Feedback: Jeremiah 13:23 Revisited

This week’s feedback is in response to the post Jeremiah 13:23 – Proof of Man’s Inability?, wherein I argued that Jeremiah 13:23 is not universally applicable as proof of mankind’s total depravity, despite it typically being used as a ‘golden bullet’ proof-text by most Calvinists.

This week’s respondent asserts that Jeremiah 13:23 is universally applicable, and that by disagreeing with him, I am denying the Lord.

Question: “You said: “The context of the passage as a whole makes it clear that only Israel and Judah are in view.”  How does it make it clear that ONLY israel is in view?What about the pagan nations convinces you that they could choose in and of themselves to turn and do good?  When did they do so?  On human terms, in human wisdom, by human reasoning it is completely impossible for even the best human being on the planet to be saved.  God has to act to change you.  That is your only hope.  Yet to combat “calvinism,” you flatly deny the Lord.  Amazing…  

But Hebrews 11:6 would tell you that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” These verses don’t leave much room for behavior that qualifies as “good” in the eyes of God either:

Gen 6:5 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that EVERY INCLINATION OF THE THOUGHTS OF HIS HEART WAS ONLY EVIL ALL THE TIME.

Gen 8:21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though EVERY INCLINATION OF HIS HEART IS EVIL FROM CHILDHOOD.”

Answer: Thanks for taking the time to respond, but I can’t help but think that it is you who has failed to grasp the context and scope of Jeremiah 13.  You said:

“How does it make it clear that ONLY israel [sic] is in view?”

Like this:

“Thus says the LORD to me, “Go and buy a linen loincloth and put it around your waist, and do not dip it in water.” So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the LORD, and put it around my waist.  And the word of the LORD came to me a second time, “Take the loincloth that you have bought, which is around your waist, and arise, go to the Euphrates and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.”  So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the LORD commanded me.  And after many days the LORD said to me, “Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.”  Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it.  And behold, the loincloth was spoiled; it was good for nothing.  Then the word of the LORD came to me: “Thus says the LORD: Even so will I spoil the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem.  This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing.  For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the LORD, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.  “You shall speak to them this word: ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “Every jar shall be filled with wine.”’  And they will say to you, ‘Do we not indeed know that every jar will be filled with wine?’ Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: Behold, I will fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land: the kings who sit on David’s throne, the priests, the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  And I will dash them one against another, fathers and sons together, declares the LORD.  I will not pity or spare or have compassion, that I should not destroy them.’” (Jeremiah 13:1-14, ESV; emphasis added)

As I said in the original post, Israel and Judah hadn’t simply “fallen” into sin.  They were reveling in sin, continuing in steadfast rebellion to God, continuing in a steadfast refusal to hear God’s words, and continuing in steadfast idolatry.  And then comes the question regarding the Ethiopian and the leopard.  What is being illustrated is just how far Israel and Judah had departed from God.  Considering how far they’ve gone, and how unwilling they are to repent and turn back to God, it would be just as easy for an Ethiopian to change his skin colour, or a leopard to change its spots, than it would be for the houses of Israel and Judah to turn from their wickedness and do well.  God (through Jeremiah) was illustrating what continued wilful rebellion and apostasy will do to a man’s heart.

The burden of proof is on you to show where, in the context of the threat in Jeremiah 13, anyone but Israel and Judah are included.

“What about the pagan nations convinces you that they could choose in and of themselves to turn and do good?  When did they do so?”

Where in the original post did I say, or even imply, that pagan nations “could choose in and of themselves to turn and do good”?

It does not follow that since Jeremiah 13 has specific reference to Israel and Judah, that pagan nations have more moral ability to do good.  That’s a massive leap of logic.

What you don’t seem to grasp is that I have no argument with the doctrine of ‘Total Depravity’, per se.  In fact, no informed Arminian has a problem with the doctrine.  See for instance, Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity? and A Puritan’s (Deluded) Mind

The essence of the original post was not about ‘Total Depravity’, per se, but about whether or not Jeremiah 13:23 is a legitimate proof-text for the doctrine.  The question of whether pagan nations “could choose in and of themselves to turn and do good” is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand.

“On human terms, in human wisdom, by human reasoning it is completely impossible for even the best human being on the planet to be saved.  God has to act to change you.  That is your only hope.”

You won’t get any argument from Arminians on this point.  No Arminian denies that salvation is of the Lord, nor that the decisive factor in salvation is the grace of God.

