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Romans 9-11: A New View of the Doctrine of Election

The doctrine of election, especially as set out in Romans chapters 9 to 11, is thought to mean that God elects some human beings to salvation, and others to damnation. I have long had problems with this. In my student days it almost extinguished my faith because I thought that I was elected to damnation, as described in my spiritual journey. I got over it (e.g. by reckoning it outwith time), but it still did not make full sense, and for long decades I simply avoided these three chapters in Romans.

Suddenly and only recently, I discovered a different view on the whole passage, which seems to make sense of it in a much richer way that satisfies all aspects of my being. It is this view which I would like to share with you. Here it is relatively undeveloped, so I welcome comments so that I can be corrected and the ideas critiqued and refined.

In brief it is this: Romans chapters 9 - 11 are not about personal salvation, but about God's long-term Plan, especially in relation to the idea of salvation having three dimensions. It is about the part played by Israel in God's Plan, and the conundrum Paul encountered when the leaders of Israel seemed to reject God's Plan.

(Note: I am not talking about what some call 'corporate election'. I think this is different; see later. Note also, that I now differentiate between election and predestination in a way I once did not; predestination is discussed at the end.)


What is The Problem with the Doctrine of Election?

For well over 500 years words have poured out about the doctrine of election, which is often linked with John Calvin. I had read the Calvinist writers of 100 years ago like A.W. Pink.

The picture I have understood from traditional Calvinism is that God created people with the capacity to do good or do evil, and the devil, we are told, got people to do evil. Now we all do evil. That is the Doctrine of Original Sin (which actually I support). At least, in our hearts, in being 'against God', even if our deeds have some goodness (and there are indeed some good people). God came in Christ to procure salvation, paying for it with his (infinitely valuable) life. Some accept, some resist. Some resisters, like Saul of Tarsus, are specially spoken to by Jesus and convert. The converted are forgiven, and sealed for eternal life (after death but starting now), and they rejoice in this with the great joy that Paul expresses in Romans 11:33-36, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! ..." (full words below). These are like the sheep that Jesus welcomed into eternal life, while the rest, the 'goats', are consigned to eternal suffering. The 'sheep' are a small 'remnant', as Romans 9:25-29 suggests. They find they had been chosen even before the foundation of the world as an "elect", and are "predestinated" to be conformed to Christ [Romans 8].

I don't mind the idea that we are "elect", chosen and "predestinated" to salvation in Christ, chosen before the creation of the world. It provides great comfort when things are tough especially in persecution. It also makes sense if we realise that God is outwith time while we can only think in temporal terms of before-and-after. I now see it as a kind to extra-temporal mutual dynamic between God and the person.

However, I had various problems with the picture:

I have read Calvinistic writers trying to answer some of these, but personally I have never felt deeply satisfied with their explanations, which always seem to depend on special or unusual interpretations. Though I might steel myself to acquiesce to their explanations, they fail to draw out of me the response of "Oh, How wonderful!" that Paul had.

In the early days, that lack of joy-response made me think that it was because I could not grasp it, because I had been 'hardened' - so I must be 'elected' to damnation.

For years I just avoided the issues here, satisfying myself with "Well, it's a problem of the tension between being inside time and trying to talk about things outwith time."

But now I have found an understanding of Romans 9-11 that does fully satisfy me. Suddenly, I realised Paul is not talking here about individual salvation, but about God's Plan. It is God's Plan that is glorious. When we see it like this, the problems above seem to evaporate.

Paul's Focus on Israel

How to interpret Romans 9-11? Not as individual verses, but as a whole topic within the broader topic of the whole of Romans. Romans 9 to 11 seems to be a complete unit of writing, because it starts after a doxology and 'Amen' at the end of Romans 8, and ends with a paeon of praise and "Amen". Chapter 12 begins a new topic. So we must take it as a whole in order to understand the import of what Paul wrote, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And we must understand the topic of Romans 9-11 within the whole of the letter to the Romans.

