REMINDER: We’re considering the Vatican’s argument that the Jews are saved without faith in Jesus as Messiah because “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,” a declaration of Paul found in Rom 11:29.
(Rom. 11:28-29 ESV) 28 As regards the gospel, they [the Jews] are enemies [of God] for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
This is hardly an easy passage, but a few things are very clear.
- The subject of v. 29 is ethnic Israel.
- The “calling” of ethnic Israel is a reference to God’s covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. After all, this is also when they became the “elect” people of God (eklego in the LXX; often translated “chosen” in the OT) (Deu 4:37; 7:6-7; 10:15; 14:12; etc.).
- As previously pointed out, while their election was in many respects unconditional, it did not assure perseverance of individual Israelites. Nearly all the adults who escaped through the Red Sea died in the desert and received no inheritance.
Moreover, anyone who has read the OT knows that the Jews rebelled against God, with the vast majority being condemned for idolatry. The entire Northern Kingdom (10 tribes!) was taken into Assyrian Captivity, never to return, because of their idolatry and other rebellions against God. The Southern Kingdom went into Babylonian Captivity for the same reasons but some later returned. However, vast numbers of Southern Kingdom Jews were killed in the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. The destruction was horrendous. And most of the Southern Kingdom Jews remained in Babylon, not returning to the Promised Land.
So if individual Israelites aren’t assured of salvation, what is the point of God’s gifts and calling of the nation of Israel being irrevocable? It’s obviously not that all Jews necessarily go to heaven or please God. Perhaps we should let Paul answer that very question.
(Rom. 11:1-2a ESV) I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
Israel has sinned against God yet again — this time by rejecting Jesus as Messiah (as a nation, but with many individual exceptions). But, Paul says, even with this sin, God has not rejected “his people” (laos, a people, an ethnic group) “whom he foreknew.”
Now, if we can read “foreknew” without wrapping it in Calvinism, Arminianism, or even the speculations of Augustine, the meaning should be obvious. God sees the future. His knowledge of the future is revealed by the prophets. And God prophesied exactly this outcome — that God’s people would largely reject his Messiah.
There are obvious interesting metaphysical questions about whether God’s foreknowledge takes away free will, but that is most definitely not Paul’s topic. Paul is wrestling with how all the wonderful, optimistic promises of the Kingdom could be true when God’s elect or chosen people have largely failed to enter the Kingdom. He’s just not worried about free will, except as an incidental part of this larger (to him) question.
(Rom. 11:2b-4 ESV) Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
Paul recalls the days of Elijah, when Ahab and Jezebel ruled the Northern Kingdom and gave preference to the prophets of Baal. Elijah was despondent, believing that he might be the last follower of YHWH in the Northern Kingdom. But God replied that he had “kept for myself seven thousand men.” God remained active in preserving a remnant — a small piece — of Israel as loyal to him.
Paul is actually building on an earlier argument from chapter 9 —
(Rom. 9:27-29 ESV) 27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.”
Again, there’s a really interesting metaphysical question as to whether God overrode the remnant’s free will to require them to be loyal or God worked providentially within their free will. Is loyalty imposed by a deity contrary to one’s real will actual loyalty? Clearly not. But, again, this is not Paul’s question. He is demonstrating that sometimes God’s irrevocable gifts and calling means that God preserves only a remnant of Abraham’s descendants as loyal followers. God never lets the faithful portion of Israel be reduced to zero. There will always be at least a remnant of ethnic Israel that is faithful to God. But God does not keep his covenant by making certain that all (or nearly all) of Israel is faithful. A remnant is enough.
How does God accomplish this? Well, Paul doesn’t say. It could be by providentially arranging circumstances so that this happens. It could be influence over the wills of some of Israel. It could be limiting the influence of the prophets of Baal. All we know for sure is that God will honor his promise to Abraham so that there will always be at least some among Israel who are faithful. How God keeps that promise may well differ from time to time.
But that also means that many who are part of ethnic Israel may well be lost. Even the vast majority, as during the time of Elijah. God doesn’t guaranty that each Jew will be saved; only that some part of the nation will be faithful so that God’s promises to Abraham are kept despite the overwhelming unfaithfulness of Israel.
The OT prophets developed the idea of a saved portion of Israel within the larger nation (Isa. 4:3; 10:22–23; 46:3; 65:8; Amos 3:12; Mic. 2:12; 5:7). Thus began the doctrine of the remnant. Paul appeals to the same idea with regard to the Jewish response to the gospel: only a few would respond, as was foretold in Scripture (SO 9:6).
James R. Edwards, Romans, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 243.
