Saturday, October 10, 2020

Romans 12:1-2. Marks of Christian Community: Devotion to God.

The reason for the exhortation: the mercies of God.

The Apostle Paul begins with the words, “I appeal to you therefore brothers” (12:1).  The word therefore is significant because it grounds the appeal in the content of the previous chapters.  In other words, Paul’s appeal only makes sense in light of chapters 1 through 11.  The appeal is to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God.  What the apostle Paul is calling for is that we should be wholly devoted to God.  But what specifically does the therefore point to?  In other words, what motivates believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice?  Why would you want to sacrifice your body anyway?  What are the reasons?

The point is that unless you are willing to believe the message of the previous chapters, this isn’t going to make much sense.  But if you do believe the message of the previous chapters, this is in some sense inevitable.  How so?

Take what the apostle says about sin.  Sin isn’t just something you’re not supposed to do.  It isn’t that forbidden pleasure.  Rather, sin is first and foremost “ungodliness” (1:18).  In other words, sin is that which puts us in direct opposition to God.  Whatever else sin might do for you, it fundamentally puts you at odds with your Creator.  And that can never be good.  As a result, it is that which causes us to lose sight of wisdom, to make us do foolish and hurtful things and to make an exchange which makes no sense, to replace the Creator with the creature (1:21-22).  It causes us to do that which is unnatural and unreasonable.  It leads to “a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (1:28).  It is coming short of the glory of God (3:23).  It brings on us the wrath of God (1:18).  It is that which causes shame (6:21) and whose wages is eternal death (6:23).  In other words, if you take God at his word, then sin is nothing to be trifled with.  Sin is not something desirable which God keeps from us; rather, sin is something which is awful and which God in his infinite grace and mercy keeps us from, by saving us from its consequences, from its power and penalty and one day from its very presence.

Then take what the apostle says about righteousness.  Righteousness is the one thing that we humans, of all things, need, and the one thing which we lack.  The righteous God cannot have fellowship with unrighteous people.  We are ungodly and therefore unrighteous and as a result God’s wrath is poised to be unleashed upon us, and rightly so.  But righteousness in Romans is not just an attribute that defines God and which we lack; righteousness is a gift that God gives freely to sinners (3:21-31).  We lost righteousness in Adam and cannot gain it back on our own; but Christ came to redeem us by his death by becoming a propitiation for us, by taking the guilt of our sin upon himself and absorbing God’s wrath in our place.  As a result, he is able to justify the ungodly (4:5).  We are saved, not by our righteousness but by the righteousness of God, mediated to us through Christ.  Through this saving righteousness, we are able to now have acquittal and acceptance before God.  And that is the best of news.  Whereas sin leads to death, the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Or take what Paul tells us about the life which we have in Christ though his Spirit.  This is one of the great themes of chapter 8.  Sin brings with it spiritual death.  It brings with it bondage to sin.  Sin is slavery to the world, to the devil, and to our own passions and lusts.  It is a miserable condition.  Well does the Shorter Catechism say that the fall of man brought mankind into a condition of sin and misery.  But because Christ has given those who are united to him by faith this gift of righteousness, he also gives to them a new life, and new affections to live life in a new direction.  The chains with which sin shackled us have been broken.  We now walk not in the flesh but in the Spirit.  We are able through the Spirit to put to death the sin in our life.  What the law could not do – what we could not do in the strength of depraved flesh, we are now able to do by the gracious intervention of God in the life.  It’s not merely that God gives us new directions and information so that we can do the right thing.  Nor is it that God becomes a new life coach and inspires us to do what we should so that we can have our best life now.  Rather, it is that God has given new life to those who were spiritually dead; he has enabled by sheer grace and mercy those who had no strength in themselves.  And the life that they now live is not a life lived in their own power but because Christ lives in them through the Spirit.  And because of this sin no longer has the dominion over them because they are not under law but under grace (6:14).

All this comes about through the grace and mercy of God.  Sin is rebellion against God.  We have forfeited any claim upon God’s good gifts.  We not only do not deserve his pleasure, but we also justly deserve his wrath.  More than this, in our sin we will never on our own reach out for the grace of God.  We will willingly sit in the muck and mire that is our sin.  “So then it depends not on human will or exertion but on God who shows mercy” (9:18).  God, in sovereign grace, has reached down to save sinful men and women.  It is a wonderful and surprising act of grace and kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

That is the content that stands behind that word, therefore.  What this means is that the exhortation here in this verse is not something which we do in order to gain God’s grace and favor.  It is an appeal on the basis of God’s grace and favor, which the apostle points to in that delightful phrase, mercies of God.  We are not told to clean up our life in order to gain forgiveness or freedom.  Rather, the gospel – the good news of what God has done (not us!) for us in Jesus Christ – is the basis for the appeal here.  We are not working toward God’s favor; we are meant to work from it. 

Christianity is not a moralistic system.  That is, the essence of the Christian message is not that we are to be nice people and good neighbors.  The Christian message is not that we need to be better, it is that we need to be made alive, and this is not something we can do for ourselves.  People don’t need to clean up their lives; they need to be rescued from themselves by the sovereign and gracious intervention of God in their lives. 

A lot of people, even in the church, want to downplay the doctrinal aspects of the Christian message and to unite around its ethical aspects.  Now of course there is an ethical aspect to our message – this chapter and the ones which follow bear this out – but what the structure and message of Romans tells us is that the ethics is impossible apart from the gospel.  We are not saved by good works, we are saved to good works (Eph. 2:8-10).  God does not meet sinners as they try to be better; he meets the ungodly as they embrace by faith Jesus Christ presented to them in the gospel.  We don’t primarily need a life coach or a self-help manual – our fundamental and primary need is that of a Savior, and this is what the gospel is all about.

It is only from a position of faith in Christ and having been united to him by the Spirit of God that we are enabled to live a life of godliness.  “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Tit. 2:11-12).  And this is what the “therefore” implies; that having been saved, we are now in a position in which we can pursue good works and holiness and to start working on those aspects of our lives which are out of sync with God’s will for us.

But there is another thing behind that word “therefore”: it is not only that the gospel enables obedience, but that it also motivates obedience.  It gives us reasons to be holy.  You see this in the word “reasonable” which unfortunately is translated “spiritual” in verse 1 in the ESV.  “Reasonable” is, I think, the best rendering here (cf. KJV).  To devote ourselves to God and to his service is the most reasonable thing to do, and the greatest reasons for this are rooted in this amazing mercies of God.  Given what sin is and what it does, given the remedy for it in the gospel, and given the grace that stands behind this amazing gift, how can we not want to live for God?  How could we do anything but to offer him our lives which belong to him anyway?  To claim to have believed in the gospel and then to go on in sin is to give the lie to our profession of faith.

What we are called to do: present our bodies a living sacrifice

As we’ve already noted, the main thing the apostle calls us to do here is to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your [reasonable service]” (12:1).  “Bodies” here stands for the whole person; note the word “mind” in the next verse.  A sacrifice was something, whether an animal or grain or money or whatever that, under the OT ritual, you gave to God.  But Paul tells us that we are not simply to give something to God; we are to give ourselves to God.  You can also see this in the word “holy.”  We are to be set apart for him.  And we are to give ourselves wholly to him.  Our Lord said something very similar to this when he called upon people to take up their crosses to follow him (cf. Lk 14:27).  If we claim to belong to Christ, we must admit that he has a claim on every part of our lives.  He has redeemed us, body and soul, and we belong to him.  Our lives should reflect that.   

