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God’s Sovereignty and Personal Choice

Romans 9

Jim Davis

Failing to understand God’s sovereignty and how it relates to our need to make personal choices can lead to self-destruction. Man cannot thwart the sovereign purposes of God. Heathen nations tried to destroy Israel, the nation through which the Redeemer would be born, but the Lord intervened to preserve His people. Sometimes He did this through a dramatic display of His power, like dividing the Red Sea or opening the earth to swallow Israel's enemies (Deut. 11:2-6). At other times He used small, natural means, such as attacking hornets (Josh. 24:12). In either case, His will was accomplished.

Knowing we cannot thwart the sovereign purposes of God may leave us feeling we have no personal choices to make. We may think God’s will, will be wrought in our lives with no help from us. This leaves many believing God has made a decision about who will be saved and who will be lost before they were born. Therefore personal choice is eliminated.

God’s sovereign choice is inclusive rather than exclusive. God’s sovereign plan includes everyone concerning salvation; we may exclude ourselves from his plan. The Jews believed they were God’s chosen people, and they were. However, God’s choosing the Jews in no way excluded the rest of the world in regards to salvation. Neither did God’s choosing guarantee every Jew salvation. The difficult thing to understand about God’s sovereign choice is that it leaves us with a personal choice. God can use and individual to accomplish his sovereign will while giving that person a personal choice to obey or disobey. To many, this may seem like a contradiction.

Abraham had many sons. After Sarah’s death he had six sons born to him by his second wife Keturah. He had only one son by Sarah, but it was through that one son Isaac that his descendants were reckoned. It was through Isaac that God was going to reconciled the world to himself through Jesus Christ. The choice was God’s and it had nothing to do with human ingenuity or planning. It was God’s sovereign choice.

Isaac had twins Esau and Jacob. God chose Jacob as the one through he would continue his plan to usher in a plan of redemption. His choice was not due to Jacob or Esau’s effort; it was God’s sovereign choice.

"Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

Romans 9:13-16
Just as it is written: "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy. (NIV)

Genesis 25:21-26
Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. The LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger." When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. (NIV)

We may think God's choice for Jacob and Esau was a blessing to Jacob and a curse to Esau. This was not the case. Esau was as much a part of God's sovereign choice as Jacob. When God chose Jacob as the one through whom the chosen seed should come, he was also making a choice for Esau.

It wasn’t that one was any better than the other. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. Jacob was a man left destitute by his lying and cheating. The name Jacob meant "heel grabber." He spent much of his life tripping others up and being tripped up by others. God blessed both Esau and Jacob’s lives not because of their desire or effort, but because of his mercy. Jacob eventually surrendered to God in his last wrestling match with God at Peniel. However, Esau took his blessings for granted and refused to wrestle with God’s way for his life. Both had a personal choice in the matter.

God continued to bless Esau’s descendants. They became the nation of the Edomites, while Isaac’s descendants were held in slavery in Egypt. When the Israelites were led out of Egypt they encounter Esau’s descendants.

God’s blessings upon Esau’s descendants are seen in the following verses. When God was leading Jacob’s descendants out of Egyptian bondage, God told Moses: "Give the people these orders: 'You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.'" (Deuteronomy 2:4-6 NIV) God’s sovereign choice for our lives cannot be overthrown by our personal choices or the personal choices of others. This is understood as God deals with Jacob and Esau’s descendants through the years.

God’s sovereign choice had given Esau and their descendants the land they possessed. God would not allow the personal choices of Jacob to interfere with his plans for Esau. It is evident that God’s sovereign choice did not eliminate their personal choice. They always had a choice.

