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.

However, it is important not to make this a Calvinist issue. What I mean is that the meaning of Romans 9 is an exegetical, interpretive, hermeneutic issue that has deep impact on our understanding of justification and the sovereignty of God. The terms “Calvinism” or “Arminianism” or “Molinism” are irrelevant and can cloud the issue. We approach the text very personally, naked of preconceptions, ready to let the text shape our understanding.

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).

Please note: I understand that some would recognize that these particular verses are speaking about individuals. I don’t want to suggest a broad straw man umbrella. These may say while these verses are speaking about individuals, there are established national implications (an exegetically difficult conclusion that more than likely evidences theological preconceptions that must be met). Or they may say that these verses have nothing to do with election unto salvation. Again, a troublesome (if not understandable) trade. If this were the case, what would these passages have to do with the stability of the Roman Christians’ election of chapter 8?

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).

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    2 replies to "12 Reasons Romans 9 is About Individual Election"

    • James

      I can agree with all of the points in bold, but disagree with your explanations of how we should understand the points in bold correctly regarding Paul’s intent for what he desires his audience to understand. The key to this passage, which you have overlooked, is Paul’s distinction between the children of the flesh and the children of promise. Once we clarify who Paul is referring to along this distinction, then the entire passage can be accurately interpreted.

      The children of the flesh are those Jews who are physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and yet they do not have faith in Christ. The children of the promise are those who have faith in Christ, including both Jews and Gentiles.

      Paul makes the above distinctions clear in his letter to the Galatians where he writes the following:

      “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. [8] The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” [9] So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. [17] What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. [18] For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. [21] Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. [22] But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. [26] For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. [27] For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. [28] There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [29] And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”
      – Galatians 3:7-9,17-18,21-22,26-29 NASB

      With this distinction clarified, we can properly apply all of your bolded points to the passage…

      1) “The whole section (9-11) is about the security of individuals.” All individuals who are of the faith of Abraham are secure.

      2) “In the election of Jacob over Esau (Rom. 9:10-13), while having national implications, starts with individuals.” In fact, the choice of Isaac over Ishmael, and the choice of Abraham over any other member of the human race at the time were both choices of individuals. The choice of one individual Abram had the implication of creating the entire nation of the Jews. In fact, the nation of the Jews were God’s chosen people precisely because they were physically decended from Abraham.

      3) “Jacob was elected and Esau rejected before the twins had done anything good or bad.” This point is important because Esau’s decendants were not chosen to be children of the promise given to Abraham. The Jewish nation did not physically descend from Esau. God freely chose Jacob and his descendants to inherit the promise of Abraham. God’s choice of whose descendants would inherit the promise was not based on merit, it was based on God’s mercy.

      4) “Rom. 9:15 emphasizes God’s sovereignty about choosing individuals: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.”” Paul emphasizes that God even confirms to Moses that his choice to continue to show mercy to the Jews was not because of any merit in them or even Moses himself. God’s mercy is entirely unmerited and therefore at God’s discretion who will be the recipient of it.

      5) “Rom. 9:16 is dealing with individuals, not nations.” No one individual at any time has ever received God’s mercy because they earned it.

      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.” In the case of Pharaoh, we have a contrast from the one who received God’s mercy. But, what is absent from the contrast is the condition that Paul would intend his audience to think that God hardens those who have not yet done good or bad. Nor does Paul intend his audience to think that God’s hardening is not to the one who wills or runs. Not at all. Hardening is for those who have earned it. Hardening is a result of righteous judgment on the guilty. Paul’s argument throughout all of Romans presupposes the guilt of everyone. No one is righteous, not one. That is why none can merit mercy, and all deserve hardening.

      7) “The charge of injustice in Rom. 9:14 makes little sense if Paul were speaking about corporate or national election.” Paul is reminding the Jews of something they should hardily agree with. There is no injustice with God in making his free choice to have mercy on Jacob and not Esau. Otherwise, the Jews as descended from Jacob would not have inherited the promise of Abraham. In fact, to charge God with injustice in these matters, the Jews would even have to deny the very words spoken to their most respected prophet, Moses. Paul is on sure footing with any Jews in his audience to claim that there is no injustice with God choosing whoever he wants to be the descendants of the promise to Abraham.

      8) “The objection in Rom. 9:18 is even more out of place if Paul is not speaking about individual election.” This is true for reasons already provided in the point above.

      9) “The imaginary objector would be corrected if Paul were speaking of individual election.” This is true for reasons already provided in the point above.

      10) “Rom. 9:24 speaks about God calling the elect “out of” (ek) the Jews and the Gentiles.” Which is because God has freely chosen that those who are now the descendents of Abraham are those who have the faith of Abraham, both from the Jews and the Gentiles.

      11) “The seven thousand men called out of the nation of Israel were individuals.” This remnant is the mystery now revealed in the gospel that those who were ‘not my people’ will be called ‘my people’ out of those who continue to fail to have faith and are merely children of the flesh (Romans 9:25-32). Despite the long history of unfaithfulness to God among the Jews, there are some Jews who are the remnant like the seven thousand who will not persue righteousness as though it were by works of the law (Romans 10:2-3).

      12) “Paul makes certain that the Elijah illustration ties back to the individuals of Romans 9 whom God has sovereignly elected.” Yes. God is faithful. The word of God has not failed to the Jews (Romans 9:6). He has not rejected his people, and Paul is proof that those who a physically descended from Moses are not rejected (Romans 11:1).

    • Ashwin

      The context of Romans 9 is the that of the Law Vs Works.
      As far as the israelites understood, their righteousness was based on belonging to the nation of Israel(i.e being Descendants of Abraham) and upon following the Law.
      Jesus,Paul and the apostles had brought them a new Gospel where one is made righteous by “faith” in Jesus as opposed to works of the Law and they rejected this seemingly new teaching.

      Romans 9 is a continuation of Paul’s arguments in Romans 3,4. His main points being –
      1. He distinguishes between natural descent and “promise”. Here Gods will/calling is more important than individual actions. (Romans 9:7-12).And its Gods will that all who repent and believe in Jesus will be saved. Paul has already shown in Romans 4, that the true descendants of Abraham are those who had faith in God like Abraham did.
      2. Then Paul argues that Its totally Gods prerogative as to whom he will show mercy, and whom he hardens.(Verses14-18) – here the ones who are being shown mercy are the Gentiles and the Israelites who have put their faith in Jesus. The ones who have been hardened are the Israelites who continued in their disobedience to God. (Romans 11:7-8). Here it is obvious that if God is the one showing mercy, God is also the one who is Hardening the Israelites as a form of judgement. (There is no passing over mentioned here and that’s a problem for the calvinist interpretation)
      .Here Paul is talking about a historic judgement on individual Jews who disobeyed.
      3. Romans 9:19-24 is the crux of Paul’s Argument. Here Paul is showing that God is perfectly just in his judgement of israel and acceptance of the gentiles.
      He mentions the example of God as a potter which is mention in Jeremiah 18 also, where God makes it clear that israel will lose out on His promises if it continues in rebellion and will be judged instead.
      4. He Concludes from Romans 9:25-33 and summarizes his position. The israelites who sought righteousness based on the law lost out on Gods promises while the gentiles received the righteousness by faith.
      It all depended on what the individual israelites did in response to the Gospel. If they continued to seek their own righteousness by the law, they will be lost.

      This is further underlined in chapter 10 where he claims that Righteousness by faith is near them… If the doctrine of unconditional election is true. This is a blatant lie. Righteousness by faith is unapproachable for the non-elect.

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