Interpretations of Romans 9-11

[Articles in the Multiple Views series are intended to present various views held by Christians, in an objective and unbiased manner]

It would be an understatement to say that Romans 9-11 is a controversial passage. It has often been touted to be a proof-text for Calvinism. Today’s article presents the traditional Calvinist interpretation of the passage, as well as other interpretations posited by non-Calvinist scholars.

A) Individual election to salvation

Douglas Moo: “While the passages from Genesis may not refer directly to the salvation of individuals, Paul applies them to the question of who belongs in the spiritual Israel (v. 6). In other words, the ultimate concern is to show how God has determined who belongs to his people. That means that the issue is, finally, about the salvation of individuals …

Romans 9 teaches the absolute sovereignty of God in the decisions he makes about the ultimate fate of human beings.”[1]

John Murray: “The interpretation which regards the election as the collective, theocratic election of Israel as a people must be rejected and the ‘purpose of God according to election’ will have to be understood as the electing purpose that is determinative of and unto salvation and equivalent to that which we find elsewhere (Rom. 8:28-33; Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:4 et al).”[2]

Steven M. Baugh: “This passage teaches divine election and predestination of individuals to salvation, and the hardening of whom God wills, as candidly as anything is ever taught in the Bible, despite the resolute and persistent efforts of many to obviate it …

For Paul, Israelite privileged status is a biblical teaching which must be qualified by other truths. Specifically, Paul sees that membership in theocratic Israel with its national benefits does not guarantee membership in elect Israel whose benefits are righteousness, salvation, and eternal life.12 This is the point of his thematic statement in Romans 9:6: ‘They are not all Israel who are of Israel’; i.e., elect Israel and national Israel are not coextensive. Put another way, sonship in the Abrahamic line does not guarantee that one is a child of God (9:8) …

… Paul is addressing a more fundamental issue: why don’t all ethnic Israelites believe and thereby partake in the eternal inheritance? Paul’s answer to this deeper question pours out in a staccato stream in Romans 9:10-13. One believes only because God so chooses. The root of all God’s benefits is his own predestinating free will.”[3]

Thomas Schreiner: “When Paul speaks of the anguish in his heart and his desire to be accursed because of his fellow Israelites (Rom 9:1-3), the reason he feels this way is not because Israel is merely losing out on temporal blessings. Distress torments his heart because his kinsmen from Israel were not saved. Paul is almost willing “to be separated from Christ” (9:3) because his fellow Israelites are separated from Christ …

The particular question in [Paul’s] mind in w. 1-5 relates to the salvation of Israel, and thus the claim that God’s word has not failed (9:6) must be interpreted in relationship to the issue that is at the forefront of Paul’s mind—namely, the salvation of Israel. Those interpreters who assert that Paul is referring merely to the historical destiny of Israel and not to salvation do not account plausibly for the relationship of vv. 1-5 to the rest of the chapter, for vv. 1-5 make it eminently clear that the reason Paul brings up the question of the faithfulness of God in v. 6 is that a great portion of Israel is not saved.”[4]

B) Corporate election to salvation

Brian J. Abasciano: “What is imperative to see in relation to the nature of the election Paul envisions in Rom. 9.10-13 is that the significance of the individual Jacob’s election for Israel was that they were elect by virtue of their identification with him. Their election was ‘in him’, and thus intrinsically consequent upon his. This dispels another of the main objections to taking election as corporate in these verses – that the individuals Jacob and Esau are obviously in view to one degree or another, and therefore so is individual election (of individuals as autonomous entities). This objection fails to apprehend the relationship between the election of the corporate representative and his people. The corporate representative’s election is unique, entailing the election of all who are identified with him. Its significance was never that each individual member of the elect people was chosen as an individual to become part of the elect people in the same manner as the corporate head was chosen. Rather, the individual possesses elect status as a consequence of membership in the elect people/identification with the corporate representative. In the case of the divine covenantal election, God chooses his people by his choice of the covenant head.

