In his defense of unconditional individual election, John Piper gives four arguments from Rom 9:1-13 that Paul is talking primarily about individuals and eternal destinies, not nations and historical callings. In addressing the first two of Piper’s arguments attention was on the question of nations vs. individuals. In his third line of argumentation, he attempts to prove that eternal destinies are the subject of verses 1-13. My summary of Piper’s third proof of his argument was stated as: “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.” Actually, in addition to Gal 3:26-29, Piper compares verses 6-13 to Gal 4:21-29 and Rom 2:28.
Piper’s use of Galatians is intended largely to refute the claim of Sanday and Headlam that in Romans 9, the phrases, “children of God” (7b) and “seed of Abraham” (8b) refer to the nation as a whole and refers to its historical role in God’s purposes (see Piper, Justification, 67). Piper s right to identify this group as the “Israel within Israel,” not the nation as a whole. Piper goes on to conclude: “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?” (Justification, 68, italics in original). Paul answers, of course, that the children of promise are the true Israel. Piper then uses comparisons in subject matter and structure between Rom 9:6-8 and Rom 2:28 to prove that “Paul’s concern is for the eternal destinies of those within the nation Israel who are saved and who are accursed” (Justification, 69-71, italics in original).
Spiritual salvation is not a privilege of Israel
There is a sense in which Piper correctly states the matter in 9:6-8. Paul is separating a smaller group from the larger national group, and this smaller group is the true Israel. But Piper assumes two things that I do not think Paul would agree with. first, why does the discussion of salvation have to boil down to individuals? Where does Paul stop talking about groups and begin talking about individuals? Not where Piper claims, for in verses 6-8 the subjects are the same as for verses 1-5, and there it is clearly the group, national Israel. In verses 6-8 Paul focuses on a smaller group, the remnant, not a bunch of individuals.
Second, Piper claims Paul is identifying this smaller group in order to declare that their “salvation is guaranteed by God’s word.” The question whether or not their salvation is guaranteed. The question is, what was Paul teaching in verses 6-8? Paul identifies this smaller group as the proof that God’s word has not failed. If we can identify why people in the Roman church might have thought God’s word had failed, we will see what Paul is arguing in verses 6-8 more clearly, because it serves as a direct answer to that misunderstanding.
Paul believes that because the nation of Israel has rejected Jesus, they are under the judgment of God. This is what Jesus told the religious leaders of his day (Mat 23:37-38), and therefore what the apostles taught, and it is also what Paul taught (1 Thes 2:16). The authoritative teaching of the early church was that God’s wrath was upon Israel for rejecting Jesus, and judgment was imminent. In the historical understanding of the Jewish people, Israel goes through periods of exile and return. The latter comes in times when God forgives and confirms his covenant with his people, and the former occurs when God’s judgment is upon them for their sins. The recent exile of the Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 underscored what was already obvious to everyone in the Roman church; namely that the nation of Israel is currently under God’s judgment. They are in spiritual exile.
This should be remembered when we read in Romans about the wrath of God. In 1:18-3:20 Paul teaches that everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, is under the power of sin and subject to God’s wrath. In 1:19-32 the Gentile world seems to be in view, but in 3:5 it is the Jews. Here it seems the same group is being addressed as in 9:1-13, for Paul introduces the same topic, the advantages or privileges of being a Jew, in 3:1-2 as he does in 9:1-5. The same idea is present in 9:19, where the objection is raised, “Why does God still blame us?” Note the plural pronoun. This is not just an individual sinner talking, but a representative of the nation of Israel. I will show in later articles that the judgment of God on the nation is a theme that runs throughout Rom 9, but for now we will confine ourselves to the second paragraph.
Romans 9:1-13 should be read in the context of the wrath of God being on the nation of Israel for being unfaithful by rejecting the truth. Because of this condition of Israel, some might conclude that God’s word of promise to them through Abraham had failed. How can a nation under judgment fulfill the promise of being blessed and of blessing the rest of the world? Paul’s answer is that there is a smaller group under God’s blessing that exists within the larger group that is under his wrath. The righteousness of God is being revealed in this smaller group, and thus the word of God is still succeeding.
