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!

God’s Purpose in Israel’s Rejection – Rom. 11:11-15


In verses 1-10, the apostle Paul shows that Israel’s rejection is not complete, that there will always be at least a remnant of believing and faithful Jews.  He has given at least four reasons for this.  First, God will always have his remnant, as Paul’s question implies a negative answer (1).  Underneath this conviction lies passages like 1 Sam. 12:22, “For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself.”  The fact that God will not forsake his people means at least partly that he will always have his seven thousand who have not bowed their knees to the image of Baal.  Second, Paul gives his own example (1).  The fact that God chose this great persecutor of God’s people, a Jew, to be the apostle to the Gentiles, is proof enough that God has not completely abandoned the nation of Israel.  Third, Israel as a nation holds a special place in God’s purposes in redemptive history, a place that is not shared by any other nation.  This is explicit in the fact that God has foreknown Israel (2).  He has a fierce covenantal commitment to Israel, a commitment that goes all the way back to Abraham and stretches into the foreseeable future.  Finally, we have Elijah’s example (2-5).  Even though Elijah had been faced with national apostacy of the most tragic proportions, God reminded his prophet that he was not through with Israel.  And Paul applies that same reality to his day, and by implication to every future day in which Israel remains as a whole unfaithful to Christ.

Now, in these verses, Paul shows how Israel’s rejection is not final.  He talks about God receiving Israel once again (15).  Note that the apostle is still speaking in a corporate sense, for there is this contrast between Israel and the Gentiles (or “world,” ver. 12, 15).  In other words, the apostle is making an argument in these verses (which he will take up again in the following verses) that there is coming a day when Israel will as a whole embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In making this argument, Paul will caution his readers (and us) against making some unjustified assumptions with respect to the current spiritual condition of Israel, and he is going to show that the Lord has a surprising purpose behind the apostacy of the Jews.

The main thing that the apostle is doing here is showing us what God’s purpose is in the apostacy of Israel.  But we will also see that he is doing something else.  He is showing us how he is conforming his purpose in ministry to the purpose of God.  What a lesson is there in that for us!  For how often do we try to go at it the other way!  We have something we want to do with our lives, and we try to go to Scripture to find justification for it, instead of starting with God’s word and then conforming our will to his.  People talk about God giving them the desires of their heart, but we must never forget that this only applies to those who delight in the LORD (Ps. 37:4).  And you cannot delight in the Lord if you have not first committed your way to him (5).  That is the order.

What we will see is that though Paul saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13), yet he never gave up on his fellow Jews.  This is remarkable if you consider how much abuse he suffered at their hands.  It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to have become bitter and to leave them to the fates.  Yet that is not what he did.  And at least one reason he didn’t is because he understood that God’s purpose for Israel did not allow him to go there.  The apostle did not take the easy way out.  He did not allow his own personal inclinations determine his path; rather, he sought to conform his inclinations to the purpose of God.  We should do the same.

So we will look at this text in three stages.  First, we will examine the purpose of God in the apostacy of Israel.  Second, we will observe how Paul conforms his purpose to God’s.  Finally, we will draw some principles from this text that we can apply to our own walk and life.

God’s purpose in Israel’s rejection is Israel’s salvation.

Paul begins in verse 11 by asking a question: “So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall?”  This question is asking whether God’s ultimate purpose in Israel’s stumbling is that should be irretrievably ruined and lost.  This seems to be the intent of the word “fall” when compared to its use in verse 22, when it is parallel to being cut off from God’s kindness and grace.  This stumbling is the stumbling of unbelief at the gospel of a crucified Messiah (cf. 9:32-33).  So Paul is asking if the current state of Jewish unbelief is going to lead to the nation being permanently cut off from God’s grace and salvation. 

Paul’s answer is a very strong no (“By no means!”).  He argues that God’s ultimate purpose in Israel’s stumbling in unbelief (“trespass” and “failure,” ver. 12) is that they should be saved.  That is to say, Israel’s current state of unbelief is not meant to become a permanent fixture of their spiritual state.  One day, they will be a nation that welcomes its Messiah by embracing Jesus as Lord.  Paul delineates how this will happen in four stages.

First, there is the current stage in which Israel stumbles through unbelief. 

Second, there is the consequence of this, which is Gentile salvation: “Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11).  The trespass of Israel has resulted in “riches for the world/Gentiles” (12).  This was happening in Paul’s day.  In fact, the rejection of the gospel by the Jews often led the way to the apostles preaching the gospel to Gentiles (cf. Acts 13:44-46).  Jewish persecution was often the reason why the gospel spread to non-Jews (cf. Acts 8).  It is likely in fact that the early Christians who were all Jewish would have been content to keep the gospel to themselves had not persecution driven them out into the world. 

Third, this state of affairs will then provoke the Jews to jealousy – that is to say, they will want the same blessings the Gentiles have: “so as to make Israel jealous” (11; cf. 13,14).  This in turn will lead to conversions among Jews resulting in their salvation (14).

Finally, this will lead (ultimately) to the salvation of Israel as a whole.  In place of their rejection by God they will be received and accepted by God (15). 

Now it is important to realize just how surprising this would have been, especially to someone like Paul who had been raised as a Pharisee.  This would have seemed like the very opposite from what they would have expected.  In other words, the Jews would have had no doubt that Abraham’s blessing would come to the world, for that is what God promised.  But they would not have expected it to come like this!  They would have thought that it would come through the faithfulness of Israel, not because of its unfaithfulness. 

