Romans 9:10-13 “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”
Paul wept over his fellow countrymen who had crucified their Messiah and then went on to persecute those who believed his gospel. The pain never left him. Why had those greatly favoured people acted like this? His first explanation was that not all who are descended from Israel were the real Israel – the true people of God who from their hearts loved and trusted Christ the Saviour. Not all the natural offspring of Abraham were the actual children of the promise. We know, for example, that Ishmael was also Abraham’s son, but the promise of the coming Messiah and his seed was not that, “He will be one of the descendants of the line of Ishmael.” Ishmael was a bondmaid’s son conceived in an illicit relationship with her boss; Ishmael not the son of his wife, the free woman Sarah. The Messiah came through her line, the line of Isaac. So from the beginning there’d been discrimination in the line of Abraham. One was chosen and the other was passed by.
Now we can grasp facts like without much difficulty and without taking offence, can’t we? Ishmael and his line were discriminated against because Abraham and Sarah lost patience with God during that long delay before she got pregnant. Sarah encouraged Abraham to sleep with her maid, Hagar, and Ishmael was the son of that union. So Ishmael’s line was set aside, God determining that the Messiah would not be a descendant of Ishmael and Hagar, rather, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” So we can see that that line was not discriminated against purely because of some arbitrary decision of God, “Not them!” Ishmael’s line was not passed by through some inexplicable sovereign decree of God. God had noticed Abraham’s works. God had seen what had happened. Old Abe had slept with his wife’s slave and the boy Ishmael was the result. His mother was not Abraham’s wife and God judged Abraham for what he had done and he bypassed Ishmael and his descendants, although that whole line was also the lineage of Abraham. They were not Israel.
But this chapter is concerned to advance our appreciation of the sovereign rights of God to act in and with all his fallen rebellious creatures as and how he will. Of course God will always do whatever he does in scrupulous fairness because he is a righteous God. There is not an atom of cosmic malice in him, but God does have the right to choose who will share eternity with him in the new heaven and earth with him. This is the lesson Paul insists on and uncompromisingly examines it and its consequences in this section. We do not choose to save ourselves; we do choose, oh yes, but our choice is a consequence of God’s prior choice of us. God is sovereign in choosing sinners to be saved. So Paul has been telling us that the line of promise did not come through Ishmael and his descendants (and we can understand the reason for that). But now Paul goes on to say neither did it come through the line of Esau. It came through the line of Jacob. So what’s special about that?
Many things are special about that. Esau and Jacob’s father was Isaac, and their mother was Rebekah, a freewoman. Not an emotional problem so far, but now we see that these boys were twins. They had been conceived by her at the same time, through being begotten by “one and the same father, our father Isaac” (v.10) and their foetal development had been concurrent. More than that, Esau was the first-born, and further still, as Jacob the second-born grew he developed into a liar, a cheat and a thief, with two wives and two concubines. Yet God determined that the promised line came through this worm Jacob, not through Esau. God came to that decision when they were still together in their mother’s womb, “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad” (v.11). Then it was that God made this irresistible decision about their lives and eternities. Paul tells us that God did this, “in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (vv.11-13). So the different status and destinies of Jacob and Esau were not conditioned upon such factors as their natural descent, or on the order of their births, or on the good or bad works which God foresaw that each of the different brothers was to do. Before their birth he determined whom he would choose and whom he would pass by. There are no loopholes here; there is no ethical logic here to God’s choice. There are no boxes to tick to fulfi the condition on which you can pin God’s election of Jacob. The choice came out of an unconditional election, from the God who is active, the Lord who intervened in their lives, the God who distinguished and called a favoured sinner to himself. It was “not by works but by him who calls” (v.12). The twins’ mother Rebekah was told by God, “The older will serve the younger” (v.12). And centuries after Rebekah God was to speak through his prophet Malachi, the very last book in the Old Testament, saying in the opening verses of his prophecy, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (vv.2&3).
