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Lesson 62: The Right and Wrong Ways to God (Romans 9:30-33)

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If you were to ask in a poll, “How does a person get into heaven?” you would most often hear, “By being a good person.” There may be slight variations: “By sincerely trying to do your best.” “By being moral or religious.” “By doing good works and helping the poor.”

You would find the same answers in any country or culture where you asked that question. When we were in Nepal, we went to a Hindu temple and encountered some very strange looking men. What was behind their bizarre appearance? They were trying to please the gods in order to earn a higher place in the next life. We saw people there making sacrifices and bathing in the filthy river in an attempt to atone for their sins and purify themselves. We went to a Buddhist temple and saw variations of the same thing. Buddhist monks take a vow of poverty and are devoted to hours of prayers and rituals every day.

Muslims believe the same thing. They must say the creed and the prescribed prayers five times a day, give alms, observe the fast of Ramadan, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and perform their other rituals in order to go to heaven. The cults are all based on the same principle: The way to heaven is through good works. This may require knocking on doors to share your faith, going on a two-year mission, tithing your money, abstaining from certain foods and drinks, and other duties.

But such an approach to God is not limited to non-Christian religions or cults. Many in Christian religions think that they can earn right standing before God by going to mass and confession, doing good works, and sometimes by harsh treatment of their bodies. Martin Luther was a classic example. He gave up a career in law to join a monastery where he devoted himself to prayers and fasting, penance and the confession of sins, and living in self-imposed harsh conditions. He was trying to earn salvation by his works, but he could not find peace with God because he knew that his works were all tainted by his sin.

What a tragedy it would be to devote your entire life to diligent spiritual efforts to attain right standing with God, only to die and face God’s judgment! You’ve just spent your entire life in religious discipline, denying yourself the common pleasures that others enjoy. You’ve tried your best to be a good person. But you stand at the gate of heaven and see Jesus refusing to let you in and consigning you to hell.

But as you’re standing there in horror, you see Jesus welcoming a man who lived his entire life as a thief. But with his dying breath he cried out, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The former thief enters into eternal joy with Jesus, while you, who worked so hard for salvation, are turned away! What a shock!

Since life is short and eternity is forever, nothing is more important than understanding the right way to be right with God. And since both fallen human nature and every religion in the world teach the wrong way to come to God, we especially need to understand God’s way of righteousness. Paul addresses this crucial issue in our text.

“What shall we say then?” (9:30) serves both to draw a conclusion from the preceding arguments and to introduce a new section. The question that Paul has been focused on in Romans 9 is, “If God is faithful to His covenant promises to His chosen people, then why are most of the Jews rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and Lord?” Paul has shown that it was never God’s purpose to save all Israel, but rather only a remnant. God always accomplishes His purpose through a chosen remnant according to His grace. Since all deserve God’s wrath and judgment, it is not unfair of Him for His glory to choose some as objects of mercy, but to leave the rest in their sin to glorify His justice in judgment.

Thus Romans 9 is heavily weighted towards God’s sovereignty in salvation. There is an inexplicable mystery here, but the Bible is clear that if we’re saved, it’s totally due to God’s sovereign grace and mercy; but if we’re lost, it’s totally due to our sin and unbelief. No one can blame God for being lost by complaining, “You didn’t choose me!” (As an aside, it’s interesting that many deny the doctrine of election because it offends their pride. They want to think that they can choose God by their own “free” will. But if you tell them that they’re headed for judgment, they suddenly believe the doctrine of election and use it to blame God for not choosing them!)

From Romans 9:30-10:21, Paul shows why the Jews for the most part were rejecting Christ: They were trying to be saved by their own good works so that they stumbled over Christ. They missed God’s way of righteousness through faith in Christ. So the emphasis is on human responsibility and sin. Israel rejected Christ because they were disobedient and obstinate (10:21). And yet God’s sovereignty is still present. It is He who put the stone of stumbling and rock of offense in Zion (9:33). It is God’s sovereign plan to use the salvation of the Gentiles to provoke Israel to jealousy, so that eventually they will turn to Christ (10:19; 11:11, 14). And, God’s sovereignty is seen by the fact that all of this was predicted in the Old Testament, as the frequent citations show.

In our text, Paul lays out the right and wrong ways to come to God. To state the wrong way first:

To approach God through our works will cause us to stumble over Christ and be lost; to approach God through faith in Christ results in righteousness and salvation.

The contrast is plain and stark: If we pursue the righteousness that we need to stand before God by our works we will fail. If we come to God by faith in Christ, we attain righteousness, even if we were not previously pursuing it.

Before we examine both halves of this contrast in more detail, let me point out that there is an inherent danger for those of us who were raised in a Christian home. It is a great advantage to be raised in a Christian home, in that you learn about God and the way of salvation as a child. You’re often spared from the destructive scars of sin that those in the world have experienced.

But the danger is that you may trust in your own religiosity and morality, while you resent or despise those who are not so religious or moral. You become like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son: “I’ve served you for years and always obeyed you, but then you lavish your love on this no-good brother of mine! But what have you ever done for me?” (See Luke 15:28-30.) And so you miss the heart of the gospel, which is God’s grace.

1. To approach God through our works is built on faith in ourselves and will cause us to stumble over Christ and be lost (9:31-33).

Scholars spill a lot of ink debating what Paul means by “a law of righteousness” (9:31), but it probably refers to the Law of Moses that Israel pursued to try to attain righteousness before God. But Israel failed to attain that righteousness because they did not pursue the law by faith, but as if it could be attained by works. In so doing, they were only seeking to establish their own righteousness (10:3), which always falls short. This wrong approach caused them to stumble over the stumbling stone, which is Christ.

A. To approach God through our works is fundamentally flawed because it is built on faith in our sinful selves.

I’m shocked often to hear professing Christians say that their success is because they have learned to believe in themselves. Formerly, they had low self-esteem and didn’t believe in themselves. But now they tell us, “You’ve got to believe in yourself!” Books on Christian parenting tell us that we need to teach our kids to believe in themselves, to have self-confidence. But where in all of God’s Word does it tell us that we need to have faith in ourselves? It consistently tells us that we can do nothing in ourselves. Rather, we need to cast ourselves totally in dependence on God.

Faith in yourself is the fundamental problem when it comes to believing the gospel. Jesus said (Mark 8:34), “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” Denying yourself to the point of death and believing in yourself are opposite behaviors! Those who try to come to God by works underestimate or are blind to their own sinfulness. They think that they have something in themselves that will commend them to God. But the Bible says that we are unclean and all our good works are like filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). They’re all built on our pride. And even if we could present to God more good works than anyone else in the world, we still have the huge problem of our sin. How can a pile of filthy rags cover the leprosy of sin? To try to approach God through our works is fundamentally flawed because it is built on faith in our sinful selves.

But there is another problem with such an approach:

B. To approach God through our good works will cause us to stumble over Christ.

Romans 9:32b-33, “They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed [lit., put to shame].”

The “stone” theme occurs in several Old Testament texts (Gen. 49:24; Ps. 118:22-23; Isa. 8:14; 28:16; Dan. 2:34-35, 44-45) and is used in the New Testament, even on the lips of Jesus, to refer to Christ (Matt. 21:42-44; Luke 2:34; 1 Pet. 2:8). Here Paul combines parts of Isaiah 28:16 and Isaiah 8:14. Isaiah 28:16 reads, “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, a costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed [lit., in a hurry].’” Isaiah 8:14 says, “Then He shall become a sanctuary; but to both the houses of Israel, a stone to strike and a rock to stumble over, and a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Paul takes part of Isaiah 8:14 on judgment, removes the middle of Isaiah 28:16 on the costly cornerstone, and sandwiches the 8:14 excerpt into Isaiah 28:16 to make his point.

Note several things here. First, God sovereignly put the stumbling stone in Israel, but Israel was totally responsible for stumbling over it. Second, Paul is not playing loose with Scripture. Rather, he is showing how the two texts fit together and point to Christ (see James Boice, Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1142). The Isaiah 8:14 passage shows that the Lord Himself is the stone to strike and the rock to stumble over. But in Isaiah 28:16, the Lord puts the stone in place as a cornerstone to build on.

How can the Lord be both the stone itself and yet the one who puts the stone in place? Answer: The Messiah is the Lord God! By combining the text on judgment with the other text on hope, Paul shows that Christ the Lord is both the hope of salvation for those who build their lives on Him and yet at the same time a rock of stumbling and stone of offense for those who take pride in their own good works.

Third, since Romans 9:33 clearly refers to Jesus Christ, it is obvious that the faith that attains to righteousness, which the Gentiles attained, but Israel did not (9:30-32), is faith in Jesus Christ. This is the faith that justifies, which Paul elaborated on in Romans 3:21-4:25). The citation (ring a negative verdict in judgment. So the two ideas are similar. The one who believes in Jesus as the foundation stone will not fear being condemned at the judgment.

But how is Jesus Christ a stumbling stone to unbelievers? Perhaps the best commentary on this is Paul’s explanation (1 Cor. 1:18-31). I can’t cite the entire text for sake of time, but the main idea is that the cross confronts human wisdom, strength, and pride. A crucified Savior confounds our idea of what the Savior should be. Israel was looking for a powerful king, the Son of David, born of nobility, who like him would conquer all her enemies. The religious leaders thought that surely He would be educated in the Scriptures and traditions, as they were. He would not be a common man, born to a lowly carpenter who lived in the despised city of Nazareth. Those who followed Him would be, as they the religious leaders were, men of wisdom and learning, connected with those in power. Surely His followers would not be the despised tax-gatherers and prostitutes! Or, if a few of this riff-raff got into the kingdom, they would occupy the lowly place by the door. But the religious leaders would be in the place of honor at Messiah’s side!

Paul writes (1 Cor. 1:23), “But we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He goes on to point out that not many of the Corinthian believers were wise according to the flesh, or mighty or noble by the world’s standards. The reason they were believers is that God chose them (1 Cor. 1:27-28, 31).

But perhaps you’re wondering, “Why would God deliberately place a stone of stumbling and rock of offense in Zion? Why would He give the world a lowly, crucified Savior and a way of salvation that causes many to be offended?” As James Boice points out (ibid., p. 1145), this wasn’t the way a modern advertising executive would devise a campaign to “sell” the gospel! Show people how Jesus will help them succeed at work and have happy families. Show them how Jesus will help them reach their full potential. Minimize all that negative stuff about sin and judgment. What people need is a positive, uplifting message to build their self-esteem!

But the reason the true gospel inherently offends is that it confronts our sinful pride (1 Cor. 1:29). If God sovereignly shows mercy to whom He desires and hardens whom He desires (Rom. 9:18), then I can’t boast in why I was shown mercy. In fact, the very idea that I need mercy is offensive. Sure, I’m not perfect, but why can’t God just give me a little boost? How about a few helpful hints for happy living? Mercy implies that I’m a spiritual basket case, unable to do anything to gain God’s favor! Precisely!

I can’t boast in my intellect, because it actually would keep me from trusting in Christ. I can’t boast in my morality, because if you could see my heart, you would see that it is not morally pure, but putrid. I can’t boast in my good works, because I just do them to make myself look good to others. And they are puny in comparison to how I look out for myself above all else. So God deliberately put Christ and Him crucified at the center of salvation to humble our pride, which is the root of all of our sins. As Charles Simeon put it (Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 15:371), “Any plan of salvation which gives no offense to self-righteous men, is certainly not of God.”

And so to approach God through our good works will cause us to stumble over Christ. To come in faith to Christ, God must humble our pride. That leads us to the right way to come to Him:

2. To approach God through faith in Christ results in perfect righteousness and salvation.

Here I’m focusing on Romans 9:30, “That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith.” And, 9:33b, “And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” When you look at 9:31-32, it is clear that Paul is contrasting the righteousness that comes by faith with the attempt to achieve righteousness by works of the law. This takes us back to his discussion in chapters 3 & 4. Three thoughts:

A. We need a perfect righteousness which only comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Clearly, righteousness is Paul’s theme here (repeated four times in 9:30-31). He is referring to the perfect righteousness of God, which he spoke about in 1:17, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith.’” Then after showing the sinfulness of both Gentiles and Jews (1:18-3:20), Paul concludes (

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.

In other words, salvation by human righteousness always falls short. We need God’s righteousness, imputed to us. This refers to justification, where God declares the believing sinner acquitted and He imputes the very righteousness of Christ to that sinner’s account. Paul says that Gentiles (referring to that class of people as a whole) were not even pursuing such righteousness, but they attained it. How? God graciously sought them with the good news that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. They knew that they fit that description and that they needed salvation. So they believed in Christ and were justified.

B. To come to God through faith, we must renounce our merit and works as the basis for approaching God.

We can’t bring our best efforts and combine them with the righteousness of Christ. That muddies the pure water of His righteousness and it robs Him of glory. To follow Jesus, we must deny ourselves, especially deny our self-righteousness and good deeds as the basis for right standing with God. Salvation is not a joint project, where we try hard and let God do the rest. It is all of God.

C. To come to God through faith, we must entrust our right standing with God totally to the merits and substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

John Calvin expressed this beautifully (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 379):

But how they stumble at Christ, who trust in their works, it is not difficult to understand; for except we own ourselves to be sinners, void and destitute of any righteousness of our own, we obscure the dignity of Christ, which consists in this, that to us all he is light, life, resurrection, righteousness, and healing. But how is he all these things, except that he illuminates the blind, restores the lost, quickens the dead, raises up those who are reduced to nothing, cleanses those who are full of filth, cures and heals those infected with diseases? Nay, when we claim for ourselves any righteousness, we in a manner contend with the power of Christ; for his office is no less to beat down all the pride of the flesh, than to relieve and comfort those who labor and are wearied under their burden.

Conclusion

Christ is either one or the other to you right now: A rock in which you believe and build your life, who will justify you at the judgment. Or, He is a stone of stumbling and rock of offense to your sinful pride. Don’t stumble over Christ by trusting in your good works to save you, as all of the world’s religions teach. Trust in Christ alone and you will not be ashamed at the judgment!

Application Questions

  1. Why is it crucial to understand that we are not saved by faith plus works, but rather by faith for good works (Eph. 2:8-10)?
  2. Is there a legitimate place for self-confidence or pride? Is there biblical support for such ideas?
  3. How does “marketing” Jesus as the way to success obscure and confuse the offense of the cross?
  4. Discuss: Humanly speaking, who is more difficult to reach with the gospel: a good, religious person or a gross sinner? How should our approach differ with each of these types?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 63: Why Religious People Miss Salvation (Romans 10:1-4)

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Imagine a dear old lady who all her life has faithfully attended a mainline Protestant Church in her small town in the Bible belt. She has helped with the nursery and children’s ministries, worked in the kitchen during socials, and served in the women’s missionary society. Everyone who knows her says that she is one of the sweetest persons they know.

She is married to a mean old cuss who has no time for religion. He says that the church is full of hypocrites and do-gooders. Why should he hang out with people like that? He prefers his buddies at the local tavern, who can tell some good off-color jokes, place a friendly bet on a football game, and who swap stories about their latest fishing or hunting adventures. He would rather that his wife not go to church, but years ago he realized that it gave him the freedom to go fishing on Sunday mornings. So he jokes that he’s going to baptize a few worms while she gets her religious fix for the week.

If you were to ask her, “On what basis do you hope to get into heaven?” the question would shock her. Why would you even ask? If she could find words to reply, she would say, “Well, all good people go to heaven. I’ve always tried my best to be nice to others. I’ve served at church in various ways. And I’ve usually been able to ignore the mean comments that my husband hurls at me. God knows that I’ve done the best that I could. I feel that I will go to heaven because I’m a good person.”

Lately, her husband hasn’t been feeling very well. But like most tough old geezers he avoids the doctor like the plague. But finally he gets worried enough that he schedules an appointment. The doctor runs a few tests and then gently gives him the bad news: “You’ve got advanced cancer. If you had come a few years ago, we might have gotten it. But there’s not much that we can do now. You might have a few months to live.”

He goes downhill fast, so they arrange for hospice care. One day, a hospice worker whom he likes is able to share the gospel with him. She tells him that God offers forgiveness for all his sins as a free gift if he will repent of his sins and trust in what Christ did for him on the cross. She leaves him with a Gospel of John. Since he knows his time is short, he devours it. As he reads, God opens his eyes to see his sin and his need for the Savior. He sees that Jesus is God’s Son, the Savior of all who trust in Him. He puts his trust in Christ, dies a few weeks later, and goes to heaven.

His wife wouldn’t ever say it, but she is secretly relieved that he is gone. He was always so difficult to live with. She continues with all of her religious activities through the church. A few years later, she dies. Because she was trusting in her own righteousness, this nice old lady goes to hell. She had never trusted in Christ as the necessary perfect righteousness that God gives to all who believe.

That story, while fictional, describes one of the most common misconceptions about the most important subject imaginable: How does a person get eternal life and go to heaven? It’s a topic where you don’t want to be in error! There are no second chances. The Bible plainly says that we die once and then face judgment (Heb. 9:27). There are no makeup exams! And, contrary to popular opinion, God doesn’t grade on the curve. It’s pass or fail, and to pass you must score 100 percent perfect righteousness. One sin in thought, word, or deed and you face God’s eternal judgment!

In our text, Paul is explaining why some very religious people missed salvation. The Jews were about as religious as anyone could be. They were fastidious about keeping the Law of Moses. In fact, to interpret that Law correctly, so that nobody missed it, they devised hundreds of extra laws. Keeping the Sabbath holy wasn’t specific enough for them, so they had rules about how far you could walk and about what constituted work on the Sabbath. For example, when Jesus on the Sabbath made clay with His spittle to anoint a blind man’s eyes, the Jewish religious leaders accused Him of breaking the Sabbath (John 9:6, 16). They had rules on washing and cleanliness that added to the Law (Mark 7:3). But they missed salvation and even crucified the Savior!

In the larger context, Paul is responding to the question, “If God is faithful to His promises to His chosen people, then why are most Jews rejecting Christ?” And, can we then trust that He will be faithful to His promises to us? In chapter 9, Paul’s emphasis was on God’s sovereignty. It was never His sovereign plan to save all the Jews. Rather, He always accomplishes His purpose by saving a remnant which He has chosen according to grace. The rest He leaves in their sins and He will be glorified when He judges them. Thus if we’re saved, it is totally due to God’s gracious election.