What does the whole of Romans say; what is its 'overall message' when taken as a whole? Not looking so much at the detail but at the overall message. I believe it is an understanding of God's Cosmic Plan for salvation and the creation:

It seems to me that the whole letter is at the level of God's Cosmic Plan of salvation throughout history, rather than at the level of explaining individual salvation. It seems to me that in most places where Paul writes about us, it is us as a group rather than as a set of individuals. He is interested in Jews and Gentiles, and remnants in the former, and God's people in the latter. Salvation is for the entire world, and "whosoever will may come".

In the light of this, the issue of election might take on different meaning from that which we conventionally thought.

Romans 9-11 Overview

It is primarily in chapters 9-11, about the Jews, that Paul speaks of election. What makes me think this passage is primarily about God's choice of the Jews? Because it starts with Paul's deep concern about the Jews, of whom he is one. Because the election that Paul talks about is about the specific choice of Abraham, Jacob the ancestor of the Jews, and Pharaoh. Because he keeps on mention Jewry. Because Chapter 10 returns to his concern. Because Chapter 11 explains the future of the Jews in God's Plan.

And especially because the passage ends with a paeon of praise (11:33-36),:

"Oh, the depth of the riches
    of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgements,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!

'Who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counsellor?
Who has ever given to God
    that God should repay him?'

For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory for ever! Amen."

To me, that speaks of something absolutely wonderful, something that we humans could not have thought of, and something that makes the kind of sense that satisfies all aspects of our being and evokes joy.

The idea of mercy for the chosen few and damnation for the rest, which is the core of traditional Calvinist doctrine, does not bring me joy. Even if I were to see myself as a recipient of that mercy, it does not arouse in me that paeon of praise in my heart, because I have some of the love and compassion of Christ grown in my and from that I care about those 'rest'. Surely God, and especially in CHrist, cares more. And we have evidence that Paul himself had that compassion. No, there must be something else that drew from Paul a paeon of praise.

But an understanding of God's long-term Plan does draw out of me a paeon of praise, especially when it is seen being rich as set out in Romans chapter 8.

The Question of the Jews

Jesus came within Jewry, yet he was rejected by his own people. Paul was a Jew, originally against Jesus, but then converted to his way. As a deep academic thinker, he wanted to make sense of it all, and the letter to the Romans is an attempt to do this. God's salvation is for all humankind, Paul believes.

This leaves him deeply perplexed about his own people. The Jews were chosen by God to represent Him and God's way of life among the nations and to be the channel for the entry into the world of the Messiah. Yet they rejected that, both before exile and now when Messiah came. It seems hopeless. It also seems like God's choice did not work, that God's purposes are weak and useless, easily defeated by human nature. This is all very perplexing. What this implies is not only about the Jews but also about God, and God's Name in the world.

Then God revealed to Paul some answers to this. He expresses these answers in Romans chapters 9-11.


With this in mind, let us look at them in detail. I go through passage by passage systematically using a tabular form, with the verse and what it says in the first two columns, how 'traditional Calvinism' seems to interpret it in column 3, and how I interpret it in column 4. By "traditional calvinism" I refer to what I have read and understood in the writings of A. W. Pink, J. M. Gresham, Joseph Alleine and others; I recognise that 'Calvinism' is actually much wider than these, for example including Dutch varieties that are very different. By "how I interpret it", I refer to how my thoughts are now, at this early stage; they are in need of critique and refinment, and also correction; please comment below.

