The Love of God – Part 2
Introduction: D.A. Carson, in his provocative little book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, points out we live in a culture that increasingly rejects the God of biblical Christianity. He writes, “I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God—to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity. The result, of course, is that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized. This process has been going on for some time. My generation was taught to sing, What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love, in which we robustly instruct the Almighty that we do not need another mountain (we have enough of them), but we could do with some more love. The hubris is staggering. It has not always been so. In generations when almost everyone believed in the justice of God, people sometimes found it difficult to believe in the love of God. The preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news. Nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised.”[[i]] In other words, people today consider themselves not only deserving the love of God, but also entitled to it! The notion of distinguishing grace, where God’s love is manifested in sovereign election, is rejected not only by those outside the church but by many professing evangelicals as well.[[ii]] But as Calvin long ago pointed out, “we shall never be persuaded of God’s mercy until we know His eternal election,” and “that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others” He goes on to say that those who “shut the gates” to this teaching “wrong men no less than God,” for it is election in grace that makes us humble and glorifies God.[[iii]]
I. Distinguishing Grace and the Divine Electing Purpose:
A. The Word of God and the Purpose (Rom. 9:6-8): The apostle will make it clear that Israel’s basic failure is a failure to read the Bible. If they had read the Scriptures, they would have realized that even in Old Covenant days the principle of distinguishing grace was at work. The Word of God did not fail and will not fail. It was never the intent of God that every Israelite be saved. There was a rejection of portions of the elect race in ancient times. The analogy of biblical history indicates that the promises were given to the chosen, not the natural, seed alone. “Israel,” Barrett points out, “is not a term like Ammon, Moab, Greece, or Rome.”[[iv]] There always were two elements inIsrael, the elect, and the non-elect. “Not as though the word of God hath taken no effect,” Paul says in verse six. The word translated, “hath taken no effect,” means to “fall out of,” or “to fall from literally.” It is used of the withering of flowers in James I:11 and I Peter 1:24 and of the falling off from a straight course by navigators in Acts 27:17, 26, 29. It is as if Paul is saying: The Word of God has not fallen off its straight course, the purpose of God. The trouble is with the passengers, who have disembarked at the port of scriptural ignorance and unbelief. The statement, “For they are not all Israel, who are of Israel,” has nothing to do with Gentiles, although some have tried to make it include them. What it says, and says very plainly and simply, is that there are two kinds of Israelites. Just because one is ethnically an Israelite does not mean that he is an Israelite in the truest sense, for the term is a religious one. To be a true Israelite one must be a believer, or one must walk in the believing steps of father Abraham (cf.4:12). It is to the believing seed of Abraham that the promises are given.
B. The Seed of Abraham and the Purpose (Rom. 9:7): In fact, Paul continues, simply because one is a descendant of Abraham does not mean that he is a child of the patriarch. It is “in Isaac” that the seed is called, which means that those who are only ethnically the descendants of the patriarch are not the recipients of the blessings from the promises. Ishmael, too, was Abraham’s son, but Isaac by distinguishing grace is the one who inherits the promises. Cf. Gen. 21:12.
C. The Underlying Principle (Rom. 9:8): Paul concludes by saying that the children of the promises are counted as the seed. In other words, back of the belief there lies a divine sovereign promise and calling (cf. Luke 19:9).
II. Historical Examples of Distinguishing Grace:
A. Ishmael and Isaac (Rom. 9:9, 7): One easily sees that the apostle did not fabricate his theology in a rationalistic way. He did not, like Open-view theists, reason out his theological stand and then search the Scriptures for passages on which to pin his ideas.[[v]] What he has done is simply to exegete the Scriptures, constructing his views first, by what he has found by reading and interpreting under the Spirit’s guidance the texts. The word “promise” in the ninth verse is emphatic in the original text. Paul lays stress on it, for it is a word of grace. When men are blessed by divine promise, they are blessed in grace, for the promise, unconditioned, is something given. The illustration of Ishmael and Isaac has been alluded to in verse seven. In the citation from Genesis18:10 in verse nine, it is referred to again. The words of the Lord God to Abraham constitute a gracious promise of the birth of Isaac to Sarah. Ishmael is not to be the promised seed, although he is Abraham’s firstborn. The son of the handmaid, born according to the flesh, shall not inherit with the son of the free, as Paul puts it in Galatians four. Here is the principle of distinguishing grace, for the election of Isaac was not on the basis of works of any kind. An objector might say, however, “But Ishmael was not the son of Sarah. He has a complex parentage, and his mother was an Egyptian.” Thus, we should be back to the principle of election according to works, or ethnic origin. The apostle replies by citing another passage from the Word.
