Paul’s interpretation of God’s declaration to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” is possibly one of the most direct statements on a controversial topic in all of Scripture. He writes, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy” (v. 9:16). Another version translates the text this way: “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (NASB).
Before we come to any conclusions concerning this statement by the apostle, it would be beneficial for us to understand the context in which it is spoken. We have just finished studying God’s sovereign will over the selection of the Israel’s forefathers according to the Promise, which we have concluded from its context and from the fulfillment of the Promise in Christ that the apostle is speaking of the Eternal & Spiritual Israel, i.e. the children of God, not the physical Israel and its physical, covenant promises (cf. v. 9:8). The mercy of God of which the Apostle speaks is therefore not a mercy that affords physical prosperity for a particular nation and ethnic group but it is mercy unto eternal blessing.
The apostle makes this quite clear in the text following v. 9:16 when he speaks of God’s lack of mercy toward Pharaoh—a Gentile. Therefore God’s sovereign mercy and lack of mercy is universal—it extends to both Jew and Greek and bears with it eternal ramifications.
Now that it is clear that Paul makes our present statement in the context of eternity, we know that Paul is speaking of the salvation and the damnation of men’s souls. On this the apostle says, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy.” First, God’s mercy, his granting of eternal salvation and escape from condemnation, does not depend on the human will. This is to say that man does not determine his fate by his desires and inclinations. Why? Because, one, God’s mercy is dependent only on him and his good and sovereign pleasure, and two, if it were based on human desire and inclination, no person would ever obtain mercy, for the apostle declares earlier, “None seeks for God; all have turned aside and have become worthless” (v. 3:11b, 12a).
Second, God’s mercy depends not human exertion. The New American Standard words it this way, “It does not depend on the man … who runs, but on God who has mercy.” Both versions highlight the chief idea that the apostle is trying to bring across, that a man cannot work for or achieve God’s mercy. There is no human deed or human righteousness that will commend or justify any soul to God. Our righteousness is filthiness in the holy light of Yahweh, so much so that the apostle writes in another part of the text we quoted earlier, “None is righteous, no, not one … no one does good, not even one” (v. 3:10b, 12b, cf. Is. 64:6).
Because of God’s decree and because of our state in Adam and our subsequent inability to do anything that resembles righteousness, if mercy is to be had, it must come from God and God alone, just as the prophet wrote, “Salvation is from the Lord” (cf. Jonah 2:9).