What kind of election is found in Romans 9:6-13?

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

The second question that arises from the phrase “electing purpose of God” is what kind of election is being referred to in these verses? This question is the primary focus of this paper. The three most prominent answers to this question are 1) God’s election determines the role of individuals and nations in history, 2) God’s election is corporate rather than individual, and 3) God’s election determines the eternal destiny of individuals.

In support of the first view, that God’s election determines the role of individuals and nations in history, it is argued that the Old Testament references found in 9:6-13 do not refer to individual or eternal destinies in their original contexts.  Morris writes, “Paul intends a reference to nations rather than individuals.”[1]  Thus the argument goes, “Esau did not in fact serve Jacob, though the Edomites in time came to serve the Israelites.”[2]  With this Old Testament context in mind Sanday and Headlam write, “The absolute election of Jacob-the loving of Jacob and the hating of Esau-has reference simply to the election of one to higher privileges as head of the chosen race, than the other.  It has nothing to do with their eternal salvation.  In the original to which St. Paul is referring Esau is simply a synonym for Edom.”[3]  Additionally, Schrenk views this election as a reference “not to salvation, but to position and historical task.”[4]  He goes on to state that “If in the story of the patriarchs the [election] of the one implies the setting aside of the other, the application is to the present precedence of the Gentile Church and the setting aside of Israel.”[5]  Ironside goes so far as to dismiss the need for controversy when he states,

What a tremendous amount of needless controversy has raged about these verses!  Yet how plain and simple they are, viewed in light of God’s dispensational dealings.  There is no question here of predestination to heaven or reprobation to hell; in fact, eternal issues do not really come in throughout this chapter…  But we are not told here, nor anywhere else, that before children are born it is God’s purpose to send one to heaven and another to hell…  The passage has to do entirely with privilege here on earth.[6]       

The second view to be considered sees God’s election as corporate rather than individual.  This view, like the first, sees Paul’s reference to Jacob and Esau as a reference to nations rather than individuals.  However, the conclusion drawn from this supposition differs from the first view in that it does see soteriological implications in the passage, though they apply corporately rather than individually.  Thus Bruce writes, “The way in which communities can be so freely spoken of in terms of their ancestors is an example of the common oscillation in biblical (and especially Old Testament) thought and speech between individual and corporate personalities.”[7]   Shank further explains this position when he writes, “The election to salvation is corporate and comprehends individuals only in identification and association with the elect body….”[8]  “Thus the election of Israel, and individuals are elect only in identification and organic union with the body through faith.”[9]  This view seeks to resolve the paradox that is perceived as inherent in the historic reformed view of election.  Shank sees “no place in [Calvinism] for faith as something in man that God takes account for.”[10]  For Shank, and others who hold this view, faith is a condition of salvation and thus creates a paradox between faith and election.  “The paradox is to be resolved… by recognizing that the election is corporate rather than particular, that it comprehends all men potentially, that God wills to have all men to be saved and not to perish or to fail to come to repentance….”[11]

The third and final view to be discussed understands God’s election to be determinative of the eternal destiny of individuals.  Supporting this view Hendrickson asserts, “The divine purpose, springing from election and executing its design, determines who are saved.”[12]  This view can take one of two forms.  Either Paul’s reference to the Old Testament figures in 9:6-13 refers to their own election unto salvation, or it is a reference to their election unto national headship that teaches the principle of God’s sovereign election, which in turn applies in this context to salvation.  As Piper puts it, “whether Paul sees the election of Isaac as the election of an individual to salvation or as the election of his posterity for a historical task, the principle of unconditional election is immediately applied by Paul to the present concern, namely, who in reality does constitute true, spiritual Israel, whose salvation is guaranteed by God’s word?”[13]  The strength of this argument lies in its understanding of the immediate context of 9:6b-13, and Paul’s larger argument within chapters 9-11.  In 9:6b-13 Paul is out to prove that the word of God has not fallen.  The need for this defense arose because of the many Jews who had rejected Christ.  Thus, Paul is making the point in 9:6b-13 that “God’s promises have not and cannot fail, because they are based on his call, which is always effective, and on his promise, which is guaranteed.”[14] 

Of the three views, the third should be accepted because it properly takes into account the logic of Paul’s argument concerning the salvation of individual Jews and the word of God.  Paul is arguing that God’s word has not fallen with respect to the unbelieving Jews because God has always chosen who will believe based upon His purpose according to His choice.  If this election determines the role of individuals and nations in history rather than the eternal destiny of individuals, then the thrust of Paul’s argument would be completely lost.  However, if this election determines the eternal destiny of individuals then the thrust of Paul’s argument remains in tact. Therefore, a proper interpretation of Romans 9:6-13 must view God’s election mentioned in 9:11 to be determinative of the eternal destiny of individuals.

[1]Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, 356.[2]Ibid., 356.[3]William Sanday, Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh, UK: 1895), 245. [4]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vols. 5-9 Edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 Compiled by Ronald Pitkin., ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964-c1976), 4:179. [5]Ibid., 4:179.  [6]H. A. Ironside, Lectures on the Epistle to the Romans (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers Inc., 1928), 116.  [7]F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans: an introduction and commentary 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 182.  [8]Robert Shank, Elect in the Son (Minneapolis, MINN: Bethany House Publisher, 1989), 48.  [9]Ibid., 50. [10]Ibid., 114. [11]Ibid., 114.  [12]William Hendriksen, Exposition of Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids,MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 320.  [13]Piper, The Justification of God: an Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 68. (Emphasis mine)  [14]Thomas R Schreiner, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 6, Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 495.