He calls them living sacrifices as opposed to the dead sacrifices of the Levitical sacrifices.  This points to the spiritual condition of the believer: they are those who are alive in Christ (Rom. 6:11, 13; 8:13).  But I think it also points to the fact that this is an ongoing condition which defines us.  A dead sacrifice could only be offered once.  But a living sacrifice is an ongoing reality which determines who we are and what we are to do.  It means that our identity is to be found throughout the entirety of our lives in who we belong to, namely, God.

There is no other way for the Christian.  The only acceptable service to God is that which is rendered in the way of a living sacrifice.  God will accept no other.  If we want to please God, if we want to live a life that pleases him and carries with it his blessing, we must die to ourselves and live for him.  “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:17-18).  Could it be that I am not experiencing the joy and conscious enjoyment of the blessing of God in my life because I am holding back, because I am giving myself to be satisfied by this present age? 

How we do this (negatively): don’t be conformed to the world.

“Do not be conformed to this world” (12:2).  The authors of Scripture often use this word “world” to refer to the world under sin and in rebellion against God.  So, for example, the apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world.  And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17).  Here the world is characterized by sinful and selfish desires, desires which are in opposition to the things God wants us to love.  At the end of his epistle, he will write, “And we know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19).  So when Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world,” he is referring to the desires and habits and attitudes which characterize those who are enslaved to the devil, whether consciously or unconsciously (cf. Mt. 4:8-9; Eph. 6:12).  And as James will put it, those who are friends with the world are the enemies of God (Jam. 4:4).  If you want to be devoted to God, you cannot be like the world.  You must be different.  Your tastes and ambitions and goals must and ought to be different from those who do not know Christ.

Another way to put it is that the world is still in the condition of Romans 1.  Those who are “in the world” are under the wrath of God, unthankful and unholy, futile in their thinking and darkened in their hearts, claiming to be wise but in reality are fools.  They have made a frightful and irrational exchange – worshipping the creature over the Creator and this is often reflected in the kinds of behaviors which they engage in, behaviors in which they exchange natural relationships for unnatural ones like homosexual and lesbian ones.  Then Paul goes on to list the kinds of things which characterize a world in sin: “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Rom. 1:29-31).  So when Paul says that you should not be conformed to the world, he means that your life should not be characterized by these sorts of things.

Now there are two things to be said here.  First, given the power of God in the conversion of the believer, given the new life that is ours in Christ, it is impossible to think that one could be truly born again and yet go on living in conformity to the world.  After all, our Lord died to save us from our sin, and that not only means from the penalty of sin but also from the power of sin.  Someone who gives themselves habitually and continuously to the world cannot be saved.  As the apostle John puts it, those who are born of God cannot go on sinning (1 Jn. 3:9).  The grace of God does not leave a person in the condition in which it found them.

But that requires a second thing to be said.  Though it is true that God’s grace is powerfully operative in the life of a believer, empowering them to put sin to death and giving them new affections, that does not mean that the believer is never tempted to be conformed to the world.  In fact, this is a constant temptation.  The clearest proof of this is this very text.  It is an exhortation, an appeal, to not be conformed to the world.  That appeal would be meaningless if this were not a possibility in the life of a Christian.  The reality is that sanctification – the process of becoming more and more Christ-like in our character – is not automatic.  We have to work on it.  We have to present our bodies as a living a sacrifice.  We have to resist the pressure to conform to the world.  We have to, as the hymn puts it, take time to be holy.  In fact, it is not only not automatic, but also often not easy.  That being said, the glory of grace is that it is not impossible and we are empowered by the Spirit to live in increasing conformity to our Lord and his will.

The apostle writes this because he knows that in Christ we can resist the pressure to conform to the world.  But he also writes it because he knows that there is this constant pressure to conform to the world, to adopt its attitudes and values and desires and goals and ambitions.  The world is not a neutral entity, but an entire culture that is trying to make holiness look more weird and less desirable. 

How do we resist such pressure?  By remembering the mercies of God and by appropriating the truths of the gospel to every aspect of our lives.  We do it by refusing to believe the lie that what the world promises is better than what God promises.  We do it by looking to Christ by faith, by living by the Spirit, and by considering ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 6:11).

How we do this (positively): be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

“But be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:2).  You don’t devote yourself to God by simply doing this negative thing.  You must not only put off, but you must also put on.  Paul describes how we devote ourselves to God in this positive sense by the transformation of the mind.  It is not just a change in how we behave that is aimed at here; it is a change in how we think and feel.  It is a change in our thoughts and affections, in our determinations and desire, in our wills as well as our ways. 

The word “transformed” is interesting.  It is the same word that is used to describe the transfiguration of our Lord.  It was a brief glimpse in which our Lord was transformed into the glory that he had with the Father before the world began.  It is the word from which we get “metamorphosis.”  We are being changed, says the apostle in another place, from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). 

How does this happen?  How does this change take place?  It happens as we are renewed in the mind.  It happens as we behold the face of the Lord in his word.  It happens as the truth of God’s word finds its way into our minds and hearts and takes root so that our habits of thinking and feeling are molded into forms which are pleasing to God.

I think it was R. C. Sproul who said that this transformation takes place through education.  In other words, as we believe and appropriate and apply the truths of the Bible to our lives.  It is so important.  You must not think that because you are born again, that holy ways of thinking are going to always prevail.  We have to be constantly in the word and let it have its transforming effect upon us.  We are not yet without sin, and as a result if we aren’t being transformed by the word of God, we will be conformed to the world.  If we don’t let God’s truth change us, the world will.  Either God’s word will be in us or the world will be in us.

God does not sanctify us apart from his word (Jn 17:17).  Don’t ever think that you can navigate this world on your own.  You need to let God speak into your life continually, and the only way to let this happen is though Scripture.  Don’t be satisfied by cheap substitutes. 

As a result of this, we will be able “by testing” to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).  Again, the rubric by which we test things is the word of God in which we find the will of God, which is good and acceptable and perfect.  We are drowning in information; but the problem is that so much of that information is just false.  Even the so-called experts have conflicting opinions.  There is news and then there is fake news.  But thank God, his word is perfect.  It will equip us for every good work.  It will help us to discern God’s will for our lives.

But it all starts with the mercies of God.  My friend, do you know something of the mercies of God in your life?  I don’t mean whether or not you’ve been educated, or have a good job, or are married to your best friend.  I’m talking about the mercies of God which bring us into fellowship with him.  Do you have a saving relationship with God?  The Bible tells us that the only way this can happen, the only way we can experience the mercies of God by which we are saved, is through Jesus Christ.  It is only through his sacrifice for us on the cross that we can meaningfully give ourselves as a living sacrifice to God.  His sacrifice for you must precede your sacrifice for God.  Has it?  If not, come to him, for he calls us to himself, and promises that he will never cast out anyone who comes to him by faith.  May God make it so!

