‘Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated’ – a Sermon
Romans 9:11-13 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.’ Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’
Let us all take a deep breath and start with those final words. Here were twin boys, and before they were born God said of the younger son, ‘I love you,’ and he said of the firstborn boy, ‘I hate you.’ This seems a sub-Christian statement. How can it exist in the same Bible that tells us to love our enemies, and to love our neighbours as ourselves? I am set here today for the defence of these words. I believe that they are true and that we all must believe them. They are staggering words, but in ways you wouldn’t realize at first.
1. What does it mean, God loved one and hated the other?
i] Firstly, consider the God who says these words, that he does not have one moral blemish. Not one! He is called the Father of lights. There are spots on the sun, and we all have blind spots, but there is not the tiniest spot of darkness in God. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. He is utterly consistent in everything he does. He does not crack under pressure. There are no external forces affecting him to give him a distorted view of the world which affects him and makes him less than an ever blessed, ever happy God. He never has moods, or psychoses, or neuroses. There are no sins of emotion or imagination or omission in him. There is ever calm peace and righteousness in God.
God’s holiness is one of his supreme graces, so much so that the third person of the Godhead is called the Holy Spirit. This holiness of God is infinite, measureless, without beginning and without end, an absolutely holy holiness so that the cherubim who are in his presence and do his will, who have never sinned in anything but are as holy as God is holy, yet, as they contemplate his holiness, cover their eyes and they sigh to one another, ‘Holy! . . . Holy! . . . Holy! Isn’t he holy!’ That is the God who speaks in our text.
ii] Secondly, consider the plight of fallen man. All men have sinned. This is a theme throughout the Bible, the imperfection of fallen man: 1 Kings 8 verse 46, ‘there is no-one who does not sin’; Psalm 143 verse 2 ‘no-one living is righteous before you’; Romans 3 verse 12 ‘All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no-one who does good, not even one’; 1 John 1 verse 8 ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ and many other such judgments on us. Christ alone is exempt from this stern evaluation.
What is this sin which troubles us all? It is called by many names but always at rock bottom it is deviation from God’s holy law. That affects the whole person: the heart, the mind, the faculty of judgment, the will, the inclinations, the affections, the conscience, and all parts of the body and soul of man. The effect of this is that men are completely unable to do any perfect spiritual good – good that the holy God can look at with which he is wholly pleased; we have in fact a natural inclination to evil – children never need to be taught how to be selfish and egotistical; they do this naturally. We are all by nature haters of God. We crucified his Son. We are slaves to sin; we can do nothing and will never do anything that is unaffected by sin.
Because of this there are all kinds of consequences. There are deadly sins of omission and commission in our thoughts, and words, and deeds. There are sins committed in ignorance and sins committed consciously. There are sins done in weakness and sins done intentionally, and the only way that our sins can be forgiven is through the incarnation of God the Son, the stable in Bethlehem, ‘rude and bare’ as the hymnist says. Jesus Christ has to live under the demands of the law of God; he has to fulfil them all blamelessly, and finally submit to the judgment of God for the sins his people committed. Crucified to a cross he hangs for hours in darkness alone, mocked by the crowd, propitiating the wrath of a sin-hating God. That was the only way God’s condemnation of our sin could be dealt with and Jehovah reconciled to us.
One consequence of sin is guilt, sometimes never felt – or not felt immediately as was the case with David and Bathsheba. Another effect of sin is the stain of pollution affecting every part of us. Another result is judgment that comes upon sin, in other words death and hell. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ That is the misery of fallen man, a misery he doesn’t want to acknowledge.
iii] Thirdly, consider how this holy God responds to sinful man. When Adam and Eve failed their probation in the Garden and did the one thing God told them not to do, he didn’t shrug. He expelled them from Eden and made it impossible for them to return. ‘The day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ So death and sin entered the world, and our parents began to die and inwardly death was present in them both. ‘As by one man sin entered the world, and death by sin, so death passed upon all men for all have sinned.’ We are told that, ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18). We are told that God is angry with the wicked every day. We are told of Sodom and Gomorrah and we are told of the great flood. We are told that God loves righteousness and hates wickedness. In fact we are told that ‘Those who love God hate evil’ (Psa. 97:10). Paul exhorts this congregation in Rome, in another three chapters to ‘hate what is evil’ (Rom. 12:9). We are told to hate. Isn’t that good? Imagine you heard about the abduction and probable murder of little April Jones1 and you dismissed it. You said, ‘Well some men do that sort of thing.’ Wouldn’t we judge you to have a depraved conscience, and a sick heart? Wouldn’t we be angry with you? When we hear of old people assaulted, and vulnerable sick people cheated and tortured and defrauded and stolen from and abused by men wanting money to buy drugs, then aren’t we angry with them. Don’t we hate that sort of action and show hatred (as well as pity) to those criminals?