Verses What they say Traditional interpretation How I see it
Chapter 9
9:1-5 Earnestly want Jews to be saved. I think Paul was working out with his readers: How can we make sense of this, and of God's love and justice and Plan?
9:6-9 First example: The real 'children' of Abraham in God's Plan were those promised by God ahead of time. Not those that came by natural means.
9:10-13 Second example: In Rebekah's case, God told her ahead of time that the younger would be pre-eminent, and was the one God had chosen to 'love'. It was God's choice ahead of time, in His Plan.
9:14 "What shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'" Traditional Calvinist: "We are all sinners, deserving God's wrath, but God might choose to be merciful to some." I think this is just pointing out God's choice of Jacob over Esau was not unjust, but was an unmerited mercy (remember that Jacob was a cheating nasty piece of work). (Notice that this says nothing about us all being sinners in need of God's mercy (which is probably true) but about the specific case of Jacob.)
9:15 "It does not therefore depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy." Traditional Calvinist: "Whether we want salvation or not, and whether we work for it or not, do not affect whether we get it; only God's mercy." I don't like that. I think this is talking about Jacob and Esau. Esau despised the important things of life, and too late tearfully asked his father to bless him. But the blessing had already been given to Jacob, in line with God's prediction and Plan. God chose to be merciful to the cheat, Jacob - for God's own Plan of salvation in the world and the blessing of many, not for Jacob's own benefit primarily.
9:17 Third example: God chose to raise up Pharaoh so that the peoples around the world would hear about God in a way that would not be forgotten. (Specifically, God got a great victory over a then superpower.) Traaditional Calvinist: Usually linked with verse 18, as an example of God hardening people he does not want to save. I believe this is about God's Plan to make His name known to the nations around. God wanted to ensure the nations thereafter would know about the true God in concepts they would understand (military triumph). The purpose was so that they would take him seriously and perhaps seek him [Acts 17]. It was important in God's Plan that the nations would know of His ways, and would realise there was something different about Israel's God, when compared with their own. God chose to do this via Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler of that time, someone who was arrogant and cruel.

(It seemed to have worked: we find, forty years after the exodus, that people like the Kenites were still aware of what God of Israel had done to the Egyptians.)

9:18 "Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden." Sounds like Paul is summing up, referring back to: Abraham, Jacob and Pharaoh. Traditional Calvinist takes verse 18 as a doctrine relating to the salvation of individuals (including today): some are elected to salvation today while others are rejected. "Those who are damned are hardened by God, out of God's choice." It takes Abraham, Jacob and Pharaoh as merely three examples to support this idea. I believe that here Paul is summing up with a conclusion, given the three cases: I believe this is primarily talking about God's long-term Plan as it was being worked out at the time of Patriarchs. I believe that Abraham, Jacob and Pharaoh are actual actors in that stage of God's Plan, not examples. On two God had mercy, on the third, God hardened.

I do not believe this should be interpreted as God hardening people who are headed to damnation. Rather, he is preparing the ground for understanding what is happening to the Jews. But before then, there is what seems to be an excursus about the justice of God.

9:19 NIV: "One of you will say to me, 'Then why does God still blame (us)? For who resists his will?'" Traditional Calvinist takes the 'us' as referring to we who are reading and receiving salvation today. If the verse said 'us', then the Calvinists would probably be right. But there is no 'us' in the Greek; it has been inserted by the translators, who have probably had their assumptions formed by traditional Calvinism.

The Greek of verse 19 says "Why still he-finds-fault? For intention his who has-resisted?" I believe it is with Pharaoh (not us) that he-finds-fault in this verse. God judged Pharaoh for his arrogance, his refusal to believe. The matter of resisting God's will is specially relevant to Pharaoh, in that Pharaoh was considered a god, and Egypt was a superpower of the time, to Pharaoh, in his arrogance, thought he could control everything. God wanted to show otherwise - ultimately for the good of the wider world.

Some might ask: was it not unfair of God to harden Pharaoh and then defeat him? The answer to Paul's rhetorical question is that Pharaoh deserved what came to him, and the event showed that nobody can ultimately resist God's will in bringing his plans to completion.

Look more closely at the Exodus account. At first, and also later, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. He was arrogant and cruel, and was of an attitude to disbelieve Moses, even when his own magicians told him "This is the finger of God." Sometimes God hardened his heart - I believe it might have been to warn Pharaoh: don't think you can choose when to believe and to refuse to believe; don't think you are in control of yourself as a god.

