Does the passage in Romans 9 teach national or individual election?
I was listening to a debate on Iron Sharpens Iron, hosted by Chris Arnzen, between Dr. F. LeGard Smith and Dr. Lawrence Carrino. It was a five hour debate that took place over five days on the one hour radio show. Dr. Smith held the position opposing Calvinism while Dr. Carrino was in support of it. Dr. Smith once again provided another example of a semi-Pelagian who distorts the Calvinists understanding of salvation. One of the things that stood out to me was Dr. Smith’s assertion that Romans 9 is about national election and not individual election. He never did an exegesis of any scripture to prove his point, he merely asserted it. You can hear his view of Romans 9 during show one and during his closing arguments on show four. You can also add Dr. Smith to the list of people who claim Calvinism is heretical.
Context of Chapter 9
9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
The Apostle Paul is being very emphatic in vv 1-3 in regards his feelings for Israel and their state of reprobation. In the opening verse he employs both Christ and the Holy Spirit in the truth behind his claim that he would wish to take the place of his Jewish brothers, that he would be the one accursed in place of the them. It’s clear that Paul has a deep love and regard for his brothers but he also makes a distinction. In v. 3b, he clarifies that the Jews are his brothers, not of the spirit but of the flesh. This is very important especially in what he will go on to say later in this chapter but also later in his letter, especially in the following two chapters.
In vv. 4,5 Paul begins to make the claim as to the importance of the history of being an Israelite. It was Israel to whom the adoption, glory, the law, worship and the covenants by whom the patriarchy was established through whom the Christ came. In two brief verses, Paul has made a claim for the importance of being an ethnic Jew for it is through them that God has decided to enter into communion with and not anyone else.
If Paul wrote of the importance of the ethnicity in vv. 4,5 why was he so emphatic in vv. 1-3 about wishing to take the place of the accursed Israelites who are cut off from Christ? Because of what vv. 6, 7 tell us.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”
I want to address the immediate implication of the fact that not all who are ethnic Israel are Israel, and just in case you didn’t get it the first time, Paul again states that not all who can claim to be the progeny of Abraham are his offspring therefore the promises are not theirs. The reason for Paul’s emphatic appeal to take the place of his brothers of the flesh, not the spirit, was that they were accursed and cut of from Christ because although the promises were meant for them it is not a physical people or an ethnic people to whom the promises belong but to a people of the promise, a spiritual people.
If we are to take a national meaning in the interpretation of these passages from the first part of Romans 9, it would turn the meaning upside down. In v. 3 we get the first usage of the pronouns in question, “my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul is speaking in terms of the individuals within the nation of Israel whom are his brothers. From the beginning of the chapter he is using pronouns when speaking of the individuals. It is the individuals that are separated and accursed not the entire nation of Israel. If it was the nation that was cut off and accursed that would have some serious covenantal implications. How can it be said that this passage has to do with nations rather than individuals when there were covenant promises for the nation?
This would be a problem for one who holds to Dispensational Theology. If there isn’t a distinction between the Church and Israel, then there is no problem with ethnic Israel being accursed and cut off from Christ as the true believers, both Jew and Gentile would still hold claim to the covenant promises. Paul makes sure to clear this up by saying that not all the descendants of Abraham are the children of Abraham and not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. The true Israel is not that of the flesh, like Ishmael but rather they are of the promise as Isaac. Clearly this language is of individuals and not nations.
Backtracking to chapter 8
What is Paul speaking of regarding the failure of the word of God? For that, we have to go back to chapter 8, remembering that chapter and verse divisions were not part of the original manuscripts so that there is no break between chapters. The promise is that of adoption and perseverance and eventually glorification. More importantly it is these promises that are made to individuals not nations.
By following along with the context, grammar and syntax as well as the verbs and pronouns we can clearly see that the promises are for individuals and not for nations and the theme continues through to chapter 9. In v. 1 of chapter 8, it is individuals that are in Christ and individuals that are set free in Christ(v. 2) v. 4 speaks of the righteous requirements of the law and although the law was given to the nation of Israel the fulfillment of the law under the old covenant administration was by the individual. That is, the individual was the one who had to go to the temple to offer a sacrifice during the Passover, etc.
vv. 12-17 further emphasize the fact that this is about individuals and not nations. Does it not follow that when Paul uses the pronoun brothers, he is speaking of individuals for who can make the claim that brothers is ever used of nations? Or what of the use of sons in v. 14, adoption in v. 15 , the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit in v. 16 or what of v. 17 and the use of heirs, fellow heirs, suffer with him and glorified with him? These nouns and verbs clearly demonstrate that this is about individuals. Nations do not suffer with Christ nor are they glorified with him, nations are never mentioned as sons nor are they adopted nor does the Spirit bear witness with the spirit of a nation, these are all personal nouns and verbs.