Should we not pause here and reflect on the comforting reality that God’s ways are not our ways?  We have all sorts of expectations and we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that God must not only share our expectations, but also our ideas for how those expectations will become a reality.  But so often he does not, and is doing something in exactly the opposite way that we would have wanted!  Nevertheless, there is comfort in that thought, for it reminds us that when our expectations for God’s kingdom are falling to the ground, that does not mean that he is not at work or that he is not doing the very thing we think is lost because it is not happening the way we had expected.  For God redeemed Israel through slavery and he redeems his elect through a crucified Messiah.  Is that the way we would have done it?  Of course not!  His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.  Thank God!

By the way, this is exactly what our Lord predicted would happen.  On more than one occasion he warned the Jews that their rejection of the kingdom of God would lead to the inclusion of the Gentiles: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Mt. 21:43; cf. Mt. 8:11-12).  Despite what so many had thought would happen, our Lord’s prediction came true.  And how often this has happened again and again in history.  The world thinks one way, and God’s word says something different.  Whose thinking will prevail?  Of course God’s will! 

Paul’s desire to see Israel saved, and why

But the apostle not only tried to understand God’s purpose for Israel; he also conformed his purpose to God’s purpose when it came to his ministry.  He did what he did “in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (14).  You see, this was God’s purpose (see 11), and so Paul made it his purpose. 

However, it would be easy to surmise that this was easy for Paul; after all, he was a Jew!  So was it Paul’s Jewishness that motivated him in wanting the salvation of his kinsmen?  There is no doubt that this was a big part of his motivation.  And we should not, of course, fault him for this.  The new birth does not destroy our national and physical identity, and it does not therefore destroy the ties that bind us to our families and nations.  There is nothing wrong with a strong commitment to our heritage, whether that be to our family or to our country.  Patriotism, for example, is not wrong, so long as it does not come before our devotion to Christ and his kingdom.  In Paul’s case, not only did it not come into conflict with God’s purpose for his ministry; if anything, it strengthened it.

Nevertheless, we would be amiss if we thought that this was the only, or even primary, reason why Paul wanted to see Israel saved.  What then was the apostle’s motivation?  It is found in verses 12 and 15.

Verse 12: “Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”  Here we have an argument from the lesser to the greater: if Israel’s sin and loss has lead to Gentile riches (salvation), how much more would Israel’s fullness lead to even greater blessings for the world?  Here, fullness must refer to fullness of salvific blessing.  Paul is not specific here but he becomes more so in verse 15 as to what is implied.

Verse 15: “For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?”  Here Israel’s acceptance by God is parallel with their fullness in verse 12.  This acceptance leads to life from the dead.  What does the apostle mean by that?

There are two main interpretations.  The first is that this is a reference to the resurrection from the dead at the end of the age.  The second is that this is a metaphor referring to spiritual life and referring to a world-wide conversion of the nations to Christ.  I believe that the first interpretation is the correct one, and I want to give you a couple of reasons why I think this is right.

First, I believe it is right because although the phrase “life from the dead” never occurs in the NT, the phrase “from the dead” does (47 times), and this phrase always (with one exception) refers to the resurrection from the dead at the end of the age.

Second, the context demands that “life from the dead” should be understood to be distinct from Israel’s conversion (or to world-wide conversion), because this happens after all Gentiles have been saved.  Notice how Paul puts it in verses 25-26: “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, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.  And in this way all Israel will be saved….”  Israel’s acceptance by God resulting from their conversion to Christ will happen after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;” that is to say, after they have all been converted to Christ.  What is left after that?  All the elect among the Gentiles and the Jews have been gathered in – what is the next big thing in God’s redemptive plan?  Is it not the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment?  As Douglas Moo puts it, “No room is left for a spiritual quickening of the world; all that remains is the consummation” (Romans [NICNT, first ed.], p. 695). 

So Paul wanted to see his kinsmen saved because he knew that when this happened that the fullness of the kingdom of God would be experienced on the earth at the resurrection of the dead and the consummation of all things.  In other words, at the end of the day, what excited the apostle about the possibility of the conversion of Israel was the fact that it would lead inevitably to the consummation of all things.  Paul’s longing was for that; and he wanted to be a part of those events which would usher in the new heavens and new earth.  His desire was not to make this a better world, but to bring in the best of all worlds!

This excited the apostle Paul, and it should excite us as well, because this is God’s purpose, and we can be absolutely sure that it will come to pass.  It is going to happen, no matter what the condition of the world is today, and no matter how widespread the apostacy and the rot is all around us.  Should this not encourage us?  And should it not also show us that our hopes should not be imbedded in this world but rather in the world to come?

And as Gentiles, we should want the salvation of Israel, because we are the means by which Jews are going to be brought to salvation.  This is what Paul has been saying: Jews are provoked to jealousy by seeing Gentiles experience the blessings of salvation that were first promised to them.  And this leads to my final point.

Do people who don’t know the Lord envy my relationship with God?

I think this is so important, especially in our day, because we are living in a time when people by default suspect the motivations and the beliefs of Christians.  Our culture has taught people to assume that Christians are hypocrites, that they are hateful and bigots, and therefore to be discounted off-hand.  We need to live in such a way as to give the lie to this.  We need to live in such a way that people – Jews and Gentiles – will become envious of us because we have something they want but do not have.  Do we live in that way?  Can we live in that way?