Thus, “called” and “elect” or “chosen” is a term referring to God’s covenant promises with the nation Israel, promises that may be honored only with a small minority of ethnic Israel — a remnant.
(Rom. 11:5-6 ESV) 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Paul says that at the present time — the apostolic age, around 54 AD — when prophets and marvelous miracles were readily found — only a remnant of ethnic Israel is saved, and it’s a remnant “chosen by grace” or “elect by grace.” Why grace? Well, Paul hasn’t forgotten what he wrote in chapters 3, 4 and 5. Those with faith in Jesus as Messiah are saved by grace. And that has to be what he means here.
“Works” refers to works of Torah. The Jews who are part of the remnant are elect because they have faith in Jesus as Messiah, not because of their works of Torah. Many Jews honor Torah. Only a few honor Jesus.
Paul affirms a sort of covenantal nomism, though it is grace-empowered and Spirit-driven. It is just not the Mosaic covenant that he wants Gentiles to keep. It is a mistake to call any demand or requirement to obey a law “legalism” in a context where salvation is by grace and faith. The obedience that necessarily must follow from and depend on living faith is not legalism. Paul’s problem is not with obedience or good works, or laws per se. Those are all seen as good things by him. His problem is with anachronism in a fallen world where the Mosaic Law cannot empower fallen persons to keep it and where Christ has brought it to an end as a way of righteousness, especially when Christ and the Spirit can empower obedient living.
Ben Witherington III and Darlene Hyatt, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 266.
Paul, characteristically, sees it the other way around: those who believe in Jesus, those who are called by God’s grace, are the small but increasing number who are awake, and lighting their lamps, before the coming dawn (this is how his metaphor works in 13:11–14 and 1 Thess 5:5–10). And part of the point about this image is that if there are already some who are waking up, the other side of the dark night, then there can be more. If Paul and the other Jewish Christians are a new kind of “remnant,” called by God’s grace in the gospel of Jesus, there is no reason why others should not join them. That is the argument of 11:11–16 and beyond.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 676.
We noted in chapter 2 that for Paul, where divine grace is involved, human achievement cannot be a factor (Rom 11:6). But faith in the gospel, as Paul understands it, does not compromise this principle.
… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe … being justified freely by his grace. (Rom 3:22, 24)
For this reason [the promise is received] on the basis of faith, in order that it might be by grace. (Rom 4:16)
The point is of course captured most impressively in Ephesians 2:8–9: “By grace you have been saved, through faith: it is not your own doing, but a gift of God; not based on works, so that no one may boast.” “Faith,” in this sense, is not a virtue naturally possessed by the believer (as though believers, more than others, are “trusting souls”), but a response to the gospel message (as Abraham’s “faith” was a response to a divine promise), evoked by the power of the message itself—through the power of the Spirit of God.
When you took in the message of God that you heard from us, you received it, not as the word of human beings, but as what it really is, the word of God, which is effectively at work in you who believe. (1 Thess 2:13)
Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom 10:17)
The word of the cross is … the power of God to us who are being saved. (1 Cor 1:18)
My message and my proclamation did not come with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not depend on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Cor 2:4–5)
Faith is thus both the means by which the divine gift of justification is received, and itself a divine gift (cf. Phil 1:29; also 1 Cor 12:3).
Scholars today are not only entitled but correct to say that Paul first focuses on righteousness language for salvation in the context of the debate whether Gentiles should be circumcised and adopt other specifically Jewish practices (i.e., in Gal 2). (Thereafter, as we saw in chapter 1, he added justification to his repertoire of salvation metaphors.) Indeed, it provided him with a good argument why they should not: Why submit to a regime that inevitably leads to condemnation? We may go further. The emphasis Wright puts on Christ as the fulfillment of divine promises given to Abraham and his descendants is very much in line with Paul’s thinking (Rom 15:8). We may go still further. Christian scholars today should feel free to find, in what Paul says about justification, a reason for denying that race, class, or gender can provide a basis for claiming, or for denying others a claim to, a right standing before God: Paul’s point, after all, is that human beings of all stripes are culpable before God, and God declares righteous any who believe. The upshot of our discussion is nonetheless that Paul’s doctrine of justification means what Augustine, Luther, and others have long taken it to mean: only by faith in Jesus Christ can sinners be found righteous before God.
Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme, (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 72–74.
In short, “chosen by grace” does not mean “arbitrarily selected for no particular reason.” It means by faith in Jesus, rather than works — which is important not only as we reflect on Calvin’s teachings but the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding the salvation of the Jews. “Grace” does not open the door to those without faith. Rather, grace is promised only to those with faith in Jesus, even when the subject is the salvation of the Jews.