Piper has to teach that individual salvation is in Paul’s mind despite it not being mentioned in the passage. The reason Paul is grieving, he argues, is because these people are lost. But why does Paul give a list of privileges of Israel if the topic is individual spiritual salvation? Piper says these privileges, “imply the eschatological, eternal salvation of this people” (Justification, 65).
Whatever may be implied, it is very important to keep a clean distinction between national privileges and individual spiritual salvation. The former are the unique possession of Israel, while the latter is free for all to receive, and Jews have no advantage over Gentiles in this regard. With regard to eschatological, eternal salvation, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile; neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). That is in fact the whole point of Paul’s teaching throughout Rom 3:21-4:25. All have sinned, meaning Jews and Gentiles alike (3:23), and all are justified freely by God’s grace (v. 24). Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, so the Jews have no advantage there, and since justification is by faith, not pedigree, Jews have no advantage there, either. To insert individual spiritual salvation into the discussion of the privileges of the Jews runs the risk of interpreting Paul in chapter 9 to undermine his own gospel, his calling, and most significantly, his theology as taught in Romans 1-8.
In addition to contradicting Paul’s theological motive in writing, Piper’s interpretation fails to explain the problem stated in verses 1-6, that the failure of Israel suggests that the word of God has failed. Piper claims the spiritual salvation of individuals is the focus of Paul’s discussion: “All the privileges of Israel listed in Rom 9:4,5 imply the eschatological eternal salvation of this people…but many individual Israelites…are damned in their unbelief” (Justification, 65). But if this is the problem, the solution is no help. According to Piper’s interpretation, Paul’s solution to the problem of “many individual Israelites” being lost is that the ones who are saved have been unconditionally predestined by God. The focus is on those who are saved, while the problem is those who are lost. This solution only works if it is supposed that no members of national Israel are saved. As long as we know that some Jews are saved, no one is going to question whether God’s word has failed. It is only when one views Israel as a corporate group that the problem materializes. Israel has rejected Jesus and is under God’s judgment for it. But Israel is supposed to be God’s people, the ones through whom God works out his salvation plan. Has God’s word failed?
Jacob and Esau
As if that were not enough, we are now at the point where Calvinists make the mistake of getting caught up in the discussion of two particular individuals in their support of individual unconditional election. Calvinists claim that Paul is referring to the individuals, Jacob and Esau when he quotes from Malachi 1:2-3: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Two exegetical problems with this interpretation are obvious – not merely exegetical problems for Calvinists, but also for Paul himself. First, everyone agrees that Malachi’s words refer to nations, not individuals, so Calvinists must argue that Paul wrests this Scripture from its context to teach unconditional individual election to salvation.
But second, this interpretation adds a new problem for Paul’s exegesis. The promises God made to Abraham did not specifically include spiritual, eternal salvation, so how can Paul be teaching that doctrine from the Genesis texts he quotes and alludes to? If we look at the promises made to Abraham, they all point to national election to historical purposes. Of course, these historical purposes include salvation, but they are not the main focus, since it must be implied, having never been explicitly named in any of the promises God gave to Abraham, to Isaac, or to Jacob. To interpret Rom 9:6-13 to be spiritual, eternal salvation that is unconditional to individuals, as Calvinists do, is to introduce a topic that is not broached in any of the texts Paul quotes or alludes to in this passage. For this reason I argue that in order for Calvinistic exegesis of Romans 9 to succeed, Pauline exegesis of the Old Testament must fail, and in order for Paul’s interpretation of the Bible to succeed, the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 must fail. Both cannot be correct.
That a corporate remnant of believers experience God’s covenant promises to the nation is taught throughout the OT, but the unconditional election of individuals to salvation is taught nowhere in the OT. This should make it clear what it is that Paul is teaching in Romans 9:1-13. The Calvinistic interpretation of these paragraphs requires one to make Paul into a poor exegete who quotes Scriptures out of context to teach doctrines the Old Testament never taught, and who contradicts himself with regard to the place of faith in the salvation of man. Having Paul teach unconditional individual election in verses 6-13 does not solve the problem posed in verse 6, and links spiritual salvation too closely to the privileges of Israel for Paul’s theology to go unscathed. The only reasonable interpretation of the passage is to see the nation of Israel as the subject and her national calling as the topic, leaving spiritual salvation as an implication of the text, since it is nowhere explicitly discussed.