Calvinism Implies God
Unfortunately, God’s dealings with Jacob and Esau are often used to bolster the claims of Calvinism, the idea that God elects certain people for salvation and sends everyone else to hell. Admittedly, God made three very interesting statements relative to these two men that on the surface seem to support a Calvinistic view.
This post, however, is written in an effort to rethink Jacob and Esau and offer a different perspective. It isn’t a final answer on God’s sovereignty but is a different interpretation on these two fellows and God’s relationship to them.
It is my contention that the names “Jacob” and “Esau” were used, in most cases, as references to nations not individuals. In other words, the name of the person, Jacob, is used to represent his posterity, Israel.
And this isn’t just my opinion. Interchanging related words in this manner is a well accepted rhetorical device – otherwise known as metonymy – which is often used in the Bible. Most references to “Jacob” and “Esau” are references to their descendants and that is particularly true in Romans 9.
Figures of speech aside, however, you don’t have to be grammatically astute to recognize that any direct statement to or about “Jacob,” after the death of the man, in every case is a reference to his descendants.
Most references fall into that category. The conversation with/about Jacob and Esau lasted almost two millennia. Obviously, most of what God had to say was said after they were dead.
What that means is God’s choice of and discussions about Jacob or Esau was national. It was focused on the larger picture. He was choosing a community, a nation to work with. He was selecting Jacob’s posterity not just Jacob and this choice had nothing to do with personal, individual salvation.
Now, with that understanding in mind let’s note some facts and make some general observations about the Romans 9 passage.
God made the following critical statements:
- The elder (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob). Genesis 25:23 and Romans 9:12
- I have loved Jacob but Esau have I hated. Malachi 1:2-3 and Romans 9:13
- I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. Exodus 33:19 and Romans 9:15
Although all three statements were repeated in Romans 9 they were originally recorded in the Old Testament and were separated by hundreds of years.
- The conception of Jacob and Esau, 1800 BC (+/-). Genesis 25
- The Exodus, 1400 BC (+/-). Exodus 33
- The Book of Malachi, 400 BC (+/-). Malachi 1.
Paul added some explanatory remarks to these statements which seem to further endorse Calvinistic ideas:
- Paul said God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was based on His elective purpose.
- He pointed out that this choice was made before the boys were born and, therefore, before they had done anything good or evil.
- He said the choice was based on mercy and not human desire or effort – not of him that willeth or runneth.
Everyone admits these statements were made in the context of Romans 9. Not everyone accepts the Calvinistic interpretation imposed on them. I offer the following arguments as the basis for a different opinion.
The Statements In Context
Two of God’s statements relate directly to Jacob and Esau – one serving the other, loving one/hating one – but it wasn’t personal. They were long-term remarks that effected hundreds of generations to follow. They predicted or explained the development of these two men as nations.
- The elder serves the younger.
The first statement was made before Jacob and Esau were born and was looking to the future – the elder shall serve the younger. It was prophetic. God was giving us a foreglimpse of how these men would relate nationally. God even referred to them as “nations.”
Two nations are in your womb, and two manner of people will be separated from your bowels and one will be stronger than the other. Genesis 25:23
Nothing in His wording or choice relates to personal salvation and it is misleading to suggest there was anything random about it. God knew Esau would sell his birthright – to which great spiritual significance was attached – and that Jacob would be more earnest spiritually.
He knew this not because He made them that way. He knew it because He’s omniscient, He knows everything.
In the text, the word “salvation” is neither used nor implied.
The only thing said was, the descendants of the second born, Jacob, would be superior, more powerful, more prominent nationally. Esau’s descendants would be inferior and would serve the other. Sadly, Esau’s descendants would eventually cease to exist nationally.
- Jacob loved, Esau hated.
The second statement was made more than a thousand years later and was looking back. It reveals God’s attitude toward the spiritual trends of these two nations.
When God made this statement Esau’s descendants (Edom) no longer existed as a national group. Their sins, generally, weren’t the problem. Their attitude and relationship to Jacob’s descendants was.
Instead of supporting Israel and being allied with her they resented her and took advantage of Israel’s failures. They fought her, inflicting damage when they could.
Reflecting on Edom’s history as a group, God could only say He hated what they were: their bad attitude, their hate for Israel, their rejection of spiritual truth.