But many will sputter, “That’s not fair!” So in chapter 10, Paul shifts the emphasis to man’s responsibility. He shows that the Jews who were lost had no basis to blame God. Their spiritual pride made them think that their religious practices and good works would qualify them for heaven. But people who think that they are good enough for God get offended if you tell them that they are sinners that need a Savior. And so they took offense at Christ and stumbled over Him (9:33). They were lost because of their spiritual blindness, sin, and unbelief. So Paul is showing us why religious people often miss salvation:

Religious people miss salvation because they think that their good works will satisfy God’s demand for righteousness, so they don’t trust in Christ for righteousness.

Note four things:

1. Religious people often miss salvation in spite of the prayers and deep concern of godly people, but we should pray anyway (10:1).

Romans 10:1: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.” Four observations:

A. The doctrine of election does not negate our need to pray for the salvation of the lost.

Sometimes those who argue against the doctrine of election will say, “If God sovereignly chooses who will be saved, then what’s the point of praying for anyone’s salvation? If God has chosen them, they will be saved whether you pray or not. If He hasn’t chosen them, your prayers won’t do any good.” So they contend that belief in the doctrine of election kills prayer for the lost.

But the apostle Paul didn’t follow that line of reasoning. In Romans 9:11, he could not have been clearer in stating that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau apart from any good works that they would do, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand.” While we’re still sputtering, “That’s not fair!” he adds (9:16), “So then it [salvation] does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” He states it even more strongly (9:18), “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” He adds (9:23) that those of us whom God calls to salvation are “vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.” He couldn’t be much stronger on the doctrine of God’s sovereign election.

But here he is a few verses later saying that his heart’s desire and prayer to God was for the salvation of the Jews. There is no contradiction between God’s sovereign election and our heartfelt prayers. How do they fit together? God’s sovereign plan includes our prayers and our preaching the gospel to the lost (10:14-15). God saves His elect through our prayers and our preaching. In fact, if God has done all that He can do to save lost people and now it’s up to their free will, then it’s a waste of time to pray for their salvation. God would be in heaven saying, “Yeah, I’d sure like to see them get saved, too. But My hands are tied. It’s up to them now!”

There is a parallel to this balance between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility to pray in Daniel 9:1-3. Daniel was reading the prophet Jeremiah and he observed that Jeremiah had prophesied that Israel would be in captivity in Babylon for 70 years. Daniel did the math and realized that the time for them to be restored was rapidly approaching. So did he sit back to wait for God to act? No, rather Daniel sought the Lord “by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). God sovereignly prophesied what He would do, but Daniel earnestly prayed that He would do it! And so we should pray for the salvation of lost people. We do not know who the elect are, but God uses our prayers to save them. But note something else about Paul’s prayer for the salvation of the Jews:

B. Unanswered prayers for the salvation of the lost should not discourage us from praying.

Paul’s prayer for the salvation of the Jews was unanswered in his lifetime! It’s like praying the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Christians have been praying that request for almost 2,000 years, but it’s still not fully answered. We see partial answers as people that we’re praying for come under the lordship of Christ and learn to obey Him. It will be answered fully when Jesus returns. But we should keep praying for His kingdom to come and His will to be done, even though we know that eventually it will happen and even though we may not see thorough answers to it in our lifetimes. And, if you’re praying for the salvation of a friend or loved one, keep praying as long as the person is alive. We can’t understand how our prayers interface with God’s sovereign will, but we should keep praying.

C. Don’t assume that religious friends and relatives are saved, but rather pray all the more for their salvation.

Sometimes we see people who are atheists or blatantly anti-Christian and we think, “They will never come to faith in Christ!” But then we see good, nice, religious people and think, “They don’t need to come to Christ.” Wrong on both counts! Jesus was a friend to the corrupt tax collectors and immoral prostitutes because He knew that they were sick and needed Him as a spiritual physician (Luke 5:30-32). But the religious Pharisees were not good enough to get into heaven by their religiosity. They needed the new birth if they wanted to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). So if you have religious family or friends, don’t assume that they’re saved just because they’re religious. Pray for God to convict them of their pride and self-righteousness, so that they will see their need for salvation. One final thought on verse 1:

D. Pray especially for the salvation of those who have been mean or unkind to you.

Paul suffered terribly at the hands of the Jews. They saw him as a turncoat, who associated with the despised Gentiles, and so they dogged his steps and tried to assassinate him. It would be understandable if he had said, “Let them go to hell! They deserve it!” But instead, his heart’s desire and his constant prayer was that God would save them. Jesus told us (Matt. 5:44), “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ….” So if you have a family member who ridicules your faith or is abusive because of your love for Christ, especially pray for his or her salvation. Make a list of the lost people in your family or in your everyday world and begin to pray earnestly for their salvation.

But why are religious people often lost? Paul explains:

2. Religious people often miss salvation in spite of their zeal for God, because their zeal is not in accordance with knowledge (10:2).

Romans 10:2: “For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” Paul himself had been more zealous for his Jewish religion than most of his contemporaries, but it resulted in his persecuting the church (Gal. 1:13-14). In our day, Muslims are zealous for God as they understand Him, but their zeal causes them to kill Christians and even family members who profess faith in Christ. Jehovah’s Witnesses are zealous for God, but they promote the fatal view that Jesus is not fully God, and so their zeal only increases their condemnation.

We live in a day that disparages absolute truth and doctrinal precision. The cultural belief is that each person should determine his own truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me, and vice versa. So we should “co-exist,” as the bumper sticker preaches. If that means that we should be civil and polite towards one another, of course that is true. But if it means that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or atheist, it is fatally flawed!

Just as it matters greatly whether you take the exact drug that the doctor has prescribed in the exact amounts at the proper times, so it matters eternally whether you believe in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh, died for your sins, and was raised from the dead. If you are zealous for a different “Jesus” or a way of salvation other than faith alone in Christ alone, Paul says that you are to be damned (Gal. 1:6-9).

All roads do not lead to the top. Being sincere or zealous is not enough. Good intentions are not good enough if they are mistaken about the truth of the gospel. Religious zeal must always be tested against the core truth of the unchanging gospel. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Saving Faith [Zondervan], 10:20-25 gives numerous tests of false and true zeal.)

3. Religious people often miss salvation because they do not know about God’s perfect righteousness and so they seek to establish their own righteousness (10:3).

Romans 10:3: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” Paul does not mean that the Jews did not know that God is righteous. Anyone familiar with the Old Testament would know that. He means that the Jews did not understand God’s saving righteousness, namely, that He imputes righteousness to the one who believes in His appointed substitute. The ESV and NIV both capture the sense of the genitive. Rather than being possessive (NASB), it is a genitive of source: “being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God” (ESV). Paul explains this with regard to his own conversion (Phil. 3:9), “not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

This perfect imputed righteousness was revealed to the Jews in Genesis 15:6, “Then he [Abram] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul cited that text in Romans 4:3 and expounded on it in that chapter. So the ignorance of the Jews was not due to lacking information. It was willful ignorance stemming from their pride in keeping the Law. The Pharisees proudly thought that they were keeping the Law because they didn’t murder (unless they had “good” cause, as when they murdered Jesus!) and they didn’t commit adultery. But Jesus convicted them by showing that God looks on the heart (Matt. 5:21-30). To be sinfully angry with your brother is to murder him. To lust after a woman in your heart is to commit adultery with her.

And so the problem with the religiously proud Jews was, “they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” To do so, they would have had to admit that they were sinners and that their good works could never justify them. They would have had to admit that all their good deeds were as filthy rags in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). James Boice (Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1161) uses the analogy of a woman who is dying of a disease and refuses to go to a doctor because she insists that she looks fine when she puts on her makeup. Yes, her face may look fine with her makeup on, but she needs to deal with the internal disease. Yes, religious people may look good with all their good deeds. But if they do not submit to their need for God’s perfect righteousness credited to their account, their good deeds are just makeup.

Thus religious people often miss salvation in spite of the prayers and concern of godly people for their salvation. They miss salvation because their zeal for God is not in line with knowledge. They miss salvation because they do not know about God’s righteousness and so they seek to establish their own.

4. Religious people miss salvation when they do not trust in Christ as their righteousness (10:4).

Romans 10:4: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” This is a wonderful verse, but unfortunately it is one of the most disputed verses in all of Paul’s letters (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 544). The problem is that the word “end” (Greek, telos) has different nuances of meaning. It can mean “termination,” in the sense that Christ ended the Mosaic Covenant when He inaugurated the New Covenant. It can mean “goal,” in the sense that the law existed to point people to Christ (Gal. 3:23-25). Or, it can mean “fulfillment” or “culmination,” in the sense that all of the Old Testament types, rituals, and sacrifices pointed to and were fulfilled in Christ (Matt. 5:17).

All of those nuances are true with regard to Christ, but the difficult question is, “Which meaning does Paul intend in Romans 10:4?” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 637-642) argues that two nuances are intended, namely that Christ is the termination of the Law of Moses and that He is the culmination of all that the Law anticipated.

But Thomas Schreiner is probably correct when he argues that based on the relationship between 10:3 & 4, it means “termination” in an experiential sense. In other words, in 10:4 Paul is responding to the specific Jewish error mentioned in 10:3, that they used the law to try to establish their own righteousness. Thus in 10:4 Paul is saying (ibid., p. 547), “Those who trust in Christ cease using the law to establish their own righteousness.”

In line with that, Everett Harrison argues (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:111), “Paul’s contention regarding the Jew (v. 3) is not the incompleteness of his position, which needed the coming of Christ to perfect it, but the absolute wrong of that position, because it entailed an effort to establish righteousness by human effort rather than by acceptance of a divine gift.” John MacArthur agrees (The MacArthur Study Bible, New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition [Nelson Bibles], p. 1680), “Paul means that belief in Christ as Lord and Savior ends the sinner’s futile quest for righteousness through his imperfect attempts to save himself by efforts to obey the law.”

So verses 3 & 4 are saying that either you are seeking to be right with God by establishing your own righteousness through good deeds and morality (10:3), in which case you will miss God’s salvation, because all such attempts fall short. Or, you will recognize that you need perfect righteousness to stand before God. Thus you will abandon your own attempts to establish your righteousness and trust in Christ alone to be your righteousness (10:4). His perfect righteousness is credited to your account, so that God declares you to be righteous or justified.

Conclusion

God’s way of salvation is not the way of the sweet little old lady, the way of being a good, religious person, because you can never be good enough. One sin disqualifies you from getting into heaven, no matter how much you try to counterbalance it with good works. We’re all born with the terminal “disease” of sin, which grows progressively worse as we age. Don’t be deceived into thinking that the “makeup” of good works will avert the judgment of God, who knows the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.

God’s way of salvation is to trust in Jesus Christ so that the righteousness of God is imputed to your account. As Paul put it (Rom. 3:24), “Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Have you received that gift?

Application Questions

  1. Why would God ordain that we pray for His sovereign plan to be accomplished?
  2. What are some biblical tests to determine whether zeal is godly or ungodly? To what extent is zeal a matter of personality?
  3. Why must we subject ourselves to the righteousness of God (10:3)? What does that verb imply?
  4. How would you apply this message if you were witnessing to a religious person who thought that salvation is by good works?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 64: How to be Saved (Romans 10:5-10)

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My subject is, “How to be saved.” When I was first trained in how to share my faith (over 45 years ago now!), I was instructed not to use words like “saved” or “salvation,” because to most people, they were meaningless religious jargon. Rather, I was told that I should focus on how Jesus can give us abundant life here and now. Tell people how Christ can give peace, joy, freedom from guilt, harmonious relationships, and other present blessings.

While the gospel does bring many wonderful present blessings, its main message is about being eternally saved or lost. In Romans 10, Paul uses salvation or saved in verses 1, 9, 10, and 13. The concept of salvation or being right before God permeates the entire chapter. Paul is still hammering home the same message that he has been preaching throughout the entire letter (1:16-17), that the only way to be right with God is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not by good works. You may ask, “Why does Paul keep repeating this?” The answer is, “Because we’re all so prone to try to get saved by our own good works.” We need this message hammered into our works-oriented brains!

Before we work through the text, let me emphasize the practical value of these verses: At this moment either you are saved or you are lost. There is no in between category. If you are saved, it means that if you died today, you would spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. If you are lost and died today, you would spend eternity in the torment of hell. Those are the only options.

As I’ve said many times, saved is a radical word. If life seems to be going okay, then you don’t sense that you need to be saved. If you think that you’re a basically good person and that your goodness will get you into heaven when you die, then you won’t feel a need to be saved. If you think that Jesus came to give us a few tips on how to have a happy life, then you don’t realize your true condition before God. You need to be saved because you’re perishing!

When that cruise ship was sailing smoothly through the Mediterranean Sea last week, if you had rushed into the dining room and yelled, “Get into the life boats now,” the passengers would have thought that you were crazy. They didn’t need to be saved, thank you. You would only be interrupting their dinner. But a few minutes later when the ship hit the rock and began listing as it took on water, everyone’s attention was focused on being saved from a watery grave. The truth is, your boat is going to hit the rock called “death,” and so you need to be ready for that inevitable moment. Life may be going smoothly at the moment, but if you’re not right before God, then you need to be saved.

The angel told Joseph (Matt. 1:21), “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus said (Luke 19:10), “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” He said (Luke 5:32), “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” He was not implying that some are righteous enough that they don’t need salvation. Rather, some mistakenly think that they are righteous enough to get into heaven by their own works. But the truth is, we all have sinned and deserve God’s judgment (Rom. 3:23). Thus we all need Jesus to save us from that judgment. So here again Paul says,

To be saved, you must recognize that you cannot save yourself and you must truly believe in Jesus as the risen Savior and Lord.

In Romans 10, Paul is still dealing with the question that dominates chapters 9-11, “If the Jews are God’s chosen people, why are most of them rejecting Christ?” In chapter 9, Paul pointed out that it never was God’s purpose to save all the Jews. Rather, His purpose was to save a remnant according to His gracious choice. The emphasis is clearly on God’s sovereignty in salvation.

But if God is sovereign, then are unbelievers not responsible for missing out on salvation? From 9:30 through chapter 10, Paul argues that the Gentiles attained the righteousness that comes by faith, while most of the Jews were lost because they sought to establish their own righteousness by works. They didn’t trust in Christ, who is “the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Their sinful pride kept them from salvation.

In Romans 10:5-10, Paul contrasts the righteousness based on the law (10:5) with the righteousness that comes through faith (10:6-10). To be saved by keeping the law, you must keep it perfectly. But to be saved by faith, you trust in what God has done in sending His Son to die for your sins and raising Him from the dead. Salvation is not by keeping the law, but by faith in Christ.

1. To be saved, you must recognize that you cannot save yourself by keeping God’s law (10:5).

Romans 10:5: “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness.” “For” shows that Paul is explaining 10:4. He refers to Leviticus 18:5, “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.” In that verse, “live” does not refer to eternal life, but to enjoying God’s blessings in the Promised Land (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 647-648).

But for Paul, life is equivalent to justification, or righteous standing before God. In Galatians 3:11-12, Paul also cites Leviticus 18:5 to contrast the attempt to approach God by keeping the law with the way of faith: “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’” Then in 3:21-22, he adds, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

Paul is making the same point in Romans 10:5: if you want to gain eternal life by keeping the law, you must obey it perfectly. As Paul has just stated, the Jews were trying to establish their own righteousness by works of the law (9:32; 10:3). Paul himself had tried that route. In Philippians 3:5-6, he lays out his Jewish pedigree: “Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.”

But at his conversion, Paul counted all of these credits as loss for the sake of Christ. He goes on (Phil. 3:9) to explain the contrast (the same one that he is drawing in Romans 10:5-10): [that I] “may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.”

Paul made the same point in Romans 2:12-13: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” (See, also, James 2:10.)

Even though Scripture is so abundantly clear, this is the main reason that people do not trust to Christ for salvation: they think that they can save themselves by being good or by keeping God’s law. The truth is, we’ve all repeatedly broken God’s law, both outwardly and on the heart level. We’ve all failed to love God with all of our hearts; we’ve failed to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. So, as Paul explains (Rom. 3:19-20), “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” To be saved, you first must recognize that you cannot save yourself by keeping God’s law. Rather, that law condemns you.

2. To be saved, you must recognize that Christ has done for you what you could never do for yourself (10:6-8).

Romans 10:6-8: “But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down), or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).’ But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching.”

These are difficult verses and I won’t pretend that I completely understand them, even after reading and re-reading numerous commentaries! But I’ll try to explain them as best as I can. The opening “but” shows that Paul is contrasting the righteousness based on the law (10:5) with the righteousness based on faith. He first cites from Deuteronomy 8:17 & 9:4 (“Do not say in your heart”) and then rather loosely from Deuteronomy 30:12-14, adding his own explanatory comments to link these verses to Christ. His main point is that God has always offered salvation by faith apart from human effort, even under the law.

The problem is that Deuteronomy 30:12-14 seems to say that keeping the law is within the reach of every person. But Paul cites them for an opposite meaning, that salvation has nothing to do with human effort, but rather that God has provided everything so that all we must do is to believe in Christ. How do we explain this?

First, in the Deuteronomy 8:17 & 9:4 references, Moses warns Israel that when they take possession of the land of Canaan, they must not think that they have earned it because of their own righteousness. This clues us in that God’s blessings come to us by grace, not by our efforts. Then Paul adds the reference from Deuteronomy 30:12-14, “It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”

“It” refers to the commandment of the law being near, but Paul replaces the commandment with Christ being near. Is he arbitrarily changing the meaning of that text to make it say something completely different? No! In Deuteronomy 30:6, Moses promised, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” That is essentially the same as the new covenant promises that later came through Ezekiel (36:25-27) and Jeremiah (31:31-34). These promises point to God’s forgiving our sins and imparting new life to us by His grace alone. It is only when God changes our hearts that we are then able to obey God’s commandments.

But even those who have received the new birth do not obey perfectly. So why does Paul replace the commandment (in Deut. 30) with Christ? Answer: Because, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (10:4). Jesus did what no one else could ever do: He perfectly fulfilled God’s holy law. By His death, He satisfied the penalty of the law that we deserved. So when you believe in Christ, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to your account and views you as if you perfectly fulfilled the law.

