Sovereignty in the Nursery. Have you ever taken a swim in the ocean and, as waves came in, you were lifted up so that you couldn't touch bottom? At that moment you felt rather small, didn't you? Well, that's the feeling you get when you swim in the deep ocean of election. In fact, just the mention of the word keeps many Christians away from the water's edge, and Romans 9 is avoided at all costs. In this series, join Stephen in a deep-sea dive that explores the mysterious depths of God's electing grace.
Sovereignty . . . in the Nursery
It is a rather alarming thing, to me, that people develop their views and beliefs from all kinds of sources.
There are thousands of people now who believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and raised a family somewhere in France, because a novel entitled the DaVince Code said so. People tend to forget the fact that the book is fiction, even though the author says in the front of the book that he’s uncovered a conspiracy of secrecy among the worlds church leaders.
According to World Magazine, Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, Jay Leno and David Letterman are taken seriously by 1 out over every 5 30 year old or younger. This one study conducted research into how people obtain political news and develop their own viewpoint. Evidently, comedy TV is the source for 100’s of thousands of young people who take comedy seriously.
More seriously than either of these illustrations is a recent survey by the Barna group which uncovered a rising number of denominational leaders and pastors who can no longer sign on to all of the following basic affirmations:
- There is absolute moral truth ( in other words, some things are morally wrong, no matter who you are or where you live;
- The Bible is the accurate word of God.
Believe it or not, the leading conservative denomination, the Southern Baptists revealed only 71% of its pastors and leaders who would agree on the above statements; while 27% of Methodists, which was the fewest number, would agree.
Surprising news – not so much that only 1 out of 4 liberal pastors believed the Bible, but that 1 out of 4 conservative Baptist pastors do not believe the Bible is telling the truth.
Which means, literally millions of believers get their news from these men; they develop their concept of God and the world from leaders men who think the Bible is part truth and part fiction.
That’s much more disturbing than 25 year olds developing their political perspective from David Letterman. Even though that’s kind of scary too!
So it wasn’t surprising to read, as this article concluded, that only 1 out of 10 Protestants who were polled, would agree that there is absolute moral truth and that the Bible is the words of God.
Adapted from World Magazine, January 24, 2004, p. 11 & February 2, 2004, p. 25
My friend, if the Bible isn’t the word of God, then we do not know who God is.
And if people are developing their perspective of who God is apart from an examination of the Bible, it is little wonder why there are so many strange views about God, even among those who call themselves Christians.
No wonder the basic truths about God and His world and His character and His commands and His moral parameters are being rewritten.
No wonder God is no longer recognizable when compared with scripture.
Talk to people on the street today or people in the work force and ask them who God is and you’ll get an earful of convoluted, diluted, distorted definitions of a God who doesn’t exist in scripture.
And these same people will say they’re Christians!
Someone wrote, “God created man in His own image, and modern man repaid the favor.”
A. W. Tozer wrote, “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we will be able to predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man.”
Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories (Thomas Nelson, Nashville; 2000) p. 350
Who is God? Your answer will determine more about you than about God?
Someone might say, why bother?
J. I. Packer warned his generation, “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction.”
Tozer adds this directive, “If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is.”
My friend, the only way to think of God more nearly as He is, is to study what His word says He is.
Furthermore, it is impossible to believe in God apart from word. For the word of God explains to us the gospel of God.
That’s why Paul would write in Romans 10, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. A few verses earlier, Paul writes, 13. Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14. How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?
In other words, saving faith requires the articulation of Biblical truth.
So if people think the Bible is fiction and not truth, the Devil has won a major battle.
If the Bible is fiction, the plan of salvation is anybody’s guess. Whether or not there’s a hell or heaven is up for grabs too! And most importantly, just who God is, is now up to anybody’s imagination.
No wonder our generation has fulfilled the warning of Tozer who said that if you disregard the study of God – through scripture – you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction.
I’ve said all of this because we will begin to study a description of God that runs counter to the heart and logic and reason of mankind.
We’re about to study who God is, in terms that might make us feel uncomfortable – unless we believe it and then our hearts will soar with this incredible truth.
