Let’s review the three things I want us to see out of Romans 9:1–5. The first (Paul says it indirectly) is that Paul says his kinsmen are cursed and cut off from Christ in spite of all these privileges. It’s just shocking, and it seems to undermine our confidence in Romans 8, because the God who made the promises of Romans 8 is the God who made all the promises to Israel, and now Israel, as the Messiah comes, is cursed and cut off from Christ. Paul wishes he could take their place.
The second thing we saw is that there’s this great sorrow and unceasing anguish in Paul’s heart. So whatever else you draw away from the doctrine of unconditional election, which is what we’ll see in the next paragraph, it does not take away tears, it doesn’t take away anguish, it doesn’t take away longing, it doesn’t take away evangelism, it doesn’t take away prayer. We’ll see how, instead, it puts warrant under those. That’s the second thing we saw.
And then the third thing we saw is that the greatest benefit the Jews ever had, and now that we have, is that the Christ, the Messiah who came, is “God over all, blessed forever” (Romans 9:5). So Jesus Christ is God.
Now we’re into the next paragraph where Paul is going to try his best in these next three chapters to answer the objection of God’s word having fallen. So he begins the main unit: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed” (Romans 9:6). That’s what he puts over against the apparent failure of verses 1–5. If the Jewish people — God’s chosen, God’s elect people — are perishing and cut off from Christ, then the word of God has fallen, right? Wrong.
Paul says, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed,” and then he begins an argument. And there are three in these three chapters, and the first one is: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). So if someone perishes and comes to everlasting ruin, they’re not part of Israel. So he’s got two kinds of Israel going on here. We all know that they are Israel by flesh — they’re physical Israel, they’re ethnic Israel — but they’re not this other Israel. “Not all who are descended [by flesh, ethnically] from Israel belong to [and you could put in the word here true or spiritual] Israel.” He’s got another Israel in mind.
And then he says it again: “And not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Romans 9:7). So you’ve got this spiritual reality here, the children of Abraham, which is different from just being a physical offspring. So his answer to whether God’s word has fallen in the lostness of many Israelites is: His word hasn’t fallen because his word of covenant promise wasn’t theirs. They aren’t part of the group within Israel for whom the covenant was valid.
So immediately he’s bringing up this issue of selectivity or a division or an election in Israel physically. There’s something going on here, and now he’s going to begin to unpack it and defend it with the Isaac/Ishmael illustration and then the Jacob/Esau illustration. So let’s just review that.
He quotes Genesis 21:12 here in verse 7: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” — not Ishmael.” “You made an attempt by the flesh to get an heir of the covenant. You succeeded. I don’t go that way. This child will be my doing, my choice.” So in verse 9, Paul quotes Genesis 17:21: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” “I will return. You won’t get a Hagar here. I will do it with ninety-year old Sarah, a hundred-year old Abraham, a barren woman, and against all expectation, against all human possibility, I will create out of stones, children to Abraham.”
Do you remember what John the Baptist said about children of Abraham? “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). In fact, he always raises up, from the impossible, children to Abraham. It’s the only way children to Abraham coming to being. Those who are born of the flesh are just flesh; those who are born of the spirit are spirit. What the flesh produces doesn’t make one a child of God.
So that was the Isaac illustration of the principle of election that’s coming here.
Against Every Expectation
Now, we began briefly last night and we stay with it now, the Jacob and Esau illustration.
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10–13)
Now this illustration of Jacob and Esau is intended, like I said last night, to remove a loophole that seemed to exist in the argument from Isaac and Ishmael. If the point was that God brings about children of Abraham or spiritual Israel, the elect, without regard to human distinctives, then you’ve got a problem with the Isaac/Ishmael illustration because these two boys had two different mothers. One was a slave woman and a Gentile, Hagar, and one was Sarah. And a Jewish person who wanted to argue that his Jewishness is the ground of his election would say, “Of course, Ishmael wasn’t chosen. His mother was a Gentile.” And there’s this loophole out of which they could have squeezed. So this illustration now is brought in as closing the loophole.
And it closes it by having one mother and one father. You’ve got Rebecca who conceived children. They happened to be in the same woman at the same time — they’re twins — and it stresses explicitly: by one man. And that’s a contrast to: by two women with Isaac and Ishmael, Hagar and Sarah. So here you have one man, one woman, one womb, twins, and so that loophole is now closed. If you’ve ever had two Jewish boys, they were Jacob and Esau — as far as the flesh is concerned.