So here were two men, two brothers, named Jacob and Esau, both sinners, as immoral by nature as the notorious Kray twins of London.2 Here also is the thrice holy God with cherubim hiding their eyes from his uncreated holiness, the God who is unadulterated light, and this God is considering these men. His wrath is revealed at all the evil they both have done.
iv] Fourthly, consider how this God hates Esau. What does that mean, Esau have I hated? Some say that the word ‘hate’ is comparative, in other words, it means that God loved Esau ‘less’ than he loved Jacob, that Jacob was his favourite. But there is no favouritism with God. He is utterly impartial. You cannot buy his favours. There is however a certain truth in that interpretation, that some comparison is there between the two men. For example, you remember the words of the Lord Jesus speaking of his conditions for men who would follow him, how he once said to his disciples, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother . . . he cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). Jesus is not telling us, ‘Hate your parents.’ He honoured and loved his parents even though Mary did not realise who he was or what he was doing. There was a time when accompanied by his siblings she wanted him to come back home and carry on at the carpenter’s shop. He loved her to the very end. ‘Hate your father and mother’ – what was Jesus talking about in those words? He was making them face up to the question of who it was who had priority in their lives? Who is the one we love the most? For example, if our parents say to us that they don’t want us to follow the Lord Jesus, and they oppose our being baptized, then we resist them as firmly as we hate their opposition to the Saviour. When we are over 18 or when we leave home we get baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We hate any hatred of the Lord Jesus Christ. For us he is the altogether lovely Son of God. Compared to our adoration of him our natural affection for a husband or wife or parent pales into insignificance; in fact it is so miniscule that it’s virtually like hatred – that is, when we set it alongside our eternal love for the one who is our God and Saviour.
Now here was Esau in his sin and guilt and condemnation, a child of wrath even as others – in other words, just as you and I once were before we received mercy. God is angry with the wicked every day. But please remember this, that when we speak of the divine hate then we remove from that emotion all those terrible features of the hatred we see today in the world of unregenerate men, in the cruelty and torture and suffering that they inflict on others. In God’s hate there is nothing unrighteous; in God’s hate there is no malice or malevolence; in God’s hate there is no vindictiveness; in God’s hate there is no unholy bitterness. You can never ascribe these attitudes to the God of love. This hatred of God to Esau, and to all sinners, is a holy and righteous despising and contempt for all that is tawdry and mean and cruel and vindictive, just like your hatred of the rapist and the murderer, but this hatred is from God and so it is constant and steady; it is infinite and immeasurable. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, the New Testament says, for our God is a consuming fire.
v] Fifthly, consider how God loved Jacob. That is the bigger question, how could God love Jacob the cheat and liar and polygamist? The man whose influence over the children he had by four women, his wives and concubines, resulted in what would be called today a very dysfunctional family. Consider that the brothers in this family so hated one of their brothers that they almost murdered him, changing their minds at the last minute from killing him to selling him into a life of slavery in Egypt – their own brother. God loved their father Jacob? Is there unrighteousness in God? Was Jehovah indifferent to the underhand and mean actions of this man who stole his brother’s birthright by deceiving his father? No. God hated all that Jacob did and his whole selfish personality. But God loved Jacob in Christ. That is the only way he is able to love any of us with an everlasting love, through uniting us to Christ and imputing to us the righteousness of Christ. As the hymn says, ‘God looks on him and pardons me.’ God looked on Christ and loved Jacob. God’s son was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He chose Jacob in Christ before the creation of the cosmos to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined Jacob to be adopted as his son through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he had freely given him in the One he loves. In him Jacob had redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on Jacob with all wisdom and understanding (Eph. 1:4-8). That is why God could love Jacob, and it is exactly the same reason why he could love you or me, not because of any works that we had done but because of all the works that Jesus Christ has done. He is the one who has merited God’s love for us by his blameless life, and he has removed God’s hatred from us by his atoning death. That in fact is the only way God’s wrath towards sinners can become his saving love to all who have cried to Christ for salvation.
