This morning we turn to one of the most fiercely debated texts in the Bible. Romans 9:7-21 is a focal point of the debate on divine sovereignty and human freedom. Most Pastors avoid this text like the plaque. Others engage in what one Pastor called “interpretive abortions” to try to get the text to explain away difficulties.
Truthfully, the text is not that hard to understand. The teaching is pretty clear. The problem is that we don’t like what the passage teaches. It calls for a view of God that is bigger than we are accustomed to give and it leads to a more restricted view of man than we prefer to have. Our task is pretty simple. Our job is to open the word of God, seek to understand it accurately, listen carefully to what it says, and then adjust our theology accordingly.
Paul began the chapter addressing an anticipated question: “Has God’s promise to Israel failed since so many Jews have turned away from Christ?” The answer Paul gives is, God never intended for all Jews to be saved. He has always operated from a position of selectivity. From the very beginning there was a genetic Israel and a spiritual Israel. God’s promise was to those who followed the faith of Abraham, not necessarily those who biologically had descended from Abraham. In other words, from the very beginning God chose some and not others to be His children. As a good teacher Paul illustrates his point.
The first illustration is the children of Abraham.
Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 8 In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. 9 For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”
Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the older son born to Abraham and Sarah’s servant Hagar. This son became the father of all the Arabic nations. Isaac was the much younger son born to Sarah in her old age and became the Father of Israel. God chose to direct His promise and grace to Isaac rather than Ishmael.
Our nature naturally concludes that God chose Isaac because he was the son of Sarah rather than Ishmael, the son of the slave woman, Hagar. Because of that human assumption Paul gives us a second illustration, Jacob and Esau. These boys were not only born of the same mother, they were twins, so they were born at the same time.
10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Both boys were the sons of Isaac who had been chosen over Ishmael. Esau was minutes older than Jacob. Yet, God chose to bless Jacob above Esau. Before they were even born He declared that the older would serve the younger. History bears out the fact that this happened. Edom no longer exists today.
The troubling phrase “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” is taken from the book of Malachi. The quote is from the first verses of Malachi where God spoke to the descendents of Jacob and Esau and promised to bless Jacob (Israel) and demolish Esau (Edom). I wish the verse wasn’t here . . .but it is. It reminds us that in the end some will be saved and face God’s blessing while others will be lost and face His wrath.
It is natural to think that God chose Jacob because God knew the kind of people Jacob and Esau were going to be. However, Paul makes it a point to say that Jacob was chosen NOT because of anything he had done or because of anything that he would do, but solely so “God’s purpose in election might stand.” Paul, I think would argue, that Jacob wasn’t chosen because he was faithful; he was faithful because he was chosen.
The third illustration is Pharaoh.
17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”
Paul quoted Exodus 9 and a conversation that Moses had with Pharaoh. Through Moses God said, “I could have wiped you out by now Pharaoh, but I haven’t because I have chosen to use you (and your obstinacy) so that I can display my power.” In other words, God put Pharaoh’s in the position He was in because He knew Pharaoh would not believe and was going to use that obstinacy for His purpose.
As I said, these illustrations are not that hard to understand. Paul is saying, “Salvation is something that is given to those God chooses to give it to.”
This is the most extensive discussion of this topic (which makes it the most significant passage) but it is not the only place it is mentioned. We have seen it in Romans 8:29-30. Here are some other prominent passages, In Ephesians 1 Paul writes,
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. (see also v. 4-6)
In Acts 13:48 Luke wrote,
48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
Even John in the book of Revelation 13:8 wrote,
8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
The names of the believers were written in the book of life from the creation of the world. In other words, these people were chosen for salvation like Jacob; before they were ever born!
Is it possible that we are misunderstanding what Paul meant? I don’t think so. When you stand up in front of a group of people for the first time and teach about God’s sovereign election or predestination in salvation, there are two responses that most everyone has. The first is, “That’s not fair! It is not fair for God to choose to save some and not others before they are even born.” The second objection is, “If this is true, then aren’t we just puppets? How can God hold us responsible for decisions that were already decided?”
It is interesting to me that the two objections that Paul anticipates in response to his teaching are precisely these two arguments. This leads me to believe that Paul is indeed saying what we think he is saying and that’s why he anticipates the response he does. Let’s look at Paul’s responses,
4What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
Paul’s response to this objection is to quote God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33. God told Moses that mercy and compassion are dispensed solely at God’s discretion.
To understand this argument we have to understand the difference between mercy and justice. Justice is getting what you deserve. For God to be universally just, He should condemn us all. We deserve to be “hated” like Esau. Mercy, on the other hand, is being spared what you deserve. By definition, mercy is a gift. It is not owed to anyone. It cannot be demanded from another.
Suppose I am a businessman. You come into my store and get a cart full of items. When you get to the register I will charge you for those items. It is right that I do so. If you try to leave the store without paying for those items (even if you want to use them for good purposes) I will have you arrested. That’s justice.
However, if you shop in my store and bring your cart to the register and I give you a discount or tell you that there is “no charge!” that is mercy. It is an undeserved gift. If you leave the store without paying for the items I will not have you arrested, I will instead pay for the items out of my own pocket. Does this act mean that I am being unfair to everyone whom I charge. Not at all. Mercy is a gift not an obligation.