To continue answering about the word of God not failing as was mentioned in v. 6 of chapter 9, Paul gives us the Golden Chain of Redemption. It is not the full Ordo Salutis, or order of salvation but we have a very lucid passage of the sovereignty of God in salvation.
28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
I first want to make note of the subject of the vv. as well as the predicates. God is the subject and it is he that is doing the calling(v. 28) foreknowing, predestining and conforming(v. 29) finally it is God that is calling, justifying and glorifying(v. 30). Again, this is God whom is doing these things to individuals and not nations. If we try and make the application here to nations we lose the context, grammar and syntax. The use of foreknew is as a verb and not a noun, as many would like for it to mean foreknowledge. God did not call, predestine, conform, justify and glorify on the basis of him knowing who would respond in faith but rather it is an intimate foreknowledge of the elect. This will be further clarified in v. 11 of chapter 9.
From vv. 31-39 we have the promise of perfection and of perfect salvation to those whom God has called according to his purpose, and it is for this reason that Paul emphasizes his sorrow for the lost Israelites but also is sure to identify the true recipients of these promises and it is those whom God has called in the same manner as he called Jacob, both Jew and Gentile.
Back to chapter 9
8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
This continues the theme of individuals and not nations as it would be impossible to fit a national paradigm into this verse. More importantly are the implications regarding the children of promise. The child of the flesh and the one of promise are allusions to Issac and Ishmael. God did not accept Ishmael as the child of the promise, thus it is said that he is the child of the flesh while Isaac was the child of the promise(Gal. 4:23-28) thus all believers are children of the promise as well.
9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
This is the hinge upon which this whole chapter turns. Is Paul speaking of nations, Israel and Edom or is he speaking specifically of the twins? The context up to this point has been of individuals, the verses leading up to this passage have been of individuals. In v. 8 it is individuals who are the children of God not nations therefore v. 9 is speaking specifically of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. There is no mention of national election or national privilege but of the election of said individuals. God made a promise to Abram(Gen. 15) that he would give to Abram a male heir and from this male heir he would have offspring that could not be counted! And this is the saving faith of Abraham, that he would be given a son of promise by whom his offspring would be many nations. The fulfillment of this is the grafting in of the Gentiles into the tree of Israel, but the Gentiles are not grafted in as nations but as individuals. There are no elect nations outside of Israel and the true Israel is made up of both Jew and Gentile.
In v. 10 we have the implications of the children of promise from v. 8 in that the children of the promise are a specific group. That is why God did not accept Ishmael as the child of the promise, the promise was specific to Isaac though he was not yet born. The children of the promise, those whom can be called the children of God are a specific group having been elected before the foundations of the world(Eph. 1:4-5.)
Furthermore, v. 11 speaks specifically to those who wold claim that election is based on individual selection. That God looks down the corridor of time to see who would have faith and therefore he elects based on personal choice is utterly ridiculous based on v. 11 alone. It is a two-fold cudgel with which Paul smashes the man centered notion that God merely reacts to our choice of faith. First he states that God’s election is not based on anything that has been done, either good or bad because God has elected before the twins were even born. God did not look down the corridor of time to see who would do anything by which he can then choose one or the other. Much more than that, Paul has already told us about the condition of man, that there none who are righteous and not one who seeks after God(3:10-12) but they cannot even do anything to please God(8:7-8.) It was not necessary for God to look to see who would do good or bad since there isn’t a single person capable of doing good in the sight of God. This why the use of “foreknew” of 8:29 is not of the foreknowledge of God but rather it is of the intimate knowledge of his elect.
The second part of this two-fold statement is that of the sovereignty of God in choosing whom he wills to choose. It is God’s purpose, God’s election and God’s calling. There is no mention of man’s will or his purpose only of God’s will and purpose. Just as with Jacob, he was not a good man, he usurped his brother’s birthright and blessings. Jacob traded lentil stew to his brother Esau for his birthright even though Esau was exhausted unto death(Gen.25:29-34.) Jacob later deceitfully takes Esau’s blessing and Isaac tells Esau that he will serve his brother, Jacob(Gen. 27.) It is when we begin to see the sinfulness of man, how utterly incapable he is of doing what is good in the sight of God that we can appreciate his love. It is not surprising that God hated Esau, what should be surprising to us is that he loved Jacob.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.