“Yet to combat “calvinism,” [sic] you flatly deny the Lord.  Amazing…”

And yet to combat an Arminian, you flatly ignore the context of Scripture, you flatly ignore the context of my original post, and now you make a wild assertion without the slightest bit of evidence to back it up. Amazing…

“But Hebrews 11:6 would tell you that “without faith it is impossible to please God.””

Yes, but how exactly is this relevant to the context of Jeremiah 13?

“These verses don’t leave much room for behavior that qualifies as “good” in the eyes of God either:

Gen 6:5 The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that EVERY INCLINATION OF THE THOUGHTS OF HIS HEART WAS ONLY EVIL ALL THE TIME.

Gen 8:21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though EVERY INCLINATION OF HIS HEART IS EVIL FROM CHILDHOOD.””

Again, as an Arminian, I have no issue with the doctrine of Total Depravity, nor do these verses have any relevance to the question of whether Jeremiah 13:23 is a legitimate proof-text for the doctrine.

Thanks again for the reply, but nothing you’ve said has caused me to reconsider the conclusion of my original post – Jeremiah 13:23 is specifically referring to Israel and Judah, and should not be used as a proof-text for Total Depravity.  Also, and I mentioned this in the original post, I find it ironic that Calvinists take a text that is quite obviously speaking of a particular group of people (Israel and Judah) and give it a universal application, given their usual tendency to restrict and limit the meaning of passages that use universal language, such as John 3:16, 1 Tim. 2:4, 1 Tim. 4:10, 1 John 2:2, and Heb. 2:9.

Best regards,

Arminian

Adam Clarke on Acts 13:48

Notes from Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible on Acts 13:48:

“As many as were ordained to eternal life believed—This text has been most pitifully misunderstood. Many suppose that it simply means that those in that assembly who were fore-ordained; or predestinated by God’s decree, to eternal life, believed under the influence of that decree. Now, we should be careful to examine what a word means, before we attempt to fix its meaning. Whatever τεταγμενοι may mean, which is the word we translate ordained, it is neither προτεταγμενοι nor προορισμενοι which the apostle uses, but simply τεταγμενοι, which includes no idea of pre-ordination or pre-destination of any kind. And if it even did, it would be rather hazardous to say that all those who believed at this time were such as actually persevered unto the end, and were saved unto eternal life.

But, leaving all these precarious matters, what does the word τεταγμενος mean? The verb ταττω or τασσω signifies to place, set, order, appoint, dispose; hence it has been considered here as implying the disposition or readiness of mind of several persons in the congregation, such as the religious proselytes mentioned Acts 13:43, who possessed the reverse of the disposition of those Jews who spake against those things, contradicting and blaspheming, Acts 13:45.

Though the word in this place has been variously translated, yet, of all the meanings ever put on it, none agrees worse with its nature and known signification than that which represents it as intending those who were predestinated to eternal life: this is no meaning of the term, and should never be applied to it.

Let us, without prejudice, consider the scope of the place: the Jews contradicted and blasphemed; the religious proselytes heard attentively, and received the word of life: the one party were utterly indisposed, through their own stubbornness, to receive the Gospel; the others, destitute of prejudice and prepossession, were glad to hear that, in the order of God, the Gentiles were included in the covenant of salvation through Christ Jesus; they, therefore, in this good state and order of mind, believed.

Those who seek for the plain meaning of the word will find it here: those who wish to make out a sense, not from the Greek word, its use among the best Greek writers, and the obvious sense of the evangelist, but from their own creed, may continue to puzzle themselves and others; kindle their own fire, compass themselves with sparks, and walk in the light of their own fire, and of the sparks which they have kindled; and, in consequence, lie down in sorrow, having bidden adieu to the true meaning of a passage so very simple, taken in its connection, that one must wonder how it ever came to be misunderstood and misapplied.”

The Asbury Bible Commentary on Acts 13:48

Notes from the Asbury Bible Commentary (available online here) on Acts 13:48:

“Galatian Mission to Gentiles (13:13–14:28)

A number of significant features cluster around Paul’s ministry in Pisidian Antioch. First, Pisidian Antioch was a Roman colony, the highest political status in the Roman world. Second, this is the longest account of Paul’s work in any place he visited. Third, up to now, Luke’s order of names has been Barnabas and Saul (see 9:27; 11:25, 30; 12:25; 13:1, 2, 7); now it becomes Paul and Barnabas (see 13:13, 43, 46, 50; 14:19-20; 15:2, 22, 35-36), except when Jerusalem is the focus (14:12, 14, where “apostle” is applied to Paul for the only time, a term elsewhere associated only with Jerusalem; 15:12, 25, in Jerusalem). Fourth, the term God-fearers (10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26, a Jewish reference) is replaced by the secular term devout (13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7) to describe the Gentiles who worship with the Jewish community. This signals a shift from a Jewish to a gentile perspective. Fifth, “the word of God” (4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 44, 46) becomes the word of the Lord (13:44 [variant], 48, 49; 15:35, 36; 19:10). By all these activities, Luke is indicating the profound nature of what takes place in Pisidian Antioch. This is the radical shift of the Christian outreach from a Jewish to a gentile frame of reference.