9:20-23 "But who are you O man to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God,, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory?" Traditional Calvinist: The two pots are assumed to refer to individual people today, those who accept Christ and those who do not. I believe "what is formed" refers primarily to Pharaoh, not to individuals here-and-now. God chose to show 'the wrath' and his power among the nations around. God wanted to ensure the nations thereafter know about the true God in concepts they will understand (i.e. military triumph). The purpose was so that they would take him seriously and perhaps seek him [Acts 17]. God chose to do this via Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler of that time; it seems he knew Pharaoh's inner attitude of arrogance.
Note: In Greek it is not "his wrath" but "the wrath", perhaps suggesting some standard of justice rather than active anger. Also, in the Greek, the revealing of God's glory (of character?) is not 'to' the objects of his mercy, but 'on' the objects of his mercy, as though these objects are used as display rather than recipients.
9:24 "Even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles" Traditional Calvinist: "even us" is taken to mean that all that precedes this is about 'us'. The Greek puts it differently. With "Whom also he called us, not only from Jews but also from Gentiles", Paul seems to start a new topic after ending with the rhetorical question above. The above is about Pharaoh and the people of Israel in God's Plan 1300 years before; now Paul takes breath and speaks of "us", those to whom he writes, about God's Plan here and now. Just as God, then, revealed his glory on the Israelites, so now God reveals his glory on us. Returning to his theme in chapter 2, he makes the point that, in God's Plan, the "us" includes both Jews and Gentiles.
9:25-29 Here Paul cites several Scriptures about "not my people" becoming "my people" and Yahweh God's ensuring that a "remnant" of the people of Israel survive. Traditional Calvinist: These verses are often skipped, except to think that the 'remnant' refers allegorically to the minority in contemporary life who are 'true' Christians. It either ignores the terror of almost-destruction, or becomes smug. Again, I believe Paul cites these Scriptures to reinforce his belief that God's earlier treatment of Israel is part of God's long-term Plan that involves us (post-Messiah). The terror of almost-destruction and the welcoming in of new people are woven into God's long-term Plan involving all. Paul soon discusses the 'remnant' of Israel.
9:30-33 Gentiles have obtained God's kind of righteousness; Jews missed it by focusing too much on law. God's paradox. Easy to trip up over. Foretold in Scripture. Traditional Calvinist: This reinforces the message of chapters 3-6 that salvation is by faith not by law-keeping. I agree with traditional Calvinist here, but see it at the higher level of God's glorious long-term plan for salvation of all creation (spoken of in chapter 8). (Remember, 'righteousness' does not refer to personal righteousness only, but to "all things in creation being in right relationship"; see page on 'Tsedeq' and 'dikaios'.)
Chapter 10
10:1-15 New subsection. Paul changes style, repeating his yearning for his people, whom he loves and respects. He explains more about the Jews missing God's way to righteousness (right relationships among all). God's way is to impart righteousness through Christ. Moses speaks of God's word of righteousness not far away, difficult, but "near you". Paul reinforces that this is true for both Jew and Gentile. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." This is "beautiful". Traditional Calvinist: We are counted 'righteous' through Christ - though this is seen in personal-juridical ('justification') terms rather than relational terms. That the word is "near" reinforces that human beings who resist are without excuse [despite having been hardened by God]. I believe that righteousness is relational, and that it is restored not only via juridical justification, but also that because of Christ, the Spirit of God changes us from inside ("near you") so that God's people (Jews, Gentiles) treat the whole Creation aright. That, summarised in Chapter 8, is God's glorious long-term Plan. The door to salvation is not foreign to us, but suits our very nature, and is open to everyone. This has a beauty not unlike Jesus felt when he prayed "I thank you Father that you have hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to the ordinary people." Glorious, beautiful!
10:16-21 Many in Israel have refused God's way, but God has been found by those who were outside. Paul cites four Scriptures that show it has always been thus. Traditional Calvinist focuses on 10:17 "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the preaching of Christ" as a defence against the accusation that Calvinists disobey Christ's Great Commission. The four Scriptures interest them much less, because they see references to Israel not as God's Plan but as mere examples ("types of Christ") and no longer really relevant. I believe the four Scriptures are the more important, and that 10:17 should be seen as part of Paul's developing argument about the place of the Jews in God's long-term Plan.