The two questions that Paul cites from Deuteronomy 30 had become proverbial expressions for doing what is impossible (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 383). Thus Paul is saying that just as an Israelite did not need to go into heaven to bring down God’s commandments, so we do not need to do the impossible by going to heaven to bring Christ down to where we live. God did that in the incarnation. Christ came to bear the curse of the law on our behalf (Gal. 3:13).

Paul changes the second question, which in Deuteronomy is, “Who will cross the sea?” into, “Who will descend into the abyss?” The sea and the abyss were somewhat interchangeable concepts in the Old Testament and in Judaism (Moo, p. 655). Paul refers to the abyss to facilitate his application to Christ’s death (Moo, p. 656). There is no need to go into the abyss to bring Christ up from the dead, because God has already done that.

So Paul’s point is that human effort is not necessary to procure God’s righteousness. God has done it all: He sent Christ. Christ died for our sins. God raised Him from the dead. All that we must do is to believe in this word that Paul was preaching. The fact that this word “is near you” (10:8) means that you don’t have to go through some difficult or impossible process (ascend into heaven; descend into the abyss) to find Christ and be saved. Rather, you can believe in Him at this moment and be saved.

Don’t get lost in the difficulties of verses 6-8 and miss the application, which is: When you die and stand before God, either you will argue that you should get into heaven because you were a good person; or, with the hymn writer, you will say, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” God in Christ did for you what you never could have done for yourself. Abandon your efforts and trust in Christ! Paul goes on to explain the content of this word of faith that he was preaching, which we must believe:

3. To be saved, you must truly believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord and Savior (10:9-10).

Romans 10:9-10: “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” In verse 9, Paul follows the order of Deuteronomy 30 (cited in verse 8), “in your mouth and in your heart.” In verse 10, he explains verse 9 (“for”) in the logical order: First we believe in the heart and then that heart belief finds outward expression in confession with our mouths and with our lives.

A. True faith is a matter of your heart relying on specific content regarding Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord and Savior.

Paul uses “faith” or “believe(s)” in 9:30, 32, 33; 10:4, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14 (2x), 16, & 17. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Saving Faith [Zondervan], p. 90) argues that in 10:9-10 Paul is giving us a definition of saving faith, showing us both its content and its character.

There are not two requirements here for salvation, namely, believing and confessing. Rather, the repeated emphasis on faith shows that faith is the only requirement. As Paul told the Philippian jailer in response to his question, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:31), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” Outward confession of Christ is the inevitable outcome or character of genuine saving faith.

True saving faith is a matter of the heart, or inner person. It is not just a matter of intellectual assent, although we must believe the facts of the gospel as God has revealed them in His Word. These facts include that we have sinned and thus stand guilty before God. He sent Jesus, His eternal Son, to take on human flesh and die as our substitute on the cross. God raised Jesus bodily from the dead, thus showing that He accepted Jesus’ death as a satisfactory offering. Since “Lord” is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to refer to God, confessing Jesus as Lord means believing that He is the Sovereign God. You must understand and believe this content of the gospel in order to be saved.

As an aside, sometimes when I talk to people about their need for salvation, it becomes evident that they don’t have a clue about who Jesus is. To press such people to make a decision to trust in Christ would be premature, in that they wouldn’t know who they were trusting in. So I encourage such people to read the Gospel of John and ask God to show them who Jesus is and why He came. Otherwise, they would be believing in a Jesus of their own imagination. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in a false, made-up “Jesus,” but such faith does not save. Saving faith is based on the truth about Jesus as revealed in God’s Word.

But saving faith is also a heart response to these facts. When you believe that the sinless Son of God bore God’s full wrath for your sins on the cross, it affects your heart. Just as you would be moved with gratitude if someone risked his life to save your life, so you are moved even more deeply to believe that Jesus died for you.

And faith includes committing your eternal destiny totally to Christ’s death on your behalf, not to any works of righteousness that you have done. Committing yourself to Christ includes repentance (turning from your sins), and submitting to Jesus as Lord of your life. If you don’t submit to and follow Christ as Lord, it shows that you really don’t believe in Him as He is revealed in the Bible. It would be like saying that you believe in a prescribed medicine, but you never take it. Thus Paul adds…

B. True faith confesses openly that Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior.

Faith is the root; confession is the fruit. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, but if our faith is genuine, it will always bear the fruit of salvation (Eph. 2:8-10). The demons believe in Jesus, but their faith is not saving faith because it does not result in repentance and good works (James 2:14-26).

One of the first ways that a new believer should confess Christ is by being baptized. In our culture, baptism isn’t usually a costly commitment, but in many cultures that are hostile to Christ, to be baptized will result at best in being disowned by your family, or at worst by being murdered by them. We should take baptism seriously! After baptism, we go on confessing Christ by living in a manner pleasing to Him, by growing in love and obedience to Him, by trusting Him through our trials, and by telling others about His wonderful salvation as we have opportunity (1 Pet. 3:15).

Of course, all of us have failed numerous times to confess Christ, both through our sins and by not speaking out for Him when we should have. Thankfully, we have the example of Peter, who failed miserably and yet who later preached Christ boldly. The issue is not perfection, but direction. If our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior is genuine, the direction of our lives will be that of confessing Him before others. The outcome of such faith and confession of Christ on earth will be hearing Jesus confess us before the Father in heaven (Matt. 10:32-33).

Conclusion

Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking that because you’re a pretty good person, you don’t need to be saved. Jesus didn’t give up the glory of heaven and suffer the agonies of the cross so that you could have your best life now. He didn’t die primarily so that you can have a happy family or succeed in business. He died to save you from your sins. He will save you if you recognize that you can’t save yourself and you truly believe in Him as your risen Lord and Savior.

Application Questions

  1. How can we help a person who senses no need for salvation to see that “his ship is going to sink”?
  2. Someone says, “I believe in a loving God who wouldn’t judge any good, sincere person.” How would you respond?
  3. Why is the belief that people are basically good and that their good deeds will save them so offensively wrong before God?
  4. Some evangelicals argue that you can believe in Jesus as your Savior and still go to heaven, even if you do not submit to Him as Lord. What verses (other than our text) refute this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 65: Good News for All (Romans 10:11-15)

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The good news: you’ve just inherited $10 million from a distant relative that you haven’t seen in decades! The bad news: no one told you about it, so your life is the same as always. Good news is only good news for you when you hear it and act on it.

The gospel is the best news in the world, but it isn’t good news at this point for approximately two billion (28%) of the world’s population, who are presently cut off from access to the gospel (Mission to Unreached Peoples, www.mup.org). Viewed another way, out of 16,789 people groups in the world, 6,954 (41.4%) are still unreached. An unreached or least-reached people is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this group. Of these almost 7,000 groups, 2,087 are over 50,000 in population. Out of every $1.00 (U.S.) of Christian giving to all causes, less than one penny goes toward pioneer church planting among least-reached people groups. I encourage you to go to the Joshua Project web site (www.joshuaproject.net) and educate yourself with the most up to date statistics on where we’re at in the cause of world missions.

In our text, Paul makes a simple point that in some way will change the direction of your life when it grips you:

Since the gospel is good news for all, we must proclaim it to all.

Paul was trying to set the stage for his journey through Rome, where he could gain the support of the church there for his mission to the Gentiles in Spain (Rom. 15:24). To do that, he had to deal with two criticisms: First, that his message clashed with the Old Testament; second, that his ministry to the Gentiles erased what the Jews saw as a fundamental distinction between the two groups. So here Paul cites the Old Testament repeatedly (10:11, 13, 15; plus, 16, 18, 19, 20, 21) to show that his message came right out of the Jewish Scriptures. And he shows that the same Lord is Lord of all people and has given one message for all to be saved. In 10:11-13 Paul makes the point that the gospel is good news for all. In 10:14-15, he shows that we must proclaim it to all.

1. The gospel is good news for all (10:11-13).

Romans 10:11-13: “For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

In 10:11, Paul cites from Isaiah 28:16. In 9:33, he cited the same verse more fully, but here he only cites the last part of the verse, changing “he” into “whoever,” thus broadening the application. Then in 10:12, he explains why his broader application is valid, namely, because the same Lord is Lord of all people, Jew and Gentile alike (see 3:29-30). Then (10:13), to show that he isn’t making this up, but that it comes right out of the Jewish Scriptures, Paul cites Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” His point is that the gospel is good news for all people, Jew and Gentile alike, if they will respond to it.

A. All people have one primary need: to be saved before they die and face judgment.

“Whoever” occurs in verses 11 & 13 and “no distinction” in verse 12. In 3:22-23 Paul wrote, “for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s the bad news. But here his focus is on the good news, that there is no distinction when it comes to receiving the abundant riches that God pours out on all who call on Him. But before people will call out to God to save them, they must realize that they’re in deep trouble and need to be saved. All people are guilty before God and headed for death and judgment. Thus all people need to be saved.

It’s important to keep this in mind when you talk to educated people about Christ. It’s easy to be intimidated by their great learning. They will argue that evolution is true or that the Bible is full of contradictions or that a loving God could not allow all the suffering in the world. But these things are just smokescreens to keep you from getting too close to their real need: They are sinners who stand condemned before a holy God. They have past and current sins that have alienated them from God and have created problems in their lives. Their number one need is to be saved before they die and face judgment.

On one occasion, the great Welsh medical doctor turned preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preached to a congregation at an Anglican Church in Oxford made up largely of students. He preached to them as he would have preached anywhere else. After the service, it was announced that Dr. Lloyd-Jones would be available to answer questions in another room. He got there, expecting just a few people, but the room was packed.

The first question came from a bright young student, who got up and spoke with all the grace and polish of a university debater. After paying a few compliments to the preacher, he said that he had one great difficulty as a result of the sermon. He really could not see but that that sermon might not equally well have been delivered to a congregation of farm laborers or anyone else. As he sat down, the room erupted with laughter.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones replied that he was most interested in the question, but really could not see the questioner’s difficulty because he regarded both undergraduates and graduates of Oxford University as being just ordinary common human clay and miserable sinners like everybody else. Thus their needs were precisely the same as those of the farm laborer or anyone else. And so he had preached as he had quite deliberately. This also provoked a lot of laughter and even cheering. They got his point and they gave him a most attentive hearing from there on (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Iain Murray [Banner of Truth], 2:76-77).

Since every person is a sinner, his or her main need is to be reconciled to God before he dies. It’s also important to keep this in mind when you’re talking with a good person. You may be tempted to think, “He doesn’t need to be saved. Look at what a nice person he is. Look at how kind and loving he is. He puts most Christians I know to shame!” And, of course, the good person agrees with you, even though he might never say so. He compares himself with others and thinks, “Surely it will go well with me when I stand before God. I’m not like other people!” (See Luke 18:11-12.) But he’s blind to his pride and self-righteousness. The good person is usually the most difficult type to reach with the gospel, because he doesn’t see his need for it. Show him God’s holy law, which is designed to expose his sin (Rom. 3:19-20). Because all people are sinners, they all have the same need to be saved before they die and face judgment.

B. All people need one message: the good news that whoever believes in Jesus will not be put to shame.

“Not be disappointed” (10:11) is literally, “not be put to shame.” This does not refer to psychological shame, but rather to not being put to shame with a guilty verdict at the judgment (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 561). It means that at the judgment God will vindicate the one who believes in Jesus.

Let’s face it, we all have more than a closet full of secret reasons to be put to shame at the judgment. Have you ever thought about what it would be like if your every thought was automatically broadcast out loud without your being able to control it? Even if you had the thought in private, it automatically went on your Facebook page, which was open for everyone to see. We’d all die of embarrassment! But, of course, the God before whom all things are open and laid bare (Heb. 4:13) knows our every thought!

But the good news is that on the cross, Jesus bore all of our guilt and shame so that the one who believes in Him will not be put to shame at the final judgment. Paul explains (10:12) that this good news applies equally to the religious Jew and to the pagan Gentile, because the same Lord is Lord of all. Some think that Lord refers to God the Father, and it may, but since Paul has just said that Jesus is Lord (10:9) and since the context of 10:11-17 is all about believing in Jesus, it is more likely that Lord in both 10:12 & 13 refers to Jesus. He is the Lord of all. The Lord Jesus abounds in riches for all who call on Him. If anyone calls on the name of Jesus, he will be saved.

Paul loves to talk about the spiritual riches that God delights to pour out on sinners who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Note some of the references (see, also, Rom. 11:33; 1 Cor. 1:5; 2 Cor. 6:10; 9:11; Phil. 4:19; Col. 1:27):

Romans 2:4: “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads to repentance?”

Romans 9:23: “And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.”

2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”

Ephesians 1:7: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace.”

Ephesians 2:7: “So that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 3:8: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.”

Ephesians 3:16: “That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man.”

The point in our text is that no matter how sinful your past, if you will believe in the Lord Jesus and call upon Him to save you, He will do it out of the abundant riches of His grace. This good news applies to every person from every race and from every walk of life: Call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved.

Thus all people have one primary need: to be saved before they die and face judgment. All people need one message: the good news that whoever believes in Jesus will not be put to shame.

C. All people need to hear that there is one way to be saved: to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul expresses the way to be saved in two synonymous phrases: to believe in Him (10:11); and, to call upon Him, or to call upon His name (10:12, 13). In 10:14, he distinguishes them, as I will explain in a moment. But in 10:11-13, he uses them to mean the same thing.

To believe in Christ means to rely on or trust in Him as the One who died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin. He died as the propitiation (the atoning sacrifice which satisfied God’s wrath) for all who believe in Him, so that God can now be both just, because the penalty was paid, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Him (3:25-26). To believe in Christ implicitly means that you stop believing in yourself and your own good works as your hope for eternal life.

In 10:13 Paul cites Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Peter quotes the same verse in his sermon in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:21). To call upon the Lord (His “name” means, who He is in all His attributes) implies that the one calling is in trouble or great need. This is reinforced by the word saved, which means that the person needs to be rescued from the great and glorious day of the Lord.

Both terms imply that the one calling out has nothing in himself to offer God. He isn’t doing basically okay, and just needs a few pointers on how to get ready for judgment. He can’t help God out. If he thinks that he can offer God anything, then he doesn’t understand his situation. He is guilty of rebellion against the holy God. If his case comes to trial, he will be condemned. So he cries out (Luke 18:13), “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”

So Paul’s main point here is that the gospel is good news for all. Any guilty sinner, no matter how sordid his past, who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. John Bunyan has a wonderful treatise, “The Jerusalem Sinner Saved,” based on Jesus’ words to the apostles just before His ascension (Luke 24:47), “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations,” and then He added, “beginning from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem was the city where sinners crucified the Savior. But our sin also crucified Him. There is forgiveness for all Jerusalem sinners. Proclaim it to the nations!

2. Since the good news is for all, we must proclaim it to all (10:14-15)

Romans 10:14-15: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’”

I can only skim over these verses, but before we look at them, let me briefly address a criticism often raised by those who deny the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. They argue that the doctrine of election undermines evangelism and missions because if God has chosen someone, he will be saved. If he isn’t elect, our efforts are in vain. So, why witness?

But Paul, who wrote so strongly about God’s choice of Jacob and rejection of Esau while they were still in the womb (9:11-13), also wrote these wonderful verses about the need to preach the gospel to all people. He wasn’t contradicting himself. God chooses who will be saved and He chooses the means through which they will be saved, namely, preaching the gospel to them (2 Tim. 2:10).

Paul strings together a logical list of rhetorical questions to explain the process of how the gospel goes forth, and then backs it up with Scripture. To work from the foundation outward, the process begins with sending out preachers; they preach; people hear, believe, and call on the Lord.

A. Sending: We should ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest.

Romans 10:15a: “How will they preach unless they are sent?” God saved Paul and appointed him as a minister and a witness, sending him to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21; 26:16-17). The church acts as a secondary sender, affirming God’s call to those He sends (Acts 13:1-3). To take the gospel to every people, as Jesus commanded in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 24:49), those who are sent out need to cross cultural and linguistic barriers to communicate the gospel to those who have not heard. Jesus instructed us (Matt. 9:38), “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

So we who have experienced God’s gracious salvation should pray for workers to be sent out. We should support such workers financially, emotionally, and in prayer when they go out to difficult places. And, some of us may be called to go ourselves.

B. Preaching: The sent ones proclaim the authoritative message of the King regarding His Son.

Preach and preacher come from the Greek word meaning herald. The herald was sent out under the authority of the king to proclaim faithfully the king’s message. He didn’t make up his own message that would be more palatable to the hearers. He might get killed by an angry mob who didn’t like the king’s message, but he still had to tell them the truth. Those sent out with the gospel cannot tweak it to fit what people may want to hear. They have to tell them that they have sinned against the holy God and rightfully are under His judgment so that they will see their need for the Savior. They have to confront people’s universal belief that they are good enough to merit salvation so that they will abandon their good works and call on the Lord to save them.

C. Hearing: Those who hear the preacher must understand what they hear.

This implies that those sent must be able to communicate in the language and culture of the hearers, but also that they not compromise the message in an attempt not to offend. The cross is inherently offensive, because it confronts our sin. This also means that as the sent ones proclaim the gospel, the Holy Spirit must open the deaf ears of the hearers, who cannot understand spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:14; Acts 16:14; Isa. 6:9-10). Thus the proclamation of the gospel must always be undergirded with prayer.

D. Believing and calling on the Lord: The message must be believed to be effective.

As I said, in 10:11-13, Paul uses believing in Christ and calling upon His name somewhat interchangeably. But in 10:14, he separates them to bring out two aspects of saving faith. People must believe in the sense of giving assent to the truth of the gospel or they will not call on Him for salvation. If you do not believe that Jesus is who He claimed to be and that God raised Him from the dead, you won’t cry out to Him to save you. And so a person must believe intellectually that Jesus is the risen Savior, but also he must call out to Him to save him from his sins. Intellectual belief alone without commitment is not saving faith. Finally,

E. The message believed: “Good news of good things.”

Paul again (10:15b) cites Scripture (Isa. 52:7), “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things.” You don’t normally look at a person’s feet, especially dirty, callused, bleeding feet, and say, “Wow, what a beautiful person!” But this person has dirtied and bloodied his feet to bring good news of good things: God will freely forgive all your sins through Jesus Christ if you will believe in Him and call out to Him to save you!

