The Basis of God’s Mercy

Only by losing control and looking to Jesus alone can it be good news to hear, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.”

I will have mercy on whom I have mercy (Exod 33:19; Rom 9:15). Few statements could shift in meaning as much as this one, depending on the character of the speaker. But in this case, the speaker is God. So it prompts the question: When we come to God, what kind of God will we get?

The question could be a scary one to ponder, given the seeming possibility — or even likelihood — that we might fall on the wrong side of God’s will. Even more, a quick reading of Romans 9 might make you think that the God of Israel is like the mercurial gods of the Greek pantheon — he is an arbitrarily merciful God: yes to Jacob, no to Esau, and for no apparent reason. We can only hope that we come down on the right side of his capriciousness. Yet Paul assures us that God is just (Rom 9:14). But how can we trust this is so? When God defined his character, he said, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod. 34:6–7). As a result, ancient Jews believed that God wasn’t capricious but merciful. Yet the question remains: On what basis do we make sense of his mercy? And what factors determine the kind of God we meet? Here it can be helpful to contrast two ways of making sense of God’s mercy.


A near contemporary of Paul, Philo of Alexandria came from a wealthy family and was well-educated in Greek philosophy and the Jewish Scriptures. Much of his writing was devoted to allegorical interpretation of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. In one of his writings, Philo addresses some of the same theological issues Paul does in Romans 9: specifically, why do some receive mercy but not others? For Philo, God’s statement from Exodus would be terrifying if he couldn’t discern a reason why certain people receive mercy — and specifically a reason in the character of the human recipients. We know God is merciful; yet we see from Scripture that not all receive that mercy; what makes the difference? Like Paul, Philo wanted to show that God was not simply unjust, yet his conclusions are quite different.

Philo’s solution is to claim that “God has made natures in the soul that are in themselves faulty and blameworthy” and others that are “excellent and praiseworthy” (Leg. 3:75).[1] Every person begins life with a nature that is inherently good or bad. What reveals a person’s nature is their name: Behind a person’s action is their name, and behind their name is their nature, which provides the grounds for God’s mercy — or lack thereof.

For example, the Abram we meet in Genesis 11–12 seems to receive God’s calling and promise without cause: as far as we can see, he’s a pagan who has done nothing good. But in Philo’s reading, the skeleton key to God’s favorable actions towards Abram is his name: “God produced this character having an image worthy of zeal, for ‘Abram’ means ‘father high-soaring’” (3:83). As Philo explains, both parts of Abram’s name reveal his praiseworthy nature. Accordingly, if we can’t find an action to make sense of God’s generosity, we turn to the person’s name, which reflects their nature. But what if God chooses to bless someone before they’re born?

In the case of Jacob and Esau, Philo turns to God’s foreknowledge: “God the creator of living beings knows his own handiwork well, even before he has thoroughly chiseled them, both their faculties … and their works and passions” (3:88). Indeed, all that God needs to bless someone is the “slightest breeze of virtue” that “points to leadership and authority” (3:89). God’s blessing of Jacob over Esau, therefore, makes sense, because he could see how these two would go on to live their lives: one worthy of blessing, one not.

For Philo, God must bless and give grace in a way that is comprehensible to us. Which means that there will always be some way of explaining why some receive mercy and others do not. That reason will not be a change in the quality of God’s mercy; it can only be found in the human recipient.[2]


In Romans 9, Paul declares that God’s promise has not “failed” (9:6). Of course, he sees that not all have believed in the gospel — and so he understands, like Philo, that the Exodus line opens God up to a charge of injustice. Therefore he works through scriptural history to reveal how God’s people have always been established by his promise. Paul explores many of the same test cases that Philo does, yet he upends the very explanations Philo gives, because his interpretive key — the thing that unlocks history for him — is the death of Jesus for unworthy sinners, which for him is the revelation of God’s mercy and grace. In Paul’s thought, the Christ-event reverberates backwards into history and forwards into the future as the definition of God’s mercy — and therefore the basis for hope.

In chapters 1–3 of Romans, Paul launches into a massive argument to show that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (3:9), that “there is none righteous” (3:10), and that “all have sinned and lack the glory of God” (3:23). It’s in this context that Paul discusses Abraham’s faith and righteousness. While a lot could be said here, the main point is that Abraham’s faith is specifically in the God who justifies the ungodly (4:5) — and so the justification of Abraham is the justification of an ungodly person. Abraham bears no special features that set him apart from the rest of humanity; rather, he belongs in the set of people who are unrighteous (3:10) unless justified by God. The fact that Paul places Abraham’s faith in contrast to works (so that Abraham’s justification by faith is distinguished from anything Abraham may have done in order to be worthy of justification) drives home the point (4:4–5). Neither Abraham’s name, nor his nature, nor any actions can be called up to make sense of his justification, but only the faith elicited by God’s promise. If Philo could find some fit between God’s grace and Abraham’s nature, Paul denies it. Indeed, to consider Abraham’s worth would lead not to grace but wrath upon a Chaldean idolater (Rom 1:18; cf. Josh 24:2).