Chapter 11
11:1-10 God did not reject his people (Israel). Just as in Elijah's time God reserved 7000 for himself from within an apostate Israel, so today (at Paul's time). The rest were hardened; God sent a spirit of stupor. Traditional Calvinist: In humanity today only a tiny remnant will be saved; the rest of humanity is hardened. The 7000 are seen only as an example of God's sovereignty in election, rather than as part of God's long-term Plan. I believe that this elective reservation both in Elijah's time and in Paul's time refers primarily to the people of Israel. The inclusion of the Davidic Scripture (v.9-10), which is not about election but about David asking God to prevent his enemies from seeing, is there to reinforce Paul's belief that God can harden and prevent people seeing, as well as drawing people.
11:11-16 Because of Israel's transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles. "If their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" Glorious! Notice Paul's reasoning here. We tend to think of zero-sum situations, in which as one increases the other decreases, so we would expect that when Israel returns, then the Gentiles will be rejected. But Paul thinks in terms of God's desire to save all: God brings good out of Israel's turning away, and will bring even more good out of their return, for the entire creation.
11:17-24 Metaphor: Israel has been cut off in order that the Gentiles may be grafted in. Israel will one day be grafted back in - and will take to the root (Christ) even more avidly than the Gentiles do. We Gentiles should be humble, not proud. Traditional Calvinism takes this as it is meant, about what will happen to Israel, and not much about salvation or election, except perhaps as an example of God's sovereignty. Otherwise, it takes little interest in this. This is an important explanation of God's Cosmic Plan: He once chose Israel to represent Him to the nations, then he moves them to the side of the Plan while the Gentiles come in with a rich salvation, and in fulness of time, Israel will return gloriously.
11:22 "Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off." Traditional Calvinism must find this verse problematic, because in its plain meaning (without special twisting) it denies one of Calvinism's central doctrines, the eternal security of the elect. But I guess they have ways of explaining it away. It seems to me that Paul believed it is possible for God's people to fall away like Israel did. This seems to me to be directed personally towards the Gentile readers, who are now involved in God's Plan of salvation for the world. It warns them against complacency.
11:25-32 Israel experienced a hardening, to let the full number of Gentiles come in, and then Israel will come back in. Paradox: Israel is against God in terms of the gospel of salvation, but God still loves them because they were chosen, and "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable". Israel experienced hardening in order to receive the mercy offered to the Gentiles; so both Jews and Gentiles are alike: "so that God may have mercy on them all." Some Calvinists underline "the full number of the Gentiles" and "the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" as proof texts in favour of election and eternal security. They seem less interested in God's Plan for Israel except as a kind of 'Biblical fact'. I see this as a crucial final passage in explaining God's long-term Plan. God has revealed to Paul something of what will happen: God's Plan was always to save, and bring proper 'righteousness' to, the entire world. For a time he chose one nation to represent him, Israel, yet Israel hardened against God's Plan. Paul can now see the hardening was part of God's Plan to offer salvation to the entire world, and later on Israel will return. However, God does nothing by halves, and will wait until the salvation of the world is "full", before Israel returns. Israel's hardening shows they are not in themselves special, but are in the same situation as the Gentiles. So both Jews and Gentiles are alike, and God's Plan of salvation is the same for all humanity: a word "near" and easy. That is glorious"
11:33-36 Paeon of praise (see above for full words). To my reading, the force of what the paeon says is: "Wow! How wonderful! I would never have thought it, but it makes so much sense and is so glorious! It satisfies every aspect of my being!" Traditional Calvinism seems to think that it is a response of the chosen few to receiving God's mercy, ignoring the plight of the rest "elected to damnation". Personally I find is so sad that people find joy in that. Some also emphasise the final verse "For from him and through him and to him are all things" to argue God's tight control over everyting, including who is saved. I believe it is a response to understanding God's long-term Plan, in which even the Jewish rejection is woven into God's Plan in a glorious way to bring Good and Blessing, in a way that could not be foreseen: Not only the Jews but the whole world can be saved in a rich way (as in Romans 8) and the Jews though initially chosen by God are in the end demonstrated as being the same as all humanity, so God's rich salvation applies equally for all. Glory!


