Do the Israelites mentioned in Romans 9:1-5 refer to individuals or to the nation as a whole? In The Justification of God John Piper gives two reasons to prove that it refers to individuals. In my last article I showed that his first argument was not convincing; Paul is just as likely, if not more likely, to grieve over Israel’s national rejection of Jesus as over the rejection of individuals within that nation. But this is only a secondary issue. Piper’s primary argument is exegetical. He claims that to interpret 9:1-5 as the nation does not fit the context of the rest of the chapter, especially the immediately succeeding paragraph: 9:6-13. Is he right?
Many commentators do not think so. They interpret Romans 9 to be a discussion of the collective election of national Israel, not the individual election of specific Israelites. They argue that the passage is not about salvation, but the historical role of the nation in the plan of God. But Piper argues that such a position makes verses 1-5 not fit with the discussion of verses 6-13, and that these commentators fail to even attempt to show cohesion between these paragraphs:
“One looks in vain, for example, among these commentators for a cogent statement of how the corporate election of two peoples (Israel and Edom) in Rom 9:12,13 fits together in Paul’s argument with the statement, ‘not all those from Israel are Israel’ (9:6b). One also looks in vain for an explanation of how the pressing problem of eternally condemned Israelites in Rom 9:3 is ameliorated by Rom 9:6-13 if these verses refer ‘not to salvation but to historical position and task.'” (Justification, 58).
He goes on to say:
“The interpretation which tries to restrict this predestination or unconditional election to nations rather than individuals or to historical tasks rather than eternal destinies must ignore or distort the problem posed in 9:1-5, the individualism of 9:6b, the vocabulary and logical structure of 9:6b-8, the closely analogous texts elsewhere in Paul, and the implications of 9:14-23. This position is exegetically untenable” (Justification, 73).
I believe that Piper has greatly overstated his case, and I will demonstrate point by point why this is so. In so doing I will present an interpretation of Romans 9:1-23 that is not only contextual and coherent, but which also fits neatly into the broader context of Romans 9-11 and the letter as a whole. In addition I will argue that Piper’s interpretation of Romans 9:1-13 does not fit the broad context of chapters 9-11 or the larger context of the letter. Piper’s arguments may be delineated as follows, with numbers in parentheses referring to the page numbers in The Justification of God, where Piper lays out each argument:
1) Verses 1-5 refer to individuals who are not saved, so verses 6-13 must also be a discussion of this theme. Making verses 1-5 to be about national Israel renders the two paragraphs incongruous (64-65).
2) The wording of 9:6b, “all those form Israel, these are not Israel” makes clear that individuals, not the nation as a whole, are in view, establishing a principle of unconditional individual election to salvation (65-67).
3) When compared to Gal 3:26-29 and Rom 2:25-29, Rom 9:6b-8 can be proven to teach that the children of promise that are reckoned as seed refers to the election of individuals to salvation, not of a nation with privileges (67-71).
4) The example of Pharaoh and the discussion of the potter and clay (vv. 24-23) lead to the conclusion that individual salvation and damnation are in view, not national calling (71, see also 151-216).
Wanting to take the proper time to explain and refute each of these four arguments, I will write separate articles for each. Here I will address the first argument.
Piper gives a contextual argument for his belief that Romans 9:1-13 is about individuals, not the nation as a whole. He notes, “Paul’s affection for Israel and Israel’s privileged status do not appear to jeopardize God’s word at all. Romans 9:6a demands, therefore, that we construe Paul’s expressions of love in 9:1-3 as…the ominous assertion: my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh are anathema, cut off from Christ!” (Justification, 44).
Response to Piper
Piper concludes that verses 1-5 must be about individual salvation. Paul laments that his people are not saved, but the problem this raises is not that there are not enough saved Jews to fulfill the promises of God. The problem it raises is that national Israel is called to fulfill God’s promises, but if they have rejected Jesus how can they fulfill them? If individual salvation was the issue, then how do the national privileges of Israel, so carefully delineated in verses 4-5, fit into the picture? In fact, why even mention the national privileges? Piper says these privileges imply the salvation of the people. With that I agree. But if their salvation is the primary point, why only imply it? Why would Paul fail to make an explicit statement of his primary point? why would he list nine privileges of the Israelites without even bothering to mention salvation as one of them, if this was the primary point of this passage? But if the primary point is that Israel as a nation is failing to fulfill her divinely appointed role, then we are not surprised that Paul never mentions salvation in verses 1-5.
