J. I. Packer, in his significant recent book, Knowing God, condemns the current trend toward what he calls a ‘Santa Claus Theology.’65 This theology lays great emphasis on the goodness and love of God, but refuses to come to grips with His holiness, severity, and judgment. Commonly stated, this ‘Santa Claus Theology’ goes something like this: “I believe in a God of love and not in a God of hate and anger. The kind of God I worship would never allow anyone to spend eternity in hell.”
The Achilles’ heel of a ‘Santa Claus Theology’ is the fact of suffering and evil.66 If God is a God of love, a God who only bestows good and pleasant gifts, then what is the source of all the evil and tragedy and suffering on the face of the earth? If God is all good, then He must not also be all powerful or evil could not exist.
A couple of years ago, I attended the funeral of a young wife and mother of two children who had died a tragic death from cancer. The liberal minister who officiated at the funeral made this tragic statement: “I am convinced that the death of this young woman was not the will of God.” I must say I wanted to stand up and shout. So God was all love, therefore, He did not will for this woman to die. But, then, God was not all powerful or she would not have died, for a God who is all powerful accomplishes what He wills.
The God whom Paul served and of whom he wrote is described in the eleventh chapter of Romans as a God characterized both by His goodness and His severity. “Behold then the kindness and severity of God …” (Romans 11:22a). The specific issue at hand is the kindness and severity of God with regard to Israel and the Gentiles. At the present time, God is displaying His kindness to the Gentiles, while He concentrates His severity upon the Jews. The question underlying chapters 9-11 is “Why?” Why are the vast majority of the Jews failing to experience God’s promised blessings while many Gentiles are coming to faith in Israel’s Messiah and abounding in His kindness?
In Romans 9, Paul contended that it was not the word of God that had failed because God never promised blessing on the basis of works or physical descent, but on the basis of mercy, displayed on the basis of God’s sovereign and independent choice. In short, those Israelites who failed, failed because God didn’t choose to bestow mercy on them. In Romans 10, Paul added that correspondingly Israel rejected God. They refused the salvation offered by our Lord and His apostles.
In Romans 11, the curtain is removed so that we may behold the entire scene. God has temporarily hardened the Jews so that salvation may come to the Gentiles even as the Scriptures had stated. The salvation of Gentiles will provoke Israelites so that they will eventually turn to God. Israel’s failure is neither total (there is a faithful remnant) nor permanent. In God’s good time, Israel will be restored to a place of national prominence and blessing.
Romans 9 and 10 have explained to us why many Jews have failed to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah. God has not chosen them, and they have not chosen Him. This we can live with. God had never purposed or promised to save every individual offspring of Abraham. But God had made promises concerning the nation Israel as a whole. What of these promises? Were they not to be honored? Were God’s dealings with the nation Israel throughout their history an exercise in futility? Are we to conclude, as some theologians teach, that God has no program for Israel as a nation, distinct from the church? This is the question of verse 1: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?”
The positive side of the answer to this question is recorded in verses 1-6. In verses 1-4 we are given three reasons why God has not forsaken Israel as a nation.
The Apostle Paul is a believing Jew (v. 1). Paul replies in astonishment, “May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1b). As a devout Jew, Paul could never delight in such a conclusion. Indeed, Paul himself was a forceful argument against any claim that God had rejected the nation Israel. Paul was a believing Jew.67 More than this, Paul in his pre-conversion days could make Bonnie and Clyde look like Jack and Jill. Paul had adamantly rejected the gospel and was guilty not only of persecution, but of shedding the blood of innocent saints.68 Paul could refer to himself in 1 Timothy 1:15 as ‘chief of sinners.’ If a rebel like Paul could be made to do a spiritual about-face, surely there is hope for Israel.
Israel has hope for a bright future because God foreordained this nation to privileges and blessings which cannot be revoked (v. 2). “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Romans 11:2a). This foreknowledge is that of God’s free choice in eternity past to create a nation on which He would bestow special privileges. It should be evident in this context that God’s foreknowledge is here far more than ‘knowledge of,’ but rather ‘prior choice of.’ Israel can be assured of future blessing because of God’s calling, and His calling and election are ‘irrevocable’ (verse 29).
