NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER NINE (Lesson XII)
In another of his writings, Augustine states that no one could say that Jacob appeased God by meritorious works before he was born so that God should say that Esau would be his servant even though he was the youngest. Neither had Isaac placated God by any previous meritable works so that Jacob’s birth was promised as a result. Says St. Augustine: “Good works do not produce grace, but are produced by grace.”1 In the same document, Augustine goes on further to note that if God hated Esau because he was a vessel made for dishonor, how can we then say that God loved everything He made? One statement seems to contradict the other. Although this is a difficult problem to explain, in search of an answer we can start with the fact that God is the Creator of all creatures. Since He made them for good, then it’s obvious that he loves what He made.
So, since God did not change His mind about loving His creation, did creation do something that changed their status from being good to being bad? Remember, mankind was not created as a sinner. Mankind became a sinner because of disobedience. Therefore, God must be true to Himself and love good and hate evil. Augustine takes this another step further by noting that God is the Creator of both the body and the soul of mankind. At creation, neither of these were determined to be evil. God had no reason to hate either one. But when the soul turns and rebels against God and uses the body to engage in things that are abhorrent to God, thereby making both the soul and body evil. God has no choice but to love what is good and hate what is evil. Since sin brought death to the body, God has no plans to save the body for eternity. But since disobedience resulted in God and the soul being alienated, God already had a plan to offer forgiveness so that the soul can be saved. And on the day of resurrection, the saved soul will be joined with a new body that never knew sin to live forever with God.2
Origen offers his input by noting that Paul is saying all this in order to make it clear that if either Isaac or Jacob were chosen by God based on their merits, and thereby earned justification by the works of the flesh, then the grace of God would have to be extended to all their children by natural reproduction. Faith and grace would then have no influence on their being chosen. However, since their election had nothing to do with merit or good works, but according to God’s purpose and their free will to obey the One who called them, then their selection had nothing to do with their wishes but God’s wishes. And those who yielded to His calling and purpose then became the children of God through adoption, not because of their human genealogy.3
Martin Luther calls Rebecca a virtuous woman, the only wife of saintly Isaac, the father of all the children of Israel. But although she had twins, it was just for one of her sons that the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham was intended. So it was through him alone, and not the other, that the Lord said the heir of the promise should come. The fact that Esau was also a descendant from so good a father and mother did not help him at all. Even though he was conceived and born according to the flesh in wedlock it did not benefit him, neither that he was the firstborn. So Paul wanted the unbelieving Jews to know how much less of a chance they had in joining the true Israel as children of God just by the fact of their birth. Notwithstanding the fact that they claimed to be sons of Abraham through the patriarchs according to their genealogy, as long as they continue in their unbelief they could not claim to be part of God’s elect.4 As we would say today: You may be born in a Christian family, raised as a Christian, baptized in a church, but you must make a personal decision to accept Jesus Christ as your Savior in order to become part of the family of God.
In Reformer John Calvin’s mind, Paul begins to build this specific argument on the basic premise that Rebecca, Isaac’s only wife by marriage, had legitimate twins. As such, they were equal in all ways. And with Esau being the initial one out of the womb, he was the only one eligible for the blessing of Abraham as the firstborn son. Then Paul builds the next tier of his argument by pointing out that a difference was made, however, by God’s selection process. Therefore, one of them would be eligible for a special grace not available to the other, in which he would enjoy the favor of God and become the lineage through which the children of promise would come. Because of that, the special relationship that the children of Israel had with God was not based upon their own virtues, characteristics, or intellect, but because of God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael, and Jacob over Esau. So they should never glory in their own righteousness but rejoice as children of God’s favor.
Calvin then goes on to say that he sees three propositions in Paul’s argument over who is part of the true Israel, the chosen of God. The first proposition concerns how the covenant between God and Israel separates them from all other nations. This then allows God to further distinguish between the people of Israel into those He predestines to salvation and others to eternal condemnation.5 The second proposition involves the foundation for God’s selection process. It is built on the goodness of God alone. Since the fall of Adam, His mercy has embraced whom He pleases without regard to their works or merit.6 The third proposition is shown how God, despite His election being free, still exempted Him from imparting the same grace to all equally. The fact is, He passes by some in order to choose others according to His will: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.7“8 From this you can see why Calvin was thought of as the champion of predestination. However, Calvin never takes man’s free will out of the equation.
