This is the second in a series of posts on the doctrine of election in the NT. Click here to read the first post: Becoming Sons of Light.
In Romans 9, arguably the most extensive treatment of election in the NT, Paul begins with the following argument:
But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” (6-9)
The Greek verb translated “take no effect” literally means “fall away” and is the same verb used in the Greek translation of Isaiah 40:7-8:
The grass withers and the flower falls away, but the word of our God remains forever.
Paul has for eight chapters argued that salvation is found in Jesus, but the nation of Israel has largely rejected Jesus. Paul's readers might therefore conclude that the many promises of salvation which God made to his chosen people have not come true. Paul, of course, does not want his readers to come to this conclusion, and launches into an extensive argument continuing for three chapters.
I believe the key to understanding Romans 9 is recognizing that Paul's opening statement in verses 6-9 is not a new argument. Paul is simply returning to an idea that he has been developing throughout his epistle. The statement, “They are not all Israel who are of Israel,” should remind the reader of the earlier statement in Romans 2:28-29:
He is not a Jew who is one outwardly...he is a Jew who is one inwardly.
Furthermore, the statement, “The children of the promise are counted as the seed [of Abraham],” should remind the reader of Paul's extensive and very important argument in Romans 4:9-18:
Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised. For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, "I have made you a father of many nations") in the presence of Him whom he believed—God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, "So shall your [seed] be."
Notice that in Romans 4, Paul is addressing the same question he is addressing in Romans 9: Who are the sons of Abraham and heirs of the promised salvation? Paul's answer is absolutely revolutionary. He claims that the heirs of salvation are not the merely physical descendents of Abraham, but rather all those who share in the faith of Abraham. Even the Greeks are children of Abraham if they believe on Jesus! Even Gentiles are Jews if their hearts have been circumcised (Rom. 2:28-29)!
This redefinition of the elect people of God is foundational for Paul's theology, and is not unique to Romans. In Galatians 3, as in Romans 4, Paul argues that “those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (3:6). Furthermore, he notes that in the text of Genesis, Abraham's seed is in the singular:
Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your Seed," who is Christ.
Therefore, Paul concludes one is only a child of Abraham if one is in Christ.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (3:26-29)
Note that no one (except Jesus) is born as a true child of Abraham. Even Jews are not children of Abraham until they are joined to Christ! Thus the same image used in my previous post can be used again to illustrate Paul's redefinition of the people of God.
After arguing in Galatians 3 that all believers are sons of Abraham, Paul turns in Galatians 4 to the same story he cites for support in Romans 9: Isaac and Ishmael. Why is this story so significant for Paul? Because both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham in the physical sense, but only Isaac was chosen as Abraham's seed.
It is important to emphasize here that Paul is not using Isaac as a random example of an individual God chose to save. Paul is not saying, “God selects certain people to go to heaven, just as he selected Isaac to go to heaven.” This is a terribly simplistic reading of Romans 9 and Galatians 4. The eternal destiny of Isaac and Ishmael is not even in view. God chose to fulfill his promises to Abraham through the line of Isaac instead of the line of Ishmael, but this does not mean Ishmael went to Hell, anymore than it means Abraham's faithful servant Eliezer went to Hell. (Remeber that in Genesis 15:2-4, Eliezer was, like Ishmael, rejected by God as Abraham's heir.)
For Paul, Isaac and Ishmael are representative of two different groups of people. Recall the account in Genesis. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age, but they began to doubt and took matters into their own hands. On Sarah's advice, Abraham took his servant Hagar and fathered Ishmael. Ishmael, therefore, was the result of Abraham's own effort to attain God's blessing. As Paul states in Galatians 4:24, these things are “symbolic.” Ishmael “was born according to the flesh” (Gal. 4:23), and is thus representative of “the children of the flesh” (Rom. 9:8), the ethnic Israelites who have rejected Christ and still cling to the Law (Gal 4:25, 29). Isaac, on the other hand, was not born as a result of human effort; he was born through the gracious act of God. He “was born according to the Spirit” (Gal. 4:29), and thus represents all those who through faith have been made sons of God by the Spirit of God (see Rom. 8:15, Gal. 4:6). As Paul proclaims to the believing Gentiles in Galatia,
We, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. (4:28)
This, therefore, is the sovereign act of divine election which Paul will expound and defend in Romans 9:
Those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of promise are counted as the seed. (Rom. 9:8)
In other words, just as God chose Isaac over Ishmael, God has chosen the “children of promise” over the “children of the flesh.” Just as God chose Isaac over Ishmael, God has chosen those who have faith over those who have works. Romans 9, therefore, is not a digression into some obscure and frightening theological mystery. This chapter is instead a defense of the central message undergirding Paul's gospel: God has made salvation available to all through faith in Jesus. Paul's argument in Romans 9 flows seamlessly into the proclamation of Romans 10:
Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (10:13)
Many modern readers conceive of election as God's choice of particular individuals. In the OT, however, election was God's choice of a particular group. After bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, God proclaimed,
You shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:5-6)
Years later Moses explained,
Your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deut. 7:6)
In Romans 9, therefore, Paul is not introducing a new understanding of election; he is introducing a new understanding of God's people. The doctrine of election remains unchanged from the OT to the NT: God has chosen the children of Abraham to inherit his blessing and salvation. But who are the children of Abraham? According to Paul, they are not defined by ethnicity, circumcision, or the Law; they are defined by faith in Jesus. For Paul, election is Christocentric; one is a member of the elect people of God only when one is in Christ.
[It is important to note that Paul’s argument does not end here. If Paul stopped at Romans 9:9, we might conclude that the church had completely replaced ethnic Israel. However, Paul is very clear in Romans 11 that God still has a plan for ethnic Israel. They are still destined to receive the promises, but only through faith in Christ.]