The Unbreakable Chain of Salvation (Part 3) – The Case for Individual Election in Ephesians 1 & Romans 9
In part 1 of this series on election, we considered the meaning of “foreknowledge” in Romans 8:29. In part 2, we considered the meaning of “election” in Ephesians 1:6-9. In part 3, we now consider the case for individual election in Ephesians 1 and Romans 9.
Historically, the church has upheld the doctrine that God from eternity past, before the creation of the world, has predestined individuals to receive salvation. These individuals are elected “in Christ”. However, Arminians, beginning from the 17th century, have argued that election is corporate rather than individual. Arminians object to individual election since it appears to them that God is arbitrary and unjust when he chooses and saves some individuals, but bypasses other individuals. But, by the same token, the same objection also applies to corporate election if God chooses to save a group of people and bypasses other groups. More importantly, the hermeneutics of the Arminian view of corporate election becomes evidently inadequate when it is tested with a close reading of two crucial biblical passages found in Ephesians 1 and Romans 9.
Arminianism reduces God’s election to a generic, group election, in contrast to Paul’s teaching of election of specific individuals in Christ:
(1) Arminians assert that God’s election described in Eph.1:4 is based on a generic criterion, that is, foreseen faith. However, the focus of the text is on God’s act of choosing some individuals rather than on some individuals’ act of choosing Christ. It says nothing about foreseen faith. Elsewhere, Paul argues in Rom. 9:11 that faith is the result for been chosen. It is not the reason for being chosen. Evidently, Arminians have smuggled the idea of foreseen faith into the text. As a result they have reversed Paul’s understanding of the relationship between election and faith
(2) The phrase “in Christ” emphasizes that God’s election is achieved through Christ. That is, Christ is the agent who brings God’s work of election to realization. However, Arminians change the meaning of “in Christ” so that Christ who is the agent of election becomes an object of election. As Roger Forster and V.P. Marston write, “We are chosen in Christ. This does not mean that we were chosen to be put into Christ. It means that as we repented and were born again into the body of Christ, we partake of his chosenness.” /1/
The Arminian idea of corporate election is based on an abstract principle or criterion of salvation. It is not even the case of God choosing one group of people over another group. God simply decides there should be such an entity called ‘church’ which is empty until it is joined by individuals when they choose to put their faith in Christ. God chooses all those who put their faith in Christ and collects them into a group called ‘church’. In effect, the ‘church’ in corporate election turns out to be an empty set rather than a specific group of individuals. Consider the case of a billionaire choosing or electing to buy over a football club without its team players. He chooses a football club and names it “Manchester United”. Subsequently, any football player who is willing to join the club and satisfies the criterion of skillfulness may be included into the currently empty ‘team’. Applied analogically – God (the owner) chooses a ‘church’ (club) and not any individual members. The Arminian idea of corporate election is alien to the unmistakable teaching of individual election in Eph. 1.
Individual election gives a more coherent reading Romans 9 than corporate election.
Outline of the chapter to set the context:
vv. 1-5 – Paul expressed his grief over the unbelief of the nation of Israel.
vv. 6-9 – Main theme. God’s selection or election of his people from within ethnic Israel originates from God’s sovereign grace. /2/
vv. 14-18 – Answer to objection that predestination makes God unjust.
vv. 19-29 – Answer the objection that predestination makes personal responsibility irrelevant.
[The following discussion of Romans 9 is based on insights drawn from Thomas Schreiner]
For Paul, God’s promise to save Israel has not failed. God’s promise is not about the temporal blessings of Israel in history. God’s election does not refer to his strategy in history or the destiny of nations, but to personal salvation. Both Paul and his interlocutors agree that individual salvation is the issue as “not all of Israel is saved.” But Paul’s rejects his interlocutors’ claim that God’s word has failed by citing Isaiah who earlier prophecied that it is not all of Israel, but that “the remnant shall be saved” (Rom 9:27). That is to say, God has not forsaken his people Israel because he is saving a portion of them.
