I have been trying for a few weeks to write a response to some difficult questions, put to me by a friend, about the Canaanite genocide, hell, election, and the “ludicrous contortions that a Calvinist needed to make in order to explain how God was fair to judge the non elect”. I have come to the conclusion that this whole issue of “election”, which is so badly represented by neo-Reformed writers and preachers today, needs to be addressed properly. Well, quasi-properly—this is only a blog, after all; it is meant to provoke thought, shake assumptions, imagine alternatives, not provide definitive answers. My plan is to examine the major New Testament passages that have a bearing on the theme in some detail, starting today with Romans 9, and then to write a summary Lexicon piece.
The argument of Romans 9 begins with an expression of Paul’s intense anguish over the condition of his own people. They have the status of sons of God, they have the glory, the covenants, the Law, the service of worship in the temple, the promises, the patriarchs, and the Christ (9:1-5). But despite all that…. Well, what? What is the problem? The problem is that by their “hard and impenitent” hearts they are “storing up wrath” for themselves on the day of wrath, when their God will show himself to be a righteous judge; they will suffer “tribulation and distress”; as a nation they are destined for destruction (2:5, 8-9; 9:22). To use Jesus’ vivid apocalyptic language, they face being burned up in a fiery furnace or thrown into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is the distressing eschatological background against which we must understand the argument about election in Romans 9.
What Paul then asserts is the right of Israel’s God to deal with his people, at any moment in history, according to his own purposes. The Jews have no claim over him. They cannot put forward either their physical descent from Abraham or their works of the Law (however we define the scope of that phrase) as reasons to believe that they will escape the coming wrath of God—as a basis for justification. Right from the start, Paul insists, the existence of a family of Abraham derived solely from an expressed intention on the part of the Creator—a promise, a calling, a choice of the younger boy over the older, an act of sovereign will. They are a chosen people; and the emphasis there is on the God who chooses rather than on the people which is chosen.
So Israel cannot complain that it is unfair of God (cf. 9:19-20) to make his name or his power or his wrath or his mercy (9:17-18, 22-23) known in the world by fashioning “out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (9:21). There is a crucial premise to grasp here, which is that Paul believed that the God of Israel was about to reveal himself to the Greek-Roman world, about to demonstrate his power, concretely, historically, and imminently, through the judgment and restoration of his people. To this end, he has chosen to destroy the “vessels of wrath”, with which his patience has run out, and to glorify the “vessels of mercy”.
This is the grand theo-political strategy that frames Paul’s entire argument in Romans: in order to judge the pagan world—or justify himself in relation to the pagan world—YHWH must first hold his own people accountable (3:6, 19) because they should have been a corporate benchmark of righteousness in the midst of the nations (see The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom).
In a metaphor: the provincial God of Israel, contrary to all appearances, is on a campaign to be recognized across the empire as the one true Creator God, but he needs an ambassadorial community that has credibility and integrity, or as Paul would say, righteousness. Israel according to the flesh, determined by the Law, failed to be that community, despite having the commandments and the other benefits that Paul lists in Romans 9:1-5, despite its visible presence in the synagogues across the Greek-Roman world. YHWH, therefore, has chosen an alternative ambassadorial community, determined not by the Law but by its trusting participation in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So national Israel will come under catastrophic judgment—rejection by YHWH, epitomized by the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It will be laid waste as Sodom and Gomorrah were (9:29). But a remnant, fashioned from the same lump of Jewish clay but including Gentiles who have also been called (9:24), who have been grafted into the rich root of the patriarchs (11:17-24), will be saved through their resolute trust (pistis) in the promise (9:27-29)—and, though this is not part of Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, through their “faithfulness” (pistis) in the face of suffering, as will become apparent when we consider Romans 8:29-30.
In the argument of Romans 9, therefore, the idea of election occurs twice. In the first place, the Creator God chose or elected a people in Abraham for his own purposes. In the context of Romans 9 these purposes have to do primarily with establishing the reputation or name of God in the world, because that fits the theo-political and eschatological narrative that underlies his argument. Secondly, by the same token, God chooses now to destroy and disgrace the larger part of the lump of the descendants of Abraham and to preserve and glorify a smaller part, to which Gentiles have been added, in order that his name and power might be made known to the nations.
Either way, election in this chapter is corporate, contingent and historical. It has nothing directly to do with the salvation of individuals today. The promise made to Abraham was that he would have descendants through Isaac: election determines the existence of this people. The need for “salvation” arises only when the concrete existence of that community is threatened. At that point YHWH again sovereignly chooses a remnant by grace (cf. 11:5, 7), who do not bow the knee to Baal (10:4), who trust in the story of Jesus to the extent that they live out that story in their own lives: election determines the survival of this people. If Gentiles are then also chosen, it is precisely to participate in this theo-political narrative, as we shall see.