[K:NWTS 2/1 (May 1987) 25-32]
The story is told about the Arminian and the Calvinist who were walking together one day. While descending a flight of steps, both tripped and fell to the bottom of the stairwell. Both were unhurt. But the Arminian got up and, while brushing himself off, said, "I wonder what sin I committed to deserve that?" The Calvinist stood up and said, "Boy! Am I glad that's over!"
In this story and in many other ways, the truth of the sovereignty of God, the glories of the doctrine of election (coupled with the teaching of the Word in regard to human responsibility) continue to be maligned, misunderstood and, even worse, held as irrelevant to the concerns of the church of the 20th century.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church just celebrated its 50th anniversary. It was a time in which we gave thanks to God for our past. As we read the anniversary volume, we cannot help but be impressed with the sovereignty of God's grace in the life of our church. There have been many struggles and churches have been through the storms of crisis. Some have not survived. Most have weathered the storms and been tempered by them. What is striking, is the faithfulness of God's working among us. His grace continues to triumph in his church; a grace that refuses to be overcome by our sin and that holds on to us in his electing love; a grace that does not leave us untouched in our faith and conduct, but that also transforms us into the image of our Savior, Christ Jesus.
In Genesis 25:19-34, we find the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau. In this story, we find that God reveals himself to us as both the God of election and the God of transformation.
The Principle of Election
The theme of election is so prominent in the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau that the apostle Paul refers to it in Romans chapter 9 as a demonstration of the righteousness of God in electing whom he wills. This theme of election, however, does not appear for the first time in Genesis 25. It is a main element of the revelation of God that comes to us in conjunction with the whole period of the patriarchs. The subject of election in the unfolding of divine revelation is, to our surprise, not a postponed topic, as though it were for the church of a later, more mature stage. In the history of the people of God, revelation concerning election comes early. In fact, it jumps out at us from the very beginning.
The whole book of Genesis seems to bring this concern to the foreground so that it stands out in the boldest terms. The book opens like a great movie in wide-screen cinemascope and technicolor. The camera scans the creation of the world, Adam and Eve and their placement in the garden. It shows the terrible reality of the fall and the consequences of man's sin. It traces the history that develops out of Adam, leading to Noah and the destruction of the world in the flood. "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen. 6:8). Then comes the history of all the nations that were formed, the camera focuses on one nation, the people of Shem, the son of Noah; then on one man from that people, Terah; and then on one son of Terah, Abram.
In the very way in which the revelation in Genesis is unfolded, the design is to bring election into the foreground. The purpose for this is clear. In the beginning, God gave a promise and from the very beginning God is impressing upon his people that the promise which he makes, he himself will see to it that it is fulfilled. The promised deliverer (Gen. 3:15), the seed of the woman, the one who will be for the blessing of the many, will come. And this fact, from the first, is to be understood by the people of God, as God's own work. What he promises in his grace, he fulfills. His grace will not be overcome by the strength of nations, nor by the weaknesses of his people, not even by their sins.
How beautifully God teaches these things to Abraham. The center-piece of the promise God made to Abraham is the promise of the seed. Abraham believes the promise and it is reckoned to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). But the fulfillment of the promise remains a mystery to him. We grow old with Abraham and Sarah through the pages of Genesis, while their marriage remains unfruitful and until all natural hope of conceiving a child is gone. Abraham's own efforts to realize the promise by counting Eliezer as the seed is rejected by God (Gen. 15:4). Later Abraham pleads with God, "Oh that Ishmael might live before thee" (Gen. 17:18)! The Lord answers, "No!" The promise remains unfulfilled until Abraham and Sarah are as good as dead; until old age has made them sterile. Then and only then, Isaac, the promised seed, is born to them. How much clearer can the message be to Abraham and to us? The promise is not realized by your work Abraham nor by our work, but by God's work. The children of the promise are the work of God. They are born "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (Jn. 1:13).
From the very beginning of the history of revelation, God brings into prominence his electing love and power. The promise he gives is the promise he fulfills. The purpose of God cannot fail, it is fixed. Nothing can overturn it or thwart it. It can never he overcome by any natural or physical barrier and not by spiritual barriers either, not even our sin. In the story of the patriarchs there is ample evidence of their repeated weaknesses and sins. God overturns and overcomes them all in the interests of the promise.
We in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church can certainly rejoice in the sovereignty of God's electing love–his grace that overcomes all obstacles, even our sin. In our own history, there is plenty of sin to regret for which repentance is needed. Yet we see, in spite of our sin and weaknesses, God has established churches in this country and beyond, and he continues to do so. Read the anniversary volume. Churches have endured many struggles and weathered many difficulties, but we can see operating in our own history, the sovereign grace of God that refuses to be defeated. Some churches have not survived, but still we believe in the light of God's sovereignty and grace. We trust in the light of the promise that never fails–that "no Word of God is void, no labor in the Lord vain; surely the last day will reveal a harvest to God's glory from the seed of the gospel" (The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1939- 1986, p.217).
The Principle of Transformation
In the story of Jacob and Esau, election continues to stand out. The text in Genesis 25:21-26 makes it clear that there are no factors which account for God's choice of Jacob over Esau. Here are two children, born at the same time, who have the same mother. While there is an order to their births (which ordinarily would determine the older over the younger), this also is overturned as a factor. The younger is chosen by God over his elder brother. Even prior to their births, it is revealed to Rebekah that, "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" (Gen. 25:23). All factors that might explain why God chooses one of the twins over the other are purposely eliminated, "that God's purpose according to his choice might stand" (Rom. 9:11).
