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26. Man’s Failures Do Not Frustrate the Purposes of God (Romans 11:1-12)


Prayer was requested one Sunday during our worship meeting for Torrey Robinson, one of our seminary students. Torrey was on his way to a city in the South for a summer internship when his Volkswagen developed engine trouble. We were asked to pray for the car repairs and Torrey’s safe arrival. As an aside, the man requesting prayer commented, “Maybe we should just send Deffinbaugh down there to fix the car!” My quick response was, “Brother, I can heal sick automobiles, but I sure can’t raise the dead!”

Some failures in life are beyond repair. I well remember my early days on a computer when mistakes were not only more frequent but sometimes fatal. Most distressing was the message, “Fatal Error,” on my computer monitor. Whatever work I had done and not saved to disk was lost forever. My daughter’s less technical words when the screen went blank were, “Daddy, it went away!”

Fatal errors may not even be big mistakes. Even seemingly insignificant mistakes can bring disastrous results. Some may think of the coming of the kingdom of God as though it were the launching of the Challenger space vehicle. Even a very small problem can scrub an entire launching effort. If errors cause men to abort missions they very much desire to accomplish, can human error prevent the kingdom of God from being established on the earth?

The question of our text in Romans 11 is this: “Is Israel’s failure a fatal error?” At this point in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, there is no question that Israel has miserably failed. Worse yet, they are without excuse for their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. The remaining question is simple: “Is there any hope for Israel in view of her willful rebellion against God and her rejection of God’s Messiah?” The answer to this question is quite confident: Israel’s hope is sure. The God who started His work with Israel will bring that work to completion.

The words of our text are not only for Jews. Paul will apply the failure of the Jews to Gentile saints in verses 13-32. Better yet, the reasons for Israel’s blessings are also applicable to the Gentiles. The basis for Paul’s hope and confidence for the nation Israel is also the basis for the Christian’s hope and confidence. One can read many books on success, but no more encouraging commentary on failure can be found than here in our passage. Let us listen well to find that hope which rests in God alone.

The Setting

Paul has been dealing with the gospel as it relates to the Jews and the Gentiles. In his day, as in our own, the Jews have failed to attain righteousness before God, not because they failed to work at it but because they did work for it. Gentiles, on the other hand, attained righteousness because they did not work for it but simply received Christ’s righteousness by faith. The Gentiles have gained without effort what Israel failed to gain by her efforts.

Israel’s condition, from the perspective of God’s sovereignty, is the outworking of God’s sovereign choice (or election).8 Those who do not believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah are those whom God has not chosen to become true Israelites, true sons of Abraham.9 God has nevertheless chosen a small remnant of “true Israelites,” who believe in Jesus as their Messiah, and who guarantee the hope of Israel by preserving this nation for a time of future restoration and blessing. This is the thrust of Romans 9.

Israel’s condition must also be explained in terms of human responsibility. While it is true that those who are not “true Israelites” were not divinely chosen, it is also true that they rejected the Messiah. Israel’s unbelief is also the result of her willful rejection of the truth of the gospel, which God revealed in the Old Testament and again in much fuller detail in the New.10 The Old Testament Scriptures often spoke of Him who was to come to save condemned sinners. The prophets who spoke of Him were rejected, persecuted, and even put to death. And when Jesus came and presented Himself to His people as their Messiah, they rejected Him as their King. “We have no king but Caesar,” their leaders cried out to Pilate (John 19:15). Their guilt was undeniable and inexcusable. This guilt Paul stresses in Romans 10.11

Now that the causes of Israel’s unbelief have been explored in chapters 9 and 10, Paul turns to the consequences of her unbelief in chapter 11. Does Israel’s willful rebellion and rejection of the gospel mean that God has written off this people? Are all of Israel’s hopes for the future gone? Does Israel’s failure mean God is finished with her?

