Excerpt: Romans 9-11 contains many strong election statements, but this is an election to a mission, not to salvation. God did not elect Israel to benefit that nation alone. God elected Israel as a means to an end; a tool through which God could save. Through them, God maintained His word on earth and gave the world its Messiah.
The purpose of the article on Romans 9 – 11 is to determine what the name “Israel” means in the New Testament. Both Romans 9 and 11 contain strong election statements. The article on Romans 9 and 11 discusses these chapters verse by verse. It, therefore, comments on these election statements in four different sections. The purpose of the current article is to bring these thoughts together into a single article.
It is advisable that the article on Romans 9 and 11 is read before the current one.
STRONG ELECTION STATEMENTS
The article on Romans 9 – 11 argues that the question in these chapters is why Israel failed. Both Romans 9 and 11 explain Israel’s failure as God’s decision, namely that God elected a remnant. Romans 9:6 refers to the remnant as the (true) “Israel”. The election of the true Israel is explained in Romans 9 using the example of Jacob, which is concluded as follows:
Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Rom 9:13)
This sounds unfair, and Paul is quick to explain that election does not depend on what the individual wants or does (Rom 9:16), but only on God’s mercy (Rom 9:15):
He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Rom 9:18)
This verse is part of the discussion of the election of Jacob. God had mercy on Jacob but hardened Esau. But since Romans 9 uses Jacob as an example of the election of the true Israel (Rom 9:6), it means that God had mercy on the true Israel, and hardened the rest of Israel.
The election of the true Israel is also illustrated with the Potter’s vessels (Rom 9:19-21), where it is argued that the potter has the right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use (Rom 9:21).
Romans 11:1-10 describes the remnant in clear election language as “His people whom He foreknew” (Rom 11:2), “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (Rom 11:5) and as those who were “chosen” (v7). In contrast, the “rest” of Israel (Rom 11:7), which is that part of Israel that has been rejected through the election of the remnant, is described as hardened (v7).
Most people seem to understand these verses to say that God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. But it is proposed here that there is no need to read election to salvation into these verses, as explained below:
ISRAEL AS A NATION WAS ELECTED FOR THE MISSION.
Romans 9 uses Jacob (later renamed Israel) as an example of the election of the true Israel of Rom 9:6, but the election of Jacob never meant that he and his descendants are saved, as Paul makes clear in Rom 9:27. The election of Jacob was a corporate election to perform a specific mission for God on earth, namely to be the vehicle for the promised blessings to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). In particular, God elected Israel as the nation from which the world’s Messiah, Jesus Christ, will be born, which is the ultimate blessing promised via Abraham (see Rom 15:8; 2 Cor 1:20; Gal 3:16 and 3:29).
Neither does the election of the nation of Israel mean that all other people on earth are lost. Many examples can be listed from the Old Testament of non-Israelites that were saved. Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were kings from foreign nations that probably were saved. The Gentiles that “do instinctively the things of the Law”, even though they do not have the law, are saved (Rom 2:14).
The example of Jacob teaches that one must differentiate between the chosen and the saved. These groups overlap, but they are not the same. To be chosen for a mission does not guarantee salvation.
HARDENED TO SAVE
Romans 9 uses Pharaoh as an example of the hardened rest of Israel, but Romans 9 also indicates that God’s purpose in hardening Pharaoh was to save, not to send Pharaoh to hell. He hardened Pharaoh by making him dull so that he would not understand the implications of the miracles he was experiencing. But the important point is that He did this to show His power and to reveal Himself to Egypt and, by implication, to the entire needy world (cf. Rom 9:17).
It is important to understand how hardening works. God could have used a person, supported by miracles and wonders, similar to the way in which God used Moses, to cause Israel to accept Jesus, despite the fact that most of them are eternally lost. But God hardened Israel by allowing non-believing leaders in the Jewish hierarchy to influence the nation’s decision against Jesus. Similar to the hardening of Pharaoh, the purpose of the hardening of Israel was not send people to hell, but to save. God purposefully hardened Israel (Rom 11:5) to make the gospel available to non-Jews (Rom 11:12, 15).
