Rest in God’s Sovereign Faithfulness – Romans 9:1-13

by Roger McCay
2 February 2020
Sermon Passage: Romans 9:1-13
Link to Audio Version

“Well that makes God kind of a jerk!” During a discussion with a certain gentleman, I came to find that he was angered by the teachings in Scripture about how God works. What was particularly upsetting to him was the doctrines (the teachings) of God’s foreordaining all that comes to pass; electing his people (those he wants to save); allowing sin to come into play; and then condemning people for sins that (in this fellow’s mind) God could have prevented, or not let happen in the first place. He claimed “that makes God a kind of jerk.”

Such a sentiment is actually not uncommon. The idea that God has all the cards (that he is sovereign in electing people to save and the judge who will condemn some people for their sin), is hard to wrap one’s mind around. Despite this difficulty, the balance of “God’s sovereignty in election” and “human responsibility in sin” is a reality, clearly taught in the Scriptures. Every Christian needs to come to terms with and understand these doctrines, not only for our own peace of mind, but also so that we can obey the command in 1 Peter 3:15,

“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

The balance of “God’s sovereignty in election” and “human responsibility for sin” can be a struggle to come to terms with both mentally and emotionally. This is particularly true when we see people, whom we know and love, reject the Lord.

The apostle Paul even admits his struggle in this concerning the Jews. It was not that Paul did not rest in the Lord’s faithfulness, it was that the Jews unbelief was a very emotional issue for him. Verses 1-3:

9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

Paul’s emotional response to this truth is a tribute to the veracity of his words. He loved his Jewish brethren. It was extremely painful to him to see them reject Christ.

Notice how Paul starts his exposition on sovereign election and human responsibility. He starts it with tears, sorrow, anguish, expressing a desire on the brink of wishing to lose his salvation, if only it would save his fellow Jews. Paul isn’t stoic about it. He doesn’t say, “Well I’m a chosen apostle. I’m saved. Too bad about everybody else.” No, he grieves for them, and he pleads for God to save them.

This shows how our attitude ought to be when we consider these doctrines—in a word, loving. These are not doctrines to get puffed up about. These are not doctrines to use as an excuse to write off the rest of the world. These are doctrines that should cause us to grieve the state of sin that those outside Christ find themselves, and to, in an utterly heartfelt way, plead with the Lord on their behalf. These doctrines, rather than stifle our witness, should drive our witness of the gospel to those who don’t know Jesus. It certainly did for Paul.

We also find permission in this passage to grieve when those we know and love refuse to believe, and reject Christ. I cannot imagine a more heart-churning issue.

Perhaps you relate to his pain a bit. Maybe you have a loved one who is lost. You enjoy them, love their company, but, even so, there is always pain underneath – knowing they are lost. Maybe you’ve suffered the loss of such a loved one, an unbeliever. You know the terrible grief that ensues, a grief that is so different than that which you feel when you know your loved one, as a believer, is now with Jesus in Paradise.

In such a way, we can relate a bit with Paul’s pain in v. 2: my sorrow is great and unceasing anguish is in my heart.

Consider though, this remarkable statement in v. 3:

3 For I could almost wish that I myself were accursed – cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers my kinsmen according to the flesh.

Can you even begin to fathom being willing to suffer eternal damnation to save those who don’t know Jesus?

Paul knew it couldn’t be—he would never find himself accursed. The Lord chose him, saved him, and set him to work. Paul did not have the power to cut himself off from Christ, and he knew the Lord’s will and work are perfect. Besides, he didn’t want to give up his salvation, even if he could. Christ loved him too much, and Paul’s love for the Lord was first and foremost. Yet Paul’s love for the Jews, particularly those who were cut off from “the tree of true Israel,” was such that he was willing to take himself to the brink … Too, what we can see from his life is that he acted on this sentiment. Paul could not trade his eternal life; he could, however, and did put every bit of his earthly life towards the proclamation of the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, including suffering terrible hardships at the hands of both, and, finally, being killed for his efforts.

An element of Paul’s struggle was the practical question, “How could Israel, God’s chosen people, with whom God had covenanted, reject their own Christ, refuse to believe in him, thus, breaking the covenant, refusing God’s promise, and tossing their salvation in a trash heap?”