 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

From Theology to Doxology. Romans 11:33-36


These verses are a fitting and delightful and exultant conclusion not only to Romans 9-11, but to all of Romans 1-11.  They are a doxology.  A doxology is an oral or written expression of praise – in this case, praise to God.  This is not just fitting, but in some sense inevitable for anyone who has had his or her eyes opened to see the glory of God.  Just as you would think something was wrong with someone who stood before the Grand Canyon without being moved by its majesty, even so a person must be spiritually blind who receives God’s word and yet remains unmoved.

Doxology isn’t just a song that we sing in church.  Doxology, properly understood, is the delight of the soul in the things of God.  What we have in these verses is not the forced and obedient repetition of a formal liturgical rule of worship, but the spontaneous bursting forth of the apostle’s soul in expressions of joy in God.  The apostle cannot just be a viewer of God’s plan to redeem and save fallen and broken people, he must overflow in worship.  Theology that does not lead to doxology is a dead faith.  True faith must express itself in doxology and worship, and that’s what Paul does here.

To see this, consider the following analogy.  Suppose you set before a starving man a sumptuous meal.  If that man refuses even to eat, you would know something was wrong with him.  But suppose he eats, and then spews out the food he has just eaten in disgust.  Again, you would know that something was wrong with him.  Why?  Because it is not only appropriate and fitting but also expected that a starving man who eats a sumptuous meal will not only eat it, but enjoy it.  However, something is still lacking.  If he eats it with obvious delight but then says nothing about the food or those who provided it – would that also not seem both weird and wrong?  The appropriate response of a starving man to good and tasty and healthful food is to receive it with thanksgiving and to enjoy it and to praise it to others. 

That is how we should receive the feast of God’s word of redemption.  Salvation doesn’t mean walking away from happiness.  That’s the way it is sometimes caricatured.  Rather, salvation in Jesus means receiving from the Lord that which will give us true joy and happiness both in this world and in the next.  It is receiving rich food for starving souls, which only the Lord can provide.  And by the way, this is exactly how God himself represents it.  As the prophet Isaiah puts it, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.  And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.  He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 25:6-8).  But that’s not all – note well how the people of God respond to this feast which takes away tears and death – “It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.  This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9; note also verse 1).  Think of it: being saved is like sitting at a feast with rich food and well-aged wine!  God is not a cosmic kill-joy – he only wants to kill those joys which are poisonous and will ultimately empty our hearts of all real and lasting happiness.  And so the way to respond to the gospel is not with a frown but with a song of praise.

When we say that life is about worship, we don’t mean something that is forced from us because it is what we are supposed to do.  Worship is artificial and fake if it is not the overflow of our lives.  It is not what we do on Sunday merely.  We shouldn’t have to make a transition in our hearts between Saturday and Sunday.  God made us to know him and to worship him and this is the most exciting and the most wonderful news that could ever be given mortal men and women.  And therefore it is not only fitting but natural that we should worship him.  So the verses before us should not come as a surprise to us.  In fact, it would be surprising should the apostle make the transition from doctrine to application without this transition of devotion.

But why are our hearts not filled with praise to God?  Why is it that so often we feel dead to the things of God, cold and hard to eternal joys?  Is it not the unfortunate reality that so often we come to God’s word and find ourselves unfeeling?  Why is this?  And how do we rid ourselves of it?

First of all, I think this happens to us because our minds do not dwell on God.  In other words, we sometimes tend to go through life as if God weren’t there.  We would never call ourselves atheists, but we often live that way.  We need to see everything in relation to God.  God is not just the one who forgives our sins so we can go to heaven when we die and in the meantime ignore.  God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  All the surprising and delightful and wonderful things we encounter in this world are God’s surprising and delightful and wonderful things.  They are shadows of the greater reality that is God.  We need to walk before God (Gen. 17:1).  If we do, we are going to be more likely to turn our moments into worship.

Second, I think this happens to us because we may have picked up some wrong ideas of God.   When this happens, we inevitably move God down to our level.  And of course when we do that, we are going to rob ourselves of a view of God that is worthy of worship.  When are thoughts of God are too small, our praise to him will be diminished.  This is why it is so important for us to fill our minds with the truths of Scripture.  God’s word to us not only tells us about himself, but it also tells us about ourselves, and how we relate to the one true God.  We are dependent upon God for our knowledge of him and ourselves, not only because we are sinful but because we are human.  We should beware of the idea that we can gain true and saving knowledge of God apart from God’s gracious revelation of himself to us through his word.

Third, I think this happens to us because we have filled our hearts with other things.  You may have a delicious steak in front of you, but if you have filled your belly with jelly-beans, you are not going to enjoy the steak.  You cannot fill your heart with this world and have room for God.  You cannot love this world and love the Lord.  But it doesn’t have to be bad things that we fill our hearts with: we can fill our hearts with things that are good in themselves.  It happens when God’s gifts become replacements for God.  For example, when food becomes the thing that our joy depends upon, then it has become our God and we won’t see the glory of God because we are covering it up with our obsession with our stomachs. 

Fourth, this happens to us because of sin.  Sin in its very nature blinds us to the beauty of God.   Sin warps our view of reality.  If we are hiding or giving aid and comfort to the enemy of our souls then we cannot expect to have hearts that are ready to be deployed for worship.  Good theology is not the only component necessary for heart-felt worship; we must also be pursuing holiness with all our might.  If there is sin in the life that we are not repenting of, then we should not be surprised if we find our hearts dead and cold to the things of God.

So we want to be people who are like Paul.  We don’t just want to embrace true things about God, we should want to be people who love these true things and who overflow in exultation over these true things.  We want our theology to lead to doxology.

Very well.  But let’s look more closely now at the text.  How does the apostle give expression to his delight in the being of God and the works of God?  As we look at these verses, we will notice that there are two exclamations (33) about the greatness of God’s wisdom and the inscrutability of his judgments.  This is followed by two questions (34-35) which are a ground for verse 33 by contrasting God’s greatness with man’s weakness.  Finally, Paul grounds the whole doxology with an acclamation of the centrality of God in all things (36).

Two exclamations (33)

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (KJV)

There are two ways to read the first exclamation: “Depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God …” or “Depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God.”  The former points to one thing, the wisdom of God, whereas the latter points to two things, God’s riches and wisdom (I take wisdom and knowledge here to be basically synonymous).  Though both are legitimate translations of the Greek, the KJV is surely right in translating the verse as “both . . . and.”  For if “riches” is allowed to stand by itself, the question is, riches of what?  It is not clear what it would be referring to.  Paul also never uses the word “riches” with respect to God without defining it, unless this verse is the only exception.  Therefore, we take it to reinforce the idea of the greatness of God’s wisdom and knowledge.  It’s not just the riches of his wisdom but the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Its not just that God is rich in wisdom, but that his wisdom is unfathomable.  That’s the idea that the apostle is trying to get across here.

