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Date: October 12, 2012
Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Romans 11:1–11:36
Four weeks ago, in my introduction to these messages on Romans 9-11, I declared that in my opinion Romans 9 was the most difficult chapter in the section. This week I changed my mind. I now believe that Romans 11 is the most complex and puzzling chapter in the section and in the Book of Romans. It is also, potentially, the most divisive.
Three controversial and potentially divisive issues are raised in the chapter. The first issue is a repeat of one we saw earlier in chapter 9; the doctrine of God’s election.
The second issue is that of the eternal security of the believer. Is it possible to lose one’s salvation once one has put his or her faith in Jesus Christ and been justified?
The third issue is that of the future of Israel. Is there a future in God’s plan for Israel as a people, or did God officially write the nation off in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem, and transfer all of his promises to the church as the new Israel, the new people of God?
Any one of these three issues can raise a firestorm of debate among sincere, Bible-believing Christians. And here we are faced with all three. What makes it even more difficult is that while the chapter raises all three issues, it does not fully answer any of them. There are clues and evidence and hints to add fuel to the debates, but to fully answer any of these questions would require a much more broad-ranging survey of the Scriptures than we have time for.
I recognize, therefore, that if you came here today looking for definitive answers to any of these questions, I am going to leave you disappointed. We will examine the text. I will comment on the clues and the light that I believe this chapter sheds on these debates. But I fear we will still be left with some ambiguity and possibly some areas in which we may have to agree to disagree. But where I hope to conclude is by looking at some clear and positive commands and statements of Scripture which we can all obey and upon which we can all agree, whether or not all of our questions are answered, and whether or not we agree on every detail of the interpretation of this difficult and complex text.
Because of both the length and complexity of the passage, we did not do a separate Scripture reading this morning, but I will be reading the chapter section by section as part of the sermon itself. We are going to start with Romans 11:1-10, but before I do, let me set the immediate context. After the great sweeping offer of salvation to “all who call on the name of the Lord,” and the obligation of Christians to spread that message to the whole world, Paul concluded chapter 10 with several Old Testament quotations. These quotations highlighted God’s intention to now reveal himself to the Gentiles, those who had not sought after God as well as prophet’s prediction in describing the stubborn refusal of the Jewish people to follow God by faith. Now Paul continues, using his favorite literary device of anticipating a question in the minds of his readers, asking it, and then answering it.
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” 9 And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”
The question Paul anticipates in this section is this: Has God rejected Israel totally? His answer is a clear and strong, “No way!” The repudiation of Israel as a race is not total. There was still a Jewish remnant who were saved by grace. His first proof of that reality is himself. “Here I am,” Paul says. “I am follower of Jesus, the Messiah, saved by grace through faith. Yet I am still a Jew, an Israelite, a physical descendant of Abraham and a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”
The doctrine of the faithful remnant is actually a very prominent theme of the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul cites the well known story of the prophet Elijah. In deep discouragement one day, Elijah poured out his complaint to God that he was the only true “God-follower” left in Israel and they were trying to kill him. God responded by telling him that there were in fact 7000 faithful worshipers of God left in Israel. Paul now points out that the same is true in his own day in verse 5: So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
In spite of the unbelief of the majority of Jews, a faithful, believing remnant remained. They are the elect, the chosen, and they have been chosen and saved by grace, not on the basis of their own works. God was exercising his sovereign right to “Have mercy on whom he would have mercy.” The early church in the Book of Acts was made up entirely of the remnant of believing Jews. But gradually as the Book of Acts and the early history of the church unfolded, God opened up his kingdom to the Gentiles. As believing Gentiles began to flood into the community of those who were called “God’s people” the percentage of Jews rapidly declined. But they were still there; people who were physically descended from Abraham who also shared the faith of Abraham.
There is still such a remnant today. When I was a small child on the mission field in East Africa, a young single man joined my parents at their mission station. His name was Jerry R______. He was a Jew, raised in New York City. But he was a follower of Jesus and had followed the call of God to preach the Gospel in Africa. He spent his entire career there, preaching and teaching in Bible School. Jerry followed a common path, blending with the mainstream of Christianity, with little to distinguish him as a Jew apart from his last name. Others have chosen a different path, gathering together in Messianic congregations, preserving their Jewish traditions and forms of worship, yet faithfully giving allegiance to Jesus as the Messiah and Redeemer.