The theme of Romans 9 could be, in one word, sovereignty. While the nation Israel is the obvious subject matter, in between the lines and sometimes boldly stated, the real subject matter is the sovereignty of God.
Most of us would say we believe in the sovereignty of God . . . let me get even more specific and say that the theme of Romans chapter 9 is, “The sovereignty of God in election.”
I’m sure I have your attention now.
In this next paragraph, Paul will describe who God is, with statements that on one hand seem shocking . . . yet on the other hand, reassuring.
In this paragraph, Paul is going to describe God’s sovereignty with two illustrations from Israel’s past:
First, in the supernatural conception of Isaac.
And secondly, in the sovereign election of Jacob
Romans 9:6. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7. nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8. That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10. And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11. for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, 12. it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13. Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Paul begins by saying, just because the nation of Israel rejected the Messiah, that doesn’t mean the word of God has failed.
He reminds them that true Israelites are not born . . . they are born again.
Paul reiterated this truth in his letter to the Galatians, where he wrote, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:29)
Now all Israel didn’t believe, did they? The nation at large rejected Christ. Only a few believed at first.
So does this mean that the promise of God to call out His people fail? Did the word of God fail?
Well, what Paul will do in this paragraph is prove from Israel’s own history that while all the nation did not believe, God has been working within the nation all along, to call out – to elect – those who will become true Israel.
Paul goes all the way back to the beginning of the nation Israel to show that God is sovereign in His choosing and that His purposes have not failed.
And he begins by mentioning Abraham in verse 7.
The Jews knew their history. Abraham did not seek God. He was the member of a pagan, idolatrous family. But even though Abraham was not seeking God, God was seeking Abraham. Since the call of Abraham is recorded in Genesis 12, every Jew reading the letter of Romans would have to confess that Jewish history began with God choosing Abraham.
James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Volume Three (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1993) p. 1052
The nation began by the election of Abraham – a man called out by God.
Then Paul moves to Isaac, the son of Abraham.
If Isaac isn’t proof of God’s sovereign power, nothing is.
Look at verse 9. For this is a word of promise; At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.”
The Jewish nation couldn’t ignore the fact that the very conception of Isaac in his mother’s womb:
-occurred in spite of physical impossibilities (Genesis records that she was barren, (11:30); past the age of childbearing (18:11) and to boot, she was 90 years old (17:17).
She conceives and bears a son. Why? Because God had made a promise. And God was sovereignly capable of keeping his promise even though it was a physical impossibility.
But even more than that, perhaps was this point. The conception of Isaac, occurred in spite of physical impossibilities, but also in spite of faithless attitudes
Let’s go back to this story and watch the sovereignty of God at work in spite of unbelief.
Genesis chapter 16.
Let me set the stage for you. It’s been at least 10 years since God’s promise to Abram that his descendants will outnumber the stars.
And you can only imagine Abram’s anticipation. He name, before it was changed by God, meant “illustrious father . . . ” You can only imagine people coming and visiting Abram, and they would introduce themselves. Hebrew names were very indicative of what they had, or did, and so they would ask, “And what is your name?” And he would say, “My name is illustrious Father.” And they would say, “Oh, you must be so proud to be a father?!” And Abram would perhaps hang his head and kick the dirt as he say, “Well, no, I don’t have any children.” And for years, he probably added the word, “yet.”
“I don’t have any children yet . . . but God has promised!”
Well, by the time you reach Genesis chapter 16, Abram has stopped saying “yet!”
Both he and Sarah become vulnerable to the temptation to take matters into their own hands.
You see, when you doubt the sovereignty of God, you instigate the sovereignty of you.
As we go through this story, rather quickly, I want to pull out several practical things that occur whenever anyone of us, regarding anything in life, take matters into our own hands.
The first thing that happens . . . that sort of sets the stage for compromise at best and utter rebellion at worst, is this:
- We rationalize our resentment
Notice verse 1 of Genesis 16. Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. 2. So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children , Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her. And Abram responded as the godly leader in the home, “No Sarai, we must wait on the promise of God.” That’s from the “If only” translation. No, the text reads, And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3. And after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife.
Oh man . . .the nation Israel hasn’t gotten past one generation, and the enemy has already succeeded in corrupting the promise.