Israel’s present situation can be likened to that in Elijah’s day (vv. 2b-6). Does it seem as though all Israel has forsaken God? So it seemed in the days of Elijah. Elijah was plagued by the ‘Lone Ranger Syndrome’: I alone am left. Paul might be tempted in this same direction, but for a reminder of what God told Elijah, “You may think you’re the Lone Ranger, but I have kept for Myself a faithful remnant of 7,000 who have not followed after Baal” (Romans 11:4, my paraphrase). God has always kindled the fires of Israel’s hope by maintaining a faithful remnant, through whom He can fulfill His promises. This is a remnant according to divine election (verse 5) and not according to works, for works and grace are incompatible with each other (verse 6).
And what of the rest? (vv. 7-10). Summing up the matter in verses 7-10, Paul says that Israel failed to arrive at that for which they sought. Those who were chosen obtained salvation, and the rest were hardened. This hardening was nothing new and unusual, but fully in keeping with the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures.
How can Israel fail to see what is so obvious? Simple; God has judicially blinded them, just as Isaiah described of his own day (verse 8). The same was true in Paul’s time, and, for that matter, in ours69 as well. Of this stumbling, David also wrote in the Psalms (verses 9 and 10). The Israelites had always been a stiff-necked and rebellious people (cf. Acts 7:51). After years of rebellion, God judicially blinded them so that it was impossible to turn and believe in Christ as their Messiah. No man, unaided by the Holy Spirit, can see God, but God has determined for the present to convert only a handful of the Jews.
We can find consolation in the fact of a small remnant of believing Jews who have come to faith in Christ, but is there no hope for the nation as a whole? Is Israel’s ailment terminal? “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall did they?” (Romans 11:11a) At long last with this question the whole counsel of God is placed before our eyes so far as the hardening of the Jews and the salvation of the Gentiles is concerned. In verses 11-15 we see the two-fold purpose of God as it relates to Jewish unbelief and Gentile conversion. In verses 16-24, we Gentiles are given a word of warning against pride and arrogance. Verses 25-32 contain the clearest possible promise of Israel’s national restoration.
Israel’s loss is the Gentile’s gain (vv. 11-15). The hardening of Israel was not a capricious act on God’s part. From eternity past, it was the will of God that through the disobedience and unbelief of Israel the Gentiles would come to faith in God. “But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles …” (Romans 11:11b).
But God’s purpose extends beyond Gentile conversion. The conversion of Gentiles is a back-handed blessing for the Jews in that it is intended to provoke them to jealousy. This was something the Jews of Paul’s day did not yet appreciate. They violently resisted Paul’s offering of the gospel to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 22:21, 22). But to Paul preaching to the Gentiles had a double intent. First of all it resulted in the salvation of Gentiles. Second, it furthered God’s purpose of provoking the Jews to jealousy. In this way, the offering of the gospel to Gentiles was good for both Gentiles and Jews alike.
Presently, the Gentiles have much to gain by Israel’s unbelief. Ultimately, Israel has much to gain by Gentile belief. There is no need, however, for the Gentiles to dread the time when God once again restores the nation Israel to a place of faith, blessing and prominence. Paul’s argument in verses 12 and 15 is from the lesser to the greater. God had promised Abram that He would bless the entire world through his offspring (Genesis 12:3). True, God would bless Israel, but He would also bless the world through Israel. God blessed the Gentiles with salvation through the unbelief of the Jews. If the Gentiles could be blessed by the Jews due to their unbelief, imagine the blessing that will come through their faith and obedience! Surely, the Gentiles should not dread the day of God’s blessing on Israel, but should await it with eager anticipation.
A lesson to be learned by the Gentiles: A word of warning (vv. 16-24). Throughout verses 16-24, there is clearly implied a hope for the national restoration of Israel. The hardening of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles is compared to the process of grafting a branch into the trunk of a tree. Normally, grafting is done to make a useless tree productive. An old tree that fails to produce is pruned back so that the vitality of the stock is not wasted on unproductive limbs. Then a hearty, productive limb is grafted into the stock to produce good fruit. I have watched my father do this with useless apple trees, and I have eaten the excellent apples that have been produced by the grafted limbs.