The consequences of Israel’s failure to believe in Jesus as their Messiah is taken up in chapter 11. In verses 1-12, Paul explains why Israel’s hopes are very much alive. In verses 13-32, Paul turns to the Gentiles, pointing out the lessons they need to learn from Israel’s failures. In verses 33-36, Paul concludes the argument of chapters 9-11 with an outpouring of praise, based upon the wisdom of our God.

The Structure of the Text

We shall view the structure of our text in light of the structure of the entire chapter. Verses 1-12 deal with Israel’s future, which is just as bright and just as certain as ever. Verses 13-32 are lessons Gentile believers should learn from Israel’s failures. Verses 33-36 contain Paul’s expression of praise and adoration, based upon God’s character and nature as evidenced in His eternal plan for saving both Jews and Gentiles. The chapter can therefore be outlined:

(1) Israel’s future hope is certain because it rests in God — verses 1-12

  • The question raised — verse 1
  • The question answered — verses 2-12

(2) Implications from Paul’s teaching: Lessons the Gentiles should learn from Israel’s failure — verses 13-32

(3) Paul’s Response: Praising God for His infinite wisdom and sovereign grace — verses 22-26

The Question Is Raised

I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.

The question Paul raises here is very logical. Israel’s hope for the future seems quite dim indeed. Israel has willfully and inexcusably rejected Jesus as her Messiah. While it is true that Israel has always been “stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears” (Acts 7:51), this time the Israelites have rejected the Messiah in person. As the parable which Jesus Himself told before says, they have rejected the servants of God (the prophets), but now they have rejected the Son (see Matthew 21:33-46). Have they gone too far? Is it all over for Israel?

Who would ask such a question? It would hardly be unbelieving Jews. They were (and are today among the orthodox Jews) confident that their Messiah was and is still coming, and that God would bless them as He had promised. It could be that believing Jews would ask such a question for their hopes as Jews are involved. It seems most likely that believing Gentiles would raise this question. After all, if God does not literally keep those promises He has made to the Jews, how can we be assured He will keep His promises to us?

But there is more to the question than this. In the broader context of the entire chapter, it is very clear that Paul is speaking principally to Gentiles. Paul’s application, beginning at verse 13, is to Gentiles, particularly warning them against pride (see verses 18, 20). The expression, “do you not know …” employed in verse 2 implies a gentle rebuke to the Gentiles. I believe that as the Gentile Christians observed and reflected on the failure of Israel, feelings of disdain for the Jews began to arise. A sense of smugness and superiority was already becoming evident among the Gentile believers. They were beginning to look upon the Jewish pagans in the same way Jews looked upon the Gentiles as pagans. If God had truly rejected Israel, then the Gentiles would be their replacement. The Gentiles and the church would replace the Jews. God’s purpose was much broader, including both Jews and Gentiles as Paul emphasizes in this chapter.

Strong disagreement still exists among evangelical Christians over the answer to the question, “Has God rejected His people?” Along with Paul, dispensationalists emphatically answer “No!” In defending their point, they may go too far in pressing the differences between Israel and the church. The covenant, or non-dispensational position, holds that the church has permanently replaced Israel and that all of God’s promises to Israel will be fulfilled through the church. This view does not seem to square with the clear thrust of Romans 11. In stressing the unity, or continuity, between the two Testaments, this position seems to ignore the distinctions evident between God’s dealings with the Jews and His dealings with the church. In trying to defend their positions and disprove their opponents, both dispensational and non-dispensational positions have taken their positions to extremes. As in the body of Christ, there is both unity and diversity. God’s dealings with Israel are consistent with His dealings with the church, but they are not synonymous. Having now displeased and disagreed partially with the two major segments of evangelicalism, I press on.

Let us look more carefully at the exact words Paul employs in phrasing the question in verse 1. The question is not asked from the standpoint of Israel’s merits. Neither is Israel the center of attention. Look at the words once more with the emphasis I have given to them: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?”

God is the center of attention. Israel’s future does not depend on her, but upon God. It is not Israel’s failure which is paramount, but God’s faithfulness. Israel’s future rests in God.

