Is Jacob's Election a Case of Unconditional Election?
That the purpose of God according to election might stand..."— Romans 9:11, KJV
It would seem that several portions in Romans 9 teach unconditional election. Verse 11 teaches that God chose Jacob on the basis of God’s own will and without consideration of Jacob’s and Esau’s own works. Verse 16 teaches that election depends completely on God showing mercy, and not on human works. These verses seem to support unconditional election, the doctrine that God has already chosen only some specific individuals to receive His grace through faith in Jesus.
Nevertheless, as one gives closer consideration to verses 11 and 16 in light of the central issue in Romans 9 and the content of the Abrahamic Covenant, it becomes evident that Paul is not teaching the same kind of unconditional election Calvinism proposes.
Unbelieving Israel and The Covenant
After writing in Romans 8 that nothing can separate Christians from God’s love in Jesus Christ (Messiah), the Apostle Paul states he feels great sorrow for his fellow countrymen (the Jews, or Israelites). The reason for his sorrow is that Jews have in general rejected Jesus and are therefore separated from God’s love.
To Paul’s audience, this would seem like an unexpected twist in God’s dealings with Israel (Romans 9-4-5). God made covenants with Israel’s patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), He gave His Law and sacrificial system to Israel through Moses, and He even promised the Messiah to Israel. How is it possible for Israel to be separated from God’s love?
Did God abolish everything He previously promised in the Scriptures to replace it with the gospel of Christ (Romans 9:6)? This is the actual issue that Paul addresses in Romans 9. While Paul will make reference to election, the main issue he intends to address is how the gospel fits in God’s plan for Israel.
Paul’s solution to the problem is that not all Israelites are the Israel that God promised to Abraham (Romans 9:6-8). Paul has already made this point before in Romans 2:28-29. There, Paul taught that one is not a Jew simply because one is born an Israelite, or because one is a descendant of Abraham: being a Jew is really a matter of the heart, not of nationality or lineage.
In the rest of the chapter, Paul will demonstrate from the Old Testament (the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible) that God never intended his promises to be for all of Abraham’s descendants, and that the gospel fits in the plan God had already revealed to the Patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets.
The Gospel and the Covenant
To demonstrate that God’s promises were not meant for all of Abraham’s descendants, Paul first reminds his readers that the Abrahamic Covenant (God’s promise) was not meant for all of Abraham’s descendants (Romans 9:7-9). In Genesis 17:18-21, God refused to extend the Abrahamic Covenant to Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, and to Ishmael’s descendants; instead, God chose to establish His covenant with Abraham’s second son (and yet to be born), Isaac, and with Isaac’s descendants.
Paul also reminds his readers that God afterwards revealed that His promises were not meant for all of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (Romans 9:10-12); instead, in Genesis 25:23, God chose Abraham’s grandson Jacob over his other grandson, Esau, to be the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant (God later confirmed the covenant to Jacob in Genesis 28:10-16).
Paul’s next point is that God revealed to Moses that not all Israel would receive God’s grace and mercy, but only those on whom God would bestow grace and mercy (Romans 9:15). This is significant because most of the people that were with Moses would have been descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons. Nevertheless, God clarifies to Moses that his grace and mercy would not be received by all of them.
Afterwards, Paul makes reference to Hosea. In Hosea 1:9, God declares that the nation of Israel is not His people; but then in Hosea 1:10, God declares that He will in the future adopt the nation as His own children.
Paul also makes reference to Isaiah (Romans 9:27-29). According to Isaiah, despite the nation’s great numbers, God would only restore a small portion of Israel (Isaiah 1:10; 10:23), while the rest would be destroyed because of their sins.
Finally, Paul makes reference in Romans 9:33 to Isaiah 8:14 and Isaiah 28:16, where God warns Israel that not everyone would believe in Him, though some would.
Thus, Paul demonstrates that God revealed to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), to Moses, and to the Prophets, that not all Israelites would receive the promises He made in the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul’s point, then, is that it should not surprise anyone that most Jews have rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jacob's Election and The Covenant
It is in this context that Paul discusses election. In Romans 9:11, Paul states that God elected Jacob according to his own purpose. Jacob and Esau had not even been born, so they had not even done any good or evil. Thus, God demonstrated that He was electing Jacob completely on the basis of His own purpose. This election was indeed unconditional.
Nevertheless, the election of Jacob is not the same kind of election Calvinism teaches. Calvinism teaches that God unconditionally elects who will be a recipient of His grace unto salvation, but the election of which Paul speaks in Romans 9:11 is not an election unto salvation: it is the particular election of Jacob as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant.
God’s covenant with Abraham, and later with Isaac and Jacob, was not a covenant that promised forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. In Genesis 22:16-18, God promised to bless Abraham, to multiply his seed, to give to Abraham’s seed the gates of their enemies, and to bless all the nations of the Earth through Abraham’s seed. Similarly, in Genesis 26:3-4, God promised Isaac to be with him, to bless him, to give territory to him and his seed, to multiply his seed, and to bless all the nations of the Earth through his seed.
When in Genesis 27:27-29 Isaac blesses Jacob, he blesses him with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, plenty of corn and wine, ruling over people, ruling over his brothers, retribution of cursing by his enemies, and blessing anyone who blesses him. When God blesses Jacob in Genesis 28:13-15, God blesses Jacob with numerous descendants, territory, blessing all the families of the Earth in him and in his seed, being with him, keeping him, and bringing him again to the land.
The Abrahamic covenant never deals with forgiveness of sins, salvation, or eternal life. People in Old Testament times were not “saved” by becoming Jews and participating in the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, it is unlikely that Jacob’s election deals with salvation: Jacob was only elected (though unconditionally) to be the recipient of God’s covenant with Abraham.
The unconditional election of Jacob as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant is an example of God’s sovereignty at work, but it is not an example of God unconditionally choosing an individual to receive saving grace. Jacob was chosen particularly as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant, but the Abrahamic Covenant itself did not promise salvation to Jacob or his descendants: it only promised blessings that those who are saved will receive.
Obviously, God knew that Jacob, like Abraham and Isaac, would be a believer in Him, and thus chose him as the recipient of the Abrahamic Covenant. How God knew that Jacob would be a believer is a mystery, and it is not the subject of this article. The subject of this article is whether Jacob’s election is an example of Calvinistic and unconditional election, and it appears it is not.
When one teaches from Romans 9:11 and from Romans 9:16 that God elects those who will be saved, one has not understood Paul's argument. Paul isn't arguing that God has elected certain Jews to be saved and others to receive justice, and therefore many Jews have not believed in the gospel. Instead, Paul is arguing that the gospel fits in fairly with God's promises because God never said that every Jew would be saved. Both points are not the same.
Still, there are other portions in Romans 9 that seem to support Calvinism : God’s hatred for Esau, God’s caveat to Moses, God hardening the heart of Pharaoh, and even Paul comparing Israel to a lump of clay. These portions will be the subject of future articles.
R. C. Sproul Comments on Unconditional Election
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