A great obstacle to the view that Paul is teaching direct election of individuals as individuals to become part of his people and receive salvation is the fact that the corporate view is the view of the Old Testament generally and the texts Paul interprets in Romans 9 specifically as well as the standard view of Judaism in Paul’s day. Moo, an outspoken advocate of individual election, admits as much and concedes, ‘We would expect Paul to be thinking of “election” here in the same terms, an expectation that seems to be confirmed by the OT texts that Paul quotes’. This is exactly right. As I have argued elsewhere, the burden of proof lies squarely upon those who would argue that Paul departs from the standard biblical and Jewish concept of election. Therefore, it is an insuperable problem for the individual election view that everything Paul says here in Romans 9 fits comfortably into the view of corporate election, which could speak of the inclusion or exclusion of individuals vis-à-vis the covenant without shifting the locus of election itself to the individual. Indeed, Paul’s olive tree metaphor in Rom. 11.17-24 evidences the view of corporate election perfectly. Individuals get grafted into the elect people (the olive tree) and participate in election and its blessings by faith or get cut off from God’s chosen people and their blessings because of unbelief, while the focus of election clearly remains the corporate people of God, which spans salvation history. The natural understanding of Jacob’s election in a first-century context would have led readers to apply Paul’s example to the character of the corporate election of God’s people rather than to the individual. Advocates of individual election in Romans 9 appear to have jumped to applying election directly to individuals because of individualistic assumptions foreign to Paul and his socio-historical milieu.

Thus, Paul’s argument based on Jacob and Esau is salvation-historical. Based on the circumstances of their conception and the timing of the divine call/proclamation of Jacob’s election as the covenant heir, Paul concludes that the election of God’s people was not dictated by any distinctive of either twin, but by the sovereign will and call of God. Generally speaking, by basing the foundational election of his people on his sovereign call rather than some meritorious distinctive of Jacob or de-meritorious distinctive of Esau, God ensured that he remained free to choose who his people are according to his own good pleasure. More specifically, he ensured that he remained free to choose the head/mediator of his covenant for any (or no) reason whatsoever, and thereby to choose similarly who his people are. Most specifically in the context of Paul’s argument, God’s sovereign call of Jacob and his descendants ensured that he could call only those who believe in Jesus Christ seed of Abraham if he so chose, that is, regard them as his covenant people, and thereby fulfill his purpose of blessing the whole world in Abraham, for Israel’s election depended wholly on his sovereign will from the beginning and therefore remained subject to the dictates of his own will.”[5]

“God chose the people of Israel in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel (Deut 4:37; 7:6-8). That is, by choosing Jacob/Israel, the corporate/covenant representative, God also chose his descendants as his covenant people. It is a matter of Old Testament covenant theology. The covenant representative on the one hand and the people/nation of Israel on the other hand are the focus of the divine covenantal election, and individuals are elect only as members of the elect people. Moreover, in principle, foreign individuals who were not originally members of the elect people could join the chosen people and become part of the elect, demonstrating again that the locus of election was the covenant community and that individuals found their election through membership in the elect people.”[6]

B. J. Oropeza: “Paul’s references from the Scriptures on individuals such as Isaac, Esau, Jacob, and Pharaoh address the issue of election (cf. Rom. 9:6-19; see below), but their election or rejection by God is brought out to make more relevant points to the Romans about the communities such as Israel (9:23-10:3, 18-21; 11:26-32), the Gentile believers (9:24, 30; 11:13, 25), and the faithful remnant (11:1-7). Likewise in this context, Paul considers himself elect not by virtue of his own independent status with God but because he is a member of the elect remnant of Israel (11:1-7) …

For the Romans whom Paul is addressing, the individual is elect by participating in the elect community “in Christ,” and the assurances of final salvation given to that community pertain to the individual as long as that individual is identified as belonging to the elect community.[7]

Norman Geisler: “… God is not speaking here about the individual Jacob but about the nation of Jacob (Israel) … The reference here [in Gen. 25:23] is not to individual election but to the corporate election of a chosen nation – Israel.

