Romans 11:7-10 – Who are the elect?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

After considering Romans 11:1-6 in the previous post, now we’ll continue with verses 7-10.

Having established that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites, Paul goes on to explain what has been happening “at the present time” (i.e. Paul’s present time – see verse 5):

“[7] What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened,”

Because so many of Paul’s fellow ethnic Israelites have not trusted in Christ, he uses the word ‘Israel’ to refer to the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, saying that “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” (see Romans 9:31-32 for another example of the word ‘Israel’ being used in this way). They were seeking righteousness but wanted to obtain it themselves rather than accepting the offer of Christ’s righteousness (see Romans 10:3).

Paul then goes on to explain that there are a relatively small number of ethnic Israelites who have obtained righteousness. These are “the elect”. They correspond to the “remnant” from verse 5. Paul distinguishes “the elect” from “the rest”. “The rest” is everyone else in ethnic Israel who is not “the elect”. (The Gentiles could also be categorised as “elect” and “non-elect”, but the context is clear that Paul is focusing on ethnic Israel in these verses. The hardening referred to is a hardening of some ethnic Israelites (not Gentiles). As the hardened ones are “the rest”, the “elect” ones must also be ethnic Israelites only.)

Paul divides ethnic Israel up into “the elect” and “the rest”. This is very important in understanding who “the elect” are, as we will see. This diagram shows the situation:

Ethnic Israel

“The rest” are “the rest” because they are not “the elect”. Paul does not need to give them their own title – he simply refers to them as “the rest”, which distinguishes them from “the elect”. We can therefore say with certainty that “the rest” are not elect. “The rest” are “the non-elect”.

Paul goes on to talk about “the rest” (picking up from verse 7):

“[7b] The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, [8] as it is written, “God gave them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” [9] And David says, “Let their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect]; [10] let their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] eyes be darkened so that they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] cannot see, and bend their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] backs continually.””

So, the non-elect ethnic Israelites have been hardened: their eyes have been darkened and their ears do not hear. (A ‘stumbling block’ is also referred to in 9:33, which similarly speaks of the situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites.) A burden is weighing down on them and bending their backs. As they are not elect, and have had their eyes darkened etc., one might conclude that these non-elect ethnic Israelites will always remain in this state and will therefore never be saved.

However, let’s see what Paul has to say about this. Does Paul think that none of these non-elect ethnic Israelites will ever be saved? Let’s read through the rest of this section with only this question in mind:

[11] So I ask, did they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] stumble in order that they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] might fall? By no means! Rather through their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] jealous. [12] Now if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] trespass means riches for the world, and if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] full inclusion mean! [13] Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry [14] in order somehow to make my fellow Jews [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] jealous, and thus save some of them [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect]. [15] For if their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] acceptance mean but life from the dead? [16] If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. [17] But if some of the branches [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, [18] do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. [19] Then you will say, “Branches [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] That is true. They [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. [21] For if God did not spare the natural branches [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], neither will he spare you. [22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. [23] And even they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. [24] For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. [25] Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect], until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. [26] And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; [27] “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” [28] As regards the gospel, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. [29] For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. [30] For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] disobedience, [31] so they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] also may now receive mercy. [32] For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.

Paul thinks that non-elect people, who have been hardened, can be saved!

This tells us a lot about Paul’s understanding of what it means to be “elect”. Paul started off (in verse 7) by dividing ethnic Israel into “the elect” (who have obtained righteousness) and “the rest” (who have not obtained righteousness, are non-elect, and have been hardened). “The elect” Israelites are those who are trusting in Christ, as they have obtained righteousness already (verse 7). Regarding “the rest”, Paul thinks it is possible for a non-elect person to trust in Christ and therefore be saved.

By Paul’s definition, when a non-elect person trusts in Christ, they will become part of “the elect”, as they will then have obtained righteousness. On an individual basis, therefore, a person can change from being non-elect to being elect. They move from the group of people called “the rest” into the group of people called “the elect”.