Because God’s wisdom is unfathomable, his judgements and his ways are inscrutable to us, and hence the second exclamation.  That doesn’t mean that we can never know anything about God’s ways in the world, but it does mean that we will never be able to truly discern what God is doing in history on the basis of our feeble understanding unless God reveals it to us (cf. 11:25).  What this means is that we cannot rely upon our own view of what is happening to us and around us and interpret God’s purpose in the world and our lives on that basis.  It’s not just that our perspective is limited by time and space (though it is), but that our perspective is limited in our very imagination and intellectual resources.  Even if we had all the time in the world and could see all that was taking place from every angle, we would still not be able to necessarily understand what God was doing.  His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts, because they are above us as the heavens are above the earth (Isa. 55:8-9).

Now how deep is this wisdom and knowledge of God?  It is unfathomably deep in the sense that God knows all that will come to pass.  He knows our thoughts before we think them.  He knows the names of every star.  He know the number of the hairs on our head.  He knows when a sparrow hops on the ground or when it falls to the ground.  He knows the secret things, and the things we can hide from others we cannot hide from God.  His plans encompass and shape all of history (cf. Ps. 139).

It also means that God executes all his plans perfectly.  His plans are flawless and faultless, and they are without wickedness or wrong.  We can make mistakes because either we don’t know all the facts or we misunderstand the facts.  But neither of these flaws can be attributed to God.

Someone may retort and argue that this is all just so much cold comfort.  How could it be encouraging, they may ask, for God to be such that we could not understand his ways?  Wouldn’t we be better off if we could understand his ways?  We ask those kinds of questions because we want to be in control.  But the reality is that we are not!  Only God is in control.  Any control that we think we have is really an illusion.  And the comfort comes from the fact that we don’t have to know how things are going to turn out because God is in control.  We can trust in him because he is good and wise and loving.  He is working all things out for the good of those who love him and who are called according to his eternal and unchangeable purpose.  In the Proverbs, we read that “A man’s steps are from the LORD; how then can a man understand his way?” (Prov. 20:24).  The answer is that we cannot.  But that’s okay, precisely because our steps are in his hand.

Two questions (34-35)

Question 1: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (34).  This is a quotation from Isa. 40:13.  The context of that passage is that Israel was faced with Babylonian captivity, and the question that naturally arose was how could they be delivered from Babylon when they were so weak and Babylon was so strong?  The same question could be asked in light of what the apostle said about the salvation of the Jews; it was a seeming impossibility.  The answer came back that we should never look at the situation we are in in terms of our own limitations but in light of the greatness of God.  The same was true in the apostle’s day, and it remains true today as well.

Here we have the immeasurable greatness of God’s wisdom compared with our own finite knowledge.  And this is so important.  It is a step in the apostle’s argument.  He is not only grounding the reality of verse 33 by a quotation from the OT, but he is also illustrating it by comparing God and man. 

When our daughter Emma was born, she was only 12 inches long and 1.7 lbs.  It is hard really to imagine how small that is, especially when you are used to having big babies!  And we quickly found out that just taking a picture of Emma could never communicate her smallness by itself, unless we put things in the picture by which people could use to judge her size.  For example, it was helpful when a picture had of one of our hands next to her, and then you could really see just how small she was.  In the same way, you are not going to appreciate God’s knowledge unless you put it up next to your own and realize just how small your knowledge is compared to God’s.  In fact, God’s knowledge and wisdom is so great, that it is not really comparable!  As the prophet would go on to say, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One” (Isa. 40:25).  The question is rhetorical of course: there is no one who is comparable to God.

We cannot counsel God.  There is nothing you could say to him that would give him any new information.  There is no advice you could give to him that he could not already know.  It reminds me of an exchange between a famous scientist and a student.  The student was disagreeing with the scientist, and eventually harumphed, “Well, that’s just your guess, and your guess is as good as mine.”  To which the scientist correctly responded, “No, young man, my guesses are much, much better than your guesses!”  But God of course doesn’t even have to guess.  He knows everything immediately.  Our best knowledge is but a poor guess compared to the knowledge of God.  We cannot know the mind of the Lord or come into his presence as if we could give him advice.

Question 2: the next question is another OT passage, and comes from Job 40:11: “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”  The basic point here, of course, is that God owes nothing to anybody (cf. Acts 17:25).  No one can put God in their debt, because all we have comes from him in the first place.  We are dependent upon God, but God is dependent upon no one.  God is self-existent and self-sufficient. He is God Almighty. 

Now the OT background to this passage is also important to understand.  Job thought that God had mistreated him.  God’s answer was that Job really didn’t understand or have the right to question God’s wisdom.  The point of the verse was that Job could not put God in his debt by giving him advice – and neither can we. 

Like Job, we often want to tell God how to do things.  We often imagine that God has done something wrong.  With Jacob, we say, “All these things are against me.”  But we say such things in ignorance.  It’s not that we know better than God that we complain as we do; we complain this way because we are stupid.  We need to learn and relearn these two lessons again and again: that God is not dependent upon us for wisdom and that we are completely dependent upon him for all true wisdom.

Three foundational realities (36)

All of this is grounded upon the truths of verse 36: “For of him and through him and to him are all things.”  God needs no one for his counsellor, he needs no one for advice, and he is dependent upon no one, because of these three things.  What are they?

God is the origin of all things.  If there were one part of the universe that did not come from God, there might be room in that corner to exist independently of God.  But there is no such corner.  All things come from God.  Everything comes from him, and therefore everything is under his dominion and control.  Note that God is not the universe.  The verse doesn’t say that God is all things, as in pantheism.  It says that from God are all things.  There is no room for pantheism or atheism here.

God sustains all things.  If the first phrase differentiates Biblical theism from pantheism and atheism, this phrase differentiates it from deism.  Deism is the idea that God wound the universe up like clock and then lets it run on its own.  It imagines a God far-removed from everyday concerns.  There is no room for anything supernatural or miraculous for the deist.  There is no room for prayer.  But Paul says that not only did God create all things, he also sustains all things.  Through him are all things.  There is also no corner of the universe that can exist or continue to exist on its own.  “And he [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).  In this sense, everything is supernatural, because nature is not self-sustaining!  God holds the breath of every living thing in his hand. 

Another way to put this is that God is not only the God of creation, but that he is also the God of providence and salvation.  He is holding this universe together, and one day through Christ he will restore all things and bring about a new heavens and a new earth.

God is the goal of all things.  “And to him are all things.”  Why does anything exist?  Why do you and I exist?  We exist for the glory of God, as does everything else.  And if you have seen the glory of God, if you have an idea of the greatness of the Lord, this is a most thrilling thought.  To know that the most glorious of all beings, the God of infinite majesty and glory, is the goal of creation and providence and redemption is wonderful because it means that we all exist to reflect his glory.  It means that our life has meaning and importance and significance– not because we are important or significant but because God is! 

This is especially true of the believer.  All things and all people will bring glory to God – including people like Pharaoh.  But Pharaoh will glorify God in his destruction.  However, the saint will glory God, not in his or her destruction, but in his or her salvation.  They are like the moon.  The moon is beautiful, not because it shines its own light, but because it reflects the light of the sun. In the same way, the people of God will be eternally beautiful and radiant, not because they shine their own light and goodness and glory, but because they will forever reflect God’s glory in the richness of mercy and grace through praise and endless delight.