God has already committed Himself to finishing what He has started and that which He has promised His people:

“For the LORD will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because the LORD has been pleased to make you a people for Himself” (1 Samuel 12:22).

Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day, And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: “If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the LORD, “Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease From being a nation before Me forever.” 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 (Jeremiah 31:35-37; see also 33:25-26).

Israel’s future rests in God and in His faithfulness to perform that which He promised. As Paul states later in this eleventh chapter of Romans,

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29).

Paul’s response, “May it never be!” seems to be a reflection of two things. First, it expresses Paul’s strong reaction to the mere possibility that God might fail to fulfill His promises: “How could anyone even conceive of the thought that God would fail to fulfill His Word?” Second, it expresses Paul’s strong reaction as a Jew. Paul thus reminds his readers that he is a Jew and that Israel’s hope is his own hope. Paul’s reaction is equally appropriate for any Gentile believer. If God fails to fulfill His promises to the Jews, how can any Gentile feel secure about the promises God has made for Gentiles? Let there be no doubt about it, God will fulfill His promises. Verses 2-12 explain the reasons for Paul’s strong affirmation.

Sovereign Grace:
The Basis for Israel’s Hope

God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. 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 Thy prophets, they have torn down Thine 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.” In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.

Israel’s failure is self-evident. Her guilt is both evident and irrefutable. She is without excuse. But does this also mean that Israel is without hope for the future? Is God finished with Israel? Is it all over for Israel? Certainly not! There is but one reason for Israel’s hope which is spelled out and illustrated in verses 2-6: Israel’s hope is certain, because her salvation and restoration are not dependent upon fallible, sinful men but on the sovereign grace of God. To demonstrate this central truth, Paul turns first to the eternal purpose of God (election). He then draws a principle from an incident in the ministry of Elijah in verses 2b-4, which he applies to Israel’s present condition (verses 5-6).

Israel’s future is certain because God chose them as a part of His eternal plan and purpose (verse 2a). Here in but a few words we find a very fundamental principle. It is the basis for Israel’s hope. It is likewise the basis for the hope and security of every believer, regardless of the dispensation in which they live.

The principle is this: Man’s salvation, security, and eternal hope rest in God, rather than in man.

There is only one basis for man’s salvation, sanctification, and security: God’s sovereign grace. Satan has often offered, and fallen man has persistently attempted, to establish a second way—man’s righteousness attained through his own good works. This means of attaining righteousness is not biblical, and it has never worked. It cannot work because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It cannot work because “there is none righteous, not even one.” It cannot work because the law of God cannot save men but only condemn them (See Romans 3:1-20). Man, by his own efforts, is not able to save himself. Man’s salvation, sanctification, and security rest in God, in God alone. This is precisely what Paul wants us to understand and what he means when he writes at the end of this chapter:

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things (Romans 11:36).

He is the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is the One who began the “good work” in us, and He is the One who will perfect it (Philippians 1:6).

Thus when Paul writes, “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (verse 2, emphasis mine), he need say no more. Indeed, there is nothing more that can be said. God made a choice in eternity past to set Israel apart, to bring blessing to the world through this people, and to establish an eternal kingdom in which they would play a significant part. On the basis of His eternal purpose, God continually made promises to His people in the Old Testament. The fulfillment of these promises12 does not depend on the faithfulness of fallible men but on God. If men cannot earn or merit these blessings by their good works, neither can they frustrate the purposes and promises of God by their failures. The foreknowledge of God refers to His plans, His purposes, and His people which He has chosen in eternity past.13 It is this foreknowledge which is the basis for Israel’s hope. Whatever failures Israel has made, God’s Word never fails. Thus His purposes and promises are certain.

Verses 2b-6 provide us with an Old Testament illustration of the doctrine of sovereign grace. Paul turns to an incident in the ministry of Elijah to illustrate his point.

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 Thy prophets, they have torn down Thine 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” (Romans 11:2b-4, referring to statements contained in 1 Kings 19).

