We are discussing the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. Our goal is to determine if certain passages in this chapter provide evidence for the doctrine of predestination. Those who support the doctrine most definitely hold this chapter to be important to its defense. But as I said last time, to evaluate those texts, specifically the verses about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and his preference of Jacob over Esau, we must examine them in the light of the context of the chapter. And as we pointed out, St. Paul’s primary concern in this portion of his letter is: how do we understand Israel’s rejection of Christ in light of their standing of God’s chosen people? Chapter 9 begins with this theme, and it ends with this theme. So it’s not odd that everything in between is related to it. What we have learned so far from the apostle’s analysis of Israel’s experience is that ethnic identity does not secure salvation. The only true Israelites are those who embrace God’s promise of salvation, the promise that is fulfilled in Christ. By this act, they become genuine children of Abraham.
How does one enter into this heritage of promise? We investigated key New Testament texts, specifically, John 1:12 and Ephesians 1:13 which teach that one is joined to the promise of God by one’s own free will choice to believe, trust, and receive Christ. What’s more, we saw that the notion that God predestines some to salvation and the rest to damnation robs important scriptures like these of their meaning. It even undermines their logical structure. Of course, Romans 9 itself implies the necessity of freely chosen belief in appropriating the promises of God. In verse 9, St. Paul tells us that the nature of God’s promises is revealed in his telling Abraham, “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” This refers of course to the supernatural birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah when Sarah was decades beyond the age of childbearing. But we must remember that the birth of Isaac and the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations were predicated upon a willing act of Abraham.
As Genesis 15:6 tells us “Abraham believed in the Lord and he accounted it to him for righteousness.” Anyone who followed the podcasts I presented on the life of Abraham awhile back will recall that for decades God again and again tested Abraham’s resolve before fulfilling his promise to the patriarch. Abraham’s trials come to an end only when he takes up the knife to slay his son. And when he passes that test, the Lord says to him:
Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore, and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:16-18)
If God’s election of Abraham as the father of all who come to him in faith is the result of some “irresistible grace” that God arbitrarily chose to bestow upon him before he ever existed, then God’s declaration that Abraham’s obedience is the reason for the fulfillment of his promise is a charade. The truth is that Abraham shows himself the perfect example of the act of faith and willful obedience which St. Peter admonishes “Therefore brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things, you will never stumble” (II Peter 1:10).
It was the failure of the majority of Israelites to exercise this active faith of their father Abraham which led to their rejection of Christ, making their calling as God’s chosen people to be, for them, of no effect. In Romans 11:20, the apostle describes those Israelites who refuse to receive Christ as branches who are broken off from the vine of the chosen. St. Paul does not say that they were broken off as a result of some predestined compelling decision of God, he says they were cut off because of their unbelief. Now, one committed to the doctrine of predestination may insist that these Israelites failed to believe because God ordained that they not believe. From before eternity, God consigned these unfortunate ones to inescapable unbelief, a fate from which they could never by any means be redeemed. And they would point to the next section of Romans 9:10-13 as evidence for their position.
And not only this, but when Rebekah also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac, for the children not yet being born nor having done any good and evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand not of works but of him who calls, it was said to her “the older shall serve the younger. As it written, Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.
“Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”—this line is also quoted in defense of the teaching that God chooses to love and save some and to reject and condemn others before they have ever lived. Defenders of predestination point out that God’s choice to accept Jacob and reject Esau was not, according to the text, based upon any virtues that either of them possessed or lacked. It was made before they had done any good or evil. So they conclude God’s orientation towards these brothers, and by extension toward all human individuals, is purely sovereignly and pre-eternally arbitrary. But when we put these verses in context and when we let the rest of the scriptures illumine them is that what St. Paul teaches here? No. It is not.
First of all, St. Paul introduces these verses with the phrase “and not only this.” And that means that what he’s about to say is going to build on the truth he has already presented: that salvation does not come merely by ethnic identity but by one’s relationship to God’s promises. The apostle enlarges upon that truth here by pointing out something important. Israel’s existence as a nation was not founded on the natural laws of human inheritance. St. Paul has already intimated this in verse 7 by reminding us of God’s words to Abraham, “In Isaac your seed shall be.” Isaac, we recall, was not Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael was. But Ishmael was born from a misguided attempt by Abraham to do God’s work for him. The holy nation that God intended to establish was to be, from the very beginning, a people whose heritage was founded upon miracle and promise, upon the loving, merciful acts of its God. And so, the inheritance of God’s promises to Abraham was not bequeathed to Ishmael, the child with the natural birthright, but to Isaac. In the case of Jacob and Esau, God again upsets the applecart of natural laws of inheritance. Like Isaac, Jacob to whom God gives the name Israel and upon whose twelve sons the nation of Israel is built, was second-born. God allows Esau’s first-born birthright to pass to Jacob, St. Paul says so “that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of him who calls” verse 11.