God is the beginning and the end, he is the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, and everything in between.  What then should be our response?  It is, with the apostle, to give God the glory: “To him be glory forever.  Amen.”  It is to live lives of worship and to bring honor to his name.

Can you say amen to that?  Can you say it from your heart?  The only reason why any of us can say amen to that is through Christ.  Apart from him there is no hope, and only a dreadful looking for of judgement and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.  If you want to be able to say amen to God’s glorious redemptive purpose, you must be in Christ.  “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.  That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20).  If you will say “Yes” to Jesus Christ, then you will be able to say “Amen” to God for his glory.  May the Lord make it so of all of us!  Amen!

Israel’s Restoration – Rom. 11:23-32

 

In this chapter, Paul continues to show how God has not been unfaithful to his promises to Israel in that he has kept his word (9:6).  As he has worked through chapters 9-11, the apostle has argued for this from several different angles.  In chapter 9 especially he argues that God’s covenant with the Patriarchs did not guarantee the salvation of every individual Israelite, and that this depends not upon the corporate election of Israel as a nation, but upon the unconditional election of Israelites as individuals to salvation.  Moreover, in chapter 10, he argues that the election of Israel as a nation did not mean that faith in Christ was negotiable, and that those who reject Christ in unbelief must not expect to be included in the age of God’s eternal blessing.  In some sense, the apostle sums this part of his argument up in 11:1-10, when he argues that the rejection of Israel is not complete, that there has always been this righteous remnant within Israel according to the election of grace.  This remnant has always been distinguished from the rest of Israel in two ways: (1) they are distinguished by the sovereign electing purpose of God and his grace (the argument of chapter 9), and (2) they are distinguished by their faith and faithfulness (the argument of chapter 10).  In the rest of the chapter (11:11-32), the apostle has been arguing that the rejection of Israel is not final by teaching that at some point in the future, Israel as a nation will be brought to saving faith and so be saved. 

Why has Paul been so determined and concerned about this?  Why go into such lengths upon this subject?  Especially to those of us who are living in West in the 21st century, so much of this seems to lack relevance.  However, as the apostle will say of the OT, so it is true of the NT, and true of this chapter no less than the others, that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that though endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).  Well, there are at least two reasons why Paul would have been so concerned to instruct the Roman Christians about the place of Jew and Gentile in God’s redemptive purposes.

First, he was concerned because he wanted to show that God has been and is always faithful to his word.  His word has not fallen to the ground because of God’s electing purpose (9:1-19).  And his word has not fallen to the ground because his word to Israel did not deprive individual Israelites of the responsibility to repent of their sins and believe his word.  The reason why so many of Paul’s fellow Jews were not saved was because they had failed, not God, in this very respect (9:30-10:21). 

Here we must pause and observe that so many people blame God when sin is at the door.  We want to blame God for everything that is wrong in our lives and in the world when the reality is that the cause for all of this is often directly attributed to our sin.  And even if it is not directly attributed to our sin (as in the case of Job), the Biblical explanation for all the suffering and pain in the world goes right back to mankind’s original apostacy from God in Adam.  At the end of the day, human rebellion is the explanation for the wrongness of our world, and it is wrong to put any blame at God’s door (cf. Jam. 1:13-15).

Do you see why it is so important to take God at his word?  If you cannot, then you cannot trust him or obey him or fear him or worship him.  All of true religion depends upon taking God at his word.  In fact this is precisely how Abraham’s faith is described in chapter 4: “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (ver. 20; cf. ver. 18).  And so the apostle is at pains to show us that God can be trusted, and to give us reasons why we can trust him.  Here again we see why theology is important – theology is what gives us these reasons to trust in God.  It is one thing to say, “Yes, God can be trusted,” but when it gets hard to trust him, when things aren’t going your way and it appears that God is not following through on his word, where will you look for support when unbelief is rearing its ugly head?  We must be people who are so immersed in Biblical theology that we have a treasure of resources upon which to depend that show us that God is truly worthy of our trust and that he is a promise-keeping God.  And these chapters are a key resource for that.

But there is another reason the apostle is writing this.  It is to keep us (Gentiles) from conceit.  We saw that last time, when we considered verses 16-22.  “Do not be arrogant” (18), he tells us, and then, “do not become proud, but fear” (20).  And in the verses we are considering this morning, he comes back to it in verse 25: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery.”  So you see how he keeps coming back to this.

Now knowledge can puff up (1 Cor. 8:1), but so can ignorance.  And in particular, we need knowledge about ourselves, and in particular, about our limitations.  Humility, as Stott put it, is not founded on hypocrisy but upon honesty.  We need to be honest about ourselves.  But unfortunately, we cannot arrive at this honest knowledge of ourselves by ourselves.  Left to ourselves, we are blind.  In our unawareness, we become puffed up with conceit.  We need the truths of Scripture to guide us to a balanced view of our sinfulness and of our limitations, and that is what Paul is doing here. 

Specifically, the apostle informs us and teaches us so that we do not think our (Gentile) reception into God’s family is due to any goodness in us or due to the Jews being less worthy.  It is only of God’s goodness and grace that we are saved.  Jewish hardness is not a result if their inferiority, it is a part of God’s plan.  In fact, the apostle has been and continues to argue throughout this passage that God has so constructed salvation history so that it will become clear to all that the only reason anyone is saved is due to God’s sovereign mercy and grace.

Now let us come to verses 23-32.  Again, the restoration of Israel is the main theme in these verses, and the apostle wraps up his argument by the time we get to verse 32.  Indeed, he wraps up his argument for all of chapters 9-11 in these verses.  He develops his argument in four steps.  Israel as a nation will be restored, will be saved, will receive Christ by faith, and there are four reasons why we can be sure that he will do this.  The first reason is God’s power (23-24); he will do it because he is able.  The second reason is God’s purpose which can never fail (25-27), which Paul calls a mystery, something he has kept hidden but now revealed for us to know and believe.  The third reason is God’s promise, in particular his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (28-29).  God always keeps his promises.  Finally, this will happen because of God’s praise (30-32); the only way God will be shown to be glorious in salvation is by showing that he alone is the explanation why anyone is saved, and therefore the only way we will praise him is when we see him so.  God has in his providence developed the outworking of redemptive history so that this will become more and more clear as we approach the end of the age.

God’s power (23-24)

“And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.  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 natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.”  Remember that grafting here refers to being put in the family of God, represented by the olive tree, and which is based on the root of God’s promises to the Patriarchs.  The Jews make up the natural branches and the Gentiles the branches from the wild olive tree.  Because of their unbelief the Jews have been broken off, and the Gentiles were grafted in through faith in Christ.  The apostle is using this metaphor to describe the shift in the make-up of God’s family on earth, from being predominantly Jewish to becoming predominantly Gentile. 

Now this shift happened only because of Jewish rejection of the gospel.  It came in the context of their hardness.  When it came to the gospel they were “enemies” of God (28).  And so we can see that it would have been easy for an observer at the time to think that the Jews were done with God and God was done with them, and that in light of such hardness it would have been impossible for them to be saved.  But the apostle shoots back by saying that God has the power to bring the Jews back to the family of God.  It may seem like an impossible scenario, but nothing is impossible with God. 