And then he adds, to pile up the absence of distinction, that they were not yet born when this word was spoken. That’s the next thing he says: they weren’t yet born. He didn’t wait to see what they’d be like as they lived before he chooses one of them. And then he goes further and he says that they hadn’t done anything good or bad. So it’s not anything they do, it’s not any faith that they have. He’s explicitly removing every possible distinction between Jacob and Esau. This is where the word unconditional election comes from. This is the way Paul talks. He’s removing every possible claim of Jacob to say, “You chose me because this is my distinction and superiority over Esau.” He’s removing every possible claim that Jacob could have to say, “I am the child of promise because . . . ” “No, Jacob was in the womb. He was a twin. Neither Jacob nor Esau had done anything good or evil.
And then it was said against all expectation — because you expect the younger to serve the older — that God reverses that, so that it will be increasingly obvious that it wasn’t because of getting one little part of his body out of the womb first that he was chosen. Not even that. It was said, “The older will serve the younger.” Now the reason he gives for acting this way in verse 11 is “in order that God’s purpose of election might continue” — might stand, might not fail. In order that the purpose of election might stand, continue, be unshakeable, never be called into question for the beneficiaries of Romans 8, it’s not because of works, but because of him who calls. That’s why he did it the way he did it. He aims that his covenant people, his chosen ones not come into existence by their own distinctives or works.
Now here’s something very interesting at this point in verse 11. If you’ve been reading with Paul Romans 1–8 and you’re coming to this now, anytime you hear the phrase “not of works,” you’ve got a paradigm in your mind. And it’s: “but of faith” — you’re not justified by works, you’re justified by faith. That’s the not-but that you expect when you hear the word works. But that is not what you get here. And it’s very intentional that it’s not what you get here because those little boys did not have faith to qualify them to be chosen one over the other in the womb. Paul rivets all attention on God: “not because of works but because of him who calls.”
So the bottom line is the aim of doing it this way is so that your salvation, your perseverance in faith, your inheritance of all the promises, you’re enduring suffering without losing hope, will be rooted not in your faith ultimately, and not in your qualifications ultimately, and not in your willpower ultimately, but in God ultimately. That’s the point. He’s taking us down to the very bottom of our hope, which is God and God alone — underneath faith, underneath human willing, which is what we’re going to see clearly in the next paragraph.
Slow Path to Change
I’m going to come back in a minute and give you four reasons why the doctrine of unconditional election — with all the problems I know that it creates, and all the tears it can bring, and all the wrestlings — is nevertheless glorious good news. And I do want to maybe pause here and say, I know a lot of people come to hear me talk because they agree with these things already. And I can tell who you are by the way you laugh and the kind of expectations you have for what I’m going to say. And I know that that’s not the case with everybody in this room, and that some of you perhaps are hearing this kind of thing for the first time, and it rocks you back on your heels. It’s not the God you got to know in Sunday school. It doesn’t feel like John 3:16, and there’s a trembling and, “He really can’t be right. If there were another teacher up there, they’d say something very different.” That kind of thing.
And I just want you to know I’m pretty plain and open about what I see in the Bible about these things, and I give the people in my church (there are several thousand folks) a lot of room for process on this because of how long it took me and the pain involved. And I know there are hundred of them who are not yet with me on this. I’m not going to be disappointed if you leave after these five hours together unsure yet that I’ve been a faithful teacher on this. You need to read some other folks maybe, and you need to take your time. Because I can remember in the fall of 1968 at Fuller Seminary, arriving there with a strong non-Reformed orientation, and walking up to one of my teachers after he preached on the sovereignty of God over my will, and holding my pen in front of his nose — this was Jim Morgan, my systematic theology teacher. He died of stomach cancer a year later, so I grieved over this. I came to love him. But I held a pen in front of his nose and I said, “I dropped it.” That’s the way I was doing theology in his systematics class.
I really didn’t learn my theology out of theology books. I learned it with exegesis classes on Romans and Galatians and the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians. I was emotional anyway because I was head over heels in love with Noël, and she was back at Wheaton, and we were going to get married in three months, and I wanted her to be there. But I would go home, and I would put my face in my hands and weep afternoon after afternoon, because it felt like my world was coming down. And it was; it had to be rebuilt.
Changes of worldview and of mega views of God that are different are not easy to make. If you make them easy, you probably don’t understand what you’re doing. So that’s the parenthesis to free some of you to just relax and say, “Is he going to expect me to just agree with what he’s saying right off the bat here?” And I’ve got it on an overhead just to be as close to the word as I can.