I can’t live in this way if I share the priorities of the world, if I share their values, if what is most important to me is the same things that are important to those who don’t know Christ.  Things like financial security or a good reputation. 

I can’t live in this way if I pursue the pleasures of the world which the Lord denies.  Of course don’t get me wrong here – Christianity is not about emptying your life of joy and become a dull, lifeless creature.  No!  Following Christ is about joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:16), joy which cannot be obtained through the avenues which a godless world advocates.  Ultimately if I pursue the world’s pleasures, I will become a slave to them just like everybody else.  The only joy that is liberating is the kind which Christ gives.  That is what we need to be showing.

I can’t live this way if I face the problems of the world just like everyone else.  As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter whether people are on the political right or left, today both approach the problems of the world in the same way – through hysteria and panic.  If you don’t vote for their candidate the world is going to come to an end.  It is frankly beneath a Christian to adopt this mindset.  We need to be people who face the problems of the world knowing that God is on his throne, and that when the foundations are destroyed and the righteous are impotent to change anything, none of that changes the reality of God’s sovereignty over all things (Ps. 11).  We may not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.

That being so, we need to act in the following ways.

First, we need to experience more of the blessings of salvation for ourselves (cf. Eph. 1:15-19; 3:16-21; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-11).  We need to pray and to seek them.  Christianity is not simply about subscribing to a set of beliefs (though it is not less than that), or going to church (although that is important).  It is about putting off the old man and putting on the new man.  It is about becoming more and more like Christ in our attitudes and actions.  Is that happening to us?  Do we know more about God’s love in an experiential sense, and are we showing it to those around us? 

Second, we need to learn to live by faith and not by sight, to let God’s word be a lamp to our feet and a light unto our path.  If we don’t, what is going to distinguish us from the world?  If we can’t take steps of faith in reliance upon God, why should the unbeliever put his or her trust in him in the first place?  If by our choices we are showing that God is not reliable to trust for our daily bread, why should the lost think he is reliable to trust for eternal salvation?

Third, we need to be dying to ourselves daily.  We live in a world which knows everything about self-control when it comes to physical exercise and dieting.  But it knows nothing about self-control when it comes to relationships and when loving someone else means that I must crucify my own wishes.  As a result, we have a lot of physically fit people who are in dying relationships.  They have healthy organs but their selfishness is killing those closest to them and they know nothing about community except the artificial ones they create online.  As Christians, we should be showing the way.  Unfortunately, too often we act just like the world in this respect.  How are they going to envy our relationship with Christ, when our relationships to those closest to us are rotten and in tatters?

As we close, let’s step back from the passage a bit.  What is Paul talking about here?  He is talking about God’s redemptive purposes in the world, and our place in them.  And of course God’s redemptive purpose is a purpose in Christ.  He is the only redeemer of God’s elect.  The Holy Spirit is in the world today, mediating the presence of the risen Christ, applying his redemption to his people.  And we must never forget this.  This is not about us.  It is not about our programs.  It is not about our success.  It is about God gathering a people for his name through his Son.  Do you want to join God in his purpose in the world?  The place to start is in a relationship with him, which you can have if you place your faith in his Son.  Will you?  May God bring you into his kingdom, for there is no better master than Christ and no greater savior than Jesus.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

How the elect obtained salvation: Romans 11:7-10

 

In these verses, the apostle is summarizing his argument from 9:30 to 11:6.  It is summarized in the brief sentence, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking.  The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened” (7).  What was Israel seeking?  Back in 9:31, the apostle describes Israel as pursuing “a law that would lead to righteousness” but “did not succeed in reaching that law.”  In other words, Israel was seeking salvation through law-keeping, but they did not obtain salvation through the law.  As our Lord would tell the Pharisees, “There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope” (Jn. 5:45).  The very law through which they sought salvation was the very thing that condemned them (cf. Rom. 3:19-20).  We cannot gain salvation through the performance of good works, whether through the Law of Moses, or any other law that we look to as the Standard.

On the other hand, “the elect obtained it.”  That is, they were saved.  They did become righteous, not on the basis of their goodness or good works, but on the basis of sheer grace (cf. 11:5-6).  They become righteous, not ultimately because they chose Christ, but because Christ chose them, the elect of God. 

The apostle goes on to describe the consequences of failing to obtain salvation in verses 8-10, which amplify what he means by “hardened” (7).  They rejected the Christ and were given over to their sin in judicial spiritual hardness.  In doing so, he quotes several OT passages.  In verse 8, he uses language from Deut. 29:4 and Isa. 29:10, and in verses 9-10 he quotes from Psalm 69.  It is important to note that this describes what God is doing, this judicial hardening, like what happened to Pharaoh.  God is the one doing the hardening, giving the spirit of stupor, and withholding eyes to see.  It is as Moses put it in Deut. 29:4, “But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”

I cannot help but to observe from these verses the fact that Israel’s apostacy didn’t take God by surprise.  It was part of his plan to save his elect and to let the rest be hardened.  God is not wringing his hands in heaven because his plans are falling apart.  That wasn’t the case then, and it isn’t the case now.  Now that doesn’t mean that we become careless and indifferent to the lost.  After all, we don’t know who the elect are, and when we see someone who is lost, we need (like Paul) to pray for them that they might be saved and to share the gospel with them as the Lord gives us opportunity.  But at the same time, as we see widespread apostacy all around us, we need to be grieved without becoming hysterical.  And a Biblical focus on the doctrine of God’s sovereignty over all things can help us keep that perspective.  We need people who believe this and who therefore can weep over the sin we see all around us without becoming paralyzed by it. 