We should beware of looking at spiritually impossible situations as if we were atheists.  Do you remember what our Lord said to his disciples when the rich young ruler walked away?  Our Lord had in fact told them that it was easier for a camel to climb through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  This distressed the disciples, who responded, “Who then can be saved?”  To which our Lord responded, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:24-26). 

It is because we don’t look through the lens of God’s omnipotence that we begin to look at things exactly backwards.  You will notice in these two verse that the apostle makes an argument from the greater to the lesser.  In other words, it is more reasonable to suppose that God will graft the natural branches back than it is to suppose that he would graft branches from an alien tree.  But what does a perspective that does not take into account God’s power do?  It reasons backwards!  It says that it is more unreasonable that God would graft the Jews back in.  But we only think that way when we begin to think that we can achieve these things on our own, rather than to see that we can only be saved because of the mighty power of God exercised on our behalf.  When we don’t look through Biblical lenses, we start seeing things backwards, and we don’t see things as they really are.  Believing the Bible doesn’t make us blind to reality; rather, it opens our eyes to truly see things as they really are for the first time.

Why should we expect the Jews to be grafted back into the family of God?  Because of the power of God!

God’s purpose (25-27)

“Lest you be wise in your sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  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’; ‘and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’”

Here Paul refers to “this mystery.”  What is a mystery?  It is not something that is above our ability to comprehend or understand.  Rather, it is a reference to something which we can only know because God has revealed it to us (cf. Eph. 3:4-6).  In other words, what we have here is a partial unveiling of God’s eternal purpose.  What is this purpose?

Paul says three things.  First, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel.”  In other words, Israel is not now believing in Jesus.  They are hardened in their hearts towards the gospel.  Second, he says that this hardening in only temporary.  This can be seen in the word “partial” and in the fact that there is a time limit on this hardening: “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”  In other words, when all (or at least, most) of the Gentile elect have been gathered in, at that time Israel’s hardness will also come to an end.  There is coming a future day when Israel, as a people, will embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, which they have so long rejected.  Third, he says, “and in this way all Israel will be saved.”  This receiving of the gospel will issue in salvation for the Jews.

There is a lot of debate surrounding this verse, so I want to spend a few moments examining it more closely.  Some say that the apostle means by “all Israel” all the elect, both Jew and Gentile.  Others argue that the apostle means by “all Israel” all Israel in all time, from beginning to end.  In other words, every physical descendent of Abraham will be finally saved.

I don’t think that’s what the apostle is saying here.  He doesn’t mean all the elect here because “Israel” in this context clearly means physical Israel.  You can see this by the distinction made again and again between Israel and the Gentiles, between natural branches and branches from the wild olive tree.  This is clear in verse 25, and it is unthinkable that the apostle would switch the meaning of Israel in the very next verse without alerting the reader, which he doesn’t. 

Neither does he mean all Israel in all time.  This would contradict what he has been saying up to this point, especially chapter 9, when he argues that physical descent from Abraham isn’t a guarantee of salvation.  What then does he mean?

He means that at the end of history, when the Gentile elect have been gathered in, that at that time the Jews as a people will embrace the gospel and be saved.  Whether he means every single Jew at that time or not, he at least means that an overwhelming majority of Israel will believe on Jesus and be grafted back into the one family of God.  They will be saved, a salvation that will come by bringing repentance and forgiveness of sins (26-27).  Here Paul quotes the OT, putting together several verses (Isa. 59:20; 27:9; Jer. 31:33).  In each case, the context of those verses spoke of a restoration of Israel after great apostasy.  Paul looks at these verses and sees them fulfilled ultimately in this future conversion of the nation to Jesus Christ.

This is God’s purpose.  It will happen “in this way” (26) because this is the way God has planned it.  We don’t believe in a God who makes plans and then has to scrap them and reformulate in response to human foibles.  He is not like our GPS systems, which “recalculate” when we make the wrong turns.  No, my friends, he is working all of history out according to his good and wise and holy purpose.  And that is why we can believe this will happen: it will because it is God’s eternal purpose, a purpose which he has revealed to us in this mystery.

God’s promise (28-29)

“As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake.  But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.  For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” 

Verse 28 begins with a powerful reason to think that the Jews will never be restored.  They are enemies of God.  It is true that they were enemies of the believers, but that is not probably what the apostle means here.  The reason why I (and many) commentators think this is because of the parallel word “beloved” in the next sentence, which is almost certainly a reference to God’s love for the nation of Israel.  In the same way, it is likely that “enemies” here means that they are the objects of God’s hostility.  In rejecting the gospel, they were rejecting God’s Son, and so they were enemies of God.  “For you sake,” means that it was God’s plan for the Jews to turn away from the gospel while the Gentiles received it.  Every reason to think it was over for them.

But wait, that’s not the whole story!  “But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”  God is not done with the nation, because the promise that God made with Abraham established Israel as a special nation among all the other nations of the earth.  They are elect, God’s chosen people.  Remember that there are two elections running throughout these chapters.  There is the election of individuals to eternal life and this is not something which is tied to one’s physical identity.  But there is another election, the election of Israel as a nation.  They were chosen by God as his special vehicle through which he would accomplish many of his redemptive purposes on earth.  It was through Israel that the Messiah came.  But God is not done with Israel, even though the Messiah has come.  They are still beloved by God and there is another act in the movements of God’s redemptive purposes on earth in which they will play an integral part.  The conversion of the nation to Christ will be the last glorious movement in Gods’ redemptive story on earth before the End comes.

And the reason it will be this way is because of the promises which God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, these men whom God called to himself and gave these great promises.  In these promises, he set Israel apart and gave them many wonderful gifts (cf. 9:1-5).  These promises not only guaranteed a righteous remnant, but also that God would never give up on the people of Israel, “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (29).  Why can we believe that “all Israel will be saved”?  It is because God always keeps his promises, thank God!

God’s praise (30-32)

“For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.  For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.”

Here again, as in 11:11-16, we see the sequence: Israel’s disobedience leads to Gentile conversion (“received mercy”), which leads to Jewish conversions (“receive mercy”).  Verse 32 reveals the primary reason why God has done it this way.  The purpose of God behind man’s sin and unbelief, whether Jew or Gentile, is to make more clear, to set forth in greater light, the glory of God’s mercy to both Jew and Gentile alike.  For the implication of the language which Paul uses underscores the sovereignty of God’s mercy.  He alone can deliver us from the prison of sin and unbelief.

In other words, the ultimate reason why God has done it this way, why he has moved in history in surprising ways, is so that everyone would see that it is God’s grace and not their goodness or cleverness which explains why they are saved.  For many generations, God left the nations, the Gentiles, in their own ways and in their sin.  He consigned them to disobedience.  And because of this, Gentile inclusion into the family of God could never be explained by something good in them.  Then the Jews thought that the Gentiles would be blessed through their faithfulness.  God could have done it that way, but that would have obscured the fact that God’s saving blessing doesn’t come through our greatness but through God’s sovereign and gracious working.  And so God allowed the Jews to reject the gospel while the Gentiles poured into the church.  He consigned them to disobedience.  At the end of the day, God has arranged history so that no one might be able to boast in ethnic superiority as the reason they are saved.  It is to be attributed to God’s mercy, to God’s grace, and to God’s grace alone.  And if we see that, we will praise him for it.