We would do well to refresh our minds concerning the context of these words. Elijah was a prophet to the nation Israel. Due to the sin of this people, God’s judgment was pronounced upon the nation just as Moses had warned in Deuteronomy 28-31. Specifically, Elijah’s ministry began with the announcement that there would be no more rain in the land until he gave the word (see 1 Kings 17:1). Elijah was then sent into hiding until the time when God would send the rains (17:2-24). After considerable time passed, God commanded Elijah to present himself to king Ahab and to announce that the rains were coming (18:1-15).

When Elijah stood before Ahab, he challenged the false gods of Ahab and Jezebel, his wicked wife, to a contest on Mt. Carmel.14 In this contest, the false gods were exposed when God revealed His power by sending fire from heaven and consuming the watered-down sacrifice offered by Elijah (18:19-40). In spite of these events on Mt. Carmel, Israel did not repent as a nation, and Ahab and Jezebel remained in power. Worse yet, Jezebel vowed to put Elijah to death (19:2). When Elijah saw15 that his ministry had proven to be a failure, he turned and fled.

Elijah was wrong.16 We should all agree on this. But Paul wants us to focus on one aspect of Elijah’s error and how God corrected it. Do you notice that in the New American Standard Bible (as well as the New International Version and the King James Version) Elijah is said to have pled with God against Israel and not for Israel (verse 2)? Why did he not plead with God for Israel? Because Elijah had given up hope for Israel. The question Paul has raised in verse 1 (“God has not rejected His people, has He?”) is not an idle one. Elijah, in his moment of despair, thought that it was all over for Israel. He ran away because he believed God had, or should have, given up on this rebellious people. After all, he had just dramatically demonstrated the sin of their idolatry. He had presented to them the God whom they must trust and obey. But in spite of his ministry, which proved they were guilty and without excuse, they did not repent and turn to God.

From the words which Paul cites in verse 3, we can see why Elijah gave up hope. His focus was all wrong. Look at this verse as I have chosen to place the emphasis:

“Lord, they have killed Thy prophets, they have torn down Thine altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.”

Elijah’s focus is on Israel and on himself, but not on God. Because he has fixed his eyes on man rather than on God, Elijah can only see failure. He, as a prophet, has failed (see 1 Kings 19:4).17 Israel too had failed. Since all Israel had rejected him and since he alone was left as a prophet, in his thinking at least there was no hope for Israel. In Elijah’s mind, man’s failure, both his and Israel’s, had nullified the purposes and promises of God. Israel’s hope was gone Elijah wrongly concluded, because man had failed God.

God’s answer corrected this error, and His subsequent actions proved that Israel’s hope rests not in the faithfulness of men but in the faithfulness of God:

But what is the divine response to him? “I HAVE KEPT for Myself SEVEN THOUSAND MEN WHO HAVE NOT BOWED THE KNEE TO BAAL” (Romans 11:4).

Notice that while Elijah’s words are man-centered, God’s response is God-centered. It mattered not that Elijah had failed or even that most of the nation Israel had failed. God was in control. Though most of the nation had failed, including Elijah, God would not allow man’s failure to hinder His purposes and promises for Israel, the people whom He had foreknown. Because of this, God preserved for Himself a remnant of 7,000 people. It was through this remnant that God’s purposes would be carried out.

Elijah was a prophet, but he was not infallible. He was wrong about Israel’s future. He was wrong because he linked the hope of Israel to the works of Israelites rather than to the sovereign grace of God. God always finishes what He starts. Because of this, God preserved a remnant. It was not man’s faithfulness which kept the hope of Israel alive, but God’s faithfulness.

The principles by which God has dealt with Israel in the past hold true to the present.18 Thus Paul can and does extend the principle he has just established to Israel’s present condition.

The principle is this: God will finish what He starts, on the basis of His sovereign grace, achieved through a remnant of those whom He chooses and preserves.

