But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: "THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED." 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is the word of promise: "AT THIS TIME I WILL COME, AND SARAH SHALL HAVE A SON." 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, "THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER." 13 Just as it is written, "JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED."
The unbelief and condemnation of many Israelites in Paul’s day and in ours creates personal and theological crisis for all Christians. Can we trust the promises of God? In verse 3 we learn that many Jews are accursed and cut off from Christ. Paul says it with sorrow and grief. Verses 4 and 5 intensify the crisis: they are Israelites, and they were given promises and covenants and adoption as sons. But now they are perishing, cut off from the Messiah. This is the crisis Paul deals with in these verses.
His answer is in verse 6a: No, "it is not as though the word of God has failed." How so? His basis for this statement is in verse 6b: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." In other words, the saving promises of God applied only to the "Israel within Israel" – the true Israel. The word of God has not fallen. It always saves the true Israel. There is an Israel within Israel.
He says it three times. Again in verse 7: "Nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants." And again in verse 8: "It is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants." In other words:
- there is a true spiritual Israel in ethnic Israel;
- there are true children among Abraham’s children; and
- these true children and true Israel are children of God, children of promise, not mere children of flesh.
The word of God has not failed because it applies only to these. And these are saved. That’s the argument.
The support for the argument is from two Old Testament illustrations that show God was choosing some descendants of Israel as children or promise, not others. The first illustration was Isaac and Ishmael, which we considered last week. Not only did God choose Isaac to be the heir of the promises, but he did it in a way that shows God’s freedom and power in creating children of promise. For example, in verse 9 he says, "For this is the word of promise: ‘At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.’" The point here is that Isaac became a child of promise because of God’s free and sovereign creative work. Sarah was barren; Abraham was old. And God says: "I will come." Not Hagar. The child of promise will be born decisively because of my powerful promise, not your human resources. That’s the key. Children of the promise are children of God, because God freely chooses to make them his own.
The Illustration of Jacob and Esau
Today we consider the second Old Testament illustration – Jacob and Esau. Paul is still illustrating that within the physical descendants of Israel there is a true Israel chosen by God. Here, more clearly than ever, Paul makes it plain that God’s election – God’s free and unconditional choosing of the children of promise – is what guarantees that the word of God does not, and never can, fail.
Let’s start reading at verse 10. "And not only this, [not only do we see the point in the case of Isaac and Ishmael] but there was Rebekah also [the wife of Isaac], when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac." Notice what Paul is doing here. He is pointing out two things that make the choice of Jacob over Esau an even more compelling illustration of God’s unconditional election than the illustration of Isaac and Ishmael.
The first is that Jacob and Esau were twins. They were in the same womb. This draws attention to the fact that the distinctions between them were minimal. The conditions of their birth are going to be almost identical. So any choice between them would be based on God, not on them.
The second difference from Isaac and Ishmael is was that Jacob and Esau were conceived of the same parents. Notice the words in verse 10, "conceived by one man." Somebody might have said about Ishmael, "Of course God didn’t choose him as a child of promise. He didn’t have a Jewish mother. Hagar was a Gentile." But Paul says, "No, you missed the point, and I will clarify that with Jacob and Esau. They were in the same womb and had one father, not two different fathers." He is systematically doing away with the human distinctives that might constrain God’s election of one over the other. He is saying that election is based on God, not man.
Then in verse 11 he makes this unconditionality of his election crystal clear: "For though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad" – skip to the main clause in verse 12 – "it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’" The quote from Genesis 25:23 simply makes clear that God decides the destiny of these two sons and the nations they represent before they are born. And to make it even clearer for us, Paul does not just say, they were not yet born when God decided their destinies, he also says, "they had done nothing good or bad." And to remove the possible objection that he chose the older because the older deserves it, he chose the younger.
This is why we speak of the biblical doctrine of unconditional election. God chose Jacob over Esau before they were born or had done anything good or bad. It was not their behavior or their attitude or their faith or their parents that moved God to choose Jacob and not Esau. The choice was unconditional. It was rooted in God alone and not in man.
This Teaching Nullifies Neither the Genuineness of Our Choices Nor the Necessity of the Obedience of Faith
Before we look at the rest of the text let me make sure you are not jumping to unwarranted and unbiblical conclusions. This teaching of Romans 9 does not contradict the truth that Jacob and Esau and you and I make choices in life and will be held responsible for those choices. If Jacob is saved he will be saved by faith. And if Esau is finally condemned, he will be condemned for his evil deeds and unbelief. Our final judgment will accord with the way we have responded to the gospel in this life. Which means that our final entry into heaven or to hell is not unconditional. To be finally saved we must have believed. And to be lost we must have sinned and not believed. No one will stand on the precipice of hell and be able to say, "I don’t deserve this."
Just one text to show this: Romans 2:7-8, "To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury." In other words, unconditional election does not contradict the necessity of the obedience of faith for final salvation, or the necessity of the disobedience of unbelief for damnation. What unconditional election does is knock from underneath salvation every ground of human boasting, and replaces it with the unshakable electing love and purpose of God (v. 11b).
