Much theological debate centers around the doctrine of election. No one debates whether election is biblical, but they do debate the meaning of election. I believe in what is called unconditional individual election. It is an understanding shared by all Calvinists, of whom I identify.
Those who oppose the view of unconditional election normally believe in some sort of conditional election or corporate election (or a combination of the two). Corporate election is the belief that God elects nations to take part in his plan, not individuals to salvation or justification. So, when Romans 9 speaks of God’s election of Jacob over Esau, Paul is speaking of God’s choosing the nation of Israel to have a special place in salvation history. They will go on to interpret all of Romans 9-11 in light of this assumption.
However, I don’t believe that Romans 9-11 is talking about corporate election, but individual election. Here are eleven reason why:
1. The whole section (9-11) is about the security of individuals.
Election of nations would not make any contextual sense. Paul has just told the Roman Christians that nothing could separate them from God’s love (Rom. 8:31-39). The objection that gives rise to chapters 9-11 is: “How do we know that these promises from God are secure considering the current (unbelieving) state of Israel. They had promises too and they don’t look too secure.” Referring to corporate election would not fit the context. How could it? Would Paul be saying to the Roman Christians, “Don’t worry. You are corporately secure just like Israel. Let me demonstrate.” But if Paul were to respond by saying that it is only the elect individuals within Israel that are secure (true Israel), then this would make sense. Individual Christians are secure because all elect individuals have always been secure.
2. In the election of Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:10-13), while having national implications, starts with individuals. We cannot miss this fact. It is a part for the whole. Without the election of the individual Jacob, Israel would not have experienced corporate election. Paul uses this only to show that it has always been characteristic of God to exercise his sovereign choice.
3. Jacob was elected and Esau rejected before the twins had done anything good or bad. There is no mention of the nations having done anything good or bad. If one were to say this is only nations that Paul is talking about, it would seem that they are reading their theology into the text. Again, the emphasis here is to draw a connection between the type of election Paul just promised the Romans (Rom. 8:33) and the election of Jacob. Jacob’s election was not a just reward for any service, good or bad, and neither is the election of the Roman believers.
4. Rom. 9:15 emphasizes God’s sovereignty about choosing individuals: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” The pronoun hon (whom) is a masculine singular. If we were talking about nations, a plural pronoun would have been more natural: “I will have mercy on those whom I have mercy.” Even then, the whole is made up of the parts. The individuals in this set group would still be elect. God’s mercy is a sovereign selective mercy. While you and I may be like this objector, scratching our head, wondering why he does not choose everyone or why He judges anyone who seemingly can’t change who they are, the tension of this passion is intentional and the resolution (or lack thereof) follows suit.
5. Rom. 9:16 is dealing with individuals, not nations. “So then, it does not depend on the one who desires or makes effort, but on the mercy of God” (my translation). theolontos (desire) and trechontos (effort) are both masculine singulars that is why it is translated “the one” rather than “those.” (BTW: I don’t like ESV’s translation of this [“man’s”] as it is misleading and, ironically(!), supporting of corporate election). It is hard to see national implications at all here. It is about individual desire and effort. The acquisition of God’s mercy transcends the ability of man.
It is important to see Paul’s use of the conjunction ara oun (“so then”). It is used only by Paul twelve times, eight in Romans. It is used to conclude or extend an argument. He uses it here and in 9:18 to bring the reader’s understanding to a sharp, if not tripod, conviction. It summarizes his arguments which preceded, including the arguments about Jacob and Esau. Again, if this is the case, then his conclusion about God’s dealings with Jacob and Esau focus on the implications of his dealings with man, as individuals, not cooperate entities.
6. Once again, Rom. 9:18, speaking in the context of the hardening of Pharaoh, Paul summaries what he is trying to say using masculine singular pronouns: “Therefore, the one God wishes to have mercy on, he has mercy on. The one he wishes to harden, he hardens” (my translation). It would seem that if Paul was merely speaking about national or corporate election, the summary statement would change from Pharaoh to nations (plural), but the summary here emphasizes the sovereignty of God’s will (theleo) over individuals (singular).
7. The charge of injustice in Rom. 9:14 makes little sense if Paul were speaking about corporate or national election. Injustice (adikia), of which much of the book of Romans is seeking to vindicate God, is not only out of place, but could easily be answered if Paul was saying that the election of God is only with respect to nations or has no salvific intent.
8. The objection in Rom. 9:18 is even more out of place if Paul is not speaking about individual election. “Why does he still blame people since no one can resist his will.” The verb anthesteken, “to oppose or resist,” is third person singular. The problem the objector has is that it seems unfair to individuals, not corporations of people.
9. The imaginary objector would be corrected if Paul were speaking of individual election. The rhetoric of a diatribe or apostrophe being used by Paul is very telling. An apostrophe is a literary devise that is used where an imaginary objector is brought in to challenge the thesis on behalf of an audience. It is introduced with “What shall we say…” (Rom. 9:14) and “You will say to me…” (Rom. 9:19). It is an effective teaching tool. However, if the imaginary objector is misunderstanding Paul, the apostrophe fails to accomplish its rhetorical purpose unless Paul corrects the misunderstanding. Paul does not correct the misunderstanding, only the conclusion. If corporate election were what Paul was speaking of, the rhetoric demands that Paul steer his readers in the right direction by way of the diatribe. Paul sticks to his guns even though the teaching of individual election does most certainly give rise to such objections.
10. Rom. 9:24 speaks about God calling the elect “out of” (ek) the Jews and the Gentiles. Therefore, it is hard to see national election since God calls people “out of” all nations, ek Ioudaion (from Jews) ek ethnon (from Gentiles).
11. The seven thousand men called out of the nation of Israel were individuals. In Paul’s specific return the the election theme in the first part of Romans 11, he illustrates those who were called (elect) out of the Jewish nation by referencing Elijah who believed he was the only one still following the Lord. The response from God to Elijah’s lament is referenced by Paul in Rom. 11:4 where God says, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” This tells us two things: 1) these are seven thousand individuals that God has kept, not a new nation. 2) These individuals are kept by God in belief as the characteristic of their “keeping” is their not bowing to Baal (i.e. they remained loyal to God).
12. Paul makes certain that the Elijah illustration ties back to the individuals of Romans 9 whom God has sovereignly elected. Paul Using the Elijah illustration in Rom. 11:5, Paul argues that “in the same way,” God has preserved a remnant of believing Israel of which he (as an individual) is a part (Rom. 11:1). This “keeping” in belief of individuals is according to “God’s gracious choice” (11:5).