Saving grace, God’s unmerited favor toward those He has chosen to love unto salvation, cannot accurately be understood apart from our knowing what we deserve. So, when the Apostle Paul explains the sheer graciousness of the Lord’s grace and mercy, He sets it against the backdrop of what we have actually earned from His hand. Romans 9:14–24 is the key text here as the Apostle considers humanity as a whole in God’s predestination of some people to redemption.
Paul emphasizes that those whom the Lord chooses to save and those whom He does not choose to save both come from the same lump of clay (vv. 21–24). What must be stressed here is that God, the potter, in choosing whom to save, has only one humanity to choose from and this humanity is a fallen humanity. No ordinary human being has a right to eternal life, for all people (except Christ) are sinners in Adam (5:12–21). If God deals with one lump of humanity and this lump is not neutral (for it is impossible to be neutral with respect to God; see Matt. 12:30), then the lump is either righteous or fallen. If the lump were righteous, there would be no need for grace. No, the lump in view must be a fallen lump, for only in that context is grace necessary.
Since we deserve only eternal death apart from God’s intervention, we cannot complain if the Lord shows grace and mercy only to some of us. By definition, grace and mercy are undeserved, so if the Lord chooses not to give them to someone, He is not depriving that person of what he has earned. God chooses some for salvation and chooses to pass by—to not elect for eternal life—others, in order to reveal Himself as both Savior and Judge (Rom. 9:14–21). The grace shown in predestination unto salvation has a flip side in reprobation, God’s leaving some in their sins and to the just consequences of those sins.
Because election to salvation is by grace, it is not based on anything in us. It is unconditional. That is, God’s purpose in choosing Joe for salvation instead of James is not because Joe is more righteous or smarter or for any other reason besides His choice to love Joe for the sake of His glory. But in an important respect, reprobation is unconditional as well. True, the reprobate do deserve punishment, but God does not pass over James and choose Joe because James is more evil than Joe is. In fact, many who end up in heaven committed worse sins than many of those who go to hell. That is because God’s election is based not on the degree of our sin or our personal righteousness. It is based only on His free choice to forgive those whom He chooses to forgive.