10 And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac
11 (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls),
12 it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” [quoting Genesis 25:23]
13 As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” [quoting Malachai 1:2-3]
The typical Calvinist treatment of the text quoted above goes something like this:
…Paul chooses the twin brothers Jacob and Esau as a case study in divine election. Paul sets out to prove that election to salvation flows solely from God’s will and purpose
Furthermore, in order to make it absolutely clear that election has nothing to do with human merit or choice, Paul says that God chose one to salvation (Jacob) and one to reprobation (Esau) before they were even born; before either had done good or evil.
(Schwertley, Brian; “Chosen by God: The Doctrine of Unconditional Election”)
The standard apologetic for Calvinists is to frame the analogy of Jacob and Esau as representative of elect versus non-elect individuals, then go on to interpret Jacob’s election being “not of works” as being an analogous expression of, “nothing a man does or chooses can have anything to do with whether he’s elected/saved”– AKA “Unconditional Election.”
As we’ve noted before from the context of the passage, the contrast being given in the Jacob vs Esau analogy isn’t meant to reflect the difference between John M. Elect and Joe D. Reprobate, but between national Israel and the true Israel of God (the Body of Christ), which illustrates God’s choosing of those who walk by faith over those who live under the Mosaic law.
Since Paul isn’t contrasting individuals, but the corporate bodies of national Israel and those who are true children of Abraham through faith, there is very little basis to interpret the statement that election and salvation are “not of works” to mean that “no conditionality is involved.” A far more fitting interpretation is that the “works” he’s referring to are the works of the law that national Israel attempts to keep. That is to say, election isn’t based upon how well one keeps the law given at Sinai, which partially explains why many in Israel are not among the chosen (which is what Paul is explaining in the chapter, note verses 1-8). This interpretation also fits the context much better in that it correlates precisely with the point Paul makes in his conclusion of the matter at the end of the chapter (verses 30-33),
30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith;
31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness.
32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone.
33 As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” [quoting Isaiah 8:14 and 28:16]
Israel has not obtained righteousness because they sought it not by faith, but by the works of the law. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that being chosen unto righteousness is not of works, but rather of God who has rejected those who rest in the law in favor of the those who follow in Abraham’s footsteps of faith, and calls us into fellowship with His Son. The analogy of one being chosen over the other before they’d committed any good or evil is very fitting then, both in highlighting the irrelevancy of the law in terms of our salvation, as well as in a more literal sense, for the sacrifice of our Lord and the redemption to which we are called to in Him were planned from the very beginning (Eph 3:9), even before any law had been given.
The scriptural teaching that election is not of works doesn’t preclude conditions to salvation (such as faith, which is not a work), but rather indicates that the choice of to whom God shows His mercy isn’t based upon adherence to the works of the Mosaic law.