In trying to understand what Paul is saying in Romans 9, I have tried to understand how both advocates of the doctrine of election understand Paul’s argument and how those in opposition to the doctrine of election read the chapter. Those who disagree with the doctrine of election tend to explain Romans 9 as speaking of nations and not individuals. God’s election of Jacob from among the descendants of Abraham was based upon his choice and not based upon whether Jacob or Esau had done anything good or bad. Brian Abasciano, a pastor who wrote his dissertation on Romans 9, is a strong advocate of “corporate election.” He very clearly articulated his position in an article that was published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1993. He is now a contributor to the Society of Evangelical Arminians, which promotes his article with the following statement;
Brian Abasciano argues for a view of corporate election that has its ultimate basis in the divine election of Christ as God’s covenant Head through whom the covenant people of God will be named and identified as God’s children. Election is therefore primarily of a people and those people draw their identity as God’s chosen people through faith union with the chosen corporate representative, Christ Jesus. In other words, as the Scriptures testify, we are elect “in Him” (Eph. 1:4). Since one comes to be in union with Christ and His people through faith, it follows that election is conditional rather than unconditional.
It is my opinion that this article goes further than any previous work in making a clear and compelling case for the corporate view of election. No doubt Calvinists will continue to resist the mounting weight of scholarship in support of corporate election, but they will need to seriously contend with Abasciano’s work in order to gain any real ground. It will be extremely difficult from this point forward for any Calvinist scholar to be able to dismiss the corporate view by suggesting it is incoherent or does not fully deal with all of the Biblical data. It is my opinion that Abasciano’s work will stand the test of time and help to finally advance our understanding of such an important Biblical concept beyond the narrow and individualistic views of Calvinistic interpreters which have unfortunately led to so much unnecessary theological confusion and tension in the church today.
The same basic position is held by Malcolm Yarnell, professor of Systematic Theology at SWBTS. You can listen to his chapel sermon on Romans 9 which he preached on September 30, 2009.
As I understand it, the basic position of Abasciano is that God elected Christ as the covenant head of salvation through the covenant people of Jacob, later called Israel. Individuals become a part of this elected covenant people by placing their faith in Christ, the covenant head. We become part of the elect when we become part of Christ by faith. Or, to use Jacob Arminius’ words,
God’s choice of certain individuals for salvation before the foundation of the world was based upon His foreseeing that they would respond to His call. Election was conditioned upon what man would do. The faith was not given the sinner by God but resulted from the man’s will. Thus, the sinner’s choice of Christ, not God’s choice of the sinner is the ultimate cause of salvation.
Abasciano, and Yarnell, would say I am misreading Romans 9 if I think that Paul is writing about any kind divine election of individuals to eternal salvation that is not based upon their faith response to the Christ.
While I understand that this reading of Romans 9 fits better with their Arminianism, it does not seem to be the natural reading of Romans 9. Yes, the context of Romans 9 is the question of whether or not the word of God has failed (Romans 9.6). And yes, there were two “nations” in Rebekah’s womb (see Genesis 25.23). But it seems to me that Paul is concerned with their salvation (see Romans 10.1) which is an individual thing. He specifically brings up Pharaoh, an individual, as an example of a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction. And, Paul states the purpose of election several times: “not because of works but because of him who calls” (9.11) and “it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who has mercy” (9.16). The elect obtain this grace, but the rest were hardened (11.7). And the individual Gentiles who have been grafted in are warned not to get prideful and to fall into unbelief (see Romans 11.11-24).
In addition, the questions to which Paul responds to in Romans 9-10 either do not make sense or would seem to garner a different response if Paul were speaking of corporate election and inclusion among the elect by faith. To the question, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” it would seem that Paul would write, “No, for God shows mercy on those who believe in the Christ whom He elected to be Savior.” But that is not what Paul wrote. Instead, he wrote,
Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9.14-16 ESV)
Inclusion among the elect, Paul wrote, does not depend on human effort or human will but on God who has mercy on whom He chooses to have mercy.
To the question, “Who can resist His will?” it would seem that Paul would write, “God has given to us the ability to freely choose whether to believe or not. If we do not become part of the elect people of God, we only have ourselves to blame for our lack of faith.” But that is not what Paul wrote, not even close. Instead, he wrote,
19You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—24even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9.19-23 ESV)
If “resisting God’s will” was not an issue, then Paul should have simply responded, “God’s will does not constrain us. Our belief and faith is freely exercised independent upon what He wills.” But again, that is not what Paul wrote. Instead, he wrote about the potter having the right over the clay. Some have argued that Paul’s words about the “dishonorable vessels” should be best understood in light of 2 Timothy 2,
20Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. 21Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. 22So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2.20-22 ESV)
In 2 Timothy, Paul is encouraging dishonorable vessels to cleanse themselves so they could become honorable vessels, but surely Paul is capable of using the same imagery in two different ways. In fact, if Paul is making a 2 Timothy 2 argument in Romans 9, he fails miserably. In Romans 9, the point is that the potter has fashioned the clay to be a dishonorable vessel, one prepared for destruction in order to make His mercy known to the vessels of mercy which he has prepared beforehand. In fact, comparing Romans 9 to 2 Timothy 2 only strengthens the argument that Paul is speaking about election and predestination in Romans 9.
While I know that these short arguments will not convince Yarnell nor Abasciano, much less the members of the Evangelical Arminian Society, I find the natural reading of Romans 9 to be speaking about the election of individuals to receive the grace and mercy of God that leads to salvation.
But is this fair or just? What a great question…for my next post.