Why Traditional Calvinism Believed What It does

Why have traditional Calvinists interpreted Romans 9-11 as referring mainly to personal salvation, and the predestinated election of some to life and mercy and the rest to damnation? There is very little evidence in the passage for this and much more in favour of election referring to God acting in His long-term Plan. The rest of their use of this passage rest on prior interpretation from perspectives that grew up in the European Middle Ages.

To me, the argument that God's justice is not in question when he chooses to have mercy on some to salvation but not others, misses the point. Of course, it is perfectly just because, as Paul says, the pot cannot question the potter about justice.

I am concerned about God's love, not only his justice. That God chooses some to salvation and does-not-choose others means that God's love is limited, not his justice. To me, that goes against many other Scriptures. However, if the election is about the main choices in God's Plan, of Jacob, Pharaoh, etc., then God's wide love is no longer in question. (Notice that Paul is dealing only with Jacob, and says nothing here about us all being sinners in need of God's mercy (even though it might be true); that comes, not from this passage but from a Calvinist interpretation of this passage [see Gresham, 65-66].)

One Root of the Problem: Over-emphasis on One Dimension

Election of individuals to salvation (or damnation) is about only one dimension of salvation: acceptability before a holy God (by atonement, justification, forgiveness). As is now being realised, however, God's salvation can be understood as having has at least three dimensions. It is to this richer version that we are elected, and the exclusive focus on the first dimension undervalues God's costly salvation.

Both Pink and Gresham are guilty of this. They might argue that justification is the first thing on which the others depend, and without forgiveness the others could not occur. But that's like saying that because without eating we die, so eating is the most important and most glorious thing in life. Their argument does not hold.

I want not just forgiveness, but deliverance here and now, and an experience here and now of God in my life ("As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after You" Psalm 42:1), and I want not just forgiveness and a personal experience of God, but also justice in the world and especially for those who are impoverished or at a disadvantage, especially the non-human denizens of the world and indeed the Earth itself, for whom we are all responsible. That is what I want, and it is when salvation speaks to all of those dimensions of salvation, that I find it glorious and my soul responds in a paeon of praise like that found in Romans 11:33-36.

(For the development of this in me, see my Spiritual Journey.)

Elect, Chosen, Predestinated and Election: Greek Root Words

I have no problem with the idea of 'the elect', which Jesus spoke about (Matthew 24, Mark 13, etc.), as individuals or masses who are heading for salvation. Nor do I have any problem with the idea that these people are 'predestinated' as Romans 8 uses the term. But I question whether those two ideas are the same as in Romans 9, where God is said to make one vessel for good purposes and another for mundane purposes. As explained above, I see this as applied to God's choice of Pharaoh as someone through whom God can ensure the nations thereafter know about the true God in concepts they will understand (i.e. military triumph).

However, we must be careful, because several different Greek words are used

Traditional Calvinism seems to treat them as all pointing to the same doctrine, but I doubt whether that is what the Holy Spirit had in mind. As explained elsewhere, when discussing Greek and Hebrew words, I like to look not only at what the lexicons say, but at where else the word is used, what else it is translated as, and what other words might have been used instead, in order to get a full picture.

The words eklego and eklektos, used a score of times and more, seem to be used in several ways, for choices of entities in relation to those entities, such as Jesus choosing disciples and Mary choosing "the better part", Also chosen angels (perhaps chosen for a particular task) in Revelation.

However, ekloge, which is used only six times, seems to be used only to refer to God's cosmic, long-term Plan, in choosing the Jews, and in choosing Saul to be a vessel to carry the knowledge of Christ to the Gentiles. It is ekloge that occurs in Romans 9-11 (9:11, 1:5,7,28) and only a couple of times elsewhere, while the others appear in other places.

The word proorizo (predestination) is used only 4 times, twice in one place in Romans 8, and twice in Ephesians 1. In these places it does not imply choice, but of being given a destiny or meaningfulness.

I believe the rarely-used root word ekloge, which is the one used in Romans 9-11, might refer to different things than the other root words. In particular, the difference between authoritative election by God in fulfilment of God 's long-term Plan, seems very different to me from choice of things in relation to here and now.

This provides extra confirmation, if any is needed, that it is perfectly valid to think of being chosen for salvation and predestinated to be conformed to Christ, without needing to link this with the idea that God 'chooses' vast numbers of people for damnation. To me, the ideas in Romans 9 to 11 are very different. They are to do with God's long-term Plan.

(That is only an overview; I plan to write a more detailed analysis elsewhere of all the verses involved and, when I do, will place a link to it here.)