But though election again stands out in the story of Jacob, something else stands out with equal boldness. The one elected by God possesses the worst possible character. As boldly as God's election stands out, so also does Jacob's unworthy and sinful life stand out. A new element is now revealed in the story of Jacob. What accompanies God's election of his people is the requirement that those who are elect must then be inwardly and outwardly transformed in attitude and in life in such a way that agrees with and is consistent with their election as the people of God.
With Jacob, we see that divine election demands a response. And the response is not what we might expect. The response is not that since God's work accounts for everything, then it does not matter what I do or how I conduct myself. No! The certainty of the promise does not lessen responsibility, but rather heightens it. In the Reformed tradition, we insist that this is the biblical perspective. We insist that salvation is a gift of grace by God's work alone, but we equally emphasize that if by grace you are made sons and daughters of God, then the obligation also comes that you live like it. "Walk worthy of your calling" is the way Paul puts it. The conversion experience must be accompanied by convertedness. In our churches when we baptize our children, we confess that they are holy in Christ and we also promise to instruct them, to pray with and for them and to set an example of piety before them, and by every means of God's appointment, to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The privilege of election brings with it the responsibility of transformed living.
The story of Jacob teaches us that election gives rise to and brings into prominence the need for the transformation of the lives of the redeemed. Jacob had a most reprehensible character, but yet he is the object of divine election. His shoddy character is demonstrated again and again in the Genesis record. His name means "heel holder"; his life is one of tripping up others in order to get ahead himself. He lives up to his name. He uses his brother's hunger to his own advantage; he later deceives his father, Isaac; and in his dealings with his father-in-law, Laban, we see one rascal who has met another.
Esau's character is reprehensible also. He knew what the birthright meant. He simply did not value it. He knew it included a double portion of his father's inheritance and also that in the covenant circle it meant leadership and rule of the covenant family, inheritance of the promise of God, the blessings of Canaan and fellowship with the Lord. Esau saw these things as immaterial, too far removed from the practical concerns of life. His concern was only for the present and he was willing to relativize everything in order to have his present enjoyments satisfied. He surrendered his heritage, his birthright just because lunch was a little late. He surrendered as insignificant and of no account, the eternal; he gave it up for that which is of this world and is doomed to pass away. He loved the world! May God grant that we as a church escape the same condemnation that Esau brought down upon himself.
Jacob's reprehensible character is not like Esau's. He sees the significance and value of the birthright. Jacob's blameworthy character is seen in his desire to have the blessing by grasping after it. Esau relativizes everything in the interest of having this world and its pleasures. Jacob relativizes everything in order to obtain that which was promised. What he valued and wanted was worthy. His mode of conduct and behavior to get it was more reprehensible than Esau his brother.
The transformation of Jacob's character is necessary. Those who bear God's name must evidence a moral and ethical kinship to him. The object of the divine electing love must learn to be conformed to righteousness. Jacob must learn to obey and be constrained by the Word of God. Jacob knew the promise, "the elder will serve the younger." If the promise looked to him to be out of reach, or if the promise seemed to delay, then he must wait for it. For Jacob, for us and for all the righteous, the requirement is that we live by faith (Hab. 2:4). Jacob must learn that he only has the promise because God is pleased to give it to him. He does not come to possess it by grasping after it in an unrighteous manner.
The wonder of the story is again the revelation of divine grace and favor. Not only does the story of Jacob highlight the need for a transformed character, but also it emphasizes that this transformation of character is the work of God's grace in the lives of his people. God deals with Jacob throughout the story. The culmination of it is when Jacob wrestles with the angel of the Lord and his name is changed from Jacob to Israel. The "heel holder", the deceiver, has been transformed into the prince with God, one whose striving was now on behalf of the Lord.
The revelation connected with the story of Jacob teaches us that divine favor and grace are not the reward for a transformed character, but rather that divine grace, electing love is the source of noble character. The sovereign grace of God is not only the work he does for us to give us eternal life, but also it is his work that he does in us, to transform our lives and character to produce the righteousness befitting those who bear his name.
Jacob knew that election called for responsibility. What he had to learn was that his responsibility must be, above all else, the manifestation of a character that in all respects was conformed to the divine will. He had to be transformed into one who was reflective of God's own holiness and righteousness.
What kind of church should we be in the next 50 years? First and foremost, we must be a church in which grace is everything; a church that rejoices in the electing love of our God for which there is no explanation, but which calls for adoration from those who are its objects. We must be a church that confesses and lives in a way that makes clear that the privilege of election requires the responsibility of transformed lives; a church that enunciates clearly to a lost world that it is not our broken back nor own blood, sweat and tears that can give us peace–but rather a church that confesses and lives the truth that peace is heaven's gift to us–that it is the body of Christ broken for us. It is the blood of Christ shed for us. And further, that the body of Christ broken for us and the blood of Christ shed for us are also to be in us transforming us to be conformed to the image of our Savior. "For you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9).
Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Morgantown, West Virginia
Suggestions for further reading:
Charles G. Dennison, ed., Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1936-1986 (1986).
Charles G. Dennison and Richard C. Gamble, Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1986).
(Both the above may be ordered from: Charles G. Dennison, 804 Seventh Ave., Coraopolis, PA 15108)