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  • Writer's pictureKirk Bagby

The Meaning of "Election" According to Romans

Defining the doctrine of election has been a controversial topic in the church for many centuries. Reformed and Wesleyan scholars propose antithetical interpretations. Although the book of Romans is often used by Reformed theologians to support their doctrine of unconditional, particular election, the theology of Romans better supports the doctrine of universal atonement. First, I will briefly mention what Paul says about the topic of election in this epistle. Then, I will describe how Reformed theologians interpret these passages. Lastly, I will explain the meaning of election as used by Paul in Romans.


1 Election in Romans

The book of Romans contains three chapters (Rom 8, 9, and 11) which explicitly discuss election as well as concepts closely associated with election such as foreknowledge, predestination, and calling. Romans 8 mentions those who are “the called” (8:28, 30), those whom God “foreknew” (8:29-30), and those whom God “predestined” (8:29). Also, Romans 8:33 mentions “God’s elect.” Romans 9:11 mentions God’s election, and Romans 9:12-13 gives this example of God’s election: “It was said to her [Rebecca], ‘The older shall serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.’ ” Lastly, Romans 11 mentions those whom God “foreknew” (11:2), the “remnant according to the election of grace” (11:5), the “elect” (11:7), and the “election” (11:28).


2 How do Calvinists interpret “election” in these passages?

The doctrine of unconditional election finds its origin in the writings of Augustine[1] who wrote, “God elected believers in order that they might believe, not because they already believed.”[2] John Calvin built upon Augustine’s beliefs and developed the doctrine of election[3] and “double predestination.”[4] This means that God chooses some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell. By necessity unconditional election leads to the doctrine of Jesus’ limited atonement. Jesus died only for the elect, “those predestined to be saved.”[5] Also by necessity, unconditional election results in the doctrine of unconditional (or eternal) security. Once one has been saved by God, he cannot lose his salvation.[6] God will save those whom He elects to salvation.


Although Ephesians 1:3-14 is considered to be the most important passage in the Bible concerning election,[7] Reformed theologians also use the book of Romans to support their doctrine of election. Romans 8 is the first chapter in this epistle which talks about election. Romans 8:29-30 is known as the “Golden Chain” of Calvinism’s predestination.[8] This sequence can be summarized as, “Whom God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, and whom He predestined, He also called, and whom He called, He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” Many Calvinists believe that this sequence cannot be broken.[9] The verbs in these two verses are all in the aorist tense which indicates completed action in the past. Accordingly, Handley C. G. Moule said, “So indissoluble is the chain that the last link is here viewed as an accomplished fact because the first links are so.”[10] B. B. Warfield agrees saying, “These five golden links are welded together in on unbreakable chain, so that all who are set upon in God’s gracious distinguishing view are carried on by His grace, step by step, up to the great consummation of that glorification which realizes the promised conformity to the image of God’s own Son. It is ‘election,’ you see, that does all this; for ‘whom He foreknew, . . . Them He also glorified.’ ”[11] John Murray asserts that Christ’s atonement as mentioned in Romans 8:31-39 is only for the elect of verses 28-30 and not for the whole world.[12] Murray once wrote, “. . . the atonement which Calvary accomplished is not itself universal.”[13] Also, Robert Shank says that Calvin and his disciples believed that Romans 8:28-30 teaches “unconditional election and reprobation marking certain men for salvation and all others for damnation.”[14]


In Romans 9:10-13 Paul mentions Jacob and Esau as examples of God’s election. Some theologians interpreted this passage literally. Augustine believed that Romans 9:11 referred to the salvation and damnation of the individuals Jacob and Esau.[15] Calvin agreed in his comment on this same verse. Referring to individuals within the nation of Israel, Calvin wrote, “[God] predestinates some to salvation, and others to eternal condemnation.”[16] Also, Richard Haldane believed that Romans 9:12 “teaches the great fundamental doctrines of the prescience, the providence, the sovereignty of God; his predestination, election, and reprobation.”[17] In general, Calvinists interpret Romans 9:10-13 as referring to God’s choosing salvation or damnation for individuals.


