God’s Sovereignty + Human Responsibility
This brief paper was written to Bible Study Leaders to help them work through God’s relationship with Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25–27.
I wanted to flag that our studies this week will lead us through God’s relationship with Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25–27, and that resulting in God’s blessing going through Jacob and not Esau. The reason this story can cause confusion is because God uses this situation to show us two very important truths that both need to be upheld, as they are on virtually every page in the Bible:
1. Our choices determine our future
2. God’s choices determine our future
This first truth is seen in this story as Esau sells his birthright because he cares more about physical blessing than the spiritual blessing of God (chapter 25). The result of this decision leads to God’s promise of blessing going through Jacob instead of Esau – even though Jacob cheats Esau out of the blessing in chapter 27!
Although this first truth is clearly on show, so is the second. God chose Abraham out of all his relatives; God chose Isaac to be his son through Sarah; in Genesis 25 God will choose Jacob over Esau; and out of the twelve sons of Jacob he will choose Judah to carry the blessed promise for the world (Genesis 49:10). Even before Jacob and Esau were born, as Rebekah asked God why the children were wrestling so much within her, God’s answer was clear:
The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
Although Esau was the natural choice for the blessing to go through because he was the firstborn, God had made the decision to choose Jacob by grace. At the same time Esau will go on to sell his birthright and be judged by his choice, while Jacob can rest in the fact that God was sovereignly working through all the mess in Isaac’s household as he chose Jacob over Esau.
As we looked at in 2019, when God spoke through the prophet Malachi in chapter 1:2–3, he proved his love for Jacob’s descendants by telling them, ‘Jacob I loved, Esau I hated’. This was a choice God made to ensure the descendants of Jacob (Israel) could never ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ Because before they were even born God had chosen to bless the world through them, and not through Esau’s descendants. God had loved them, even as he chose for his blessing to flow through Jacob, and not Esau.
(Note: God ‘hating’ Esau refers more to a rejection of Esau in favour of Jacob, knowing God continued to care for Esau and provide for him and his descendants throughout their lives.)
But even as we affirm this we need to be conscious to uphold the first truth, that Esau gave up the blessing that was rightfully his because of his own choice. God didn’t make Esau do that, Esau will be held responsible for that choice (Hebrews 12:16). But at the same time, Jacob wasn’t blessed simply because Esau made a bad choice, but because God was sovereignly working through the situation choosing Jacob over Esau. I hope you can feel the tension!
We see this just as clearly in the New Testament. Consider these five verses that affirm the truth of God’s sovereignty in election, while the truth that our own choices determine our future are expressed in the other five verses below:
Jesus said, ‘All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’.
Jesus asks his disciple, ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter replied, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man but by my Father in heaven’.
Jesus said, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last’.
Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 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.”
‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.’
And now consider these five verses affirming the first truth, that our choices determine our future:
Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’
Jesus said, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’.
1 Corinthians 9:22
‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.’
1 Timothy 2:3–4
‘This is good and pleases God our Saviour who wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’
1 John 2:2
‘He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.’
I hope you feel the tension! God calls us to make a choice – and make no mistake, we are judged by the choices we make. But at the same time, those of us who were hell-bound and dead in sin who made the right choice to surrender our lives to Jesus, do so knowing that ultimately this wasn’t our initiative, but God’s. Why me and not another? We’re never told, and the tension is never resolved. But one thing is for sure – it’s been revealed so that we can continue making the right choice, while all glory goes to God for his grace in choosing us.
Three examples of the way scripture unashamedly affirms both truths in the one breath are below:
‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.’
‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’
‘Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.’
As you teach this study this week, keep in mind it’s difficult to uphold two truths that seem contradictory. They seem contradictory because in fact they’re not, we simply haven’t been given the mind to reconcile every eternal truth. These seeming contradictions are called antinomies, and because we’re dealing with a God who has revealed himself in the Bible, we come across a heap of antinomies. E.g. Jesus is both 100% God and 100% man; or God is three persons but one being; or Jesus is not the Father, but Jesus and the Father are one.
As we uphold these divine truths, we heed the words of the great prophet Moses who told the descendants of Jacob:
‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law’.
God’s sovereignty in election must be upheld to properly express God’s sovereignty over all things, which in turn allows us to rest in the security of knowing our salvation is ultimately a work of God. As Jesus affirms;
‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand’.
At the same time, if we believe that God’s sovereignty over election removes the consequences of our choices, then we promote a doctrine that is more akin to the false god of Islam. Not only does this suggest we are puppets in a divine comedy, but it also leads to a fatalism that does not accurately reflect the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has said;
‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people’.
God forbid we misrepresent him either way. As Solomon said when speaking of the temptation to fall either side of a moral pendulum:
‘It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes’.
Being informed by divine scripture, and not our own reason, we make it our aim to speak of God’s sovereignty in a way that never denies human responsibility, and we speak of human responsibility in a way that never denies the sovereignty of God.
As a result, we as the church of God desire to affirm the following:
1. The scriptures affirm that we choose God, and that God chooses us. But the scriptures also reveal that we choose God because he first chose us.
2. We are saved by God’s grace, persevere by God’s grace, and will enter glory by his grace, so all glory will rightfully go to God alone.
3. God reveals his sovereign will to his people to mature their trust in him, and that enable them to make the right choices.
4. The consistent language in scripture is that God sends people to hell on Judgement Day because of our choices and not his.
5. If the knowledge of God’s sovereignty in election makes us slack in evangelism, we have misunderstood the doctrine of election. In scripture, election is a motivation for the success of evangelism, not a deterrent.
6. If the knowledge of the importance of our choices make us deny the doctrine of election, we rob God of his glory (Ephesians 1:4–6).
7. Jesus died for the sin of the whole world and the blood he shed was sufficient to cleanse the sin of every human being, but that blood will only be effective for all who put their trust in him.
8. We affirm the tension that God is 100% sovereign over everyone and everything, and at the same time we are 100% accountable for the choices and decisions we make.
9. Every person who’s name was written in the Lamb’s book of life, written before the foundation of the earth, will be present in heaven.
As you read the statements above I hope you can see the tension God has called us to live with, and that those truths will motivate us to trust in his steadfast purposes for us, while they motivate us to lay down our lives for one another, our families and the world around us for Jesus’ sake.
If you or anyone in your groups wanted more clarity on this topic, I’ll be glad to have a conversation and continue to flesh it all out so that together we can correctly handle the Word of truth.