The shift becomes reality because the Jews rejected the proclamation of God’s fulfillment of the old covenant in the new (13:16-45). Jewish Christians in Jerusalem had experienced the same rejection, but Paul has an option not available to them: outreach to the gentile world (13:46-49). God often has to leave behind a community of “faithful” who have become closed to the possibility that God might do something new. The response is great because God had already prepared the way. All who were appointed for eternal life believed (v. 48), rather than some kind of deterministic predestination that would leave some doomed, more likely represents the awareness that God had already been at work preparing the way for this response by Gentiles; in Wesleyan terms, they were the recipients of prevenient grace.

A typical pattern now emerges. The old covenant community allies itself with the political power structure to act against the new work of God (13:50). A community of faith that takes refuge in the secular power structure to maintain its status quo reflects the institutionalization of belief.

Iconium (14:1-7) was an instant replay of Pisidian Antioch. First Jews and Greeks (i.e., God-fearers) in the synagogue believe; then unbelieving Jews drive the Christians out and enlist the support of secular authorities to persecute them.

Lystra (14:8-20), however, is different. For the first time, Luke portrays the Christian outreach to a purely gentile community. The synagogue, with its God-fearers who form the usual bridge to the gentile world, is absent. Paul clothes the Gospel in the worldview of his audience who clearly perceive Paul (Hermes) and Barnabas (Zeus) from their own pagan outlook. This is always a difficult enterprise. The Gospel must be presented in a frame of reference capable of being received by the hearers, yet it must not be confined to that frame of reference. When God’s work begins to become indiginized in such a way, institutionalized belief tends to become most violent in its reactions.

The one who had stoned Stephen at the point where Christian outreach was pressing against the limits of purely Jewish involvement, now himself is stoned for crossing the boundary to the gentile world. Paul’s restoration and return to Lystra, however, was a witness to the Resurrection and to the reality of the new order being proclaimed. This kind of witness should be a characteristic of Christian life. Whenever we are left for dead by those who attack us, we should, in God’s grace, rise up and return to them as a witness to the reality of God’s presence and power.

Luke notes the ministry in Derbe (14:20-21), which prepares the way for Paul’s second mission (16:1).

It is significant to note that an essential part of Paul’s mission was the establishment of structure for the communities of faith (14:22-23), a structure that would enable the believers to continue in the faith and to endure the tribulation that accompanied faith.

The return to Syrian Antioch highlights the radical nature of what had happened: God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles (14:27)!

The Asbury Bible Commentary on Romans 9

Notes from the Asbury Bible Commentary (available online here) on Romans 9:

“The Israelites have not yet received the salvation God promised Abraham and his descendants. It seems that God’s promise has failed. But this is not the case. Not all of Abraham’s descendants are the heirs of promise. His heirs do receive salvation (11:1-10). How do we, then, determine who are his heirs? God is sovereign. He decides what kind of people are Abraham’s heirs. Paul appeals to the OT to demonstrate this. This section has been misinterpreted to mean that God arbitrarily determines the destiny of people, regardless of their action and behavior (Murray, 2:20, 24). Paul’s thought development and the context of the OT quotations and allusions demonstrate the opposite.

The sovereignty of God, emphasized in this section, can be understood in two different ways. (1) God arbitrarily decides who are and who are not Abraham’s heirs. The unsaved Jews are not saved because God arbitrarily decides that they are not Abraham’s heirs. In this case, they are not responsible since they cannot do anything about it. (2) God is free to lay down the condition of heirship and thus determine what kind of people will be Abraham’s heirs (Wesley, Notes, 388). The Jews are not saved because they do not comply with God’s condition. Therefore they are responsible for their condition and are guilty.

If the first interpretation were true, the quotations from Hosea and Isaiah in 9:25-29 are meaningless. Why would God first arbitrarily reject them and later change his mind to accept them? The entire section following 9:30 indicates and 11:20-23 explicitly states that these Jews are unsaved precisely because of their unbelief, not because of God’s arbitrary decision to count them out. If they do not persist in their unbelief, they also will be saved. This surely contradicts the first and supports the second interpretation. The statement in 10:21 that God has held out his hands to a disobedient people (Israel) has the same effect. So does Paul’s anguish for the Israelites (9:1-5). All these lead to this conclusion: God’s sovereignty consists in his freedom to lay down the condition of salvation, not in his arbitrary consignment of some to salvation, others to damnation.