Therefore, whether God elects or hardens, He does everything to save. Election and hardening do consign people to hell or to heaven.
HARDENED PEOPLE MAY STILL BE SAVED.
In response to the frightening description of the hardened Jews in verses 7 to 10, the final section of Romans 9-11 starts as follows:
I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. (Rom 11:11)
“Stumble” refers back to Rom 9:31-33, where Jesus was described as a stumbling stone, over which Israel stumbled.
The meaning of “fall” must be determined by the context, and the verses that follow after verse 11 contain many indications that it is still possible for hardened Israelites to be saved:
1. Salvation has come to Gentiles to make Israel jealous (Rom 11:11, 14) (so that they might desire that which God’s chosen has obtained – see Rom 11:7).
2. They may still experience “fulfillment” and “acceptance” as opposed to their “transgression”, “failure” and “rejection” of the past (Rom 11:12, 15).
3. Paul wishes to “save some of them” (Rom 11:14).
4. God is able to graft them in again (Rom 11:23).
“Fall” therefore means to permanently remain stumbled, without the hope of returning to God. The statement “they did not stumble so as to fall” therefore means that, although they have been “hardened” (Rom 11:7), these Jews may still return to God.
Hardening, therefore, does not consign people to hell. Consequently, election, the opposite of hardening (Rom 9:18), is not eternal salvation.
THE INTENSITY OF THE ARGUMENTS
Someone argues that the very intensity of the arguments in these chapters must mean that they refer to salvation. Not so. Everywhere he went Paul first spoke to the Jews, and Israel’s election was very important to them. To teach the Jews that they are no longer the chosen nation was no small matter.
THE SAVED AND THE CHOSEN THE SAME IN PAUL’S DAY (9:30-10:21)
Romans 9:30-10:21 explains salvation by faith (Rom 9:30) by contrasting it with the pursuit of righteousness through works (Rom 9:32). In sharp contrast to the first part of Romans 9, this section does not use election language at all.
Since Romans 9:30-10:21 is an explanation of the vessels in the potter illustration, the mercy-vessels (us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles) also are the people in 9:30-10:21 that pursue righteousness by faith. If the election in Romans 9 – 11 is an election to a mission, and not to salvation, why are the elected (the mercy-vessels) the same as the saved?
This is explained here as follows: There always was a vast difference between the saved and the chosen nation in OT times (Israel). Few members of the chosen nation were saved while many non-Jews were saved.
In Paul’s day, the real believers became visible as the people that believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and God elected to use this remnant as His new chosen nation. At that point in history, the chosen nation (chosen for a mission) and the saved were the same, to a great extent. Given this historical context, Paul could correctly imply that they are the same. As the new chosen nation (the remnant) developed into formal organizations and adopted heathen teachings and customs, it became socially acceptable, and unconverted people joined its ranks. The Christian movement became similar to Israel of the OT, with a vast difference between the saved and those that call themselves Christians. Few church members are saved while many non-church members are saved.
Paul implies that the chosen and the saved were the same in his day, but that was due to his unique historical situation.
Election in Romans 9 is national and corporate, and therefore not to salvation. But the election in Romans 11:1-10 is the election of individuals; not of a nation. God has kept for Himself (Rom 11:4) a remnant (Rom 11:5), which is just a group of individuals. Does this prove that this election is election to salvation?