Seeing with spiritual eyes

However, the main thing I want to do this morning is to use the contrast implied here in verse 7 as a foil to talk about what it means for the elect to obtain salvation.  They are contrasted with “the rest” who were “hardened.”  Now this word “hardened” can also mean, when applied to the eyes, “to be blinded” (cf. KJV).  The reason why I think this is significant is because in the following verses the apostle refers to the blindness of those who are thus hardened: “God gave them . . . eyes that would not see” (ver. 8), and, “let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see” (ver. 10).  In the Bible, as in Deut. 29:4, hardness of heart and spiritual blindness refer to the same spiritual malady: an inability to love God and his word and commandments and the resulting tendency to disobey and to live a life of rebellion against him.

So, when we think about how the elect became saved, it must have involved an opening of the eye to see the attraction of the gospel and a softening of the heart to receive the things of the Spirit of God.  And as we grow in grace, it means seeing with greater clearness and focus the wonder and the beauty of the things of God and his gospel.  And that is what I want to focus on this morning: to think about conversion in terms of “seeing” the things of God.  It is a common description – even in popular religious literature, and one thinks of John Newton’s famous hymn, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  What others are blind to, the elect become aware of through the opening of their spiritual eyes.  And I want to think about the implications that this description has for what it means to be converted to Christ.  In a sermon on Mat. 16:17, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in which he examined and defended the thesis that “there is such a thing as a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God, of a different nature from any that is obtained by natural means.”  That is what we want to do this morning.  In fact, I want to follow the argument that he makes in that sermon as we explore the implications of conversion in terms of being made to see what we once could not see.[1]

What it is not

First of all, seeing with spiritual eyes is not proved by merely having convictions of sin.  We know this because all men, being made in the image of God, have a conscience.  This is what the apostle referred to in chapter 2 of this epistle: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (2:14-15).  These are the same people Paul writes about in the previous chapter, who “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (1:21), who were given over to wickedness.  To know something is wrong and to feel bad about doesn’t mean you are saved, it only means you are human.  Those who are not saved can have great impressions upon their mind as to the wickedness of sin, without ever really turning to love God in their hearts.  You can weep over the sin in your life, but do so because you see the consequences it has and will work in your life, without weeping over it because it is heinous to God.

Second, this seeing with spiritual eyes does not consist in dreams and visions.  One of the things Edwards and others had to deal with in the period of revival that swept through the colonies and Great Britain was the cases of people who would claim to be saved on the basis of some great impression upon the mind through a dream or vision.  They would claim that God spoke to them immediately that they were saved.  But then later they would fall away and completely disgrace the faith they once professed.  Edwards had to warn people not to trust such impressions; they are not infallible evidences of salvation.  After all, if dreams and visions saved a person, wouldn’t Balaam have been saved?  Doesn’t he describe himself as the one “who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered” (Num. 24:16).  And yet, in the NT, Balaam is produced as an example of apostates who forsake the right way (cf. 2 Pet. 2:15-16).  This is not what it means to see with spiritual eyes.

Third, this seeing with spiritual eyes is not proved by an emotional response to the doctrines of the Bible.  The Bible records examples of people who had a positive emotional response to its truths without indicating that the person was saved.  For example, Herod heard John the Baptist gladly (Mk. 6:20), and yet ended up having him beheaded.  In his Parable of the Sower, our Lord describes the rocky ground hearer as “the one who hears the word [of God] and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away” (Mt. 13:20-21).  It’s pretty clear that our Lord did not consider such a hearer to be saved.  There are all sorts of reasons why a person may respond this way to the word of God without being saved.  After all, it speaks of salvation, and who doesn’t want to be saved?  Who doesn’t want to be rid of this vile world, with its troubles and cares, and to enter in upon a world that is pure love and untainted joy?  And yet you can want all these things without ever truly loving the God that salvation brings us to or hating the sin that keeps us from him, and so remain unsaved.

What it is

Here I want to quote Edwards exactly, because this is such a good description of what it means to see with spiritual eyes.  He describes it as “a true sense of the divine excellency of the things revealed in the word of God, and a conviction of the truth and reality of them thence arising.”  In other words, you see the glory of God in the gospel.  It is not just a parachute to keep you in case the plane goes down, and something you keep under the seat until needed, but this is something you are wanting to keep looking at because you see the excellency in it.  And you delight in it because it shows you God and brings you near to him.

He calls it a “sense of the divine excellency” of the gospel.  This is not just an intellectual apprehension of the truths of the gospel, which even demons can have.  It is not knowing the Bible like you know the history of the United States.  It is tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  And from this comes that conviction of the reality and relevance of the gospel to our lives.

First, this is something which doesn’t just involve the mind (it is not less than that though), but mainly involves the affections and the inclination of our will.  That is what Edwards means by a “sense” of the divine excellency.  And it is what the psalmist means, I think, by “taste and see that the LORD is good!”  You don’t just rationally believe that the Lord is good, you have a sense of it in your heart.  This is not something that can be communicated through argumentation, any more than the taste of honey can be communicated through an argument.  Edwards illustrates this by pointing to the difference between holding an intellectual belief that someone is beautiful because you are told they are, and having the heart affected with a person’s beauty because you see that they are.  In the same way, when our eyes are opened in this spiritual, saving way, we don’t just believe that God is glorious because that’s what we’ve been taught to say; we are affected by the glory of God because we truly see him for who he is.