But it is easy to see that this is not at all what Paul is describing. The stock of the tree is Israel; not faithless unbelieving Jews, but the patriarchs to whom God had made His promises, men who had trusted in God. These holy men assured the future of Israel as a holy nation (verse 16). So the tree is not itself unfruitful. The unfruitful branches, which represent unbelieving Jews, have been pruned away. Those branches which are grafted into the stock represent the Gentiles. But rather than being highly desirable and highly productive branches they are the branches of a wild olive tree (verse 24).
Do you see the difference between the normal grafting process and that which God has performed with His rich olive tree (the nation Israel) and the undesirable Gentile branches? God has done that which is highly unnatural.70 Rather than grafting good branches into a worthless stock, He has grafted worthless branches into a good stock.
It is precisely here that we can see Paul’s point. For in this analogy we find a word of encouragement and hope for the Jews, and a word of warning for the Gentiles. If God can graft wild olive branches into a cultivated olive tree, a process which is unnatural, surely He can much more easily graft in cultivated branches into a cultivated tree. If God can include Gentiles in the blessings originally promised to the Jews, how much more so can He restore Jews to these blessings? Here, then, is the word of hope for the Jews.
But on the other hand, there is a word of warning for the Gentiles. Just as the Jews became proud and arrogant about the blessings God had given them as a nation, so the Gentiles might foster such a spirit of arrogance. Such arrogance is based upon ignorance of the facts.71 The root sustains the branch, and not the branch the root (verse 18). The Gentiles are, so to speak, living off of the blessings of Israel as a kind of parasite, and there is no room for pride here. The limbs become a part of the tree by faith and dependence upon the stock. There is no basis for boasting, for our life and blessings come from God and not by works.
We must remember also that it was this very Jewish attitude of pride and arrogance toward their privileges which caused their severance from God’s blessing. If God removed the natural branches for such pride, surely He will not tolerate it in His grafted branches. They, too, can be removed. The blessing of God on the Gentiles should lead us to grateful praise and humility. The fall of Israel should prompt us to sorrow and godly fear.
So there is in this grafting analogy a word of hope for the Jews and a word of warning for the Gentiles. God deals with both on the same basis. Men are grafted in on the basis of faith and are removed on the basis of rebellion, sin and unbelief.
Full assurance of Israel’s recovery (vv. 25-32). Israel’s full and final recovery has surely been implied in the preceding verses, but lest there be any doubt that God is going to restore Israel to a place of prominence and blessing in fulfillment of His covenants with the patriarchs, the final recovery of Israel is clearly established in verses 25-32. “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
The failure of the nation Israel at present is only partial, for there is a faithful remnant of Jewish saints. But more than this, the failure of Israel is only temporary, for when the fulness of the Gentiles has come in God will once again cause His wayward nation to return to Him. He will remove their sins and will restore then to privileges and blessing (verses 26, 27).
The expression, ‘until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in’ is a difficult one which has created much discussion by the commentators.72 Although the precise meaning of the expression may be in doubt, the argument of Paul is crystal clear. God has decreed a dispensation in which the Jews are hardened and the blessings of the Jews are being poured out on the Gentiles. The Gentiles are having their day of salvation and blessing due to Israel’s unbelief. But the day of the Gentile will come to an end and Israel’s day is soon coming. The fulness of the Gentiles refers to that time when the day of the Gentiles ends and the restoration of Israel begins.
When Paul writes in verse 26 that “all Israel will be saved,” he does not mean that every individual Israelite will be saved, but that the nation in general will turn to God in faith and obedience.73 Although the Jews are at present the ‘enemies of the gospel,’ their hope lies in the fact that by virtue of their national election to prominence and blessing, they are ‘the beloved of God for the sake of the fathers.’ Israel’s national future is not conditioned by their faithfulness to God but is based upon God’s faithfulness to His covenants made with their forefathers. “From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28, 29). Here is the key to Israel’s future as a nation;74 it is God’s faithfulness to His Word, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
God elected a nation to be the recipients of certain privileges and blessings through the offspring of Abraham. This elect nation was to bring blessing to all nations. The specific promises and blessings were stated and reiterated to the patriarchs. The promise of Israel’s hardening, chastening, and future restoration was made through the prophets. Israel’s future is as certain as the reliability of God, and His promises are irrevocable. There is no greater security than this!