Lastly Romans 11 is also viewed by Calvin and his followers as supporting election. Commenting on Romans 11:2, Calvin says “the verb foreknow, is not to be understood a foresight, . . . but that good pleasure, according to which he has chosen those as sons to himself, who, being not yet born, could not have procured for themselves his favour.”[18] Calvin also believed that the remnant of verse 5 were those whom God would save by His grace and that God would be faithful to keep these people (the elect) until the end.[19]


3 What did Paul really mean by “election” in these passages?

Calvinists believe that Romans supports their doctrine of unconditional, particular election to salvation. Nevertheless, a careful study of these three chapters of Romans reveals that Paul did not use election to refer to God’s choosing individuals to salvation or damnation. Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell say that the Golden Chain of Romans 8:29-30 does not negate the possibility of faith being necessary in between each step.[20] Regarding this sequence of salvation, Vic Reasoner writes, “The plan of salvation is certain, but the security of the believer is conditional.”[21] Shank agrees saying that in Romans 8 Paul does not merely write about “foreknowledge, predestination, [and] calling,” but he also mentions these conditions: “glorification with Christ only on condition of suffering with Him (v. 17), spiritual life only on condition of living after the Spirit rather than after the flesh (vs. 12f.), and sonship only on condition of walking after the Spirit (v. 14).”[22]


Walls and Dongell offer two non-Calvinistic interpretations of Romans 8:29-30. Because Paul writes in the past tense, he could be viewing the steps of salvation from the vantage point of the end of history. God continues to call and justify people, and he will glorify people, but here Paul sees these things as having occurred in the past. Or this passage could refer to steps necessary for salvation to be completed by any person in general. In order to be finally saved (glorified), one must pass through each of these steps; however, it is still possible to begin this sequence and fail to finish it.[23] William M. Greathouse and George Lyons add more insight by saying, “Romans 8:28-30 contains the essence of Paul’s understanding of predestination, . . . Predestination is the belief, born of saving faith in Jesus Christ, that God has already decided upon the final destination he intends for Christians. It is that we will ‘be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.’ ”[24]


The context of Romans 8 clearly negates unconditional security. Paul teaches synergism with respect to salvation. According to Romans 8:29, those whom God foreknew are not sinners arbitrarily picked against their wills to be saved. They are people God knew would choose to place their faith in Him. God’s foreknowledge does not necessarily negate free will.[25] John Wesley believed that God knows who will sin and what sins people will commit, but this foreknowledge does not cause people to sin.[26] Likewise, God knows who will be saved, but this foreknowledge does not cause them to be saved. Reasoner says, “God’s foreknowledge is cognitive, not causative.”[27] Consequently, the “called” of Romans 8:28 and 30 are believers, “those who made their calling sure through faith.”[28] Therefore, Paul is saying that believers only are the elect.


According to Wesleyan-Arminian commentators, Romans 9 does not refer to the salvation or reprobation of individuals but to the blessings or judgments of nations. Greathouse and Lyons write, “There are no grounds here for erecting a doctrine of ‘double predestination’ on the slender basis of this OT text.”[29] Romans 9:12-13 contain two Old Testament quotations: “the older shall serve the younger,” and “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated.” Regarding the first OT quotation, Adam Clarke points out that in a literal sense, “Jacob never did exercise any power over Esau, nor was Esau ever subject to him. Jacob, on the contrary, was rather subject to Esau, and was sorely afraid of him; and . . . acknowledged his brother to be his lord, and himself to be his servant; see Genesis 32:4; 33:8, 13. And hence it appears that neither Esau nor Jacob, nor even their posterities, are brought here by the apostle as instances of any personal reprobation from eternity…”[30] Thomas Coke believed likewise saying that Genesis 25:23 indicates one nation would serve another nation, and that eternal life is not ascribed to any people.[31] Similarly, the second Old Testament quotation is clearly used as a metaphor of nations. The quotation, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated,” comes from Malachi 1:1-2 where the prophet uses the names “Jacob” and “Esau” as a metonymy for the nations of Israel and Edom. He demonstrates that God favors the nation of Israel over and against Edom because Edom failed to help Jerusalem in its siege by Babylon in 586 B.C., and Edom rejoiced in Jerusalem’s fall.[32] John Wesley said that Romans 9:12-13 clearly refers to the nations of Israel and Edom, not to individuals.[33] When one understands the Old Testament passages quoted here in Romans 9, one can clearly understand that the Reformed doctrine of individual election to salvation is not supported.


