I have an aim that I want to accomplish over the next three weeks. My aim in preaching these next three sermons that will take us through Romans 11 is that we would know God more, understand his ways more clearly, and worship him more earnestly. I say that for two reasons. First, this is my aim because that’s where this chapter goes. After writing all that he does in chapter 11, Paul finally erupts in awe and worship of God, as he declares in verses 33-36, “Oh, the depth of the riches and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
And my contention is that if this is how Paul responds to these truths that he unfolds in this chapter, then it is a model for how we should respond to these same truths as well. Therefore, I want us to see and know the God whose riches and wisdom are unsearchable, who is so great that no one could master his thoughts, and who has made everything for the sake of displaying his glory because I believe that the response of a believer—when we get a clearer picture of that God—is to love and worship him more.
But the second reason I want to be up front about my aim as I preach over these next three weeks is because if you’ve read these verses—particularly the ones we’re looking at this morning—you may have already begun to ask what the purpose of this argument is. Last week, as Aaron preached on why we should have hope in suffering from 1 Peter 1, I doubt anyone was sitting and thinking, “How is this in any way relevant to me?” Even a couple of weeks ago, as we were looking at the need to speak the gospel so that individuals might hear and believe, my guess is that none of you were wondering too much about how these truths could be applied in your life. But, today, as we begin our trek through this chapter, asking how God has worked, is working, and will work with regard to ethnic Israelites, it may well be that a number of us are tempted to ask, “Now why does this matter?”
After all, I would imagine none of you were unable to sleep last night because your mind kept racing throughout the night, asking, “Has God then decided that he is done with ethnic Israel since so few of them are accepting the gospel? And if so, what does this mean for how I spend my money, interact with my annoying neighbor, or educate my children?” That is, you might not see the importance of this question concerning God’s work with ethnic Israel.
That’s why I want to bring it out right from the start. My aim for us, as we work through Paul’s argument concerning God’s plans for ethnic Israel, is that we would know God more, understand his ways more clearly, and worship him more earnestly. And I want to begin that pursuit by looking at the first portion of Romans 11 this morning, as we turn our attention to verses 1-10. And what I want us to see here is a truth that I will lay out in three statements. The first of these three is:
God will save some ethnic Israelites in every generation until Christ’s return
Now, two quick things about this statement. One is that it does look like there will be a bunch of Israelites saved as we look toward the return of Christ, but we’re not to that point in this chapter yet, so I want to limit myself now to what this text says. Second, I think this is the positive statement of what verses 1-5 state negatively. In other words, the message of verses 1-5 is that God has not rejected ethnic, corporate Israel. But that’s a negative statement, right? He’s not rejected them. What then does that mean, positively? It means that God will save ethnic some ethnic Israelites in every generation until Christ’s return. Let me then try to show this to you in these first five verses.
Paul begins, saying, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” (v. 1). Now, what does this question even mean, and what drives it? Well, let’s think of it in light of what Paul has been arguing up to this point. He has argued that God’s saving promises to Israel were not empty promises because God never promised to save every Israelite but simply a group within Israel—whom we might call the “true Israel.” Then, he went on to argue that the fact that so many Israelites have rejected the gospel so that only a small remnant of them believe it was itself prophesied in the OT, as God said of Israel, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (10:21).
Therefore, someone could conclude that if, by and large, Israel has rejected the gospel and a bunch of Gentiles are accepting it, then it may well be that God has simply cast off Israel, as an ethnic people, altogether. Maybe God used them and blessed them in the OT, but it was always and only simply to use them as a vehicle to bring the Messiah into the world. And now that that has been accomplished, he’s casting them off, disregarding them while he brings salvation to Gentiles. That’s what Paul is asking when he says, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” He’s asking if God has simply disregarded ethnic Israelites and is instead bringing salvation to others. And his answer is, “By no means!” (v. 1).
How can Paul, though, say that so definitively? He can speak so definitively because he himself is an Israelite. He writes, “For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (v. 1). So, if Paul—clearly being an ethnic Israelite—has been given salvation by God, then it is clear evidence that God has simply written off ethnic Israelites, refusing to save them. Thus, Paul concludes, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (v. 2), meaning that God hasn’t written off this people to whom he revealed himself, dwelt among, gave commandments, and made covenants. This nation was shown much greater grace in the OT, as God’s people, so most definitely God has not decided that he will leave them totally and utterly condemned.