Why Did Traditional Calvinism Run the Ideas Together?

Why did traditional Calvinism (and perhaps Augustine before that) ran these together into one idea, which is commonly known as 'the Doctrine of Predestination'? The doctrines we produce are theorizations from what we read in Scripture and how we theorize is influenced deeply and often invisibly by deep presuppositions we hold about the nature of ultimate reality.

This is widely accepted by many today, but ahead of the pack, the philosopher from a Calvinistic background, Herman Dooyeweerd, argued it in detail, that the theorizations we generate are influenced by our presuppositions (or 'ground-motives'), of which four have shaped Western thinking:

It is likely that Augustine was influenced by the Greek Form-Matter ground-motive, and Calvin by the Scholastic Nature-Grace ground-motive, and his followers by the emerging new ground-motive Nature-Freedom, in which the tension between election and free will most starkly stands out and in most troublesome.

Note: Those are ideas that have not been fully developed, and they might be wide of the mark, but they might also explain why Calvin brought these various Greek words together into a single idea.

Why Corporate Election is not the Issue

The idea of corporate election is that those who are 'in Christ' are elected by God to salvation. (Maybe in order that God will glorify Christ.) By implication, whether any individual is 'in Christ' is not necessarily determined. This may be a way of preserving both the doctrine of election and the experience that we have of will.

A related idea is 'the election of grace'. God elected (chose) to provide the mercy of salvation to all who are in Christ Jesus.

Neither of those is what I have meant here. Both those see Romans 9-11 as being about the election of individuals to salvation today. I do not. It seems to me that the passages about election in Romans 9-11 are about how God chose to act in history as part of his plan, through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Pharaoh. It is in the context of trying to explain God's long-term plan for the Jews. I have tried to explain why I believe that above, in some detail.

Tom Holland [2004, 40] has written something similar: "In Paul, his letters are not about what God has done or is doing for a Christian. They are about what God has done or is doing for his covenant people, the church." But it's not quite what I mean. To Holland, the alternative to individual salvation is corporate salvation as 'a people' (church, Jews, Gentiles), whereas my altnative is God's Cosmic Plan, which involves both individual and corporate salvation, and not only those but also the whole of Creation, and also those who are not (yet) God's people.

My mention of "God's people" does not refer to a group, but to a property, not to an institution or collection called 'the church' or 'Jews' or 'Gentiles', as Holland refers to, but to individuals among all other individuals who happen to have turned to Christ and are letting the Holy Spirit work in them.

There are problems with interpreting Romans 9-11 in terms of corporate election (whether of Jews, Gentiles of Church), as far as I can see. They are not the doctrinal problems that some traditional Calvinists bring up (e.g. ====) but are more fundamental:

For these reasons I find both individual and corporate election to be not what Romans 9-11 is about. I do not deny the importance of individuals and corporate groups (Jews, Gentiles, Church) nor that they are intended by other passages, but see them as part of God's wider plan, a Plan in which his whole creation plays an important part. The important thing is not which kind of entity is elected (individuals or peoples), but that election is part of God's Plan that involves both.

Election to ... what?

Should election be seen primarily as appointment to privilege and perhaps power, or to responsibility and perhaps representation? [See Note 1] Often, election seems to be seen, or at least caricatured, as appointment to privilege; think of the widespread low standing of Members of Parliament in the UK and elsewhere. This might partly arise because of confusion of the four Greek words above.

It may be that the presupposition that election is to privilege is part of my original problem: God privileges some to salvation, while he leaves others in damnation.

However, if we take the 'New View' of which this page is part, those who are saved are saved, not for privilege but for the responsibility of representing God sacrificially to the rest of creation (including the rest of humanity).

This also aligns with Three-Dimensional Salvation, in that if we focus only on Dimension 1 (being acceptable to God, justified) or Dimension 2 (our immediate experience of God here and now), then there is a tendency to see these as some kind of privilege, or at least a blessing that others do not receive. But if we recognise Dimension 3 (those who are mature in CHrist are to represent him to the rest of creation, as Genesis 1:26-28 intended), then election is to responsibility.