Second, regardless of the corporate election of Israel as a nation, each individual had to accept the Messiah in order to be saved. Paul said, “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel” (Rom. 9:3-4). He added, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (10:1). Even though of the end times he says later that, “all Israel will be saved” (11:26), he is referring to Israel at that time, and clearly at present there is only “a remnant” (v.5). So even though Israel as a nation was elect, each individual had to accept God’s grace by “faith” in order to be saved (v.20).”[8]

William Lane Craig: “The problematic [sic], 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 …

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.”[9]

C) Election to service/privilege

Ben Witherington: “As the OT context of the saying “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” (Mal. 1.2-3) shows, the subject there is two nations, not two individuals, and, as we have said, even when individuals are in the picture, it is not their eternal destiny that is spoken of. The quoted verse then may speak of God’s elective purposes, but the concern is with roles they are to play in history, not their personal eternal destiny …

Israel was chosen or created not primarily for its own benefit, but to be a light to the nations. Paul is describing that process of election and selection for such purposes …

Paul also believes that since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, God owes salvation to no one, and none can merit it. It is all a matter of mercy and grace. Thus God is free to choose and use whomever he will for the divine purposes, without injustice. One can be chosen for God’s purposes, like Cyrus or Pharoah, and not be saved. Being chosen for historical purposes and being saved are not one and the same thing.”[10]

Gregory Boyd: “3. Election to Vocation, Not Salvation

The way Paul answered this objection also shows that his concern was with God’s relationship to a nation, not with individual salvation. Paul refuted the idea that God’s covenant promises had failed by showing that God’s covenant promises were never based on a peoples’ nationality or external obedience to the law. Rather, Paul argued, God had always exercised his sovereign right to choose whomever he wanted to choose.

Paul illustrated his point by referring to God’s choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, made without any consideration for their attributes or merits (9:8-13). Both examples underscore God’s right to choose whomever he wishes, for both choices were made ahead of time and both were wholly unexpected. Moreover, both choices reversed the role of primogenitor, both concerned individuals who were not exemplar in their character, and most surprisingly – and telling — Isaac was supernaturally conceived.

In offering these examples, Paul was defending God’s right to choose whomever he wants and to do so by any means he chooses. Hence, Paul is arguing, it shouldn’t be shocking to Jews if God now chooses to enter into a covenant with Gentiles simply on the basis of their faith. He’s always been a God who could do whatever he wanted. At the same time, it is important to remember that in using Isaac and Jacob to illustrate God’s prerogative to choose whoever he pleases, Paul was not concerning himself with the eternal destinies of people. His concern was solely to show God’s sovereignty in electing people to a historical vocation.

To underscore God’s sovereign prerogative, Paul emphasized the arbitrary way God brought about a chosen people, through Isaac and Jacob, whose mission was to serve God and the world by being a nation of priests ( Isa 61:6 ) and a “light to all the nations” ( Isa 42:6 ; 49:6 ; 60:3 ). They were to be the means by which all the nations of the world would be blessed by hearing about the one true God (e.g. Gen 12:2-3 ; 18:18 ; 22:18 ; Ps 67:1-2 ; Isa 2:2-4 ; 55:5 ; 61:9-11 ; 66:19-20 ; Jer 3:17 ; Rom 4:12-18 ). Their election as a nation was always primarily about service, not individual salvation.

Paul emphasized the arbitrariness of God’s choice of the Jews to unsettle those who thought God’s word had failed because he had rendered their nationality and external observation to the law obsolete in Christ. Throughout Romans 9 through 11 Paul was at pains to show that God’s goal all along had been to reach out beyond the borders of Israel and win the whole world ( Rom 9:25-26 , 33 ; 10:10-21 ; 11:11-12 ). Indeed, Paul insisted God was yet going to attain his goal. But since Israel as a nation had rejected the Messiah, Paul argued, God was now going to use their blindness rather than their obedience to achieve it ( Rom. 11:11-32 ).

