Election According to Scripture, Pt. 5

I have argued that Scripture uses the language of divine election to speak of God’s unique relationship to his people.  They were on his heart and mind from eternity past and he has sought them out and saved them by his power.  The language of election and God’s choice stresses God’s initiative in salvation.

This language also shapes the identity and mission of God’s people.  God chose them and enfolded them into his love so that they might be agents of his salvation of others currently outside of his love.

Election language, then, is used of God’s relation with his people and is not used to speak of unbelievers.  When Scripture speaks of those outside of God’s love, it uses other terminology to do so.  Scripture does not speak of the “unelect” or “those God chose for damnation.”

No treatment of divine election is complete, however, without discussing Romans 9.  This passage seems to indicate that in eternity past God did indeed elect some unto salvation and others unto damnation.

In the next few posts, I will argue that this is not the case.

Before jumping in we must note that in Romans 9 Paul is not discussing divine election as an abstract theological notion.  He writes to the churches in Rome who are involved in some dispute over ethnically mixed churches—fellowships made up of Jesus-following Jews and non-Jews. 

It appears that some Jewish Christians are using language that indicates Israel’s priority in God’s saving purposes to endorse their claims to superiority (Rom. 1:16; 2:9-10).  They’re God’s elect, after all, so they should have more of a say in how things are done.  Paul’s presentation to them in this letter, then, must address not only their squabbling but the place of Israel in God’s saving purposes.

To this point in the letter Paul has claimed that God’s mission to reclaim and save the nations is being worked out through the righteousness of faith.  This opens the way of salvation to both Jews and non-Jews, and God is forming one new people in Christ made up of all the nations without distinction.

That God is doing this raises a nagging question.  What about Israel?  God had formerly called them as his agent of the salvation of the nations, so what is their role in God’s saving purposes?  Does Israel’s failure point to something deficient in God’s faithfulness or in the power of his saving word?

Paul addresses these issues in Romans 9-11, and he does so to an audience of Jesus-following Jews and non-Jews.  This sets Paul’s discussion of divine election in a very specific context.

We, on the other hand, often read Romans 9 with other questions and concerns. 

We typically want to know about the divine logic of why this person is a Christian but that person isn’t.  Why is it that someone very dear to me doesn’t believe?  Did God choose her for damnation before time began?  On what basis?  Is it really that random?  Does she even have a chance to believe?  If not, how can I regard God as loving?  Do I really want to confess and follow a God who would do something like that?

It isn’t wrong to want to draw theological conclusions from Paul’s discussion in Romans 9.  We can indeed do this.  And, just to point ahead, when we do we’ll find that God’s magnanimous love, his passionate pursuit of humanity, and his justice are overwhelmingly confirmed.

But Paul did not write this passage to address the topic of divine election as an abstract theological concept.  Nor is he speaking to the question of why some people come to Christ and others don’t.  He addresses, rather, the unbelief of Israel—their rejection of God’s saving purposes in Jesus Christ–and how this relates to God’s mission to reclaim the nations for the glory of his name.

The burning question, then, is not, “why did God save me but choose not to save my friend?”

The burning question is, rather, “why has there been this massive shift in God’s saving purposes so that God is pursuing his redemptive program of saving the nations apart from Israel being the agent of that mission?”

17 thoughts on “Election According to Scripture, Pt. 5

  1. Jason A. Staples

    One quibble here, Tim: Paul does not argue that the nations are saved “apart from Israel” but by being grafted into Israel. That’s an important distinction in Rom 9-11, as you know, so best to be precise on that point.

    1. timgombis

      Thanks for that, Jason. I edited the final statement to indicate I meant not that Israel is left out, but that God is carrying out his mission to save apart from Israel being the agent of that mission.

      1. Jason A. Staples

        Thanks, Tim. In my (in progress) dissertation, I argue that Paul is in fact arguing that Israel is still in some sense the agent of that mission, but that hasn’t exactly been the way Rom 9–11 has been read in recent years…

  2. Jaime Hancock

    Tim,
    I just finished Scot McKnight’s book “The King Jesus Gospel”. While I was reading it, I was thinking about this passage. Many have read Romans 9-10 in individualistic terms, and I think that is due to our individualistic, soterian approach to the Bible. When you look at the Jeremiah passage that Romans 9-10 is based on (the potter’s house), and read in light of the audience Paul is writing to, it’s obvious (or should be) that Paul is not talking about individual election, but God’s election of a people group to be the focus of His Kingdom work. In fact, I have often taught when the subject of election to salvation comes up, that Jesus is the only person ever predestined in regards to salvation. Of course, he was predestined to be the Savior. 🙂
    I would also say that Israel still has her original calling to be a Kingdom people. It is in this very passage that Paul says that the gifts and callings of God are without repentance. But what God has done, is through Jesus, opened up the calling of Israel back to all humanity, the way it was always supposed to be.

  3. Andrew

    “He writes to the churches in Rome who are involved in some dispute over ethnically mixed churches—fellowships made up of Jesus-following Jews and non-Jews.”

    This statement is an assumption, and unfounded. Consider this alternative against the bible and history:

    The House of Israel and the House of Judah split with Judah going to Babylon, and Israel going to Assyria.