‘I Chose You’
Roans 9:13 is a hard one. That feels so jarring. He says, “As it is written.” So now he knows that he’s saying something that can be very jarring and very different from what they think, and he wants to undergird it with Scripture, and so he quotes Malachi: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Now how in the world does that help Paul here? How does Malachi 1–5 help Paul make his point with these jarring words, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”? Because remember he’s saying it in the context that they hadn’t been born yet, they hadn’t done anything good or evil. So here’s Malachi 1:1–3:
The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.
What is the point of saying, “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Do you see why Paul was led to this text? The logic is exactly the same as verses Romans 9:11–13. They hadn’t been born. They hadn’t done anything good or evil. They’re brothers in the womb. They’re twins. There’s no warrant in themselves for choosing the one over the other. Isn’t that the point of: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? Didn’t Esau have as much claim on my love as you? Yes, and I didn’t give it to him; I gave it to you.”
How God Loves Us
One of the reasons that I think we need to know and teach the doctrine of election is that evidently God wants us to know what it means to be loved, which we do not know if we don’t understand unconditional election. He’s explaining to them what it means to be loved here, and he does it by saying, “Esau had an equal claim on my love with you, and I gave it to you, not him. Tremble. I freely loved you. It wasn’t anything in you. The evidence is Esau.”
And as long as the doctrine of election is not known in the church, people don’t know fully, fully what it is to be loved. In fact, I have the strong suspicion in America that millions of Christians, who think they are loved by God, don’t know what it is to be loved by God at all. Because we live in such a self-esteem, self-asserting, self-aggrandized nation that we translate being loved into being made much of. And songs are written, and sermons are preached, and books are written in order to confirm that view of being loved: being made much of.
And I’ve devoted the last several years of my life trying to clarify and write about what it means to be loved, and I want to write a book, maybe next year, called God Is the Gospel in which I argue that being loved by God is not being made much of by God; it’s being enabled by God, at great cost to himself, to enjoy making much of him. And most people don’t feel that’s what love is toward them. They translate it immediately into: “If I’m the end point, if I am being made much of, I feel loved. But if I must find my joy in making much of him, I’m not sure that’s love; I don’t feel that as love.” And I don’t think such a person is a Christian. I don’t think they’re born again yet. I think their native, fallen ego-exaltation has been baptized and surrounded with Christian language and justified.
We need to preach a God-centeredness so that we can help people discover if they’ve been born again or not, because you can be unbelievably happy in the church and not be born again — if the whole church is man-centered and confirming all of your unregenerate love of self. But if there has to be this profound, deep change in the heart, whereby I don’t become the end of God’s love but I become drawn into God’s love for his glory, so that my joy is a joy in him, and that’s what his love to me is — enabling me to take joy in him; instead of making much of me, he makes much of himself and enables me to see he’s my treasure — then I will know I’ve been born of God.
It really doesn’t take very much spiritual power at all to create a big church out of self-loving people if you just keep telling them how great they are and how God exists to show them how great they are. But it takes some work of God to take the natural fallenness and natural self-exaltation of us sinners and cause us to fall down and render all glory to God and actually begin to find our pleasure in God being made much of — not me being made much. I think the deepest sinful tendency of the human soul is not sex and not violence, but the love of praise; it is for me anyway the biggest battle. I’d give up sex in a minute if I could have the whole world praise me, if I was an unbeliever. I’d want to just be praised, praised, praised everywhere — put on TV, put on radio, put everywhere, and just hear people say, “Great, great. You’re great, you’re great, man.” That’s way deeply satisfying better than the quick thrills of sex. The ego thing is a lot deeper problem for us than the nice physical things that were so concerned about.
So it looks like the logic of Malachi 1 is very much like the logic of Romans 9: “‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.’” Now what does that mean. “Esau I have hated”? And there are two or three important things to see here. We want to get out of our minds anything that we might bring to this and let the text have its say.
“I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert” (Malachi 1:3). The first thing hate means is that God opposes him and judges him, lays waste his hill country. Edom is another name for Esau — that’s the people that came from him. “If Edom says, ‘We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,’ the Lord of hosts says, ‘They may build, but I will tear down’” (Malachi 1:4). So God is against him. God is against him. That’s what hate means. “‘And they will be called “the wicked country,” and “the people with whom the Lord is angry forever”’” (Malachi 1:4). That’s what hate means.