If we preach, “If you will clean up your life and try hard to obey God and not sin, you might earn a spot in heaven, although you can never be sure,” we’re not preaching good news. Any message of doing good works to earn salvation is not good news, because it depends on sinful people and sinful people inevitably fail and fall short. The good news is, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That’s the wonderful news that we proclaim.

Conclusion

As long as there are billions of people that have never heard that news, we must commit ourselves to getting the good news to them. There is an African proverb, “There is only one crime worse than murder on the desert, and that is to know where the water is and not tell.” We know where the water is! We’ve got the greatest news in the world: God forgives every sinner who trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior! We’ve got to tell everyone.

Here are a few practical steps. First, begin locally. Begin praying for the salvation of those you have regular contact with. Pray for opportunities to talk to them about the Savior. Reach out to the international students in our city. Second, educate yourself about world missions. Read about missions. Join one of our A-teams. Pray for our missionaries. Give to the cause of missions, especially to those trying to take the gospel to those who have yet to hear. Finally, God may call some of you to go to those who have never heard. With Isaiah (6:8) respond, “Here I am. Send me!”

Application Questions

  1. A person asks, “What about the billions who have never heard about Jesus? Will God judge them? Is this fair?” Your reply?
  2. Someone says, “I believe that there are many ways to God. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all will get to heaven if they are sincere, good people.” Your reply?
  3. How could this message change your prayer life? How could it change how you spend your time and money? Your goals?
  4. How can a person know whether God is calling him/her to devote his/her life to the cause of world missions?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Missions, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 66: Why Some are Lost and Some are Saved (Romans 10:16-21)

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Perhaps you’ve seen the TV commercial where some people from the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes knock on someone’s door to tell him that he has just won $5 million. The winner is delirious with joy, leaping in the air, crying, laughing, and hardly believing that this could be true.

But imagine that when the folks from Publisher’s Clearinghouse tell the guy that he’s won $5 million, he pulls out a gun and says, “Get off my property or I’ll blow your brains out!” “What? But, sir, you don’t understand. We’re giving you good news! You’ve just won a fortune!” But he belligerently snarls, “I said, ‘Get off my property now!’”

That’s the contrast between Romans 10:15 & 16. In verse 15 we read (citing Isa. 52:7), “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” The good news is the message of salvation. Even though you’ve sinned against the holy God and deserve His judgment, He offers a complete pardon to anyone who will receive it. As verse 13 says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But in verse 16 we read, “However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says [citing Isa. 53:1], ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’”

It’s staggering! God sends messengers with the best news in the world, that God is ready to pardon any sinner who will receive His offer of grace and kindness. Not only that, but God paid a great price to provide this pardon. As Isaiah 53 goes on to reveal, He sent His Messiah, the suffering servant, who would be “pierced through for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (53:5, 6). But a suffering servant didn’t fit with Israel’s idea of a Messiah. They wanted a conquering king to defeat all their enemies and provide a comfy life for them. They didn’t like all this talk about them being sinners who needed a Savior to die in their place. So they slammed the door on the best news in the world.

In Romans 10, Paul is still dealing with the subject that caused him great sorrow and unceasing grief (9:2), namely, why are most of the Jews rejecting Jesus as their Savior? He is expounding on what he wrote in 9:30-33, where he explains that the Jews were rejecting Christ because they were pursuing righteousness by works. But the Gentiles, who had not even been pursuing God, were being saved because they welcomed Christ by faith.

He builds his case from the Old Testament, citing Scripture in 10:16, 18, 19, 20, and 21. He wants to show that the Jews’ rejection of Christ, as well as the Gentiles’ reception of Him, should not be surprising, since it was predicted centuries before in the Scriptures. He’s explaining why some people are lost and some are saved:

Because of disobedient, hard hearts, many do not believe the gospel and are lost; because of God’s sovereign grace, others believe the gospel and are saved.

When the good news is preached, some hear it, believe it, and call upon the Lord to save them (10:14). But sadly, others stumble over the stumbling stone (9:32), reject Jesus Christ, and head toward eternal judgment.

What makes the difference? I’m going to state what the Bible plainly teaches, although I cannot explain how both statements are true: If someone is saved, it is totally due to God choosing him before the foundation of the world, effectually calling him to Christ, and saving him by His grace alone (Rom. 8:30; 9:11-23). If someone is lost, he is totally responsible for his disobedient, hard heart that rejects God’s grace (10:21; Prov. 1:24). In other words, if you believe in Christ, it is only because God had mercy on you. If He had not intervened, you would still be in your sins, headed for eternal judgment. But if you do not believe in Christ and reject His gracious offer of salvation, you are completely to blame. You cannot blame God for not choosing you. Your sinful unbelief is totally your own fault.

C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 4:337): “That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment.” He goes on to say that these two truths will be welded into one in eternity, when we see that both flow from God’s throne.

1. Because of disobedient, hard hearts, many do not believe the gospel and are lost.

Paul jumps back and forth in these verses between unbelief (10:16), belief (10:17), unbelief (10:18, 19), belief (10:20), and unbelief (10:21). First we’ll look at the verses dealing with unbelief and then we’ll look at those that describe faith in Christ.

A. Not obeying the gospel is the same as not believing the gospel (10:16).

Romans 10:16: “However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’” They refers to the Jews, as verses 19 & 21 specify. By extension, it applies also to unbelieving Gentiles, but Paul’s focus here is on the question of why most of the Jews were rejecting Christ. When Paul says that “not all” heeded the good news, he is using understatement to mean, “most” did not obey the gospel.

Heed means to submit to or obey (Paul used this word in Rom. 6:12, 16, & 17). Since Paul goes on to cite Isaiah 53:1, “Lord, who has believed our report?” why doesn’t he say, “However, they did not all believe the good news”? Why does he say, “They did not all heed [obey] the good news”? Is he teaching salvation by works?

Of course not! He has just indicted the Jews because they pursued righteousness by works and not by faith (9:32). Rather, Paul understood and taught the same thing that James taught (James 2:14-26), that genuine faith by its very nature always results in good works. If someone claims to have faith, but lives in disobedience to God, his claim is false. Genuine saving faith is the root that necessarily bears the fruit of godliness. Many will claim, “Lord, Lord,” but they do not obey Jesus as Lord. He will condemn these hypocrites on judgment day (Matt. 7:21-23). Thus Paul begins and ends Romans (1:5; 16:26) talking about “the obedience of faith.” Or, as 1 John 2:3 explains, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.”

Also, it’s important to realize that the gospel does not come to us as a nice suggestion that you may want to consider. It comes to us as a command from God Himself. Mark 1:15 summarizes Jesus’ message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent and believe are commands. Or, as Paul told the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17:30-31), “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”

So if you have not repented of your sins, believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior, and submitted to Him as your Lord, you are in disobedience to the God who is the Judge of the living and the dead. If you were to die in this state of rebellion against God, you would face His eternal judgment.

B. Many hear the gospel but do not respond with faith and obedience (10:18).

Skipping 10:17 for a moment, where Paul twice mentions “hearing,” he goes on to respond to a hypothetical objection (that stems from 10:14 & 17) that perhaps Israel has not heard. Romans 10:18 says, “But I say, surely they have never heard, have they? Indeed they have; ‘Their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” Paul cites Psalm 19:4 to show that the Jews have heard the good news.

But this raises two problems. Psalm 19:1-6 extols God’s glory through creation (natural revelation), whereas 19:7-11 goes on to extol God’s Word (special revelation). The first problem is: How does a verse about God’s revelation through creation demonstrate that Israel has heard the gospel, since creation doesn’t proclaim the gospel? Is Paul using that text out of context to prove what it does not say? Most commentators explain this by saying that Paul is using an analogy. Just as God’s natural revelation proclaims His glory to all the earth, so now the gospel has been proclaimed over all the earth, especially with reference to the Jews (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 665-666).

I agree, but I would go a bit further and suggest that Paul may have used this verse on natural revelation to say that if people ignore God’s general revelation of His glory through His creation, then they will be prone to ignore His special revelation through the preaching of the gospel. (We saw this in Romans 1:18-23.)

To apply this to our times, if people deny God by believing the myth of evolution, they are not going to be inclined to submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Evolution is the most preposterous myth ever foisted on the human race. Otherwise intelligent people latch onto it because it gives them a supposed escape from the uncomfortable truth that hits you between the eyes in the first verse of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” If that verse is true—and the Bible doesn’t put it out there as a theory to be debated or discussed—then God is God and you are not God! It means that you had better get reconciled to this Almighty Creator before you meet Him in judgment!

But, if Paul is using Psalm 19 as an analogy, to say that just as the creation universally proclaims God’s glory, so the gospel has now been universally proclaimed, then there is a second problem: How does this text establish that all the Jews have heard the gospel? Surely there were many Jews who had not yet heard about Christ. Even Paul knew that not everyone had heard, or he wouldn’t be trying to go to Spain to proclaim the gospel there (Rom. 15:24, 28).

Probably Paul was speaking generally and with some hyperbole. In other words, the gospel has been proclaimed sufficiently among even the Gentile world to such an extent that almost all of the Jews have heard the message. (Paul uses the same kind of generalization and hyperbole in Colossians 1:6, 23.) It would be the same as if I said that everyone who speaks English has heard the gospel. Conceivably, there may be some English speakers who have not heard, but it would be their own fault. The gospel has been so widely proclaimed in English through so many different media for such a long time that any English speakers who have not heard must be deliberately avoiding it.

So Paul is saying that the problem with the Jews’ widespread rejection of the gospel was not that they had not heard the message. The problem was that they had rejected the message because they loved their own sin. Like the Gentiles, they suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (1:18). Their pride caused them to try to establish their own righteousness, rather than to subject themselves to God’s righteousness (10:3).

When you share the gospel, you often will hear the objection, “But what about people who have never heard? Will God judge the person who lived 500 years ago in Afghanistan, who lived and died without hearing about Jesus?” The way to respond is to ask, “If I can resolve that difficulty, are you saying that you would repent of your sins and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord?” Almost certainly the person will answer, “Well, there are a lot of other questions, too!” In other words, this is just a smokescreen so that he can dodge the issue of his own sin before the holy God. You can press him by saying, “Well, you have heard the gospel and God will hold you accountable for the light that you have received.” And that applies to you! You have heard the gospel. Have you responded with obedient faith?

C. Many know God’s way of salvation, but they still reject the gospel (10:19).

Paul raises and responds to another hypothetical objection by citing Deuteronomy 32:21 (10:19), followed by Isaiah 65:1-2 (10:20-21). He is providing witnesses from the Law and the prophets to build his case that the Jews were responsible for their sin and unbelief. Romans 10:19: “But I say, surely Israel did not know, did they? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, by a nation without understanding will i anger you.’”

In the context, Moses predicted Israel’s apostasy through idolatry. The full verse reads (Deut. 32:21), “They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” Paul is applying this to the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles, which he will expand on in 11:11-14. Just as Israel provoked God to jealousy and anger by their idolatry, so God will provoke Israel to repentance and faith when they jealously see those whom they would despise as being a “no-nation” or “a foolish nation” coming to know God. This means that in His grace, God is not through with Israel, in spite of her unbelief and sin (Romans 11 develops this theme).

What is it that Israel did not know? In verses 19 & 20 it is that the gospel would go to the despised Gentiles. In verse 21, it is that most of the Jews would reject the gospel in spite of God’s kindness and patience. Going back to verses 11 & 13, it is the gospel itself. All of these verses are quotes from the Old Testament, which shows that Israel should have known all of these things through reading their own Scripture. Paul wasn’t making them up.

But why did Israel not see these things? Why were they blind to the plain teaching of the Scriptures? Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Saving Faith [Zondervan], pp. 372-374) observes that the quotes Paul picked hit the Jews with three of their national sins that blocked them from the gospel. First, they were proud nationally: “We alone are God’s chosen people!” So God provokes them by those who are not a nation. Second, they were proud of their knowledge of the Scriptures (John 5:39): “We alone have God’s law!” So God provokes them to anger by those who are a nation without understanding. Third, the Jews were relying on their works to gain righteousness (9:31-32; 10:3). So God confounds them by saving those who didn’t even seek Him (10:20).

We can apply this by asking ourselves, “What national or cultural tendencies may be blocking us or those we share the gospel with from repentance and faith?” We Americans are self-reliant people, but to be saved we must cease believing in ourselves and cast ourselves upon God’s mercy. We’re a materialistic people, but to be saved, we must give up our pursuit of the American dream, and seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. We’re a hard-working people who demand equitable pay for proper work. But to be justified by faith, we must stop working and believe in Him who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

D. Those who reject the gospel reject God’s patient love and are accountable for their disobedient, hard hearts (10:21).

Romans 10:21: “But as for Israel He says, ‘All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.’” This verse deserves an entire sermon, but I can only comment briefly. It pictures God as the rejected lover. He continually reaches out towards sinners whom He loves, but they reject Him with disobedient, hardened hearts. Unbelief is seldom, if ever, an intellectual problem. Rather, unbelief almost always stems from a disobedient, hardened heart that loves sin more than it loves God.

Thus, those who reject the gospel cannot blame God for not choosing them. They are fully responsible for their own damnation. But I must briefly touch on the other side:

2. Because of God’s sovereign grace, others believe the gospel and are saved.

A. Those who believe were not seeking God or asking for Him, but He graciously revealed Himself to them (10:20).

Romans 10:20: “And Isaiah is very bold and says, ‘I was found by those who did not seek Me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me.’” Most commentators think that in its context, Isaiah 65:1 refers to God’s allowing Himself to be found by Jews who were not seeking Him, but by way of analogy, Paul here applies it to the Gentiles. This ties back into Romans 9:30, “That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith.”

By Isaiah’s boldness, Paul is referring to the astonishing nature of God’s grace. He pursues and saves those who were not seeking after Him, but were content in their pagan ways! This shows that salvation is not due to a good streak in sinners, but totally to God’s sovereign grace. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ today, it is not because it was originally your idea to seek Him and find Him. Rather, He intervened in your life to reveal Himself to you. His Spirit convicted you of sin and showed your need for the Savior. He moved in your heart to respond in faith to the gospel.

B. Those who believe heard the gospel and responded with faith because God graciously opened their ears to hear (10:17).

Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Some manuscripts read “God” instead of “Christ,” but “Christ” is the better attested reading. This verse seems out of context here, but it is probably a brief summary of verses 14-16 before Paul moves on to focus on the Jews’ unbelief.

“Hearing” is the same Greek word translated “report” in 10:15, and could refer to the message heard. Or, it can refer to the act of hearing. It doesn’t make much difference. Paul’s point is that people can’t believe something that they have never heard (10:14). The message that they must hear is the word of Christ, which is the gospel. So faith comes from hearing the gospel preached.

But, as we all know, not all who hear the gospel preached respond in faith. The quote from Isaiah (Rom. 10:16), plus the ministries of all the prophets, of Paul, and even of the Lord Jesus Himself, show that many hear the good news but reject it.

So what makes the difference? Why do some hear and believe, while others hear and reject the message and sometimes attack the messenger? In John 8:43 Jesus asked His hostile Jewish listeners, “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word.” They heard the sound of Jesus’ words, but they were incapable of hearing in the sense of understanding and obeying Jesus’ words, because as He went on to say, they were of their father, the devil.

Jesus explained (John 5:25), “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Or, as Acts 16:14 explains, as Paul spoke the gospel to the Jewish women who gathered by the river in Philippi, “the Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” That’s the difference. Jesus speaks the life-giving word and the spiritually dead come to life. Paul speaks the gospel and the Lord opens hearts to respond. If people are saved, it is because of God’s sovereign grace. If they are lost, it is because of the hardness of their disobedient hearts.

Conclusion

So what is your response to the greatest news in the world? That news is not that you have just won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes! It is that God has sent the Savior to die for your sins. If you will believe in Him, He gives you eternal life as a free gift. If you receive that good news, you will praise God who opened your heart to the truth. If you reject the news, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Application Questions

  1. How do we find the balance between presenting the gospel in a winsome way and yet not dulling the offense of the cross?
  2. Some say that if you preach the necessity of repentance and obedience to Christ as Lord, you are adding works to faith. Your response? What Scriptures would you use?
  3. I mentioned several national sins that may keep us from welcoming the good news. Can you think of any others?
  4. What Scriptures teach (in the same context) that God is sovereign and yet at the same time, people are responsible?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 67: Can God’s Promises Fail? (Romans 11:1-6)

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At first glance, a chapter like Romans 11 that deals with the subject of whether God still has a purpose for the Jews might seem irrelevant to your life. What does the future of Israel have to do with finding a marriage partner or staying happy with the one you’ve got? What does Israel’s future have to do with the pressures of work and paying bills? How can it help you as you struggle to rear your children in this evil world? What relevance does this topic have as you struggle with personal problems or health problems? Maybe you ought to check out for a few weeks and check back in when we get to the practical stuff in Romans 12!

Let me suggest several reasons that this subject should be of interest to you. First, the underlying issue that Paul is dealing with in Romans 11 is, “Can God’s promises fail?” God chose the nation of Israel as His people apart from all other nations on earth (Deut. 7:6). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God assured the sinful nation that was about to go into captivity that His promises to Israel could never fail (Jer. 31:35-36; 33:19-26). To dispel the thought that Israel’s sin could lead to their permanent rejection, God added (Jer. 31:37), “Thus says the Lord, ‘If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,’ declares the Lord.”

In other words, if God rejects Israel as His people, then His promises can fail. And if His promises to Israel fail, then how can we know that His promises to us in Romans 8 will not fail? And since those promises include working all of our trials together for good (8:28) and His promise that no trial can ever cut us off from His love (8:35-39), the question of why God has seemingly rejected Israel becomes very practical! It boils down to, “Can you trust God to do as He promises?”

Second, on a broader scale, if you pay any attention to the news, you’ve no doubt felt at times that the world is out of control and that the bad guys are winning. You see the horrors of terrorism, war, and natural disasters that wipe out thousands. You hear about terrible crimes toward little children. You read about corruption in government both here and abroad. You hear about Christians getting killed by the Muslims. The list goes on and on. Sometimes it can be depressing to the point that you wonder whether God is really in charge of world events. Romans 11 shows us that He is in charge and that His promises and His purpose will not fail.

