Paul's argument about election in Romans 9

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.

donsands | Mon, 04/25/2011 - 13:07 | Permalink

The immediate context of Romans 9 is individuals. Jacob was chosen by God, before either boy did any good or evil. Also Pharoh, an individual, was hardened, and not shown mercy. Bottom line is that God shows mercy to whom He wants to, individually, or corporately, and He hardens whom He wills.


I wonder why God doesn't harden us all really.

Jacob is not just an individual like anyone else. He is Israel; the patriarchs represent the whole people. Similarly Pharoah is a significant individual because he represents Egypts defiance of God’s purposes for his people. Individuals are certainly implicated, but the language of election references not the choice of some individuals and not others but the choice of a people.

Two questions: first, you said "Either way, election in this chapter is corporate, contingent and historical. It has nothing directly to do with the salvation of individuals today." Could you explain then, in your thinking, what DOES salvation have to do with today?

Second you said, "The need for "salvation" arises only when the concrete existence of that community is threatened". What then would you say is the need for "salvation" today? Thanks for your help.

C. Ehrlich | Tue, 04/26/2011 - 20:47 | Permalink

"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....So Israel cannot complain that it is unfair of God...."

It almost sounds as if you are suggesting this argument:

  • Premise: Paul asserts that God has the right to do whatever he wants with the Jews.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, Jews can never legitimately complain of unfair/unjust treatment.

Such an argument would of course be very bad, since it's not as if Paul's mere assertion adds truth or plausiblity to the content of his assertion.  Moreover, without an extra assumption that severly restricts the things that God could possibly want (thereby making this implicit restriction do all the real work), Paul's assertion is just implausible. It'd be more plausible to say that all people can demand of God that he act fairly, and that the standard of fairness has real content, some of which is quite clear.  It would be clearly unfair, for example, to to torture a person for having blue eyes.  It would also be unfair to physically force a person to sit down and then to punish him for doing so. These points remain true even if we are talking not about individuals but about groups of people instead. 





Isn’t there an important distinction to be made between the general philosophical argument about fairness and what I take to be a particular and contextualized argument that Paul makes regarding what God was doing at that moment with respect to his people?

Paul seems quite insistent that there is nothing “unrighteous” (9:14) about God choosing to have mercy on whom he has mercy or destroy the dishonourable vessels. Perhaps “unrighteous” does not mean quite the same as “unfair”. The appeal to the Torah at this point is clearly meant to forestall Jewish objections to his message of a coming wrath.

What do you make of this section? Are we measuring Paul against modern expectations regarding fairness?

The difficulty is to articulate "a particular and contextualized argument" that secures an appropriate conclusion while avoiding being either criticizably ad hoc (unprincipled), or having broader implications for fairness, justice, righteousness, etc--implications which may well conflict with our considered reflections on these matters, whether modern or otherwise.  

The language of verses 19-21 seems fairly general.  That is, Paul appears to be appealing to a principle that is supposed to quite general.  Taken at face value, its implications are morally abhorrent.  

Also I do think we should be somewhat open to the possibility that Paul's assertions here are indeed morally abhorrent, pious as they may sound to first-century Jews and (some) 21st-century evangelicals (and pious as it may be to try to avoid such conclusions about the holy scriptures, and particularly of Paul's epistle to the Romans!). It is just too dangerous to allow religous piety to trump one's ordinary moral sensibilities regarding justice, fairness, right and wrong.  I think Jesus himself teaches us as much.  


Just finished this entry.  I must say, I think I agreed with every single bit of it.  Excellent presentation!  The only thing I continue to be baffled about as I read your many presentations is how you fail to see Revelation’s “lake of fire” in the destruction of Jerusalem.  Especially after you state the following in the presentation:

“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.”

Andrew PerrimanRich | Thu, 07/26/2012 - 16:16 | Permalink

In reply to by Rich

The only thing I continue to be baffled about as I read your many presentations is how you fail to see Revelation’s “lake of fire” in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Rich, these are my reasons:

1. It is the dead, not the living, who are judged in Revelation 20:12-15, some of whom are thrown into the lake of fire. The destruction of Jerusalem was a judgment of the living.

