Up to this point in his letter to the Romans, Paul has been focused upon what happens in a person’s life when they, by faith, call upon the name of the Lord unto salvation. But beginning in the latter parts of chapter 8 he makes the transition to another important topic - the fact that God called out to us well before we ever called out to Him. The shift highlights things that have been in place since the beginning of creation.
Paul lays out a sequence of events that allows us to better understand the whole plan of redemption (Romans 8:29-30). First, God has complete foreknowledge of all people who will freely choose to accept Christ. Second, He has predestined that those who choose salvation will be made into the image of His Son. Third, He has called out to those He foreknew with the message of the gospel so that they could accept Jesus for themselves. Notice that all of these acts of God actually precede the work of justification, sanctification, and glorification which we have been discussing.
God is not confined to time or space - as a matter of fact He created both of them. His knowledge is unlimited and includes all things past, present, and future. He is completely omniscient and knows in advance who will accept Christ and who will not. However, His knowledge of what a person will choose does not take away their prerogative to choose. For example, if I was to offer my pet Mandi either a freshly grilled steak or a bowl of dry dog food I am certain she’d choose the steak. In this scenario, I know what she’d choose even though I didn’t make the choice for her. In like fashion, God’s foreknowledge of our decisions does not override or interfere with our free will.
The Bible repeatedly states that God sent Christ to die for all people, so that all might receive eternal life; but it also reveals that He knew that most would refuse to accept it. So while His call unto salvation extends to all people, only some will hear and respond to it. I believe it is a mistake to believe that God’s call is somehow limited to only those that He foreknew would receive it; rather His call is universal and includes both those He foreknew would embrace Him and those He foreknew wouldn’t.
You have heard it said that “Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” Consider this… for a relationship to work both parties have to make the choice to be devoted to one another. Yes it is true that God first chose us, but in order to make the relationship complete we must also choose Him in return. The raging theological debate between whether God chooses us or we chose God has lead to widespread confusion; in fact, both are true according to Scripture. We must choose each other - He goes us first, and it is then up to us to respond.
Salvation is offered freely to everyone who is called (I believe this is all people), but is applied only to those who have accepted it. Scripture often refers to these people - the redeemed children of God - as “the elect”. As a result of their decision to follow Christ, God chose (or elected) to make salvation effectual in their life. The doctrine of election is demonstrated in the Bible through the nation of Israel.
I. THE FOOLISH CHOICE OF ISRAEL (Romans 9:1-5)
Israel collectively was God’s chosen nation through whom He sought to reveal Himself to the rest of the world. They had been “adopted as sons”, were partakers of God’s covenants, had been given the Law and the temple, were the recipients of God’s numerous blessings, and even were the human ancestors of Jesus. Yet despite their special chosen status, the Jews as a group did not recognize Jesus to be God’s Son. As a whole, the nation of Israel had rejected Jesus Christ by refusing to accept Him as the Messiah. Whatsmore, they lobbied relentlessly for His execution by the Romans.
It is important to note that the word “chosen” as it applies to Israel refers specifically to the fact that God selected them as an entire nation to be the instrument through which He’d reveal Himself to the world. “Chosen” when used in this context does not mean that every individual Jew was saved, but rather that the entire group was being used by God in a special way to bring about His divine purposes.
Paul, who was himself a Jew, expresses his great sorrow and grief that the nation of Israel - his own people - could have been so blind as to reject their promised Savior. He states that he wishes that he could be “separated from Christ for the sake of his brethren” - that is, take their place - which indicates that the nation of Israel had been separated from God in some sense for their rejection of Christ. While individual Jews could certainly still accept Jesus and receive the gift of salvation (Paul himself for example), as a whole the nation had forsaken the Lord and instead chosen judgment.
II. THE GRACIOUS CHOICE OF GOD (Romans 9:6-13)
Despite the Jews’ refusal to accept Christ, still God’s plan of redemption through Him had not and would not fail. For salvation had never been solely limited to “the children of the flesh” but rather had always pertained to “the children of the promise”. This fact is demonstrated in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though Abraham had 2 sons, God chose Isaac as the promised son. A generation later Isaac fathered twins by Rebekah, and God chose Jacob through whom to establish His people. From this we learn that our standing before God is not a result of our human lineage, but rather the result of God’s sovereign choice (His promise).
