In a previous article I wrote about why I believe that Romans 9, though not written to be a treatise on the doctrine of election, nevertheless teaches an unconditional, individual election that is integral to the argument being presented by Paul in the chapter. Those who believe that Romans 9 does not teach unconditional and individual election hold different interpretations, one being the idea that Jacob and Esau represent nations, and therefore that the election spoken of in the chapter has to do with the fate of nations. I think that this is incorrect and in this article will further defend my reasons for thinking that Romans 9 reveals an unconditional election of individuals.
Paul's Concerns in Romans 9
Let's examine the chapter again. Verses 1-5 begin with Paul expressing "great sorrow and unceasing anguish" over the fact that his own people, the Jewish nation of Israel, are missing salvation through Christ because of their unbelief. And yet, he immediately asserts that the "word of God (to Israel)" has not failed. Thus we learn immediately that the nation Paul is concerned with in this chapter is Israel. It is in relation to Israel that Paul frames the following problem, for which he will provide an answer:
If Israel has been elected by God, why isn't everyone in Israel responding in faith to Jesus Christ, and receiving salvation through Him? In fact, Israel as a nation seems to be missing salvation through Jesus, and therefore, it would seem that the word of God to them has failed.
So we see that Paul's concern is this chapter (and continuing into Romans 10-11) is with the salvation of Israel. It is because many of his fellow Jews are missing out on salvation through Christ that Paul feels such tremendous grief that he even goes so far as to say that he would be willing- if it were possible-- to have himself cut off from Christ, if then somehow his fellow Israelites might find salvation. But Paul will go on to show that God's word to Israel has not failed because 1) there is a remnant in Israel, chosen by grace, that is being saved; 2) God's plan for the elect nation of Israel is being carried out; 3) all who believe in Christ are "children of the promise", elected unconditionally by God. The unconditional nature of election is shown in that the guarantee of the success of God's word to Israel and also, to believers in Christ, Paul is arguing, is not based on their faithfulness to the covenant (their meeting conditions), but upon God's.
Let's see how Paul presents this argument.
The Israelites were chosen by God and are therefore a greatly blessed nation. Paul writes, "To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises." In addition, Paul says, to the Israelites "belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, [came] the Christ, who is God over all". Yet even with these great advantages, the result of her favored status with God, Jerusalem/Israel "did not know the time of [her] visitation" (Luke 19:44)-- many Jews were not putting faith in Christ and therefore not attaining to the righteousness that is obtained through faith in Him.
So it seems as if the word of God to Israel has failed. Now if this is true, then the great promises to believers in Christ that Paul has been both enumerating and extolling (Romans 8:12-37) are likewise in danger of failing. But Paul encourages his Roman readers to remain confident about these promises concerning their faith in Christ. He does so by pointing out that God is faithful- for He has been faithful to His covenant with Israel, in preserving for Himself a remnant of believers in Israel who have been "chosen by grace" (Romans 9:29, 11:5).
In Romans 11 Paul will also explain that a "hardening" of Israel (by God) has occurred, so that the full number of Gentiles may be added in, that is, be saved, by being included in God's covenant (Romans 11:25). God's purpose in this scheme of election is that the Jews, who had always enjoyed favored status with the Lord, might be provoked to jealousy by seeing the Gentiles being "grafted in", and that they will once again return to the Lord to be shown mercy.
A Methodical Argument
Paul develops the argument methodically. In chapter 9 he explains that "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel", and "not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring", but that the true offspring of God are "children of the promise". In other words, there is a special blessing of God that is not passed down through the bloodline or by birth, but comes to those whom God chooses by His word of promise to believe. These chosen ones therefore become His "children of the promise". Another way to describe this would be to say that there is an election within election-- that is, the nation of Israel was elected to special privileges, yet within Israel, some individuals also are elected to receive the call to salvation in Christ.
To show how this happens, Paul first gives the example of Isaac, born to Sarah by a promise of God, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." Isaac is a "child of the promise." Now it is conceivable that one might challenge Paul by saying that the reason Isaac was chosen by God to receive the covenant blessing, rather than Abraham's first-born son Ishmael, was that Isaac was properly of the line of Abraham, (being a product of the union between Abraham and his wife Sarah), while Ishmael (conceived through Abraham's union with the maidservant Hagar) was not. But with the next example, Paul will show that the bloodline has nothing at all to do with who receives the special word of promise from God.
