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QUESTION: I have a friend who argues that the story of Jacob and Esau supports the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. But Genesis 25:27-34 says that Esau forfeited his birthright by selling it to Jacob. Thus it seems plain that it was not by God’s election but by Esau’s choice. How is this text so misinterpreted by those who teach this view of predestination?
ANSWER: The use of Jacob and Esau to support the Calvinist view of election (or predestination) is based not on the Genesis account, but on a false interpretation of Romans 9:10-14, which says: “And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 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, it was said to her, ‘THE OLDER WILL SERVE THE YOUNGER.’ Just as it is written, ‘JACOB I LOVED, BUT ESAU I HATED’” (NASB).
Calvinists think this whole chapter teaches the doctrine of unconditional election to salvation. Just as God chose Abraham, so he chose Abraham’s son Isaac, rather than Ishmael—for salvation (9:7-9). Likewise God chose Jacob rather than Esau—for salvation (9:10-14). In the same way God chose to have mercy on Moses but to harden Pharaoh (9:15-18).
Interpreted this way, the ninth chapter of Romans becomes one of Calvinism’s main proof-texts for their doctrine of unconditional predestination. The problem, however, is that this is a complete misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the entire chapter, and of the whole section of Romans 9-11.
It is a fact that in Romans 9 Paul is affirming unconditional election. I.e., God has indeed unconditionally chosen Abraham and no other as the founding father of Israel. He has indeed unconditionally chosen Isaac rather than Ishmael, and Jacob rather than Esau. Moses and Pharaoh are a further illustration of God’s sovereignty in choosing whomever he wills.
The problem with the Calvinist view, though, is this: Romans 9 is NOT talking about election to salvation, but election to service. The issue is not personal salvation, but roles of service in carrying out God’s plan for bringing about redemption for this sinful world. The bottom line is that God has the right to choose and use whomever he desires in order to carry out his purposes. This is meant to apply specifically to the nation of Israel.
Why does Paul (under the Spirit’s influence) see fit to discuss this issue at this point in the letter to the Romans? He has just explained, in chapters 1-8, that God’s way of salvation is by grace through faith, and not by works of law (3:28), i.e., not by how well one keeps his or her law code. This is just as true of Jews as it is of Gentiles. Regarding the way of salvation, God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (see especially chapters 2 and 3).
The content of Romans up through chapter 8 is a direct challenge to the belief commonly held by the Jews of Paul’s day, that they had a special inside track to salvation After all, were they not God’s chosen people? If so, does that not mean that somehow, every circumcised Jew who holds high the Law of Moses will be saved (2:17-29)?
This assumption, says Paul, is absolutely false. The problem is that the Jews were confusing election to service with election to salvation. They assumed that because God chose them as the means by which “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), he also chose them, simply as Jews, for salvation. But now they hear Paul saying, “No! Jews do not have a unique path to heaven; on Judgment Day they will be treated like everyone else.” So now they are thinking, “That’s not fair! God has just been leading us on, giving us promises he never meant to keep. He is going back on his word! Where is the justice?”
So in Romans 9 Paul is defending God’s righteousness in his dealings with the Jews. The Word of God has not failed (9:6a). When God says that only those Jews will be saved who trust God’s promises, like their father Abraham did, he is not going back on his original promises to Israel. His choice of the nation as a whole was not a guarantee of any individual Jew’s salvation. God was simply choosing the nation as such to be the means for bringing the Savior into the world (9:5). And God certainly has the sovereign right to use any individual or group that he chooses for such a purpose, without any promise of personal salvation being attached.
This is the point of the crucial passage, 9:14-18: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, ‘I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION.’ So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”
The language of mercy and compassion that is used here is never limited in the Bible to saving mercy. It is often used to refer to the temporal blessings and privileges which God bestows upon individuals. (E.g., Paul says God has shown mercy on him by choosing him to be an apostle: 1 Cor. 7:25; 2 Cor. 4:1.) Here in Romans 9, the prime example Paul uses of God’s choosing someone for service without also choosing him for salvation is none other than Pharaoh (9:17). God both “had mercy” on him by choosing him for a crucial role in birthing the nation of Israel, and also “hardened” him in order to accomplish the same purpose.
Just as many Israelites were guilty of misinterpreting God’s purpose for unconditionally calling their nation to be his special people, so are Calvinists guilty of misinterpreting God’s Word here in Romans 9. There is absolutely no support in this chapter for the false doctrine of unconditional predestination to salvation.