Another understanding of “election”

In contrast to this understanding of what it means for someone to be “elect”, there are some people who believe that everyone who does or will eventually trust in Christ has always been “elect” – even before they trusted in Christ, and that everyone who ultimately never will trust in Christ has always been “non-elect”.

The people who take this view therefore see the hardening of the non-elect that Paul speaks of as being permanent and unchangeable, such that they never will trust in Christ. They tend to argue that when Paul speaks in the following verses about more ethnic Israelites coming to faith, he is speaking of different ethnic Israelites than those who have been hardened. If we apply this consistently, the following situation arises. In verse 7, Paul states that the elect ethnic Israelites “have obtained” righteousness (i.e. this has already happened), while the rest (i.e. all other ethnic Israelites) have been hardened. If the hardening is permanent and cannot be changed, then Paul is teaching that every ethnic Israelite alive at his time of writing who is not already trusting in Christ never will trust in Christ. Paul would therefore have no hope for the salvation of any of his fellow ethnic Israelites that he is upset about (see 9:1-5). However, in Romans 11:13-14, Paul goes on to say:

“[13] Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry [14] in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. “

It is clear that Paul has hope for the salvation of at least some of the ethnic Israelites who are alive at the same time as him, who have not (yet) obtained righteousness, and who have been hardened. Therefore we can reject any interpretation of the text that has Paul teaching that none of these ethnic Israelites can be saved. The understanding of election/non-election as being eternally and unchangeably applied to individuals is therefore inconsistent with Paul’s teaching.

Paul’s understanding of “election”

So (having dismissed this false interpretation) “the elect” can correctly be defined as “those who are trusting in Christ”. It doesn’t also include people who will eventually trust in Christ but aren’t doing so yet. So all non-Christians are currently non-elect, whether or not they will eventually trust in Christ. They will only join “the elect” if and when they put their trust in Christ. “The elect” therefore corresponds to the church (i.e. the group of all true believers).

This is why the Bible uses so much corporate language to refer to the church (e.g. “the bride of Christ”, “the body of Christ”, etc.). A common biblical phrase for “the elect” is those who are “in Christ”. Those who are “in Christ” share in the blessings that have come to Christ. For example, those who are “in Christ” share in Christ’s righteousness, and are considered as righteous due to being in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

Another example is that Paul can say of Christians that God “seated us with him [Christ] in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). The Christians to whom Paul was writing were not individually seated in the heavenly places, but because they were “in Christ”, what was true of Christ was true for them.

Similarly, those who are “in Christ” share in Christ’s chosenness, as Christ is “the Chosen One of God” (see Luke 9:35, John 1:32-34 (NET Bible, including notes), and Isaiah 42:1 (with Matthew 12:18)). Just as, before a person becomes a Christian, they have no righteousness to claim as their own, so a non-Christian also has no chosenness of their own unless and until they can claim Christ’s chosenness through being “in him”.

Every spiritual blessing that the Christian has is “in Christ”, including the spiritual blessing of being chosen/elect (Ephesians 1:3-4). That is why Paul can say that God the Father “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), while also saying of himself individually that Andronicus and Junia “were in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7). Paul was not always in Christ, but only became in Christ when he began to trust in Christ for salvation. Once he became “in Christ”, he became “righteous”, “seated in the heavenly places” and “chosen before the foundation of the world” – all because these are true of Christ and therefore became true of Paul as he became “in Christ”.

This understanding of election is known as “Christocentric election” or “corporate election” (I prefer the first term as it recognises Jesus as the centre of the chosenness). We will continue in Romans 11 in the next post.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

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19 thoughts on “Romans 11:7-10 – Who are the elect?