Let us walk this out a little further. In verse 4 Paul lists some of these privileges of the “Israelites”: “theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship, and the promises” (v. 4). The question we want to ask is, are these privileges for individual Jews or are they only for the corporate people of God? It should be noted that these are unbelieving Jews that Paul says currently (notice the present tense verbs) possess these privileges. Paul grieves over the fact that they are lost. So on what basis can it be said that individual, non-elect Jews are the present possessors of God’s glory? On what basis can Paul claim that non-elect individual Jews are the current claimants of the adoption to sonship? Paul’s words only make sense if the Israelites he refers to are national Israel, not just a lot of individual unbelievers. Thus we conclude that the reference to the Israelites in verse 4 must refer to national Israel.
Understanding verses 1-5 this way does not render them incongruous with verses 6-13. In fact, it is precisely because the nation that possesses these privileges is residing in unbelief that the problem exists that Paul must solve in verses 6-13. There Paul teaches that there is a remnant, an Israel within Israel, and not all who make up physical, or national Israel also constitute spiritual Israel. So the fact that national Israel lies in unbelief does not thwart God from fulfilling his promises. He will fulfill them in the remnant. This makes perfect sense if the “Israelites” of verse 4 refer to national Israel, but it makes little sense if Paul is speaking only of individuals.
For example, Piper argues that in verses 6-13 Paul explains, “how it can be that many individuals within Israel are accursed, cut off from Christ,” and yet the word of God has not fallen (Justification, 73). His answer is that “the promises of God never were intended to guarantee the salvation of every individual Israelite,” and that “God maintains his sovereign ‘purpose in election’ by determining, before they were born, who will belong to the ‘saved’ among Israel (Justification, 218).
Unfortunately, this answer is incongruous with Paul’s problem as stated in verses 1-5. How does determining the identities of the people that make up the remnant an answer to the problem? The answer to the problem is the fact that a remnant exists, not the identities of its constituent members. That God sovereignly elected a remnant that will carry out God’s purposes solves the problem, but to state that God sovereignly elects each individual within that remnant is beside the point. The sovereign, unconditional election that Paul teaches is the corporate election of the nation, which, in verses 6-13, has been further reduced to the elect within the nation. But the elect is still a corporate entity. In these verses Paul says nothing about the unconditional election of individuals. Piper and other Calvinists make the fatal mistake of applying to individuals what Paul meant for the group.
So then, why does Paul discuss the corporate election of Israel in contrast to Edom? He does this to show that being the natural descendant of Abraham, or of Isaac, for that matter, does not guarantee that you will be part of the group that receives the promises. Not all the children of Abraham are chosen, but only the child of promise. Not all the children of Isaac are chosen, but only the younger one. So we should not be surprised if not all the children of Jacob are chosen. It is consistent with God’s pattern of promise fulfillment. Implicitly, Paul is identifying national Israel with Edom and the remnant with Israel. This is similar to what he does in Galatians 4:21-27, where Paul explicitly identifies national, unbelieving Israel with Hagar and the church with Sarah. So in verses 6-13 Paul shows that only the remnant should be looked at to fulfill the promises of God, and thus there is no reason to fear that God’s word has failed.
It is a common error for Western thinkers to see the individual where an Eastern thinker like Paul saw the group. But when we view Romans 9:1-13 through Eastern eyes we can begin to see the coherence of the passage. The national rejection of Jesus on the part of Israel presented a problem. Have the promises of God to that nation failed? (vv. 1-5). Paul’s answer is no; God has preserved a remnant that will bring the promises to fulfillment (vv. 6-13). To see these two paragraphs as referring to individuals renders them incongruous, leaving no explanation for why Paul lists a series of national privileges, and no explanation for why Paul would teach individual unconditional predestination to answer the problem posed in verse 6a.
In my next article we will take a closer look at the phrase, “all those form Israel, these are not Israel,” and determine whether it refers to individuals or a corporate group.
John Piper. The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.
John Murray. The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, 1964.