Predestination, election, calling—three terms that we often hear used interchangeably; three terms that I think are among the least understood doctrines in the church. And when it comes to election and predestination, probably among the least talked about doctrines in the church.
These three terms are related, but they are not the same. This morning we’re going to focus on the doctrine of election, a doctrine that we find throughout all of Scripture, but that has always been considered both difficult and controversial, probably because it is so often misunderstood.
And while we are NOT talking about politics this morning, the biblical doctrine of election is, in some ways, like political elections. Because when we vote, we choose one candidate over others. And the doctrine of biblical election is essentially that God chooses—or elects—some people over others.
We find this from the very beginning. God chose Noah over all the other people on the earth; He chose Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Moses over Aaron and Miriam, David over his brothers. He chose the Israelite people over all others.
In the New Testament, Jesus chose—or elected–twelve men to be His apostles, to be the beginning of a new people—a people from whom you and I are descended. God’s people.
Nobody who knows anything about the Bible denies that God does this, that He chooses—or elects—particular people over others. The reason this doctrine is problematic to many is that they don’t understand it.
We heard in our passage from Romans, in v17, “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” Paul goes on to say in v18, “So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.”
Because the Lord told Moses in Exodus 10:1 that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Judas, too, was apparently chosen—elected—to be the one who would betray Jesus. Presumably both Pharaoh and Judas will not be enjoying eternity in heaven.
We read verses like the ones you heard in John’s gospel: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world” (John 17:6) and “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me” (John 17:9). And Romans 9:13, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13), and we think that God is being unfair. We wonder: “What about all those people that God didn’t give Jesus? What happens to them?”
If the doctrine of election seems unfair to you, however, the problem isn’t God—it’s us. Because while we can very easily see that election is occurring, we have to look at a bigger picture to understand how and why this is happening. And when we understand it, we can see that not only is the doctrine of election not unfair—it’s a very good thing for you and for me. My prayer is that this morning we’ll all gain a much greater understanding of God’s election process.
Thousands of years ago, God chose—or elected—a man named Abram to be the father of His chosen people, and then He chose Isaac to be the son through whom those chosen people would be descended. We don’t know why God chose Abraham instead of someone else; it’s easier to understand His reason for choosing Isaac over Ishmael. Isaac’s birth was the direct result of God’s intervention and was foreseen by a divine promise—a promise that God would give a son to Abraham by Sarah. Ishmael’s birth was the result of Sarah and Abraham trying to come up with their own plan to get a child. Certainly God has a right to choose His plan over theirs.
This is what Paul is saying when he says, in v6-7, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’”
Later when Isaac’s wife Rebekah, like Sarah, was childless, God again intervened. “Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren, and the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived” (Genesis 25:21-22). Conceived twins—was this part of God’s plan? Or was it somehow a mistake?
Well, we know that God doesn’t make mistakes, so clearly it was part of His plan to Rebekah to give birth to twin boys. But even though both sons, Jacob and Esau, are Isaac’s sons, direct descendants of Abraham and Sarah, God still chose between them—and He made His choice before they were even born. As Paul wrote in Romans 9:11-12: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’”
And so Jacob, despite being the younger son, receives the promise—and the blessing from Isaac. Now Jacob and Rebekah tricked Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of the Esau—but surely God could have prevented that.
We know that none of these are mistakes because God tells us. In Genesis 25:23, after Rebekah wonders why the two children within her are already struggling with one another, “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.’”
God chose Jacob’s line to be the one through whom His promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. And He did this despite the fact that Jacob wasn’t really a very nice person. There’s no evidence at all that he was any better than Esau.
The choice of one over another is made by God’s grace for reasons that we don’t know and don’t understand—but that clearly have nothing to do with the goodness of the one chosen. Both Jacob and Esau are equally sinners.
Then Jacob has twelve sons, and God chooses Judah to be the one through whom His promise of a Savior will be fulfilled. Why? Judah wasn’t the son of Rachel, the one Jacob loved. It’s clear from the story that had Jacob been able to decide which of his sons would be chosen—elected—to be the one through whom God’s promise would be fulfilled, he would surely have chosen either Joseph or Benjamin. And Judah is the only son who gets his own chapter devoted to showing us just what a sinner he is.
