Election and Free Will in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

Conceptual Diagram of God's Elect

Conceptual Diagram of God’s Elect

Free will is not incompatible with the Biblical principle of Election.  Rather, it is required to be saved and thereby to enter into the Elect.

Calvinists take a wrong turn at Abraham on Election, or rather fail to interpret Election, along with terms such as “foreknew” and “predestined” (which they load with external doctrine) in that context.  To Paul there is no Election to salvation apart from the context of God’s Covenant with Abraham:  the Covenant prescribes a class of Elect people, and inclusion is a moral choice on their part.  These facts become clear in an overview of Romans.

Paul establishes in Romans 4 the principle by which Man is saved:  “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (4:3, Gen 15:6).  In response to Abraham’s imputed righteousness, God covenanted with Abraham to make his progeny a great nation, from which flows Election.  The sign of Election would be circumcision.  It was never circumcision but faith that saves, Paul notes (4:9-13), but circumcision is an action which those who enter into the Covenant, as a class, were required to take as a sign of acceptance and commitment.  Moreover, circumcision literally marked Israel as God’s designated Chosen People.

In Romans 8:28, the “purpose” to which Paul’s readers are “called” stems directly from the performance of the Covenant which he has earlier described.  Those whom God “foreknew” and “predestined” in the following verses are those who, from whatever origins, enter into the Elect, the “class” of the faithful, which is included in the Covenant.  On this, more below.

Romans 9:11, “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,” describes God’s choice of human vessels through whom to fulfill his Covenant.  This choice seems arbitrary to us since God does not explain his reasons.  God chose Jacob over Esau to fulfill the Covenant, not by reason of “hate” as we conceive it (9:13), nor because Jacob was more deserving, but for his own unstated reasons.

Whereas arbitrary election to salvation, in the absence of saving faith, would be unjust, Paul argues that arbitrary election to fulfill God’s sovereign purpose is not (9:14-21).  Thus God’s choice of Jacob as his vessel was “according to his purpose,” as opposed to “unto salvation” — a crucial distinction — the purpose being his Covenant with Abraham.  By the same principle, God’s choice of Israel over other nations was not unjust.  These things being true, Paul continues, God is not unjust to judge those outside the Covenant as they deserve, while on the contrary blessing his Elect, as a class, regardless of individual merit (9:22 f.).

At various times, God has chosen other vessels to fulfill his purpose, independent of their salvation status or personal inclusion in the Covenant.  As Paul here illustrates, God placed Pharaoh in a position to serve his purpose (9:17 f.), manipulating what we may assume was the natural hardness of his heart (which Pharaoh had already demonstrated).  God similarly chose Nebuchadnezzar to judge Judah, calling him his servant (Jer 25:9, 27:6, 43:10), and Cyrus the Great to release them from captivity, calling him his Shepherd and Anointed One (Isa 44:28, 45:1, 13).  He used the foreign prophet Balaam to bless Israel in the Wilderness (Num 22:12, etc.).  None of these, one notes, entered into the Covenant.  God chose Saul to be king, whom He ultimately rejected for his rebellion, though He had placed his Spirit upon him (1 Sam 10:6).  Compare the examples of Jeroboam, Jehu, and sadly, Solomon.  God also chose Samson (Jud 13:3-5, 24 f.), Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), and John the Baptist (Lk 1:13 ff.) from the womb to fulfill his purpose, but not necessarily unto personal salvation.

Personal salvation is therefore demonstrably a separate proposition, and subject to acceptance and obedience on one’s own part.  Paul considered himself “called by his grace, to reveal his Son in me” (Gal 1:15) and a “chosen vessel” (Acts 9:15, 22:14), yet worried elsewhere, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Cor 9:27).  Further, he eschewed all worldly honors, “If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (Php 3:11).  Thus a second kind of Election, after “class” in regard to the Covenant, is that which is “according to purpose” to enact God’s will, not directly relevant to personal salvation.

Again, it is the Elect as a class, based upon Israel, whom God foreknew and predestined (8:29 f., 9:4, 11:2).  Israel remains God’s “beloved” (9:13, 24 f., Eph 1:5 f.).  “You do not support the root, the root supports you” (11:18).  They have not been forever rejected by God (11:1-5), though they as a nation have failed to seek righteousness by faith, relying instead on works of the Law (3:20, 9:31-10:3).  Nor have they been utterly replaced by Gentiles.  God promised to retain a perpetual remnant of Israel (9:27, 11:1-6, Dt 30:1-10), who are of faith, in order to ultimately fulfill the Covenant, literally, not just in spirit.

It remains self-evident, however, that “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (9:6).  It was never the case that the entirety of the Jewish nation would be saved.  There were many who, like Achan (Josh 7), have been “cut off” from the Covenant due to unbelief resulting in disobedience.  He who ate leavened bread during Passover, or broke the Sabbath, or drank blood, or many other knowing transgressions of the Law, would have his “soul cut off from among his people,” and would in many cases be put to death (see the author’s “Notes on ‘Curse’ and ‘Accursed’ in Galatians:  Two Different Curses“).