They had been blessed by God with so much throughout their history. Paul mentions eight things in vv. 4-5:

Their adoption as God’s children; their witness to the divine glory; the covenants with God; the receiving of the law; the temple worship; the promises of the Messiah, the patriarchs, and even from their race is the human ancestry of Jesus Christ.

Despite all these advantages, amazingly, the Jews, overall, rejected their promised salvation—they rejected Jesus.

How on earth did this happen? The answer to this question is addressed throughout chapter 9, answering accusing questions that might be leveled toward God. Paul answers using the teachings of the OT Scriptures, elaborating on God’s faithfulness (6-13), justice (14-18), sovereignty (19-29), and his generosity (30-33) at his giving salvation to all who believe. In the process, we receive a wonderful explanation of the balance of “God’s sovereignty in election” and “human responsibility for sin.” Today we are going to look at the first part, God’s faithfulness to his chosen people, enabling us to rest in him.

Now, like I mentioned earlier, many people have problems with the Scriptural balance of “God’s sovereignty” and “human responsibility”—most particularly with God’s sovereign election of his people. There are numerous reasons for their hatred of the doctrine. A prevalent reason some use to reject the doctrine of God’s election to salvation stems from the idea that we are saved by means other than God’s grace alone—the idea of grace plus something. God’s election to salvation nullifies such heresies, whether the plus is heritage, good works, or so forth.

Paul, in Rm. 9, addresses objections to the doctrine of election using Scripture. He answers so soundly that no matter what one’s objection might be to the doctrine, one is left with a choice: either embrace reality or hold to stubborn delusion.

First off, in vv. 6-13, Paul examines the complaint that if the Lord rejects his own chosen people of Israel, then he must not keep his promises. It would mean that God is not faithful, while the Scriptures are clear that the Lord is perfectly faithful, always.

Take a look again at vv. 6-9.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. 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.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”

With the Jews’ rejection of Christ and their subsequent condemnation, does this mean that God’s word failed? In other words, did everything that God had done through the Jews, the promises and covenants, come to nothing? Was God unfaithful to His word and his people? Paul’s answer to these questions is “ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!!,” while explaining how God was completely faithful to his promises. Paul does this by correcting a wrong understanding on exactly who it is that actually makes up true Israel.

True Israel, those that receive the promises, has never been simply all the physical descendants of Abraham. Rather, true Israel has always been only those who receive the promises, according to God’s sovereign choice.

For illustration, Paul looks to the situation with Abraham. Abraham had eight physical sons with three women – Hagar, Sarah, and Keturah. His firstborn was Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar. Ishmael, however, was not the son of promise. God intended for Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, (and none of Abraham’s other physical sons) to be the heir of the blessings and promises of his covenant with Abraham. According to God’s sovereign choice and election, Ishmael and the other six sons were rejected as heirs (Gen 11:8-13 & 25:5-6). Isaac, the miracle child of Abraham and Sarah, was the one who received God’s promise. God’s choice; Isaac’s election.

Even so, just in case any detractors might say, “Well, of course, although Ishmael was the firstborn, his mother was a slave and Abraham should have never taken her to bed to get her with child in order to try to force God’s promise. Sarah was Abraham’s wife and as such Isaac was the legitimate heir.” In other words, Isaac had a better heritage, and for that reason he was blessed.

Anticipating this argument, Paul gives another illustration from the very next generation concerning Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Verses 10-13:

10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 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— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

There they were – twins from the same mother, Rebekah, sharing the exact same heritage in the same womb at the same time. Esau was the first to be born, and, as such, was, by birthright, to be the heir of the promise and have the blessings from his father Isaac. But, the Scriptures say in Genesis 25:23 that before they were even born…

“And the LORD said to her [Rebekah], ‘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.’”

Before they were even born, the destinies of these two children and their descendants had already been determined by God. It came to pass, consistent with God’s Word, that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bite to eat, and then Jacob managed to get his father’s blessing. Esau’s selling of his birthright shows human responsibility in Esau’s sin, deserving God’s judgment.