Has God rejected his people totally? No. There is still a remnant of believing Jews today. Yet the great majority have turned away and remained in their unbelief. They were the “rest who were hardened” but even this hardening was a fulfillment of prophecy as Paul points out by quoting several Old Testament texts in the rest of the paragraph.
So that is the present reality; a believing remnant with the rest hardened in their unbelief. But what about the future? The next question Paul asks is, “Has God rejected his people permanently?”Let me read the next section (Romans 11:11-32):
11 So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 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! 13 Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry 14 in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them. 15 For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? 16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the 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. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. 25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27“and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” 28 As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. 29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30 For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
Now we are face to face with the difficult questions of doctrine and interpretation that I referred to in my introduction. Let’s face them head on. First of all let’s face the doctrine of divine election and the sovereignty of God. I will not say a great deal about this, because we faced it before in Romans 9. What I would highlight here is the clear teaching that God is the sovereign and active agent in salvation and in his plan for the history of the world. He is the sovereign one who is breaking off branches and grafting them into the tree in his garden. He is sovereign in showing his mercy and displaying his severity and judgment. This is once again viewing the work of salvation from God’s perspective. It makes us uncomfortable because we are used to looking at salvation and life from a man-centered perspective. But the world and the universe is not man-centered. It is God-centered. He is carrying out his plan in history and in eternity. Now if we had only this chapter to go on, we might conclude that this makes us as human beings simply pawns in his hands. Yet sandwiched between the declaration of God’s election and sovereignty in chapter 9 and this chapter and the parable of the olive tree, we have Romans 10 and the offer of God’s salvation to any and all who will believe and call on the name of the Lord, and the clear implication that Israel’s fall from grace came because of their persistent refusal to respond to God’s multiple offers of grace, love and mercy, and they bear the responsibility for that rejection. We have trouble reconciling those two realities in our finite minds. Yet Scripture repeatedly places them side by side and declares them both to be true.
The next question that faces us here is that of the future of Israel. Is God’s rejection of Israel permanent? As Paul poses the question in verse 11: So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? I think we are accurate in capturing Paul’s thought by adding the word “permanently” to that question. Is this a temporary stumble or a permanent fall from which there will be no recovery?
I recognize that there is a diversity of opinions on this subject. Whatever position you might hold, you must wrestle with and interpret these statements from the text:
First of all, Paul answers his own question with another strong denial. “By no means! May it never be!” What is Paul denying?
Then we must interpret 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! What does he mean by the phrase “their full inclusion”?
Then there is the parable of the olive tree and the prophecy of the “grafting back in of the natural branches.” Certainly this can be accounted for by the salvation of individual Jews during this age; a repetition of the earlier teaching on the believing remnant. But what is the correct interpretation of verses 25-27?
25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27“and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
What is this mystery and when will this prophecy be fulfilled? What is the “fullness of the Gentiles” and what does the reference to “all Israel” being saved mean in verse 26? And what does Paul mean when he says in verse 29: For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
I have my own views, but I am not going to force them on anyone else. Study these Scriptures and form your own opinion. Is God’s rejection of Israel total? I think most would agree and answer that question in the negative, based on the first 10 verses of the chapter. Is God’s rejection of Israel permanent? I leave that one to you to answer in the light of the Scriptures.
The third difficult question that faces us in this text is the question of the eternal security of the believer. If believers are secure and saved once for all by faith in Christ, then what is Paul saying when he warns us in verse 19:
19Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the 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.
This is possibly the most difficult question of all. I think to answer it correctly, we must keep the metaphor in mind and recognize that we are dealing with categories and not individuals. The contrast here is between Gentile church and Jewish race. The Jewish race turned away in unbelief and as a whole those natural branches were broken off. In their place, the Gentile church, made up of Gentile believers, was grafted into the tree. Paul is warning those within that group not to become arrogant and to take to themselves a sense of entitlement and of superiority to the Jews. We were not grafted in because we were better or more worthy. We were grafted in by faith and by the kindness of God. The true believer recognizes that and “stands fast” through faith. The church member who lacks true faith and thinks he is entitled to the grace of God simply because he belongs to the church and wears the name “Christian” is as sure to be cut off as the Jews who believed that they were entitled to their place in the kingdom, just because they were physical descendants of Abraham.
As I said, these are difficult questions which have engaged Bible scholars and theologians for hundreds of years, and there remain a diversity of opinions. In a church like ours, with people from many different church backgrounds, I am sure there is a diversity of opinions among those of us present today. As and when we engage in discussion, let us hold and express those differences with Christian charity and mutual respect.