This chapter also shows us how we should view the Jewish people. Some Christians are so pro-Israel that they wrongly shrug off Israel’s persecution of Palestinian believers, who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. On the other hand, sadly there are professing Christians who are anti-Semitic. During the atrocities of the Holocaust, many of Germany’s professing Christians tacitly went along with Hitler’s evil agenda. But Romans 11 shows that as Christians, we should love Jewish people and seek to bring them to know Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. My understanding of Romans 11 is that in the future, the Jewish people will turn to Christ in unprecedented numbers. God is not finished with the Jews.

One other practical value of Romans 11 is that it helps us to look beyond ourselves to God’s great purpose for history, which should lead us to worship Him for His glorious ways. Paul ends the chapter with an outburst of praise as he is caught up with the truths that he writes about here. Sometimes we get so self-focused that we forget that our eyes should be on God and His glory. His plan includes us, but it’s not ultimately about us. It’s about His glory being displayed over the whole earth (Hab. 2:14; Isa. 11:9). Our lives take on eternal significance as we devote ourselves to this eternal purpose of God.

Before we look at our text, I want to give a brief review to show how chapter 11 fits into the context of Romans and a brief overview of the whole chapter. After setting forth the gospel of God’s grace and how it applies to our daily walk (Rom. 1-8), Paul expressed his heartfelt sorrow over the fact that the majority of the Jews were rejecting Christ (9:1-5). He went on in Romans 9 to show that God’s promises to the Jews had not failed because He never promised to save the entire nation. Rather, He sovereignly determined to save a remnant (9:6-13). Paul’s emphasis throughout Romans 9 is on God’s sovereignty. He has mercy on whom He desires and He hardens whom He desires (9:18). God’s purpose is to make known the riches of His glory on vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory (9:23). This purpose included extending His mercy to the Gentiles.

But then, what about the Jews? Was God somehow unjust in His dealings with them? Of course not! Paul goes on (9:30-10:21) to show that the Jews were responsible for their own rejection of God’s mercy in Christ. They are without any excuse. So in chapter 9 Paul makes the point that if anyone is saved, it is solely because of God’s sovereign mercy in choosing him for salvation. In Romans 10, he makes the point that if anyone is lost, it is because of his own stubborn hardness of heart. He can’t blame God for not choosing him.

But now, in chapter 11, Paul takes up God’s plan for the Jews as it pertains to the future. Is God done with the Jews because of their terrible sin of crucifying their Messiah? Paul answers strongly (11:1): “May it never be!” In 11:1-10, Paul shows that God’s rejection of Israel is partial, not total. God has always preserved a remnant of Jewish believers. God’s sovereign purpose is never thwarted by human sin. Then (11:11-32) Paul shows that God’s rejection of Israel is temporary, not permanent. He has temporarily hardened the Jews in judgment until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. Then God will open the hearts of the Jews so that “all Israel will be saved” (11:26). Romans 11:30-32 sums up 11:1-29:

For just as you [Gentiles] once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their [the Jews] disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.

Then Paul ends the chapter (11:33-36) with a glorious outburst of praise to God for the wonders of His unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways. With that as a review and overview, let’s focus on 11:1-6, where Paul makes the point:

That God’s promises might fail is unthinkable, because they rest on His sovereign, gracious choice, not on anything in fallen humanity.

God has not rejected His chosen people, but has preserved a remnant according to His gracious choice. Since the choice of the remnant and its preservation depend on God’s grace and not on human works or choice, God’s promises cannot fail.

1. For God to reject the people whom He has foreknown would be unthinkable (11:1-4).

Paul begins with a rhetorical question (11:1a), “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?” He immediately retorts, “May it never be!” He then illustrates this by mentioning himself. He is a Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus. Then he adds (11:2a), “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” He follows this with the illustration from Elijah’s life, where the prophet erroneously thought that he was the only faithful man left in Israel. But God informed him that He still had 7,000 men in Israel who had not bowed their knee to Baal. Paul is arguing that the thought that God’s promises might fail because a majority of the Jews were rejecting Christ is simply unthinkable. God’s promises rest on His sovereign, gracious choice, not on anything in rebellious sinners. If God’s promises could fail, then God would cease to be God, because His faithfulness to His Word is an essential part of His being.

A. The fact that God has not rejected His people is illustrated in the present by Paul himself, a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ (11:1b).

Romans 11:1b: “For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” Some scholars read various meanings into why Paul added that he was a descendant of Abraham and of the tribe of Benjamin. But I think that all he was doing was establishing that he was a physical Jew (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 409). In other words, he is not talking about being a spiritual Israelite by faith in Christ (Rom. 9:6; Gal. 3:7), but rather about being a Jew by natural birth. Through the entire chapter, Paul focuses on Israel as a nation. So in verse 1 Paul is saying, “If you argue that God has rejected the Jews, then how do you explain my conversion? I’m as Jewish as you can be, and yet God saved me.”

Humanly speaking Paul’s conversion was the most unlikely event imaginable. The believers in Jerusalem were at first wary of his conversion (Acts 9:26), thinking that it might be just a ploy to get inside the church, where he could persecute even more Christians. Their reaction was only natural, since Paul described himself prior to his conversion as “being furiously enraged at” believers (Acts 26:11), “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1 Tim. 1:13). Yet he was shown mercy. Paul’s conversion stands as one of the greatest proofs both of the power of the gospel to save sinners and of the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, who appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road. His conversion should encourage us to pray and work for the salvation of those who are the most strongly opposed to the gospel.

B. The fact that God has not rejected His people is based on the truth that in eternity He foreknew them (11:2a).

Romans 11:2a: “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” There are a couple of matters to clear up in this statement. First, foreknew does not mean that God knew in advance that Israel would choose Him, so He decided to make them His chosen people. Some try to explain foreknowing that way to dodge the doctrine of election (in Rom. 8:29; 1 Pet. 1:1-2; refer to my messages on those texts for more explanation).

But that is not the meaning of the Greek word. If it only refers to knowing something in advance, then God foreknows all people, not just Israel. He knows everything before it happens. Greek scholars are virtually unanimous in saying that the word means that God chose in advance to set His love on Israel. He determined to enter into a special relationship with Israel. In Amos 3:2 God states with regard to Israel, “You only have I chosen [lit., known] among all the families of the earth.” So Paul’s point is that because God predetermined to know Israel as His special people, it is impossible that He would now reject them.

The other matter to clear up is that when Paul says (11:2a), “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew,” he is not talking about the elect remnant of true believers within the larger nation of Israel (9:6; 11:5; Charles Hodge argues for this). That would be stating the obvious: “God didn’t reject those whom He chose to believe in Him.” Paul’s purpose in the entire chapter is to argue that God is not finished with the nation in spite of her unbelief and sin. And in the immediate context, Paul is arguing that the presence of an elect remnant (Paul and the 7,000 in Elijah’s time) indicates that God has not rejected the nation as a whole from His covenant purposes, in spite of their unbelief.

So when Paul mentions “God’s people whom He foreknew,” he is referring to God’s choosing the entire nation of Israel corporately as His people, not that He chose them all for salvation. “His people” in verse 1 and “His people” in verse 2 both refer to the entire nation. Leon Morris explains (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 399), “Paul appears to have in mind that God chose Israel to be his people, the people in whom his purpose would be worked out in a special way.”

So in our text, Paul is emphasizing God’s sovereignty as the foundation of His faithfulness to His promises. If He is not sovereign, then He may not be able to keep His promises. Human sin might thwart His purpose. But if God is sovereign, then it would be unthinkable for Him to choose a nation as His people and then to turn around and reject them totally.

Thus the fact that God has not rejected His people is illustrated in the present by Paul himself, a Jewish believer in Christ. It also is based on the truth that in eternity God foreknew Israel.

C. The fact that God has not rejected His people is illustrated in the past by the story of Elijah, where God kept for Himself a remnant of faithful men (11:2b-4).

Romans 11:2b-4: “Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? Lord, they have killed Your prophets, they have torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.’ But what is the divine response to him? ‘I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’”

Paul uses this familiar story to argue that the presence of an elect remnant shows that God has not cast off Israel as a whole. Even though the majority of Israel in Elijah’s day had fallen into idolatry, so much so that the prophet thought that he was the only faithful one left, God had preserved a faithful remnant. This demonstrated that God was not through with His people in spite of their sin. Paul applies this principle to his present situation (11:5). Even though most Jews were unbelieving, the existence of a faithful remnant of believing Jews shows that God has not cast off national Israel from His covenant promises. Note two things:

First, the emphasis in the Elijah story is on God’s action as the decisive reason that a remnant was preserved: “I have kept for Myself….” Paul underscores this in 11:5, where he refers to “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (lit., the choice of grace). The existence of a faithful remnant was not primarily due to their resolve to stay faithful during a difficult time, although they did obey God. Rather, the reason that they stayed faithful was that God kept them for Himself.

Second, the fact that God worked through a remnant in Elijah’s time and in Paul’s time shows that He doesn’t need great numbers to accomplish His sovereign purposes. Sometimes we may feel as Elijah did, that there are few who do not bow to the idols of our time. Many who profess to be Christians try to pressure us to be more tolerant of false doctrine and not to be so divisive. But by God’s grace, His remnant always refuses to bow to the world’s idols.

Thus Paul’s first point is that for God to reject the people whom He has foreknown would be unthinkable.

2. We can trust that God will be faithful to His promises because they rest on His sovereign, gracious choice, not on anything in us (11:5-6).

Paul makes two points here:

A. The existence of a remnant of believers today rests on God’s gracious choice, not on their choice (11:5).

Romans 11:5: “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.” Paul is drawing a logical inference from the story of Elijah. Just as God worked through a remnant that He sovereignly preserved in that day, so in our day He sovereignly chooses those whom He saves and preserves for His purpose. Thomas Schreiner explains (Romans [Baker], p. 582):

The existence of a remnant of believing Jews is not ultimately ascribed to their greater wisdom or nobility, or to their free will, or to their spiritual perception. The inclusion of the remnant in God’s people is due to his electing grace…. The only reason some Jews believe is because God has graciously and mercifully chosen them to be a part of His people….

I realize that many don’t like the doctrine of election, but if you reject it, you’re wiping out the foundation for assurance of salvation. Everett Harrison puts it (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 10:117), “The sparing of the remnant is inseparably related to the choice of the remnant.” God won’t forsake those whom He chose. The link between verses 4 & 5 is not that there are faithful people in every age, but rather that God’s sovereign choice insures that there are faithful people in every age (see John Piper, “For God’s Sake, Let Grace be Grace,” on desiringGod.org). So if you’re a part of God’s remnant, you can’t take pride in yourself for your wise choice of God or for His choice of you. Rather, you can only boast in God, who chose you by His grace (undeserved favor) alone.

B. God’s gracious choice means that His promises do not rest on anything in us, or grace would not be grace (11:6).

Romans 11:6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” In some ways, verse 6 is not essential in the flow of Paul’s argument, but he felt the need to insert this explanation of the nature of grace, because we all have a built in propensity toward works rather than grace.

Note that Paul does not contrast works and faith here, but rather works and grace. “Works” refers to anything that we can do in and of ourselves. If we have the ability by our own free will to believe in Christ (as many argue), then faith is something that we sinful humans are capable of doing on our own. But that turns faith into a work in which we can boast. If (as also many argue) God chose us because He foresaw that we would believe by our own free will, then He didn’t choose us according to His grace, but on the basis of something that we would do. In other words, if salvation is a joint effort where God does His part and now it’s up to us to do our part, then grace is no longer grace.

By “no longer,” Paul doesn’t mean that salvation used to be by works, but now it’s by grace. He’s using “no longer” in a logical sense, not chronological (Schreiner, p. 583). As Leon Morris explains (p. 402), “Paul is saying that once we have come to see that salvation is by grace there is no longer any place for works.”

I fear that many Christians do not understand in a practical way what Paul means when he says that we are saved by God’s “gracious choice” (11:5), not by anything that we do. We all innately want to offer God something that we think is good in ourselves, so that He will accept us. We want to think, “I was saved by my faith.” But if I think that my faith was something that I came up with, then I have grounds to boast in myself. No, we’re saved by God’s grace through faith, and the whole package is His gift (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; Acts 11:18). If any part of salvation is my doing, then grace is no longer grace.

Conclusion

Can God’s promises fail? If they’re based on anything in fallen humanity, then they easily could fail. But if they’re based on His sovereign, gracious choice, then God’s promises are rock solid.

Adoniram Judson, who spent his life taking the gospel to Burma, once said in the midst of his many trials, “The future is as bright as the promises of God” (cited in Christian History & Biography [Spring, 2006], pp. 6, 40). He didn’t live to see much visible fruit for his years of hardship. But today, with only 49 million people, Burma has over 2 million Baptists, the third largest number of any nation. Only the United States and India have more (ibid., p. 40). Judson, who believed in God’s sovereign grace, knew that His promises could not fail. So no matter what your trials, if you have received God’s grace in Christ, you have a bright future because His promises cannot fail.

Application Questions

  1. How does this portion of God’s Word relate to the problems or trials that you are currently facing?
  2. Do a word study on “foreknowledge” or “foreknow.” Why is it practically important to understand that it does not just mean “to know in advance”?
  3. Have you ever felt as Elijah did? How did you work through it?
  4. What are some other practical lessons from the fact that God works through a remnant chosen by His grace?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Predestination

Lesson 68: Chosen or Hardened? (Romans 11:7-10)

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I would venture to say that if Paul had submitted Romans 11:7-10 to an editorial committee from most American churches in our day, it would have come out radically different than he wrote it. Verse 7 would be changed to read, “What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who believed have obtained it, while the rest chose not to believe.” This talk about God electing or hardening, Paul, is just too controversial! Tone it down!

And verses 8-10, Paul, are just too gloomy and negative. Folks today like a more upbeat message. They want to hear about a God of love, not a God of judgment, who gives people eyes not to see and ears not to hear! That’s depressing! So maybe you should just eliminate those verses altogether!

But under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul wrote these verses as they stand. We can pretend that they aren’t in our Bibles or stumble over them or seek to gain the benefit to our souls that God intended. We dare not fall into the spiritually fatal error of making up a god according to our liking: “I like a loving God, not a God of judgment. I like a God who gives me free will, not a God who sovereignly chooses some for salvation and passes over others in judgment.” If you do that, you fall into idolatry. It’s crucial to come to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, not to tweak Him according to your personal preferences.

Paul is drawing a conclusion from 11:1-6, but especially from the remnant motif that he mentions in those verses. He is dealing with the question of why most Jews were rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Did their unbelief cause God’s promises to fail? Did their rejection of Christ mean that God was now through with the Jews forever? No, Paul says, the existence of a remnant of saved Jews shows that God was not done with the nation. Their rejection is partial, not total (11:1-10); it is temporary, not permanent (11:11-32). Their unbelief (or any human sin) cannot thwart God’s purpose, which depends on His sovereign grace, not on any human factors at all. The remnant is according to God’s gracious choice (11:5-6), which means that it doesn’t depend on any human will or effort (9:16).

Verse 7 is a brief summary of Romans 9 & 10. Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 679, note 45) observes, “It blends the predestinatory focus of 9:6-29—‘elect,’ ‘hardened’—with the human responsibility perspective of 9:30-10:21—‘sought,’ ‘did not attain’—to sum up Paul’s discussion of Israel to this point in chaps. 9-11.” In other words, those who are saved are saved because God chose to save them. Those who are lost are lost because they refused to repent and believe the gospel. And then, as Paul has frequently done in Romans 9-11, he backs up verse 7 with Scripture to show that he isn’t making this up (11:8-10). What Paul says in verse 7 is in line with all of God’s Word. He is saying here:

Either you have been chosen by God to hear, understand, and believe the gospel so that you are saved, or you will be hardened and come under His judgment.

Those are the only two possibilities! While this is not easy truth, it is spiritually nourishing for your soul. So ask God to give you insight into this part of His inspired Word. The bulk of the text deals with those who were hardened and came under God’s judgment, and so the bulk of this message deals with that.

1. If you seek to obtain right standing with God on the basis of your works, you will be hardened and come under God’s terrible judgment.

Most of our text, 11:8-10, is taken from the Old Testament. Paul lets the Bible say the hard things so that no one can accuse Paul of making it up. That’s a good plan!

When I began here almost 20 years ago, I preached through 1 Peter. When I came to 1 Peter 3:1-6, I preached what the text says, that wives are to be subject to their own husbands. I tried to explain what Peter meant and did not mean in those verses. A few days later a single young woman came to see me and said, “You shouldn’t preach on things like that on Sunday morning!”

I asked her, “Did I misrepresent what the text says?” She replied, “No, you taught what the text says.” So I asked, “Did I teach it with a sarcastic or arrogant attitude?” She said, “No, you taught it with the right attitude.” So I asked, “Then what was the problem?”

“The problem,” she said, “was that I brought a friend to church who is a committed feminist, and she will never come back to church again!”

“Ah,” I said, “God has a way of bringing people to church on the very Sunday that they need to hear what His Word declares.” I added, “One of two things will happen. Either your friend will be convicted of her worldly, unbiblical views and come to repentance and faith. Or, she will reject the truth that she heard and be hardened in her unbelief. One day she will face God’s judgment.”

And so if I teach today what theses verses do not teach or if I teach with the wrong attitude, please let me know. I need to repent. But if I teach accurately and lovingly what God’s Word teaches, then you can’t quarrel with me. I’m just the messenger. You’re contending with God! Four truths will help us to understand what Paul is saying here:

A. Israel sought righteousness before God on the basis of their works, not on the basis of faith.

Romans 11:7: “What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained ….” What Israel was seeking, but did not obtain, was right standing with God, or righteousness. Romans 9:30-32 says:

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.

He also adds with reference to the Jews (Rom. 10:2-4):

For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

For the most part, the Jews did not lack sincerity. The Pharisees and Sadducees were hypocrites (Matt. 23:13-33), but the majority of the Jews were sincere in their dedication to their religion. Nor did they lack commitment. They followed the prescribed rituals and laws with dedication that would put most of us to shame. Nor did they lack zeal. Look at Paul’s zeal before he was saved. He went to great lengths to try to keep the Jewish religion pure by eliminating those whom he saw as heretics. But if your religious sincerity, commitment, and zeal are misguided, they will only move you toward judgment with greater speed.