In any event, we are reading far too much into Romans 9 if we think that Paul was suggesting that Ishmael or Esau—or anyone else not chosen in the selection process by which God formed the Jewish nation (e.g. all of Joseph’s brothers?) — were individually damned. Paul is simply not concerned in this chapter with individual destinies. Indeed, he uses the examples he does precisely because they represent more than individuals: they represent nations. In choosing Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, in other words, God was illustrating his choice of Israel (the descendants of Isaac and Jacob) over the Moabites (the descendents of Ishmael) and the Edomites (the descendents of Esau). Again, this didn’t mean that all Moabites or Edomites were eternally lost. It just means that these nations were not chosen for the priestly role in history for which God chose the Israelites.

This national focus is emphasized in the fact that the Old Testament passage Paul cites to make his point about Esau ( Malachi 1:2-3 , “I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau” [ Rom 9:13 ]) is explicitly about the country of Edom. Some might suppose that God’s pronouncement that he “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau shows that he is speaking about their individual eternal destinies, but this is mistaken. In Hebraic thought, when “love” and “hate” are contrasted they usually are meant hyperbolically. The expression simply means to strongly prefer one person or thing over another.

So, for example, when Jesus said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” ( Lk 14:26 ), he was not saying we should literally hate these people. Elsewhere he taught people to love and respect their parents, as the Old Testament also taught ( Mk 10:19 ). Indeed, he commanded us to love even our enemies ( Mt 5:44 )! What Jesus was saying was that he must be preferred above parents, spouses, children, siblings and even life itself. The meaning of Malachi’s phrase, then, is simply that God preferred Israel over Edom to be the people he wanted to work with to reach out to the world.”[11]

Jack Cotterell: “Romans 9 is NOT talking about election to salvation , but election to service. The issue is not personal salvation, but roles of service in carrying out God’s plan for bringing about redemption for this sinful world. The bottom line is that God has the right to choose and use whomever he desires in order to carry out his purposes. This is meant to apply specifically to the nation of Israel.

Why does Paul (under the Spirit’s influence) see fit to discuss this issue at this point in the letter to the Romans? He has just explained, in chapters 1-8, that God’s way of salvation is by grace through faith, and not by works of law (3:28), i.e., not by how well one keeps his or her law code. This is just as true of Jews as it is of Gentiles. Regarding the way of salvation, God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles (see especially chapters 2 and 3).

The content of Romans up through chapter 8 is a direct challenge to the belief commonly held by the Jews of Paul’s day, that they had a special inside track to salvation After all, were they not God’s chosen people? If so, does that not mean that somehow, every circumcised Jew who holds high the Law of Moses will be saved (2:17-29)?

This assumption, says Paul, is absolutely false. The problem is that the Jews were confusing election to service with election to salvation . They assumed that because God chose them as the means by which “all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3), he also chose them, simply as Jews, for salvation. But now they hear Paul saying, “No! Jews do not have a unique path to heaven; on Judgment Day they will be treated like everyone else.” So now they are thinking, “That’s not fair! God has just been leading us on, giving us promises he never meant to keep. He is going back on his word! Where is the justice?”

So in Romans 9 Paul is defending God’s righteousness in his dealings with the Jews. The Word of God has not failed (9:6a). When God says that only those Jews will be saved who trust God’s promises, like their father Abraham did, he is not going back on his original promises to Israel. His choice of the nation as a whole was not a guarantee of any individual Jew’s salvation. God was simply choosing the nation as such to be the means for bringing the Savior into the world (9:5). And God certainly has the sovereign right to use any individual or group that he chooses for such a purpose, without any promise of personal salvation being attached …

