Confessions: Belgic Confession Article #16
Purpose: to help listeners better understand the difficult topic of election and God’s sovereignty.
Keywords: election, mercy, sovereignty
It seems that if we talk about religion with others eventually we will discuss the topics of election and predestination. This is especially true if we try to explain what it means that we are Reformed. People will ask about what we believe and the distinctions that we might hold in comparison to other Christians. Sometimes though, those of us who are Reformed might want to avoid the topic of election because it seems that our views are usually under attack. We do not like being portrayed as being hateful or uncaring by those we are talking with. At other times we might want to avoid the topic because we know what we believe but do not know exactly why we believe it. Also when challenged, we might not be able to backup what we believe with Scripture.
For others when the topics of election or predestination come up, they say, “I do not want to hear it!!” They worry that people will only fight over the issue anyway. Others only want to hear their views on these difficult subjects repeated over and over again. When an opposing view is offered some will even get very angry about it. At other times, people will only focus on the texts they see as supporting their view while ignoring the ones that might undermine it. If it were possible, they would cut Scripture up a bit in order to make it better fit their position.
Too often people’s views on the subject of election are based upon their logic or emotions and not upon what God’s word says. They place what they feel or think over what the Bible says. When that happens it is very difficult to have a beneficial conversation. When faced with these issues it seems as if people just talk past each other instead of discussing what the Bible actually says.
Of all of the doctrines that Christians discuss, none seems to bring out the negative or even hostile responses like election does. Yet, as Christians, we need to see that since God’s word deals with His election and predestination so should we. While parts of God’s will and ways are hidden, we are called to study all that He has revealed unto us. Though it is a difficult topic, as Christians, we should be able to thoughtfully seek to know God’s will and word better.
First, prior to our text Paul has been addressing the issue of why so many of the Jews of his time had rejected Jesus. The question or challenge to his message arises, “If they are God’s chosen people, why don’t they believe? Why are there not more Jews becoming faithful followers of Jesus Christ?” Paul had even said of the unbelieving Jews in verse 2-4, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”
In response to this question Paul is now saying that they do not all believe because not all from Israel are Israel. The failure of the Jews to believe in Jesus and to be saved through faith in Him was not the fault of God’s word. God’s word always accomplishes His will according to Isaiah 55:11, “So is my word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
The truth was that most of the Jews of Paul’s time were never really part of the heart of God’s covenant community. There is a true Israel made up of believers that will be saved but not all of Abraham’s physical descendents are part of the true Israel. Israel’s history should make this abundantly clear to all. In referring back to the apostasy of Israel in Elijah’s time, Paul writes in Romans 11:5, “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” At any one time in Israel’s history there was but a portion who were part of the true Israel.
Paul shows that the true covenant community was through Isaac. Even Abraham’s children were not received by God on an equal standing. Ishmael was Abraham’s descendent in the flesh but he was sent away from the covenant community. In Galatians 4:30 it tells us that Ishmael would not share in the inheritance with Isaac. “But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Isaac, the child of promise, was the heir to the covenantal and spiritual promises of God to Abraham. The average Jew of Paul’s time would have accepted that they were part of God’s elect through Isaac and that Ishmael and his descendents were not part of God’s people.
But some might claim that God only chose between them because of their mothers, Sarah and Hager. So now Paul points us to Jacob and Esau. Being conceived with the same mother and father at the same time, they were nearly the same. Yet, God chose Jacob over his brother Esau before they were born and had done anything. God certainly knew what they would do but that was not what His sovereign choice was based on. God did not choose based upon what they might do or even whether they might believe. God did not look forward in time to see if they would follow Him or not. The text explicitly says that it was not because of what they had done, either good or bad. Instead, God’s sovereign choice of Jacob was based on God’s purpose in election. It was about God’s will and not theirs. The choice of Jacob over Esau was based on the God who calls and not on the one being called.
Here we see God’s love in a way that many people reject. We see God declaring that He loves one over another for His own purpose. We see God declaring that it is His to love as He sees fit. The text even says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” When we talk about election this is where people start to have huge issues with the Reformed understanding. Maybe we have even struggled with this. How can God do this? How can He choose one over another?
Before we say that God is being unfair, remember neither Jacob nor Esau was deserving of God’s love. Yet God loved Jacob over Esau. God gave mercy to Jacob and justice to Esau. We understand that God hating Esau in this context is to reject him, to leave him in his sin, and to face his just punishment. Remember too, God did not owe Esau anything better than what He gave him. To demand more for Esau is to demand that God give out his grace according to our will and not his.
The shocking part is not that God rejected Esau but that He would love sinful Jacob. Jacob too deserved to be rejected, to be hated by God. The Bible is clear that through much of his life Jacob was a scoundrel. If God were to be “fair”, as some want, then both Jacob and Esau would have faced eternal punishment. But God in His sovereignty chose to pardon one without pardoning the other. God was sovereign in deciding who He would bring into the heart of his covenant community and who He would not.
Second, the question arises whether it is just or fair for God to accept or reject people eternally based only upon His will? Paul now voices what objectors probably brought up when he taught them about God’s sovereign choice of people. Still today, as in Paul’s day, it seems that most people resist the idea that God is sovereign and rules over His universe. Some might allow for God to rule over most of the universe but not over the affairs of men. Instead, we want to control our own destinies. We want to do our part and have our say in where we will end up. Most people want their vote to count even if it means overruling God’s will.
However, we need to consider whether we stand with the inspired Apostle in this matter or with his detractors. When election and sovereignty are presented to us, do we rise up to judge or even challenge the Almighty?
We need to remember that our opinions are not the standards by which we judge God. Instead, Paul says to judge according to God’s word. In our text Paul refers to the time after the golden calf when God declared to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Here God claims His right to sovereignly give mercy to Israel even after their great sin of idolatry. Justice or fairness would have simply been to punish them fully.
