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!