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Corporate vs. Individual Election

September 18, 2011

In my last post, I questioned whether Paul’s potter/clay analogy in Romans 9 is capable of supporting the meaning that Justin Taylor (and Calvinists generally) ascribe to it, namely, that God predestines some individuals to eternal damnation.

Having answered that question in the negative, it behooves me, I suppose, to offer a plausible alternative reading. I don’t pretend to have the definitive interpretation of this passage. But I am persuaded that a more accurate reading can be had by rooting the analysis in Paul’s first-century Judean context.

The setting of Romans 9, as seen in its opening verses as well as the chapter that follows, is Paul’s concern for the Jewish nation. It is with respect to Israel (not individuals) that Paul conceives of God’s election. But there was a problem for this chosen people. Paul had an expectation of coming judgment on both Israel and the pagan world. Only a remnant of Israel would be spared (Romans 9:27). Paul seems to anticipate the challenge that a catastrophic judgment on Israel would be contrary to the Abrahamic covenant. He argues otherwise, beginning at verse 6, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”

In the verses that follow, Paul sets out an OT basis for the idea that it is God’s prerogative to define the parameters of his mercy as he sees fit. Paul is trying to explain why some who might assume themselves to be included in chosen Israel (Jews by descent) will come to destruction, while some who might appear excluded (i.e. gentiles) will be spared, having gained entrance to the reconstituted elect group through faith. God has the right to save a chosen people on the basis of faith rather than descent.

Because the exclusion (and impending destruction) of a substantial part of Israel might seem contrary to the Jews’ understanding of their deal with God, Paul spends some time insisting that God has the right to define the terms of the deal as he chooses. Thus, the references to Jacob, Esau and Pharaoh. God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy.  The covenant does not oblige God to spare all of Israel. He is entitled to take from that “same lump of clay” (i.e. Israel) some for salvation and some for destruction.

The key to understanding the passage is to realize that Paul is talking about corporate election, not individual salvation. On such a reading, Paul’s whole point in Romans 9 is almost the opposite of what Calvinists glean from the passage. Rather than asserting that God has picked a select club and if you aren’t in it, you’re screwed, Paul is actually trying to explain that God has now made access to the club possible for all. He contends that it falls within God’s prerogative to make faith (or faithfulness) the basis for membership in the club — great news for faithful gentiles who would otherwise have been excluded; not so great news for faithless Jews who were banking on their Abrahamic descent.

Having laid this groundwork, Paul can go on to say this in the very next chapter:

For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom. 10:12-13)

Doesn’t sound much like the Calvinist notion of double predestination, does it?

I readily admit that I cannot do justice to this argument. I further admit that my thinking is heavily indebted to Andrew Perriman, who may or may not wish to be associated with my treatment of the subject. With that caveat, I will close by pointing you to Perriman’s excellent discussion of Romans 9. He’ll straighten you out.

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