Savoring God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
Did you ever eat something so tasty that you had to close your eyes? If you haven't, try scallops. Imagine this mouth-watering mollusk: snow-white, pan-seared to perfection with a golden crust, a dash of salt, a pinch of pepper, a brush of butter, a spritz of lemon... delicious! And the texture is as satisfying as the flavor. Since scallop meat is the powerful muscle that opens and closes the shell, it’s thick, and it usually comes with a few grains of sand. Yet when prepared properly, this delicacy somehow seems to melt in your mouth like chocolate on the dashboard. You don’t eat scallops; you savor them.
Whether scallops or something else, we can all think of foods that we savor. How much more then is God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation a theological delicacy worth savoring? We find that glorious truth, gleaming like a diamond on black velvet, in Genesis 25. This passage follows right on the heels of the brief but beautiful wedding of Isaac and Rebekah. But the two lovebirds quickly passed from the honeymoon to the hurt locker, for Rebekah was barren.
Ernest Hemingway once met with a handful of other writers for lunch. It's said that Hemingway bet each man at the table $10 that he could write an entire story in just 6 words. His friends agreed and anted up as Hemingway scratched out his 6 words on a napkin and passed it around the table. It read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” You see, Hemingway knew that there’s something universal about the pain of childlessness; the unsatisfied longing in a woman’s heart to kiss her baby; the unmet drive in a man to disciple his children. Isaac and Rebekah felt it too. But more than just pain, in the ancient world they would have suffered the sharp shame of infertility.
So, as the newlyweds set sail into this storm together, the waves cast Isaac upon the Rock of his Salvation. We knew that Isaac loved Rebekah (Genesis 24:67), but now we know how he loved her: he prayed for her. He prayed not just once, but for twenty long years. And the Lord heard his prayers and opened her womb to conceive. Now the expectant lovebirds can get back to their fairy tale, right? Wrong. The pregnancy was hard. Rebekah knew something was wrong, very wrong. So, like Isaac, she ran into the arms of her Heavenly Father; “she went and inquired of the Lord” (Genesis 25:22). And on her knees before the mercy seat, Rebekah learned that her pain was the result of a war being waged in her womb between battling brothers; between two prenatal nations. God said, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).
Now, was God merely predicting future events? Certainly not. He was proclaiming what he predestined. God determined to divide the two men and the two nations descending from them. It pleased God to choose one and reject the other; to love the younger and hate the older. Paul clarifies this difficult doctrine for us in Romans 9:10- 13: “When Rebekah had conceived children by one man,
“...our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad-in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls- she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’”
But why would God choose to love Jacob and not Esau? Well, it wasn’t because Jacob was to be firstborn. And it wasn’t because Jacob would be a mighty or supremely moral man. God’s election of Jacob was unconditional and depended solely upon the secret will and good pleasure of God. It was “not because of works but because of him who calls” (Romans 9:12).
Though this mystery of God’s sovereign election is deep and difficult, it is inescapably biblical. Jesus said to his disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). In the opening lines of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said, “...he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The Apostle John put it in the simplest terms: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
The Westminster Divines were wise to wrap this concept in caution tape, saying, “The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care” (WCF 3:8). Why the warning label? Because the idea that God predetermined who goes to heaven and hell before they are born just feels so unfair. The idea that Jesus lived and died for some but not for all feels cruel. But Scripture, not feelings, dictates doctrine. Jesus prayed, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word... I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:6,9).
“That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard!” an elderly woman said to her pastor who’d just finished preaching on the subject. He calmly replied, “My dear lady, your trouble is that you envision the masses of mankind clamoring outside the pearly gates of heaven, clawing to get in. You see God inside the gates, capriciously choosing a few from the crowd before casting the rest into hell. But the Bible paints a very different picture. The Bible says, ‘none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God’ (Romans 3:10-11). The Bible says all are born ‘dead in the trespasses and sins’ and are ‘by nature the children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:1,3). Fallen man isn’t rushing the gates of heaven to get to God! He’s racing full speed towards hell, laughing all the way. ‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-by grace you have been saved’ (Ephesians 2:4-6).
You see, if God hadn’t first chosen us, we would never have chosen him. If God hadn’t first loved us, we would never have loved him. If it weren’t for predestination, heaven would be empty and hell would be bursting at the seams!”
“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13). It is a truly shocking statement! The shocking, even amazing thing about this truth isn’t that God hated Esau, a sinner deserving only God’s just wrath, but that God would lavish his love on a sinner, like Jacob or like us. It is unfathomable that God would take everything vile in us and impute it to his blameless, beloved, and beautiful Son, Jesus, to carry into the furnace of his holy hatred for sin, into the very boilers of hell, on the cross. You see, in the end, we don’t want “fair” from God. It’s mercy we need! And it’s mercy that we find, full and free, the moment we repent of our sins and surrender our souls in faith and love to Jesus Christ.
Savoring God’s sovereignty in salvation will bring two things to flower in the believer’s heart. The first flower is humility. Jonathan Edwards said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” He’s right. Knowing that God saved us according to his good pleasure and not any past, present, or future good works of ours is humbling. Knowing that our love for God is merely in response to his loving initiative is humbling. Knowing that even the faith by which we receive his grace is itself the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) is humbling. The second flower is blessed assurance. For if we didn’t earn our own salvation, we cannot lose it or return it. If it was God who wrote your name in the Lamb’s Book of Life before time began, and if God is “not like a man that he should lie or the son of man that he should change his mind” (Numbers 23:19), your eternity is secure in the immutability of his sovereign decrees. So God’s sovereignty in salvation is worth savoring. More than that, it’s worth singing about, forever.
"Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there's room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?"
'Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.
Jim McCarthy is the Senior Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, MS
PCRT '83: Predestination, with J. I. Packer, Roger Nicole, Robert Godfrey, James Boice, John deWitt, and Sinclair Ferguson
"John Knox on Election & Soteriology" by Donald John Maclean
"We Are Not Saved by Grace" by Michael Reeves
"Arminian vs Reformed on Justification" by Mark Jones
"Sovereignty and Evil" by Martin Blocki
"Election" by Voddie Baucham