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