How is God just, if ...?
Thanks for your great question. I'll divide the answer into a brief explain of salvation, mankind's accountability, and objections answered. Please see the links below for further notes related to this most difficult of doctrinal topics.
You're right, a sinner without Christ, is a slave to his own sinful nature. They are in bondage to sin (John 8:34; Rom 7:14). It is unescapable on their own. They are literal prisoners. They are chained to a ship going down, down, down. And yet Christ gives all on the ship the command to "repent and believe" (Mark 1:15).
How is it possible for spiritually dead indidvdiuals (Eph 2:1-3) to repent and believe? How is is possible to go from being dead "in Adam" with total inability to being alive "in Christ?" Jesus says, "You MUST BE born again" (John 3:7). But you can't do this, but God can! Salvation is mongeristic - God's work alone (John 1:12-13; Rom 9:14-16). It is supernatural. God first changes us (new creations, 2 Cor 5:17), so that we can willingly know him as Lord and Savior (Rom 10:9-10). Therefore, the order of salvation (the logical sequence of the stages involved in the salvation of a believer) is: (1) election, (2) effectual calling, (3) regeneration, (4) faith, (5) repentance, (6) justification, (7) adoption, (8) sanctification, (9) perseverance, and (10) glorification (see Rom 8:29-30). Note that faith and repentance (4 and 5) logically follow after regeneration (3), that is being born again. See "Do human beings have free-will?" below.
As far as culpability for original sin, after the Fall (Gen 3), Adam and Eve had a sin nature. All mankind, save Christ, is guilty "in Adam" (original sin). As the covenant head (Hos 6:7), Adam's sin spread to all his prodigy, save Christ, who was born of a virgin (Matt 1:23; Luke 1:27, 34). In other words, Adam and Eve produced children after their image and likeness (Gen 5:3), which included their sin nature. So, in Scripture we observe both an individualistic idea of sin and original sin itself. Paul speaking of the original sin, says in Romans 5:12-21 -
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men" . . . "For if many died through one man's trespass" . . . "For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation" . . . "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man" . . . "For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners" etc.
"Note, Paul's emphasis from "one man" ---> "all men." The sin of one man like a cancer spread to all mankind. In addition, Adam was "a type of the one who was to come" (Rom 5:14). Who is the One who was to come? This of course refers to the second and last man Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:45, 47). Reading the remainder of Romans 5:12-21, we discover that in a similar way that sin was credited to all mankind because of the one man, Adam, that righteousness is credited to all believers through the one man, Jesus Christ. This may not seem fair, but this is the way God designed his universe, and redemption itself. If we deny the "in Adam" aspect of sin, we are also denying any possibility of our "in Christ" redemption!
Further, the principle of an individual's sin being visited upon others is not foreign to Scripture. David's family suffered for David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:11, 14, 18). See Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Deuteronomy 5:9-10, etc. And in Leviticus 4:13-21 we even observe that the sin of the people done in a corporate manner was to be dealt with in a singular way, et. al.
However, our sin far exceeds original sin. Each are accountable for our own indidvdual sins as well (Eccl 7:20; Rom 3:23). We do this of our own will. Our self-righteousness mounts to less than nothing (Isa 64:6). Not only do we do sin, we actually find pleasure in it (Heb 11:25). So, we are guilty of original sin and for our own personal sin too.
God anticipated some people (including myself initially) not thinking any of this was very fair. It just seems not to mesh with our modern day sense of justice and fairness. However, God answers our objections in Romans 9. Paul, through the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:20-21), teaches that God loved Jacob and hated Esau. This was BEFORE they were even born - BEFORE they had done anything good or bad (Rom. 9:11-16). Therefore, God was totally ignoring any future meritorious deeds of either Jacob or Esau.
So, God made this choice because he is who he is (Exod 3:14). God naturally possesses the perfection of free will to an infinitely eminent unfathomable, yet mysterious degree. He is the very definition of perfection and in his sovereign love he chose his elect sinlessly before the very foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-14). However, the natural human response to this is that Esau got a raw deal. Why didn't Jacob and Esau both get chosen? Esau hadn't even done anything wrong yet! How could God do such a thing?
But, Paul doesn't make the argument that we would expect. He doesn't even try to defend God's holy sinless character, rather he defends God's sovereign choice. In Romans 9:15-16, Paul doesn't point out God's goodness or fairness, but he refers to God's exclusive right and free-choice - "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" (cf. John 1:12-13). So, like a corporate CEO, who has an exclusive right to hire and fire the people he desires in his own company, God chooses whom he wills! Some don't like it, but that is the answer of Scripture.
God in his sovereignty also demonstrated his divine will in the life of Pharaoh - to actively harden his heart (Rom. 9:17-18; cf. Exod 7:3-4, 13, 22; 8:19; 9:12; 10:20, 27, etc.). Here Paul moves the bar even higher in some respects, as he insists that God played an active part in hardening Pharaoh's heart (cf. Matt 11:22-23). Paul naturally expected an objection at this point in his argument. He writes, "You will say to me then, 'Why does he still find fault? For who resists his will?'" (Rom. 9:19). Again, he responded - not by explaining why God's action was fair or just by mere human standards - but rather by reasserting God's divine and exclusive right. He writes:
On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? (Rom. 9:20-22).
In this passage, at the very least, Paul is teaching:
(1) That as mere men we shouldn't question God's character and actions. We don't have that right!
(2) God gives birth to us (the "molded," Gen 2:6-7), we don't give birth to God ("the Molder").
(3) God makes some vessels for honorable use and others for common use, the later fitted for destruction (Prov 16:4).
(4) God's actions concerning Esau and Pharaoh - and all mankind - are his divine exclusive right. God's divine choice. The Potter's not the pot's. See Psalms 115:3; 135:6-11; Isaiah 46:11.
(5) God is sovereign and has done what he has done and therefore it must be right. Since God has done it, that settles it, as God is righteous (Gen 18:25; Deut 32:4; cf. Psa 119:89; Rom 7:12).
(6) That mere human beings have no innate rights that God must respect. God is the one who has all the rights - "the Potter has the right." See #4 above.
Much of the misunderstanding of this doctrine extends around not properly understanding the doctrine of "election," the nature of "evil," and "reprobation." Please see "Matthew 13 and Election," "Does God Use Evil to Accomplish His Purposes?," and "What is Reprobation?"
Related Topics:Do human beings have free-will?
Matthew 13 and Election
Will all mankind eventually be saved? (Isn't election unjust?)
Does God Use Evil to Accomplish His Purposes?
Is God pleased with the death of the wicked? - Ezekiel 18:32; 33:11
What is Reprobation?
Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).