2. The advantages of God’s election
If God does anything at all in creation or providence or in redemption, you can be sure that once you know about it, then you will see the blessings that come with it to his people. What a blessing to know this is God’s creation as you see some sunsets, as you see ten thousand starlings circulating the pier, as you climb a peak in Snowdonia. This is my Father’s world! Or when you consider the great works of God’s redemption ‘I am joined to Jesus Christ . . . I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ . . . I am adopted into God’s family.’ You see a truth of redemption and you can jump for joy. Or when you see the providences of God in what he brings into your life – the timing and the consequences of events . . . ‘my Father is doing this for me!’ It is just like this when you grasp the wonder of the Bible’s teaching on the divine election. It brings the most tremendous advantages to understand this teaching, and believe this doctrine, and meditate on its facticity. ‘I have been chosen and loved by God before 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, before the Romans came to Britain, before God created the world – then he knew and loved little sinful me.’ The doctrine of election is not something to avoid, saying to a congregation that ‘Well . . . some people believe this and others believe that, and all we need to know is that God loves us all . . .’ Don’t cheapen truth with wishy-washy half-truths like that. This is not a doctrine to ignore or be frightened of but a truth for which to adore God. Think of the blessings that come from this reality, that it is not by our works but by God’s work in Christ we are what we are and will be what we will be for evermore. What stands for ever is God’s purpose in election (Rom. 9:11). Most will live three score years and ten and some a decade or two more. We won’t stand for ever. Our achievements – what will they be? Moth and rust will corrupt them and they’ll soon be forgotten, but God’s work in the election of millions and millions of men and women will last longer than the sun. So what are the benefits and blessings of the divine discrimination?
i] It crushes our pride. When you get to heaven can you even imagine looking around and then turning to an angel, and saying to him, ‘I reckon I made a good choice to come here. Mind you, I worked hard. I made my decision for Jesus. I got baptized. I went to church every Sunday. I read the Bible every day. I tithed, and I kept the ten commandments. Those were the best things I ever did and look what I got for it.’ What do you expect the angel to reply? ‘You certainly deserve it’? No Christian will pat himself on the back when he gets to heaven and think that it’s because of his own works that he got there. He’ll know that the God who knew all about him had amazingly called him to heaven. That is what the passage before us says, ‘not by works but by him who calls’ (Rom. 9:12). Listen again to the familiar words of the hymn:
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Saviour true,
No, I was found of Thee.
Thou didst reach forth Thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea,
‘Twas not so much that I on Thee took hold,
As Thou dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but O the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to Thee;
For Thou wert long beforehand with my soul.
Always Thou lovest me.
Unless God’s pre-destination of us had been heaven, that glory would never have been our own chosen destination. God created in my heart the desire to be with the Lord Jesus. I have no grounds at all to boast in being delivered from hell. God reached forth his hand and lifted me from the horrible pit and the miry clay. I say he did it all. Salvation was his from beginning to end, from conception through continuance to consummation. All I contributed to the price of my redemption was my sin – that was the sum total of what I gave him. Electing mercy affirms that we had nothing to do in achieving our salvation. Spurgeon could quote the word of Paul, ‘God hath from the beginning chosen you unto salvation’ and he said, ‘I was staggered with that mighty thought, saying, “Lord, I am nothing, I am less than nothing. Why me? . . . Why me? . . .”‘ So God’s choice of us crushes our pride.
ii] It exalts God, because it gives all the glory to God. It declares that the plan and the accomplishment of salvation came exclusively through the life and death of Jesus Christ. It declares that our repentance, faith, and power to obey – all have come to us from God. He opened our hearts; he took away our stony hearts and replaced them with hearts of flesh. He is the one responsible for imputing the righteousness of Christ to us, and adopting us into his family, and uniting us to Christ, and taking us to heaven transformed. We didn’t make ourselves like Jesus. He does all of that. When we fall, he is the one who picks us up. When we fall seven times he picks us up seven times. When we fail, his love covers our failures.
This being true — that God’s sovereign choice is the only foundation of glory — then election leads us to praise not ourselves, not other men and women, but God alone. Election promotes our chief end in life of glorifying God alone. As Jonah 3:9 says, ‘Salvation belongs to the lord,’ and therefore all our praise belongs to him. If we are ever faced with mysteries in the Scriptures, with truths that seem difficult to reconcile to one another, we’ll never go wrong if we always choose to believe whatever glorifies and exalts God. It is for his glory he made us and for that end he saved us. Heaven will not be filled with sinners who give God some glory while congratulating themselves for the wise decision they made in going there. No. Heaven will resound with one great chorus, ‘To God be the glory; great things he hath done.’