In the OT not all the descendants of Isaac are Abraham’s heirs. Even before Jacob and Esau were born, God had already laid down the condition of heirship. God did not wait until after they were born and then pick a condition favorable to jacob (vv. 10-13). God proclaimed before Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy” (cf. Ex 33:19). The meaning, again, is that I decide what kind of people I will show mercy to (cf. Ex 32:33). God showed mercy to Moses because, while the Israelites worshiped idols, Moses did not (Ex 32:1-33:23). God shows mercy to those who are faithful (vv. 14-15) and hardens the heart of those who oppose him. In Ex 5:1-12:51 Pharaoh first hardened his own heart. Only after that did God harden his heart (vv. 16-18).

The potter has the right to make out of the same lump of clay, some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use (v. 21). This is an allusion to Jer 18:5-12. The true meaning is clearly spelled out in Jer 18:6-10:

“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 a 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 for it.”

The sovereignty of the potter over the clay means that the Lord is completely free to lay down the conditions under which he will bless or punish. It is not his arbitrary decision to consign some to salvation and others to damnation (vv. 19-21).

This truth is illustrated in vv. 22-29. Originally Gentiles were not God’s people, but God will accept them as his own because of their faith. The Israelites were God’s people, but because of their unbelief, they will be judged.” (Emphasis in original)

William Lane Craig on Romans 9

“[L]et’s talk about Paul’s doctrine of election in Romans 9.  I want to share with you a perspective on Paul’s teaching that I think you’ll find very illuminating and encouraging. Typically, as a result of Reformed theology, we have a tendency to read Paul as narrowing down the scope of God’s election to the very select few, and those not so chosen can’t complain if God in His sovereignty overlooks them. I think this is a fundamental misreading of the chapter which makes very little sense in the context of Paul’s letter.

Earlier in his letter Paul addresses the question of what advantage there is to Jewish identity if one fails to live up to the demands of the law (2. 17-3.21).  He says that although being Jewish has great advantages in being the recipients of God’s revelatory oracles, nevertheless being Jewish gives you no automatic claim to God’s salvation. Instead, Paul asserts the radical and shocking claim that “He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (2. 28-29).

Paul held that “no human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law” (3.20); rather “we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3. 29).  That includes Gentiles as well as Jews.  ”Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (3. 29-30).

Do you realize what that meant to Paul’s Jewish contemporaries?  Gentile “dogs” who have faith in Christ may actually be more Jewish than ethnic Jews and go into the Kingdom while God’s chosen people are shut out! Unthinkable!  Scandalous!

Paul goes on to support his view by appeal to the example of none less than Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation.  Abraham, Paul explains, was pronounced righteous by God before he received circumcision.  ”The purpose,” says Paul, “was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised [i.e., the Gentiles] and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised [note the qualification!] but also follow the example of faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4.11-12).

This is explosive teaching.  Paul begins chapter 9 by expressing his profound sorrow that ethnic Jews have missed God’s salvation by rejecting their Messiah [= Christ]. But he says it’s not as though God’s word had failed.  Rather, as we have already seen, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants” (9. 6-7). Being ethnically Jewish is not enough; rather one must be a child of the promise—and that, as we’ve seen, may include Gentiles and exclude Jews.

The problematic, then, with which Paul is wrestling is how God’s chosen people the Jews could fail to obtain the promise of salvation while Gentiles, who were regarded by Jews as unclean and execrable, could find salvation instead.  Paul’s answer is that God is sovereign: He can save whomever He wants, and no one can gainsay God. He has the freedom to have mercy upon whomever He wills, even upon execrable Gentiles, and no one can complain of injustice on God’s part.

So—and this is the crucial point—who is it that God has chosen to save?  The answer is: those who have faith in Christ Jesus.  As Paul writes in Galatians (which is a sort of abbreviated Romans), “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3. 7).  Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter: God has sovereignly chosen to save all those who trust in Christ Jesus for salvation.

That’s why Paul can go on in Romans 10 to say, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’” (10. 12-13).  Reformed theology can make no sense at all of this wonderful, universal call to salvation. Whosoever will may come.