But Paul doesn’t simply argue this based on his own conversion. He also argues that this is the way that God has always acted in regards to Israel. For example, he speaks of a moment in Elijah’s life, where Jezebel had threatened to murder him, and he had run off, and in a moment of self-pity began to speak against Israel and about himself as a solitary example of faithfulness. Paul notes this, writing, “Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?” (v. 2). And that’s exactly what he does. Elijah appeals to God against Israel. He’s saying, “Lord, they’re all bad. Look what they’ve done.” Specifically he says, “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life” (v. 3).
Then Paul adds, “But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal’” (v. 4). In other words, God’s answer was, “No, Elijah, you’re wrong. It may look like you’re the only one, but I’ve actually kept for myself seven thousand Israelites whom I’ve kept faithful to me and who have no bowed the knee to Baal.” That is, God kept a remnant of believers, even in Elijah’s day when it looked like every Israelite had abandoned the Lord. Well, what’s that have to do with Paul’s day?
We see the answer in verse 5 as Paul notes, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” In other words, Paul is showing that through history—and even into the present—God has always chosen a group of Israelites to be saved out of each generation. It has been true in every generation from Abraham’s day onward. At any given moment, you might find some nation or people group in some part of the Gentile word who doesn’t have any believers, but that has never been and will never be true of Israel. God has always had a remnant, chosen by grace, among every generation of Israelites.
Now, Paul doesn’t unveil in these verses precisely why that is, but he’ll argue later in this chapter that it’s because God loves their forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v. 28). So, even though God never promised to save every Israelite, he has committed himself in grace to save some Israelites from every generation until Christ’s return. Thus, he has by no means cast off ethnic Israel, but is saving a remnant from each generation throughout this age.
But Paul also understands that at this precise moment in his argument, someone could completely go off the rails and forget everything he has argued about God’s sovereign freedom, election, grace, etc., so he quickly reaffirms what he has been arguing, which make up the second and third statements that lay out the message of these verses. Next, Paul reminds us that:
The salvation of any Israelite in any generation is only by God’s grace
At this point where we read of God’s commitment to save some from a certain ethnic group, we might be tempted to backtrack completely, forgetting Paul’s argument, and thinking that somehow a saved person who is an ethnic Israelite must therefore merit salvation in a way that a Gentile wouldn’t. But Paul stops that thought as soon as it might enter our minds. In fact, he seems to want to preempt the thought altogether. Right as he argues that in the present time God has a remnant of Israelites in this generation that he is saving, he notes that this remnant was “chosen by grace” (v. 5). Then, he adds, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (v. 6).
We are, thus, reminded that everyone who is saved—among Jews and Gentiles—are simply saved by God’s grace. No one who is saved merits salvation. No one who is saved deserves salvation or even the chance to be saved. And no one has done any works to earn salvation. Salvation is entirely and utterly of God’s grace, and if you try to mix any works or merits into grace in any way, then grace is no longer grace.
And that is a glorious truth, isn’t it? But it’s a glorious truth that we so often—in our desire to self-exaltation—want to push against. Every time, for example, when I say there is nothing that you or I contribute to our righteous standing before God. It is 100% Christ’s work for us and 100% of his grace, I have no doubt that for some of us and perhaps for most of us at one time or another, that is a statement we want to push back against. And that desire to push back against it—whether we realize it or not—is rooted in our fleshly desire to be exalted.
Think for a moment about Paul’s letter to the Galatians. People had come to the Galatian believers and told them that faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ was good and necessary for salvation, but what was also necessary was obeying some laws like circumcision, keeping certain days and months as holy, etc. And when Paul speaks of what these people are doing by spreading this falsehood to the Galatians, Paul says, “They make much of you, but for no good purpose” (Gal 4:17).
Now why, let’s ask, is it making much of someone to tell them they need to keep certain laws to be saved? Well, part of the answer is that it allows us to point to our flesh as a basis for our salvation. This is why Paul speaks of those who are justified by faith as “children of promise” while he speaks of those trusting in their works to be saved as those “born according to the flesh” (Gal 4:29). That is, they’re examples of what flesh—of what man—can produce. Thus, our desire to base our salvation on our works, even in the least bit, is driven in some measure by self-exaltation.
