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?”