No. In Romans 11 Paul uses himself as an example of the election of the remnant. People speak about Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but that was not his conversion. It was his call to a mission:
the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)
For Paul, Damascus was a change of facts, not a change of heart. Conversion is not learning new facts. Satan never doubted God’s existence or goodness, but still, he sinned. Having the right facts does not save you. Previously Paul was convinced that Jesus was a deceiver. That was what his teachers told him, and he believed them. His facts were wrong. When his facts were changed on the way to Damascus, it did not immediately change his heart. He was the same old fire-breathing Saul. The new facts found fertile soil in his heart, but he had a long way to go before he could stand before God on the basis of mercy only, not on works, as he was brought up to believe. Until he realized that he was the foremost of sinners (1Tim 1:15), he remained in danger of eternal loss. To be chosen as an individual, therefore, does not guarantee salvation.
The remnant, of which Paul serves as an example, has been called individually to the mission of taking the gospel of Jesus to the world, but even an individual call does not guarantee salvation.
THE OLIVE TREE
The olive tree illustrates the election in Romans 9 and 11:1-10. It symbolizes this election by God breaking off branches from the tree (Rom 11:17, 20-22) and grafting in other branches (Rom 11:23-24). The broken-off branches are the hardened “rest” of Israel. The remaining tree is the chosen remnant. This confirms that these chapters do not deal with election to salvation, because, if it was true that God decides who should be saved, then He would not change His mind. Rather, the olive tree is an illustration of the transition from Israel corporately as the chosen nation to the election of the remnant.
Consider the statement in Rom 11:28:
they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers
They are simultaneously enemies and beloved. They are enemies because they are not saved (Rom 10:1), but they are beloved because of the election (of the fathers – see the main article). Here again the message is that salvation and election are two different things.
Some people emphasize the Bible verses that speak of God’s sovereignty and under-emphasize those verses that speak about human freedom. But between Romans 9 and 11, with their heavy focus on God’s sovereignty and the fate of the chosen nation, we find Romans 10 (actually from 9:30 to the end of Romans 10), with its emphasis on righteousness (9:30; 10:3), salvation (Rom 10:1, 10, 13), faith (Rom 10:4, 6, 9) and human freedom (Rom 10:11, 13), with statements such as:
Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed (Rom 10:11).
Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom 10:13).
In contrast to this section, there is not a single word about salvation in the verses that discuss election (Rom 9:13-21). People read salvation into the election verses.
God’s sovereignty and human freedom are both realities. Human freedom is related to salvation, as indicated by the context in Romans 10, while God’s sovereign choice relates to who He uses in a special as the vehicle of His grace, as is indicated by the context in Romans 9 and 11.
The lack of emphasis on election to a mission is a flaw in Dispensational thinking. Because they frequently do not recognize the election in Romans 9 and 11 as election to a mission, Dispensationalists make Israel the end (purpose) of God’s election, instead of the means to an end. In contrast, this document proposes that the gifts and promises God gave to Israel were to make them a blessing to the nations of the world. Through them, God sent the Messiah to the world. Through them, God maintained His word on earth and wrote the Bible. Through them, God sent the gospel into the world. Israel was elected to be a means—to be a tool in God’s plan of salvation—not an end in itself.
We should not be concerned about who will be saved and who will be lost. We must leave that to God. He alone can judge, and we must trust Him to do that perfectly. God continually works in the heart of every person on earth to lead them to accept His principles. Who will be saved and will be lost is a mystery beyond current human understanding. God will clear up the mess on earth and recreate a perfect world in which complete harmony and love will reign:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and … I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
- Romans 1: God will not override human freedom.
- Romans 2: The doers of the Law will be justified.
- Romans 3:1-8: Did God reject Israel?
ROMANS 9 AND 11
- Complete Article: Who Israel is in the Book of Revelation?
- All Israel will be saved: Topical summary of the previous article
- Election: God chose Israel to save the nations of the world.
- 1-4 – The dispute in Rome was not over the Law of Moses.
- The meaning of the word “unclean” (koinos)
- Why new Christians feared eating meat sacrificed to idols.
- 5-6 – Is the Sabbath is optional?
- 7-13 – God will judge all people by their deeds.
- 13-23 – Rather abstain from meat than causing a brother to stumble.
For a more complete description of these articles, see the List of available articles on Romans. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.