"At every step, everything depends upon God's merciful purpose, and on a man's own response to it." [C K Barrett]. It may be primarily those who respond to the reprsentational call, more than those who respond merely to forgiveness or experience, who are deemed 'the elect' in Scripture.

Too Narrow an Understanding of God's Plan

Traditional Calvinism, together with other streams with their source in the Reformation, tend to have a one-dimensional understanding of God's Plan. They think that God's Plan is only to justify people (or 'a people' if you take the corporate version) and bring them to heaven. With such a view of God's Plan, the idea that election is to privilege is hard to avoid.

Likewise, those who emphasise the second dimension of salvation, whether sanctification of individuals, or Pentecostal experience of God here and now, as a God who provides for and blesses His beloved ones, also tend towards a view of election as privilege.

But these do not do justice to the full trhee-dimensional nature of salvation referred to above, and to God's Plan; they are both rather inward-looking. The third dimension is outward-looking, whereby our justification and our sanctification and our experience of God here and now, are for the purpose of being "fellow-workers with God" [====] for the blessing of God's creation, including all other human beings. This automatically changes election from a privilege to a responsibility and joy to represent God (image God) in the world.

God's Plan was originally (Genesis 1, 2) to effect a creation that worked well together, as a training ground for the new, 'real' version that involves the New Earth. This however was a long story, which included rebellion, immense harm, and God's acting among people to always have representatives: the people of Israel representing God to the peoples, prophets representing God to Israel, Jesus as God representing Himself, and those in whom the three dimensions of salvation are active, as representing God among (rather than to) all peoples and the rest of Creation. (For more on this, see Representing God.) Making people acceptable to God and having people experience God here and now, are crucially important but not ends in themselves.

The conundrum that Paul faced was that the Jews were rejecting Jesus Messiah. Romans 9-11 is thus a Spirit-led deliberation about how the Jews even in their refusal to believe fit into God's Plan, a Plan that is even longer than the Jewish period.


I have argued that the doctrine of election as portrayed in Romans 9-11 is not primarily about the salvation of individuals, nor even about so-called corporate election, but is about God's sovereign choices in furthering his long-term, cosmic Plan. He chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob in order to start a people through whom he could work out his Plan over centuries, and he chose Pharaoh in order get the Name of Yaheweh taken seriously among the other people of the time.

This defuses the problem with which I began, the 'traditional Calvinist' view that while some individuals are elected to salvation, others are elected to damnation (perhaps by being bypassed). Indeed, the interpretation of Romans 9 - 11 outlined above makes the idea of election to damnation a meaningless issue; it is now a non-issue, because the verse it arose from is seen as being about choice of Pharaoh, not of non-Christians, as a tool to ensure that the surrounding nations would take Yahweh seriously in the following centuries, and perhaps be drawn to Him.


Note 1. I am indebted to Martin Ansdell-Smith for questioning whether election is to privilege or responsibility.

Alleine, J. Alarm to the Unconverted. Banner of Truth Trust.

Clouser, R. 2005. The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Role of Religious Belief in Science and Theory. University of Notre Dame Press.

Gresham, J. Machen. The Christian View of Man. Banner of Truth Trust.

Holland, T. 2004. Contours of Pauline Theology.

Pink, A.W. 1918. The Sovereignty of God. Banner of Truth Trust.


Thanks to Hennie Goede, whose preaching on election in June 2015 inspired me to think about election and crystallized for me that Romans 9-11 is about the Jews in God's Plan, and also for his comments on a draft.

Thanks to Martin Ansdell-Smith for incisive comments on a draft, which helped me put the entire discussion in a wider context.

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Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 28 June 2015. Last updated: 16 July 2015 Greek roots section; contents. 5 August 2015 In response to helpful comments by Hennie Goede, I split 9:17 from 9:18, and emphasised that Pharaoh deserved what he got. HG however, also believes that 9:19 also refers to salvation today, but I disagree with him, so I have not added his remarks there; but I have rewritten the material for that verse, to make it clearer. Better comment box. 22 August 2015 added #doxology. 23 August 2015 from comments from Martin Ansdell-Smith; more on corporate (THolland); new section 'election to what';rid counter. 24 August 2015 rearranged last few sections, added about God's Plan, and Conclusion.