Indeed, one way to cause our hearts to lift up in praise to God is by reflecting on his sovereign grace as the psalmist often does. In Psalm 59:16—17 he says, ‘I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress . . . O my Strength, I will sing praises to you . . .’
Do those words fit into your mouth? Are you willing to confess that in you there is no reason for hope, that nothing in you marks you out as any different from the great mass of unbelieving humanity? Do you agree that you have been saved only because there was electing grace in God, only because God chose you – despite your unbelief and indifference – with nothing of your own to commend you, and he did this before the foundation of the world, and in Christ, and all to the praise of his glory alone? Do you agree that only by this electing grace can you possibly be saved? If you cannot agree with that, if you recoil from the sovereign and electing grace of God, then on what are you really relying? Mustn’t you necessarily be cherishing some merit of your own, some strength of your own, some works you’ve done, something that will win you through to heaven? Listen, there is no peace in such ideas, and the Bible offers you neither hope nor assurance nor joy in such a faith.
‘He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.’ Those are the words that give us assurance of God’s blessing now and forever and that put praises to God in our mouths. As James Montgomery Boice wrote in a little known hymn,
Since grace is the source of the life that is mine,
And faith is a gift from on high,
I’ll boast in my Saviour, all merit decline,
And glorify God ’til I die.
I want to do that too, and so do all God’s children. What else does the divine discrimination achieve?
iii] It produces joy. My supreme joy is in the fact that God chose me, because I’d have no hope of salvation if God in his sovereign mercy had not chosen me. The psalmist had seen it: ‘How blessed is the one whom Thou dost choose, and bring near to Thee, to dwell in Thy courts’ (Psa. 65:4). Our joy is in knowing that God has loved us with an everlasting love.
It is no accident that Romans chapter 9 follows Romans chapter 8. In Romans 8 Paul has already begun to speak about God’s electing purposes, and there he bursts out in a paean of joy and praise, ‘What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? . . . Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life . . . nor things present, nor things to come . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:29-39). Consider this unfathomable love, this freely given affection, this almighty passion that God has for us, this endless love of the Father and the Son that has laid hold on each Christian before time began and has ransomed him and quickened him and is pledged to bring him safe through life’s battles and storms to the unutterable joys which God has in store for his children at his right hand for evermore. The Christian finds himself rejoicing in this more than anything else. The language of his heart is the language of Murray M’Cheyne’s hymn (which I will modify by one word):
Chosen, not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee;
Hidden in the Saviour’s side,
By the Spirit sanctified
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my joy, how much I owe.
iv] It grants us tremendous privileges. Election grants us ‘every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ’ (Eph. 1:3). The words are a familiar farewell greeting aren’t they? I remember hearing them for the first time as a 17-year-old in my first Christian camp. ‘Every blessing!’ I instantly made it mine. I had never heard it before. We say it to one another constantly as we say good-bye on the telephone, and probably we mean by it, ‘May you enjoy every blessing,’ but we can understand it as saying, ‘Remember you possess now, dear brother or sister, every blessing in Christ. They are yours and will be yours in every difficulty and trial ahead.’ Think of the astonishing privileges that are ours. We have been made ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Pet. 2:9). The privileges we have in Christ are because of God’s election and should make us cling to that truth even more tightly.
v] It promotes holiness. Now you will see at once the glory of that, because the great logical objection to the teaching that God chooses men is this: ‘if that were true then men would live as they pleased.’ Time and again men will say to us, ‘Surely this tremendous emphasis upon God’s grace and his initiative will be a dangerous and demoralising doctrine. Surely if people are given that assurance that it is all a matter of the divine choice then that will prejudice godly living. It will compromise the whole tone and tenor of their walk with God. Surely, they say, ‘that doctrine must be prejudicial to the interest of holiness.’
And if ever that is put to me I reply, ‘Well, I have no logical answer to that objection. I cannot answer it logically. I can in fact see no logical answer to the plea that it can be inferred from this doctrine that we can sin in order to give God’s grace plenty of scope. I have, I say, no logical answer to that inference, but I would claim that I have an answer that is greater than a logical answer. I have a great practical answer. I have an answer that says that the very purpose of election is to make men holy and blameless in God’s sight. I am saying that if a man is chosen by God then the very meaning of that choice is that God is determined to make him holy. He has been predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son.