But I want to turn from the puzzling aspects of this chapter to some points of command and application which are crystal clear and upon which we can all agree.
First of all, let us hold on to the truth of our salvation with humble gratitude. Twice in verse 18, the original text has the word for arrogance or boasting and warns against it: Do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are (arrogant) remember… Verse 20 reads “So do not become proud…” using a phrase which speaks of having an exalted mind or high self opinion.
As those who have been the recipients of God’s grace and mercy, we have nothing to be proud or to boast about. We were lost sinners with no claim on God’s love or attention whatsoever – only a fearful expectation of his judgment. But now we have been saved by grace through faith. The overwhelming response of our hearts should be one of humility and gratitude.
This humility and gratitude should flow in two directions. The first and obvious recipient of our gratitude is God himself. Clearly from this text and the rest of the Book of Romans, God is the author of our salvation. Salvation is his work from beginning to end. This is God’s kindness we are enjoying. This should not lead to a sense of arrogance or entitlement. We were not grafted into the tree because we were righteous. We were grafted in because of God’s kindness and we remain by faith – a gift which itself comes from God and not from our own efforts.
But in this passage, Paul also points out another direction in which our humility and gratitude should flow. It should flow toward the Jews! They are the original people of God. They are the people to whom God chose to reveal himself and through whom God worked to reveal his glory to the world – both in the history of the nation and ultimately by sending his Son as a physical descendant of Abraham. We owe this nation a great debt. As Paul says in verse 18, Do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are remember that it is not you who support the root but the root that supports you. God’s work of redemption and his plan for the ages was rooted in eternity, but ultimately grew in earthly soil into a Jewish tree. The heroes of our faith in the Old Testament are all Jewish heroes; Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets were all Jews. Jesus was a Jew! We should be deeply grateful for that spiritual heritage of faith and the revelation of God. The nation’s fall from its privileged place should cause us deep sorrow and concern, not arrogance. One of the most unsightly blemishes on the history of the church of Jesus Christ is the history of anti-Semitism that has marked some chapters and eras in the life of the church. I believe a careful reading of Paul’s words here in Romans 11 would have prevented that terrible error. Do not be arrogant toward them. Be humbly grateful.
The second application I find growing out of this chapter is an invitation to an expectant hope for the future. The theological discipline of eschatology, or the study of the end times is one which is fraught with a wide diversity of opinions and I have no interest in opening, let alone resolving that debate today. I would just highlight some rather cryptic references Paul makes to something yet future – something exciting, something to look forward to.
I refer you to 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!
Consider also verses 25-26:
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel will be saved,
Something is coming and it is going to be wonderful. We are now in a temporary state. It is a mystery. Gentiles (non-Jews) are pouring into the kingdom. Israel is in a state of partial hardening. But when this chapter is complete, there will be another chapter, a conclusion, a wrapping up, a completing of the divine story of redemption. We may disagree on what we think that will look like or how it will play out on the earthly stage. But can we all agree that it is something to look forward to? When the people of God, Jew and Gentile alike, the fullness of the Gentiles and all Israel have been cleansed of their sins and are united in faith around the throne of the Messiah singing the praise of the eternal God of heaven and earth.
That leads to one final application from this chapter. I believe it is actually the conclusion, not only of this chapter, but really of the entire first 11 chapters of Romans. It is a call to exalted worship of the God of our salvation. There are some texts of Scripture which require no commentary. In fact, any words of explanation only seem to detract from the power of the divinely inspired words of praise. The concluding verses of Romans 11 contain such a text. So as a conclusion to this message, I am simply going to read the sacred text as we allow our hearts to respond in worship:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.
(And everyone said) …Amen.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
Begin by reading the chapter aloud together.
1. Pastor Cam declared this to be the most difficult chapter in the Book of Romans. Do you agree? Why or why not?
2. What do you find the most confusing and/or troubling aspect of this chapter? Why?
3. Why is the doctrine of divine election so controversial? How do you personally reconcile it with the doctrine of human responsibility?
4. Is there a future in God’s plan for Israel as a race/nation? What passages in this chapter relate to that question? What other passages of Scripture might you go to in researching this question?
5. Can believers who have been truly saved lose their salvation? How does the parable of the olive tree and the warnings in this passage reflect on this argument? What other Scriptures would you go to in researching this question?
Remember: If there are different opinions in your group, practice disagreeing without becoming disagreeable!
6. While there is much here that puzzles us and upon which we might disagree, Pastor Cam concludes the message with three application points that we can all agree on: What were they?