Should verse 13 be understood to mean that God “hated” Esau and that he was never afforded an opportunity to be saved? Does it imply that some people are rejected by God from the outset and can never come to know Christ personally? If so, then Paul is declaring that God restricts some people from having any choice in their own eternal destiny. Such an interpretation is inconsistent with the broader teachings of Scripture and therefore cannot be accurate. A proper understanding of this verse would conclude that God despised the descendants of Esau as a whole (the nation of Edom) though some might have accepted Him individually, in contrast to His affection for the descendents of Jacob as a whole (the nation of Israel) though many might have rejected Him individually.
It is true that God chose a particular line of Abraham’s family tree through which He established the nation of Israel. Such a choice was in line with His sovereign plan for revealing Himself to the world. But never did He, nor does He, completely prevent or restrict a person from ever having the opportunity to be saved. Though Esau and Ishmael might not have been players in God’s grand design for the advent of the Jewish nation, nevertheless surely God loved them and desired for them to be redeemed.
III. THE HARDENED HEART OF PHARAOH (Romans 9:14-18)
After 400 years of captivity to the Egyptians, God raised up 2 people who would confront one another over the future of the Jewish people. Moses boldly spoke before Pharaoh demanding that he let God’s people go. Yet Pharaoh was obstinate, stubbornly refusing to allow the release of God’s children even after several terrible plagues. God had preordained that this particular man would rise to power at this appointed time, and when it occurred the LORD repeatedly hardened his heart in order to demonstrate His great power throughout the earth.
We see in this story how God chose to use certain individuals in very specific ways to bring about His divine plan. One might conclude that because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart he was never given a chance to choose anything other than wickedness and sinfulness. According to this line of thinking, God denied Pharaoh of any hope of righteousness. But again this goes beyond what the verse actually says… the text never rules out that Pharaoh had a chance to repent of His hardheartedness. The passage does not say that God took Pharaoh's choice away, but rather that He used his stubbornness to orchestrate His will and accomplish His purposes.
God chose the nation of Israel as his special people through which to proclaim Himself to all of humanity. Generally speaking, Israel as a whole rejected Jesus Christ and in so doing rejected God the Father as well. This serves to show us on a large scale that even when God chooses someone, they are still responsible for choosing Him in return. If they fail to do so, the two-way relationship is incomplete and consequences ensue.
God chose to use Pharoah as a vehicle through whom He could display His power and glory to the nations. In the process, God hardened Pharaoh's heart. But this hardening did not necessarily preclude Pharoah from repentance. Even a hardhearted person can break under conviction.
Some churches believe in the idea of limited atonement which supposes that only those whom God has chosen can be saved. Thus, the atonement offered in Christ is limited in its application to only certain people. Other churches believe in the idea of general atonement which supposes that salvation is offered freely to all people. Based upon what I have taught in this sermon, it is not hard to tell which way I lean… Historically the Southern Baptist denomination has accepted both viewpoints to be Scripturally possible and have remained intentionally neutral on the subject.
As your pastor, I personally believe that a person cannot be saved unless God has first chosen them. But I also believe that a person isn’t saved until they chose God through faith in Jesus Christ. It must work both ways. Furthermore, I believe that God creates all people with a free-will to choose for themselves whether or not they will accept Jesus, and that this choice is not made for them by God or anyone else. That said, a person can’t come to God on their own volition - they must be drawn by the Holy Spirit for their conversion to be genuine..
Whatever you chose to believe theologically about this issue, practically speaking there is no real choice. Even if you surmise that some people have been chosen by God for salvation while others haven’t, there is still no surefire way for us as non-omniscient humans to know who is who. Therefore, from a practical standpoint, we must assume that everyone is a candidate for salvation, needs to hear the gospel, and experience the love of Christ. To assume otherwise would erode our zeal for the Great Commission and undermine our calling to minister to the lost.