And here we can see why it is God who must open our eyes to see and give us these spiritual taste buds to taste.  For apart from the grace of God in the heart, our affections are bent inwards towards ourselves.  We are selfish, idolatrous people who love ourselves rather than God.  We are okay with God as long as we imagine him rubberstamping our choices and decisions and our image of ourselves.  But once we are confronted with a God who will not share his glory with us – and this is the God of the Bible – our hearts rise up in rebellious hostility against him.  So it is a divine excellency in the sense that it must come from God.  This is why our Lord said to Peter, upon his confession of Jesus as the Christ, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 16:17).

But secondly, it is a divine excellency because it is tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.  Not just his gifts.  Not just being saved from hell and guilt and addiction.  The attraction of the soul is toward God.  It is really seeing the beauty of his holiness.  It is a real sense of the glorious of God’s majesty and greatness and glory.  The essence of true religion is loving God (which is why, I think, our Lord put this as the great commandment, Mt. 22:37).  The attraction of our hearts is toward God and we delight in his attributes of holiness and mercy and sovereignty and immutability and eternity and goodness and truth.  And we delight in his works: “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps 111:2).

Of course, we must add the caveat that loving God in a saving sense means loving the God who is revealed to us in the pages of the Bible.  We cannot love someone we do not know.  But God is only truly revealed to us in the pages of Scripture.  Yes, there are things about God revealed in nature (like the design apparent in the universe) and in history (like the Exodus and the Cross), but only in the Bible is God correctly interpreted to us.  Left to ourselves, we would take the revelation of God in nature and history and do what everyone else does – turn it into an idol, a god made in our own image.  If you do not love the God who is revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ in the gospel, then you do not love God and you blind and lost.

Third, though it involves the heart and the affections and the inclination of the will, this spiritual sight does not bypass the mind.  We are not talking about a sort of new-age mysticism here.  God has communicated to us in words, words which are addressed to the mind.  This spiritual sight is not given apart from the gospel; it is given in conjunction with the gospel.  Our eyes are opened to see the truths of God’s word and they are opened to see Jesus revealed in the gospel. 

Fourth, one of the effects of this supernatural light is an immediate conviction of the reality of God and of the truths of God’s word.  You don’t have to convince someone who has honey on their tongue that honey is sweet.  They don’t arrive at that conclusion through a series of syllogisms.  Rather, they know it immediately because they taste that it is so.  In the same way, when someone’s eyes are opened by God to see the glory of God and the fitness of the gospel remedy to the needs of their soul and the sufficiency of Christ to save them, they don’t need an argument to sustain this conviction.  For they see and taste that it is so.  Now that doesn’t mean that we should dispense with apologetics, either as a tool in evangelism or as a way to encourage the faith of believers.  But it does mean that at the end of the day, our faith doesn’t depend upon the strength of our apologetics.  As Paul would put it to the Corinthians, our faith does not stand upon the wisdom of men but upon the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5).

Some examples from Scripture

I think perhaps the best illustration from Scripture of what we are talking about is the way Paul describes the gospel ministry in 2 Cor. 4: “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (3-6).

Unbelievers are described as those who are blind to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.  It’s not just that they don’t understand the message of the gospel – unbelievers can certainly do that.  What they are blind to is the glory of Christ.  For many people, Jesus is either boring or a bore.  They find football more interesting than the person of Christ.  Or they find the latest Netflix series more compelling than the gospel.  They don’t sense the excellence of God in the gospel.  They don’t because they are blind. 

How then are people saved?  They are saved because God shines in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  The believer doesn’t just understand the logic of the gospel.  It’s not a matter of reciting the Roman Road.  Rather, it’s a matter of seeing the glory of God as he is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  You don’t call something or someone glorious because you merely find them interesting.  You call them glorious because you find them incomparably captivating.  And that is what happens when someone is converted.  God opens their eyes, he shines this divine and supernatural light into their hearts, so that they see in this way for the first time.  When we pray for our lost family members and friends, this is what we should be praying for: the outbreaking of this spiritual light into their souls.

Edwards gives many Scripture references, and I encourage you to take up his sermon and read it, but I will mention only one other.  It is John 12:44-46, which reads, “And Jesus cried out and said, ‘Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me.  And whoever sees me see him who sent me.  I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.” 

Here it is clear that our Lord is illustrating what it means to believe in him and be converted to coming out of darkness and blindness and coming into light and sight.  Now he was not talking to people who were physically blind, but many of them were spiritually blind.  Note the context: “Therefore they could not believe.  For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’  Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him [Jesus]” (Jn. 12:39-41).  Again, we see from verse 41 that what they were blind to was the glory of Christ.  They didn’t believe because they didn’t see the glory of Jesus.  They saw glory in other things, like the praise of men: “they loved the glory that comes from mean more than the glory that comes from God” (43).  How is that possible?  How is the glory of a mere creature comparable to the glory of the immortal God?  The only way that is possible is that they never really saw the glory of God.

One other thing: note that what you see as glorious will determine the loves of your heart.  If you see glory in the praise of men, you will love that and pursue that.  But if you see the glory of God, you will and must love him and his Son.  Have you seen the glory of God?  What do you love and pursue?

Some practical implications

First, when presenting the gospel to others, remember that conversion does not depend upon the educational level of your listener, not upon the eloquence of your words.  Conversion depends upon God opening blind eyes to the gospel.  And if he does that, a person will and must believe.  Our confidence should not be in our ability to convince but in God’s power to speak light into darkness.  Our job is not to open the eyes of others; it is to faithfully present the gospel and let God do the rest.