But now here is something really, really important: “They will be called ‘the wicked country.’” The final destiny of Jacob and Esau is not unconditional. Mark this: I’m arguing for unconditional election, and I’ll continue right on through Romans 9:14–18. I am not arguing for unconditional salvation and judgment at the end of the age. What becomes of you, whether heaven or hell, is contingent upon meeting conditions: faith if you would go to heaven, and unbelief and wickedness if you would go to hell. No one is judged by God except for his sin in the end, which means that it is very crucial that we see that Esau is being judged for his wickedness. This is remarkable: Our final judgment or acquittal is not unconditional. Only the unbelieving and the wicked perish in hell, and only the believing go to heaven.
Now what does that mean about hate and love for Jacob and Esau before they’re born? It drives me to this. I see the meaning of hate here in both a passive and an active sense. Passively means that as God, in his mind, contemplates Jacob and Esau, he passes over Esau and gives him up to become wicked. I’m trying to find language that doesn’t say things the Bible doesn’t say — like, “God makes him wicked.” I don’t think we should talk that way. There is a way by which Esau becomes wicked in which God is not wicked, but he gives him up to become wicked.
And then in response to that, wickedness brings judgment, ruin upon him, such that Esau is really accountable and really responsible for his wickedness and really blameworthy, so that at the judgment day, Esau will not be able to look in God’s face and say, “I’m not blameworthy. I’m not wicked. I don’t deserve this. You didn’t choose me.” That will not be a possibility. And Jacob, on the other hand, God embraces, chooses, sets his favor upon, and thus renders certain that he will come out of his sinfulness into faith, and be forgiven and have eternal life.
Let me try giving a couple of statements to you that have helped me put it all together, so that you can feel the tension. God chooses who will believe and undeservingly be saved from sin, and God chooses who will rebel and deservingly be lost because of sin. That second one blows your circuits. I’ll say it again: God chooses who will rebel and deservingly (and there is the circuit-blower) be lost because of sin. I can make no sense out of the Bible — that is, I cannot let all of the Bible have its say — all of it, not just my favorite Reformed texts. I can’t ignore all the other texts that you may ask me about in the question time:
- “The Lord . . . is not wishing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
- God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
- “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11).
- “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).
I know all these texts, and in order for me to let all of Scripture have its say, I have to say that God, in looking at Jacob and Esau is able to render certain that one goes out of his fallenness into faith and one goes into his fallenness and wickedness and deserved judgment. And I will now bring in the word mystery, and I’ll come back to it often because I will not be able to answer all of your questions. And so I’ll say in advance that one of the central mysteries of Scripture is how God governs who believes and who doesn’t in such a way that we are accountable for our heart’s desires and our moral choices.
Let me say that again: To me, it might not be exaggerating to say this is the central mystery. But it is at least one of the central mysteries of the Bible. It’s the how question: How does God govern who believes and who doesn’t while in no way lessening the accountability and the responsibility of all of us to believe — responsibility for our heart’s desires and for our moral choices? I do not know how he does it. Now Jonathan Edwards labored as hard as anybody to explain how he did it. And I do commend Jonathan Edwards’s book The Freedom of the Will. It’s helpful. Whether it provides a foolproof explanation, I’m not sure, and my lack of surety is why I’m simply willing here to state mystery, rather than take you there to Edwards and explain his solution.
Frankly, I think that pastorally, we must help people live with mystery. Even if Edwards is absolutely totally right, you have to have such labor of mental exercise to follow him. Ninety percent of human beings won’t follow him; they won’t go there. They have to have a way to live with these things that’s different than that, and I think we simply have to say, “If you read a Scripture over here that seems utterly out of sync with one over here, you need to live with the tension and the mystery.”
In preaching, I try to be faithful to the text I’m on. When I came to the church twenty-four years ago, I did a conference in Omaha for the Baptist General Conference. And I preached from Hebrews 6 and 10. And when I was done, a guy came up to me and he said, “Now you’re new here in this conference, and you’re going to have to be careful with your Arminianism.” And I felt like that was a compliment because I had been faithful enough to what was written there, so that, in his ears, it sounded not Reformed but Arminian. And much of the Bible does sound that way. And there’s no point in denying it.
Ultimate Free Will
The question is: Do those texts that sound that way undermine this kind of text? What keeps them from being undermining of one another, in my mind, is that the solution that many people seek for harmony that winds up undermining these kinds of texts is not found in the Bible. It’s this: free will, understood as ultimate human self-determination. That is the meaning of free will when it’s used to deny unconditional election or irresistible grace. It is: “I have the power of ultimate self-determination.” Ultimate is the key word there. That doesn’t exist in the universe, except in God. No one has ultimate self-determination except God — that is, no one has ultimate free will except God, if that’s the definition of free will that you use.