But did you notice how Sarai began in verse 2. “Behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.” Theologically she’s half-right. Conception is according to the work and purpose of God . . . it is the creation of an immortal soul.
From a human perspective it can be an accident, or a difficulty, or a tragedy . . . but it cannot happen without God’s sovereign purpose to bring to life a never ending soul.
For conception to occur requires the purpose of God . . . for it not to occur also requires the purpose of God. Medical and physical conditions may seem to be the primary cause of either fertility or sterility – but behind those conditions is the primary Sovereign who fulfills His purpose.
Rather than trust in the purposes of a sovereign God, Sarai turns bitter – resentful toward God – she says in effect, “God has messed up my life.” God is in the way of what I want.
What’s more, she takes matters into her own hands and decides that another wife who can bear children is better than one wife who can’t.
The enemy is wringing his hands with glee – he will corrupt the nation to be . . . he will nullify the promise of God.
By the way, you can tell when you’re taking matters you’re your own hands whenever you begin to refuse to live by God’s prohibitions and wait for God’s purposes.
Sarai said, “God has not come through . . . it’s been thirteen years now and God must need my help . . . it’s time to institute plan B. That might sound good, but it’s nothing more than religious sounding rationalization of rebellion.
Maybe you’re doing it in your business right now.
“God won’t mind.”
Or your personal, private life,
“Surely God wants my needs to be met . . . I’ve never been happier . . . surely God wants me to be happy.”
Or in the secret world of your imagination,
“At least I’m not acting on anything . . . it isn’t hurting anybody . . . God is pleased with my self-restraint.”
Sarai uses spiritual words but she is merely acting out her rebellion against God. And she gives ungodly advice to her husband and Abram accepts the role in his own rebellion against the promise of God.
Notice verse 4. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight.
You take matters into your hands, and you not only rationalize your resentment, but you ruin personal relationships. At least 3 relationships would be profoundly affected:
- Between Sarah and Hagar – a bitter rivalry
- Between their sons – Ishmael the father of Arab nations and Isaac, the father of the Jewish nation. And the descendants of these two boys, by the way, are still fighting one another for that piece of land we call the Holy Land; both claiming Abraham as their father, both claiming the right to own it all.
- Even the relationship between Sarah and Abraham suffered. Notice verse 5. May the wrong done me be upon you! Abram, this is all your fault. In a way it was! He knew he was wrong. She knew he was wrong. Hagar knew they were both wrong.
You see, we have every reason to believe this nation Israel will never get to first base. It’ll never make it!
And it wouldn’t have, unless God was sovereign.
- There’s one more thing that happens when we take matters into our own hands. We not only rationalize our rebellion with pious words, and ruin relationships, but we refuse to believe God’s reassurances.
Notice verse 5 of chapter 17. where God speaks again to Abram, “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.”
Imagine that! You’re now 99 years old, and God is changing your name from Illustrious father to Father of a multitude!
Notice verse 15. Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name – literally, “Princess” because she’s going to be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and said, “Praise God . . .and he rose to his feet and began to sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness, Oh God my father!”
No, the text says, “he fell to his face and laughed and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”
You take matters into your own hands and this book of reassurances will seem foolish.
When Sarah heard the news, chapter 18, she laughed also. And the Lord said to Abraham in verse 13, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying “Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old? Is anything too difficult for the Lord?
Your problem Abraham, is you don’t understand sovereignty.
You see my friends, God brought Abraham and Sarah past the childbearing age, so they could take not credit for the beginning of this Jewish nation. It would be clear that it was His power and His purpose and His sovereignty over the affairs of mankind.
The Sovereignty of God manifests itself . . . even in the nursery!
He determines conception . . . he determines the life that will be born . . . the kind of person . . . the physical make-up of that person . . . knit together in the womb . . . the timing of that birth . . . the generation and family and nation into which that child will be born.
He chose you to live . . . where to live . . . when to live . . . to whom you would be born . . . that’s right. God chose your mother! Mom – he chose and determined everything about your child.
Including the very timing of their birth. Notice verse 14 again. God said, “At the appointed time, I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.
Did this mean that Abraham and Sarah wouldn’t have to get together? Would there not be egg and sperm? Would there not be 9 months growth . . . yes to all of that. But these are secondary issues to the primary cause who is sovereign God.
