Election is All Grace: or Nothing at All
In the ninth chapter of Romans there is a famous passage in which Paul discusses God’s election (Romans 9:6-21). Paul writes at length confirming that God is the initiator of mercy. Mercy cannot be controlled by us and is utterly dependent upon the grace of God. To underscore this point Paul argues that God has, historically and deliberately, chosen the most unlikely people to bear the news of this extraordinary truth.
In the Roman epistle Paul refers to the story of God choosing Jacob, the younger brother, over Esau, the elder brother, as an example. He notes that Jacob was chosen even before he was born, even before he had “done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls” (v. 11-12). In other words, God chose the lesser of the brothers even before they had any record of merit to make the point that “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (v. 16). Or as the Message translation has it, “I’m in charge of mercy. I’m in charge of compassion. Compassion does not originate in our bleeding hearts or moral sweat, but in God’s mercy.” (MSG Romans 9:11-12).
It’s worth noting that election, from a biblical point of view at least, is not so much concerned with personal and individual ‘salvation’ as it is with choosing who will carry the message of salvation to the world. Israel was not chosen merely to be chosen. Israel was chosen to be a kind of ‘priest’ nation to all the other nations; to bear witness to the world of God’s faithfulness and mercy. From the very beginning God’s intention was always to bless all nations with salvation, but Israel was chosen to be both the mediator of that salvation and an example of it to rest of the world.
Therefore, God chooses the lesser, the least and the last in preference to the greater, the majority and the first, to underscore the utterly free nature of his grace. This is what is behind God preferring Jacob over Esau. It had absolutely nothing to do with merit. This does not mean that God is against those that were not chosen. They were not fated to be condemned: they were simply not chosen to be the bearer of the message. Take for instance Ishmael and Manasseh, both of whom were not chosen, but they were blessed nonetheless. Of Ishmael God said, “I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also” (Genesis 21:13) and of Manasseh, he would “become a people, and he too will become great” (Genesis 48:9).
Both the one chosen and the one overlooked are, nonetheless, given access to God’s mercy. All that is happening here is that God chooses those who have the least merit in the eyes of the world to underscore the nature of mercy. It’s worth noting here that a significant portion of the Bible was written by murders or those implicated in murder. Moses and David were both murderers, and Paul was, at the very least, implicated in murder, yet this did not stop God from using them as significant writers of the sacred scriptures. I’m quite certain this is no accident. As Paul has it in this second letter to the Corinthians “But we have this treasure in Jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The jar of clay he is speaking of here is the way-less-than-perfect lives of those ‘chosen’ to carry the treasure, i.e. – the gospel, to the world.
All this underscores the faithfulness of God. Thus Jacob, despite all his scheming, back-stabbing lying, did not divert the faithfulness and blessing of God toward him and his descendants. If anything, the willful rebellion of Jacob shows off the mercy of God in even starker relief. It is amazing that one of God’s most prominent titles in the Bible is: “God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6,15, Matthew 22:32 for instance). God wants the world to know that he is the God of people like Jacob, and therefore of you and me, no matter who we are and what we have done.
Most often the commentary on this passage has a hard-edged exclusive tone. Yet when I look at the ministry of Jesus and read the Acts of the Apostles, together with the rest of the New Testament, I find the tone of the gospel to be inclusive. I believe Paul was simply attempting to make clear that grace is initiated by God and cannot be influenced by human factors such as pedigree, special knowledge or religious observations. The gospel is inclusive not exclusive, but the inclusion is initiated and executed entirely by God: not by us. Our role is simply to receive the gift that is being given. We cannot choose God; but we can refuse God. Choosing God is beyond our reach, we cannot claim any merit in that regard, but, paradoxically we can refuse God by relying on our merit (pedigree, knowledge or religious observance). It’s all grace: or its nothing at all.