But what is the purpose of God according to election? Is there anything whatsoever in this text that demands we interpret election, as some pre-eternal arbitrary decision of God to grant saving grace to some and not to others? That is truly an interpretive stretch for a couple of reasons. First of all, what St. Paul has to say here in the early verses of Romans 9 can be much more straightforwardly understood as this: the kingdom God intends to build in this world is, and has always been, a spiritual kingdom. Even as he manifested himself through a temporal kingdom, the chosen nation of Israel, it was nonetheless a kingdom whose saga was founded upon “unnatural”, spiritually that’s like Isaac’s birth then Jacob’s receiving the inheritance over Esau. St. Paul is showing us that to be a true Israelite was to live in that awareness, to go beyond one’s ethnic identity and embrace the deeper spiritual realities of one’s existence. To receive Christ, an Israelite had to be this sort of Israelite.
Secondly, I suggest that in the light of the witness of the Biblical passages we’ve examined thus far here, John 1:12, Ephesians 1:13, II Peter 1:10, Genesis 15:6, and Genesis 22:16-18, and a host of other scriptures we could list, we should interpret the purpose of God according to election as simply this. From eternity, God has chosen as his elect those who chose to love him. And odd as it might sound to someone who believes in predestination, we will see this understanding of election born out even more clearly when we examine in detail the verses which speak of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.
But for now, here are the essentials of the viewpoint: the loving creator has from the beginning of human history reached out in love to all human beings desiring that they all become one with him as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 1. In the state of separation from God that we inherited from Adam and Eve, none of us can find or embrace God unless He first makes a move towards us. He must awaken our deadened hearts with an awareness of his love. And in Christ, St. John tells us, God has shown the light of his love upon every person who has ever lived, John 1:9. But as it is in the case of any relationship of love, the choice to respond to the creator’s love remains our own. To those who willingly receive him, God grants his transforming mercy and grace so that they might become one with him. From those who refuse to believe, trust, and accept him, from those who consistently and unrepentantly reject his love, God respectfully and obediently withdraws his energies. Without his active influence in their lives, these faithless ones descend deeper into their stubborn denial of God. Their hearts become cemented in rebellion. But even then, as we shall see in the next podcast, they are not without hope.
The passage about Jacob and Esau drives home the point that every human being must face this spiritual dilemma. Neither birthright nor heritage gives us a free pass from the critical decision as to how we will relate to God. Election is not the result of any natural human condition or any inherited possession, nor does it come to us as a reward for our virtuous actions as St. Paul says according to the “good or evil” of our works. It comes by right of our acceptance or rejection of the love which the God who is love, I John 4:8, bestows on us through Jesus Christ.
So what does it mean then, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated”? Clearly, it cannot mean that God has some divine love for Jacob and some divine distaste for Esau. For the scriptures teach that God loves his enemies as much as he loves those who love him, Matthew 5:43-48. In fact, Jesus tells us in that passage that this is precisely why we call God perfect, that’s verse 48. We also read in Acts 10:34-35 that God doesn’t show partiality to people but accepts anyone who fears him. God’s love for Jacob then refers to his decision to mercifully strive with Jacob despite his conniving, self-serving spirit. But God did not just arbitrarily pour out his continual grace on Jacob. God was able to work with Jacob because Jacob was one who responded to the call of God. From his vision of the ladder to his wrestling with Christ, we see in Jacob a certain reverence for God that we do not find in Esau, and thus, he became the father of God’s holy nation.
For Esau, the blessing of God, for that is the birthright his father would have bequeathed to him, was less important than a bowl of soup. That is precisely why he didn’t receive it. God did not wrest the blessing from Esau or foreordain that he would reject it. Esau willingly gave it up. Again, I know that someone who holds to predestination will say that Jacob responded to God because he was pre-eternally given the grace to do so while Esau was not. As I said earlier, we will see how scripturally untenable that position is when we look at Romans 9 in verses 14 through 21. But in the light of what we have been saying here, we should understand God’s “hating” of Esau as his sovereign choice to step back, refrain from intervening, and let Esau have the life he chose. As for the whole business of the prophecy that the older shall serve the younger and Jacob’s holding Esau’s heel when they were born, well, this does not need to be interpreted as some pre-eternal election of Jacob over Esau. Rather, it can be understood as God’s advance notice of the choices which from his vantage point, outside of time, he could foresee that Jacob and Esau would freely make regarding their relationships with him. In fact, we could speculate that the prophecy and sign were given for Esau’s sake. If he had heeded them, he might have been on guard against his carelessness. Esau might have been a profoundly different person.
Actually, it is a well-developed theme in the epistle to the Romans that God’s hatred or “wrath” amounts to his decision to give up on people who, like Esau, willingly choose to distance themselves from him. I think it will be useful for us to take a broader look at this before we move on to the section of Romans 9 that I quoted at the outset of this little series, the passage that speaks of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. We’ll do that and tackle Romans 9:14-21 next time.