Those who might lose hope for Israel in Paul’s day needed only to be reminded that there was a remnant of “true Israelites” in their own day, just as there had always been down through Israel’s history. This remnant was the assurance that God’s purposes for this people would be fulfilled sometime in the future. Numbered among this remnant was none other than Paul himself (see verse 1). This remnant was a remnant “according to God’s gracious choice,” that is, a remnant in accordance with the principle and working of sovereign grace.

We must contemplate the implications of this remnant according to grace. Paul plays out the implications in verse 6. Since it was a remnant according to grace, Israel’s future was not dependent upon good works but upon God, whose purposes and promises are based on grace. Because the future of Israel is based upon God’s grace, it cannot be earned by man’s good works, and neither can it be lost by human failure.

The failure of Israel could not nullify the sovereign purpose of God to bless His people, Israel. While Israel’s hope is a future hope, it is a certain hope based upon the principle of grace and upon the character and power of God. As the words of one song say, “More secure is no one ever, than the loved ones of the Savior …” Praise God for this assurance.

Israel’s Failure Fulfills God’s Sovereign Will

What then? That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; 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.” And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, and a stumbling block and a retribution to them. Let their eyes be darkened to see not, and bend their backs forever.”

Would anyone wonder if Israel’s failure would frustrate God’s purpose for this people He has chosen? Paul’s words in verses 2-6 should lay any such worry to rest. But if in verses 2-6 Paul has said that man’s failures cannot hinder God’s purposes, verses 7-12 go even farther. Here Paul will demonstrate that Israel’s failure fulfills God’s Word. Rather than hinder God’s cause, Israel’s failure back-handedly served to fulfill it. We shall see how Paul shows this to be true as he turns to the prophecy of Isaiah and to a psalm of David.

Israel’s present condition, both at the time of Paul’s writing and at this time 2,000 years later as well, is summarized in verse 7. History has shown that Israel has not yet obtained that blessing for which the Jews have hoped. Those who were chosen (or “foreknown,” see Romans 8:29; 11:2) have obtained it,19 and the rest were hardened. This statement is but a further clarification of what Paul has already taught in Romans 9:6-13; 22-24. The emphasis on God and on His sovereign grace remains.

In verse 8 Paul turns to Isaiah 29:10 to show that Israel’s present hardening is a fulfillment of prophecy. The context of Isaiah 29 is instructive. The chapter begins with a pronouncement of woe upon Jerusalem (here called Ariel, meaning Lion of God—verses 1-2). God warns of a very sudden siege on the city. This attack will take it by surprise (verses 3-8).

Because of her willful rebellion and disobedience of the truth which He has revealed to His people, God warns that He will bring upon the Jews a blindness and dullness to the truth. Those who would not obey the truth will become ignorant of the truth.20 One means by which this dullness will be brought on the Jews is the removal of the prophets (also called “seers,” verse 10), who formerly explained God’s Word and His will. While a warning concerning the judgment of Jerusalem is in view in the first part of this chapter, there is also the promise of Israel’s future restoration (verses 17-24). In that day the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the afflicted will be made glad, and the needy will rejoice in the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel (verses 18-19).21 So too the wicked will be punished (verses 20-21). There will be in that day a great repentance and turning back to God (verses 22-24).

In referring to Isaiah’s words, Paul establishes several important points which undergird his argument in these verses:

(1) Israel is presently blinded, unable to understand what God is doing and thus hear or heed God’s Word. They have “eyes to see not and ears to hear not.”

(2) Israel’s blindness and dullness is a divinely imposed judgment for her sin and disobedience. “God gave them a spirit of stupor.”

(3) Israel’s blindness is a long-standing condition, a pattern which has existed for a long time. Isaiah spoke of Israel’s dullness as “down to this very day.” Even in Isaiah’s day, Israel’s dullness was a long-term condition. We know that this condition existed while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt:

“Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear” (Deuteronomy 29:4).

Centuries later Paul can use these same words to describe the nation in his day. In our own time, 2,000 years later, these words still describe Israel’s condition.

