God's purpose of election

The Okavango Delta. Image by Freek Van Ootegem
The Okavango Delta. Image by Freek Van Ootegem

For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth, It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. Romans 9:11-12

When Paul says, “that the purpose of God according to election might stand," he is saying positively what in verse 6 he says negatively.  God’s word of promise will not fall; rather, it will stand.  And why will it stand?  Because ultimately it does not depend upon us but upon him.  That’s the argument.   There are two things we should notice about this election.

God’s purpose of election is unconditional.

This choice was determined “though they were not yet born and had done nothing bad,” is simply a way of saying that this election was a decision made prior to their behavior and not based on their behavior.  Their actions, good or bad, had nothing to do with God’s gracious choice. 

Now some will come right back and point out that though God does not base his election upon works, he does base it upon foreseen faith.  And this is plausible, it is argued, because faith is not a work.  This latter point is true – faith is universally in the NT contrasted with works.  But there are two problems with this objection.  One problem is that Paul does not contrast works with faith but with God’s call.  God’s purpose of election is not said to be based on faith but on “him who calls.”  In the NT, and in the epistles in particular, this call is a reference to God’s effectual call.  And this call precedes faith and makes it possible.  In this connection, Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are very instructive: “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thess. 2:13-14).  This is a calling which secures our justification and glorification. 

And that brings us to the second objection.  The fact of the matter is that faith is represented in the NT as being a gift from God (cf. Eph. 2:8; 1 Jn. 5:1).  We have faith because God opens our blind eyes and softens our hard hearts so that we see the gospel and believe it.  God effectually calls us and we come.  If God is foreseeing our faith, he is simply foreseeing something he has given, and something which he gives us on purpose.  In other words, there is really nothing for God to foresee that is not already included in his eternal purpose which he sovereignly brings to pass.  God gives faith, and gives it unconditionally, so that in the end, God’s purpose of election is an unconditional election.

God’s purpose of election is personal and unto eternal life.

When Paul talks about election in Romans 9, he is talking about an election of individuals to salvation.  This is the case in Paul’s writings over and over again.  Again, since Rom. 9-11 are a unit, the passage in Rom. 11:5 is instructive: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”  This remnant is the same group of people (I say group, but we must remember that groups are made up of individuals!) Paul is talking about in Romans 9.  God’s word of promise is not to every individual Israelite, but to Israel within Israel, to the remnant in Israel.  In 11:5, we have this parallel to Romans 9, but clearly this election is an election to salvation, and there is no reason (unless you are theologically prejudiced) to suppose the Rom. 9:11 election is any different.  You also see election in Eph. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:4; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:10; Tit. 1:1.  But 2 Tim. 1:9 is especially relevant here, given the numerous parallels to the Romans 9 passage.  There, Paul writes that God "hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”  This salvation was given to believers before the world began – this is what it means to be elected.  We are chosen in Christ, and we are called to salvation, a calling which springs from God’s gracious choice.  Again, in Romans 9:11, it is not our works but God’s call that is determinative in our salvation.  As 2 Tim. 1:9 is an election and call to salvation, we shouldn’t think Rom. 9:11 is anything less.  In particular, the fact that calling is linked to election is significant.  In Paul, God’s call is unto salvation.  We are called to eternal life (cf. also Rom. 8:30; 1 Thess. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18-31).

This election is what distinguishes between physical Israel and spiritual Israel (or, the remnant, if you like that language better), between children of God which are the children of promise (Rom. 9:8) and the children of the flesh.  “Children of God” is always, uniformly, in Paul a reference to those who are saved (cf. Rom. 8:16-17, 21; Eph. 5:1; Phil. 2:15).  In Gal. 3:26-29, in fact, the children of God are identified with the seed of Abraham, and heirs of eternal life.  And the only other place “children of promise” is used is definitely in reference to those who are saved (Gal. 4:28).

And so we see why God’s promise of salvation to Israel does not fall to the ground.  It does not fall because it is not directed to every Israelite, or merely on the basis of physical descent.  And it does not fall because God’s promise depends ultimately upon himself, not us.  His promise of salvation depends upon his unconditional election of individuals within Israel to everlasting life.  And this election moreover is not dependent upon foreseen works, or even faith, but upon God’s effective call unto salvation.

By: Jeremiah Bass