2. The destruction of Jerusalem was not a second death. It was just death, for hundreds of thousands of Jews.

3. What we have in Revelation 20:12-15 is also a judgment of all the dead which are found in Hades—that is, of all dead humanity.

4. The lake of fire puts a final end not only to unrighteous humanity but to death itself (Rev. 20:14). Even in the new heavens and new earth of restored Israel death remains part of the human experience (Is. 65:20).


While there is much that could be stated here in dealing with your reasons, I merely want to offer up just some random thoughts off the top of my head.

The problem off the bat, as I see it, is your definition of “the dead”.  I am consistent throughout the Scriptures with the utilization of Israel as a corporate body.  Thus, in this passage, “the dead” is in reference to Israel as a corporate body (See Max King’s, The Parousia of Christ and The Spirit of Prophesy for development of “the dead” as corporate Israel).  This is dealing with both physically living and physically dead Israelites.  They are “dead” because they’re in the body of Adam (the gentile is not). Adam was Israel’s corporate head, which is why Jesus was Israel’s second Adam who came to fulfill the promises made unto Israel, which started in Genesis, not with Abraham.  That is not to say that Judgement was not also rendered upon the Gentile, another corporate body/man.  See Ephesians 2 (in particularly verses 15-16) where Paul speaks of Jesus creating “in himself one new man in the place of the two”.  We see the Gentile included in Rev. 20 in verse 13.  They dwelled in “the sea”, which you seem to ignore.  You also seem to ignore the fact that John also notes another location of dead ones, those in “Death”.  So, in reality we have “Hades”, “Death” and “Sea” where dead ones originate from to be judge (so your #3 is in error).  “Hades” — physically dead Israelites, “Death” — physically alive or dead Israelites, and “Sea” — the Gentile man (all gentiles whether physically alive or dead).  The reason John states in 20:14 that just Death and Hades, and not the “sea”, were thrown into the lake of fire is because they relate only to Israel.  This was their second death.  The first took place in Adam (in Genesis), the second and final was declared in AD 70.  Your position of whether one goes to Heaven now or later is correct, except for its timing.  The start date for entering Heaven was in AD 70 when “death” (covenant/fellowship death — physical death is not in the picture, never has been) that reigned over Israel, separating Israel from dwelling in God’s presence, ended.  The difference now, post AD 70, is the gentile man can enter into His presence too via Christ.   There is only one body.  Prior to AD 70 the Gentile man was “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” — Ephesians 2:12.  If “man” (Israel and Gentile) was given a promise and hope in Genesis (3:15?), then Paul was in error.

Concerning your #4.  No, the lake of fire does not end all unrighteous humanity.  Revelation 22:14-15 makes this clear with evil dwelling outside the gates, which is all post judgement and establishment of Revelation 21‘s New Heaven and Earth.  When one understands the Scriptures are dealing with covenantal “worlds” (Heaven and Earth language), which start in Genesis 1, it’s all very clear.  This I believe you are missing and thus clouding your understanding.  You also seem, at times, to understand that the Scriptures are Israel’s story/history (which you stress as times), but then are not consistent throughout thus also clouding your understanding of things.

You stated that the lake of fire also puts an end to “death” itself.  I agree, but the death being referred to was Israel’s covenant/fellowship death established in Adam.  You mentioned in the new heaven and earth of restored Israel “death remains part of the human experience”.  What death are you referring to?  If you are referring to physical death I agree 100%.  Isaiah makes this clear.  It also makes it clear that Isaiah and Revelation 21 are speaking of the same New Heaven and Earth.  So if you are going to say that physical death still resides in Isaiah’s New HE then you must have physical death residing in Revelation’s New HE?  What am I missing in your position?

Have to stop there as to not get too long.  I really do recommend you get a hold of Tim Martin’s book, Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation.  I think it would be a good introduction to some concepts that might give you something to consider.