Paul points to Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, who was pregnant with twins in her womb. Here are two children to be born to the same mother, and having but one father (Isaac). Yet Jacob alone is chosen, while his twin Esau is not. Is this because Jacob is a better person than Esau? The biblical record of the life of Jacob reveals a cunning, deceitful man who tricked his older brother Esau out of the blessing that was due him as eldest son. Esau on the other hand is shown to be one who, by his actions, puts no value upon his birthright (Gen 25:34, Heb 12:16). Neither seems especially meritorious. Yet the question of whether the character of Jacob is superior to Esau and therefore merits God's call is a moot point. For Paul shows that when "they (Jacob and Esau) 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", Rebekah was given the promise by God that "the older (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob)." Therefore the election of Jacob and not Esau has nothing to do with any of their actions (including, of course, foreseen faith). To further emphasize the clear-cut nature of God's choice, Paul quotes God himself as saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Nations or Individuals?
Why does Paul refer to Jacob and Esau here? Is he speaking about the destinies of the nations Jacob and Esau represent? If so, it is strange that Paul neither indicates nor develops such a line of argument. It is true that the descendants of Esau-- the Edomites-- would someday serve the descendants of Jacob-- in fulfillment of the prophetic word of God ("the older will serve the younger"). But Paul in Romans 9 is apparently not concerned with contrasting the nation of Israel against other nations. He is not arguing for the right of God to choose the nation of Israel as the vehicle through which salvation would come (God has already made Israel the vehicle of salvation, he says in Romans 9:5). Rather, Paul's point is to emphasize the independence and unconditionality of God's choices in election ("Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated"), and to show that even within the elect nation of Israel, there is a further election, made by God, of individuals to salvation. This is why God's covenant word to Israel has not failed: because God is saving specific individuals. For this reason Paul's examples throughout the chapter are of individuals (Isaac, Jacob, Esau, Pharoah)-- for he is talking about the salvation of persons, in contrast to the nation of Israel, which, on the whole, was missing salvation.
Since God's Word to Israel has not failed, we may also trust God's word to believers in Christ
Again, one of Paul's chief objectives is to prove that the Word of God to Israel has not failed, so that believers in Christ may also be assured that God's promises to them are likewise secure. Having made possibly the most sweeping promises in the entire word of God concerning the elect-- those whom God foreknew-- Paul here demonstrates that such promises are dependable, because they are based upon the trustworthiness of God, who has fulfilled, and is still fulfilling, His word to Israel. In speaking of the elect in Christ, Paul had previously written,
"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:28-39)"
Paul now argues that his listeners may indeed trust these amazing and good promises-- since God's word has not failed His chosen people the Jews, neither will it fail in regard to these great promises given to believers chosen in Christ. Notice that God's power and faithfulness is the focus throughout this great passage. Nowhere in these inspiring words do we find the implication that God's promises depend on the faithfulness of those receiving the promises. Rather it is the powerful love of God in which Paul encourages us to put our confidence.
How do Paul's examples of Isaac and Jacob show God's faithfulness to believers as individuals? Paul shows that God chooses specific individuals (Isaac, Jacob) by an election that has its basis, not in the foreseen, "free" responses of men, but in God's compassion and mercy (Romans 9:15). Election is said to be not prompted by, or dependent upon, human works or will or exertion (Romans 9:11,16). God's elective call is generative-- it does not merely foresee what those chosen will do and thus formulate an elective call in light of such foreknowledge. Rather God's elective call is the catalyst by which His chosen ones come to Him, so that His redemptive plan might fully unfold in their lives (Romans 8:29-30). Again, Paul does not say that Jacob and Esau represent nations here; his focus in this chapter is the nation of Israel alone, and the problem of why some individuals in Israel are being saved, while others in Israel are not.
Israel's Unbelief is the Result of Election
What then is the cause of Israel's unbelief? If elect, why don't they all believe? In verses 30-33, Paul describes the problem of Israel's mis-targeted pursuit of righteousness:
What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Note carefully that in these verses Paul does not answer the question of why Israel was unbelieving. He says that the Israelites have not attained the righteousness that comes by faith alone, because they were pursuing this righteousness as if it were based on works (Rom 9:32). But in Romans, chapter 11, Paul does explain the "why" behind the unbelief of Israel:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,
as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever”(Romans 11:1-10)
Paul's explanation for Israel's unbelief is clear: it is the result of the fact that some were elected while the rest were hardened, both election and hardening being God's work. Paul even presents himself as an example of one who is a believing Israelite chosen by grace. [As an aside, it is hard to picture Paul giving an "Arminian testimony"-- that God chose him in light of his own "foreseen faith"-- for prior to being called by Christ, he was quite busy persecuting and killing Christians. Even after becoming a leader and a great apostle, Paul never forgot the evil deeds of his pre-Christian days-- this helped to keep him humble and to remember that God's grace alone had saved him and made him what he was (1 Cor 15:9-10)].