Adam Clarke points out what he feels are some important factors involved here. While no one can argue against the fact that these passages do not speak personally of Jacob or of Esau,9 what Paul says here involves their descendants. Esau never claimed that he and his descendants were poor, nor was his estate destroyed like that of Job, nor was the land given to him ever taken away. If a passage of Scripture neither speaks of one person or the other, but only of their offspring, then it is clear that Paul is speaking of them in the same way. Consequently, we can then neither speak of God’s love for Jacob, or God’s hatred for Esau. This makes it hard to decide the eternal destiny of either man, whether one was bound for happiness and the other for misery. That was yet to be determined. Therefore, there is no Scriptural or rational basis here for the doctrine of unconditional personal election or rejection. Obviously, Clarke was not a fan of the idea of predestination as he saw it in Calvin’s thinking.10 However, neither would Clarke have proclaimed that salvation can come to anyone even if they merely bump into it by accident. Nothing God does is tied to chance or good luck.
Robert Haldane sees the influence of God’s sovereign will in the election and purpose of those He chooses to serve Him in specific ways. He says that not only in Isaac’s case was the election limited to him, and not Ishmael, as the son of promise, in an even more remarkable way it was applied to Isaac’s two sons Jacob and Esau. Some might allege there are reasons for this, but they cannot point to Isaac and Ishmael because although they had the same father, they were from different mothers. Even more was the fact that Sarah was Abraham’s lawful wife and Hagar his concubine. Even though they were both conceived by Rebecca with Isaac, yet God chose the one and rejected the other. But in the case of Jacob and Esau, there is no such distinction. And being twins, they were born at the same time. Thus, the fact that Jacob was chosen over Esau can only be traced to the sovereign will of God. And who among humans can know the mind of God? That said, Paul’s main purpose was to show that this was a foreshadowing of God’s election and calling that would come through Christ Jesus. This was to serve God’s divine purpose in calling and selecting those who would be adopted into the family of God, be they Jews or Gentiles.11
Paul clearly explains this in verse 11 and confirms it in verse 12. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, it might still be said of Ishmael that as soon as he was old enough to know right from wrong, it is clear that he developed a nasty disposition. He began to make fun of Isaac, taunting him to make his life miserable.12 This was all Sarah needed to turn against the very child she told Abraham to produce through their slave Hagar. However, when it came to Jacob, Paul cites no preference given to Jacob independently based on merit or advantage. That decision was made well before both Jacob and Esau were born. So neither one was given the opportunity to impress God with their attitude and goodness.
The reason this was done was to eliminate any prejudice that might come from someone feeling as though they had been cheated. Had God decided to wait and reward them based on their performance, there is no reason to believe that Jacob would have won out because he was known from birth as a deceiver. Esau would have had plenty of reason to think that God was being unfair in His choice of Jacob. That’s why God made His preference known before the children were born.13 Paul is doing more here than just telling a story. He’s using Jacob and Esau to illustrate that those whom God chooses are based on His goodness and grace alone. You cannot become a child of God by qualifying on your own merit.
Albert Barnes also sees a picture evolving from Paul’s explanation. Not only is he drawing a distinction between the natural descendants of Abraham, but goes a step further in illustrating the same principle of God’s selection process in the birth of Isaac’s two sons, Esau and Jacob. This distinction of whom God would choose and bless was part of an original promise, not something made up at the last minute or caused by unforeseen circumstances. Paul did this to prove to the Jews themselves that salvation had nothing to do with pedigree. This then leaves the door open for Paul to explain how this same principle is carried on in the offspring of Isaac, Jacob, Benjamin, David, and on to the Messiah. This leaves out any influence of natural selection because of family, ability, or status. This allowed Paul to show that those chosen had been so before they formed any character that later served them well in that God’s foreknowledge already recorded such attributes. So the Jews could not now pretend that they were chosen as a consequence of any works they had performed.14 No wonder Paul was so adamant with the Ephesians, telling them: “God saved you by His grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”15
1 Augustine: To Simplician on Various Questions 1.2.3.
2 Ibid. Questions 1.2.18.
3 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 138
5 See Exodus 19:5-6
6 Psalm 115:3
7 Exodus 33:19b
8 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Genesis 25:23
10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 181
11 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 452
12 Genesis 21:9
13 Haldane: Ibid.
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Ephesians 2:8-9