Sadly, Edom’s national hatred toward Israel bled through from their father, Esau. Even though Esau and Jacob were friendly face to face, the bad blood between them was never resolved and it grew in the hearts of Esau’s descendants. Paul referred to it as a root of bitterness that sprung up defiling many. In Esau’s case it defiled an entire nation (Hebrews 12:15).
Further, God doesn’t hate people. He hates sin but loves people. Esau the person was never hated, only his sins were. In fact, even though Esau never appreciated it, he did receive a blessing. Isaac pronounced the fatness of earth and the due of heaven on his descendants but he eventually lost it all. He sold the blessing of his birthright and never accepted the one he was given instead. How could God not hate that attitude?
- I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.
The third statement – about mercy – applied directly to Jacob’s descendants, not Jacob personally, and was made at a time when they had become a national entity, the Exodus.
In the original context the mercy statement was relevant only in a national sense. It was made to Moses at Mt. Sinai and was a promise to continue providing protection to Israel, the nation.
That is the only explanation that applies. Over the next forty years many individual Israelites died unnecessarily in the desert but the nation remained and became stronger.
Jacob had been long dead when God made this remark. The nation he fathered, however, was very much alive, very much in distress and they, not Jacob, needed God’s mercy. They didn’t deserve it, but they desperately needed it.
It was God’s guarantee that in spite of the difficulties they would face and the individual losses they would experience, God would continue to support and shape them nationally. They would not cease to exist and ultimately would be blessed.
To assume mercy refers to “salvation” in the context in which it was originally spoken is to imply EVERY Israelite was tagged for salvation, and I don’t know of anyone who thinks that.
And when it comes to choices over individuals, the Bible makes it clear that God has no favorites. Jesus plainly said that God loves everyone and shows mercy to everyone (Matt. 5:43-48). God wasn’t favoring Jacob, the individual, over Esau, the individual. He was developing nations not saving individual souls.
Turning this into a show of salvation partiality, projects the idea of pettiness onto God. When people of an opposing opinion point this out, the response is a smug suggestion that God can do anything He wants. That is not an answer.
- Mercy has no negative side.
The mercy statement, by the way, is assumed by Calvinists to have an absolute negative impact. That is, the selection of one person is the complete rejection of another. But according to Jesus, God is merciful to everyone.
In this case Esau was rejected for one blessing but not for all others. The particular blessing in question – the Abrahamic Covenant – could only go to one person. It was probably Esau’s nonchalant attitude toward spiritual service that caused him to lose this blessing but if he had accepted this and moved on there is no reason to think God didn’t have another for him. As I pointed out before, Isaac did give him a blessing.
I wasn’t chosen to be the head of Israel either. Nor were you. But that doesn’t mean God has no purpose for us. It means we must look for another.
Unfortunately, Esau’s obstinate refusal to accept God’s choice in this instance added sin to sin and he lost the blessing God would did have for him.
Truth? No one is left out. God is merciful to everyone generally and specifically. His specific plans for us, however, must be pursued with the right attitude. God’s selections are all inclusive.
- How do we explain inequalities?
Every honest person admits that the Creator hasn’t endowed us all equally. For some, that is a problem. It seems unfair and questions abound:
- Why is one person born here and another there?
- Why does one have great ability and another seem to have little?
- Why are some people physically attractive and others not?
- Why are different people called to different types of work?
The Bible doesn’t give us an absolute answer but it does point out that everyone is equal in spite of the apparent disparity. The more ability we have the more accountable we are. Our accountability is directly proportional to the degree we have been blessed. Jesus said:
To whom much is given, much will be required. Luke 12:48
Which means, accountability is the equalizer. Ability, advantage and power don’t make you special. They don’t give you the right to consume more. Highly capable people aren’t privileged. They are responsible and will be held accountable accordingly.
So, there is no partiality here.
Service Is The Choice Not Salvation
If Paul was talking about personal salvation in Romans 9 and if the choices God made involved who would be saved and who would not, then Calvinism is dead right. That, however, isn’t the case.
We must broaden our thinking. Instead of narrowly focusing our attention on only one issue, salvation, as if that is the only choice God makes, we must consider the fact that God makes many choices about many people and those choices cover a broad range of issues.
- Things in this life and things in the next.
- Things that are personal and things that are general.