Paul will worship the Lord in the following verses.  But I want you to see why it is so important to see God as worthy of worship.  Worship is a gauge of how much we truly value and love and trust God.  The worship of God is not something which is merely commanded, it is something which is the natural outflow of a heart that loves God.  But we will never love God as we should if we do not see him to be lovely and most valuable and supremely trustworthy.  What Paul is doing here is helping us to see that God is most worthy of worship by showing us in as many ways as possible that God is not just an explanation, but the only explanation, as to why you have the greatest blessing possible – fellowship with God.  It is not just mercy, but surprising mercy, that is the reason why we are saved.

At the end of the day, this is the greatest possible news.  Why is anyone saved?  It is not because of anything in us – either inherent goodness, or moral achievement, or ethnic superiority.  The only explanation is the work of God, the work of God first and foremost in history in the work of his Son who came and became poor for our sakes so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).  We are not saved through our righteousness but through his righteousness, not through our sacrifice but through his atoning death, not through our doing but through his exalted life. He died for the sins of all who believe on him, so that when you put your trust in him and receive him as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved.  That’s not my promise, but the very promise of God.  May the Lord bring you into the possession of it this very day!

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Rom. 11:16-22 Pride and Presumption

There is a danger lurking in all our hearts.  It is the danger of thinking that God favors us because of who we are.  This had been a problem among the Jews, which is why Paul asks the question in 3:9, after listing the privileges the Jews enjoyed as the people of God, “What then?  Are we Jews any better off?”  He asks this question because that was precisely the stance many of them took.  However, this is not a particularly Jewish problem: it is a problem endemic to human nature and thus a problem for every person under the sun, Jew or Gentile.  As a result, this very attitude apparently began to manifest itself among the Gentile Christians in Rome, and there was this tendency to begin to look down upon their Jewish brethren.  Paul is going to deal with this problem in its more particular manifestations in the Roman congregation later in chapters 14 and 15, but he is here laying the theological foundation for the rebuke which he will administer both here and in later chapters.

From the theological foundation in these verses there flows two warnings, one against pride (16-18) and the other against presumption (19-22).  Over against both sections we could place verse 22a, “Behold therefore the goodness and the severity of God,” as the key to avoiding both pride and presumption.  So we will look at this text in three stages.  First, let’s look at the theology which grounds the exhortations.  Second, let’s take heed to the warning against pride.  And then let’s take heed to the warning against presumption.

The theological foundation behind the warnings

The theological reality which grounds the exhortations is found in verses 16 and 18.  In verse 16, the apostle writes, “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.”  Paul is using an arboricultural metaphor here which runs right through these verses.  You have an olive tree, its root, and the branches.  What is the apostle referring to here?

Let’s work our way from the root up.  What is the root (and the firstfruits)?  We note that verse 16 grounds verse 15.  The logic is that God will not forsake ethnic Israel because if the root is holy, so are the branches.  This is no doubt a reference to the patriarchs and to the promises that were vouchsafed to them.  One of the reasons why I think this is because of what Paul says later in verse 28-29: “As regards the gospel, they [ethnic Jews] are enemies for your sake.  But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.  For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”  The Jews are beloved by God in the sense that they will not be finally rejected and are still included in his redemptive plans, and the reason given for this is “for the sake of their forefathers” – that is, for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the promises given to them.  These promises not only secure blessing for the world, but they also set Israel apart as a special nation through whom God would accomplish his wonderful purposes of redemption.  Paul is arguing that God is not done with the nation of Israel because of this being set apart through God’s covenantal promises to the patriarchs.

This root, however, not only supports the nation of Israel, it also supports all who believe in Jesus Christ, including Gentile believers.  This is Paul’s point in verse 18: “remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.”  These promises not only set Israel apart from all the other nations in the world, it also secured blessing for the world, blessing which would come through the seed of Abraham, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

One thing to note about these promises is their gracious character.  What made the branches holy was the root; the branches did not become holy on the basis of some property inherent in themselves.  Similarly, the Gentile Christians were supported by the root, not the other way round.  They did not make themselves worthy to partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree; rather, it was the grace of God that brought them into the fellowship of God’s redemptive purposes.  That is important to remember, especially when we consider how the apostle is going to apply this metaphor.

Second, there is the olive tree.  If the root is the promises of God to the patriarchs, what is the olive tree?  Well, clearly, it is that into which both Jew and Gentile are a part and “partake of the root that is the fatness of the olive tree.”  This, therefore, is a reference to the one true people of God.  It is this that our Lord was referring to (in a different metaphor) when he told the Jews, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn. 10:16).  God is not doing something alien to the purpose expressed in his promises to Abraham.  He is working out the fulfillment to his promises to Abraham as he gathers both Jew and Gentile into the one people of God in Christ.  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28; cf. Eph. 2:19,ff). 

Third, from the olive tree come the branches.  Who are the branches?  In the text, the apostle refers to two kinds of branches.  First, there are the natural branches (21).  These are the ethnic Jews, and their being broken off (17) refers to the result of their unbelief (20).  Second, there the branches from the wild olive tree (17).  These are those Gentiles who are grafted in the olive tree, who are included in and become partakers of the people of God by faith in Christ (20).  This metaphor reminds us that salvation is of the Jews (Jn 4:22), that the work of God begins in the world through Israel. 

With the elements of the metaphor properly understood, we are now in the position to understand the theological point the apostle is trying to make here, and it has to do fundamentally with this “root.”  Underneath all of God’s saving acts in history are his promises.  And these promises are gracious and irrevocable.  What gives life and fatness and richness to the olive tree are not the branches, but the root.  The branches (the people of God, whether Jew or Gentile) don’t sustain the root; it is the root which sustains them (18).  The fact that there is a people of God in the world in the first place is due completely to the grace of God, not to our goodness or worthiness.  Abraham did not become the friend of God because he was better than the other heathen in his day; in fact, Scripture indicates that before God’s call he was an idolater just like everyone else.  It was the gracious call of God that set Abraham apart.  In the same way, it was not because the Gentiles were any better than the Jews that they were now included in the people of God.  They were, after all, branches on a wild olive tree.

The point is that when we begin to think we are better than others, it is because we forget where we came from, and we forget why we are where we are.  Where we came from was a position of sin and guilt and being justly exposed the wrath of God.  Where we are is due, not to our cleverness or goodness, but entirely to the love and grace of God.  It is when we forget these things that we fall into the sins of pride and presumption.  And that brings us to our next point.

Beware of the sin of pride

There are three imperatives, three commands, in these verses.  The first is found in verse 18: “Do not boast over the branches.”  The second is found in verse 20: “Do not be high-minded but fear.”  The third in verse 22: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God.”  The third exhortation is key to understanding how to deal with the previous two, so we will consider it in tandem with the other two.  In particular, the way we fight the urge to boast (pride) is by beholding the goodness of God, and the way we fight the urge to be high-minded (presumption) is by beholding the severity of God. 