  1. Pingback: Romans blog series – Contents | The Predestination Station

  2. Pingback: Romans 11:1-6 | The Predestination Station

  3. Pingback: Romans 11:11-16 – Why has God hardened unbelieving ethnic Israelites? | The Predestination Station

  4. Pingback: Romans 11:17-24 – Can unbelieving ethnic Israelites still be saved? | The Predestination Station

  5. As regards the gospel, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. [29] For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. [

    Great study so far, but in regard to this portion, I have a comment.

    As in regard to the “election ” in this portion of scriptures, you interpret their identity as “the rest”. I interpret them as the “elect.”

    Here is why.

    Picture Paul speaking these words about the non elect. He inserted this caveat about the election in the middle there in order to explain why the election are the election. It is because God had mad a calling to their forefathers that he intended to keep.

    Here is how I see it.

    As regards the gospel, they [“the rest”, i.e. the non-elect] are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they [“the elect”, i.e. the natural branches not cut off] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. [29] For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

    It also would not make sense for Paul to say the “election” and be referring to “the rest ” when he established the identity of the election several verses up.

    This does not undo the fact that yes, God did not forsake Israel by flesh. Nor does this undo the fact that he would welcome them back into the Tree if they would come back in by faith in Christ Jesus

    Have a blessed day and welcome to the CZDTM -BOAT group also!

    In Christ,
    Sabrina

  6. Thanks for your comment, Sabrina. I can see the argument for interpreting it that way. I think I prefer the way I stated as then the word “they” has the same meaning throughout the passage. Otherwise, it changes just for the second half of verse 28, and then has to change back again for verse 30, without an indication that he is talking about different people there. I could be wrong though! 🙂
    I’ll be covering that verse in my next post to be published soon.

  7. Pingback: Romans 11:25-32 – Who does God want to have mercy on? – Who is “all Israel”? – Structure of Romans 11:1-32 | The Predestination Station

  8. Pingback: Romans 11:33-36 – Why is Paul so full of praise? | The Predestination Station

  9. Pingback: Romans 9:10-13 – “Not based on works” – Jacob and Esau | The Predestination Station

  10. Pingback: Romans 9:17-18 – God’s right to harden – Pharaoh | The Predestination Station

  11. Pingback: Romans 9:19-20 – Is it right for God to find fault with unbelieving ethnic Israelites? | The Predestination Station

  12. Pingback: Romans 9:20-21 – Do unbelieving ethnic Israelites have a right to criticise God’s judgement? – The potter and the clay | The Predestination Station

  13. Pingback: Romans 9:22-23 – Why does God put up with unbelieving ethnic Israelites? Can ‘vessels of wrath’ become ‘vessels of mercy’? | The Predestination Station

  14. Pingback: Romans 9:24-29 – Whom has God “called”? What does “called” mean? | The Predestination Station

  15. Pingback: Romans 8:28-30 and its relevance to Romans 9 | The Predestination Station

  16. Excellent series here! Im loving it. So far only have one question. In this post you show how God hardening someone doesnt mean that that person cannot repent and turn to Christ in the future as evidence that hardening is not the same thing as damning someone. You use the example of how the israelites are being hardened but God still offers to graft them back in as evidence of this. However, the text says that the hardening Israel is experiencing is a “partial hardening” which implies that there is a “full hardening” of sorts. Is it possible that God can “partially harden” some for a divine purpose, even though he intends to save them later on and “fully hardens” others who he has elected to damnation? I am not a Calvinist but I can see one making that argument and am not sure how i would respond.

    thanks,

    • Hi Marcos, thanks, glad you’re enjoying the series. I think it’s possible to interpret the “partially harden” phrase in two ways. One is that it is about the degree of the hardening, the other is that it is about the extent of the hardening. I prefer the second – it’s a partial hardening because only part of Israel was hardened. The part of Israel already trusting in Christ was not hardened. I don’t think the Bible distinguishes between levels of hardening, and the wording used in 11:8-10 is strong so it seems not to be only a light version of hardening. I think this is discussed more in my post on 11:25 later in the series – let me know what you think!

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