Yet many object to God when He declares that He will have mercy on whom He wills to have mercy. There are many even within the church today, who would declare that God must have mercy on all equally. Some will point to their understanding of God’s love and say that God must give everyone the same opportunity or He is somehow unloving.
Still, we see that God regularly makes distinctions between people. At the exodus God showed mercy to sinful Israel while He delivered His justice upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The truth is Israel deserved destruction too, yet, God delivered them over and over again. Today we still see a wide discrepancy in how God deals with people, even within families. Some are blessed abundantly while other must go through life facing one struggle after another.
Then Scripture explicitly tells us that it is not based upon human will. The Bible could not say this any clearer. “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” This should end the argument. We do not receive mercy because we chose God first. Instead, we receive mercy because He chose us. Unlike what most people want to believe, God’s elective mercy is not based on what we want or do not want or by what we do or do not do. Instead, our new life, our faith, and even our repentance are based on His loving mercy towards us. It is God’s elective love alone that leads us to salvation and not our sinful wills or sinful works. In fact Romans 3:11 says, “There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” Listen to that again, “No one who seeks God.” If not for God’s merciful choice, we would forever choose our sins over following Christ. We would forever face hell. We would forever follow our sin and not our Savior. We would never know the love and compassion of our merciful God.
God is not bound to consider sinful people. God is sovereign. God in His wisdom and for His purpose has decided to make a people for Himself out of fallen humanity. The positive side is that God gives undeserved mercy to some. God has mercy on those He wills to have mercy for His purpose and for His glory. If God had not poured out His love on sinners like Jacob and us, none would have ever been saved. The negative is that God also gave deserved justice to others. God hardens those He wills to harden for His own purposes and for His glory.
But how should we understand God’s hardening? God’s hardening is like removing moisture from the soil. When a drought starts, the once tillable soil begins to change. As the moisture comes out of the soil, it gets harder and harder until it can be as hard as rock. At this point it becomes useless for growing plants. Similarly, by His own will God removes His restraining grace which is like the moisture to soften the hearts of sinners. This allows sinners like Pharaoh to become more unbending in their wickedness and receive the justice due their own sin. It is God’s right to give or remove His grace where He sees fit.
Third, the challenge comes, “God can’t do that!! Who does He think He is anyway?” Some people might even condemn God saying, “If that is God, then I want nothing to do with Him?” Anyone who has had very many discussions about election has probably experienced this resistance to God’s sovereignty to some degree or another. Or maybe when we have heard of God’s sovereignty, we have felt this resistance in our hearts too.
Again, Paul presents his objectors as they show their disapproval of God’s right to give mercy or harden as He sees fit. “If we are not in charge of our own destinies then everything must be God’s fault and not ours.” Again, we need to consider whether we stand with the inspired Apostle on this issue or with his detractors. Do we rise up in judgment over God’s sovereign will too?
Paul responds to the critics with a strong statement, “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?’ 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?” Paul does not budge an inch. He does not even really answer their complaint. Instead, he simply declares that God has the right, whether we understand it or not, to exercise His sovereign rights over all that He has made.
Before we complain, we need to remember that we are all but sinful clay. God chose from those who deserve hell, not heaven!!! Even in letting some fall, God has a purpose. In Proverbs 16:4 it is written, “The LORD works out everything for His own ends – even the wicked for a day of disaster.” Whether saved or lost, all of humanity will fulfill God’s purpose, His sovereign purpose.
But this still grates on sinful people who want to push God off of His sovereign throne. However, before we charge God with injustice let it be known that if God had not elected some sinners to salvation, all on their own would have been lost. God can and does give mercy as He sees fit for His purpose or none would be saved. Yes, He can do that.
Finally, instead of our focusing or complaining about God’s deserved justice, look to His great underserved mercy. It is God’s great mercy that leads us to salvation. St. Augustine said, “God does not choose us because we believe, but that we may believe.” The shocking thing is that God would love any of us and bring us to faith in Christ. The fairness so many call for would lead to suffering in hell eternally for everyone. It is His mercy that, through the cross of Jesus Christ, saves those who deserve hell. His elective mercy is not passive as some would have it. Instead, it works in us to make us a part of His living covenant community. God in His mercy sent Jesus to seek and save the lost and that is what He does. 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” As believers we can only have true hope in knowing that it is God who saves. And yes, praise God, He can do that!!
Prayer of Response
Merciful Father, we thank you for the salvation that you have given to us in Christ Jesus. We thank you for changing our hearts and drawing us close to you. Help us to trust that all things are truly in your hand and they are working for our salvation. Help us to trust, even when we do not understand, that you will always do what is right. Help us now not to set ourselves up as judges over your word but instead to accept it in all humbleness. Please give us true understanding of your love and mercy through your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Order of Worship
WE GATHER IN HIS PRESENCE
Welcome and announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 98: 1-6
Silent Prayer concluded with “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH# 625
Votum: “Our help is in the name of the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.”
Prayer for God’s Greeting, “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Opening hymn: “To God be the Glory” PsH#473
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Call to confession: Psalm 130: 1-4
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 103: 8-12
Hymn: “Lead Me, Guide Me” PsH#544
God’s Will for our Lives: Exodus 20: 1-17
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn: “Take My Life and Let It Be” PsH#288: 1,4,6
Confessional Reading: Belgic Confession Article #16
Scripture Reading: Romans 9:6-21
Sermon: “God Can’t Do That!”
Prayer of Response
Hymn: “Not What My Hands Have Done” PsH#260
WE DEPART WITH HIS BLESSING
Prayer for God’s blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “And Can it Be” PsH#267