Look back with me for a moment to review what God is doing by means of Israel’s hardening. He is giving the Gentiles the opportunity to cash in on the blessing of salvation and on the riches of God’s blessings to Israel. By the turning of the Gentiles to Christ, God is wooing unfaithful Israel to Himself. And in the case of both the Jews and the Gentiles, He has brought both to disobedience in order to bestow mercy upon them (verses 31 and 32).75
There is only one response appropriate to what Paul has taught us in chapters 9-11. It is not accusation, but acclamation. We cannot, we dare not, challenge the sovereignty of God. We must bow before it. The sovereignty of God is neatly summed up for us in verse 36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory, forever. Amen.” God is the source of all things. All things originate from His eternal decree. God is the efficient cause of all things. He is the One Who brings His will to pass. God is the goal of all things. He is the One for Whose benefit all things take place. We, like all creation, are here for God’s glory.
Our response to the sovereignty of God as expressed in history through the partial and temporary rejection of Israel and the salvation of Gentiles should be one of wonder and praise at the wisdom of the One Who has willed it so. Further, it should impress upon us our incapability and inadequacy to challenge the working and the will of God in the affairs of men. Could we ever advise a God like ours? Does He need our counsel or our approval? Let us bow, with Paul, in speechless praise, to the sovereign God Who does all things well.
First of all we should be reminded of the sovereignty of God, and of our proper response of praise and wonder and worship at the wisdom of God and at the mercy of God. These two terms, wisdom and mercy, should be the central themes of our thought as we study Romans 9-11.
Second, we should view chapters 9-11 as a beautiful illustration of Romans 8:28. God does cause all things to work together for the good of the elect and the glory of God. Jewish unbelief has prompted Gentile evangelism; and this Gentile evangelism will provoke the Jews to jealousy. Those things which ‘appear’ to be tragic and catastrophic are but a part of a much larger picture, which contribute to the accomplishment of God’s holy and perfect will, a will which for the Christian is always good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). Whenever we find ourselves in circumstances that appear to be counter-productive to our spiritual advancement, we must assume that our situation is like that of Israel described in Romans 9-11. That God is at work in a way which we could never have devised to promote God’s glory and our good.
Third, this passage should remind us of the absolute security of the individual believer. “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Israel erred in supposing that God’s election of the nation as a whole implied His election of every physical descendant of Abraham. Paul showed such thinking to be spurious in chapter 9. Individual election is based not upon man’s ethnic origins, nor on his earthly works, but on the free and sovereign choice of God.
But God’s choice of Israel as the nation through whom He would bless the world and on whom He would bestow particular privileges and blessings was irrevocable. God did elect the nation Israel and He will stand by it. This is the hope of Israel.
But what applies to every Christian is the fact that we are individually the elect of God, and that His promises to us are as certain of realization in our lives as God is reliable. If God will keep His promises to faithless and unbelieving Israel, He will be sure to keep us in His love as well.
Finally, we must beware of adopting a ‘Santa Claus Theology.’ We cannot rightly reflect the character of God by only focusing upon His goodness apart from His severity. As Paul has written, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22a).
My unsaved friend, just as I can assure the Christian of ‘the absolute certainty of realizing God’s promises and blessings, I must ask you to contemplate the rebellion of unbelieving Israel and the consequences which unbelief brings. God’s blessings flow through faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. God’s severity is expressed through those who reject the righteousness of Christ and attempt to establish their own standing before God on the basis of works. Behold, the goodness and severity of God.
66 “This was inevitable, for it is not possible to see the good-will of a heavenly Santa Claus in heartbreaking and destructive things like cruelty, or marital infidelity, or death on the road, or lung cancer. The only way to save the liberal view of God is to dissociate Him from those things, and to deny that He has any direct relation to them or control over them; in other words, to deny His omnipotence and lordship over His world. Liberal theologians took this course fifty years ago, and the man in the street takes it today. Thus he is left with a kind God who means well, but cannot always insulate His children from trouble and grief. When trouble comes, therefore, there is nothing to do but grin and bear it. In this way, by an ironic paradox, faith in a God who is all goodness and no severity tends to confirm men in a fatalistic and pessimistic attitude to life.” Packer, p.145.