Paul’s burden, then, in Romans 9 is not to narrow the scope of God’s election but to broaden it. He wants to take in all who have faith in Christ Jesus regardless of their ethnicity. Election, then, is first and foremost a corporate notion: God has chosen for Himself a people, a corporate entity, and it is up to us by our response of faith whether or not we choose to be members of that corporate group destined to salvation.”

– W. L. Craig, ‘Molinism and Divine Election’, available online here.

Romans 9 (In Context)

The following commentary on Romans 9 comes from John F. Parkinson, The Faith of God’s Elect, pages 21-28.

“The individual Jew had come to believe mistakenly that, since he was a part of Israel’s national election, he was already personally justified by God as of right. Just as the eldest son receives the family inheritance as his natural right, so the law-keeping Jew thought he was naturally entitled to personal salvation.  It is Paul who enlightens us that those who share in Israel’s national election are not automatically justified (ie. declared righteous by God), notwithstanding their national covenants, law, promises and descent.  Paul insists that his great doctrine of justification by faith applies equally to all men without distinction, whether Jew or Gentile.

It is in Romans 9 where we discover ‘they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children’ (vv 6, 7).  In other words, not all Jews were automatically saved because they were natural descendants of Abraham.  It is important to appreciate the context and setting of this important though much misunderstood chapter. Indeed, since this chapter is held by many to be the impregnable bastion of personal election and reprobation from eternity, it will be appropriate to examine at some length the content and flow of Paul’s argument.  Paul has been establishing in the first eight chapters of his letter to the Romans that God justifies sinners by grace alone through faith alone.  Further, he has been insisting that the Jew and the Gentile are saved on exactly the same ground of grace through faith, and that nobody is justified by works of the law.

When he comes to the ninth chapter, Paul anticipates that protests will come from the law-keeping and self-righteous Jews.  First, they will make the serious charge that Paul’s gospel had certain unacceptable doctrinal implications in that the word of God ‘hath taken none effect’ or failed. Second, they will make the equally serious charge that Paul was making God out to be unjust.  Paul will now address both of these anticipated objections. Lest any should accuse Paul of having become anti-Jewish, he begins by stating his sincere and selfless love for his ‘kinsmen according to the flesh’ and his highest appreciation of the national blessings relating to their adoption, glory, covenants, law, service, promises and descent.  He is inspired to write one of his beautiful doxologies as he remembers that Christ, according to the flesh, was born into their race.  Paul has certainly not become anti-Jewish, but there are important spiritual lessons to be learned from the ways in which God has sovereignly moved in the history of the nation, and it is these lessons which Paul will now unfold.

First Jewish Objection

‘Paul, you have been teaching that God saves by grace alone through faith alone without distinction between Jew and Gentile.  But what about the law and the promises given to Israel?  If what you teach is correct, then the promises have failed and the word of God has failed.’

Paul answers this anticipated objection by pointing out that it is not all of the descendants of Abraham who inherit the blessing but only those descended through Isaac, for ‘In Isaac shall thy seed be called’.  Paul then contrasts the children of the flesh with the children of the promise.  What is the significance of this?

God made a historical choice of Isaac, in preference to Ishmael, to be the inheritor of the covenant blessings of Abraham.  In this choice God was sovereign, free and unchallengeable. This observation from the nation’s history is going to be used by Paul to illustrate an important spiritual truth.  This he does by employing a very old literary device, the allegory. An allegory may be defined as a story in which the apparent meaning of the characters and events is used to symbolise a moral or spiritual meaning.  Paul has already allegorised this same story in Galatians 4, where he expressly declares ‘which things are an allegory’ (v.24). The spiritual lesson now being taught is that it is the children of promise who are the children of God, and not the children of the flesh.  Ishmael was a child by the flesh (Gen 16:2-4), and so resembles men in their natural condition.  Isaac was a child by promise (Gen 18:10-11), and so resembles those who have a spiritual birth. The implication for Paul’s Jewish readers was very clear. The promise is only to those who are spiritually reborn, thus bearing resemblance to Isaac’s birth. Notice that the passage does not teach anything about an eternal decree to salvation in the case of Isaac, or to reprobation in the case of Ishmael. Paul is using Ishmael, the child by nature, as a symbol of unregenerate men, and Isaac the child of promise as a symbol of spiritually regenerate men.

But lest the Jews should say that Isaac and Ishmael had different mothers and that Ishmael was a son to Hagar the slave and had no relevance to them, Paul continues his argument by introducing two brothers who had the same father and mother in Isaac and Rebekah.  Esau and Jacob were twin brothers who in Scripture become symbols of two different nations. When Rebekah was with twins, she was told by the Lord ‘Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.’ (Gen 25:23).

