John Piper gives four arguments for interpreting the Israelites of Romans 9:1-13 as individuals, not nations. In my previous article we addressed his first argument. This article addresses the second. Piper argues that the wording of the phrase, “all those from Israel, these are not Israel,” requires that individuals, not nations, are in view. He cites Murray in his defense, claiming his argument to be the best presentation of the issue. Murray claims the Arminian interpretation of Rom 9:6-13 does not solve the problem posed in verses 1-5; that if verses 1-5 refer to the nation, then verses 6-13 merely restate that God called the nation, which does not answer the problem, but only restates it.
Paul’s remnant theology
But both Murray and Piper address only one Arminian interpretation of the passage. Interpreting verses 6-13 to be a statement of God’s national calling of Israel to a historical purpose is not essential to Arminianism, and in fact, it is not the correct interpretation of the passage. To understand the correct way to interpret verses 6-13, let us understand exactly what the problem is that is posed in verses 1-5.
Paul needs to explain a misunderstanding that is influencing some in the Roman church. This misunderstanding springs from an observable phenomenon that was perhaps more obvious in Rome than in other cities; namely, that God has stopped blessing Israel and has transferred the blessings intended for Israel to the mostly gentile church. As long as the church was mostly Jewish, it was not obvious that the blessings had left Israel. But when Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome, the church in that city became mostly Gentile almost overnight. The continued blessings on the Gentiles of the church left some of them with a superiority complex over the unbelieving Jews (Rom 11:18), which created a separation that even infiltrated the church, requiring Paul to encourage them to accept one another and to worship together (15:7-10). If God has transferred his blessings to the church, then it is not a long leap to conclude that God has forsaken the Jews and replaced them with the church.
Correcting this misunderstanding is the purpose, not only of Rom 9:6-23, but of chapters 9-11. Paul is going to prove that all Israel is going to experience all the blessings promised her through Messiah Jesus. For Paul to make his point he must demonstrate that God has not forsaken Israel, but is still blessing her today.
Paul begins by stating that the divine privileges still belong to national Israel (1-5). The privileges Paul says are the present possession of unbelieving Israel in verses 1-5 should sound familiar to readers of Romans. The hope of glory (Rom 5:3; 8:18, 30) the adoption of sonship (8:19, 21, 23, the promises made to Abraham (Rom 4:16, 23-24), and even proper sacrificial worship (12:1), are themes Paul mentions in Romans as belonging to the church. Paul’s teaching in the first eight chapters of Romans could easily be misinterpreted to support an incipient version of replacement theology. So when Paul uses present tense verbs to declare that these privileges still belong to unbelieving Israel, that is his first step toward correcting this false doctrine, and he is also setting himself up to later declare the future salvation of Israel.. Though the church possesses these blessings, they are at the same time the exclusive privilege of national Israel. Later Paul will explain that Gentile believers only possess these promises because they have been grafted into the tree that is Israel (11:17). There can be no independent church that is separate from Israel because the privileges belong to Israel and that can never change (11:29). There can only be one people of God. So in verses 1-5 Paul reminds his readers that these privileges still belong to Israel, implying that the church’s enjoyment of them is not independent of Israel, let alone in place of her.
Now Paul must refute the false notion that God has forsaken his people. In verses 6-13 he explains the principle that while national Israel is called to possess these privileges, it is not national Israel, but spiritual Israel that actually experiences the blessings today. The principle that there is an Israel within Israel, which is the true people of God, is illustrated by God’s selectivity in determining who the people of promise will be. Isaac and Jacob demonstrate that God’s call is more precise than first meets the eye. When he made his promise to Abraham and his seed, it was not to all his seed, but only to Isaac, the son of promise. As for Isaac, not all of his seed received the promise, but only Jacob. So it should not be a surprise if not all the seed of Jacob is receiving the promise today. There is an Israel within Israel, a remnant that God has preserved in order to maintain his covenant promises to Abraham.
This Israel within Israel is not just a bunch of individuals who believe in Messiah Jesus; it is a collective group that is called the remnant. The remnant participates in the blessings now through faith, but the national entity is still the rightful possessor of the privileges. This is important to remember, for in a little while Paul is going to prove that the national entity will one day also enjoy all the blessings Messiah brings.
Problems with Piper’s predestinarian interpretation
This interpretation of Romans 9:1-13 holds that Paul is referring to nations, not individuals, and it also shows the coherence of each of the paragraphs, something Piper and Murray argue cannot be done. In fact, it is Piper’s argument that makes it difficult to maintain coherence from the first paragraph to the next. After quoting Murray (as cited above), Piper says: “This confirms Murray’s argument that Paul’s main goal in Rom 9:6b-13…was to establish a principle by which he could explain how individual Israelites were accursed and yet the word of God had not fallen” (Justification, 66, emphasis in original).
But this argument does not hold up well under scrutiny. It is unlikely that anyone would question the promises of God on the basis of many individual Israelites not believing. That has been the case throughout Israel’s history. What makes things any different now? Moreover, Piper’s explanation of verses 6-13 fails to answer the problem posed in verses 1-5. He claims that Paul proves that God sovereignly chooses “who will be the Israel within Israel” (Justification, 73). How does that solve the problem? The simple fact that God has preserved a Jewish remnant corrects the false teaching that God has replaced Israel with the church. Deciding who are individuals that constitute the remnant adds nothing to the argument. So Piper first misunderstands the problem, then provides an insufficient answer to it.
Paul introduces the problem he must answer in Rom 9:1-5. The blessings that were supposed to belong to the nation of Israel are now in the possession of the mostly gentile church. This suggests that God has given up on the Jewish people and turned his favor to the Gentiles. This would amount to God’s promises becoming null and void, because he made them to Abraham and his children. Paul responds to this problem first by affirming that these blessings are still the possession of national Israel, but he goes on to explain that the entire nation has not rejected God. There is and always has been a faithful remnant that enjoys these blessings, proving that God has not forsaken them. God’s modus operandi has always been to identify a people within the people who are the true, spiritual inheritors of the promises.
Paul is not teaching the national calling of Israel in verses 6-13, but neither is he teaching the unconditional election of individuals. His purpose is to teach the election of the remnant, which is not just so many elect individuals, but a distinct group that is called of God to carry God’s promises to fulfillment in the earth. Thus verses 6-13 teach that not all the natural children receive the promises, but only the spiritual children of promise. As long as a remnant of believing Israelites remains, the promises are still active. The subject of verses 1-5 are the corporate group, national Israel, and the subjects of verses 6-13 are the corporate group, the remnant of Israel. The existence of the remnant explains why the rejection of Jesus on the part of national Israel does not jeopardize the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.
My next article will expound on the teaching of verses 6-13, showing that Paul is not talking about individual election, but teaching remnant theology.