“[L]et’s talk about Paul’s doctrine of election in Romans 9. I want to share with you a perspective on Paul’s teaching that I think you’ll find very illuminating and encouraging. Typically, as a result of Reformed theology, we have a tendency to read Paul as narrowing down the scope of God’s election to the very select few, and those not so chosen can’t complain if God in His sovereignty overlooks them. I think this is a fundamental misreading of the chapter which makes very little sense in the context of Paul’s letter.
Earlier in his letter Paul addresses the question of what advantage there is to Jewish identity if one fails to live up to the demands of the law (2. 17-3.21). He says that although being Jewish has great advantages in being the recipients of God’s revelatory oracles, nevertheless being Jewish gives you no automatic claim to God’s salvation. Instead, Paul asserts the radical and shocking claim that “He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (2. 28-29).
Paul held that “no human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law” (3.20); rather “we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3. 29). That includes Gentiles as well as Jews. ”Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (3. 29-30).
Do you realize what that meant to Paul’s Jewish contemporaries? Gentile “dogs” who have faith in Christ may actually be more Jewish than ethnic Jews and go into the Kingdom while God’s chosen people are shut out! Unthinkable! Scandalous!
Paul goes on to support his view by appeal to the example of none less than Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. Abraham, Paul explains, was pronounced righteous by God before he received circumcision. ”The purpose,” says Paul, “was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised [i.e., the Gentiles] and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised [note the qualification!] but also follow the example of faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4.11-12).
This is explosive teaching. Paul begins chapter 9 by expressing his profound sorrow that ethnic Jews have missed God’s salvation by rejecting their Messiah [= Christ]. But he says it’s not as though God’s word had failed. Rather, as we have already seen, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants” (9. 6-7). Being ethnically Jewish is not enough; rather one must be a child of the promise—and that, as we’ve seen, may include Gentiles and exclude Jews.
The problematic, then, with which Paul is wrestling is how God’s chosen people the Jews could fail to obtain the promise of salvation while Gentiles, who were regarded by Jews as unclean and execrable, could find salvation instead. Paul’s answer is that God is sovereign: He can save whomever He wants, and no one can gainsay God. He has the freedom to have mercy upon whomever He wills, even upon execrable Gentiles, and no one can complain of injustice on God’s part.
So—and this is the crucial point—who is it that God has chosen to save? The answer is: those who have faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul writes in Galatians (which is a sort of abbreviated Romans), “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3. 7). Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter: God has sovereignly chosen to save all those who trust in Christ Jesus for salvation.
That’s why Paul can go on in Romans 10 to say, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’” (10. 12-13). Reformed theology can make no sense at all of this wonderful, universal call to salvation. Whosoever will may come.
Paul’s burden, then, in Romans 9 is not to narrow the scope of God’s election but to broaden it. He wants to take in all who have faith in Christ Jesus regardless of their ethnicity. Election, then, is first and foremost a corporate notion: God has chosen for Himself a people, a corporate entity, and it is up to us by our response of faith whether or not we choose to be members of that corporate group destined to salvation.”
– W. L. Craig, ‘Molinism and Divine Election’, available online here.