And what is Paul’s response? Do you realise the marvel of this? Paul weeps over the line of Esau, passed by and hated by God. Just like his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, wept over defiant, unchosen Esau, and just as we must. God did not choose them, and we do not shrug; we grieve for them. We do not scorn and despise and hate the rejected line, and one reason is gospel compassion seeing men as sheep without a shepherd, and another reason we do not scorn sinners is that they bare no red letter on their foreheads that marks them as rejected by God. They bear no tattoo – ‘P’ – ‘passed by’ – and so we weep for sinners and for all who make no profession of faith; we long that they should be the chosen of God
So God’s choice, his decree of election is portrayed to us in this passage as a sheer, vertical, sovereign action of God, and so strongly as it well nigh takes your breath away. Whereas
we could understand and accept the rejection of Abraham’s son Ishmael and the choice of Abraham’s son Isaac because one was the son of a servant girl and the other was the son of his wife Sarah, we don’t have that kind of reason for that discrimination with Jacob and Esau. Neither was born when God chose one and rejected the other. So you could complain saying that I’ve claimed God works in scrupulous fairness in his dealings with us. “Well,” you say, “where is the fairness here? While the two sons were still in Rebekah’s womb one was chosen and the other was passed by? Was that so? Then where is the divine fairness of that?” These are the issues we have to deal with. Does the Bible really teach that before men and women were born God had chosen and elected certain people? If God does that is that action at all fair?
- IS IT BIBLICAL TEACHING?
It seems very clear that the Bible unequivocally teaches that God does the choosing. That is the sovereign God we have to have dealings with. In the Old Testament we find God choosing both individuals and one entire nation. God burst into a man’s life living in the great city of Ur and he told this man Abraham that he had chosen him and set him apart to go and live in a land he had promised to give him. Then God chose one of his sons and not the other. God chose one of his grandsons and not the other. He chose Ephraim and not Manasseh. He chose a Gentile widow and resurrected her son, not a Jewish widow’s son. He cleansed the leprosy of the Syrian general Naaman and not the leprosy of somebody from Israel. God discriminates between individuals.
Then God chose the nation of Israel, the nation which was called the ‘chosen people of God.’ He passed by all the rest, the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Moabites, the Ninevites, the Babylonians, the Romans and the Greeks. He homed in on this little people, the children of Israel. Why did he do that? He tells them why in Deuteronomy chapter 7 and verses 6 through 8; “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you.” So it is clear that you can go back beyond the choice of God to the love of God. He chose us because he loved us, but you cannot go back beyond the love of God to anything more basic or ultimate. He chose us because he loved us, but why he should have loved a sinner like you or me in particular we never can tell.
In the New Testament it is no different. Let me give you half a dozen or so verses from the first half of the New Testament – before we reach Romans 9 – to see the background to this chapter, where it is coming from, and then half a dozen verses after our text to see whether it is found in the second half of the New Testament. Let’s start with words of the Lord Jesus: Matthew 22:14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Matthew 24:31 “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” Luke 10:21&22 “At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No-one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no-one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” John 6:37 “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me.” John 6:70 “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” John 15:16 “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”
Now for the New Testament’s claims that God chooses and elects his children in the books following the letter to the Romans: Acts 13:48 “The Gentiles heard this; they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” Ephesians 1:4 “He chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ.” I Thessalonians 1:4 “We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” 2 Thessalonians 2:13 “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” 2 Timothy 1:9 “God who has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” I John 4:19 “We love him because he first loved us.”
So my point in setting Romans 9 in the framework of the New Testament as a whole, quoting six verses before that chapter and six verses after that chapter, is to set the teaching on election within a larger biblical framework. In other words, this teaching is not an unusual disputed doctrine taught in just one difficult chapter in the Bible. It is everywhere in Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament, and if you are a biblical Christian then you must face up to this and seek to understand and believe it, and also rejoice in what it says. “You mean though he knew all about me and my sins and falls, God loved me with an everlasting love and chose me to be his eternal son?” God chooses men and women, and so, as the doggerel simply records . . .