Again, there is both historical and spiritual significance in this story.  On the historical level God would continue the covenant blessing through Jacob rather than Esau, the sovereign and free choice of God.  The prophecy had a literal fulfillment in the ensuing and contrasting histories of Edom (Esau) and Israel (Jacob).  It is customary for those commentators, who do not take the Calvinist view, to explain God’s choice of Jacob and Esau in terms of their role in history. We entirely respect that position, and agree that God’s sovereignty in history is in view. However, in our opinion Paul does not confine it to such.

We suggest that Paul, again employing an allegorical method, draws spiritual lessons from the case of Jacob and Esau.  (By allegory we refer to its literary use within the Scriptures.  We do not subscribe the method of interpretation known as ‘allegorising’ which is characterised by the search for a deeper meaning than is apparent in the literal statements of a text, as popularised by Origen, Jerome and Augustine.)  The story of Jacob and Esau is used by Paul to illustrate that God chooses to save by grace and not by works, and that the purpose of God according to election or choice, will be on His terms alone and that works will play no part in it.  The blessing has its origin in God’s gracious call.  In the natural course of events Esau should have received the blessing because he was the first-born and elder son.  But he was set aside in favour of his younger brother.  The spiritual significance of this now becomes clear.

God had rejected and reversed the natural order so that He could bless on His own terms. Esau, being the elder son, should have had the blessings as of right. This is like the self-righteous Jew, or indeed anyone who works for their salvation, who feels that he should receive salvation as of right. On the other hand, Jacob was the younger son and had no natural right to the blessing.  If he were to receive blessing it would be by grace and not by right. This illustrates the basis of salvation for any man.  He must be saved by grace and not as of right. Therefore the ‘elder serving the younger’ is an illustration of law being set aside in favour of grace.  When God speaks of loving Jacob and hating Esau, it is not His attitude to two historical individuals, but His attitude to two different manner of people typified in these twin brothers, as foretold before they were born or had done any good or evil. Jacob symbolises the believing posterity of Abraham, while Esau symbolises the unbelieving posterity of Abraham.

As in the case of Ishmael and Isaac, there is no mention whatever of any eternal decrees to personal salvation or reprobation.  John Goodwin (1593-1665) in his excellent Exposition of the Ninth Chapter to the Epistle to the Romans wrote that the ‘apostle’s scope therein is to assert and maintain his great doctrine of justification by faith and that here he discourseth nothing at all concerning any personal election or reprobation of men from eternity’. Goodwin argues that Paul does not mention Isaac and Jacob as examples of an absolute and unconditional election of individuals to eternal life, but as illustrations of new birth and grace.  A discernment of Paul’s allegorical method is the key to an understanding of this passage.

To summarise the argument thus far, Paul, for the purposes of illustration, has portrayed Ishmael as a child of the flesh, and Isaac as a child of promise.  Esau the elder is a symbol of the man who claims blessing as of right, while Jacob the younger is a symbol of the man who receives blessing by grace. The message to Paul’s Jewish reader is clear; if he is to be saved he must experience spiritual birth as illustrated in Isaac the child of promise, and he must receive it as of grace alone, as illustrated in Jacob the younger.  So the word of God has most definitely not failed.  God has blessed on His own terms, which are by grace through faith, without works.  The first objection has been answered.  It is difficult for us to fully appreciate what a painful experience it must have been for the Jew to be told that in spiritual terms he bore more resemblance to Ishmael and Esau than he did to Isaac and Jacob.

Second Jewish Objection

‘Paul, if there be no advantage for the descendants of Abraham, or for those who apply themselves to works of the law, then God is unjust.’

Paul utterly refutes the idea that there is any unrighteousness with God in the matter of salvation. God saves by grace alone through faith alone and no self-righteous Jew will dictate otherwise to God.  As He said to Moses ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy’.  Mercy is entirely God’s prerogative.  It is God’s sovereign prerogative to save by grace and to save those who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.  Just as God was sovereign in the historical choice of Isaac and Jacob to be the inheritors of the covenant promises, so He is sovereign in the choice of how and whom He will save.

How does God save?    – He saves by grace.

Whom does God save?   – He saves those who believe.

This is the clear teaching of the first eight chapters of the epistle to the Romans. In the ninth chapter Paul’s great doctrine of justification by faith is illustrated by the allegorising of certain Old Testament characters and events, for the special benefit of Paul’s Jewish readers.

