Election and Hardening
As I noted yesterday, any discussion of divine election must account for Romans 9. In this section of Romans Paul is not necessarily dealing with the questions we might have regarding divine election. He isn’t addressing why I have received mercy but my friend hasn’t.
He’s addressing specific issues related to Israel’s rejection of the gospel and how that relates to God’s faithfulness.
I intend to discuss Romans 9 over the next two days and then draw things to a close with some conclusions about divine election later this week.
Paul makes two big points in Romans 9:6-18. First, the only basis by which a person enjoys God’s salvation is God’s merciful initiative that comes prior to anything a person does. Second, God is so committed to his mission of saving (both Israel and the nations) that he will harden in unbelief those who choose to become obstacles to God’s salvation.
After expressing personal grief at the unbelief of Israel (vv. 1-5), Paul claims in 9:6 that Israel’s rejection of the gospel does not point to a failure in God’s saving power or in his mission to reclaim the nations of the world.
God has always worked among a remnant of Israel, not the nation as a whole (9:6-13). That is, being Jewish does not give a person the inside track with God for salvation.
In v. 11, Paul says that salvation is not “from works, but because of him who calls.” Salvation isn’t granted to one who faithfully conforms to the social expectations of what constitutes a good Jewish person. Salvation, rather, is dependent on God’s calling.
Paul states this succinctly with regard to God’s choosing Jacob in v. 11. Before either of the twins had done anything good or bad, God made his choice of Jacob, which highlights the dynamic of divine election. God’s commitment to show mercy in salvation comes prior to anything a person does.
Paul restates this in vv. 14-16. Is God unjust because all Israel hasn’t been saved? Not at all. God has the prerogative to have mercy upon whom he desires. Salvation—and God’s mercy—does not depend on human efforts but on God’s mercy and he can dispense that how he wishes (v. 16).
We must keep in mind that Paul is speaking with direct reference here to God’s choice to call and save Israel and not any other nation. Israel did nothing to earn God’s favor and was among the least impressive nations of the earth at that time, but God chose to save them and bring them up out of Egypt (v. 15).
Paul’s reference to God’s divine prerogative in saving Israel leads into his discussion of God’s “hardening.” He is making reference to Pharaoh (vv. 17-18) but we must remember that the larger topic Paul is addressing is God’s “hardening” of Israel (cf. Rom. 11:25).
God’s “hardening” works differently than his showing mercy. Whereas God chooses to show mercy prior to any human action, God’s “hardening” is his confirming a person in his already-decided-upon rejection of God for the purposes of God’s universal saving mission.
Paul makes reference to the Exodus narrative and God’s confirming Pharaoh in his rejection of God’s command to free his people. Again, his larger aim is to shed light on what is currently happening with Israel and their rejection of God’s agent of salvation, Jesus Christ.
Israel has rejected Jesus and the gospel call of God to re-engage their commission to be the agent of God’s salvation of the nations. Because of this, God has hardened them in unbelief so that he can fulfill his universal saving purposes in the new creation people of God. God won’t be stopped in his passionate committment to save, which he is doing in the church of Jesus Christ, made up of believing Jews and Jesus-followers of all nations.
There is obviously much to discuss in this difficult passage, but just a few preliminary conclusions with regard to divine election.
In this passage, “election” refers to God’s mode of saving. God saves prior to anything a person (or a nation—Israel!) does. God sets his love upon a nation or a person before time begins and commits himself to saving them apart from anything they might present to God to place a claim on his mercy.
Election does not refer to God’s treatment of Pharaoh or unbelieving Israel. Unlike God’s mercy, God’s “hardening” comes subsequent to Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart against God. Pharaoh chose to become an obstacle to God’s redemption of Israel. And God was so committed to saving this undeserving nation that he “hardened” Pharaoh in his rejection in order to save. And, as Paul notes in v. 17, God did this to Pharaoh with specific reference to God’s promise to Abraham to redeem Israel and make them an agent of reclaiming the nations of the world.
Paul’s larger point in Romans 9-11 is that God is so committed to his program of reclaiming the nations for the glory of his name that when either Pharaoh or Israel become obstacles to that, God reserves the right to harden them in their already-decided-upon course of unbelief in order to accomplish his universal saving purposes.