Moses is chosen by God to lead God’s chosen people out of Egypt, but then God doesn’t let him enter the Promised Land—because he’s a sinner. Even Noah who’s described as a “righteous man,” isn’t elected, or chosen, because of his goodness. Noah emerges from the ark and plants a vineyard and the only thing we hear about him after that is that he gets drunk—sin is still alive and well in the world.
1500 years after Genesis is written, God chooses—elects—a man named Saul to become the greatest missionary in the early church. A man who, up until God informed him of the purpose he had for him, was arresting and killing Christians, a man who was putting all of his effort into destroying the early church.
No wonder we’re confused by this doctrine of election.
Paul tells us that God elects some over others for a reason—and then He writes in v 12: “As it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” And right here, I think, is why we have so much trouble with the doctrine of election. We read this verse and we interpret it to mean that God elects certain people—before any of us are ever even born—to love. And that—before any of us are even born—He chooses some of us to hate. We further interpret this to mean, then, that those God loves go to heaven and those God hates go to hell.
And we wonder why God would create a system like this. We think it’s unfair. We know enough about hell to know it’s a terrible place, a place that no one would ever want to be for even five minutes, let alone eternity. And God is condemning some people to go there before they’re ever even born?
No—He’s not. This is not what the doctrine of election means at all. How do we know? Well… let’s begin at the beginning.
First of all, we know that God is good—all the time. And just before writing these words about election, Paul has reminded his reader at the end of chapter 8, that: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). And: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …. I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Then we read: “‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”
Now stop for a moment and think back to Jesus’ words in Luke 4:26: ”If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” This is the same Jesus who commands us to love one another. So Jesus isn’t telling us that we are to literally hate our parents or our spouse or our children—He’s telling us that we must prefer Jesus over them.
So Paul, as he quotes the prophet Malachi, isn’t saying that God literally hates Esau. God is good—all the time. And God doesn’t hate anyone or anything. Jesus, in John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” He doesn’t say, “For God so loved some of the world,” or “For God so loved the people that He elected”—“For God so loved the world.” All of it. Every single one of us.
What Paul is saying is that God chose—or elected—Jacob over Esau to be the one through whom His promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. God made a deliberate choice in favor of Jacob—before Jacob was ever born.
This is important for us to understand—really important. Because what we see is that God’s choice of Isaac instead of Ishmael and Jacob instead of Esau doesn’t have anything to do with them or with any works they might have done or not done. God’s choice is entirely about His mind and His will, as He is the one who chooses or elects.
But then we come to another potential problem: does this mean that God is just arbitrary? That He just chooses one person over another for no reason? No—Paul’s not saying that God doesn’t have reasons. He is saying that the reasons aren’t in us. He’s saying that believers can have no sense of superiority over unbelievers.
But if God is choosing people for no reason that we can know, doesn’t that mean that He’s rejecting other people for no reason? When He chose Jacob over Esau, for example, wasn’t He rejecting Esau? Again, the answer is no. God does not reject anyone.
Ephesians 1:11 says that “We have received an inheritance from God, for He chose us in advance, and He makes everything work out according to His plan.” We don’t live in a world of random happenings. We constantly hear about all the problems of the world and about climate change and about how things are spinning out of control and we need to do something. But the Christian can rest in the knowledge that God has everything under control—we may still need to do something, but He’ll show us what that is if we let Him.
You and I and everyone else might not have expected a lot of things that have happened—but nothing ever takes God by surprise. Proverbs 16:33 says, “We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall.” Even the flip of a coin is part of His plan. This should be tremendously reassuring. Especially when bad things happen.