And Paul’s topic in Romans 9 was service not salvation, two very different concepts. He focused on “personal” salvation issues in the first 8 chapters and then switched to national issues in chapter 9 as the following example illustrates. Paul concludes his discussion with the following statement:
What shall we then say: that the Gentiles (as a group), which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness…But Israel (as a group), which followed after the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. vs. 30-31
And this statement is key to understanding what Paul is talking about. Logically speaking, if salvation is the topic, then we are led to understand that people get saved in groups rather than as individuals.
Notice the wording.
- He is focused on national entities not individuals.
Gentiles, the whole group, he says “attained” righteousness and Israel, the entire nation, did not. If salvation is the topic the only logical conclusion is: every Gentile is chosen for salvation and not even one Israelite is, at least in the New Testament.
Strange idea since Paul was born Jewish, was very dedicated to the Jewish religion and wrote more of the New Testament than any other writer. Wonder how he managed to sneak through?
If his topic is service, however, it all makes sense. He is suggesting that God’s base of operation has moved from national Israel to Gentile nations and that is exactly what happened in the New Testament era and onward.
- The choice was based on human response.
The passage also says God made the switch from Israel to Gentiles because Gentiles “attained” the right to it and Israel did not.
Gentiles…have attained…Israel…has not attained!
The word “attained” translates the Greek word Katalambano and means:
To lay hold of so as to make one’s own, to obtain, to seize upon… (Bible Study Tools online).
There is nothing casual about this word. It defines a response that is human, personal and aggressive, nothing passive, which means:
God’s choices must be ratified by human response.
In one of Paul’s famous Philippians remarks he verified this understanding:
I follow after IF that I may apprehend (katalambano) that for which I am also apprehended (katalambano) of Christ Jesus. Phil. 3:12
It is interesting that Paul said “IF.” God had apprehended him for a purpose but there was no guarantee. His response, a right one, was required. The “IF” factor was Paul’s part. God had made the choices and made those choices clear. Paul’s response was critical.
And Jesus said the same.
Many are called, few are chosen. Matthew 20:16 and 22:14
He said it twice in two different contexts so take your pick. One was a clear reference to salvation and the other to service. In both cases human response is key.
No One Is Chosen Not To Serve
Remember this. God’s selection of one individual to serve in some particular capacity in no way suggests others are being rejected for service or salvation. It means He has made a specific assignment for one individual and will make separate but different specific assignments for all others.
This is neither strange nor unusual. Selecting Jacob and his descendants to be the nation through whom God’s truth would be revealed doesn’t mean all other nations are condemned. It means they will serve in other ways, if they are willing.
Jacob’s election does not imply the rejection of Esau.
Unfortunately, we aren’t told what Esau was chosen to do but we are told that he never repented of his refusal to accept God’s choices and spent his life trying to recapture the blessing God clearly gave to Jacob. He was so intent on getting it back he was eventually consumed with bitterness and the bad blood infected his descendants also – explaining their vengeance on Israel in later history. Whatever secondary calling Esau was elected for, was never realized.
Esau never moved on and never discovered any other usefulness in God’s service. But that was his choice not God’s.
Election Pertains Only To Service Never To Salvation
But, to further reinforce the idea that Paul is focused on service and that election has no relevance to salvation, in the end of Romans 11 he says this:
As concerning the gospel, they (Israel) are enemies for your sake: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sake.
Wait a second. Paul says that Israel was an enemy to the Gospel, a clear reference to salvation, but still considered elect. Their salvation was in question but their election was not. And they weren’t just elect, they were beloved!
Even though they were not being used nationally they still had an elective purpose to serve and that purpose was honorable, not disgraceful. They were loved.
The bottom line is: election has nothing to do with salvation and everything to do with service and it guarantees nothing.
Whatever function God has elected you to will be served only if you respond accordingly. Don’t be doubtful. Don’t be insecure. Take action. Don’t hesitate. Be consistent. Stay humble. You get the picture.
The bottom line is, salvation and service are two separate issues. Both are made possible by God, are offered freely to everyone and require a human response. Salvation is guaranteed only after you believe. Service is guaranteed as long as you faithfully and humbly serve.
Heaven Is For Real is a bio of a “near death” experience (NDE) but without all the “weird” and “sketchy” images that usually accompany such stories.
It doesn’t focus on “long tunnels with lights at the end” or the sensation of watching medical personnel feverishly operate from a hovering out-of-body perspective. The details aren’t blurred and unanswered questions don’t abound. It is a matter of fact story shared from the perspective of an almost four-year-old child who had no preconceived ideas beforehand and explains everything casually.