As individuals, to remain within the Covenant, one is required to maintain personal faith, resulting in obedience.  “They which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Gal 3:7).  “But they have not all obeyed the Gospel” (10:16).  Since national Israel on the whole rejected Christ, the “branches” of unbelief have been “broken off,” leaving only the “root,” which nevertheless remains “holy” (11:16-20).  In Romans 10-11, Gentiles who are of Abraham-like faith now benefit from Israel’s present loss by being “grafted in” to the elect “root”; whereas Jews, if they believe, can be “grafted in again” (11:23-29).  Since Christ has now fulfilled the Law (8:3 f., 10:4), believing Gentiles, who have not literally replaced Israel, have yet been added to the class of the Elect through faith.  Circumcision, originally an act of commitment to the Covenant, has been nullified through Israel’s unbelief and breaking of the Law (2:25, 1 Cor 7:19, Gal 6:13).  Now all those who through faith are “circumcised in the heart and spirit” (i.e., converted) may enter into the Covenant (2:26-29, 3:30, 4:11 f.; Gal 5:6, 6:15; Eph 2:11; Php 3:3; Col 2:11), and be saved, whether Jew or Gentile (3:21-31, 9:30).

How can both Jews and Gentiles, then, be converted in their heart and spirit, ready for inclusion in the Elect?  Anyone can be saved, Paul writes, if preachers are sent, the Gospel is heard and believed, and those who believe the Gospel “call upon the name of the Lord” (10:13 ff.).  Paul’s order of steps strongly suggests, contrary to the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity, that those who hear have the ability to choose to believe and then to call on the Lord to be saved.  As Paul earlier described, Abraham first believed God, in response to which God positively added righteousness to Abraham’s account, in “reward” (4:3 ff.).  Positive belief comes before justification.  The order is the same in Romans 4:18-22 and 10:9-13, in 1 Corinthians 1:21, and in Ephesians 1:13 f.  Paul tells the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:30).

Notably, Paul does not define believing as work, assigning it to the “law of faith” rather than the “law of works” (3:27 f., see also 4:5, 9:32, Eph 2:8 f.).  Contrast “the works God requires,” John 6:28, NIV.  Whether defined as “work” or not, clearly, believing is an action requisite to being saved, not a response to salvation.  There are those who, feeling compelled to enhance or uphold God’s Sovereignty, maintain that Man can deposit no effort toward being saved, not even believing, despite positive commands toward that prerequisite.  No one knows the extent to which the Holy Spirit paves the way for a given soul to be saved, nor when in the process his work begins.  We may infer from Paul that the evangelization process begins when the preacher is sent (10:15), but more directly respecting the “actor” (preacher) than the passive recipient of the Gospel message.

Perhaps the answer lies in Paul’s contrast between truth and darkness, or in this case light and blindness, a concept he shares in principle with certain prophecies of Isaiah (Isa 6:9 f. esp.).  “The god of this age has blinded the minds of those who believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ . . . should shine [lit. ‘dawn’] unto them” (2 Cor 4:4).  “For God,” he continues, “who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (v. 6).  Paul seems here to suggest that some action on God’s part to un-blind eyes is necessary toward an understanding of the Gospel, and consequently saving faith.

In a close parallel, Jesus related judgment directly to choosing darkness over revealed light (John 3:19 ff.).  “He who does truth comes to the light,” whereas “he who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light.”  The “light” in both passages is the Gospel of Jesus Christ when it is preached.  The implication is that God through his Holy Spirit, in concert with the preaching of the Gospel, “shines a light” of eternal truth on the hearer which brings him or her to the point of making a freewill choice:  to believe and be saved, or to reject and remain condemned.  Jesus compares this event to the lifting up of the brazen serpent in the wilderness (3:14, Num 21:8 f.):  faced with testimony of one’s sin, one is called upon to acknowledge the vicarious sacrifice required for salvation, and choose.  “This is the condemnation,” Jesus concludes, “that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (3:19).

However, did Paul desire to make the point that Man is, as some say, totally unable to comprehend the Gospel in order to make a freewill choice, but requires God to act (by Election) to enlighten him, Paul skips the opportunity.  Having in Romans 10 outlined the process of preaching unto salvation, Paul neglects to draw from those prophecies of Isaiah and others which describe blindness and deafness imposed by God on those He has chosen to condemn.  Calvinistic supporters of Limited Atonement insist that such is the case:  God elects whom to enlighten with the Gospel and whom to leave blind, limiting his Atonement to the former.  Instead, Paul quotes from chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah to illustrate the widespread preaching of the Gospel among the Jews and their willful rejection of it, for which they bear personal responsibility.

When Paul presently does address the passages of Isaiah on imposed blindness, it is in a significantly different context.  The Jews who had heard the message but rebelled against God had killed God’s prophets and destroyed his altars (11:3).  In contrast, “the Election” were those who “have not bowed the knee to Ba’al” and did not rebel (11:4, 7).  Having chosen unbelief, “the rest were blinded” (11:7) in order to thoroughly judge them for their onetime choice.

Therefore, it becomes clear from an understanding of Paul’s teaching in Romans and elsewhere that God’s Plan of Redemption is integral with his Covenant with Abraham, and the Saved constitute the Elect.  Moreover, just as Abraham received the Covenant through faith, those who believe enter in by faith, which is by nature an exercise of free will:  having heard the Gospel preached, they have believed, and called on the Lord to be saved.

©2012 Paul A. Hughes

See also:

Calvinists Confused on Evangelism, Election

Infectious Errors of Calvinism

Does God Know the Future (or Make It)?

How Did Man Change When Adam Fell?


2 Comments on “Election and Free Will in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans”

  1. This is simply theology at its best. Thank you so much

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