God is good—all the time. The evil of the world wasn’t part of God original design. Death, disease, sin and decay are a temporary result of sin. Psalm 56:8 says, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” God is distressed by our distress and grieved by our pain. But because we know that God is good—all the time—we can be certain that even our troubles and sorrows and pain will be used by Him in a way that in the end will result in God’s glory and in “good” for His people. The good that’s promised in Romans 8:28: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Let’s look at some specific ways that God uses this doctrine of election in people’s lives:
Twelve men were chosen to be Jesus’ apostles—one of them, Judas, was chosen to betray Jesus, chosen beforehand. In Acts 2:23, Peter, in his Pentecost sermon, put it this way: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Judas delivered Jesus into the hands of those “lawless men” and on that Friday as the Son of God was nailed to a wooden cross, it seemed to be the worst possible thing imaginable. Everyone involved, from the high priest to the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers, engaged in actions that were wicked beyond belief—and yet God used their evil intentions to carry out the crucifixion exactly how and when He wanted it. So Peter says in Acts 1:16, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” Was Judas nevertheless responsible for his decision to betray Jesus? Absolutely. Did he suffer the consequences of his bad choices? He did. But God was still in control.
Jacob deceived his father and robbed his brother. He was forced to flee his home as a result of his own wrongdoing. But in traveling to the home of his uncle Laban he met and married the love of his life, Rachel, and had the children through whom Jesus would be descended (Genesis 27-28). This wasn’t some accidental happening—it was all part of God’s perfect plan for him. God was in control even when Jacob wasn’t.
Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelite people out of Egypt. It was no accident that he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter as an infant. He was perfectly positioned as both a Hebrew and a member of the royal family to go before Pharaoh on behalf of his people.
Then we have to wonder: do we really have free will? Or, as some people think, are we really just puppets controlled by God? People who just think we’re making our own choices?
Theologian J. Gresham Machen answers these questions this way:
“What we learn here is that God somehow brings about the actions of people in a way that at the same time fully preserves their freedom and responsibility. If you struggle to understand that, consider this: all of us have at times tried to persuade someone to do something that we want them to do. When they choose to do what we ask them to do, they’re doing it of their own free will. Is it so hard to believe then that God is able to do with certainty what we with our little power do with uncertainty? Does God who made the soul know how to move it in accordance with its own nature so that its freedom shall not be destroyed?”
So … what about the really important question: our salvation? Does this doctrine of election say that God has determined in advance who will be saved and who will not? Absolutely not. People who choose God do so only because God has opened their hearts. People who fail to choose God do so only because they have closed their hearts to Him.
Romans 3:11 says “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
All of us have free will. Yet none of us will ever seek God on our own. Because of sin, all of us have lost the ability to see truth and the desire to serve God. We are completely incapable of choosing God unless He breaks in—and that’s what He does. We don’t initiate our salvation—we don’t even want it. God wakes us up, He unlocks us from a helpless state.
If any of us are saved, it is entirely because of the mercy and choice of God. At the same time, if any of us is lost, it is entirely our responsibility.
Jesus says, in Luke 7:30, “the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves.” In John 8:37, Jesus tells the Jews, “You seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.” And in John 8:43, He says, “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.”
God is good—all the time. The Bible tells us that He desires that all people be saved. But some people refuse to come to Him. Some people choose to reject Him.
When we understand this doctrine of election we can know that salvation truly is by grace alone and God alone—not on the basis of anything in us. The real question isn’t why God doesn’t take all of us, but rather why He takes any.
Imagine that five of your friends make a plan to rob a bank. You find out about it and you try to stop them. You beg them not to do it, but they refuse to listen. They push you out of the way and head off. You, however, tackle one of them and wrestle him to the ground. The other four rob the bank, killing a guard in the process. They’re caught and arrested, convicted and sentenced. The man you held down goes free. So whose fault is it that the four men died? And can the fifth man claim that he’s free because he made a good decision? The only reason he’s free is because you restrained him.
So those who go to hell have no one to blame but themselves. God didn’t choose for them to go. And those who go to heaven have no one to praise but Christ Jesus. So salvation is, from beginning to end, totally about the grace of God.
And, brothers and sisters in Christ, this is good news. Because electing love is ultimate love. If God loved us because He found something good in us, we’d always have to be afraid of losing His love. And we’d never find His love a total miracle. The good news is that God doesn’t say “I love you because you are useful to me” or “I love you because you are more humble than others.” He says, “I love you simply because I love you—love you with an everlasting love.”
This is perfect love. From our great God—who is good. All the time.
Let us pray.