But almost everyone in America would use that definition of free will against the teachings of Romans 9, and I would ask you to show me one verse in the Bible where it says, “Humans have ultimate self-determination.” That is a presupposition, a philosophical presupposition, brought to texts like “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17). And someone says, “You see: there is free will.” And I say, “No, I don’t see.” It simply says, “Whosoever will,” and I say, “Whosoever will let him come.” That’s the way I preach. That’s the way I end my sermons: Why would you die? Will to believe! Come! “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).
That’s the way we should preach. Call people, but when they come, weeping, and you ask a truly born-again person, “Why did you come and not your brother?” and they say, “I was smarter. I was more spiritual. I had a better parentage,” they don’t get it. That’s not why they came. That’s not why they chose. That’s not why they willed. “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14). “No one comes to me unless the Father [drags] him” (John 6:44). The Greek word there is helkuō. It means “to drag.” It’s the same word used in Acts when Paul is dragged before the authorities (Acts 16:19; 21:30).
So here’s the mystery, here’s the tension: In election, before they were born or had done anything good or evil, God freely passes over the one and chooses the other. And in the passing over, he does no injustice. Esau, he owes him nothing. Esau really moves into wickedness, really becomes a wicked person, and then really is judged. And that’s called hate: I think in its passive passing over and it’s later judgment.
And here, it just baffles me how any Reformed person or anybody criticizing a Reformed person could ever draw the conclusion that the Reformed doctrine of election produces a kind of sense of cliquishness. They’re probably not even saved if they talk like that, because the whole point was to destroy that attitude. That was the whole point.
Four Reasons Unconditional Election Is Good News
In fact, here are my four reasons for why the doctrine of unconditional election, which I think is so clear here in Romans 9, is good news. Remember that Romans 9:11 says that God acts this way so that his “purpose of election might continue.” I don’t want you to hear election as a theological word taken out of a textbook, but as a biblical word taken out of Romans 9:11: “In order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of anything they did before they were born but because of himself and his own sovereign call.” Why is that good news? Here are four reasons.
1. No sin can outweigh God’s electing love.
The first one’s going to surprise you. Somebody asked me last night to tell the story of my son Abraham’s return because some of you have held vigil with me for five years to rescue my Abraham, and God did. My first reason for loving the doctrine of unconditional election is that as I sit in my study, or as I deal with somebody who comes to the front after the service, nobody on planet earth — no matter how wicked, vial, corrupt — can look at me and use their moral or immoral distinctives to rule themselves out of the possibility of election. Nobody can dare elevate their immorality to the point of excluding them from election. That is possible because I can look them in the eye and say, “How dare you say to me, ‘I’ve been too evil; I can’t be included’? How dare you elevate your distinctives as an adulterer, and a philanderer, and a thief, and a murderer, as though God can’t choose that before you were born or had done anything good or evil.” It opens the door of hope to the worst of sinners.
It does just the opposite of what so many people think it does: “Well, I guess I’m not chosen.” How do you know? You may not bring one, single argument from any of your experience against your election — not one, because none of it counts; none of it counts. God did not take any of that into account when he chose you or not. One thing will give evidence of your being elect: Do you see the cross as sufficient, beautiful, glorious, and cast yourself on it for mercy? If you do, you’re chosen.
It’s a glorious freedom in evangelism to go to the prostitute places, to go to gay bars, to go to the gangs, to the worst of the worst, and get in their face with the doctrine of election. Do you think that anything you have done could coerce God not to choose you? Who do you think you are to elevate your sin and lifestyle to the point where it becomes the ultimate determination of where you wind up? God will decide where you wind up.
So when I prayed for my son and saw the four years of sin that he went away into at age nineteen, I took great heart from the doctrine of election, and especially its partner, the doctrine of irresistible grace. Irresistible grace does not mean you can’t resist grace. Of course, you can; you do every day. Stephen came to the end of his speech, you remember and said, “You stiff-necked people . . . you always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). Paul says, “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). You can resist God. You can quench the Holy Spirit — as long as he lets you. And when he chooses, like a Father playing with a little eight-year-old daughter, and she’s got him pinned on the floor, when he chooses, he can flip her. And if God has suffered you to resist Him for twenty or forty or eighty years — if he has suffered you to resist him — he could flip you anytime he wants.