Second, this is a way to test ourselves by: have our eyes been opened to see the glory of Christ?  How does a person obtain salvation?  The Scriptural answer is that they see this divine excellency in the gospel.  Christ is not merely interesting; he is glorious and his glory calls out the affections of our hearts and we love him.  Is this true of you?

Third, if it is true that to remain an unbeliever means that we are blind to the greatest reality in the universe – namely, the glory of God – then should we not desire to have our eyes opened to see?  This is the best kind of knowledge to have; it is more important than all the knowledge that all greatest scientists and philosophers have amassed about this world.  Its object is not merely subatomic particles and chemical reactions and mechanical inventions: its object is the Creator of all things and the one who holds all things in existence, the God of the universe.  Moreover, it is a knowledge that will enlighten and ennoble the soul, will give us true and lasting joy and happiness.  It is interesting, isn’t it, that light and joy are so often associated in the Scriptures?  Like Ps. 97:11, “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.”  When the light of God comes shining into our hearts, joy is the inevitable result. 

This is a light and a knowledge that will not only make us happy, it will make us holy.  It is a knowledge and a light that will weaken the power that sinful lusts and addictions hold upon our soul.  For when you are convinced that God is glorious and good because you have tasted and seen him to be so, you cannot help but want to obey him and please him and serve him.  May the Lord make it true of everyone of us!



[1] This sermon can be found, for example, in Volume 2 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Hendrickson, 1998), pages 12-17.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

“God has not cast away his people”: Romans 11:1-6

 


What should be our attitude toward Israel?  By this I don’t mean the geopolitical entity in the Middle East, but rather I mean the Jewish people (although it is true that our attitude toward the latter must affect our attitude toward the former).  Admittedly, the attitudes of Christians toward the Jew has varied greatly through the years.  It is certainly a cause for a lot of reflection and self-examination on our part as Christians that for many years the attitudes of professing Christians, especially in Europe, was (often openly) hostile and anti-Semitic.  The sixteenth century German reformer Martin Luther said a lot of pretty bad things about the Jews, which Hitler would later grasp and use for his own nefarious purposes.  On the other hand, there are bright and shining examples of the opposite, guys like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a German Lutheran!), who sacrificed his life in the fight against Nazism and its brutality against the Jewish people. 

Theologically, the place of the Jews in the plan of God has been debated through the centuries by Christians as well.  Today, there are some who, taking the OT prophesies literally, believe that every OT prophesy about Israel can only be fulfilled through the Jewish people.  This is the stance, for example, of dispensational theological systems.  Others have embraced what is sometimes called “Replacement Theology,” the belief that that the OT prophesies of Israel which have not been fulfilled yet will all be fulfilled through the Christian Church.  In this view, there is no longer a place for the nation of Israel in the outworking of God’s redemptive plan.  According to this perspective, the church is the new Israel, and that is that.

Personally, I fall somewhere between dispensationalism and Replacement Theology.  I do believe that many of the OT prophesies will be and are being fulfilled in the church.  For example, the prophesy about the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 is being fulfilled in the church.  We know that and celebrate that every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  However, on the other hand, when I look at Romans 11, it seems clear to me that God is not done with the nation of Israel, with the Jewish people, and I am willing to allow that many of the OT prophesies about Israel that are still unfulfilled could very well have a future fulfillment through the nation of Israel.

When we think about the Jewish people and their relationship to God’s redemptive plan in history, I think the following two points need to be made at the outset.  First of all, we must not back down from the insistence of the NT that Jews as well as Gentiles must embrace Jesus as Lord in order to be saved.  The gospel is not just to Gentiles, but it is first of all to Jews (Rom. 1:16-17).  When Peter said that there is no other name under heaven whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12), he was talking to the Jewish leadership.

On the other hand, we must never, ever, allow ourselves to cultivate a proud and condescending attitude towards Jews (note Paul’s admonition, “Be not high-minded, but fear,” ver. 20).  For, as we shall see, Israel is still God’s chosen people – he has not cast them away.  There is no place, therefore, for antisemitism among Christians.  We, of all people, should be praying for and loving our Jewish neighbor.  For that was Paul’s attitude (Rom. 10:1) and it should be ours as well.

But what is Paul doing here?  How does this chapter tie into his overall argument in Romans 9-11?  Remember that the thesis statement of these chapters is 9:6a, “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.”  God has not gone back on his promises to Israel.  In chapter 9, Paul demonstrates this by arguing that “not all that are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (9:6b).  In other words, the salvation of the Jew and the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel does not depend upon physical descent, it depends on God’s election (chap. 9) and personal faith in Christ (chap. 10).  So I think what Paul was doing in chapters 9 and 10 was dealing with a misunderstanding that the Jews had with respect to God’s promises to Israel.  Many of them thought that their being related to Abraham determined their salvation, but Paul argues that that is not the case; it depends primarily on God’s sovereign choice which is evidenced by their faith in Christ.  However, now in chapter 11, he is dealing with a misunderstanding that the Gentiles might have about God’s plan for Israel (“Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers,” Rom. 11:25).  Some of them apparently (and this is born out by history) that God was done with the Jews and that all they had coming from God now was judgment.  But this is not the case, as the apostle will go on to show and that should calibrate our attitudes towards Israel.