But, wait a minute, Jacob used trickery and deceit to gain the birthright and blessing. Despite this, God chose to bless the younger brother, Jacob, with his covenant blessings according to his sovereign election. Jacob was responsible for his sin, deserving God’s judgment (just like Esau), but God blessed Jacob anyway.

Over time, Jacob’s name would be changed to Israel, and his descendants would become a great nation. Likewise, a nation was born of Esau—the Edomites, who were enemies of Israel. Despite the Edomites also being sons of Abraham and Isaac, God reassures Israel in Malachi 1:2-3:

“‘I have loved you,’ says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’ ‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ declares the LORD. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.’”

Both of these nations descended from Abraham and Isaac, but only one was God’s chosen people.

So, why was Jacob chosen over Esau despite them both being equally sinners and both of equal heritage? Verse 11:

11 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—

The choice of Jacob over Esau had absolutely nothing to do with their works, or heritage, but had everything to do with God’s sovereign choice. God’s eternal purpose in election is to, according to his will and love, call a people to himself and save them from their sins in Jesus Christ. His election of Jacob over Esau was a step in that direction along the historical path of God’s plan for redemption.

Paul drives home a point. The Jews rejection of Jesus Christ is nothing new. There have always been two types of descendants (like with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)—physical descendants and spiritual descendants. Being a physical descendent is not what counts. What counts is being a spiritual descendant—an heir to the promise.

Paul had earlier written, in Gal. 3:29:“If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Likewise, if you [whether Jew or Gentile] are not in Christ and never trust in Christ with saving faith you are not an heir of the promise—just like Ishmael; just like Esau (Gal. 3:28). God is always faithful to His word and promise to his chosen people. He elected us, calls us, and saves us. This has nothing to do with who our parents are or our works, good or bad. We receive this salvation by grace through faith. Those who are not chosen might be physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they are not heirs to the promise.

Some try to belittle this argument of God’s choice in election and call it “Pauline.” Yet, Jesus taught this too. In the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:14, he said, “…many are called, but few are chosen;” then in John 13:18, “I know whom I have chosen;” and, in John 15:16, “You did not choose me, but I chose you…”

The promises of God’s Word are upheld through his salvation of his chosen people. He is faithful. His promises stand—given and received. This means, Jews, just like everyone else (Gal. 3:28), cannot rely on their heritage or attempts to keep the law to be saved. “Trust in Jesus Christ” is the only way to receive the gift of God’s calling in election to salvation, making one an heir according to the promise, a true spiritual descendant of Abraham—a part of true Israel. Like Romans 4:3-5 states:

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.

My friends, if you are part of true Israel, Jew or Gentile, do you have a concern for those who are not believers? Do you just think, “God will save them anyway if he chose them, so I can just go on my merry way?” Or, do you grieve for the lost? If you don’t grieve for them, out of love, how will you ever reach out to them with the love of Christ?

Remember how last week we talked about how agape love was about action? It is an act of the will, selfless, and so forth. Turn your heart and mind towards those who do not believe. Be deliberate. Show your love for them. Don’t turtle-up in the Christian shell. Make it a goal to have lots of non-Christian friends. And then be salt and light to them. Get out there. Take risks. Love them. Show them Jesus.

With the “doctrine of election,” we have a certainty in our evangelism. We are not the Christ. He is. We just show them Christ and his love. We show them how they need Jesus. We testify to the truth of the gospel. Those he has elected will hear that call, believe, and be saved. It is guaranteed. Our task is to be faithful to our faithful God.

Search your heart. What are you relying on in your salvation? The works-righteous folks were constantly blasted in the gospels by Jesus. It doesn’t matter who your daddy or momma were. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. If you are a true believer, your righteousness only comes from Christ, whose righteousness is credited to your deficit account, brought up to infinite value, making you right before God. And, you can only receive Christ’s righteousness through faith.

So, let us put all our faith and hopes on Christ. He’s got this. He is faithful. We can rest in him as we live in obedience of faith. Let us trust in Christ, as we actively love our neighbor as witnesses for Christ (persistently praying, witnessing, and loving, in word and deed). Let us trust that Christ will save those whom he has chosen. Let us trust in Christ for our own salvation. And let us be thankful that he saved us, because he loved us. Let us rest in the Lord’s sovereign election. Since God is faithful, we should rest in Him.