary, God always complains of us for not exerting ourselves, and refers our final condemnation to this as its proper ground and cause: “Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life,” says our Lord. “How often would I have gathered you together, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” As for those who say, “I can do nothing without God, and therefore, till God come, I may as well sit still, and attempt nothing;” God, so far from giving occasion for such a sentiment and such conduct, calls us most earnestly to exertion, and promises that we shall not exert ourselves in vain: “Ask and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:” and, “Whosoever cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out:” and, “When said I ever to the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain?” Know then, that to found any such sentiment on the words of the Apostle, is a gross perversion of the word of God, and an impious plea for antinomian licentiousness. But, that you may have a just view of this assertion,]
Its plain import is, that God’s free grace and mercy are the true and only sources of all good—
[Whatever be our success in the divine life, we must not refer it to our own volitions, or our own exertions. For, what inclination has the natural man to that which is truly good? None at all: there is not one good thought or desire in the heart of an unregenerate man: his will is altogether towards what is evil [Note: Gen_6:5.]: and if a good inclination be manifested by any one of us, it has been previously put into our hearts by Him who “giveth us to will and to do, of his own good pleasure [Note: Php_2:13.].” Nor can any exertions of ours in our natural state be of themselves effectual; for our blessed Lord expressly says, “Without me, or separate from me, ye can do nothing.” We must therefore “never sacrifice to our own net, or burn incense to our own drag.” God must have all the glory: it is “he who worketh all our works in us:” “Of him is our fruit found:” and to all eternity our song must be, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be the praise.” It is impossible for us ever to be too jealous upon this head. We are told, that “of him are all things, and for him are all things:” and therefore to him we must look for every thing that we need; and to him, even to his sovereign grace and mercy, must we ascribe every thing that we have received. If we differ, either from others, or from our former selves, we must never forget, one moment, “who it is that hath made us to differ:” and if we be able to say with the Apostle, “I have laboured more abundantly than others,” we must instantly correct ourselves, and add, “Yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me [Note: There are some who put a totally different construction on our text, and interpret it as though the Apostle had said, “It is not of him only that willeth, &c.” Thus, by their interpolation, they expressly contradict the Apostle, and subvert the whole train of his reasoning. If this were the meaning of the Apostle, what occasion would there be for the objections of his adversaries in ver. 14 and ver. 19.? Alas! that ever such liberties should be taken with the word of God!].”]
It remains only now that we shew you,
How these sentiments are to be maintained—
[We confess with grief and shame that many carry these sentiments too far, and maintain them in a very unhallowed way. But, whilst we maintain what God has so plainly taught, we would lift our voice without ceasing against every abuse of these doctrines. To those who accord with these views of divine truth, we most affectionately suggest the following cautions. Take heed to the manner in which you maintain these truths. Let none of you maintain them presumptuously, as though you could fathom the depths contained in them, or as though they gave you any licence for sloth and supineness. They contain mysteries, which God alone can fully comprehend, and difficulties which he alone can fully reconcile: but be it remembered, that there are far more and greater difficulties involved in a denial of them: and that our wisdom is, to receive every word of God with child-like simplicity, and to say, “What I know not now, I shall know hereafter.”
Nor let any hold them irreverently. Some will speak of these deep things of God as familiarly as if there were no mystery at all in them, or as if they were the uninspired dogmas of some ancient philosopher. But when we enter on “such holy ground,” we should, as Moses, “take off our shoes,” and proceed with reverential awe. “God is in heaven, and we upon earth; therefore should our words be few,” and diffident, and humble.
Nor should they be maintained uncharitably. Many there are who cannot see these truths, who yet are in a state truly pleasing to God; yea many, at whose feet the best of us may be glad to be found in heaven. It is a great evil, when these doctrines are made a ground of separation one from another, and when the advocates of different systems anathematize each other. Let all such dispositions be banished from the Church of God. Whoever may be wrong, they never can be right who violate charity, or refuse to others the right of judging for themselves. For the fundamental truths of Christianity, we must contend to the uttermost, (though even for them with meekness and love:) but in reference to truths which are involved in so much obscurity as those which relate to the sovereignty of God, mutual kindness and concession are far better than vehement argumentation and uncharitable discussion.
Lastly, let not these truths be maintained exclusively. Many are so partial to these deeper truths, that they can hardly condescend to speak of repentance and faith; and, as for exhortations to duty, they are apt to think such things legal and carnal. O beloved! flee from such a spirit, as you would from the plague: wherever it exists, it betrays a sad want of humility. Be ye as little children: let every word of God be dear to you; and be as ready to dwell upon the invitations, and precepts, and exhortations of the Gospel, as on these deeper mysteries, which may easily be strained too far, and may give occasion for inferences, plausible indeed, but erroneous, and contrary to the analogy of faith.]
How they are to be improved—
[The proper use of these deeper truths is to abase us with humility, as creatures destitute of all good; and at the same time to exalt us, as creatures infinitely indebted to the grace of God. Make this improvement of them, and they can never do you any harm: yea, receive them for these ends, and there are no other truths whatever that will operate to an equal extent. Who ever maintained the doctrines of grace more strenuously than the Apostle Paul? yet who ever so laboured in the cause of his adorable Redeemer? Take him then for your pattern, both in your sentiments and conduct; and then you will shew, that nothing so “constrains, as the love of Christ;” nothing so stimulates to a compliance with God’s will, as a sense of obligation to the riches of his grace.]