When God was leading Jacob’s descendants out of Egyptian bondage, God told Moses: "Give the people these orders: 'You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own. You are to pay them in silver for the food you eat and the water you drink.'" (Deuteronomy 2:4-6 NIV)

As I read these verses it is obvious that it would be within God’s sovereign will for the Israelites to pass through the land of Esau’s descendants. This seems evident because they were to pay them for the food they ate and the water they drank as they passed through the land. But the Edomites had the final decision, and if the answer was no, they were not to be provoked to war. Either way God's sovereign choice did not interfere with the Edomites personal choice. Neither did Edom's personal choice interfere with God's sovereign will.

Numbers 20:17-22
Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." But Edom answered: "You may not pass through here; if you try, we will march out and attack you with the sword." The Israelites replied: "We will go along the main road, and if we or our livestock drink any of your water, we will pay for it. We only want to pass through on foot-- nothing else." Again they answered: "You may not pass through." Then Edom came out against them with a large and powerful army. Since Edom refused to let them go through their territory, Israel turned away from them. The whole Israelite community set out from Kadesh and came to Mount Hor. (NIV)

God is going to accomplish his plan with or without our cooperation, and he is going to do it with or without the cooperation of others. Our fear of each other is sad, for our fears prevent us from seeing how we could cooperate in God’s sovereign plan for the benefit of all. God’s sovereign choice is wrought in our lives regardless of our desire or effort, but our desire and effort to do God’s will is of utmost importance. The Edomites made a personal choice to forbid Israel from passing through their land. Their personal choice in no way hindered the sovereign choice of God for Israel.

The book of Obadiah is written to Esau’s descendants as God’s testimony of his undying love for them.

Obadiah 1:8-15
"In that day," declares the LORD, "will I not destroy the wise men of Edom, men of understanding in the mountains of Esau? Your warriors, O Teman, will be terrified, and everyone in Esau's mountains will be cut down in the slaughter. Because of the violence against your brother Jacob, you will be covered with shame; you will be destroyed forever. On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble. You should not march through the gates of my people in the day of their disaster, nor look down on them in their calamity in the day of their disaster, nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster. You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble. "The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. (NIV)

Obadiah wrote when Babylon was overtaking Jacob’s descendants in Israel. God was allowing the wickedness of the Babylonians to punish Israel for their sins. Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, were taking advantage of the distress of Jacob’s descendants. They were capturing the fugitives and seizing their wealth. God warned them that their deeds would return upon their own heads. In the warning we see they were give the ability to make a personal choice. The warning in itself is a call for them to make a personal choice. God’s sovereignty did not overrule Esau or his descendant’s personal choices.

When God allowed the Babylonians to punish Israel for her sins, the Edomites made a personal choice to take the advantage in the situation. However, God’s sovereign choice for Israel in no way justified Edom’s decision.

God Hardened Pharaoh’s Heart

God can use our bad choices to the benefit of others. Pharaoh’s obstinate heart was used to proclaim God’s name to all the earth.

Romans 9:17-18
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: "I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

God allowed Pharaoh's heart to be hardened. This is actually the nature of freedom of choice. When we persist in evil our hearts naturally become hardened to what is right. We can reach the point where our lives are irrevocably set to do evil.

Hebrews 6:4-9
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case-- things that accompany salvation. (NIV)

God will allow us to choose, even to the point where we become irrevocably set in our ways. This is what happened to Pharaoh. God gave Pharaoh every opportunity to make the right decision. He didn't deserve one chance. However God's mercy gave him numerous chances. He spurned them all. He was irrevocably set in his way.

1 Timothy 4:1-2
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. (NIV)

2 Thessalonians 2:11-12
For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (NIV)

Pharaoh did not avert God's sovereign will for the Israelites. He simply chose not to be a part of God's plan. However, God used Pharaoh's hardened heart to proclaim a message of salvation to the entire world.

When the Israelites came to Canaan after wandering forty years in the wilderness Rahab the harlot said to them, "I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone's courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Now then, please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death." "Our lives for your lives!" the men assured her. "If you don't tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the LORD gives us the land." (Joshua 2:9-14 NIV)

In these verses we see God’s name being proclaimed into all the earth as he led Israel out of Egypt. We also see Rahab and her family making a personal choice about their salvation from the destruction. Pharaoh experienced firsthand what Rahab and her family witnessed from a distance.