The problem, Paul explained, was that their zeal was not according to knowledge, namely, the knowledge that their own good works could never be good enough to atone for their sins or to commend them to the holy God. And they did not know that Christ was the final and sufficient Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice for their sins. And they didn’t know that God’s way of salvation is by grace through faith, not by works. And so they did not obtain the right standing with God that they were seeking. That leads to the second truth:

B. If you seek righteousness based on your works, then you don’t need a Savior and Christ died in vain.

If people are basically good and with a little effort and self-denial they can get into heaven, then why did Jesus need to die on the cross? While Jesus set a good example for us, that was not the main reason that He came to this earth. Jesus said (Mark 10:45) that He came “to give His life a ransom for many.” As He faced the cross, Jesus said (John 12:27), “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.” Jesus came to die for our sins to save us from God’s judgment. If we can get into heaven by being good people and doing good deeds, then Jesus died in vain.

C. If you seek righteousness based on your works, you have not judged your pride, which is the root sin.

The good works route is always wrong, because it allows human pride to play a role in salvation. This is the great danger of religion. People mistakenly think that by going to church or taking communion or giving money to the church or serving in the church or helping the poor or whatever, they will gain entrance into heaven. Martin Luther thought that by joining a monastery and treating his body harshly and confessing his sins and going to mass every day, he could gain right standing with God. But nothing brought peace to his soul. Why not? Because by pursuing salvation by works, he was negating God’s grace (Rom. 11:6).

To come to God for grace means that I come as a sinner who does not in any way deserve to be saved. I deserve God’s judgment. To come to God by works means that I come with the claim that I’m basically good enough to get into heaven on my own, or at least with just a little help from God. The works approach is shot through with arrogance before God. It does not understand His absolute holiness and it does not understand our wretched sinfulness. Pride is the root sin of all other sins. It is the sin that led Eve to eat the fruit, so that she could be like God. To come to God for grace, we must judge our pride.

Thus Israel sought righteousness before God on the basis of works, not faith. If we could come to God on the basis of works, then we don’t need a Savior and Christ died in vain. To attempt to come to God on the basis of works is to be filled with the terrible sin of pride. But now we come to the scary part:

D. If you seek righteousness based on your works, God will harden you against the truth and bring you to ultimate judgment.

Israel, seeking righteousness by works, not only did not obtain it, but Paul adds (11:7), “the rest [the non-elect] were hardened.” Hardened is a passive verb. Who hardened them? Verse 8 plainly tells us, “Just as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day.’” That quote combines Isaiah 29:10 and Deuteronomy 29:4. It also reflects Isaiah 6:10, where God is speaking to the prophet, “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” That text is so important that Jesus cites it in Matthew 13:14-15 (and the parallels, Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10) and in John 12:40; and Paul also cites it to the resistant Jews in Acts 28:26-27.

It refers to God’s judicial hardening of the Jews, who had heard so much truth and seen so many demonstrations of God’s love and power, but refused to submit to Him. In Deuteronomy 29:2-4, Moses said to all Israel after 40 years in the wilderness,

“You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and all his servants and all his land; the great trials which your eyes have seen, those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.”

So even as far back as Moses, Israel had come under this judicial hardening, as seen in their continual grumbling against God and refusal to submit to Him. Later, they followed the idolatry and evil ways of the Canaanites, until finally God sent them into captivity. But even after being restored to the land, they continued to try to approach God by their works, so that they hated the Savior who came and convicted them of their self-righteousness and pride. And so in Paul’s day, the nation that had crucified the Savior came under even increased hardening from God that has lasted now for 2,000 years! The frightening words of the Jewish mob that was screaming for Jesus’ death have come true (Matt. 27:25), “His blood shall be on us and on our children!”

There are two ways in which we need to understand this judgment where God hardens hearts so that they cannot understand the gospel (I’m indebted here to John Piper, “The Elect Obtained It But the Rest Were Hardened,” on desiringGod.org). First, from God’s perspective, He is free to act according to His own counsel for His own glory and is not obligated to any creature. As we saw in Romans 9:18, “So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” God is not constrained by anything outside of Himself. If He chose to condemn the entire human race without providing a Savior, He would be free and perfectly just to do so. After all, He did this with the angels that fell.

Second, God’s hardening of the Jews was punishment for their sins. God did it as “retribution” to them (11:9) because of their disobedient, hard hearts (10:21) and “unbelief” (11:20). Israel had been given much light (9:4-5), but they stubbornly refused to respond to it. So God said in effect, “If you refuse to see, I’ll confirm that choice: Be blind. If you refuse to hear, be deaf!” How terrifying, to have God pronounce such judgments against you! And it stems, in the case of the Jews and of many other religious people, from seeking to be righteous by their own works.

We can only look briefly at the specifics of this judgment on those who turn from the light that they have been given. What are the characteristics of those who are under this judicial hardening? I’m going to put it in the second person as a warning to us all.

First, you will be spiritually dull and insensitive, unable to perceive and understand spiritual truth. “God gave them a spirit of stupor.” This refers to someone who is half asleep or who has been stunned so that he can’t think properly. I have shared the gospel with many people who just couldn’t get it, even though it is simple enough for a little child to understand. If you asked them later how a person gets into heaven, they would say, “By being a good person.”

Second, your blessings will become a curse. That is the meaning of the quote from Psalm 69:22 (Rom. 11:9), “Let their table become a snare and a trap, and a stumbling block and a retribution to them.” A table should be a place of nourishment and blessing, but David prays that it will become a snare for his enemies. God gives many blessings, even to unbelievers: material possessions, food, the joys of married love, children, etc. But if they do not honor God and give thanks to Him, then their foolish hearts will be darkened and these blessings will be a curse that keeps them from the supreme joy of knowing God (Rom. 1:21-32).

Third, you are headed for ultimate and final judgment. Romans 11:10: “Let their eyes be darkened to see not, and bend their backs forever.” The last word may be translated continually (in light of 11:25-26), but it may also refer to God’s permanent judgment that will come on the reprobate because they turned away from the light that they had been given. “Bend their backs” may look at bondage to the law. The Jews wanted to establish their own righteousness by works of the law, so they are consigned to that futile pursuit that can never obtain the righteousness that comes by grace through faith (see Acts 15:10-11).

Psalm 69 is a messianic psalm and so these judgments are ultimately aimed, not at David’s enemies, but at the enemies of Jesus Christ. Those who seek to be saved by works are really enemies of Christ, because if you can be justified by your works, you make the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of no effect. Any scheme of salvation that does not center on the cross of Christ exalts proud sinners and spits in the face of the Savior who gave Himself to redeem those who were under the curse of the law.

Let’s look briefly at the other side: How can you know whether you’ve been chosen by God?

2. If you have been chosen by God, you will hear, understand, and believe the gospel so that you are righteous before God through faith in Christ alone.

“What Israel [was] seeking” but did not obtain (11:7) was righteousness before God (9:31). Then Paul adds, “but those who were chosen obtained it.” Two brief observations:

A. The source of our right standing before God does not come from us, but from God’s sovereign choice of us.

“Those who were chosen” is literally, “the election.” Paul could have said, “Those who believe obtained it,” which would be true. Or, he could have said, “The elect obtained it.” But he used a different word, meaning “the election,” a word that “serves to put special emphasis on the action of God as that which is altogether determinative of the existence of the elect” (C. E. B Cranfield, (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark International], 2:548). Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: To God’s Glory [Zondervan], p. 27) explains that the word Paul used “emphasizes the one who ‘elects’ rather than any choice made by the people and so all the glory is to be given to God alone.”

So the believing remnant of Jews or the believing Gentiles could not boast in their faith, as if they had believed of their own free will or because of their superior intelligence (Paul specifically warns of this in 11:20). Rather, God had every right to condemn us for our sins, but in mercy He chose to save us. It’s all of grace. But, how can we know if we are part of God’s elect?

B. The result of God’s choosing us is that we have heard, understood, and believed the gospel, which provides right standing with God as His undeserved gift.

A man who left this church years ago because he didn’t believe this teaching once asked me, “How can anyone know if he’s elect?” I replied, “It’s very simple: Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins and was raised from the dead and that He saved you by His grace alone? Only the elect believe that truth.” And the Bible is clear that your faith did not cause or obtain God’s grace. If anything of merit in you caused God’s favor, then grace is no longer grace (Rom. 11:6). Rather, Paul plainly says that God’s grace caused your blind eyes and deaf ears to be opened so that you understood the gospel. God opened your heart to respond so that you believed it. God gave you right standing with Him through Jesus’ blood as a gift. So He gets all the glory (see 1 Cor. 1:26-31).

Conclusion

Please note that Paul does not explain his statement in verse 7 or see any need to defend it (except for the Scripture quotations that follow). He just says in passing, “What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened.” It reminds me of Acts 13, where Luke reports that some of the Jews responded to Paul’s preaching by blaspheming and attacking him (13:45), but many Gentiles (13:48) “began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord.” Then Luke adds in passing, “And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” No explanation. No defense. He just states it and moves on.

Have you believed in Jesus Christ? If so, it’s because you were appointed to eternal life by God’s sovereign election. Do you not yet believe? Don’t delay! If you reject the light God has given, you may come under His frightful judicial hardening.

Application Questions

  1. Why is a works-oriented approach to salvation so offensive to God? What does this say about most religions?
  2. How do you reconcile God’s active hardening of the hearts of religious people with His desire that all be saved?
  3. If God gives people “eyes to see not and ears to hear not,” how can He hold them accountable for not seeing or hearing?
  4. Why does Paul here refer to God’s election rather than to human faith? What is at stake?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 69: God’s Certain Purpose for History (Romans 11:11-15)

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If you watch the evening news, you can probably relate to the wife who said to her husband, “Shall we watch the six o’clock news and get indigestion or wait for the eleven o’clock news and have insomnia?” (Reader’s Digest [4/86], p. 2) It often seems that the world is out of control. In that vein, someone wrote a limerick (cited by James Boice, The Last and Future World [Zondervan], pp. 124-125):

God’s plan made a hopeful beginning,
But man spoiled his chances by sinning,
We trust that the story
Will end in God’s glory,
But at present the other side’s winning.

When it seems that the other side is winning, whether in the world at large or in your personal world, it’s important to remember that God has a certain purpose both for world history and for your history and that nothing can thwart His purpose.

In Paul’s day, when it came to the salvation of his Jewish kinsmen, it seemed as if the other side was winning. Relatively few Jews were believing in Jesus Christ as Savior, while many Gentiles were coming into the kingdom. In light of God’s many promises to Israel, this created a problem: Could God’s promises fail? If His promises to the Jews failed because of their sin, then His promises to us in the church might fail, since we often sin.

Thus Paul devotes Romans 11 to deal with this matter of the future of the Jews in light of God’s promises. In 11:1-10 he makes the point that Israel’s rejection is partial, not total, in that there is a remnant of believing Jews. In 11:11-32 he makes the point that Israel’s rejection is temporary, not permanent. God is using the Jews’ present rejection of Christ to spread the gospel among the Gentiles. Then He will use the Gentiles’ reception of the gospel to bring the Jews to faith in Christ. The end result will be great blessing on the whole world.

We come now to the second major section. In 11:11-15, we can apply Paul’s discussion of God’s plan for the Jews by saying,

Because God’s purpose for history is certain, we should commit ourselves to work for His glory through taking the gospel to all people.

Paul states his theme in 11:11a: “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be!” Israel’s failure was not fatal. He explains (11:11b), “But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous.” Verse 12 elaborates on the first half of that statement: by the Jews’ sin salvation has come to the Gentiles. Verses 13-14 expand on the second half, “to make them jealous.” Paul explains to the Gentiles in the church in Rome his role in God’s plan as the apostle to the Gentiles, part of which is to make Israel jealous. Then in verse 15, he restates the same truth as verse 12, that if the Jews’ rejection resulted in the gospel going out to the world, then how much greater will their acceptance be. It’s difficult to decide whether to include verse 16 with what goes before or with what follows, as it is a transitional verse. But we’ll consider it next time, as it introduces the illustration of the olive tree that runs through verse 24.

I’m going to develop this message with some applications that come out of Paul’s teaching here. But before I do that, I need to comment on the idea that Paul repeats here, that the Gentiles’ reception of the gospel will move the Jews to jealousy so that at some point they will respond to the gospel. Motivating people to jealousy seems like a strange way to bring them to faith!

Paul is going back to the thought of Deuteronomy 32:21, which he cited in Romans 10:19. In Deuteronomy, Moses predicted Israel’s apostasy through idolatry. He wrote (Deut. 32:21), “They have made Me jealous with what is not God; They have provoked Me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” The thought is, just as Israel provoked God to jealousy and anger by their idolatry, so God will provoke Israel to repentance and faith when they jealously see those whom they would despise as being a “no-nation” or “a foolish nation” coming to know God.

Those of us who have reared children probably had a time where you asked your oldest child, “Would you like to go to the store with me?” She was busy playing, so she said, “No, I’ll stay here.” So you asked your second child, “Would you like to go with me?” She said, “Yes, Daddy, I’ll go!” Immediately the oldest child said, “I’ll go, too!” She jealously didn’t want her younger sister getting some goodies at the store while she sat at home. Her jealousy motivated her to get in on the benefits that her younger sister had accepted.

That’s the thought in Deuteronomy 32 and in Romans 11. The Jews said “no” to Christ, so the gospel was offered to the Gentiles. Many of them gladly accepted Christ. When the Jews see the Gentiles enjoying the blessings of salvation that were intended at first for them, they will repent and come to Christ. But Paul doesn’t necessarily see this as happening in his day. He hopes to “save some of them” (11:14). But the widespread salvation of the Jews will only happen towards the climax of God’s plan for history, after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in (11:25-26).

These verses are interesting, but at first glance may not seem very relevant to where many of us are living. So I want to give five points that I think will apply to whatever trials you may be going through. In other words, although these verses show us God’s purpose for the future of the Jews and Gentiles, we can bring these truths down to our present and future, especially when it seems that the bad guys are winning.

1. God has a purpose for history and it cannot fail.

Romans 11 is a great prophecy of what God will do in the future both with the Gentiles and the Jews. Paul isn’t venturing his best educated guess at what will happen. Rather, he is unfolding God’s great plan of redemption and how it is going to play out in world history. Note three things about God’s purpose:

A. God’s purpose is a sure thing because it depends on His sovereign power to save His people.

Paul believed that the Jews would come to “fullness” or “fulfillment” (11:12). That word can be understood in a qualitative sense, meaning completeness. This would refer to the “full restoration of Israel to the blessings of the kingdom that she is now, as a corporate entity, missing” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 689). Or it could be taken in a quantitative sense, meaning “full number.” This would mean that to the present remnant, a much greater number of Jews will be saved, “so as to ‘fill up’ the number of Jews destined for salvation” (ibid.). Both ideas may be present, but when you compare it with “the fullness of the Gentiles” in verse 25, it does seem to have a numerical sense (ibid., p. 690). In other words, God has a specific number of elect Gentiles (11:25) and Jews (11:12), that constitutes the fullness of His plan for the ages (see, also, Rev. 6:11). To fulfill His sovereign plan, God must have the power to save these people.

What I’m getting at is that there are many who say that they believe the Bible, but they deny God’s sovereign ability to save whom He chooses. Rather, they say, salvation is up to each person’s free will. God has done His part by providing the Savior, they say, but now you must do your part. They believe that salvation depends on man’s free will, not on God’s sovereign choice.

But how could Paul prophesy that God is going to save the fullness of the Gentiles and the fullness of the Jews unless He is sovereign to save individuals? Granted, he is talking here in national terms, but nations are made up of individuals. So if God is going to bring the Jewish nation to their fullness of salvation, He has to be sovereign in saving individual Jewish people. If it were up to the free will of the Jews, Paul could not have had much hope for their future, because their past and present track records were dismal. They were a disobedient and obstinate people who refused God’s offer of mercy (10:21).

This is a great encouragement for us both in terms of the overwhelming task of global missions and also in the often discouraging task of personal evangelism. We know from Revelation 5:9 that Jesus purchased with His blood “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” They will come in faith to Jesus (John 6:37-39). So we can go to the lost people groups of the world and proclaim the good news with the confidence that Jesus has purchased some of them and they will respond.

The same is true in your personal witness. Sometimes people that you know and love seem either disinterested or hardened to the gospel. You may feel like Paul did in Corinth, which was a notoriously pagan and immoral city. The Jews in Corinth had resisted Paul’s message and blasphemed (Acts 18:6). Paul was feeling afraid and may have been ready to catch the next boat for a friendlier place. But then the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision and said (Acts 18:9-10), “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”

Did you catch that last phrase? The Lord had many people in Corinth who had not yet believed. Paul didn’t know who they were, but as he went on preaching the gospel, they would come to faith. God’s purpose to save His elect will not fail because it depends on His sovereign power. But He uses our proclamation of the gospel to do it.

B. God’s purpose centers on His being glorified through the gospel.

Although it may shock you, the gospel is not primarily about your happiness, but about God’s glory. The two are inseparable, of course, because as John Piper often says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Paul wrote (Eph. 1:3-6):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

A few verses later he adds (Eph. 1:10b-12):

In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.

Then, after saying that we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, he adds (Eph. 1:14), “who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” He ends each section with the same refrain, “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (1:6) and “to the praise of His glory” (1:12, 14). Our salvation and all the blessings that accompany it are to result in the praise of God’s glory.

In Romans 8:29 Paul wrote, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.” The idea of the firstborn was that he had preeminence. God predestined us to be like Jesus so that Jesus would get all the glory.

To apply this to our text, Paul says that unbelievers (especially, unbelieving Jews) should look at us who have been saved and be moved to jealousy so that they say, “I want what you’ve got.” They should see enough Christlike character in us that they are attracted to Jesus through us. In our marriages, with our children, on the job, and in our extended families, unbelievers should be jealous about the blessings of salvation—the visible fruit of the Spirit—that they see in us, so that they are drawn to Christ. The gospel is all about God’s glory being reflected in us.

