Romans 11:7-10 – Who are the elect?

, posted by kingswoodhart

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.

After considering Romans 11:1-6 in the previous post, now we’ll continue with verses 7-10.

Having established that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites, Paul goes on to explain what has been happening “at the present time” (i.e. Paul’s present time – see verse 5):

“[7] What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,”

Because so many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites have not trusted in Christ, he uses the word ‘Israel’ to refer to the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, saying that “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” (see Romans 9:31-32 for another example of the word ‘Israel’ being used in this way). They were seeking righteousness but wanted to obtain it themselves rather than accepting the offer of Christ’s righteousness (see Romans 10:3).

Paul then goes on to explain that there are a relatively small number of ethnic Israelites who have obtained righteousness. These are “the elect”. They correspond to the “remnant” from verse 5. Paul distinguishes “the elect” from “the rest”. “The rest” is everyone else in ethnic Israel who is not “the elect”. (The Gentiles could also be categorised as “elect” and “non-elect”, but the context is clear that Paul is focusing on ethnic Israel in these verses. The hardening referred to is a hardening of some ethnic Israelites (not Gentiles). As the hardened ones are “the rest”, the “elect” ones must also be ethnic Israelites only.)

Paul divides ethnic Israel up into “the elect” and “the rest”. This is very important in understanding who “the elect” are, as we will see. This diagram shows the situation:

Ethnic Israel

“The rest” are “the rest” because they are not “the elect”. Paul does not need to give them their own title – he simply refers to them as “the rest”, which distinguishes them from “the elect”. We can therefore say with certainty that “the rest” are not elect. “The rest” are “the non-elect”.

Paul goes on to talk about “the rest” (picking up from verse 7):

“[7b] The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, [8] as it is written, “God gave them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” [9] And David says, “Let their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect]; [10] let their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] eyes be darkened so that they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] cannot see, and bend their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] backs continually.””

So, the non-elect ethnic Israelites have been hardened: their eyes have been darkened and their ears do not hear. (A ‘stumbling block’ is also referred to in 9:33, which similarly speaks of the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites.) A burden is weighing down on them and bending their backs. As they are not elect, and have had their eyes darkened etc., one might conclude that these non-elect ethnic Israelites will always remain in this state and will therefore never be saved.

However, let’s see what Paul has to say about this. Does Paul think that none of these non-elect ethnic Israelites will ever be saved? Let’s read through the rest of this section with only this question in mind:

[11] So I ask, did they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] stumble in order that they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] might fall? By no means! Rather through their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] jealous. [12] Now if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] trespass means riches for the world, and if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] full inclusion mean! [13] Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry [14] in order somehow to make my fellow Jews [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] jealous, and thus save some of them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect]. [15] For if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] acceptance mean but life from the dead? [16] If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. [17] But if some of the branches [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, [18] do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. [19] Then you will say, “Branches [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] That is true. They [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. [21] For if God did not spare the natural branches [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], neither will he spare you. [22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. [23] And even they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. [24] For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. [25] Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. [26] And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; [27] “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” [28] As regards the gospel, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. [29] For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. [30] For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] disobedience, [31] so they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] also may now receive mercy. [32] For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Paul thinks that non-elect people, who have been hardened, can be saved!

This tells us a lot about Paul’s understanding of what it means to be “elect”. Paul started off (in verse 7) by dividing ethnic Israel into “the elect” (who have obtained righteousness) and “the rest” (who have not obtained righteousness, are non-elect, and have been hardened). “The elect” Israelites are those who are trusting in Christ, as they have obtained righteousness already (verse 7). Regarding “the rest”, Paul thinks it is possible for a non-elect person to trust in Christ and therefore be saved.

By Paul’s definition, when a non-elect person trusts in Christ, they will become part of “the elect”, as they will then have obtained righteousness. On an individual basis, therefore, a person can change from being non-elect to being elect. They move from the group of people called “the rest” into the group of people called “the elect”.

Another understanding of “election”

In contrast to this understanding of what it means for someone to be “elect”, there are some people who believe that everyone who does or will eventually trust in Christ has always been “elect” – even before they trusted in Christ, and that everyone who ultimately never will trust in Christ has always been “non-elect”.

The people who take this view therefore see the hardening of the non-elect that Paul speaks of as being permanent and unchangeable, such that they never will trust in Christ. They tend to argue that when Paul speaks in the following verses about more ethnic Israelites coming to faith, he is speaking of different ethnic Israelites than those who have been hardened. If we apply this consistently, the following situation arises. In verse 7, Paul states that the elect ethnic Israelites “have obtained” righteousness (i.e. this has already happened), while the rest (i.e. all other ethnic Israelites) have been hardened. If the hardening is permanent and cannot be changed, then Paul is teaching that every ethnic Israelite alive at his time of writing who is not already trusting in Christ never will trust in Christ. Paul would therefore have no hope for the salvation of any of his fellow ethnic Israelites that he is upset about (see 9:1-5). However, in Romans 11:13-14, Paul goes on to say:

“[13] Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry [14] in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. “

It is clear that Paul has hope for the salvation of at least some of the ethnic Israelites who are alive at the same time as him, who have not (yet) obtained righteousness, and who have been hardened. Therefore we can reject any interpretation of the text that has Paul teaching that none of these ethnic Israelites can be saved. The understanding of election/non-election as being eternally and unchangeably applied to individuals is therefore inconsistent with Paul’s teaching.

Paul’s understanding of “election”

So (having dismissed this false interpretation) “the elect” can correctly be defined as “those who are trusting in Christ”. It doesn’t also include people who will eventually trust in Christ but aren’t doing so yet. So all non-Christians are currently non-elect, whether or not they will eventually trust in Christ. They will only join “the elect” if and when they put their trust in Christ. “The elect” therefore corresponds to the church (i.e. the group of all true believers).

This is why the Bible uses so much corporate language to refer to the church (e.g. “the bride of Christ”, “the body of Christ”, etc.). A common biblical phrase for “the elect” is those who are “in Christ”. Those who are “in Christ” share in the blessings that have come to Christ. For example, those who are “in Christ” share in Christ’s righteousness, and are considered as righteous due to being in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

Another example is that Paul can say of Christians that God “seated us with him [Christ] in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). The Christians to whom Paul was writing were not individually seated in the heavenly places, but because they were “in Christ”, what was true of Christ was true for them.

Similarly, those who are “in Christ” share in Christ’s chosenness, as Christ is “the Chosen One of God” (see Luke 9:35, John 1:32-34 (NET Bible, including notes), and Isaiah 42:1 (with Matthew 12:18)). Just as, before a person becomes a Christian, they have no righteousness to claim as their own, so a non-Christian also has no chosenness of their own unless and until they can claim Christ’s chosenness through being “in him”.

Every spiritual blessing that the Christian has is “in Christ”, including the spiritual blessing of being chosen/elect (Ephesians 1:3-4). That is why Paul can say that God the Father “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), while also saying of himself individually that Andronicus and Junia “were in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7). Paul was not always in Christ, but only became in Christ when he began to trust in Christ for salvation. Once he became “in Christ”, he became “righteous”, “seated in the heavenly places” and “chosen before the foundation of the world” – all because these are true of Christ and therefore became true of Paul as he became “in Christ”.

This understanding of election is known as “Christocentric election” or “corporate election” (I prefer the first term as it recognises Jesus as the centre of the chosenness). We will continue in Romans 11 in the next post.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.