God used the bad choices of the Pharaoh to accomplish his purposes. The world was looking on and listening to what God was doing in Egypt. God uses the condition of our hearts for his purposes, but he does not overrule our personal choices, which may result in the hardening of our hearts. Pharaoh’s obstinate heart was used to fulfill God’s purposes, but in the end Pharaoh could have made a personal decision to obey God.

Romans 9:22-26
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-- prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory--even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: "I will call them 'my people' who are not my people; and I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one," and, "It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" (NIV)

God hardened Pharaoh's heart, but he also maximized his efforts to reveal his mercy to Egypt. The plagues and miracles of Egyptian bondage were an act of mercy to a lost world. Those miraculous works denied every false god known for the purpose of pointing the whole world to YAWEH. Those miracles were not a statement about how the Israelites were better than the Gentiles, they were a statement about God. God was not performing miracles because of either's desire or effort. It was because of his mercy. The final choice to obey was a personal choice, which God's sovereign choice did not exclude. Everyone had a choice, even those looking on.

Human decision and confusion never shakes the eternal throne of the universe. God’s sovereign choice in our lives makes it possible to reach God’s potential for our lives. Joseph was enslaved by God’s sovereign choice for his life --- but he was free to pursue God’s dream for his life. The Pharaohs of Egypt had experienced God’s hand in their affairs more than once. They chose to forget the lessons they learned when God interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream through Joseph. When Moses approached the obstinate Egypt’s Pharaoh 430 years later they had chosen to forget God. Pharaoh had ample opportunity to humble himself before God.

"Then why does God still blame us?"

Romans 7:19-24
One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-- prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory--even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? (NIV)

Today many complain saying, "Well I was born this way!" We say, "This is the way God made me!" Esau and Jacob were born to struggle with one another; it was God’s sovereign will that it be so. But they were still required to obey God’s call for their lives. Being born a certain way does release us from our responsibility. I don’t have a problem with people being born the way they are. The problem arises when they think their birth releases them from their responsibility before God. God’s sovereign will for our lives does not overrule our responsibility.

God blames us when we refuse to obey because his sovereign choice has ultimately given us a personal choice. Looking back at God’s dealing with the descendants of Esau and Jacob as God led Jacob’s descendants out of Egypt is an example of God’s sovereignty and personal choice. God told the Israelites he had given the Edomites their land. God’s sovereign choice forbade the Israelites to make war against Edom. However, they were to pay them for the water they used and the food they ate as they passed through their country. God set up the rules for them to pass through the land of the Edomites.

Jeremiah saw God as a potter.

Jeremiah 18:2-12
"Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message." So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. "Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.' But they will reply, 'It's no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.'" (NIV)

You must discover God’s potential for you life. God is more than willing to mold us into a vessel of honor, but it depends upon the condition of the clay—the condition of our hearts. You discover your potential by yielding to his will. It has nothing to do with birth or upbringing.

God's Sovereignty A Stumbling Block

God's way causes us to stumble when our hearts are hardened. Hardening our hearts will not change God's will; it will only cause us to stumble over God's sovereign will for our lives.

Romans 9:30-33
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the "stumbling stone." As it is written: "See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." (NIV)

Jesus Christ became a stumbling block for the Jews. Jesus Christ proclaimed the Jews inability to save themselves. The Jews thought mere obedience to the law would save them. They believed God's special privileges given to them as Abraham's descendants were all they needed. They wanted salvation on their terms. They refused to believe in Christ.