C. The gospel is riches for all who receive it.

As I commented in a recent message, Paul loves to describe the gospel as riches. He does that again here (11:12), “Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” The two phrases are synonymous, repeated for emphasis. The Jews walked away from the treasures that are to be found in Christ, so that those treasures now are open for the taking to the Gentiles. As Paul expressed it in Ephesians 3:8, “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.”

Have you received the unfathomable riches of Christ? Are you digging into the Word every day to discover more and more of these riches? They are there for the taking, but we foolishly spend our money for what is not bread and our wages for what does not satisfy (Isa. 55:2a). God counsels His people (Isa. 55:2b), “Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance.” Or as David exults (Ps. 16:11), “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” God entreats you to satisfy your soul with the riches that are found in Jesus Christ.

These are wonderful truths, but the reality is that our human existence is marred both with our own sin and with the sins of others. So the question arises, “Does our sin somehow thwart God’s sovereign purpose?”

2. Human unbelief and sin can never thwart God’s sovereign purpose.

Our text is one of many examples in the Bible of how God overrules human sin and weaves it into His sovereign plan to glorify Himself through the gospel. The cross is perhaps the greatest example: Evil men crucified the sinless Son of God, and yet they inadvertently fulfilled God’s predestined purpose (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28; see, also, Gen. 50:20). Paul’s subject in Romans 11 is how God used the unbelief of the Jews to take the gospel to the Gentiles, which in turn eventually will lead to the salvation of the Jews.

Paul’s pattern in his missionary endeavors was to preach the gospel to the Jews first. If they rejected the message, then he would turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13:45-48; 18:6; 28:24-28). So in this sense, the Jews’ transgression resulted in salvation for the Gentiles.

Jesus predicted the same thing. He told the parable of the landowner who sent messengers to collect the profits from his vineyard, only to have the tenants beat and kill them. Finally, he sent his own son, thinking that they would respect him. But they killed him, too. Therefore, he would come and bring those evil tenants to a wretched end and rent out the vineyard to others who would pay him the proper proceeds. Then Jesus concluded (Matt. 21:43), “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [lit., nation], producing the fruit of it.” That “nation” is the church, made up of believing Gentiles and Jews (1 Pet. 2:9).

The point is, while we should never excuse or justify our sin by saying that good will come out of it (Rom. 3:8), at the same time we can take comfort in the fact human unbelief and sin can never thwart God’s sovereign purpose. Where sin abounds, God’s grace super-abounds (Rom. 5:20). He works all things, including the sins of others against us, together for good for those whom He has called to salvation (Rom. 8:28).

3. In light of God’s guaranteed fulfillment of His purpose, we should magnify our ministry to the nations.

Romans 11:13, “Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry.” Paul was concerned that some of the Gentile Christians in Rome might appeal to the fact that Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles to disdain the Jews and Jewish believers. But Paul shows them that his ministry to the Gentiles, at least in part, served to move to jealousy his fellow countrymen and save some of them (11:14). By magnifying his ministry, Paul meant that he worked hard to fulfill his ministry.

Even though Paul knew that God’s sovereign purpose to save the Jews would be fulfilled, he didn’t kick back and say, “What will be, will be.” He knew that God fulfills His sovereign purpose through the means that He has appointed. That’s why Paul wrote from prison to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:10), “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” In the same way, we should devote our time, energy, and money to take the gospel to the nations, because God has chosen some from every nation to come to faith in Christ.

4. We also should maintain a burden for our fellow countrymen to bring them to salvation.

Paul labored to take the gospel to the Gentiles who had never heard, but he still had a burden for his fellow Jews to know their Savior. While we should labor to take the gospel to the nations, we should never forget about our neighbors and contacts that we rub shoulders with each week. Make a list of those who are not saved whom you have frequent contact with and pray for their salvation.

5. The gospel message is nothing less than life from the dead.

Romans 11:15: “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” There are two ways to interpret that phrase, with solid commentators in both camps. If it is taken literally, it refers to the final resurrection of the dead at the second coming of Christ. Verse 26 supports this view, which says that just after the fullness of the Gentiles, all Israel will be saved and then Jesus will return. Also, verse 15 parallels verse 12, and in both verses the logic is that if the Jews’ sin and rejection resulted in salvation for the Gentiles, then their reconciliation to God will result in even greater results. What could be greater than salvation, except the final resurrection that ushers in the eternal kingdom? (Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner argue for this view.)

While that view may well be correct, the phrase “life from the dead” is never used elsewhere to refer to the final resurrection. In Romans 6:13 Paul refers to our new position in Christ as being alive from the dead. Since unbelievers are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1) and God through the gospel imparts new life, the phrase may have a figurative meaning. (John Murray and Leon Morris argue for this view.) When the Jews come to faith, it will be nothing less than Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones putting on flesh and coming to life (Ezekiel 37).

In a sense, both views are true. The gospel brings new life in Christ to everyone who believes. All who believe long for that glorious day when Christ returns and our mortal bodies are transformed into eternal bodies in conformity with Christ’s body (1 Cor. 15). The fact that sinners are dead in their sins, alienated from God, should motivate us to commit ourselves to proclaim the gospel to all people, whether Jews or Gentiles.

Conclusion

We’re not all called or gifted as evangelists. I’m not. But we are all called “according to God’s purpose” (Rom. 8:28). His purpose is to be glorified as the good news about Jesus goes to all people. So whatever your spiritual gifts, don’t spend your life pursuing your pleasure through the American dream. Spend your life for God’s certain purpose for history. Commit yourself to work for His glory through taking the gospel to all people.

Application Questions

  1. Some argue that if God elects some to salvation, it discourages evangelism. Why is the exact opposite the truth?
  2. Why is it crucial to keep God’s glory as our main purpose? What happens if we lose sight of this?
  3. Discuss: The truth that human unbelief and sin cannot thwart God’s purpose is both a comfort (Acts 4:27-28) and a danger (Rom. 3:8).
  4. What are some practical ways that those of us who aren’t gifted evangelists can devote ourselves to God’s purpose to be glorified through taking the gospel to the nations?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Evangelism, History, Missions, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 70: Guarding Against Spiritual Pride (Romans 11:16-24)

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Years ago, Dr. H. A. Ironside, who was pastor of the prestigious Moody Church in downtown Chicago, felt that he was not as humble as he should have been. So he asked an older friend what he could do about it. The friend suggested, “Make a sandwich board with the plan of salvation in Scripture on it. Put it on and walk through the business district of Chicago for a whole day.”

Ironside followed his friend’s humiliating advice. After he got home, as he took off the sandwich board he caught himself thinking, “There’s not another person in Chicago that would be willing to do a thing like that.”

Spiritual pride is an insidious enemy that we all continually must guard against and fight. It was one of the main sins of the Pharisees. They thought that they were a notch above their fellow Jews (John 9:28-34) and far above the despised Gentile dogs. To confront such pride, Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the temple to pray (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee thanked God that he wasn’t like the publican. But how many times have you read that story and thought, “Thank God that I’m not like that Pharisee!”

The apostle Paul apparently knew from some of his contacts in Rome that there was a problem with creeping spiritual pride on the part of the Gentile Christians against their fellow Jewish believers (he deals with this more in chapters 14 & 15) and also against unbelieving Jews. Left unchecked, this attitude would lead to division in the church, to anti-Semitism that would choke out witness to the Jews, and to the spiritual ruin of those who continued down that path.

In our text, Paul counters this problem with an illustration of an olive tree and its branches. He shows the Gentiles that they are not the root, but rather are branches from a wild olive tree that have been grafted into the cultivated tree, supported by the root. Three times (11:18, 20, 25) Paul directly warns Gentile believers against spiritual pride. They were no better than the Jews, but were grafted into the tree by God’s grace alone. And if the Gentiles do not curb their pride, they could be broken off as the unbelieving Jews were. He also encourages evangelism toward unbelieving Jews by showing that in God’s sovereign plan, the branches that were broken off because of their unbelief will be grafted back in when they believe (11:23). In fact, God is moving salvation history toward that end (11:25-26). Applied to us, Paul’s message is:

Guard against spiritual pride by remembering that salvation is by grace alone and by maintaining faith and fear before the God of kindness and severity.

Illustrations ought to make the truth clearer, but sometimes they can have the opposite effect, especially if we try to figure out the details beyond the intent of the illustration (James Boice, Romans: God and History [Baker], 3:1343-1344). It’s easy to get mired in the details of Paul’s illustration here and end up with all sorts of problems. For example, some authors say that the olive tree represents Israel and at first glance this seems reasonable. But if the tree is Israel and Gentile believers are grafted into that tree, then we become Jews. Also, some point out that when a wild olive branch was grafted into a cultivated olive tree, it was to reinvigorate the old tree. But that would mean that Gentile believers give new life to Israel, when Paul states that the unbelieving Jews have been temporarily broken off the tree.

On the other hand, if the tree represents believing Jews you have a problem, because then Paul would be teaching that believers can lose their salvation. Some of the branches were broken off. Some solve this by saying that Paul is talking in terms of nations, not individuals, which is partly true. But that weakens Paul’s exhortation against spiritual pride, because it’s easy for individuals to shrug off national warnings by saying, “That may be true generally, but it doesn’t apply to me.” Also, if Paul is only talking in national terms, it would imply that the Gentiles have now replaced Israel in God’s program, which could result in the anti-Semitism that Paul is combating.

So we need to be careful not to press the details of this illustration too far. The olive tree represents in the broadest sense the people of God. In the Old Testament era, this was Israel, made up of both believers and unbelievers. It now is composed of the church in the broadest sense, made up of believers, but also of some that profess to believe, but are not true believers. These are the ones that Paul warns may be cut off. God is able to graft the Jews back into the people of God if they do not continue in their unbelief (11:23). But we need to stay focused on Paul’s main purpose for this illustration, namely, to confront any spiritual pride on the part of Gentiles in the church; and, to confront any anti-Semitism stemming from such pride that would choke out zeal for evangelizing the Jews. Since the root of both problems was spiritual pride, we’ll focus on how to guard against this dangerous sin.

1. Guard against spiritual pride by remembering that salvation is by grace alone.

Spiritual pride creeps in when we forget that salvation is by grace alone, not because of anything good in us. God is in charge of salvation history, working according to His sovereign, gracious choice (9:11-24; 11:7, 28). No one, whether Jew or Gentile, deserves salvation. It is always by God’s grace alone.

A. God’s grace toward Abraham was the basis of the Jews’ privileged position as God’s chosen people.

You may be wondering, “Where in the world does Steve find Abraham in these verses?” I confess, I didn’t see him here at first, but virtually all commentators agree that the root (11:16) refers to Abraham or also to the patriarchs Isaac and Jacob. In 11:28, Paul says that from the standpoint of God’s choice the Jews “are beloved for the sake of the fathers.” This goes back to Genesis 12:1-3, when God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees and told him to go to the land He would show him. God promised to bless Abram and make from him a great nation, so that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed.

Later, Moses told the Israelites (Deut. 7:7-8), “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” In other words, God didn’t love the Israelites and choose them because of something worthy in them. Rather, He chose them and loved them for the sake of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And He chose those men not because of anything meritorious in them, but simply by His sovereign grace alone (Rom. 9:11-13, 16).

So in Paul’s illustration, Abraham is the root and the branches are the people of God in the broadest sense, descended from the patriarchs. But we need to back up and figure out what Paul means by the first piece of dough and the lump (11:16). Paul is referring to Numbers 15:20-21, where Moses tells Israel to offer the first of their dough to the Lord. Although the Old Testament never explicitly states it, Paul infers that if the first piece of dough is holy, then the rest of the lump is consecrated, too.

But what does he mean? He may be referring to the Jewish remnant of believers as the first fruits that signify that eventually the entire nation will be set apart unto God. But most commentators agree that the two illustrations in 11:16 are parallel. The first piece of dough and the root both refer to the patriarchs. The lump and the branches refer to the nation of Israel.

“Holy” in this context does not refer to personal or inward holiness, but rather to the fact that Israel as a nation was set apart to God in an external and relative sense (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 701). As such, Israel had been adopted as sons, they saw God’s glory in the wilderness and in the tabernacle, they had received God’s covenants and His law, and through them the Savior had come to earth (Rom. 9:4-5). Paul’s point in 11:16 is that God will keep His promises to the fathers by keeping their descendants as His people and saving the bulk of them at the culmination of history. And if any Jews were inclined to boast in their privileged position, they needed to remember that their privileges were not due to anything in them, but only to God’s grace shown to their forefathers, who didn’t deserve it either.

B. God’s grace toward the Gentiles is the basis of our receiving the blessings of salvation.

Paul deflates Gentile pride in several ways. First, in 11:17 he calls them a wild olive and says that they were grafted in among the Jews so that they became a partaker of the rich root of the olive tree. Normally, a branch from a cultivated olive tree would be grafted into a wild olive tree, but Paul’s illustration goes against nature, as he later states (11:24). God’s grace in grafting the “wild olive” Gentiles into the cultivated tree is obvious. It was contrary to expectations. They didn’t do anything to deserve such blessings.

Paul also deflates Gentile pride by saying (11:18), “But if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you.” We only can receive God’s salvation because He chose to be gracious to Abraham and He promised to bless all the nations of the earth through him. As Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). For 2,000 years virtually all of the Gentiles around the globe were shut out of God’s covenant promises to the Jews through Abraham. But through Christ and because the Jews rejected Christ, the gospel has now gone out to the Gentiles (9:11-12).

But Paul anticipates how a spiritually proud Gentile might respond (11:19-21): “You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.” That leads to a second strategy to guard against spiritual pride:

2. Guard against spiritual pride by maintaining your faith.

Paul is talking in national terms in the sense that the Gentiles as a whole could be cut off from God’s grace, just as the Jews were. But we would be remiss if we did not apply this personally: We receive God’s grace by faith alone and we forfeit His grace by unbelief. And so we must make sure that our faith for salvation is in Christ alone, not in anything that we have done or promise to do. Faith in Christ, by its origin and nature, cripples our pride.

We are responsible to exercise faith, but it doesn’t originate within us. In the flesh, no one is able to please God (Rom. 8:8). Faith is pleasing to God (Heb. 11:6). So where does saving faith come from? Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Faith is not a wage that we earn and can demand payment for, or we could boast in it (Rom. 4:3-5). Rather, as Paul says (1 Cor. 1:30), “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” Or, as he later asks (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” We can’t boast in our faith as if it came from us, because we received it from God (Rom. 12:3).

Also, by its nature faith excludes boasting. Saving faith means that I rely on Christ to do for me what I never deserved and what I never could do for myself. He took my penalty for sin on the cross. How can I boast in myself for that? If I were guilty of a serious crime and the judge imposed a penalty of $10 million that I could never repay and some rich benefactor stepped in and paid it for me, would I go around boasting about how great I am to get such a gift? No, it was shameful that I was guilty of the crime and even needed such a gift. If someone else paid my penalty, I could only boast in how kind and merciful he was. So maintaining faith before the God who shows mercy on whom He wills and hardens whom He wills guards us against spiritual pride.

But how do we maintain such faith? Focus daily on the cross and preach the gospel over and over to yourself. After writing to refute the Judaizers who boasted in their outward keeping of the law, Paul concluded (Gal. 6:14), “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….” To battle spiritual pride, maintain your faith by exulting daily in the cross.

So to guard against spiritual pride, first remember that salvation is by grace alone. Second, maintain your faith in the gospel.

3. Guard against spiritual pride by maintaining fear before the God of kindness and severity.

Romans 11:20b-21: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.” Many Christians today would cast off the notion of fear as an Old Testament concept. They would cry (1 John 4:18), “Perfect love casts out fear….” True, but our love isn’t perfect because our obedience isn’t perfect. As long as any bent toward sin remains in us, we need to fear God and fear our own propensity to sin. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Here are four reasons why we should maintain fear:

A. We should fear because spiritual pride is a constant, insidious danger.

“Insidious” means, “1. (a) awaiting a chance to entrap: treacherous; (b) harmful but enticing: seductive; 2. (a) having a gradual and cumulative effect; (b) of a disease: developing so gradually as to be well established before becoming apparent” (Wesbter’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary [Merriam Webster, 1988], p. 626). As I said, Paul saw spiritual pride as dangerous enough to repeat his warning three times here (11:18, 20, 25). If anything should humble us, it should be the gospel of God’s grace. But our flesh is so prone toward pride that it just keeps oozing out of any crack that we don’t repair.

Let me mention just one insidious trap of spiritual pride: the pride of being doctrinally correct. I believe that sound doctrine is essential for a healthy spiritual life, so I am not in any way saying that we should give up seeking to be doctrinally correct or striving to understand biblical truth more accurately. You will be spiritually unstable if you do not grow in sound doctrine (Eph. 4:13-15). But make sure that you maintain the fear of God as you grow in sound doctrine or that doctrine will puff you up with pride (1 Cor. 8:1). Remember that if you are doctrinally correct, it is only because God graciously opened your eyes to the truth.

B. We should fear because we are so prone to compare ourselves with others rather than with God.

Paul says (11:18), “Do not be arrogant toward the branches ….” The branches refers to the Jews who had rejected the gospel and were temporarily cut off from God’s mercy. It’s easy for us who believe to look down on unbelievers with disgust and to think, “Stupid people! They deserve to be judged!” (As if we didn’t!) Have you noticed that when we compare ourselves with others, we always pick those who in our minds are worse sinners than we are? We rarely compare ourselves with the godly. And what if we compare ourselves with God? If He had not chosen to have mercy on us, we would be darkened in our understanding, excluded from the life of God, and hardened in our hearts (Eph. 4:18).

C. We should fear because we are prone to drift from justification by faith alone into justification by works.

One reason the Jews were cut off from salvation is that they sought to establish their own righteousness by keeping the law (9:31-32; 10:3). But now that the Gentiles have graciously been grafted into God’s promise to Abraham, they turn around and are arrogant towards the unbelieving Jews. They were forgetting that if God had not been merciful, they would still be in their sins. And they were forgetting that they only stood by faith (11:20), not by their works. As we’ve seen, if salvation is by faith then it is not of works, or we would boast. Spiritual pride subtly creeps in and makes us want to take at least some of the credit for our salvation, so that we even boast in our faith. Finally,

D. We should fear because we behold the kindness and severity of God.

Romans 11:22: “Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” We tend to skip over behold, but it occurs over 1,000 times in the Bible as a flashing warning light to say, “Slow down! Open your eyes! You need to think about this.”