To quote Genesis 25:27-34 and make the claim that Esau selling his birthright was completely his own freewill choice is to completely ignore Genesis 25:23 which states, “And the LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger." The Lord clearly told Rebekah of His predetermined plan for Esau the elder son to give up his birthright to jacob the younger son. Yes, Esau made a choice, but that choice was not his own independent will but clearly according to the predetermined plan of God.
Regarding mercy, you state that, “God both ‘had mercy’ on him by choosing him for a crucial role in birthing the nation of Israel, and also ‘hardened’ him in order to accomplish the same purpose”.
- There is no way that mercy can be applied this way because God’s mercy is through His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ as an atonement for our guilt. If God were to have mercy on someone for service and then harden them leading to destruction - that would not be mercy. Also, it would seem to contradict God’s attribute of immutability by claiming He shows mercy and then turns around and hardens for destruction.
- You also attempt to back up your claim by referring to 1 Corinthians 7:25 and stating that, “Paul says God has shown mercy on him by choosing him to be an apostle” as if Paul could be an apostle without being elected to salvation. However, if we look back we see Paul explaining we who are saved are slaves of Christ and were bought for a price. Slaves have no say so or choice in being chosen and paid for - Paul uses this analogy to make clear the doctrine of predestined election. You also refer to 2 Corinthians 4:1 implying that Paul’s is simply service that he was elected to. But how could the claim ever stand that ministry might stand alone? The service of ministry is fruit of salvation. Salvation must precede true Christian service and ministry.
You make the claim that in Romans 9, “The issue is not personal salvation, but roles of service in carrying out God’s plan for bringing about redemption for this sinful world. The bottom line is that God has the right to choose and use whomever he desires in order to carry out his purposes. This is meant to apply specifically to the nation of Israel”.
Claiming that Pharaoh was chosen (elected) for service but not salvation in an effort to paint unearned election as not pertaining to salvation is simply absurd and un-Biblical. Consider Act 4:27-28, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” To take this or the predestined acts of Pharaoh and label them as “service” is to muddle the fact of Jesus as Savior who saves the elect and also Lord whom we serve obediently. Just where in scripture is the idea of election to service but not salvation conveyed? Rather, it is very clear that individuals predestined for destruction (Romans 9:22) are used to carry out God’s will, but that in no way implies that they are called into His service. The elect who have been predestined for salvation are called into service and ministry.
You close with the very generalized statement that, “There is absolutely no support in this chapter for the false doctrine of unconditional predestination to salvation”.
- How do you reconcile your statement with Rom 9:20-24?, But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?“
- "Prepared for destruction” and “prepared beforehand for glory” are solid black and white scriptural claims of predestination. And the words “for glory” sum up any question of reference to salvation
Something I always notice from the Arminian viewpoint is that scripture must be twisted, taken out of context, and polluted with philosophy in order to try to justify man’s willful choice over God’s sovereignty. I believe the reason Arminian Pastors seem to preach in a more topical or antidotal manner is because there are simply too many scriptural refutations for their erroneous position. I have actually heard Arminian Pastors come across a portion of scripture which affirms predestination - even with the word predestination used in the scripture referenced and then make the claim that predestination is not Biblical and man has a free will choice - ridiculous! In contrast, the reformed doctrine basks in God’s sovereignty with an uncompromising high regard for scripture. Predestined, unearned election very much is the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. It is also a very comfortable and truly joyful blessing for a believer because reformed doctrine is stated and reiterated and brought to light everywhere in scripture. We do not have to come up with new philosophies and angles of presenting scripture - we simply turn to the Word faithfully and stand on it’s clear black and white truth.
All of scripture proclaims unearned election - not just Romans 9. Romans 9 is simply a very beautifully concise explanation of the doctrine of predestined election.
Isaiah 55:8-9, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Romans 11:33-36, Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 2:7, But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.
Ephesians 1:4-6, even as 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 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.
1 Peter 2:7-9, So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," and "A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense." They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Jude 1:4, For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Romans 11:2, God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?
Genesis 18:19, For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him."
John 6:44, No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
John 6:65, And he said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father."
Acts 2:23, this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
Psalm 139:1-17, To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
Revelation 13:8, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
It is abundantly clear from scripture that reformed theology IS the gospel of Jesus Christ. But if you still believe that salvation is not by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone - unconditional predestined election - then how is salvation obtained? What must man do apart from God’s grace in order to be saved?