But there is something here that is more than grinding your teeth and reluctantly thinking in yourself, “Well, I’d better believe this teaching if it is so plainly revealed in the Bible.” Your response must be to cry, “Oh, that I were chosen!” You must pray to God, “Choose me! May I be one of your elect, chosen to live with you for ever in a new heavens and a new earth.” When we were children we would play on the streets, and some days a boy would have a ball and so two boys would become captains and they would toss a coin and the one who won the toss would have the first choice in picking from the rest of us those who would be on one team or the other. How did you feel
as you waited to be chosen? Were you saying, “I don’t believe that they can choose! I’ll just ignore them.” No way! You were saying in your heart, “Choose me! Please choose me!” There was no escape from the process of being chosen. So you longed in your heart, “Don’t let me be the last to be chosen. Don’t let me be chosen after those girls! Choose me now!” You yearned to be chosen. If you believe that Bible’s teaching, and you should, that God chooses sinners to be saved then you should cry to him mightily, “Oh choose me!”
I can remember at a School Christmas Supper when the sixth forms of the boys’ and girls’ schools came together that there came a time when we boys were asked to go and invite a girl to come with us to supper, and I had to walk across to the few un-chosen girls who did not have a partner. They were dreading not being chosen by any boy and having to sit at a table with the other un-chosen girls, and I went to a girl I knew who was sitting there feeling abandoned and slightly flushed and I said, “Will you come to supper with me?” What was her reply? “Oh thanks Geoff,” she said, standing up and coming with me. She didn’t say, “I don’t believe in choice. She was saying, “I hope I get chosen. I hope I don’t get abandoned by everyone.” So it must be with you too. I have shown you from Scripture that God exercises his right to choose undeserving and unworthy men and women. He chooses millions and millions of them, innumerable like the sands on the seashore. He has even chosen the chief of sinners, the very worst person who has ever lived, to be given saving faith and repentance and to come to glory. So what hope that gives you in your guilt and shame. God chooses unworthy men and women. That divine choice is as great a reality as gravity, or as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or as heaven and hell. So you must cry to him now, “Please God may I be chosen,” and never stop crying to him until you know he has heard you.
- ARE MANY BIASED AGAINST THIS TEACHING?
The great Victorian preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon affirmed that, “There is an inveterate prejudice in the human mind against this doctrine.” My friend Harry Kilbride now mocks his initial hostility to the teaching. He is embarrassed by it. He says, “The first time I heard a message on this subject was a few years after I’d been converted. With several student friends I attended a service in a central London church and we heard a message on sovereign grace. We all reacted in a very ignorant and emotional way. We rejected it, of course, out of hand. Withdrawing to a nearby cafe, we really chewed up the preacher. My, how we chewed him up, mashed him up, and spat him out. Had he never heard of free will? What kind of a God did he believe in? A God somewhere in a far off extremity of the universe who, before the world was made, arbitrarily chose some to damnation and some to salvation no matter what they did? That was the kind of thing which made God out to be a fiend and gave Christianity a bad name. Had the preacher never heard of John 3:16 and ‘whosoever’? Did this preacher actually believe in PREDESTINATION? Why, whatever next?!!
“Needless to say, we had not really listened to him nor did we seriously consider the Scriptures to which he referred. We reacted emotionally and promptly rejected his message. It was, we concluded, preposterous. Isn’t that all too often the case with us when we hear something new? Especially if it is something we thought we had all sewn up, or something we judged to be some secondary controversial doctrine, optional for a Christian to believe or reject. Instead of looking to see what the Bible really said, or didn’t say, we can react negatively and ignorantly. We may say, “Well that’s not what I was taught,” or, “That’s not what I’ve always believed,” or we go to someone we knew rejected this teaching on election to confirm our rejection, as if that settled the matter! We easily forget that we should be ever learning as we receive more light from God’s Word.” Harry says, “How glad I am that some people were patient with me and persuaded me to come off my high horse and study my Bible.”