Now that means that a man cannot say to himself, ‘I am chosen by God, therefore I don’t need to be Christ-like’, because if I am chosen by God I can’t avoid being Christ-like, because the very concern of election is that men are to be borne along on the invincible wave of the grace of God that carried them along to the point where at last they are characterised in intellect, emotion, endeavour and aspiration – absolutely committed to the image of the Son of God. Those chosen by God cannot live under the dominion of sin. Those chosen by God cannot live in antagonism to Christ. Those chosen by God cannot live in defiance of the will of their Saviour, because being chosen by God means that God has taken steps to make it impossible for them to live like that. He has so ordered their lives to ensure that he will transform them into the image of his Son. In other words, to be chosen by God means that God is determined to make us holy. God is committed in all the glory of his own resources to that end. He is utterly dedicated to making us Christ-like. He has eternally decreed that we should be absolutely holy. You understand? He did not choose me because I was holy, nor because I was good, because I was neither, but he chose me so that I would be holy; so that I would be good.
vi] It makes us secure. If God loved you before you were born, having seen the entire file on your life, and, in the mystery of his grace, he chose you to be his own, do you think he will ever let you go? Never. NEVER! He has wrapped chains of love around you and joined you to himself. Of course, if we insist that we have to put one link in the chain all by ourselves, then we may not be so safe. The strength of a chain lies in its weakest link. There are some people who believe that you’ll only be saved if you keep on doing this, and that, and the other, and the other, and the other. And they never know if they’ve done enough. They may say that they believe salvation is by grace but it often sounds more like salvation by one indispensable work of theirs.
Saving faith involves understanding the gospel, believing it as true, and then committing your life to Jesus as he is presented in that gospel. You are not saved by entrusting your life to Jesus Christ plus something you have done, like writing your name on a decision card, speaking in tongues, getting baptized, or submitting to a bishop’s hands on your head. I am saying that claiming salvation through Jesus plus any other such grounds is destruction for us because we never do any of those other things perfectly. Christ saves us all by himself, and we receive all the benefits of his salvation as we entrust ourselves to him alone. He, just as he is, saves me, just as I am.
Where, then, are security and assurance? The answer is in Christ. We have assurance of salvation as we believe in Christ. And here is where the doctrine of election so greatly helps, because it tells us that if we can say to God that we trust in Jesus, then God tells us that our faith is grounded on the solid rock of his eternal election. We are not saved by believing we are elect; rather, we discover we are elect through saving faith in Christ. And having saved us through faith, God assures us of our security in his strong hands. Election gives assurance – not to unbelief, it gives it to faith; the truth of the divine selection provides God-given confidence of our security in the sovereign grace of God.
How many Christians stumble on in weakness, burdened with doubts that would be erased if only they knew their salvation rested not in themselves but in God! Election tells us that it was God who sought us and not we who sought him, and that God called us to himself because he chose us long ago. That changes everything in my struggle for assurance of salvation and gives me peace about my eternal soul.
A foundation is only as strong as its weakest point. If all is secure except for one portion, which cannot bear the weight and stress assigned to it, then the whole edifice is doomed to lean over on the sand and fall. Trusting in Christ plus some work of ours is going to end in the leaning Tower of Pisa, doomed to fall. How different that man who says, ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.’ This is why it is so vital that God’s eternal work in our salvation — a project higher and grander than any devised in the minds of men — rests wholly on him alone. Only God can bear the demands of our justification and our sanctification and ultimately of our final glorification in heaven. If at any point these rest on us — on our character, or our constancy, or our desire, or our performance — then the whole tower is doomed to come crashing down. In contrast, as Paul writes elsewhere, ‘God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: The Lord knows those who are his’ (2 Tim. 3:19). Nothing can make a person more bold, strong, courageous, or secure than understanding and rejoicing in the doctrine of election.
- Five-year-old April Jones was abducted close to her home in the Welsh town of Machynlleth on 1 October 2012, and has not been seen, or her body found, since.
- With their gang, ‘The Firm’, twin brothers Ronnie and Reggie Kray were involved in organised crime – armed robberies, arson, protection rackets, assaults, and murders – in the East End of London during the 1950s and ’60s.
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