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Election in Romans 11: The Salvation of the Hardened

In the early verses of Romans 11, Paul makes a distinction between two groups within the historic people of Israel: the elect chosen by grace (5, 7) and the rest who were hardened (7). Quoting the Old Testament, Paul goes on to say of the hardened that, “God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear,” and, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent” (8-10). These verses are regularly troubling to Arminians. When taken out of context they seem to assert some manner of unconditional election and predetermined condemnation where God chooses some some for salvation and hardens others leaving them to their tragic fate. However, when read in context, such a system cannot be sustained. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul goes on to invite the question as to whether the falling of these hardened ones means that they have fallen ultimately, “have they stumbled so as to fall?” (11). His answer is an emphatic, “Absolutely not!” The Apostle to the Gentiles then explains God’s ultimate purpose in his hardening a part of Israel. Their hardening was the means to the end of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the covenant people of God (11). Paul then begins to entertain the possibility of the re-inclusion of these hardened Israelites by saying, “Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (12). Now it must be stressed that Paul is not here speaking of the elect. He distinguished between “elect” and “hardened” in v. 7. The hardened then became the subject of his discourse throughout vv. 8-12. Thus, our understanding of election must be articulated in light of Paul’s eagerness to consider the salvation of the hardened non-elect. He goes beyond mere speculation as the chapter progresses. He goes on to speak of an olive tree with natural branches that were broken off and a wild olive shoot that was grafted in (17). The branches that were broken off must be the hardened non-elect Israelites of v. 7. They certainly cannot be the elect remnant because the remnant was kept by God not broken off (4-5). Paul helpfully explains why they were broken off – because of unbelief (20). Then, after warning the Gentiles that they might suffer a similar judgment if they do not persevere in faith (20-22), Paul declares that those hardened non-elect Israelites will be grafted in again on the condition that they do not persist in unbelief (23). Paul is asserting not only the possibility but the certainty that some of the hardened non-elect will ultimately be grafted into the new covenant people of God on the condition of belief in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Whatever our understanding of election is, if it is to be biblical, then it must be able to take on board (1) the conditional nature of election and, therefore, (2) the possibility of salvation for the hardened non-elect. At the risk of anachronism, Paul would have made a great Arminian. Or, more appropriately put, classical Arminians make for good Paulinists.

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