    What happened in Babylon? The House of Judah, became known as ‘Judah’ and returned after 70 years. This is the ‘stay-at-home-son’ in the Prodigal Son.

    What happened in Assyria? The House of Israel became assimilated into the Assyrian empire, lost their Hebrew language [Isa 28:11][Isa 33:19], lost the name God gave them ‘Israel’ [Jer 23:27][Lam 2:6] becoming uncircumcised [Jer 6:10][Jer 9:26][Eze 28:10], and moving west with the Assyrian Empire; known to history as ‘Leuco-Syrians’ of the 3rd Satrapy, settling in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.

    These same non-Jewish (House of) Israelites were known to Peter [1 Peter 1:1], to James [James 1:1] and the Pharisees [John 7:25]; and are known to us Christian’s as gentile ‘Greeks’. We believe them to be ‘Gentiles’ and non-Israelites, but this believe is wrong because we have imparted false meaning to the Greek word ‘ethnos’ which really only meant ‘nations’ (in Greek)

    Thus the dispute within the churches in Rome was the same dispute the House of Judah and the House of Israel had had for centuries, namely hadn’t the House of Israel been divorced from the Kingdom? The Greek (Israelites) were being rejected by the Jews.

    1. Jason Staples (@jasonstaples)

      That’s not all that far from my argument, although I don’t think Paul is so specific with his “Israelite” people groups. For Paul, the issue is that the Israelites have been mingled among the nations, so those coming to faith in Jesus are restored Israel through the new covenant.

    2. timgombis

      That sounds intriguing, Andrew, but I can’t see how “Israel” and “the nations” in Romans indicates “Judah” and “Israel.” This seems to raise a number of other problems for interpreting Romans.

      1. Jason Staples (@jasonstaples)

        That is indeed a problem with that take, Tim, and another place where I differ with Andrew’s proposal. My take (which was abbreviated in an article in the summer 2011 JBL issue) is that when Paul says, “Israel,” he does not necessarily mean “the Jews” (although Jews are typically included). Rather, “Israel” (most notably πᾶς Ἰσραήλ in Rom 11:26) refers to the full twelve-tribe body of Israel that YHWH promised to restore.

      2. timgombis

        Thanks, Jason — is that the thrust of your dissertation? Are you focusing on ch. 11 or larger components of Paul’s argument?

      3. Jason Staples (@jasonstaples)

        Tim, I’m dealing with larger issues as well. It’s a standard three-chapter diss with the following structure:

        First, I’m addressing how the terms “Israel(ite),” Ἰουδαῖος, and “Hebrew” are used in early Judaism and demonstrating how Jewish restoration eschatology generally expects not only the restoration of “the Jews” (Ἰουδαῖοι = Judahite) but of “all Israel,” including non-Judahite Israel.

        I then take that and look at how it applies to Paul’s Gentile mission, addressing Rom 9–11 and Paul’s application of Israelite restoration passages to Gentiles throughout Paul’s letters.

        Finally, I look at how this all fits within Paul’s new covenant proclamation and how it impacts the relationship between Paul and the Torah.

  4. Andrew T.

    Jason – simply reading Paul’s OT quotes shows exactly who he was talking about since Paul’s OT quotes themselves say.

    Simply reading Romans itself shows exactly who Paul was speaking to; kinsmen, brothers [Rom 1:13][Rom 7:1,4][Rom 8:12,29][Rom 9:3][Rom 10:1][Rom 11:25][Rom 12:1][Rom 15:14,30][Rom 16:14,17] who knew the law and prophets [Rom 3:21,27,28,31]. When Paul pointed out “you are not under the law, but grace” [Rom 6:14-15][Rom 7:4], he was speaking only to Israelites since non-Israelites were never ‘under the Law’. When he argued “.. you have been released from the Law” [Rom 7:6], non-Israelites could not be released from something that never bound them. Only Israelites would understand references to the ‘Law of Moses’ [Rom 10:5] or references to ‘our forefathers according to the flesh’ [Rom 4:1] or ‘our forefather Isaac’ [Rom 9:10]. Paul shared with his audience an ancestry and his audience cared if ‘all Israel was saved’ [Rom 11].

    Only those who studied the prophets [Rom 1:2][Rom 3:21] would have understood references such as ‘the blindness that has come upon Israel’ [Rom 11:25] ‘until the multitude of nations’ comes about (note that [Rom 11:25] is often mistranslated to prop up popular but false doctrine . ἔθνος (ethnos) is falsely given the meaning ‘gentiles’ though the Greek word plainly means ‘nations’ and πλήρωμα (plērōma) (as a form of πλῆθος plēthos) means ‘multitude’, the Greek way of writing גוי מלא (mĕlo’ gowy) a reference to [Gen 48:19]).

    A couple of things must be true for one to read Romans others:
    1. One misses the multitude of references Paul makes in Romans to the effect he shares a lineage with his audience; or
    2. One ignores the OT quotes Paul cites, or is unaware of what those quotes say; or
    3. One is more determined to prop up the theology of convention because one does not understand the history of (the House of) Israel as they were ‘sifted through the nations’ [Isa 30:28][Amos 9:9] with the sieve of destruction.

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