Is Romans 9 about corporate or individual election?


The question “does Romans 9 deal with corporate election and historical destinies or individual election and eternal destinies” presents us with a false dichotomy. John Piper, in The Justification of God, presents the same options: “Individuals versus nations, eternal destinies versus historical tasks” (56). There are many who view this as a stark choice between the two. Piper spends the first part of Section 3.2 arguing against those who claim that the passage deals only with corporate/historical realities and not with individual/eternal salvation. I agree with Piper that those are wrong. It seems very short sighted and arbitrary to ignore the way that historical and corporate realities connect with and entail eternal individual outcomes. However, I do not agree that the answer is found by swinging entirely to the other side, namely, that the passage must only be talking about individual salvation and not at all about the corporate/historical realities that God incorporated into his larger plan of redemption—a redemption that necessarily includes individuals.

Piper quotes from a scholar who articulates this well, Henry Alford: “I must protest against all endeavors to make it appear that no inference lies from this passage as to the salvation of individuals. It is most true that the immediate subject is the national rejection of the Jews: but we must consent to hold our reason in abeyance if we do not recognize the inference that the sovereign power and free election here proved to belong to God extend to every exercise of his mercy—whether temporal or spiritual…whether national or individual” (58; for Alford, see The Greek Testament, vol. II , page 408).

Piper admits that “a plausible case can be made for the position that ‘Paul is no longer concerned with two peoples and their fate but rather in a permanent way with the election and rejection of two persons who have been raised to the level of types’ (Kaesemann, Commentary on Romans, 264)” (64). He later says, “Numerous interpreters suggest rightly, I think, that Isaac functions for Paul here as a type” (69, n. 51).

I see this corporate typology not just in 9:6–13 (the passage the Piper considers) but continuing on in 9:14–18 with the hardening of Pharaoh. I do not think that this passage is mainly written to explain that God can do that to every reprobate individual just like he did to Pharaoh. Certainly, God can do that. But in this passage, I take “the immediate subject” to be Pharaoh as a type whose anti-type is a corporate historical reality—the presently hardened nation of Israel; the “inference” certainly could be that God is free to harden any and every sinner. That’s just not the main point.

Pharaoh is not just “any sinner” he is the king of the nation of Egypt, the culmination of all the forces holding salvation back from God’s people. The hardening and subsequent destruction of Pharaoh produced salvation for God’s people. In the same way, in Paul’s day, the nation of Israel is a powerful and enslaving force holding the people of God (Jew and Gentile) back from salvation: “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (2:24). Just as Pharaoh’s hardening and destruction produced salvation for God’s people, so the hardening and breaking off of natural branches produces salvation for God’s true Israel: “through their fall… salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11).

With Alford, I refuse to choose between either corporate/historical or individual/salvation. With him, I see the immediate subject as the former, though the legitimate inference is the latter. In truth, God sovereignly works all of the corporate and historical realities in all of the history of redemption to produce a final corporate/individual/historical/eternal reality, namely, the eschatological people of God, Jew and Gentile, individually and corporately saved in Christ for eternity. The former serves the latter, and is used by our sovereign God to bring about the latter.

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