67 “The appeal to his own salvation would be of marked relevance because of his previous adamant opposition to the gospel (cf. Gal. 1:13, 14; I Tim. 1:13-15). The unbelief of Israel (cf. 10:21) had been exemplified in no one more than in Saul of Tarsus. The mercy he received is proof that God’s mercy had not forsaken Israel. On this view, ‘of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin’ would serve to accentuate his identity as truly one of that race with which he is now concerned.” John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), Vol. II, p. 66.
69 “The image is that of men feasting in careless security, and overtaken by their enemies, owing to the very prosperity which ought to be their strength. So to the Jews that Law and those Scriptures wherein they trusted are to become the very cause of their fall and the snare or hunting-net in which they are caught.” William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1966, reprint), p. 315.
70 “St. Paul is here describing a wholly unnatural process. Grafts must necessarily be of branches from a cultivated olive inserted into a wild stock, the reverse process being one which would be valueless and is never performed. But the whole strength of St. Paul’s argument depends upon the process being an unnatural one (cf. verse 24, kai para fusin enekentrisqh"); it is beside the point therefore to quote passages from classical writers, which, even if they seem to support St. Paul’s language, describe a process which can never be actually used.” Ibid., p. 328.
71 “From this simile St. Paul draws two lessons. (1) The first is to a certain extent incidental. It is a warning to the heathen against undue exaltation and arrogance. By an entirely unnatural process they have been grafted into the tree. Any virtue that they may have comes by no merit of their own, but by the virtue of the stock to which they belong; and moreover at any moment they may be cut off. It will be a less violent process to cut off branches not in any way belonging to the tree, than it was to cut off the original branches. But (2)—and this is the more important result to be gained from the simile, as it is summed up in verse 24—if God has had the power against all nature to graft in branches from a wild olive and enable them to bear fruit, how much more easily will He be able to restore to their original place the branches which have been cut off.
“St. Paul thus deduces from his simile consolation for Israel, but incidentally also a warning to the Gentile members of the Church—a warning made necessary by the great importance ascribed to them in in verse 11f. Israel had been rejected for their sake.” Ibid., p. 327. I would agree with this statement by Sanday and Headlam with the exception. that the warning for the Gentiles is Paul’s primary thrust and that the consolation for Israel is incidental. This section is specifically addressed to the Gentiles (cf. verse 13).
72 Cf. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957) p. 223; James M. Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 195-196; Sanday and Headlam, p. 335; Murray, Vol. II, pp. 93-96.
73 “In what sense does Paul mean ‘all Israel’? ‘Israel as a whole’ or ‘each individual Israelite’? There is an interesting parallel to Paul’s words in Sanhedrin, x. 1: All Israelites have a share in the world to come. This statement certainly does not refer to each several Israelite, for it proceeds to enumerate a long list of exceptions: from ‘all Israel’ must be subtracted all Sadducees, heretics, magicians, the licentious, and many more. It means that Israel as a whole is destined for eternal life in the age to come. This, of course, does not prove that Paul’s meaning was the same; but when his two statements, about Gentiles and Jews, are taken together, it seems probable that he is thinking in representative terms (see on the rest of this paragraph, and on xv. 19); first the remnant of Israel, then Gentiles, finally Israel as a whole.” Barrett, pp. 223-224.
74 It is almost incredible that the renowned scholar F. F. Bruce could make this statement: “One further point: in all that Paul says about the restoration of Israel to God, he says nothing about the restoration of an earthly Davidic kingdom, nothing about national reinstatement in the land of Israel. What he envisaged for his people was something infinitely better.” F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 221. Clearly, Paul is speaking of Israel’s national recovery, so that God’s promises to the patriarchs will be fulfilled literally through the nation Israel and not through the church.
75 “That is, God has brought men into a position which merits nothing but his wrath in order that his relations with them may be marked by nothing but mercy. God’s rejections, punishments, and abandonments (i. 24, 26, 28) are rightly understood as the foil of his mercy. Only sinners can be the objects of his mercy, and only those who know that they are sinners can know that they are loved. The righteous ‘need no repentance’ (Luke xv. 7) and cannot know what it is to be forgiven. Every man must be damned if he is to be justified.” Barrett, p. 227.