Paul refers to verse 10 of Isaiah’s prophecy as being fulfilled by Israel in his day. The hardness of their hearts, their rejection of Jesus as Messiah, their opposition to the gospel, and especially their blindness to the gospel (particularly as revealed in the Old Testament) are all a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Israel’s chastening.

Has Israel’s disobedience and unbelief somehow thwarted God’s plans and purposes for Israel so that His promises to His chosen people will never be fulfilled? Hardly! God, through the prophet Isaiah, promised to chasten His people for their sin by making them dull toward the truth and blind toward the gospel. But in the same prophecy, God promised to restore Israel in the more distant future. Judaism in Paul’s day fit the description given by Isaiah centuries earlier. Was God’s Word frustrated? No, it was fulfilled. Prophecy was fulfilled by Israel’s disobedience.

Isaiah is not the only Old Testament witness to Israel’s condition. David too wrote of the day of Israel’s divine judgment. In verses 9 and 10 of this chapter Paul cited from Psalm 69, verses 22 and 23. A few observations concerning this psalm will help us to understand how Paul used these words to support his point.

(1) This psalm is a psalm of David.

(2) It is written out of David’s personal experience of being opposed and attacked by his own countrymen who apparently wish to overthrow his reign (see verses 1-3, 7, 8, 12, 20).

(3) It is a messianic psalm in that it looks beyond David’s personal struggles to those of the Messiah to come (see verses 9, 20-21, 26).

(4) While David recognizes and confesses his sinfulness, the suffering and opposition he is facing here is not due to his wrong-doing but is the result of his faithfulness to God (see verses 7, 9).

(5) David therefore petitions God to respond to the persecution and injustice being brought against him by punishing his enemies and by delivering him (see verses 22-33).

(6) In this psalm, David affirms that righteousness cannot be obtained by works and that God’s blessings are granted by grace (see vv. 16-19, 32-33).

(7) It is a psalm which beseeches God for salvation by means of mercy and grace, not works (see verses 13 and 16).

(8) It realizes that heart obedience is better than legal sacrifices and rituals (see verse 31).

(9) It looks forward to the salvation of Zion (see verses 34-36).

In the light of these general observations of Psalm 69, we now turn our attention to Paul’s citation of verses 22 and 23. Much like the prophet Elijah, David is pleading to God against his fellow-Israelites, at least some of them. By rejecting him as their king and resisting his rule, they are resisting God. Their opposition to David is really opposition toward God. Because of this, David pleads with God to deal with these rebels as their sin deserves.22They do not want grace—they loathe it—so let them have justice.

If the appeal of David was appropriate, how much more so was the divinely imposed judgment of God upon Israel in Paul’s day, after the Israelites had rejected the Messiah Himself? Look at the broader context of David’s petition to see that it is strongly messianic, pointing more to Messiah than to David:

Reproach has broken my heart, and I am so sick. And I looked for sympathy, but there was none, And for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food, And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. May their table before them become a snare; And when they are in peace, may it become a trap. May their eyes grow dim so that they cannot see, And make their loins shake continually. Pour out Thine indignation on them, And may Thy burning anger overtake them. May their camp be desolate; May none dwell in their tents. For they have persecuted him whom Thou Thyself has smitten, And they tell of the pain of those whom Thou has wounded (Psalm 69:20-26, emphasis mine).

If divine judgment was poured out on the Israelites for their previous sins, how much greater was the guilt of those who rejected God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ? No wonder Paul can use David’s words from this psalm. This psalm not only foretold Messiah’s rejection by His people, but it foretold the divine consequences for this great evil which Israel had committed against God. Israel’s failure did not take God by surprise; it was foretold long before it happened. Israel’s failure does not frustrate God’s purpose, but fulfills prophecy.

The Best Is Yet to Come
With Enemies Like This, Who Needs Friends?

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!

The best part is yet to come. Paul has demonstrated that Israel’s disobedience has not destroyed their hope as a nation. If Israel’s sin has not forever doomed and damned this disobedient nation, it has done something very positive—it has brought about the salvation of the Gentiles.