We’re all prone to behold God’s kindness, but we aren’t so apt to behold His severity. “To those who fell” refers to the Jews who were currently cut off from God’s mercy due to judicial hardening (11:8-10, 25). But Paul says that if the Gentiles do not continue in God’s kindness, they too will be cut off. As I said, this is a warning to all Gentiles, but we need to take it to heart individually.

Some use verses like this to argue that believers can lose their salvation. But the same man who wrote Romans 11:22 also wrote Romans 8:28-39, which is one of the strongest passages in the Bible in favor of the security of believers. He isn’t contradicting himself. Rather, Paul consistently taught that by God’s strength, genuine saving faith perseveres over the long haul. But one way that we persevere is through the many warnings in Scripture not to fall away (1 Cor. 10:1-12; Gal. 5:2-4, 21; Eph. 5:5-10; Col. 1:23; 1 Thess. 3:1-5; Heb. 6:4-12; 10:26-31).

H. C. G. Moule explains (The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Romans [Cambridge University Press, 1903], p. 197, italics his),

Grace imparts perseverance by imparting and maintaining faith, (1 Pet. 1:5) and it freely uses all means by which such faith is properly animated and energized. Amongst such means are these warnings of the results that must follow if faith loses hold of its object.

Thomas Schreiner comments (Romans [Baker], p. 609), “Those who brush aside the warnings as unnecessary, concluding that they are protected from God’s wrath no matter how they behave, are presuming upon God’s grace.” If someone falls away from the faith and is cut off from God’s mercy, it is evidence that he never truly had believed in the first place (1 John 2:19; Matt. 7:21-23). If we do not judge our spiritual pride it shows that we never really understood or trusted in God’s grace.

Conclusion

Martyn Lloyd-Jones wisely observed (Romans: To God’s Glory [Banner of Truth], p. 125), “The best corrective against pride … is to know God, His character and the truth about Him.” And the main place to behold the kindness and severity of God is at the cross. There the severity of His righteous judgment did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all (Rom. 8:32). There the kindness of His tender love forgave all our sins and adopted us as His beloved children the instant we trusted in Christ. Guard yourself against any form of spiritual pride by remembering that salvation is by grace alone and by maintaining faith in Christ and fear before the kindness and severity of God.

Application Questions

  1. The pride of doctrinal correctness is one form of spiritual pride. What are some other forms of it to be on guard against?
  2. Discuss: All racial prejudice is an expression of sinful pride.
  3. If final salvation depends on perseverance in faith, how can anyone have assurance, since we might fall into unbelief?
  4. Is assurance of salvation something that we should share as soon as a person trusts in Christ or should it grow over time?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 71: Understanding God’s Prophetic Revelation (Romans 11:25-27)

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I spent the summer of 1969 with some other seminary students in a work/study/mentoring situation with Bill Counts and Hal Lindsey at the “Jesus Christ Light & Power House” in West Los Angeles. Hal was busy writing his book on prophecy, The Late Great Planet Earth. He would come to our meetings and beg us to go to Christian bookstores and ask them to order that book. He was afraid that it wouldn’t sell. As it turned out, it sold over 15 million copies and was the best selling book of the decade!

If you want to write a best seller, write it on prophecy! If you want to pack out a church, put on a prophecy conference. For some strange reason that I haven’t quite figured out, Christians and non-Christians alike are drawn to the subject of biblical prophecy. Will Christians go through the tribulation? Who is the anti-Christ? What will trigger Armageddon? Does Israel have a divine right to the land? Will they tear down the Dome of the Rock Mosque and rebuild the Temple? What about the Palestinians? Just this week the Israeli Prime Minister met with our President to discuss whether Israel should launch an attack on Iran before Iran perfects a nuclear weapon that could annihilate Israel.

While these issues are fascinating to speculate about, they usually end up with people walking away no different than they were before. But by way of contrast, biblical prophecy is always given for some practical effect. It calls sinners to repent before the coming judgment. It comforts believers with God’s sovereignty over world events, including persecution. It exhorts believers to holiness. And, in the case of our text, it is aimed at curbing our pride: Paul writes “so that you will not be wise in your own estimation” (11:25).

As we have seen, in Romans 11:1-10, Paul shows that God’s rejection of Israel was partial, not total. There was a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. In 11:11-32, he shows that God’s rejection of Israel was temporary, not permanent. God will again restore the Jews as a nation and pour out His covenant blessings on them.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: To God’s Glory [Banner of Truth], pp. 161-162) observes that Paul gives five arguments (in 11:1-24) that God is not finished with the Jews. First, in 11:1, Paul says that he himself is proof: He is a Jew whom God has saved. Second (11:2-6), Paul shows that God has preserved a remnant of saved Jews. Third (11:16), he uses two parallel illustrations to show that because of God’s promises to the patriarchs, He will bless their descendants. Fourth (11:23), he argues that God is able to graft the Jews back into the olive tree. Fifth (11:24), he argues that what God has done with the Gentiles proves that He is able to do it in the case of the Jews. I would add a sixth argument from 11:12 & 15: If Israel’s failure led to the outpouring of blessing on the Gentiles, how much greater blessing will result from their salvation that God has promised?

But now Paul ends his arguments and makes a prophetic revelation. God has revealed something to Paul regarding the future of the Gentiles and Jews and he wants us to understand it so that we will grow in humility:

Understanding God’s prophetic revelation of salvation history should curb our pride as we realize His sovereign plan and power.

Paul’s opening phrase, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed,” is one that he uses frequently (Rom. 1:13; 1 Cor. 10:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 4:13) to introduce something that his readers may not know, but which Paul regards as important (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], pp. 61-62). “For” tells us that Paul is explaining what he has said earlier with regard to Israel’s rejection not being permanent. He calls this information a mystery. This teaches us that…

1. The matters we are dealing with here are prophetic revelation, not theological speculation.

“Mystery” does not refer to some puzzle where we have to use our reason to piece together the clues to figure out what’s going on. And contrary to the “mystery religions” of Paul’s day (or the Freemasons of our day), it does not refer to secret knowledge that only the initiated inner circle can know. Rather, it means something that has been concealed and is unknowable by human reason, but which God has now revealed. Paul uses the word elsewhere to refer to various aspects of the Christian faith, but especially to the gospel and its inclusion of the Gentiles (Eph. 3:4-9; 6:19). Certainly the gospel of justification by faith alone was revealed in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:3) and the fact that the Gentiles would be included was stated there (e.g., Isa. 11:10; 19:19-25; 42:1-4; cf. Matt. 12:18-21; Rom. 15:9-12). But these truths could not be seen with clarity until Christ brought them into focus.

Thomas Schreiner (Romans [Baker], p. 614) outlines three elements of the mystery in Romans 11:25: (1) Part of Israel is hardened for a limited period of time; (2) the salvation of the Gentiles will precede the salvation of Israel; and (3) all Israel will eventually be saved. Paul may have understood these truths through meditating on the Old Testament in light of the gospel. But the word mystery indicates that God imparted special revelation to Paul on these matters, especially on the truth that Israel would go through a time of judicial hardening while the Gentiles came to salvation. Then the hardening would be lifted and “all Israel will be saved” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 715-717).

The point is that we cannot arrive at some of these profound biblical truths through human reason alone, and therefore we cannot boast in our knowledge of them. God had to reveal these truths to Paul, who conveyed them to us. Otherwise we could not have understood them. And sometimes, as in the next point that we’re going to consider, we have to set aside our logical objections to the truth and recognize that God has spoken. We can either proudly argue with His revelation or humbly submit to it.

2. The prophetic revelation concerns God’s sovereign, powerful working in salvation history.

As we have seen, Romans 9 emphasizes God’s sovereignty in showing mercy to whom He wills and hardening whom He wills. Romans 10 emphasizes human responsibility. “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13), but Israel stubbornly refused to believe (10:21). In Romans 11:20-23a, the emphasis is on human responsibility to believe in Christ and to persevere. But from 11:23b-29, the emphasis is on God’s sovereignty. He is able to graft Israel in again (11:23-24). He has hardened Israel for a time during which He is bringing the full number of Gentiles to salvation (11:25). But after that time, He will lift the hardening on Israel and bring their full number to salvation. He will do this by sending the Deliverer, removing ungodliness from Jacob, and fulfilling His covenant to take away their sins (11:26-27). While the Jews were currently God’s enemies so that the Gentiles could come to salvation, at the same time God loved them because of His choice and His promise to the fathers (11:28). You can count on this because God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable (11:29).

So while affirming human responsibility to repent and believe, Paul at the same time shows that God is in charge of salvation history, hardening some nations for a period of time while He works with others, and then reversing the process. These are God’s unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways that cause Paul to burst out in praise (11:33). But let’s unpack this in more detail:

A. God is powerful to harden nations and to lift that hardening, according to His sovereign purposes.

Paul says (11:25), “that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” We saw this in 11:7-10. Paul also refers to it in 2 Corinthians 3:14-15, where Paul says in reference to the Jews, “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart.” Jesus referred to the same spiritual hardening or blindness in Matthew 13:13-16 with reference to His parables. It was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (6:10), “Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” It was God’s sovereign judicial hardening of people in their disobedience and unbelief.

This is hard truth! God has the right to show mercy to whom He desires and to harden whom He desires (Rom. 9:18). If we cry, “That’s not fair!” we are contending with the Divine Potter, who has the right to make vessels for honorable or common use as He determines (Rom. 9:20-21). If God were fair, everyone would be condemned because all are guilty before Him. God is not required to show mercy to all. We can either rail against God for what we think is unfair or we can submit to God as the sovereign who has the power to harden or to show mercy. You will not understand the doctrine of election until you bow before God and yield all of your rights to Him, recognizing that if He dealt with you on the basis of fairness, you would be eternally condemned.

The staggering thing about what Paul says here is that for about 2,000 years now, the Jews have for the most part been hardened against the gospel because their ancestors cried out (Matt. 27:25), “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” Not all were hardened, in that there has always been a remnant of saved Jews according to God’s gracious choice (Rom. 11:5). And the hardening is “partial” in that eventually, it will be lifted. But be careful! If you say, “It’s not fair that a Jewish boy or girl living hundreds of years after Christ should be hardened because of the sins of their distant ancestors,” you have just charged God with unfairness! Those who make such a charge do not understand God’s sovereign right to be God or the utter sinfulness of all people in His holy presence.

That’s the negative side of God’s sovereign, powerful working in salvation history. But, thankfully, there is a positive side:

B. The future salvation of Israel is not just a possibility, but a certainty, because God has decreed it.

Paul is not expressing a holy wish, “I hope that someday all Israel will be saved,” but rather a prophetic certainty: “All Israel will be saved.” But there is a lot of controversy over the meaning of the text here that we need to sort out.

First, the Greek phrase translated “and so” can be interpreted in several ways. Without going through all of them, the most likely meaning is, “in this manner.” The idea is, “In the same manner that God has hardened Israel while He brought the Gentiles to salvation (described in 11:11-24), so once the full number of Gentiles has been saved, God will use that to provoke the Jews to jealousy so that they will be saved” (Moo, p. 720). As God sovereignly orchestrates the fullness of the Gentiles, so He will do with the Jews (see 11:12, 15).

But there is also controversy over the phrase “all Israel.” Many early church fathers and later the Reformers and their followers argued that “all Israel” refers to all of God’s elect throughout history, both Jews and Gentiles. But in Romans 9-11 Paul uses “Israel” ten times and every use refers to ethnic Israel (Moo, p. 721). The context of these chapters deals with the question of why the Jews were not coming to Christ while the Gentiles were. And clearly “Israel” in 11:25 and “they” in 11:28 both refer to the Jews in contrast to the Gentiles. So it is unlikely that Paul would change his meaning in 11:26.

Another view is that “all Israel” refers to the elect within Israel (as in 9:6). The meaning would then be that eventually the full number of the elect Jews will come to salvation. But this is stating the obvious. And, this would require a shift in meaning between 11:25, where “Israel” refers to the nation generally, to a more narrow meaning in 11:26. Also, it is hard to understand how the completion of the number of elect Jews will be seen as a dramatic event referred to as “life from the dead” (11:15). And so the best meaning is that “all Israel” means the nation in general.

But what does “all” mean? Most commentators agree that it does not mean every single Jew who has ever lived, nor every Jew living in the end times when the hardness is lifted. The phrase “all Israel” is used often in the Old Testament to refer to most of the nation, but not to every single Jew in the nation (Josh. 7:25; 1 Sam. 7:5; 2 Sam. 16:22; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chron. 12:1; Dan. 9:11; see Moo, p. 722, note 55). So Paul’s meaning for “all Israel will be saved” is that after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, God will lift the judicial hardening and the great majority of Jews living at that time will turn to Christ with saving faith.

And the point is that it is not that God looked down through time and saw that the Jews would believe of their own free will, and so He told Paul how things would turn out. Rather, things will turn out this way because God decreed that they will turn out this way. He is sovereignly, powerfully working in salvation history for His own purposes and glory.

C. The future salvation of Israel includes the coming of the Deliverer, the removal of ungodliness, and the forgiveness of sins, in accord with God’s covenant.

Briefly note five things:

(1). Israel and the Gentiles are saved in the same way, through faith in Christ the Deliverer.

Some wrongly teach that there are two ways of salvation, one for the Gentiles and another for the Jews. But there has always been only one way of salvation, namely, to trust in God’s provision of a Savior or Deliverer, who is Jesus Christ the Lord. In the Old Testament, the Jews looked forward to the final and perfect sacrifice who would bear their sins. We look back to Christ as the Lamb of God. But both Jews and Gentiles are a part of the same tree, not separate trees. This is not to say that there are no distinctions between Israel and the church, but it is to say that we are all partakers of the same promise of the Savior that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden (Gen. 3:15) and later to Abraham (Gen. 12, 15, 17).

(2). The coming of the Deliverer most likely means that all Israel will be saved either just prior to or in connection with the second coming of Christ.

Some argue that verse 26 refers to Christ’s first coming, but at that time Jesus did not remove all ungodliness from Jacob and all Israel was not saved. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (pp. 190-191, 232-234) argues that it refers to a spiritual coming of Christ out of His spiritual dwelling place with His people (“Zion”) at some time in the future that will result in widespread conversion of the Jews. But most commentators understand this as a reference to either just prior to or at the time of the second coming, when Christ will come out of the heavenly Zion (Schreiner, p. 619).

Zechariah 12:10 predicts, “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.” Perhaps even as Paul was converted by seeing the risen Savior, so all Israel will be dramatically converted when the Lord intervenes to save them from national destruction at Armageddon and then appears in glory (Zech. 14:1-4). But we can’t be dogmatic on the details of these future events.

(3). The removal of ungodliness from Jacob reminds us that there is no salvation apart from repentance.

“He will remove ungodliness from Jacob” (from the LXX of Isa. 59:20) is another way of referring to salvation. “Ungodliness” refers to the “unbelief” of 11:23 (Schreiner, p. 620). But to describe salvation as “removing ungodliness” shows, as all Scripture affirms, that saving faith always involves repentance. Granted, it is a lifelong process that is never perfected until we are with the Lord. But if we claim to believe in Christ but live in persistent disobedience, one day we will hear Him say the frightening words, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23).

(4). The forgiveness of sins is the primary need of every person.

Romans 11:27: “This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” Paul combines Isaiah 59:21 and 27:9 (see Moo, p. 729). “I take away their sins” reminds us that salvation is not primarily a psychological matter of moving from low self-esteem to proper self-esteem, as Robert Schuller claims. Nor is it a matter of Jesus helping you to succeed in your family life or career. Salvation meets our fundamental need to be reconciled with the holy God through His just forgiveness of all our sins through the death of Christ (Rom. 3:26).

(5). The forgiveness of our sins is based on God’s covenant provision through Jesus Christ.

Some (Moo, p. 728) argue that Paul is referring here to the Abrahamic covenant. But the language also reminds us of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-44; Morris, p. 422). But the point is, because it is God’s covenant, it is a sure thing. He always keeps His covenant promises (Rom. 11:29). And so Paul’s prophecy shows God’s sovereign, powerful working in salvation history.

But, as I said, God doesn’t give us prophetic revelation so that we can draw up nifty charts of the end times. There is always a practical aspect to it:

3. Prophetic revelation is given to curb our pride and to deepen our burden for the lost, not to stoke curiosity about the future.

Paul gives us this information “so that you will not be wise in your own estimation” (11:25). The Gentiles were prone to think that they were hot stuff because they were saved and to look down on the unbelieving Jews because they had rejected Christ. We’re all prone to think that God saved us because somehow we’re a notch above others and He saw something worth saving in us that others lack. But that is to deny God’s grace. And, if we look down on other sinners and think that they deserve judgment (forgetting that we deserve it just as much as they do), we will not reach out to them with the gospel. One way to hasten the conversion of the Jews is to finish the task of evangelizing the Gentiles, because when the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, God will lift the partial hardening on the Jews and bring them to salvation en masse.

Conclusion

So test your understanding of God’s prophetic revelation of salvation history by this: Does this truth humble you as you realize that except for the grace of God, you could have been born at a time when the Gentiles were “separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12)? But as Paul goes on to say (Eph. 2:13), “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” God’s sovereign working in salvation history should produce humble gratitude in our hearts.

Also, does this truth burden your heart for those who are outside of Christ, whether Jew or Gentile? While God is sovereign over salvation history, as we saw (10:14-15), He uses those whom He has saved to proclaim the good news to those who need to hear it in order to believe. Understanding God’s prophetic revelation should motivate us to proclaim to all that “the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him” (10:12).

Application Questions

  1. Why is biblical prophecy such a popular topic? How must we be careful so that we don’t misuse it?
  2. How does biblical prophecy confirm God’s sovereignty in salvation? Does this rob people of the responsibility to believe?
  3. Discuss: Is God unfair to keep the Jews in spiritual hardening for 2,000 years even though most of them had nothing to do with crucifying Jesus Christ?
  4. Specifically, how does the truth of God’s sovereign working in salvation history curb our pride?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Eschatology (Things to Come), Predestination

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