But if God is sovereign in whom He saves, then He is also sovereign in whom He rejects.  He saves the believer, He rejects the unbeliever.  Pharaoh is named as an example of an unrepentant sinner who persisted in his unbelief. The passage does not teach that God had predestined Pharaoh to damnation by an absolute decree in eternity past.  Paul is pointing out that Pharaoh stands for all time as a solemn divine warning against wilful unbelief (v. 17), not unlike the manner in which Peter portrays Sodom and Gomorrah as an example unto ‘those that afterwards should live ungodly’ (2 Peter 2:6).  W.E. Vine in his commentary The Epistle to the Romans (p. 136) states clearly ‘that Divine retribution is not merely arbitrary, but is consequent upon man’s own hardness of heart.  The sovereignty of God has not been exercised by way of predestinating men to sin, as if they were helpless machines forced on by a predetermined fate and compelled thereby to reap the consequences of an evil for which they were not primarily responsible.  The present condition of the Jews is chargeable, not to God, but to themselves.’

It is the sovereign will of God to have mercy on those who believe and to harden those who persist in their unbelief, and no human being whether Jew or Gentile, will dictate otherwise to God. Indeed, the very idea is as foolish as the clay dictating to the potter.  The sinner has forfeited every claim on God.  God’s prerogative to save by grace and to display the riches of His glory by saving those who believe (vessels of mercy, prepared in this life for future glory) is unchallengeable, just as His display of wrath on unrepentant and obdurate sinners (vessels of wrath who have fitted themselves for destruction) is unchallengeable.

In God’s dealings with mankind, God is completely in the right and man is completely in the wrong. The sinner does not negotiate with God in the matter of salvation and has nothing, so to speak, to put on the table.  If the sinner is to be saved, it will be altogether and completely on God’s own volition and terms.  God will not be challenged as to how and as to whom He saves. It is God’s good pleasure to save by grace and to save those who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

Paul now advances the argument by reminding his readers that God had always intended to bring Gentiles into blessing.  Paul was anxious to show that he had not invented these ideas and cites Hosea to prove to the Jewish readers that God’s mercy to Gentiles was totally consistent with the prophecies of Scripture.  But the Jew might well ask if something had not gone seriously wrong with prophecy if multitudes of Gentiles were being saved compared to a relatively small number of Jews. Paul answers this possible Jewish objection by quoting Isaiah to show that the prophet had accurately foretold that only a remnant or small number of Jews would be saved.

Jews with their privileges were missing the blessing while Gentiles with godless backgrounds were being saved in large numbers.  What was the explanation of this strange state of affairs? Is the passage teaching that there is some kind of absolute double predestination of individuals from eternity?  Nothing could be further from Paul’s argument.

The scriptural explanation is that the Gentiles had come into blessing by faith, but that the Jews had missed the blessing because they were pursuing righteousness as if the blessing were based on works.  Faith alone in Christ was the great stumbling block to the Jew.  The whole thrust of the argument in Romans 9 is that justification is by faith alone even in the case of the Jew.  In this matter God is sovereign and unchallengeable.

In Romans 9 Paul has taken events and people in the nations past to demonstrate God’s sovereignty in history. He has then allegorised these true stories to illustrate and teach the great doctrine of justification by faith.  In chapter 10 he elaborates on Israel’s present failure to enter into gospel blessing because of their ignorance of God’s righteousness and their failure to grasp the significance of the finished work of Christ (v. 3, 4).  Israel’s guilt and responsibility are established beyond doubt in Paul’s moving quotation from the prophecy of Isaiah ‘But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.’

However, God has not finished with His ancient people.  At this present time, says Paul, there is ‘a remnant according to the election of grace’ (11:5).  Israel had not obtained the blessing it was seeking for, but the elect had obtained it.  A number of Jews had been saved, and Paul emphasises that they were saved by grace and not by works.  The elect in this context is therefore the believing Jew.

But God has still a future for the Jew.  God is controlling history, and on a day yet to come, when the full number of the Gentiles has come in, all Israel shall be saved.  The promises to Abraham and his descendants still await a glorious fulfilment when there shall come out of Zion the Deliverer who shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.  In covenant faithfulness God will take away their sins. Israel at this present time, says Paul, is the enemy of the gospel for your sakes (ie. you Gentiles) but as touching election they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. The word of God has not failed in any respect.  In fact, Israel’s present unbelief is the occasion of mercy for the Gentiles.  In the course of time Israel too will obtain mercy.  The fact that God has consigned all men to unbelief that He might have mercy on all inspires Paul to write one of the most beautiful doxologies in the whole Bible: ‘O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! ….For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever.  Amen.’ (Rom 11:33-36).

