[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.”
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).”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.“
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).”
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.”