Perhaps you are prejudiced against it and don’t like the words ‘choosing’ and ‘electing.’ You don’t see election as a saving action of God; you don’t thank him for the extraordinary fact that when he need not have chosen you, but simply dealt with you justly as he dealt with the rebel angels, that yet he chose you from before the foundation of the world. Rejecting that glory has resulted in your worship being impoverished. I need to point out to you that this teaching is not my idea; it is not a Baptist doctrine. The historic Protestant churches, since biblical Christianity was rediscovered and defined at the Reformation, all earnestly affirm it. For example, here is my copy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and at the conclusion you will find the magnificent 39 Articles of Religion. Article 17 summarizes and states what the Bible teaches on Predestination and Election. Its three long paragraphs are very fine. Let me just read the opening sentence; “Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he has chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them to Christ to everlasting salvation.” This is the teaching that should sound forth from the Anglican pulpits of our town, from St Anne’s, Santes Fair, Holy Trinity and St. Michael’s. If their incumbents do not believe what their 39 Articles declare then I am more of an Anglican than they are.
Or again the Presbyterian Churches in Wales (when they were first called Calvinistic Methodists) met here in Aberystwyth in 1823, elders who were farmers and slate miners, and they formulated and adopted as a summary of what they all believed a great Confession of Faith. Three shops up from the Poundland shop in the main street of Aberystwyth 50 yards from the Post Office a plaque was once erected on the old building that stood there. It is still there and you can see it tonight as you walk home. It is next door but one to Spec Savers. It declares that it was in a building on that very site that the great 1823 Confession was drafted and accepted. Think of it, that that event of writing that Confession was once considered so significant for Wales that that plaque was set up in the main street of a town. That was done some decades ago, but during my lifetime.
What does that Welsh Presbyterian Confession say about election? We read of it in chapter 12, entitled “Of the Election of Grace.” Listen! “God from eternity elected and appointed Christ to be the covenant head, mediator and surety of his church, to redeem and save. God also elected in Christ a great multitude which no man can number, out of every kindred and tongue, and people, and nation, to holiness and eternal life: and appointed all the means necessary to accomplish this end. This election is eternal, righteous, sovereign, unconditional, particular or personal, and unchangeable. The election of grace
wrongs no one; though God in righteousness left some persons unpredestined, yet, he did them no injustice; they are in the same condition in which they would have been, if there had been no election; and if there had been no election of grace, no flesh would have been saved.”
Our own Baptist Confession of Faith, the 1689 London Confession, Article 3, says the same thing in another magisterial statement. So I am not dealing with some peculiar doctrine like the ones believed by Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists that no one dreamed of before the 19th century, but a faith which is believed and has been confessed by such groups of Christians as the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists for hundreds of years, a doctrine earthed in the Bible. So why is there this bias against it?
Men are opposed to God’s choice in the name of supporting man’s freedom.The reality is quite different. It is modern science, not the apostle Paul, which portrays humans as prisoners of necessity. Our genes, our biochemistry, our infantile experiences determine everything that happens to us so many unbelievers say. Even our religious convictions are simply psychological precipitates, and great events like the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th century, mere outcomes of social conditions. No! God has foreordained freedom. We always have a choice; we make these choices freely. Crowds chose to follow Jesus, and then, when they understood the implications of his teaching more clearly, multitudes chose to stop following him so that Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them if they were also going to leave him. Peter had a choice. Judas had a choice. We always have a choice, and we make these choices freely, every single choice is unpredictable, and I could always have made a different choice. The wonder is that through this series of free choices God is able to work out his own designs.