Nery Gabriel Lemus, I was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me, 2014. Oil on canvas, 48 x 24 in.

Paul’s argument is similar with Jacob and Esau. Where Philo jumped from their prenatal state to their future actions to make sense of God’s blessing, Paul says that God chose Jacob in the womb precisely so that his election would be before they had “done anything good or bad” (9:11). God’s election is “not by works but by him who calls” (9:12). If we want to explain Jacob’s election, we cannot turn to his works or worth, but only to God’s initiative, his “purpose of election” (9:11). It’s on this very basis that Paul goes on to make sense of how the Gentiles get brought into the church: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one” (Rom 9:25; Hos 2:23). This is a God who takes the unworthy, those who are “not my people” and “not my loved one,” and in his electing mercy makes them “my people” and “children of the living God” (Rom 9:26; Hos 1:10). It’s this same mercy that has been at work throughout Israel’s history to the present today.

Philo had to find a rationale for God’s actions, especially his gift-giving and mercy. Whether it was a person’s name, virtues, or even future actions, there is always a humanly explicable logic for what God does — always something we can point to in the human to explain God’s mercy. Paul’s argument runs the opposite way: nothing in the human makes sense of God’s mercy; indeed, God could seem foolish in the kind of people he chooses to love, bless, and call his own. Paul knows that his argument makes God seem arbitrary, potentially even capricious: “What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” But Paul’s answer is a resounding, “Not at all!” (9:14). Philo would’ve been quick to call Paul’s God irrational. But Paul proclaims the cross of Christ as the very thing that overturns human reason (cf. 1 Cor 1:18ff.). For Paul, if we want to understand God’s mercy, we can only look to God’s own character, will, and purpose — what he has revealed to us. And what God has revealed to us is that his loving purpose is seen most clearly in Christ’s death and resurrection specifically for the ungodly (3:21–26; 5:6–8; 10:1–17). Both Philo and Paul believed God was gracious and merciful; but for Philo his mercy must be explicable from the human side, while for Paul his mercy is inexplicable from our end because it depends only on God’s will to be merciful. Human worth — any human characteristic — fails to qualify God’s mercy, which can only be explained by recourse to the God who “has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32).


Philo and Paul represent two drastically different ways of thinking about who God is and who we are before God. The distinction is worth considering, because the human temptation is always to follow Philo: to try to find a reason for God’s mercy or blessing in the quality of a person. We may do without the allegorizing and philosophizing, even without much awareness that we’re doing it, but in our hearts we are by nature more Philo than Paul.

I was leading a Bible study at my church recently when I threw out the question: Why did God choose Abraham? One of my most mature, biblically astute parishioners answered: “He must have been able to see the kind of faithfulness Abraham would have in his life.” Heads nodded all around the room. And I understood why. Even if life has beaten the tar out of us and God’s grace has taken hold, we will still be tempted to find the motivation for God’s mercy in us: which means that it will be, in some measure, safe in our control — comprehensible. We want to think that God’s mercy in some way or another depends on us. Few Christians I know would outright say that human worth — in one form or another — is a condition for God’s mercy. And yet, there must be some reason for it. Without that explanation, how can we make sense of it?

But Paul teaches us to understand that God’s mercy depends on us not a whit — not our name, nature, virtues, actions, social standing, or any other feature of our existence. Indeed, we can’t even understand God’s mercy (11:33), much less have any of us done anything to prompt his generosity (11:35). Paul’s logic leads us to turn away from ourselves and to look to Jesus instead. In Jesus you see that you can trust the character of the one who gives mercy. We see that we are the enemy, the sinner, the ungodly for whom Jesus died, so we have confidence not just of God’s love now, but also in the future, because God’s mercy is always directed towards those who are specifically not worthy of it (5:6–11).

The question lies before us every day: Do we rely on our own character for God’s mercy — or lean on God’s character alone? If we follow Paul, we can be confident in the kind of God we will get: the one we see in Jesus Christ. To go down this path, we lose — or, at least, feel like we lose — control, but we receive a grace and mercy not conditioned by our worth, indeed, given to us apart from any worth on our part. Only by losing control and looking to Jesus alone can it be good news to hear, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.”

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One response to “The Basis of God’s Mercy”

  1. Dane says:

    Well said. The tendency and tension is always there, isn’t it? Pure, divine mercy is a stumbling block to our self-centered delusions of control and works, especially before – but even after regeneration and justification have occurred!

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