BY RICK BARKER
There is a common belief that God should be fair. We value fairness; we think that fairness is a good thing. Therefore, if God is good, we reason that He must also be fair. But God isn’t fair.
Several of Jesus’ parables address the issue of fairness. The most direct case is found in Matthew 20 where Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard owner and the laborers. The laborers who worked a full day don’t believe that it is fair that those who worked far less received the same wage:
Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (vs 10-12).
The vineyard owner (representing God) responds in this parable,
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (vs 13b-15).
The vineyard owner was just; he gave each person what they were promised, but in response to the question of fairness, he declares that it is his right to be generous (or, as we see below, merciful) when he chooses.
Another example that raises questions about God’s “fairness” is the parable of the prodigal son. In it the oldest brother resents the Father’s throwing a party for the younger brother upon his return home.
God isn’t fair, and that is a good thing for us. God is merciful, however, and mercy isn’t fair. If a convicted criminal gets the jail sentence demanded by the law that he or she broke, that is fair. But if someone pardons the criminal and the guilty criminal doesn’t have to serve the jail sentence, that forgiveness is mercy.
God says that He will be merciful on whom He chooses:
And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Ex 33:19b).
Paul elaborates on this pronouncement when he declares that God’s mercy isn’t based on the actions (“exertion”) or decisions (“will”) of the person God is pardoning.
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom. 9:14-16).
The point that Paul is making here is that God is being just because God is doing what He previously proclaimed to Moses. God is being true to His word. But there is an important difference between being just and being fair.
If God were “fair”, we would all get the punishment we deserve for our sins: death. Instead of being fair, however, God is both merciful and just. Justice demands death for the sins that we have committed because the wages of sin are death. Yet mercy is extended when our sins are forgiven and we are given life instead of death. God chose to die in our place for our sins. God’s perfect justice is satisfied by the death of His Son for our sins. The only way that God could be both completely merciful and completely just, was to pay the penalty for our sins himself.
There is nothing fair about this exchange. The whole of the Gospel depends on God’s mercy, justness, and unfairness. We didn’t do anything to deserve the gift of life.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9; see also Rom. 3:27).