There is yet another use of the term elect as pertaining to believers in Israel and this occurs in the synoptic Gospels.  It is the Lord who uses the term on four occasions, and each time it is in connection with the believing remnant of Israel during the tribulation period, ie. between the rapture of the church and the coming of the Son of Man.  The Lord Jesus informed his disciples that the Son of Man would come in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory and would send his angels to ‘gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’ (Matt 24:31).  The reader can quickly look up all the references to check that they all apply to the believing remnant of the end time: Matt 24:22, 24, 31; Mk 13:20, 22, 27; and Lu 18:7.

To conclude this section, it may be summed up that elect in connection with Israel applies (1) to the whole nation in the past, (2) to believers in the nation past and present, (3) to the believing remnant in the tribulation, and (4) to the whole nation in the future millennium. In each case it is the context which provides the key to the meaning.  In none of these cases, and certainly not in Romans 9, does elect or election ever refer to an absolute predestination of individuals to salvation or reprobation by unchangeable decrees from eternity.”

Jeremiah 13:23 – Proof of Man’s Inability?

Often cited as a proof text for the doctrine of Total Inability is Jeremiah 13:23, which reads,

“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?  Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jer. 13:23; ESV)

The purpose of this post is to explain my reasons for rejecting Jeremiah 13:23 as a good proof-text for the doctrine of Total Inability.

I believe in the depravity of man, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t believe that Jeremiah 13:23 is the best proof-text for such a fundamental truth as this. When considered in context, I believe that this verse is not teaching that it is literally impossible for unsaved man to do any good. Needless to say, I don’t believe this verse is teaching mankind’s ‘Total Inability.’

Consider:

» The context is that of God threatening Judah and Jerusalem (v.9), aka, the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah (v.11) with exile, in response to their continual rebellion – their refusal to hear God’s words, their stubbornly following their own heart, and their going after other gods to serve and worship them (v.10). This fact leaves the application of this verse to all mankind without foundation. The context of the passage as a whole makes it clear that only Israel and Judah are in view.**

» The question of whether the Ethiopian can change his skin or the leopard his spots reminds me of the statement made by Jesus that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:25) We wouldn’t take Jesus’ words to mean that it is literally possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, nor should we take His words to mean that under no circumstances can a rich man enter the kingdom of God, simply because he is rich. Jesus isn’t stating that a rich man, because he is rich, cannot, under any circumstances, enter the kingdom of God. Money, in and of itself, is not evil, nor is the mere possession of money, in and of itself, evil. What is evil, and indeed, a root of all kinds of evil, is a wilful heart condition, namely the love of money (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10). Jesus’ statement comes immediately after the rich young ruler refused to forsake all his riches to follow Christ. What Jesus is doing is illustrating what riches do to a man’s heart. Jesus knew that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil; He knew how money would corrupt a man’s heart so as to make him proud, self-sufficient, and unwilling to forsake all to follow Christ, hence Jesus’ statement in verse 25. The case in point: the rich young ruler, who went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions, the passage says. Given what riches do to a man’s heart, it would be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than it would be to get a rich man to forsake his riches and follow Christ. The ‘inability’ of the rich is a wilful condition, not a necessary one.

And so it is with Jeremiah 13:23. We shouldn’t take the words to mean that it is literally impossible for an unsaved man to do anything good. But rather, we should consider the context: Israel and Judah hadn’t simply fallen into sin; they were reveling in sin; they were continuing in steadfast rebellion to God; continuing in a steadfast refusal to hear God’s words; continuing in steadfast idolatry. And then comes the question regarding the Ethiopian and the leopard. What is being illustrated is just how far Israel and Judah had departed from God. Considering how far they’ve gone, and how unwilling they are to repent and turn back to God, it would be just as easy for an Ethiopian to change his skin colour, or a leopard to change its spots, than it would be for the houses of Israel and Judah to turn from their wickedness and do well.

As Jesus was illustrating what riches do to a man’s heart, so God (through Jeremiah) was illustrating what continued wilful rebellion and apostasy will do to a man’s heart.

In both cases, the ‘inability’ is a wilful condition of the heart, not a necessary one. The question regarding the Ethiopian and the leopard illustrated what happened to men’s hearts as a result of their continued unwillingness to turn to God.


** I find it ironic that Calvinists take a text that is quite obviously speaking of a particular group of people (Israel and Judah) and give it a universal application, given their usual tendency to restrict and limit the meaning of passages using universal language, such as John 3:16, 1 Tim. 2:4, 1 Tim. 4:10, 1 John 2:2, and Heb. 2:9.