Jacob was given mercy. He didn’t earn or deserve God’s blessing. It was an undeserved gift. Esau was not cheated. God did not do him wrong. Esau got what he deserved. He rebelled against God and he was condemned because of it. There is nothing unfair in what happened. There will not be a single person in Hell who doesn’t deserve to be there.
But there is a second objection,
19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
In other words, “If God has already decided who will be saved, How can God hold people accountable if they don’t respond to the gospel?” Paul’s response is a little less than satisfying. He says, “Who are you to talk back to God? He made us and He can do what he wants with us.”
If you work for a company does the employer have the right to move you to a new job? Does he have the right to lay you off? Does he have the right to give you a promotion or fire you to hire his relative? Yes, he does because it is his company and he pays you to work for him. Paul is arguing that we belong to the Lord and not the other way around. In the book of Acts Paul talked about God and said, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” God has the right to save some and not others, because He is God.
People are not condemned because God makes them sinful. He does nothing of the sort. God has given everyone His law. He has told everyone what is expected. God has even invited everyone to believe. However, God knows sinful human nature. God knows that everyone of us will choose (of our own free will) to ignore God. We knowingly and willingly turn away from His law. Condemnation is not God’s fault; it’s ours.
What Is Paul Teaching Us?
Some people leave Romans 9 all upset. They conclude that if they take Romans 9 seriously they lose any sense of human freedom. That’s an erroneous conclusion. We will see in chapter 10 of Romans that Paul tells us that the Jews have fallen away because they did not believe. He places the responsibility squarely on their choice. He challenges them and us to confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, and to believe in our heart that God has raised Him from the dead, so that we can be saved. (cf. Romans 10:9). In 10:13 he says, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Paul affirms both human freedom and divine sovereignty.
We are still responsible people. We must still make real choices that have real consequences. We are not puppets! The Bible teaches that we are predestined, yet free. Nowhere does the Bible say that our choices have to be free from God’s influence or control in order to be real or genuine. We still have a responsibility to share the gospel with others. God still brings people to faith through the preaching of the Word and the testimony of His people. Those who seek to make us choose between God’s Sovereign election (or predestination) and human freedom make a mistake. The Bible affirms both.
So How Should We Respond?
First, we should give up all arrogance or smugness. Paul is making a point to show that we are not among the children of God because of anything we have done. When we realize this fact, we should live with a new sense of humility. Our worship should spring from deep gratitude for the undeserved mercy we have been given. Our trust (even in the toughest times) should be firm because we rest in His promise to complete the work that He has begun in us.
Second, our view of God should be tremendously expanded. Though it is tempting to try to explain how God can choose and predestine people yet still not diminish our humanness; the fact is, no explanation is given. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because God does not explain why He makes the choices He does, that those choices are therefore Arbitrary. I think He doesn’t explain not because there is no explanation; but because it is impossible for us to understand the explanation.
Lawrence Kohlberg has developed what are called the stages of moral Development. Kohlberg has observed six different levels of reasoning in moral issues. For example in stage one people will make a moral decision based on whether or not they will be punished or rewarded. This is how we train our animals. In stage two people make decisions based on what will satisfy their desires; what will get them what they want. (A child will do something wrong and then lie to avoid punishment) In stage three people make choices that will please others. Kohlberg continues his list to stage six.
What’s most interesting is that Kohlberg observed that a person at stage one will be able to understand the reasoning of stage two but not of stage three. In other words, we can understand the reasoning of one stage beyond ourselves. That’s why we say it is silly to reason with a child. We are appealing to them with stage four or five thinking, but they are at stage one. They cannot understand our reasoning. We must appeal to them on the appropriate level.
If Kohlberg were correct, then wouldn’t it mean that there might be more than six stages of moral reasoning? Isn’t it true that Kohlberg would only be able to document and report up to one level above where he himself was? So, is it possible that we are at level 5 in our moral reasoning, Paul is say at level 9, and God operates at level 25? Maybe this is what God means when he says,
Isa. 55:9: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We think God’s predestination and man’s freedom are incompatible. In reality, it may be that we don’t really understand the nature of God’s Sovereignty or the nature of true freedom. We are called to affirm both truths. Our job is to listen to the Word of God and embrace it, even though we do not fully understand.
We affirm these things because of what we do know. We know that God is good. We know that He tells us the truth and has given us His Word as a lamp to our feet. We know that the judge of all the earth always does what is right. We know that we can do nothing to save ourselves. We know that our only hope is to trust Jesus to provide the salvation we need. And we also know that those who trust Him have been chosen by Him before the creation of the world. Our job is to welcome these truths, embrace them, and yet not diminish them by pressing them into some form that makes sense to us but diminishes God’s greatness. We must let Scripture be our guide rather than our reason, emotion, or pride.
You may still ask, “How do I know if I am chosen by God?” The answer is simple, “If you will truly trust Jesus Christ as your only and sufficient Savior and follow Him as your Lord in daily living, then you have been chosen by God and ought to live the rest of your life grateful that you have received mercy rather than justice.”