But Paul will have none of it. That’s why he’s preached salvation by grace alone throughout these chapters and it’s why he doesn’t even allow a second to pass where one might think that an ethnic Israelite somehow might have earned, or merited, or deserved salvation before he notes that they were “chosen by grace” and “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (v. 6).
Paul actually, though, wants to press even deeper into the undeserved, unmerited nature of our salvation, so he also reminds us once more that:
All salvation is rooted in God’s gracious and electing work, which humbles us and exalts God.
How does Paul then sum up biblical history to this point where most Israelites rejected the gospel, refusing to believe and trust in Christ alone for their salvation, while a remnant in each generation believed and continue to believe? He simply says this: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking [that is, most of ethnic Israel never attained righteousness and salvation because they thought it must be based on works instead of by faith]. The elect obtained it [i.e. the remnant in each generation], but the rest were hardened [i.e. all those among Israel in each generation who don’t believe and are damned]” (v. 7).
But Paul is not content to let us think this is a matter of chance. Rather, he notes that all of this is in accordance with God’s plan. In fact, he notes three different OT texts—Isaiah 29:10; Deuteronomy 29:4; Psalm 69:22-23—that teach of God giving unbelieving Israelites over to their unbelief, hardening their hearts in judgment. He writes, “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.’ And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever’” (vv. 8-10).
Now, that is some strong language about God sovereignly working to harden the unbelieving Israelites in their sin and unbelief. So, let me note two things about it. First, Scripture never pictures God’s hardening, judicial work as being done against innocent people. Even in this text, note that in verse 9 Paul quotes David saying that God is bring “retribution for them.” Retribution, by definition, is judgment that is deserved. You can’t pour out judgment on someone who doesn’t deserve it and call it retribution. Retribution is always deserved.
Similarly, think of how Paul spoke of God’s electing work of individuals to salvation back in chapter 9. He said that God has mercy on whom he has mercy. Equally, showing mercy assumes the idea that people are getting something good that they don’t deserve. You don’t show mercy to someone who is good and earned a reward. You give them what they deserve. You show mercy to one who has not earned and is undeserving. So, understand that God’s hardening, judicial work is an act of judgment whereby the Lord is giving people over to their unbelief.
Second, realize why Paul would go to such pains to show that the salvation of some and damnation or others was part of God’s sovereign plan, which he states, as he says in verse 7, “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” I mean, at this point, aren’t you tempted to say, “Look, I get it, Paul. You made that clear in chapter 9. There’s no need to keep bringing it up. God elects and hardens. Salvation is his work alone. Why keep bringing it up?”
But here’s the answer, at least in part. If Israel’s belief or unbelief is just an accident of history, where God is standing on the sidelines, hoping that his will is accomplished, then how can any of his promises be sure? If people are saved apart from God’s work, dependent on something completely outside of him, then how can he make promises that some Israelites from each generation will be saved? How can he promise Abraham that every single nation will be blessed through his offspring—meaning that Gentiles from every nation will turn to Christ in faith and be saved? If God is not sitting in the heavens and doing all that he pleases, then how can you and I rest in his promise to work all for our good, to hold us fast in faith no matter what challenges come our way, or to conform us to the image of his Son? Aren’t all of those simply God’s hopes and wishes if he’s not in absolute control, freely and sovereignly showing mercy to whom he wills?
And not only does this truth remind us that God can and will keep all of his promises—including his commitment to save a remnant of Israelites in each generation—but it humbles us and exalts him, doesn’t it? It’s a reminder of why God chose to use Abraham and Sarah, an old man and an old, barren, post-menopausal woman to bring forth Isaac. It’s because he wants us for all eternity not to look around and praise our own cleverness, good works, and ability but to say, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways. . . . To him be glory forever. Amen” (11:33-36).
In the opening sentence of his book, The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer said that what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. Therefore, let us this morning pray that God would allow us to get an ever greater glimpse of how majestic, awesome, glorious, and deserving of worship he is, and then, let us ask him to move our hearts to love and worship and pour our lives into serving the one who sent his Son to live, die, and be raised for us. And let that be our prayer even as we now come to the Lord’s table. Amen.