That’s what we mean by irresistible grace. We don’t mean you can’t resist; we just mean that anytime God wants, he can overcome your resistance, which he did for every person in this room who’s born again. He overcame your resistance. He turned a stone into a willing, sweet, humble, accepting, brokenhearted believer.
And that’s what he did to Abraham in a van in Pensacola, Florida, about a year and a half ago. My son always loved me, always respected me, always said, “Daddy, your theology is probably right. I’m just not included. I don’t feel it. I’m just not there.” And nothing is scarier for a dad than to hear a statement like that from a very intelligent twenty-year-old. He came home and some young people at the church got in his face. Praise God for gutsy young people. They just got in his face and said, “What are you doing with your life?” And quoted him some verses. And he left, he got on the plane, went back to Pensacola. He was living in a van, making rock music. And he was just riveted in his head, some of these verses, and he couldn’t remember what they were. And so he got a Bible, and he knew that one of them came from Romans, and not knowing where it was, he started reading at the beginning of the book. And emailed me the next day and said, “I am saved.” And then we talked on the phone the next day and he said, “By the time I got to chapter 10, it was done.” God broke through. He moved home. The pendulum in his life has swung probably too far the other direction. He won’t touch rock music with a ten-foot pole. He doesn’t even like any contemporary worship music, which I love. He only wants to sing hymns. It’s a very interesting development in his life. He found a wonderful Christian girl. I married them last September. They’re going to have a baby in November, and I’m just ready to die and go to heaven. This really is a sweet season in my life after four years of more tears than I ever shed in fifty years before.
A wayfaring son did not draw me away from my Reformed understanding of Scripture but confirmed it. Every time he came home, he would always go out to lunch with me. I would sit with him at Pizza Hut and I’d look them right in the eye and say, “Anything happening spiritually, Abraham?” He would just look at me and say, “Not really.” And I would feel so helpless, so helpless. You just want to shake him and say, “Don’t you know what you’re doing with your life if you get involved with a girl and get her pregnant, or get married to an unbeliever? Your whole life is going to be wrecked. Come on, Abraham. Don’t you see it?” And there was this absolute blankness of nothing getting through.
If I believe that free had the last say, how would I pray? Some people come to those of us who love the sovereignty of God and say, “Well, why pray if God predestines things?” I say, “If I didn’t believe that God had the right and the authority to break into my son’s life and overcome his rebellion, what would I ask God to do? Toy with him?” “Break in, overcome his rebellion, remove his resistance, open his eyes, create a new creature” — that’s the way I prayed. So God was good and I just encourage all of you to pray that way for your lost loved ones.
2. God gets all the praise and glory.
Reason number two for why we may love the doctrine of unconditional election as good news: it gets for God all the praise, which is what it’s supposed to do. Here’s the text that shows that.
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4–6)
This is why he did it: to the praise of the glory of his grace. If God did not choose us before the foundation of the world, if he did not predestine us for adoption in Christ Jesus, if he didn’t do it all according to the purpose of his will — not according the purpose of our will ultimately — then he would not be praised for the glory of his grace. Grace is: “I was dead and he made me alive.”
3. Human boasting is excluded.
The third reason: it removes all human boasting, which is just the flip side of the second reason.
Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. [In other words, he goes against what we expect so often.] But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
You come to heaven and stand there, and God says, “How did you get here?” It’s right to answer: “I put my faith in Jesus Christ alone as my only hope and the forgiveness of all my sins and the fulfillment of all your promises.” That’s a right answer. And if he asked the next question: “How did you come to believe in him when so many didn’t?” I hope you do not boast in anything in yourself at that point. I hope that you do not retreat to the philosophical self-exaltation or self-determination motif and say, “Well, God, you invested me with ultimate self-determination, and I used mine wisely, shrewdly, smartly, unlike my sister, unlike my brother.” That is not the right answer. The right answer to How come you put your faith in me? is: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” That’s the right answer. “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
It says in Romans 6:17, “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Unconditional election removes all boasting, therefore, “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:31). That’s who should get the glory.
4. Nothing can overcome God’s call.
And the last reason is that now (this is the main one that Paul’s concerned with in chapter 9) the security of Romans 8 — nothing can separate you from the love of God as God’s elect — is rooted not in your distinctives, but ultimately, at the bottom, it’s rooted in God alone. It’s rooted not on the basis of works but on the basis of the one who calls.