Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility


Jacob and Esau. You can read the story about their Old Testament version of sibling rivalry in Genesis 25 and 27. Most of the time, when we deal with their story, we learn how bad it is for moms and dads to have favorite children or why we shouldn’t cheat and lie in our homes. And those are legitimate lessons. But they aren’t the point of the story.

And oftentimes, the way the story is told makes us feel kind of sorry for the good-old-boy, Esau. After all, Jacob cheated him out of his birthright and blessing. But Esau is not an innocent victim in the Old Testament story.

Even before the twins were born, God Himself had told their mother that oldest one would serve the youngest one. In fact, this story and these twins are referenced in Romans 9.

10b “When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ 13 As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ 14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:11-16).

Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? What did He see in Jacob? Nothing good. Jacob is a liar and a swindler and a cheat. God chooses “just because.”

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you…”

(Deuteronomy 7:7-8a).

Did you follow the reasoning? Why does the Lord love you? It’s because… The Lord loves you because He loves you. Jacob doesn’t deserve it.

Jacob received the blessing. And Esau failed to obtain the grace of God. Why?

There really two answers to that question. One relates to God’s sovereignty. “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.” But we also see human responsibility on display in this story. See, God’s sovereignty does no violence to human responsibility.

Don’t strip God of His sovereignty and say that man solely is captain of his own fate. But don’t strip man of human responsibility. Instead, let’s respect the mystery of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Both are taught in the Bible.

God always freely accomplishes all His will. But He’s not the author of our sin and does not violate human responsibility.

Is there a tension here? Yes! Is this a divine mystery? Yes! Is this beyond our comprehension to understand fully? Yes!

“That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment.

“Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other. If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.

“These two truths… are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity…”
C. H. Spurgeon, A Sermon: Sovereign Grace and Man’s Responsibility, August 1, 1858.

There’s no good reason why God loved Jacob. He is a scheming, conniving, ambitious, opportunistic man who was willing to lie and deceive in order to get ahead in life. But in spite of all that, God chose him. Now, on the human responsibility side, what Jacob had going for him was that he wanted the birthright and a blessing. He wanted the spiritual, the intangible. He valued it.

What about Esau? He failed to obtain the blessing, the grace of God. Why? When we consider divine sovereignty side, he simply wasn’t chosen. You say, “That’s not fair!” But this is justice. Esau bears responsibility for failing to obtain grace. You say, “How do you know?

Out of all the OT characters the NT writer to the Hebrews could choose, he selects Esau and holds him up as a warning to us, to the church. “Look diligently lest there be among you a person among you like Esau.”

Don’t be soft toward Esau. God sees the heart. Esau did not value the spiritual, eternal, and intangible blessings of God. He didn’t really want the birthright and the blessing more than he wanted worldly pleasures.

By his negative example, Esau teaches us to hold fast to what is truly important, even if it means denying the appetites of the flesh.

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Hebrews 12:15-17).

Now, what does all this have to do with me? It’s possible for you and me to be a present-day Esau – to fail to obtain the grace – the birthright, the blessing – of God. The story about Jacob and Esau is much, much more than a moralistic story about brothers not cheating each other. This is all about you and me obtaining the grace of God – the blessing of God – as found in Jesus Christ.