The Pope, the Salvation of the Jews, and Calvinism, Part 5 (further on “calling”)

abraham god calling him

“Call” in Romans 1

Paul begins Romans speaking of God’s calling.

(Rom. 1:1-7 ESV)  Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,  2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,  3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh  4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,  5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,  6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,  7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The first reference is obviously a reference to God’s specific calling of Paul as apostle on the Damascus road. The next two speak of God’s church being called “to belong to Jesus Christ” and “to be saints.”

Calvinist commentators speak of God’s calling as a synonym for election as taught by Calvin. Hence, those who are called are necessarily those who are saved. Arminians speaks of God’s “effectual call,” that is, the calling of people who choose respond — which seems a bit forced, but it’s routinely taught.

But, as is nearly always the case, we should look to the OT to understand Paul’s meaning. He expected his readers to know their scriptures — the OT at the time — not Calvin’s Institutes.

For Paul, the “call” was God’s powerful word, creating new life–creating, indeed, the response it sought, as a word of love is always capable of doing. And it is to the love of God that Paul now appeals, not for the last time: “God’s beloved in Rome,” he labels the church, “called to be saints.” Both of these phrases, while carrying their own echoes of love and holiness, look back inevitably to the status of God’s people in the past, the people whom Paul sees as now renewed and expanded so as to include believing Gentiles as well as Jews.

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 420-421.

“Call” echoes the OT call of Abraham (Isa 51:2; compare Heb 11:8) and Israel (Isa 48:12; Hos 11:1) as called by God. To be “called” is a reference to God’s covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants. God called Abraham (“Abram” at the time) out of Ur. God called Israel out of Egypt.

(Isa. 51:2 ESV)  2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him.

(Heb. 11:8 ESV) 8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 

(Hos. 11:1 ESV) When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 

(Isa 48:12 ESV) “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last.”

And in both cases, God’s calls his people, the children of Abraham, into covenant relationship. Abraham accepted the call and persevered to the end of his life. Israel accepted the call and every adult — except for Joshua and Caleb — failed to gain their inheritance in the Promised Land. They did not persevere.

That is, “call” is simply not about Calvinism, nor is it about Arminianism. It’s about the family of Abraham — the nation of Israel — and its relationship with God. “Call” either means being called as Abraham was called or means being part of Israel, God’s called people.

Echoes of Exodus in Romans

N. T. Wright sees in Romans an Exodus theme — subtle but discernible — and certainly the language of “calling” fits that concept.

I have argued elsewhere that Romans 6–8 as a whole constitutes (among other things) a massive retelling of the Exodus-narrative. It takes us on the journey through the water by which the slaves are set free (chapter 6), up to the mountain where the Torah is given, with its attendant paradox in that it simultaneously (a) invites Israel to keep it and so find life and (b) confronts Israel with the fact of indwelling sin (chapter 7), and then on the homeward march to the ‘inheritance’, again with sombre warnings about not wanting to go back to Egypt:

You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery, did you, to go back again into a state of fear? But you received the spirit of sonship, in whom we call out ‘Abba, father!’ When that happens, it is the spirit itself giving supporting witness to what our own spirit is saying, that we are God’s children. And if we’re children, we are also heirs: heirs of God, and fellow heirs with the Messiah, as long as we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Here the echoes of Psalm 2 are clear, anchoring the passage in between the Exodus-story and the promise of the coming king who will be given the whole world, the whole created order, as his klēronomia, his ‘inheritance’. This is, in other words, new-Exodus theology, in a freshly messianic mode, once more placing the church on the map at the point where the people are being led through the desert by the personal presence of the one God. This has particular relevance to Paul’s understanding of the spirit, as we shall see later on.

N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 4:659.

There are countless allusions to the Exodus in Romans. “Redeem” and “redemption” refers to being freed from slavery. Rom 6 explicitly speaks in terms of Christians being freed from slavery (to sin). The references in Rom 8 to the Spirit dwelling in Christians is reminiscent of God’s dwelling with the Israelites in the Tabernacle. Christians being adopted as “sons of God” is a reference to God declaring Israel his sons in the Torah. Of course, chapter 5 deals with the giving of the Torah and its impact on the salvation history of the Jews. The word “church” is ekklesia, which refers to the congregation of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai. God gave Israel an “inheritance” in Canaan, just as he promises his church an inheritance in the new heavens and new earth.

In short, it makes perfect sense to define Paul’s use of “call” in its OT sense, especially as “call” applied to Israel when that language is applied to the church, and as applied to Abraham (the subject of Rom 4) when “call” is applied to an individual such as Paul.

“Saints”

So let’s revisit the key Romans passages.

(Rom. 1:1-7 ESV)  Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,  2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,  3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh  4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,  5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,  6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,  7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Let’s start in v. 7. “Saints” is a poor translation. It is the noun form of “holy” — “holy ones.” It refers to several OT passages, with roots going back to —

(Exod. 19:5-6 ESV)  5 “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;  6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

(Deut. 26:18-19 ESV)  18 “And the LORD has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments,  19 and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.”

(Ps. 16:3 ESV) As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.

(Isa. 62:11-12 ESV) 11 Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”  12 And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.

In short, to call the Romans “saints” or “holy ones” is to call them Israel in the most complimentary way possible.

That the word [saints] is regularly plural (Phil. 4:21 is only an apparent exception) confirms the fact that the usage looks back to the Old Testament (the holy people, e.g. Ex. 19:6), as developed in later Judaism (e.g. Dan. 7:18; Ps. Sol. 17:28; 1 Enoch xliii. 4). Christians are the elect, messianic people. 

C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, Black’s New Testament Commentary, Rev. ed., (London: Continuum, 1991), 23.

The Christians at Rome, though living “among” the nations, are persons who have been “called” (the verbal adjective κλητός [kletos] is used again, as in 1:1; cf. 8:28) from the nations, i.e., they have been called by God in the era of the Messiah to belong to Christ. Just as Israel of old had been a people whom God called (Isa 41:8–9; 42:6; 48:12), and could not have been God’s people otherwise, so now those who belong to Christ are a people called into being (Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 1:1–2, 24; Jude 1; Rev 17:14). That also means that they are numbered among those characterized by faith and obedience, even though they have not come to that through Paul’s own mission. It would not be fitting for Paul to be referring to the Christians at Rome here as “Gentiles,” for the church at Rome did not consist only of Gentiles; it had a (presumably minority) Jewish membership as well (cf. 4:1, 12; 7:1; 16:3–4, 7). …

The concept of being a people called and holy is traditional in Israel’s heritage (Lev 19:2; Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; Isa 48:12; 62:12), but here the people called are both Jewish and Gentile, for the gospel is for both, and the community of believers embraces both.

Arland J. Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI;Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2011), 51-52.

So being “called” or “saints” is to consider the church a continuation of Israel. Paul is deliberately using Torah language to refer to the church in terms that previously had applied only to ethnic Israel.

Of course, in chapter 11, Paul will (finally) explain that the church is Israel, with the unfaithful Jewish branches broken off and the faithful Gentile branches grafted in.

But while Israel was called out of slavery in pagan Egypt, just as the Gentiles are now being called out of slavery to sin in pagan Rome, there is nothing in “called” that implies perseverance to the end. When God called Israel out of Egypt, his call was effectual (Israel left Egypt) but only Joshua and Caleb received an inheritance in the Promised Land.

There are arguments made by Augustine, Calvin, etc. to the effect that God, as completely sovereign, must achieve his goal of providing those he calls with their inheritance, but this was not true during the Exodus, and God was just as sovereign then as he is now.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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