Man is certainly created with the power of choice and takes responsibility for the choices that he has made. Jesus began his ministry not by preaching election but by exhorting the crowds to repent, that is, to turn from their sins. I could list many biblical passages which reveal man’s responsibility. However, when we start talking about man’s ‘free-will’ and want to defend man’s ‘free will’, and so are worried about the Bible’s emphasis on election and predestination, we must remember two things: man’s will is limited and man’s will is polluted.
i) Man’s Will is Limited. Man’s will is limited in ways that God’s will is not. God’s will is totally free to accomplish whatever he pleases. God is only limited in any action by his own choice. Man’s will, however ‘free’ he may think it is, is always limited by his abilities and he is subservient to the will of Almighty God. You have a little grandson who is just one year old who has recently learned to walk. He obviously has a will of his own. When he heads for the fire he is told, “No, Jack.” You see the fire is in a forbidden zone. Unfortunately the flames attract him, and so, having looked you defiantly in the eye, he sets his face steadfastly to go even faster to the warmth and the pretty dancing flames. However his parents’ will has over-ruling power and by one means or another their will prevails. A little human being, made in the image of his parents, Jack, has freedom (and will soon, I suspect, be held accountable). However his will is severely limited by his being a baby and his parents’ will is superior. God’s infinite and almighty will overrules your will.
ii) Man’s Will is Polluted. Even more germane to our present discussion is the fact that man’s will is not only limited but also polluted. It is affected by sin. He wants sinful things because his will is affected by his sinful nature along with everything else. This is what the theologians mean by ‘total depravity.’ They do not mean that we are all as bad as one another, or that everybody is just as sinful as Hitler was, or as bad as we could be or as we shall be, but that no part of us is unaffected by sin, our minds, and the way we think, our affections, our powers of observation, our desires for the things we want, our wills and the things we strive to do. Our wills are not characterized by freedom. Our wills are characterized by bondage to sin.
This is very significant. God commands the sinner to repent, but he will not. He does not want to. God calls upon him to believe, but he won’t, because he does not wish to. “You will not come to me that you might have life,” says the Lord Jesus. God says, “Turn from your sins and your godless ways and come, follow my Son and give your heart and life to him.” And man replies, “I will not. I will live my life my own way.” Jesus said that man loves the darkness rather than the light because his deeds are evil. He loves his sins.
That is why when we go out to the world, and share the gospel, the vast majority of people are indifferent to it, or they reject it. Eight thousand students in Aberystwyth say no to Jesus Christ’s lordship over them. “We will not go to the Friday night Christian Union,” they say. “We will go to the club, or to the pub, or to play games on our consoles.” We ought not to be surprised by that choice. That is man’s nature. He just does not want to know God’s offer of new life. He turns away from it. The Bible tells us – and our experience confirms it – that man is naturally so unresponsive to spiritual matters that he can be described as being spiritually ‘dead.’ Just as a corpse is unresponsive to physical and verbal stimuli so the sinner is to things spiritual. If you understand this doctrine you will look at that rejecting person, that gospel defying person, and you will feel in your heart the truth of the saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” So if it were not for God taking the initiative and giving us some life, and illumination, and conviction, and desire for Christ, then left alone we would never choose to come to him.
You were no different from any of your friends and neighbours. You were just as bad, just as spiritually blind – not just a little short-sighted. You were just as dead – not just a little sick. You can take no credit for coming to Christ. You know today that once you were, as Paul puts it to the Ephesians, “dead in trespasses and sins.” So it was not because there was something in me that made God love me and choose me. There was something in God. ‘Twas mercy all, immense and free and O my God it found out me. You know today that God had to work a miracle of grace and power in your sinful heart to draw you to Christ.
You may have been unfortunate to have heard a preacher once saying, “God will never mess with your free will.” Well, we are mighty glad that God “messed” with our free wills. Harry Kilbride said these words, “Though raised by a godly father I had rebelled against all that and turned away from the things of God. No-one made me do it. I wanted to do it. My will was to live for pleasure not to live for Christ. Then, on March 2, 1954, in Harringay Arena in London, England, God looked down in mercy upon my sinf
ul, shriveled up soul. He saw that my polluted will was taking me headlong to hell and in grace God worked a miracle. He freed my will so that it received Christ. Billy Graham was the preacher and the Holy Spirit was the power. I didn’t even ‘go forward’ at the invitation. I was too rooted to my seat as God did what only he could do. The scales fell from my eyes, the chains fell from my life, and I became a new person. That is sovereign grace.” ‘Twas mercy all immense and free and O my God it found out me!