Isaiah 28:16
So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed. (NIV)

Acts 4:9-12
If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is "'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.' Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (NIV)

Matthew 21:42-46
Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed." When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (NIV)

Salvation cannot be had on my terms; it can only be had on the terms of God's sovereign gracious plan. When I commit my life to a living sovereign Lord, then it is no longer salvation on my terms. When I do this I must lay my life into his hands and say "Lord lead me now. Whatever you say, that's what I will do. Not my will, but thine be done."

The Jews wanted to surrender their lives to a set of principles. They refused to submit to a living Lord. But that was precisely what they were called upon to do. They had failed to realize that they were never saved by a set of rules, but by the sovereign choice of God.

A Sunday school teacher wanted to impress her young pupils with the miracle of life in nature. So she pointed to a large plant in the room and asked, "And who made those beautiful flowers to grow?" An answer came back quickly from one of the boys in her class. "God did!" The teacher was pleased by the response, but before she had a chance to comment, another lad shouted, "But fertilizer sure helps!" That youngster touched upon a profound reality - the combining of the human with the divine in God's plan for growth. For example, even though the Lord created this world with its growing things, He put man in the garden to tend and cultivate it.

So it is with our salvation. God plants the word of God, the seed of the kingdom into our hearts, but we must cultivate our hearts to receive his Word. It is God’s will that we busy ourselves in sowing the seed, but to obey God is a personal choice.

Motivation for Change

Sometimes we feel that God has forgotten us or we get confused about how he deals with us.

Psalms 16:5-11
LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. (NIV)

The psalmist writes, "God has assigned me my portion: those factors in my life over which I have no choice." We do however, have choices about how we deal with our portion.

God also assigns us a cup---life's experiences. It is up to us how deeply we drink from the cup. Jeremiah learned that God himself is our portion; that we are given God's love, faithfulness, compassion and goodness.

Lamentations 3:21-26
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, "The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him." The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (NIV)

The Lord sees and controls everything. We can bring hope by obeying God in three areas: Knowing that God is good (Lam. 3:22,23); Seeking God with all our heart and soul and strength (Lam. 3:25); and waiting, for however long it takes God to act (Lam. 3:26).

Paul has already told us in Romans 8:28 all of God’s choices are made in the best interest of those who choose to love God. We may think God’s choices only bring good into our lives. That is not what Paul is saying. Paul is saying God sovereign choice works the good and bad together for our good.

A little boy is telling his Grandma how "everything" is going wrong. School, family problems, severe health problems, etc. Meanwhile, Grandma is baking a cake. She asks the child if he would like a snack, which of course he does. "Here. Have some cooking oil." "Yuck" says the boy.

"How about a couple raw eggs?" "Gross, Grandma" "Would you like some flour then? Or maybe baking soda?"

"Grandma, those are all yucky!" To which Grandma replies: "Yes, all those things seem bad all by themselves. But when they are put together in the right way, they make a wonderfully delicious cake! God works the same way. Many times we wonder why he would let us go through such bad and difficult times. But God knows that when He puts these things all in His order, they always work for good! We just have to trust Him and, eventually, they will all make something wonderful!"---Unknown


God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are like two ropes going through two holes in the ceiling and over a pulley above. If I wish to support myself by them, I must cling to them both. If I cling only to one and not the other, I go down. I read the many teachings of the Bible regarding God’s election, predestination, his chosen, and so on. I read also the many teachings regarding "whosoever will may come" and urging people to exercise their responsibility as human beings. These seeming contradictions cannot be reconciled by the puny human mind. With childlike faith, I cling to both ropes, fully confident that in eternity I will see that both strands of truth are, after all, of one piece.

When God wove the strands of truth together, he included you and me in his overall plan. The threads of truth were woven together to include what is ultimately the best for each of us.

We must believe: Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. Romans 10:17

We must believe the words of Christ. John 8:24; John 14:16

We must repent. Luke 13:1-5

We must confess Christ as Lord. Matthew 10:31-32

We must be baptized. Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38

This is God’s sovereign plan for everyone today, but it is also a personal choice, which only you can make.


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