So as we consider this text this morning, there are three things I want to do.  First of all, I want us to consider what the apostle means when he says that God has not cast away his people.  Second, I want us to consider what evidence Paul gives that God has not cast away his people.  Finally, I want to look at some applications this text has for us today.

What does it mean that God has not cast away his people?

Again, this question was prompted by the fact of Israel’s wholesale rejection of the gospel (cf. 10:21).  Israel has rejected the Lord – has he rejected them? 

Now let me reiterate the fact that when the apostle refers to “his people,” he is talking about the nation of Israel, the Jewish people.  We know this because in verse 1 Paul answers his question by referring to himself as “an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”  So the people of God being referred to here are the Jewish people.  In saying this though, we must remember that there are two elections Paul is referring to in these chapters.  First of all, there is the election of the nation of Israel.  This is what prompted the whole discussion of these chapters in the first place.  It was assumed by many that this election guaranteed the salvation of all Jews but Paul argues that it does not.  Second, there is the election of the remnant, an Israel within Israel (9:6, 11; 11:5).  The first was an election of the nation of Israel to great privileges (cf. 3:1,ff).  But the second was an election of individuals unto salvation.  As we can and shall see, the two are related, but they must not be confused.

So first of all, when Paul says that God has not cast away his people, he must not mean the salvation of every individual Israelite, otherwise Paul would overthrow his argument which he had already made in chapter 9.  We also know that because, as the apostle unfolds his argument here in chapter 11, he refers to the elect remnant (ver. 5).  In other words, Paul does not confuse the election of the nation to spiritual privileges with the election of individuals within the nation to salvation.

Therefore, it must mean, in light of Paul’s response, that there will always be an elect remnant among the people of Israel.  Which by the way is significant because this is not a promise given to any other people-group.  It is true that God has promised to save some out of every kindred, people, and language (cf. Rev. 5:9).  But this is different from what Paul is saying here, which is that no matter when you are looking, there will always be a remnant of saved Jews.  If you had looked in Elijah’s day, you would have found 7000 who were faithful to the God of Israel.  And if you looked in Paul’s day, he himself was an example of a faithful Jew.

But his argument goes further: not only will there always be an elect remnant, but that finally “all Israel shall be saved” (ver. 26).  Now I have heard this text applied repeatedly to the church.  But that is not what Paul is talking about: if you look in the previous verse (ver. 25) the apostle clearly distinguishes Israel from the Gentiles.  And so in verse 26, when the apostle refers to Israel, he must be referring to the nation of Israel in distinction from the Gentiles.  In other words, God’s rejection of Israel is neither total nor final.  There will always be the knees who have not bowed to the image of Baal and there is coming a day when the vast majority (if not all) the Jewish people will embrace Jesus as their Messiah.

What evidence is there that God has not cast away his people?

The first piece of evidence is implied in the question itself (ver. 1).  There are different ways to ask a question in Greek.  You can ask a question in a way that it implied a negative answer, and that is the way Paul asks the question here.  One way you could translate the verse in order to convey this idea is the way the NASB has translated it: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?”  And then of course there is Paul’s emphatic answer: “By no means!”  In other words, we should approach this question expecting there to be a negative answer.  And why?  Because God always keeps his promises!  If he has made these promises to Israel, then we should expect him to keep them.  If he has separated Israel and made them his special people, we should not expect him to abandon them.  Because God is not like that.  We can always take his promises and his commitments to the bank.

I think it is worthwhile for us to ask ourselves: do we have this sort of expectancy?  Is this the way we approach the promises of God?  How often we are crippled by our little faith, and let the circumstances in which we find ourselves to overshadow the realities of God’s own word to us.  We should always, as it were, give the promises of God the benefit of the doubt, even when it doesn’t look like they can be fulfilled.

The second piece of evidence is the example of Paul himself (ver. 1).  Here was Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles.  But we must never forget that he was a Jew!  It astounds me how some people in the history of the church have tried to marginalize the Jews.  Our Savior is Jewish, and everyone of the books of the Bible, with the possible exception of Luke/Acts, were written by Jews.  Our holy book is essentially a Jewish book.  The apostles, whose teaching form the theological basis of the church, were all Jews.  So it is not an exaggeration to say that our faith is a Jewish faith.  We ourselves may not be Jews, but we share the faith of the prophets and apostles who were all from the nation of Israel.

Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, it is surely significant that God made the foremost persecutor of God’s people into the foremost apostle to the Gentiles.  If there was any evidence that God wasn’t through with the nation of Israel, this was it!  For if there was anyone who should have been rejected by God and cast away, it was the apostle Paul.  But not only did God not reject him, he chose him and loved him and made him one of his greatest servants.

Then third, there is the fact that they have been foreknown: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (ver. 2).  Just as God foreknowing the elect (Rom. 8:29) means that he will never forsake them, so God foreknowing Israel means that he will never forsake them or cast them away in the context of his covenantal commitment to them.  Note that clearly “foreknow” here cannot mean that God looked down through the corridors of time to see if Israel was worthy, and on that basis choose them.  For the context here is the wholesale apostacy of Israel!  God didn’t foreknow them in the sense that he chose them on the basis of their worthiness: rather God foreknew them in the sense that he had been committed to them by covenant and promise, from the beginning, to the nation of Israel.  And because of this, Paul was sure of God’s ongoing commitment to the nation of Israel.  After all, his gifts and calling are without repentance (cf. ver. 29).

