One of the toughest concepts the Bible teaches is that of God’s election of the saints. It seemingly flies in the face of our free will. It seemingly flies in the face of God’s love for all. The best I can say say before I say anything on this topic is that we only have partial answers. No matter how much we look at it, we cannot fully comprehend everything.
Paul talks first about how he mourned for Israel because it was to them that God had originally revealed himself to. Paul himself was a Jew. Yet his people had chosen to turn their backs on Jesus, and murder their own Messiah.
But Paul says this does not mean that God’s promises to Abraham’s decendants have failed. He gives two reasons for this. One is found in chapter 11 which we’ll look at later, and one is found here in chapter 9.
The first answer Paul gives here is that the true Jew is not the person who is merely of Jewish lineage. Paul then gives a slightly different slant on his illustration of Isaac and Ishmael given in Galatians 4. There he focused on the difference of trying to be made right before God through human effort to keep the law rather than through His promise.
But in this chapter, he contrasts children born because of a promise with those born by natural means. “Natural means” in this case meaning children born through the joining of a man and a fertile woman (Hagar), in contrast to Sarah’s pregnancy which could hardly be called completely “natural” because she was well beyond her child-bearing years. She was only able to give birth because of the promise that God made.
In the same way, people do not become Abraham’s descendants simply through “natural” means, that is, through being born into Jewish lineage. Rather we’re become his spiritual descendants solely because of God’s promise and his grace.
Yet he makes a key point here: the promises of God are not based upon anything we do.
Paul then illustrates this in the election of Jacob over Esau.
Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls–she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” (11-12)
The whole point here is that God didn’t choose Jacob or Esau because he was better than Esau. Jacob didn’t earn his election by his good works. Rather, God in his grace chose and made promises to Jacob for his own purposes.
Some people say that God chose people to elect through his foreknowledge. That because he knew they would be good or bad, or put another way, because he knew they would choose him, he in turn chose them. But to hold that view completely blows up Paul’s entire point over verse 11. You would be in effect saying, “God chose them not because of what they had done, but because of what God knew they would do.”
But Paul doesn’t even come remotely close to saying this. He says, “Not by him who works (and by extension, “by him who God knows will work”) but by him who calls.” That’s the whole sense of the passage.
He then quotes Malachi where God told Israel,
“Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.” (13)
I’ve explained this further here, but the main point again is that God did not choose Jacob because of his works, but because of his grace and his purposes alone.
But isn’t this unfair? Isn’t then God choosing capriciously who to save and who to damn to hell? We’ll address that question in the next blog.