For Paul, God’s promise to save Israel has not failed. God’s promise is not about the temporal blessings of Israel in history. God’s election does not refer to his strategy in history or the destiny of nations, but to personal salvation. Both Paul and his interlocutors agree that individual salvation is the issue as “not all of Israel is saved.” However, Paul’s refutes his interlocutors’ claim that God’s word has failed by citing Isaiah who has already prophecied that it is not all of Israel, but that “the remnant shall be saved” (Rom 9:27). That is to say, God has not forsaken his people Israel because he is saving a portion of them. Paul proceeds to elaborate on how God’s election is according to the sovereign grace of God:
First, Paul argues that children of Abraham refers not to ethnic Jews but to “children of the promise” or children of God. “In Paul the phrases τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ (tekna tou theou, children of God) and τέκνα τῆς ἐπαγγελίας (tekna tēs epangelias, children of promise; 9:8) refer invariably to those who are the saved children of God (Rom. 8:16, 21; Gal. 4:28; Phil. 2:15).” Conversely, Romans 9:22-23 also suggests that Paul is speaking of salvation and eschatological destruction, for he contrasts the “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” with the “vessels of mercy that were prepared beforehand for glory.” “Paul often uses the word ἀπώλεια (apōleia, destruction; Phil. 1:28; 3:19; 2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 6:9) for eschatological destruction, while he frequently uses δόξα (doxa, glory) to describe the eschatological splendor awaiting believers (Rom. 2:10; 8:18; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; cf. Col. 3:4).” /3/
Second, God’s election is sovereign in that it is independent of any human works. This is evident in his choice of Jacob over Esau (9:11). Both of them were born of the same woman, but God has already chosen Jacob before any of them had done anything good or evil. “God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.” It is not to be traced to works as its source. The basis of the choice is not in those chosen, but in God who chooses. God chooses individuals, that is, one brother (Jacob) over another (Esau) to individuals. God’s election points to the salvation or eternal destiny of either Jacob or Esau. This is contrary to the Arminian view that election pertains to earthly purposes of nations or the covenantal-theocratic privileges of the historical Israel.
Charles Hodges stresses that the whole argument of the chapter is premised on the historical fact that Jacob, as an individual, was chosen in preference to his brother.
Is there any more objection to God’s choosing men to a great than to a small blessing, on the ground of his own good pleasure? The foundation of the objection is not the character of the blessings we are chosen to inherit, but the sovereign nature of the choice. Of course it is not met by making these blessings either greater or less…The object of the whole epistle is to exhibit the method of obtaining access to the Messiah’s kingdom. The design here is to show that God is at liberty to choose whom he pleases to be the recipients of the blessings of this kingdom, and that he was not confined in his choice to the descendants of Abraham. His argument is derived from the historical facts recorded in the Old Testament. As God chose Isaac in preference to Ishmael, and Jacob in preference to Esau, not on the ground of their works, but of his own good pleasure, so now he chooses whom he will to a participation of the blessings of the kingdom of Christ: these blessings are pardon, purity, and eternal life, etc. /4/
Third, individual salvation or right standing before God rather than earthly promises must surely be the issue when Paul says in 9:30-33 that Israel failed to attain righteousness by law because she did not pursue the law “from faith but as from works.” Likewise, what the Gentiles will partake is not the historical promises of Israel but eternal salvation with the ingrafting of the Gentiles onto the olive tree (11:23) by faith. This leads to the climax of God’s revelation that “all Israel shall be saved.” Ethnic Israel will experience a future salvation that is promised to them and will be received in the same manner as the salvation of the Gentiles, that is, by faith rather than by works of law (11:26). /5/
Fourth, Paul has in mind individual election when he cites Exod. 33:19 in Rom. 9:15. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Thomas Schreiner notes,
The word “whom” (hon) is singular, indicating that specific individuals upon whom God has mercy are in view. The singular is also present in the inference Paul draws from Rom 9:15 in 9:16. God’s mercy does not depend on “the one who wills, nor the one who runs.” The conclusion to all of 9:14-17 in 9:18 utilizes the singular once again: “He has mercy on whom he wills, and he hardens whom he wills.” 9:19 continues the thought in the same vein: “Who (tis) resists his will?” And Paul also uses the singular when he speaks of one vessel being made for honor and another for dishonor (9:21). Those who say that Paul is only referring to corporate groups do not have an adequate explanation as to why Paul uses the singular again and again in Romans 9. /6/
Fifth, individual election rests on the logic that “the selection of a remnant out of Israel (Rom 9:6-9; 11:1-6) also involves the selecting out of certain individuals from a larger corporate group.” One should not conclude, however, that since the remnant comprises of a group of people that individuals are not in view.
