Calvinists teach that God has divided all the people of the world into “the elect” who will be saved and others who will not. All have sinned; God will have mercy only on “the elect” and condemn the others to the eternal punishment their sins deserve.
One of the main Bible passages used to support this idea is Romans 9-11. But in fact here Paul is teaching something quite different: in the end both “the elect” and the others, those who are “hardened”, will be saved – at least among the ethnic Israelites whom he has in view here. This becomes clear when one reads this section of Romans carefully, as I did when preparing my post Restoring the Kingdom to Israel.
Paul starts this section by making a distinction among the descendants of Abraham between “the children of promise”, the true Israel chosen by God, and the descendants of Ishmael and Esau who were not chosen (9:6-13). I don’t see this passage as about eternal salvation at all, but about being called for God’s purposes. More to the point, it is not really about believing and unbelieving Jews in Paul’s time, although it is building the background for Paul’s discussion of this matter.
Paul first brings up the idea that only some Israelites will be saved with a quotation from Isaiah (9:27-28). He moves into explaining how Gentiles and Jews are saved on the same basis, their confession of faith (10:12-13). Then he comes back to the question of whether God has rejected his original chosen people – to which his answer is an unambiguous “By no means!” (11:1, NIV). He teaches that
at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6 And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
7 What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened …
Romans 11:5-7 (NIV 2011)
Now at first sight this looks like strong support for the Calvinist position, that God has chosen by grace an elect remnant, and “the others”, like Pharaoh (9:17-18), are hardened beyond recovery and so bound for eternal punishment. However, Paul is quick to reject this understanding. After quoting the Hebrew Bible to show that “the others” have stumbled, he writes:
Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!
Romans 11:11-12 (NIV 2011)
Paul explains his enigmatic hint about their “full inclusion” (Greek pleroma, “fullness”) a few verses later:
Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved.
Romans 11:25-26 (NIV 2011)
Thus he makes it clear that, at some future time, the hardening of “the others”, the Israelites who have stumbled, will be reversed, so that these people, as well as “the elect” in Israel, will be saved.
Now when Paul says “all Israel will be saved”, I don’t think we need to assume he means every individual. This is not universalism of the kind that Rob Bell was unjustly accused of. More likely “all” here means large numbers from all groups, including “the others” as well as “the elect”. Does it mean that Jews who died as unbelievers will have another chance to believe after death? Possibly. But what is very clear is that exclusion from the original group of “the elect” does not imply eternal damnation.
Calvinists like to quote this verse from early in Paul’s argument, as if it proves their point that God hardens the hearts of some people so that they will not be saved:
God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.
Romans 9:18 (NIV 2011)
But, after showing that hardening does not imply eternal damnation, Paul ends his argument with the other side of the same picture:
God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
Romans 11:32 (NIV 2011)
So what does it mean to be among “the elect”? As I quoted Chris Wright in my March post Election: not to be saved but to save others:
If we are to speak of being chosen, of being among God’s elect, it is to say that, like Abraham, we are chosen for the sake of God’s plan that the nations of the world come to enjoy the blessing of Abraham.
In other words, when Paul writes of the elect in Israel, they are those Jews like himself who were chosen by God to bear witness to the Gentiles. And when he writes of God’s elect or chosen people without specifying Jews (8:33, 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, Ephesians 1:4, Colossians 3:12 etc), he is referring to all who are called to bring God’s message of salvation to the world. Now by that he intends all Christian believers. But, as is clear from the example of the Jews, that by no means implies that others will not subsequently believe and be saved.