Paul says in Romans 9 – the very fact that the nation even exists was this inconceivable conception (what irony!) – by a mother and father who had to use their walkers to go and visit the nursery.
Ah, the sovereign choice of God, lying in that nursery.
Now, back in Romans 9, Paul anticipated Jewish reader saying, “Yes, but Isaac wasn’t a difficult choice for God to make over Ishmael – even though Ishmael was Abraham’s first born son, Isaac was the only son of both Abraham and Sarah.
So Paul moves on to give another illustration of God’s sovereignty – not only seen in the supernatural conception of Isaac, but the sovereign election of Jacob.
Notice verse 10. And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for thought the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice – that word is eklektos – which gives us our word, election) according to His election, not because of works but because of Him who calls.
It’s one thing for God to elect Isaac over Ishmael – Isaac was the only one born to both Abraham and Sarah.
But here are twins.
The same Jewish parents. Both are pure-blooded Jews. God makes a choice and his choice is significant for two reasons:
First, God chooses the second born twin. In other words, He goes against the normal standard of blessing the first born.
Secondly, the choice is made before they are even born. Paul specifically states that this was all done so that God’s electing purpose might be irrefutably taught.
Thirdly, the choice is made independent of merit. The text says, “Neither one had yet done anything good or bad.
Verse 13 – Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.
In other words, Jacob is the one I’ve chosen, and Esau is the one I’ve rejected.
- occurred before his birth
- occurred in spite of his behavior.
Study his life and see for yourself!
A woman came up to Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher of the nineteenth century and said, “I don’t understand how God could say he hated Esau.” Spurgeon responded, “Madam, I find it more difficult to understand how he could love Jacob.”
Jacob I have chosen, Esau I have rejected . . .
Does this raise a thousand questions? Yes!
But I would rather have a God described in scripture Who provokes a thousand questions than the imaginary God of our generation who barely provokes a yawn.
You read that verse and immediately you want to say, “That’s not fair!” And that’s exactly what Paul knew you’d say so he goes on in verse 14 to write, “There is no injustice with God is there? In other words, ‘You’re not suggesting He isn’t fair, are you?’ May it never be!”
What does Paul mean by that? We’ll start with this next Lord’s day.
Let me give you two closing thoughts:
- First, talk of election usually focuses on the negative . . . when it was intended by God to be reassuring.
Paul is attempting to reassure the nation of God’s providence and power – election was his proof for both.
- Second, the negative questions about election often cloud out the amazing, positive implications of this doctrine.
- You are here, on planet earth, by God’s appointment.
- You were born into your family and into this generation by God’s timing
- You were made with strengths and weaknesses to glorify God’s grace and sufficiency
- You are even now, under God’s determined plan of training and pruning and conforming
- You are experiencing events and circumstances according to His perfect timing and wise purposes.
No matter what you’re facing . . . no matter where you are . . . no matter who you are . . . no matter where you’ve been.
This is the kind of God, described in this book which is not fiction. It’s the truth.
Don’t take matters into your own hands . . . surrender to His sovereign hand.
Raymond Edman wrote, “God brought you here, it is by His will that you are in this place – in that fact, rest. He will keep you here in His love, and give you the grace to behave as His child; He will make the trials lessons which He intends for you to learn, and He will work in you the grace He means to bestow; and in His good time, He will bring you out again – how and when He alone knows.”
Charles Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart (Word Publishing, Nashville; 1998), p. 244
That’s another way of saying, God is sovereign.
There is a widow of many years in our church family. A woman greatly used by God . . . brilliant, educated, gifted . . . once the wife of a man of God who was a scholar . . . author . . . influential leader. You’d never know these things . . . she’d never tell you. Every time I see her and ask her, “How’s it going?” She smiles and says matter of factly, “God is on the throne.”
God is on the throne.
We will never answer all the questions related to election and God’s sovereignty over the affairs of mankind . . .we’ll have fun trying . . . but we won’t do it. But we will leave with this – the God who is described in this Book is a sovereign King . . . and we echo from the Book of Job, “Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty? They are high as the heavens, what can you do? (Job 11:7)
What can we do? We can believe this description and bow, saying “God is on the throne.”