B. Esau and Jacob (Rom. 9:10-12): Here the law of limitations is contracted further. There is no problem of complex parentage here, for Rebecca was the mother of twins by one man (in the original text the emphasis rests upon the fact that the two sons came from one man). And yet the destiny of the two was to be infinitely different, for Jacob is loved, but Esau is hated (the meaning of this will be explained below). The story upon which the apostle builds his teaching is found in Genesis 25:19-26, where the birth of the twins is recorded. God had promised Isaac that he should have a seed, but Rebecca was barren (cf. v. 21). So the patriarch entreated the Lord for his wife, illustrating quite aptly that divine predestination is not contrary to earnest supplication. In fact, prayer is one of the divinely appointed means for the accomplishment of the purpose of God. Ishmael has been prospering, twelve princes having been born to him, but Isaac, the one from whom the seed is to come, has no children. The patriarch is being taught patience, and that God accomplishes the fulfillment of His promises in His own way, not in ours. The prayer was answered, and Rebecca was pregnant with twins. As they struggled within her womb, she, troubled by the meaning of it all, went to ask the Lord about it. She received this word, and a prophetic word it was: “Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be born of thee; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
History makes it plain that the prophecy is one that covers the descendants of Jacob and Esau but, as the final clause makes clear, it also refers specifically to the destiny of the two individuals, Jacob and Esau.[[vi]] Contrary to ancient Eastern custom, the elder son shall serve the younger. This pre-natal love of God for Jacob raises, of course, the doctrine of election and the basis upon which God makes His selection. There are, it seems, only three alternatives. In the first place, it might be contended that God chooses on the basis of the moral qualities of the individual. In other words, He chooses the good. But the entire Bible argues against this, thoroughly refuting the notion that human status is the basis of salvation. Eph. 2:8-10 thoroughly overthrows the idea, and there are countless texts that say the same thing. In the second place, it has been contended by the Arminians that the divine election is an election according to foreseen faith. In other words, God has looked down through the ages and selected those whom He saw would believe of their own free will in the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, that “old Dragon Free Will,” as one of the Calvinists put it, is exalted to the status of that which determines eternal life.
Now there are many objections to this view of things. First, it demands a sense of the word “foreknowledge” that it does not have. We have already seen from our studies in Romans that the verb “to foreknow” has its common Hebraic sense of “to know intimately and thus to choose” (see Rom. 8:28-30 cf. Amos 3:2, etc). Further, if this construction of things were correct, then the ultimate choice is not that of God, but that of man, who in his free will decides to believe. God would merely be the ratifier of man’s fundamental choice. Finally, and in the third place, God elects those whom He has purposed to save by faith in Jesus Christ. That is what the Bible teaches. Is the reason in man, or in God? The Bible teaches that election is not grounded in man’s will (cf. Rom. 9:16), nor in human works (cf. 2 Tim. 1-9) nor human choice (Eph. 1:4). It is grounded in the divine good pleasure of His will (cf. Eph. 1:5, II; 2 Tim. 1:9). Faith is the effect, not the ground of election (Rom. 8:7-8; John 6:44). This is why Isaac and Jacob are among the chosen, and not Uz and Buz.
III. The Proof Text of Distinguishing Grace:
A. The text in its Context: Paul’s final citation of the section is from Malachi 1:2. At that point God is defending His love forIsrael by reminding them of the definite distinction He has made throughout history betweenIsrael andEdom, the nation that came from Esau. History, from the time of the pre-natal love of Jacob and the rejection of Esau, shows His love for the nation. The text includes within it not only the individual heads of the two nations, Israel and Edom, but their descendants. The principle, however, remains. God’s love is both individual and national, and it is a distinguishing love.
B. The text in its Application (Rom. 9:13): The apostle uses the passage here to show that the electing purpose of God may be clearly seen in Israel’s history. They should not have been surprised by their rejection when they as a nation lapsed into unbelief, an unbelief that reached its climax in the crucifixion of their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Some have sought to avoid an individual election by God to salvation by suggesting that Paul has in mind only the election of nations in Romans 9-11. But, if it is unjust to elect a man to salvation on the ground of free grace alone, then how much more unjust is it to elect an entire nation of individuals on that ground? It is a foolish subterfuge to seek cover from criticism for distinguishing grace by fleeing to the doctrine of a national election. But what is meant by “Esau have I hated”? There is no personal animosity in the term “hated.” What is meant is the decisive rejection of another claim upon God’s mercy and grace. A comparison of Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37 will indicate that the term “hate” is another term for loving more. That is also the force of the context in Genesis 29-30-33. Barrett comments, “the Hebrew idiom means, ‘I preferred Jacob to Esau.’”[[vii]]
Conclusion: Romans 9:13, then, is a fact. Distinguishing grace in divine election is the teaching of the Word of God. The so-called “harsh predestinarian doctrine of Paul” is not the fabrication of a versatile mind, but the product of the sober exegesis of the Word of God. People are not the same. Some are rich, and some are poor. Some are wise, and some are dumb. Some sit under interesting preachers, and others must sit under ones who provoke drowsiness, like you do! And some are elected to salvation, and some are not. The ultimate explanation lies in the rich, wise, and purposeful mind of a God of mercy and grace. As has often been said, the biggest problem of the text, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” is not God’s hatred of Esau. All men are sinners and are worthy of eternal death. The biggest problem is God’s love of Jacob, –the supplanter, the crook, and the deceiver. Again, we can only admire His grace. The most important issue is not Jacob and Esau, however. It is you and God. He, who in distinguishing grace passed by the fallen angels to redeem fallen man, does pass by men and women to save His elect ones. That is a fact. If you resent the fact and refuse to come to Him when He issues to you an invitation to repent, believe, and be saved, then you will get what you want. You shall have no excuse for refusing the offer of grace. On the other hand, if you wish to join the happy band of the elect of God, then come to Christ now! The door of salvation stands open. Come, receive Him, and rejoice in your salvation and election! Make your calling and election sure by coming to Him. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who offered the atoning sacrifice for sinners in His blood, and you shall be saved (cf. Acts 16:31).[[viii]]
[[i]] D.A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, (Crossway, 2000), p. 11.