Let’s first consider the warning against pride.  “Do not be arrogant toward the branches” (18).  This is, again, an exhortation toward Gentile Christians.  The reason why they were tempted to arrogance and pride is given in verse 17: “some of the branches (the Jews) were broken off, and you (Gentile believer), although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree.”  This is a reference to the fact that many Jews did not embrace Jesus as Messiah and therefore were not included in the people of God.  It was tempting for some Gentiles to think that the exclusion of the Jews and the inclusion of the Gentiles was owing to the fact that the Gentiles were somehow better than the Jews.  This is certainly the attitude behind Paul’s interlocutor in verse 19: “Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”

But the apostle warns them (and us) against any such temptation to superiority, ethnic or otherwise.  Why?  Because you don’t bear the root but the root bears you (18).  In other words, you weren’t saved because you were special, but out of the electing grace of God that grounds the gracious promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  We would never have saved ourselves or even reached out for God’s offer of grace in Christ apart from the radical intervention of God in our hearts.  We were not desirable, we were dead (Eph. 2:1-3).  We were “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” and the only thing that can explain the difference between what were once and now is “the goodness of loving kindness of God our Savior” who “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:3-5).

Therefore, “What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).  In other words, we need to behold the goodness of God (Rom. 11:22) and fix our eyes afresh on the remarkable character of his grace towards us if we are to effectually squash the temptation to pride that we so easily fall into. 

We are not doing ourselves any favors when we are puffed up with pride.  For as soon as you do that, you are not looking to goodness of God, you are focused on your own.  And that is deadly.  When we look into ourselves to find a reason for our worthiness, we won’t find anything there that will sustain confidence in ourselves for long.  We will be constantly having to achieve more and more to justify the pride we have in ourselves.  There is no rest for this kind of person, but a relentless struggle to be better than the next person.  What God offers us in Christ is so much better.  He is our perfect righteousness.  His electing grace sustains us.  Any effort that we exert in his service is not done for the purpose of gaining his favor, but rather from a position of favor already gained and secured in Christ.  The fatness that sustains us is not our own but richness and fatness that comes from the root of God’s gracious promises.

So we can see why God hates pride – it is because in our pride we replace God with ourselves.  Pride is the mirror into which we look in order to worship ourselves.

But it is detestable because it leads also to a thousand other ugly manifestations, one of which is presumption.  Which brings us to our next point.

Beware of the sin of presumption

In the ESV, verse 20 is another warning against pride: “So do not become proud, but fear.”  But in the exhortation to avoid pride we also have an exhortation to embrace a healthy kind of fear.  And in that exhortation we see that presumption (the lack of this fear) is intricately linked to the pride the apostle is warning against.  Pride leads to presumption.  And presumption fuels pride.  Where you find one, you will almost certainly find another. 

What is presumption? It is the opposite of this fear.  It is a failure to examine ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5).  It is a failure to make our calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10).  It is believing that God will save us even though there is absolutely no evidence that I am saved.  It is kind of spiritual recklessness springing from overconfidence in ourselves. 

What is the apostle calling us to fear?  It makes it plain in verses 21-22: “For [this is why you should fear] if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.  Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness.  Otherwise you too will be cut off.”  The Jews were cut off from the people of God because they rejected Christ – “they were broken off because of their unbelief” (20).  Being cut off from the people of God means that they were unsaved.  Paul is therefore warning his Gentile audience that they should not presume on the grace of God, for if they turn away from the gospel in unbelief they will meet the same end as the Jews. 

At the same time, he reminds us of the doctrine of perseverance: they are not saved who begin the Christian race; they are saved who finish it (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27).  This is the apostle’s point when he points out that they “stand fast through faith” (20), and when he says that they will enjoy God’s kindness and goodness, “provided you continue in his kindness” (22). 

It is sometimes argued, from this passage, that those who are saved can lose their salvation.  But that is not what the apostle is saying.  We must not read too much into the metaphor of being cut off from the olive tree.  All that is meant is that one cannot consider himself or herself a member of the family of God unless they persevere in the faith.  We know that those who are truly saved will not and cannot lose their salvation.  Jesus is the good shepherd who does not lose one of his sheep (Jn 10:28-29).  All who truly come to him he will raise from the dead in the last day (Jn 6:37-40).  On the other hand, those who leave and walk away from our Lord and the people of God do so because they were never one of them in the first place (1 Jn. 2:19). 

But at the same time, that does not mean we can ignore the genuine warning inherent in this passage.  The command to fear is no idle warning.  It speaks to anyone who considers himself or herself a Christian that you should never presume upon the grace of God.  And to take it seriously, we need to behold not only the goodness or kindness of God, but also his severity.  God will deal severely all who walk away from the faith.  There is no place in the NT for a theology that says that as long as you made a profession of faith and got dipped, therefore you are on the way to heaven, no matter how you go on to live.  No, my friend, there is a hell for those who claimed to do mighty works in the name of Christ but who did not do the will of the Father (Mt. 7:21-23).

Consider the warnings throughout Scripture, warnings like Col. 1:21-23 and 1 Cor. 12:13 and Heb. 3:7-19.  They are all predicated upon the fact that true believers persevere.  If you do not, you are not saved.  It does not matter whether other people may or may not have thought you were saved.  I’m sure every other apostle thought Judas was saved, and yet our Lord called him the son of perdition.  Be not high-minded, but fear.

The question may arise from this, however – if this is true, then how does a true saint enjoy the assurance of salvation?  How can we who have no access to the Book of Life rejoice in the realities of Romans 8?  I would suggest that assurance comes in three ways, all of which are consistent with the fear to which the apostle exhorts us to have.  First of all, we gain assurance by believing the promises imbedded in the gospel, promises like Rom. 10:13.  Do you believe on Christ?  Very well, you have the right to call yourself a son or daughter of God (cf. Jn 1:12-13).  Second, we gain assurance of our salvation by attending to the evidences of the new birth which are given to us by the Biblical writers, especially 1 John.  Do you love the brothers?  Is your life characterized by righteousness?  Very well, there is fruit and evidence that we are born again.  Finally, we gain the assurance of our salvation through the work of the Spirit in our hearts, as the Spirit of adoption, who testifies with our spirits that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:14-18).  These are all consistent with the fear recommended here because this fear is not a fear rising from despair, but a fear that arises from a respect for the promises as well as the threats of the Bible.  You fear the threats and rejoice in the promises.  Fearing the threats, we flee to Christ.  And rejoicing in the promises, we hold fast to Christ.  These are not contrary one with the other, but complimentary. 

At the end of the day, what this text reminds us is that the most important thing for us is to behold our God, his goodness and severity, to see him in the fullness of his majesty and glory.  We will inevitably go astray one way or another when we take our eyes off of the Lord and fix them upon ourselves.  We need to be people who walk with God and who walk before God, who live in the conscious presence of the living God.  May God make that true of all of us!

Romans 12:1-2. Marks of Christian Community: Devotion to God.

The reason for the exhortation: the mercies of God. The Apostle Paul begins with the words, “I appeal to you therefore brothers” (12:1).  ...