What is "it" (Romans 11:7) that Israel has failed to obtain? "It" refers to the righteousness and the salvation that comes through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 9:30-33, Romans 10:1-4). As in Romans 8:29, we find here again in Romans 11 that God's foreknowledge of His people-- ("His people whom He foreknew" Romans 11:2)-- is personal knowledge, not merely knowledge of what the people of Israel would do. Israel as a nation was chosen (known) by God and God has not rejected Israel, yet only the elect within Israel have obtained the righteousness unto salvation through Christ that they were destined for. The rest were hardened (Romans 9:18, Romans 11:7-8).
Objections Raised Demonstrate that Paul is arguing for an Unconditional, Individual Election
It is precisely because Paul says that this election to salvation pertains to some and not to others, and is being accomplished according to the prerogative of God alone (not in response to the meeting of any conditions by human beings), that Paul anticipates and then responds to objections (as stated in verses 14 and 19). There would be no objections if what Paul was arguing for was conditional election.
Now the first objection raised is the possible injustice of God in this type of election. Paul writes,
"What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (Romans 9:14-18)."
Paul's response to the charge of possible injustice in the scheme of election he is presenting may at first seem to not answer the charge. The objection is a logical response to what Paul has been teaching, for it concludes that if God's elective choices, such as choosing Jacob over Esau, are not based on any merits within persons, but reflect solely God's choice of one rather than another, then there appears to be injustice on God's part. Notice that Paul does not correct the understanding behind the objection; there is nothing wrong with that. Paul's answer is to quote Scriptures demonstrating God's divine authority to dispense mercy or hardening just as He pleases, because of who He is. So the fact that God's elective choices are completely independent of, and not conditioned upon, human actions (verse 16) emphasizes the divine prerogative. Also, Paul describes election as dependent on God's mercy alone, which implies that all of mankind is in such a pitiful state that God's mercy alone is the only thing they must rely on.
Now Paul responds to a further objection. "You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Bob Deffinbaugh, in his article "Divine Election is Questioned" detects what seems to be a difference between these two objections (verses 14 and 19). The first (v14), raised by Paul himself, asks whether there is injustice when God chooses people according to His own counsel, and seeks an explanation of God's ways, rather than demanding a justification from God for His actions. But the second objection seems to have a different spirit. It is being raised, not by Paul, but by someone else ("You").
To paraphrase the objection, it states, "OK Paul, you say God can do whatever he wants and no one can stop Him. But if that's true, how can He then find fault with anyone? If God is controlling who is elect and who is not elect, if He is calling all the shots, how can anyone be held responsible? Who can fight God?" This objection, unlike the previous one, seems to challenge God and to put Him on trial, so to speak.
Take note of Paul's bold answer, which is really a rebuke. "But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles (Romans 9:20-24)"
If the Arminian understanding of election were true, one might have expected to find Paul responding to this second objection differently. He might have said, "No, no, you have misconstrued me. I am not saying that God chooses to elect people, as He did Jacob and not Esau, completely without regard to the faith He sees in advance in them. By His perfect foreknowledge, God does indeed take into account people's faith when He makes His elective choices. So you see, His elective choices are perfectly fair-- for they anticipate the choices His creatures will make and takes them into account, in accord with His wise purpose. Your accusation that God is being unfair or arbitrary then, is misguided; you have misunderstood my argument." But this is not how Paul answers! Paul does not correct the understanding behind the objection, for it has accurately grasped the basic facts of Paul's argument -- that God, completely independent of human influence, sovereignly chooses specific individuals for election to salvation, in accordance with His own good purpose, and also, hardens others. Nevertheless, Paul rebukes the attitude that lies behind the question. For by the question the objector dares to hold the Creator accountable to the creature.
As Bob Deffinbaugh writes in his article "Divine Election is Questioned":
"The question assumes that if God is sovereign and He has determined all that will happen, then men are no longer responsible. The premise is correct: God is sovereign. God does choose whom He will save and whom He will harden. The conclusion is entirely wrong. The question assumes that if God is sovereign, men are not to be held accountable for their deeds. The answer given later [by Paul] is that God’s sovereignty is such that it gives men a choice and holds them accountable for it [emphasis mine]."
The Potter and the Clay
Paul maintains that even if God chooses some and passes by others, it is His divine right to do so, and by this kind of election God is ultimately working out His own merciful purpose, one that will being the most glory to Himself.