The language of mercy and compassion that is used here [in Romans 9:14-18] is never limited in the Bible to saving mercy. It is often used to refer to the temporal blessings and privileges which God bestows upon individuals. (E.g., Paul says God has shown mercy on him by choosing him to be an apostle: 1 Cor. 7:25; 2 Cor. 4:1.) Here in Romans 9, the prime example Paul uses of God’s choosing someone for service without also choosing him for salvation is none other than Pharaoh (9:17). God both “had mercy” on him by choosing him for a crucial role in birthing the nation of Israel, and also “hardened” him in order to accomplish the same purpose.”[12]

Leon Morris: “It is election to privilege that is in mind, not eternal salvation.”[13]

William Sanday and Arthur Headlam: “… the absolute election of Jacob … has reference simply to the election of one to higher privileges, as head of the chosen race, than the other. It has nothing to do with their eternal salvation.”[14]

D) Both corporate election to salvation, and election to service

Leighton Flowers: “I believe Romans 9 is concerned with both (1) the purpose for which Israel was chosen (i.e. what some scholars refer to as “election to service”) and (2) the salvation of Israel …

Romans 9 involves salvation. God’s redemptive plan, promised to Abraham, is channeled through Israel. No one is saved apart from the fulfillment of God’s promise. If God’s word fails to come through Israel, then no individual in the world has any hope of salvation. God unconditionally chose a nation and many individuals from that nation to bring about His redemptive plan.”[15]

William W. Klein: “We conclude that Paul affirms the divine election of Jacob and the physical nation Israel through him. Jacob’s family becomes elect Israel in the national sense. Individual Israelites may be termed “elect” only by virtue of their existence “in him,” that is, Jacob. While God has elected Israel and not Edom, the salvation of individuals depends on personal faith …

Paul’s focus is upon God’s selection of the nation Israel in its historic role, not upon specific individuals for eternal salvation. Even the choice of individuals like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not for their personal salvation, but for their tasks in God’s historic program with his people”[16]

Editor’s Note: This article will continually be updated as more and more exegesis of Romans 9 are discovered.

 

[1] Douglas Moo, ”Israel and the Plan of God – Romans 9:1–29 by Douglas Moo.” Monergism.com. Accessed April 18, 2018.
https://www.monergism.com/israel-and-plan-god-romans-91–29-douglas-moo

[2] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. II (1960), p.19

[3] Steven M. Baugh, “God’s Purpose According To Election: Paul’s Argument in Romans 9.” Monergism.com. Accessed April 18, 2018.
https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/unconditional_baugh.html

[4] Thomas Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election To Salvation? Some Exegetical and Theological Reflections.” JETS 36/1 (March 1993), p.27

[5] Brian Abasciano, Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9:10-18: An Intertextual and Theological Exegesis (2013), pp. 59-61

[6] Brian Abasciano, “Corporate Election in Romans 9: A Reply To Thomas Schreiner”, JETS 49:2 (June 2006), p.353

[7] B. J. Oropeza, Jews, Gentiles, and the Opponents of Paul (2012), pp.172-173

[8] Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free (2010), p.81

[9] William Lane Craig, “#79 Molinism and Divine Election.” ReasonableFaith.org. Accessed April 18, 2018.
https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/molinism-and-divine-election

[10] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (2004), p.253-255

[11] Gregory Boyd, “How do you respond to Romans 9?” ReKnew.org. Accessed April 18, 2018.
http://reknew.org/2008/01/how-do-you-respond-to-romans-9

[12] Jack Cottrell, “Does Romans 9 Teach Calvinist Predestination?” JackCottrell.com. Accessed April 18, 2018.
http://jackcottrell.com/uncategorized/does-romans-9-teach-calvinist-predestination

[13] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (1988), p.356

[14] William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1901), p.245

[15] Leighton Flowers, “Corporate Election and Election to Service in Romans 9.” Soteriology101.com. Accessed April 18, 2018.
https://soteriology101.com/2016/07/12/corporate-election-and-election-to-service-in-romans-9

[16] William W. Klein, The New Chosen People, Revised and Expanded Edition: A Corporate View of Election (2015), p.148-149

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