[[ii]] As we have seen during this series, the most vocal in their rejection of the God of classic theism, and Reformed theology, are the Open-View theists. Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow are representative of this group and, as is often the case, resort to distortion and misrepresentation when describing Calvinism. Open-View theism, argue Pinnock and Brow, “is a vision of God who, having created us to enjoy his love, does everything to enable us to participate in grace to the full. It is a composite model designed to replace another one that has developed over centuries; this distorted model is marked by a minimizing of divine grace, an exaggeration of the legal dimension of salvation and a misrepresentation of God’s sovereignty. First, against minimizing divine grace we insist that God’s love extends to all humanity (if they accept it) and not only to selected persons. Augustine taught (and the Reformers followed him) that God deliberately refrains from being gracious to an undetermined number of sinners for reasons that are completely mysterious. They call it sovereign grace, though it seems only arbitrary and stands in flat contradiction to the gospel, which declares that God desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (I Tim. 2:4). This tradition imputes to God a character flaw by representing him as arbitrary in the distribution of grace.” Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century (IVP, 1994), p. 8.
[[iii]] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk. 3,Ch.21, sec. 1.
[[iv]] C.K. Barrett, A Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans Harper & Row, 1957), p. 180.
[[v]] Clark Pinnock admits that this is exactly how he arrived at his Open-view position cf. his “Between Classical and Process Theism” in Process Theology ed. Ronald Nash (Baker, 1987), pp. 309-328.
[[vi]] Thomas Schreiner points out, “The unity of Rom. 9-11 indicates that individual election cannot be eliminated. In chapter 10 believing in Jesus is an individual decision, even though large groups of Gentiles are doing so. The individual and corporate dimensions cannot be sundered from one another in chapter 10, and the same principle applies to chapter 9 (cf. Müller 1964: 76-77). Those who insist that corporate election alone is intended in chapters 9 and 11 are inconsistent when they revert to individual decisions of faith in chapter 10. The three chapters must be interpreted together, yielding the conclusion that both corporate and individual election are involved.” Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 1998), p. 498.
[[vii]] Barrett, op. cit. p. 182.
[[viii]] I am indebted to S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., my professor of theology, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his Exposition of Romans: Believers Bible Bulletin (Believers Chapel: Dallas, TX, 1980) Lesson 30. I have adapted this outline and made extensive use of his lectures on this passage.
Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of reprinted material from early faculty members of Princeton. First printed in 1846 and now newly edited, this summary of Christianity’s major doctrines is a pocket theology for “plain, common readers” who do not have the time or opportunity to study larger works of systematic theology, but still want to grow in their spiritual understanding. Reading this book will enable you to better comprehend those biblical truths that matter most for your walk as a believer in today’s world, making you, by God’s grace, a stronger and more godly Christian.
Containing 38 short chapters on everything from the “Being of God” to the “Mediatorial Offices of Christ” to the “Final Judgment,” Alexander’s Compendium is a unique introduction to the core doctrines of the Christian faith. As an early American proponent of “experimental” theology, Alexander had little patience for mere intellectual pursuits. His book is as intensely practical as it is thoughtful. Even after more than 150 years, modern readers would be hard-pressed to find a more accessible, yet thorough, introduction to Christian doctrine than A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Excellent for personal and devotional reading, small-group and Sunday school study, and elder and deacon training classes.
“[Archibald Alexander teaches] that Christianity is more than an affirmation of intelllectual propositions; it is also a personal experiential relationship with Jesus Christ.” from the Preface (by James Garretson and Joel Beeke)
About the author: Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) served as the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and was the founder of the Princeton Theology, which merged Reformed experiential theology as found in the Westminster Standards with Scottish Common Sense Realism.