He describes God as a Potter who has absolute rights over His creation (the clay), "to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use (Romans 9:21)." Not only that, but Paul addresses God's purpose in so doing, saying that in electing some and not others God is both "[showing] his wrath and [making] known his power (Romans 9:22)." For, Paul writes, God "has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles (Romans 9:22-24)". In other words, God endures the continual rebellion of the non-elect-- described here as "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction"-- with great patience (for if He wanted to, He could immediately destroy them). Restraining His power to execute judgment upon the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, He is calling out individuals to be saved, not only from among His chosen people of Israel, but now also, from among non-Jews (Gentiles):
"As indeed he says in Hosea,“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” And as Isaiah predicted, "If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah (Romans 9:25-29)."
Mystery, Justice and God's Glory in Election
So we find in Romans 9 Paul describing an unconditional election of individuals from among Jews and Gentiles, one that takes place according the merciful purpose of God, and which saves only a remnant. It is necessary that such an election would be not "of works", because otherwise it would not have as its only source the grace of God given through Christ, but would depend upon the will or exertion of men (Romans 9:16, 10:1-3, 11:6). Think of how industrious Jacob was, in a fleshly way, in his attempts to obtain the blessing of God throughout his life. Yet in the final analysis, the favor he did receive was due entirely to God's grace and not his exertions (Romans 9:16).
Election must also be unconditional so that God, and no other, receives the glory from it. If man can claim even the tiniest part for his election unto salvation, God does not receive the full credit He alone deserves. Of course Scripture teaches that in any case it is impossible for men to boast that it was something in them that enabled them to choose Christ (1 Cor 4:7). Our salvation is a resurrection from the dead; we make no contribution to it (Eph 2:4-7).
Despite the fact that God is sovereign over the process of election, Paul shows that God holds the vessels of wrath accountable for their sins against Him. Clearly there remains much mystery in all of this, for Paul provides no explanation as to why some are elected to receive mercy while others are passed over, when all are equally undeserving. But surely we must not therefore conclude that God's choosing to elect unto salvation some, while passing over others, is unjust.
For if God chose to destroy the entire human race He would be fully justified, since all have sinned and fall short of His glory, and the penalty for sin is death (as Paul has argued previously in Romans 3:23,6:23). Accordingly, there is no injustice if God withholds salvation from those who do not deserve it, and certainly none deserve it. On the other hand, God demonstrates incredible mercy and grace by choosing, from among the great mass of humanity that universally rejects Him, stands condemned in its sin, and deserves nothing but condemnation, some for election unto salvation. This great salvation extends far beyond mere mercy into amazing grace, for God lavishes upon the undeserving chosen ones blessings unimaginable (1 Cor 2:9). At the same time, the justice and wrath of God against sin will be shown in the reprobation that leaves others to the just deserts for their sins, for God will not let evil nor evildoers go unpunished, but will "carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay (Rom 9:28)."
Certainly a great deal more could be said about Romans 9, for example, about the differences between the views of the Calvinist vs the Arminian in their definitions of corporate vs individual election. I direct you however, to an outstanding analysis on this very issue by Tom Schreiner:
CORPORATE AND INDIVIDUAL ELECTION IN ROMANS 9: A RESPONSE TO BRIAN ABASCIANO by Tom Schreiner
My intention had been to make this the "wrap-up" post for answering objections to unconditional election, but there are important objections I'd still like to address. I had better leave them for the next post. I hope however, that the points I've made here have helped demonstrate that there is a solid Scriptural case for unconditional election of individuals to salvation, particularly in Romans, chapters 9-11.
Resources for further study:
God's Purpose According to Election: Paul's Argument in Romans 9 by Steven M. Baugh
The Most Important Chapter in the Bible: Romans 9 by W.E. Best (free online book)
Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible- Romans 9
Divine Election is Questioned (Romans 9:14-23) by Bob Deffinbaugh, Th.M.
A Reformed Response to the Comments of R. C. H. Lenski on Romans 9 by James White
Has God Failed? A bible study on Romans 9 by Lambert Dolphin
Election: Individual vs. Corporate- Links to miscellaneous articles at Monergism.com
Pastoral Thoughts on the Doctrine of Election, Pt. 1 and 2- John Piper
The Joy of Romans 9 by John Piper
The Elect Obtained It But the Rest Were Hardened, Part 1- John Piper
The Elect Obtained It But the Rest Were Hardened, Part 2- John Piper
God's 2 x 4: Romans 9 on The Dividing Line with James White (free audio)