Finally, there is the evidence of God’s answer to Elijah (ver. 2-6).  I love this.  I love it because I can identify with the discouragement of the prophet.  Not that I’ve ever been in his shoes!  But here he was, on the heels of his greatest victory over the prophets of Baal, and yet Jezebel was still there, threatening his life.  Ahab was still on the throne, as apostate as ever.  It didn’t look like anything was going to change, no matter how hard he worked.  And so he goes out into the desert and complains to God and asks him to end his life then and there: “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life” (ver. 3).  He is no longer appealing to God for Israel; he is appealing to God against Israel.  This is not just anyone appealing to God against Israel, this is a great and holy prophet of God.  This is a man who has God’s ear.  This is a man who has boldly and faithfully served God in a very difficult time. 

And yet what does God say to Elijah?  He says, “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (ver. 4).  In other words, Elijah had it wrong: he thought he was alone, but he was not.  There were seven thousand others with him!  God had his righteous remnant (ver. 5).  Paul applies this to his day: just as there was a remnant according to the election of grace (note that there is no way this can mean the national election of Israel!) in Elijah’s day, so there was in Paul’s day, and by implication, in every generation.  The evidence that God has not cast away his people is that he always has this righteous remnant.

We must pause here to make a couple of observations.  First, don’t you love this description of the elect: they are those whom God has reserved for himself.  To be reserved for God, what better thing is there?  Suppose that someone pulls an old top-hat out of their attic; it is old and tattered and good for nothing, really.  No one would ever wear it.  And then suppose that it was discovered that this top-hat belonged to Abraham Lincoln.  Immediately its worth has shot through the roof, even though it may be unwearable!  In the same way, to be reserved for God, by God, is to make a sinner into a saint.  It is the only thing that can give us the meaning that we crave.  To be reserved by God for God is a thought so full of comfort and encouragement if we would but grasp its implications. 

And there is another description of the elect: it is that they are elect by grace.  God doesn’t choose us because we make ourselves worthy.  Like the dilapidated hat in the attic, its owner is what determines the value.  Our value doesn’t come from our works, but from the fact that God has chosen us.  It is an election of grace, which excludes all works (ver. 6).  Those who say that God chooses because of something we do (including believing) make salvation to be determined by works.  But we are not saved by works, but by grace, and that too is an encouraging and comforting reality.

Application: How God advances his cause and our part in it.

One principle we can take from this text is that nothing will stop God from fulfilling his purpose and promises.  He made these promises to Israel, and he will fulfill them.  God has a plan for the Jews and it will come to pass.  In the same way, nothing will stop God from advancing his kingdom and cause.  And so we can draw some important lessons from what Paul says about Israel and apply them to the church in our day.

First, there will be times when it seems like all is lost (ver. 3).  It certainly seemed like that to Elijah. It may seem like that today.  There are so many discouraging signs.  In an interview recently, Tim Keller was asked what encouraging signs he saw for the church in the near future.  To be honest, I was very surprised to hear him say that he didn’t see many at all!  And, on the surface, he is absolutely right.  There are so many things going to the wrong way for the church in our day.  And yet, we must remember that there have been many times in many places when the church was nearly blotted out, either through external opposition or internal rottenness. 

It is important for us to remember this because we can fall into the trap of thinking that success for the kingdom of God and the church means that external conditions for the church will be good, that people will look on the message of the gospel and find it compelling, that the freedoms we have enjoyed will remain intact, and that Christian people will be respected.  But this is not the atmosphere in which the church took root and in which it flourished.  We must never forget that “Christian” was probably at first a derogatory term, that the early Christians were described as those who had turned the world upside down, that the gospel was seen to be foolishness and uncompelling to the culture at large.  We need to have a realistic perspective when it comes to God’s promises.

Second, we should never lose hope (ver. 4).  Because, ultimately, salvation is of the Lord, not man.  Note the emphases of the text: “I have reserved for myself” – “remnant according to election of grace” – “not of works” – “election obtained it, and the rest were blinded.”  Because salvation is of the Lord, his purposes of salvation will always be successful!  His kingdom will never perish.

And because God’s cause rests on his shoulders, he can advance it in ways we cannot.  We should beware of thinking that for anything big to happen, it must be done in a big way.  Remember the way God revealed himself to Elijah on the mountain.  It was not in the fire, not in the storm, but in a still, small voice.  God doesn’t advance his cause through the multitudes, but through the seven thousand knees who have not bowed to the image of Baal.  I think this is a reality that the church, especially in the West, needs to relearn.  We think that God is only in something if it is done in a big way, with obvious results.  And because of that, we have adopted all sorts of ways of doing ministry and church that really are just pandering to the world.  And it does not in the end strengthen the church, it weakens it.

However, the point is that no matter how bad things may look, how weak the church may be, or how empowered the wicked are, God is not limited nor will his plans ever be thwarted.  He is often working in the least likely scenarios and moving in the most unlikely places and people.  So we should never lose hope!

Finally, we play our part in the advance of God’s cause through godliness (ver. 4).  In Elijah’s day, how was God advancing his cause?  He was doing so through those who refused to bind their allegiance to Baal.  This is what grace does: it does not give us a pillow upon which to rest in our sin, it gives us the power and strength and will to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  It makes us into holy men and women.  It creates people whose ultimate allegiance is to Christ.  When Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, the result was that he was the only person in a world gone mad to pursue and preach righteousness.  And in the same way, grace will keep creating and keeping God’s elect in the way of holiness and light.

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 prob...