The will to believe is saving, and the will not to believe is damning. We are held responsible for both. But underneath both is God’s free and unconditional election of who will be saved and who will not. The elect believe. The non-elect do not believe. We are not sovereign, self-determining, autonomous beings. Only God is. How God renders certain the belief and unbelief of men without undermining our accountability I do not fully understand.
If this stretches your mind to the breaking point, better that your minds be broken than that the scriptures be broken. And even better yet would be to let your mind and heart be enlarged rather than broken, so that they can contain all that the Scriptures teach.
"Jacob I Loved…"
Now with that clarification in place consider verse 13. After saying in verse 12 that God determines the destiny of Jacob and Esau before they were born or had done anything good or bad, he supports this with a quote from the Old Testament. "Just as it is written, [Malachi 1:2-3] "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."
What did Paul see in this quote from Malachi that made it right for him to use it in this way to support the unconditional election of Jacob over Esau? Let’s go read it in context. What we will see is that Malachi’s way of arguing is exactly like Paul’s. Malachi 1:1,
The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi. 2 "I have loved you," says the Lord. But you say, "How have You loved us?" [Then God answers] "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the Lord. "Yet I have loved Jacob; 3 but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness."
Do you see how God is arguing for his love for Jacob? They say, "How have you loved us?" And he answers, "Wasn’t Esau Jacob’s brother?" In other words, "Didn’t Esau have as much right to being chosen as you? Wasn’t he the son of Isaac? Wasn’t he a twin in the same womb with you? Wasn’t he even your elder brother? Nevertheless, I chose you." The whole point of that question, "Wasn’t Esau Jacob’s brother?" is exactly the same as Paul’s point. Paul saw it in Genesis. And he saw it in Malachi. Jacob and Esau had an equal claim on God’s choosing, namely, no claim. And God chose Jacob unconditionally. That is the meaning of "Jacob I loved." In fact, we will never understand or experience the fullness of God’s love until we grasp what it means to be chosen freely by God on the basis of nothing in us.
"…But Esau I Hated"?
Now what is the meaning of the words, "But Esau I hated"? I think we should put aside all speculations here and get the meaning strictly from the context in Malachi and Romans 9. Let’s read Malachi 1:3-4, "But I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness." 4 Though Edom [i.e., Esau] says, ‘We have been beaten down, but we will return and build up the ruins;’ thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘They may build, but I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant forever.’"
Verse 4 points to two ways of understanding God’s hate.
The first meaning is seen in the word "wicked." Near the end of verse 4 God says, "Men will call them the wicked territory." "I have hated Esau . . . I will tear down; and men will call them the wicked territory." In other words, God gives them up to wickedness. This is important in view of what we said earlier about the conditionality of God’s final judgment. God does not bring judgments on an innocent Esau or Edom. Edom was judged as wicked. When God passed over Esau and chose Jacob before they were born, there was no decree that an innocent Esau would be judged. Rather what God decreed was to pass Esau by, to withhold his electing love, and to give him up to wickedness. And as Esau acted in wickedness, he was accountable for that wickedness and deserved the indignation and judgment of God.
Which leads to the second meaning of God's hate. At the end of verse 4: "And men will call them the wicked territory, and the people toward whom the Lord is indignant [or angry] forever.’" In a sense you might say there is a passive and an active side of God’s hate. Passively, he withholds electing love from Esau and gives it only to Jacob, and hands Esau over to wickedness – a wickedness for which he is really accountable and blameworthy. Then actively, God is angry with this wickedness forever. And if Esau is finally condemned, he will not be able to say "I do not deserve condemnation." His own sins will shut his mouth and his own conscience will condemn him.
And Jacob on the other side will tremble with fear and wonder that he was chosen to believe and be saved.
O Bethlehem, be careful here. Be careful that you do not play God and tell him how he should save. Be careful you do not stand above Scripture and demand that it be one way and not another. Be careful that you do not assume that your heart is good enough to judge the goodness of God. Or wise enough to judge the wisdom of God. There are a thousand reasons why God does what he does which we cannot yet comprehend. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God" (Deuteronomy 29:29). How do these chapters end?
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" 35 "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
Why Did He Save Us This Way?
If we ask why he saves by means of unconditional election, there will be several answers in this chapter. God is not opposed to honest and humble questions. And he takes us farther than many are willing to go. His first answer is given in verse 11b. Why did God choose Jacob and not Esau, before they were born or had done anything good or bad? Here’s his answer: "so that God's purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls."
And that is so important I must save it for next week and give it a sermon of its own. But you can see the connection with verse 6 and the overall purpose of this chapter. The word of God has not fallen. You can count on the promises of Romans 8. Why? Because God has chose to save his people in such a way, as verse 11 says, that his purpose will stand – it is invincible. Because it depends not on us but on the one who calls. From him and through and to him are all things. To him be glory.
The creation of the universe, the history of the world, the plan of salvation, the coming of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection for sinners, and the gift of your own faith – are all for the glory of God. Look to Jesus Christ, to the Word of God. And pray with the psalmist, "O Lord, Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things." Then banish all your fears. Amen.