Paul uses himself as an example of one who is part of the remnant (11:1). Clearly Paul is an individual who has been saved, and yet he is part of the remnant. The election of the remnant to salvation and the election of individuals who comprise that remnant are not mutually exclusive. They belong together…Specific individuals within Israel are condemned because they have sought to establish their righteousness on the basis of works instead of submitting to the righteousness that comes from God, while other individuals—that is, those comprising the remnant – are saved by faith./7/
Arminianism fails to account fully the fact that God’s election includes both corporate and individual dimensions. It is granted that Paul refers to Israel as a corporate body, in 9:30-10:21, but the selection of a remnant out of Israel implies the selection of some individuals out of a larger group. Schreiner argues that what he says about Israel corporately is also true of individual Israelites.
One cannot legitimately say that Paul is merely describing corporate Israel but not individual Israelites. The rest of Romans 10 proves that one cannot separate corporate Israel from individual Israelites. Again and again Paul emphasizes that one must exercise faith to be saved (10:4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17). Obviously Paul can speak of Israel as a whole of falling short because so many within the nation have not exercised faith (10:19). But no one would assert that the failure to exercise faith was only a group problem and not an individual problem. One cannot sunder the connection between individuals and groups. /8/
the unity of Rom. 9–11 indicates that individual election cannot be eliminated. In chapter 10 believing in Jesus is an individual decision, even though Paul addresses Jews and Gentiles as corporate entities. The individual and corporate dimensions cannot be sundered from one another in chapter 10, and the same principle applies to chapter 9. Those who insist that corporate election alone is intended in chapters 9 and 11 are inconsistent when they revert to individual decisions of faith in chapter 10. The three chapters must be interpreted together, yielding the conclusion that both corporate and individual election are involved. /9/
A coherent reading of the whole of Rom. 9:30-10:21 means we should not make a dichotomy between individuals and groups. In particular, it includes individual who are saved by believing in Christ. Contrary to Arminianism, the primary foundation of salvation according to Paul in Rom. 9-11 is God’s election of individuals according to his pleasure and the manifestation of his grace and glory.
/1/ Forster, R. T., and V. P. Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History (Tyndale, 1973), p. 97.
/2/ Note that “the “true Israel” in v. 6b denotes a smaller, spiritual body within ethnic Israel rather than a spiritual entity that overlaps with ethnic Israel. Paul is not saying “it is not only those who are of Israel that are Israel,” but “it is not all those who are of Israel that are Israel.” Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1996), p. 574.
/3/ Thomas Schreiner, Romans 2nd ed., (Eerdmans, 2018), pp. 471-472.
/4/ Charles Hodge, Commentary on Romans (Banner of Truth 1972, reprint 1864 ed.), p.310.
/5/ Schreiner, Romans, p. 605.
/6/ Thomas Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election unto Salvation? Some Exegetical and Theological Reflection,” JETS (1993), p. 34.
/7/ Ibid., pp. 34-35.
/8/Ibid., p. 35.
/9/ Schreiner, Romans, pp. 486-487.
This article was originally published here and has been republished with permission of the author.
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Ng Kam Weng is the research director of the Kairos Research Centre in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia and writes the blogs Krisis & Praxis and Religious Liberty Watch. Weng is also affiliated with the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University.
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