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The biblical doctrine of election and reprobation is found early in the Scriptures, long before God ever chose a people and called them “Israel.”
One of the clearest cases of election and reprobation in Scripture involves Noah and his family. They were chosen by God to pass safely through the curse of the flood, which was sent upon the whole of the human race. But all the rest of the human race was passed by, then fell under the judgment of the flood. Another such case is that of Abraham, who was an idolater in Ur of the Chaldees (Josh. 24:2) before God chose him and called him to separate himself from his family and move to Canaan. He heard, believed, and obeyed the call of God. But virtually all of the rest of the human race was passed by and left in its sins.
At times, Scripture presents election and reprobation as both individual and national. The case of Isaac’s sons in Genesis indicates that God had made the choice of Jacob over Esau before these twins were born (Gen. 25:23). It was a case of the election of Jacob, the individual person, over his brother Esau, another individual person. But as this verse makes clear, the nations that would come from these two individuals would reflect the divine discrimination. Malachi opens his book by reminding the Israelites that God loved them and not Esau’s descendants. “I have loved you,’says the LORD. ‘Yet you say, “In what way have You loved us?” Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?’ says the LORD. ‘Yet Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated’ ” (Mal. 1:2–3a). As in Genesis, the nations that proceeded from these two individuals are set over against one another.
Thus, it appears that election and reprobation are, at least at times, both personal and national in character. And we must strive to maintain this balance against those who would characterize election and reprobation as corporate matters only. For instance:
The apostle Paul, in presenting the sovereignty of God in the matter of salvation in Romans 9, cites the case of Abraham’s sons, contrasting God’s election of Isaac and His passing-by of Ishmael. This is certainly a reference to the individual persons. But because the announcement to Rebecca in Genesis 25 had to do with the nations that would spring from the two sons in her womb, and because Malachi’s reference also speaks of the nations of Israel and Edom, it is argued by some that Paul’s citation must refer not to personal election and reprobation, but only to national election and reprobation.
However, the fact that both Genesis and Malachi speak of the nations descending from Jacob and Esau does not mean that there was no personal reference to Jacob and Esau. As we have already observed, there is both a personal and a national reference in both of these Old Testament references.
Also, a careful examination of Paul’s passage shows that his reference to Isaac and Ishmael is personal and not national. The question that Paul is seeking to answer is: How can God’s covenant promise be regarded as inviolate when the mass of those belonging to the elect nation of Israel remain in unbelief? An appeal only to the collective elect nation fails to deal with the question before us. Paul’s answer is to speak of the differentiation of individuals within Israel. He says, “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6b). Of necessity this is a reference to individuals within the nation of Israel, not a reference to the nation.
Romans 9:11–13 speaks of the election of Jacob in personal terms. “(For the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him who calls), it was said to her, ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’ ” Notice that it is the two unborn children who are in view. God chose and set His love upon one of the unborn children, and determined to pass by the other with the gift of electing love, before they were born or had done either good or bad. It was an act of sovereign election of one individual and of sovereign reprobation of the other individual.
Thus, an interpretation that regards the election in view as only the collective, theocratic election of Israel cannot stand in this context. The phrase “that the purpose of God according to election might stand” must thus be the electing purpose of God that is unto salvation.
This doctrine continues to be developed in other passages, such as Ephesians 1:4–5: “Just as He chose us in Him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.” Here the subject is the blessings that all Christians have in Christ. Again in Romans 8, the apostle clearly refers to the election of individuals to salvation.
The phrase, “ ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,’ ” must mean more than that God merely loved Esau less. The Biblical idea of God’s hatred is one of positive disfavor—we have no reason other than our own squeamishness to say otherwise. It should be observed that the love and hatred of this passage are specifically based upon the sovereign will of God, and not dependent upon the character differences or the deeds of the two boys. What the apostle has in view are the ultimate destinies of the two men, that the purpose of election might be made manifest.
The apostle is arguing that the covenant promise has not failed, even though much of Israel rejects the Gospel of Christ. It is the remnant of Israel who are the elect of God unto salvation. To suggest that the reference to election in verse 11 is something less than full soteric election would fail to demonstrate that the covenant promises have not failed.
The individual character of election and reprobation is also seen in the subsequent discourse in Romans 9 regarding God’s differentiation between Moses and Pharaoh. In particular, there is reference to the hardening of Pharaoh by God. It is, of course, a judicial hardening. That is, God did not make Pharaoh a sinner. He was a sinner, and the hardening of his heart by God was like the giving over to a reprobate mind mentioned in Romans 1. It was itself a punishment for previous sin on the part of Pharaoh. Thus, it was the sovereign act of God to harden him.
One may have the impression that Paul’s representation of God as hating sinners is not in accord with the modern understanding of the nature of God. This is true. The modern man does not want to hear about a God of justice and wrath. The Bible teaches both that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that He is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). To ignore or deny the justice and wrath of God is to fail to reflect the balanced teaching of the Bible regarding God.
The fact is that not one of us is righteous and thus deserving of any good favor from God. The amazing thing is not that God hates sin and the rebellious sinner, but that He has been pleased to show mercy upon any sinners. This is the comfort, not the calamity, of the Biblical doctrine of election. By His sovereign grace, before the foundation of the world, God chose some unto everlasting life in Christ; provided in Christ the redemption necessary to cleanse them from their sins; then sent the Spirit to give them new hearts, thus enabling them to come to Christ by saving faith.
So how can I know whether I am elect or not? First, do I trust in Jesus as my Savior? One can come to saving faith only by the help of God. “For by grace have you been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). My responsibility is to hear and accept the Gospel, to repent and believe in Jesus. If I have done this, it is evidence of the electing and regenerating grace of God in my life. Do I truly love Jesus? Am I seeking to please Him by living for Him and obeying His commandments? (John 14:15). The free invitation of the Gospel is that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).