Finally, Romans 11 does not support Calvinism either. Clarke says that the foreknowledge of Romans 11:2 refers to God’s love or approval for Israel.[34] Although God foreknew the entire nation of Israel, the book of Romans clearly reveals that not every Jew is saved or will be saved.[35] Shank says that “Romans 11:7, 14, 17-24, 32 forbids any definition of the election of grace as unconditional and particular.”[36] Shank also writes, “Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional particular election and reprobation collapses at Romans 11:7, 14, 17-24, 32. The election is here proved to be potentially universal, corporate rather than particular, and conditional rather than unconditional.”[37] According to Walls and Dongell, election is potentially universal because Romans 11:32 reveals that “God’s intention to have mercy matches the scope of human sinfulness.”[38] Romans 11:32 implies that everyone is disobedient according to God’s standards; thus, God intends to have mercy on all. Paul extensively proves in Romans 1-3 that all humans have sinned. Thus, he emphasizes here that God has mercy on all. Everyone has the opportunity to be saved because of God’s mercy.


In conclusion, Romans 8, 9, and 11 are the three key chapters of Romans regarding election. These chapters are used by Reformed theologians to support their doctrine of unconditional, particular election to salvation. However, a careful study of Romans reveals that “Paul’s doctrine of predestination says nothing about an arbitrary selection by God of certain people to be saved and of others to be lost.”[39] On the contrary, “Election means calling. This is an invitation, not an ultimatum. This is a divine initiative, not coercion. This is orchestration, not foreordination. It is a plan, not a script.”[40][41]



Footnotes

[1] Daniel D. Corner, The Believer’s Conditional Security (Washington, PA: Evangelical Outreach, 1997), 20, 23. [2] Quoted in Vic Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans (Evansville, IN: Fundamental Wesleyan Publishers, 2002), 361. [3] Robert Shank, Elect in the Son (Springfield, MO: Westcott Publishers, 1970), 28. [4] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 361. [5] Corner, The Believer’s Conditional Security, 49. [6] Corner, The Believer’s Conditional Security, 65. [7] Shank, Elect in the Son, 27. [8] Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 79. [9] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 351. [10] Quoted in Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 351. [11] Quoted in Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 351. [12] Shank, Elect in the Son, 75–76. [13] Quoted in Shank, Elect in the Son, 76. [14] Shank, Elect in the Son, 162. [15] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 403. [16] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 349. [17] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 404. [18] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 410. [19] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 414. [20] Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, 83. [21] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 352. [22] Shank, Elect in the Son, 154. [23] Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, 81–82. [24] William M. Greathouse and George Lyons, New Beacon Bible Commentary - Romans, Vols. 1-2 (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2008), 274. [25] Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, 61. [26] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 353. [27] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 353. [28] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 350–51. [29] Greathouse and Lyons, New Beacon Bible Commentary - Romans, Vols. 1-2, 56. [30] Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible with a Commentary and Critical Notes (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife Corporation, 2014), 111. [31] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 399. [32] Greathouse and Lyons, New Beacon Bible Commentary - Romans, Vols. 1-2, 56. [33] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Third Edition. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 10:237. [34] Clarke, The Holy Bible with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 126. [35] Reasoner, A Fundamental Wesleyan Commentary on Romans, 461. [36] Shank, Elect in the Son, 154. [37] Shank, Elect in the Son, 122. [38] Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not a Calvinist, 51. [39] Greathouse and Lyons, New Beacon Bible Commentary - Romans, Vols. 1-2, 278. [40] Greathouse and Lyons, New Beacon Bible Commentary - Romans, Vols. 1-2, 274.

[41] This paper was written for the class NT332 "Romans" which I took at Kentucky Mountain Bible College in the spring of 2015.


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