The question posed in verse 11 is virtually the same as that raised in verse 1. I understand Paul to be reminding us that Israel’s future hope is still the issue at hand. Has Israel’s failure ruined her hope for the future? Not at all! Paul has already provided two lines of evidence in support of his answer. Paul’s first argument stated in verses 2-6 is based upon the doctrine of sovereign grace: Israel’s failure cannot thwart God’s purposes and promises because these were never dependent upon men but upon God. God’s promises to bless Israel and the whole world were not dependent upon man’s good works but upon divine grace. Second, in verses 7-10 Paul argues that Israel’s disobedience has not frustrated God’s plans but has fulfilled divine prophecy. Even when Israel disobeys God, it is seen to have been in the divine plan all along. And now in verses 11 and 12, we come to Paul’s third and final argument. Israel’s failure has brought about the salvation of the Gentiles; one can barely grasp the blessings which will follow when Israel comes to trust and obey God by turning to Messiah for salvation!

God’s purpose, determined in eternity past, was to bring salvation to all nations, not just Israel. Israel was to be the instrument through which God proclaimed the good news to the rest. Israel not only rejected the gospel for themselves, they refused to take the gospel to the Gentiles. This is evident in the rebellion of Jonah as described in the prophecy of the Book of Jonah. It is also seen in the opposition of the Jews toward the gospel (including Paul, in his former days) and especially toward its proclamation to the Gentiles (see Acts 22:18-22).

God, in His infinite wisdom, was not taken back by the rebellion of Israel. If the Jews would not believe the gospel and would not take the good news to the Gentiles so they might be saved, God would use the rejection of the gospel and the unbelief of Israel to bring salvation to the Gentiles. Paul’s words focus on this very thing—the triumph of God’s plans and purposes, not just in spite of Israel’s disobedience but by means of it. God uses even the wrath of men to bring praise to Himself (see Psalm 76:10).

Because of their disobedience of God’s law, their rejection of the Messiah, and their opposition to the gospel, the Jews have brought upon themselves divine judgment for a time. If Israel’s disobedience has brought judgment on the Jews, it has also brought salvation to the Gentiles. Even the turning of the Gentiles to Messiah will have a beneficial effect on the Jews. God will use this to provoke the Jews to jealousy. This jealousy will eventually lead to salvation for the Jews. When this comes about, the whole world will be blessed even more greatly through God’s chosen people. If the disobedience of the nation Israel has resulted in salvation for the world, one can only imagine what their repentance and faith will produce for the world.


Israel’s present condition is the result of God’s sovereign choice (chapter 9) and Israel’s willful decision to disobey God and to reject His Messiah (chapter 10). Her guilt is inexcusable. But her future blessings are nonetheless certain, because they are based upon God’s sovereign grace and not on human merit (works). Israel’s present dullness of sight and hearing is a divine judgment and the fulfillment of God’s repeated warnings. Her failure has opened the door for the evangelization of the Gentiles. Better yet, her future repentance and restoration will, by God’s grace, produce even greater blessings for the world. God has not given up on Israel! Israel’s hope is secure, because it rests in God and not in men.

The relationship of Jews and the Gentiles to God’s blessings as promised throughout the Old Testament is the topic of Romans 9-11. Paul’s conclusion is that in the end God’s purpose of saving both Jews and Gentiles will be accomplished, in ways men would never have imagined. The sovereign grace of God is the basis for our certain hope that these things will be finally and fully accomplished. I want to lock in on this crucial doctrine of sovereign grace as we conclude.

