N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
Romans 8:28, Part 2
(Rom. 8:28 ESV) 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
“Called according to his purpose”
“Called” is often used in the NT to refer to saved people. Calvinists argue that God only calls those unconditionally elected to salvation. Arminians argue that “call” means “efficacious call,” that is, a call that the lost person responds to either as a matter of free will or after receiving prevenient grace in the form of the Spirit allowing him to respond but not forcing him to respond. Hence, the issue always boils down to free will.
But Paul is not talking about free will. Unlike Augustine, Paul was no philosopher trained in neo-Platonic thought, and unlike Calvin, Paul had no need to refute centuries of Medieval scholasticism that focused on philosophical questions.
Rather, Paul was Jewish rabbi who was convinced beyond all doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was not only the Messiah but God in the flesh, come to earth to establish his Kingdom by, among other things, defining the faith that saves as faith in Jesus and declaring that Gentiles may be saved by faith as well, even without having to first become Jewish proselytes.
Paul saw all this as the outworking of God’s plan to redeem mankind and the rest of Creation. He felt blessed to live in an age where the prophecies of the OT were coming true and many ancient mysteries were being revealed to God’s people.
Therefore, to Paul, “call” means “call as used in the OT to speak of Abraham and the nation of Israel” because the church is a continuation of Israel. Indeed, the church is the beginnings of the Kingdom that has come but not yet in its fullness. This Kingdom is made up of Jews with faith in Jesus as Messiah and LORD and faithful Gentiles grafted in to the Jewish stock (Rom 11).
And so, just as God had called Israel, the church and all Christians were now the called people.
Had you lived in the First Century and asked Paul about free will and such, he’d have said that you are asking very real and interesting questions, and he’d be glad to try to answer just as soon as he’d run out of people to preach the gospel to. Paul did not write Romans or any part of it to answer the questions that Calvin and Arminius ask. He didn’t write Romans to settle the debate between Augustine and Pelagius over the role of good works in the life of a Christian. He wrote Romans to explain how Gentiles can be saved by God’s covenant promises to Abraham. He wrote Romans to end any thought that Gentiles might be second-class citizens of the Kingdom.
As one Bible dictionary explains,
“Call” is one of the biblical words associated with the theme of election. In both Hebrew and Greek, “call” can be used in the sense of “naming” (Gen. 2:19; Luke 1:13), and in biblical thought to give a name to something or someone was to bestow an identity. Names often encapsulated a message about the person concerned (Ruth 1:20–21; John 1:42; cf. Matt. 16:18). When God is the one who bestows names, the action is almost equivalent to creation: “Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing” (Isa. 40:26).
This theme is developed particularly in Isaiah 40–55, which forms an important background to the New Testament use of the term. The creative “calling” of the stars is matched by the “calling” of Abraham, which meant both the summons to leave Ur and the call to be the father of Israel: “When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many” (51:2). Similarly Israel the nation has been called—“I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you” (41:9; cf. 48:12)—and this means that they are “called by my name … created for my glory” (43:7; cf. Hos. 1:10). God has bestowed his own name upon Israel as part of the creative act that made Israel his own elect people. Now also the Servant of the Lord has been “called” to be the Savior of the world (42:6; 49:1); and so has Cyrus, to be the instrument of judgment of Babylon (48:15).
Thus in Isaiah “call” brings together the ideas of naming, election, ownership, and appointment, as the word is used with different nuances in different contexts. It connotes the creative word of God, by which he acts effectively within the world.
Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 1996.
Here are the key verses from Isaiah —
(Isa. 41:8-10 ESV) 8 But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; 9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
(Isa. 42:6-7 ESV) 6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
(Isa. 48:12-13 ESV) 12 “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. 13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.
(Isa. 49:1-3 ESV) Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
(Isa. 51:2 ESV) 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.
Isaiah’s last several chapters are often called the “Servant’s Song.” And the Servant’s Song contains many Messianic prophecies referenced in the NT. But early on, the “servant” is plainly identified as Israel, the nation, and it’s Israel the nation who is “called” by God. But in Isa 51:2, Isaiah speaks of Abraham as being called. Of course, in biblical thought, if God called Abraham, he also called his descendants, the nation of Israel. So we need to think about Abraham.
He was called in the sense that God called on him to leave Ur and travel to Canaan. In one sense, this is unconditional, as we aren’t told why God chose Abraham. We assume it was because God knew his heart, knew he would go, and knew that if he chose Abraham, God’s plan would work. But the text never says this.
On the other hand, the text also doesn’t say that the call was irresistible. Abraham seems to have had a free will choice to make, and he chose to follow YHWH. This is why his faith matters so much that it was credited as righteousness: Abraham not only heard the call but he trusted the associated promises in faith and so he acted on God’s promises.
Just so, God called/chose/elected Israel, the nation. He chose Israel when he chose Abraham, except he later decided to prefer Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. God chose the younger sons to fulfill his covenant promises. Again, we can speculate as to why God made his choices, but we aren’t told. So there is an unconditional sense here. But then we see Isaac and Jacob making free will decisions, some wise, some foolish, which became a part of our salvation history. And later on, in Exodus and Numbers especially, we read of many Israelites rebelling against God — as a matter of free will — and losing their inheritance in the Promised Land. Hence, there is no perseverance of the saints (POTS) in the Torah. In fact, it’s prophesied that there will be a massive falling away, triggering massive exile and the rejection of the vast majority of Jews.
Hence, God’s call is about covenant and election but not about the perseverance of the saints or irresistible grace. Israel, the nation and people, is called, but many Israelites fell from grace, including some 3,000 who worshiped the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The election of the nation is unconditional. God will honor his election despite the stubbornness and rebellion of his people, but he may only preserve a “remnant” of Israel to continue his covenant.
(Rom. 11:2-5 ESV) 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. 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.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Therefore, “for those who are called according to his purpose” refers to Israel–faithful Jews and faithful Gentiles grafted by God into faithful Israel. Therefore, the church or Kingdom should, like Israel, see itself as a “light for the nations” (Isa 42:6-7) and as the “Servant” of the Servant’s Song.
Now, as the Song progresses, the “Servant” shifts in the poetic language from the nation of Israel to an individual who will bear the iniquities of the nation. The Servant’s role is fulfilled by a mysterious individual who takes on the role of God’s servant to gain forgiveness of sin. Hence, the Messiah’s death is not just for historic Israel but also for all those who are “called”–that is, both Jews and Gentiles who are faithful, because both are called “Israel” by God,
And so, were the Gentiles predestined to be called? Of course. God had planned from before the foundations of the world for the Messiah to redeem his people and bring his covenant promises to fruition. Does that mean that God selected particular individuals for salvation regardless of free will? Well, no. Israel was chosen by God, and yet not all Israel agreed to follow Moses into the desert. Many turned back or rebelled. Only two made it across the Jordan River.
But God kept his covenant promises to the people he called. And the Gentiles with faith in Jesus are just as called as are the faithful descendants of Abraham — which is Paul’s point.