For unbelievers, the sovereignty of God is an offense. “If God is sovereign,” they say, “then why does He allow suffering and evil and injustice?” And beyond this, the unbeliever cannot begin to think that God is the One who ultimately controls the eternal destiny of men. Sinful men wish to be autonomous, the “captain of their own soul” and the “master of their fate.” While their rejection of God’s sovereignty is understandable, it is a manifestation of their sin and rebellion against God’s authority and control. God’s right to rule, and thus to make the rules, has been the issue since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

For unbelievers to chafe at the sovereignty of God is not difficult to explain. But why do so many Christians find the sovereignty of God offensive? There are several answers. First, while we remain in these fleshly bodies we still exhibit the sinful tendencies we had as unbelievers. Some of our difficulty with this doctrine is but the hangover of our sin nature. Second, we simply fail to understand God’s sovereignty, especially as it intersects with human responsibility.23 In this area we find a key to the uneasiness which some believers have with divine sovereignty.

Too many Christians do not comprehend that grace, by its very nature, must be sovereignly bestowed since it cannot be merited by our good deeds nor can it be forfeited by our failures. Sovereign grace is the basis for our hope as Christians. If God’s promises rested on our faithfulness, no one would ever attain them, not even one. Sovereign grace is the basis for our salvation, and it is also the basis for our security. Beyond this, it is the basis for certainty concerning our future hope. Divine sovereignty is not some bitter pill which Christians must swallow, in spite of its taste. Divine sovereignty should be a “sweet sound,” music to the believer’s ears.

In Romans 11, I believe Paul is expounding the doctrine of sovereign grace and its implications for men. In the first half of the chapter, through verse 12, Paul uses divine sovereignty to give Christians a new perspective on failure. In the last half of the chapter, Paul uses divine sovereignty as the framework from which we gain a new perspective of success.

Sovereign Grace and Man’s Failure

Have you ever thought through the Bible considering its emphasis on failure in proportion to its emphasis on success? The Bible speaks far more about failure than success. For example, Genesis begins with the failure of man in the Garden of Eden. From this point on, man’s failure is more prominent than man’s success. Chapters 28-32 of Deuteronomy speak much more of Israel’s failure than her faithfulness. In reading through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, much more text is given to the description of man’s failures than of man’s faithfulness. In the New Testament, we see the failure of the nation Israel to receive Jesus as the promised Messiah and the failure of the disciples to comprehend what His teaching and ministry was all about. We observe that virtually all the churches described in the New Testament have problems and failings (see Revelation 2 and 3).

Why the emphasis on man’s failures rather than on his faithfulness? Simply because this is true to life. Man has been tainted by sin. There is absolutely nothing we do which is not tainted by sin. I may (someday) preach a message you may think is an exegetical and homiletical masterpiece. But I may very well preach it out of less than perfect motivation. And even if I felt I did well and was rightly motivated, only God knows my heart and its deceitfulness. You may witness to a fellow-worker and that person may come to faith in Christ. But your service is not free from the taint of sin. If your ministry is effective, it is due to the grace of God. Your message, and method, and motivation will be tainted by sin.

The reason that we must exchange these earthly bodies for heavenly bodies,24 and that this earth must be destroyed by fire and made anew,25 is due to sin’s permeation of all of creation so that it is doomed to fail. These bodies in which we live, and love, and serve God are dying. Our groaning as Christians, of which Paul speaks in Romans 8, is due to the futility of this world. Fulfillment and perfection are yet to come. And so the Bible calls it like it is and speaks more of failure than of faithfulness and success simply because we are fallen creatures who live in a fallen world.

I did not say the Bible has nothing to say about success, and blessing, and fulfillment. When there is success in this life, it is because God has accomplished it, by His grace. When the Bible speaks of perfection and freedom from failure, it speaks of heaven. Men and women of faith do not look for perfection here on this earth but in the kingdom of God which is yet to come:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39-40).

Why, then, when the Bible speaks so much about failure and the fallibility of men, do Christians keep thinking, talking, and reading about success in this life? All of us would love to escape the groanings of this life, but that is not what God has called us to do. Just as Jesus came into this world to endure its imperfections (Hebrews 5:7), and to suffer, so we are called to groan and suffer (Romans 8:18-23; see also 1 Peter 2:21-25).

The emphasis of the Bible on human failure is for several reasons. First, human failure is the reality, the norm. The Bible views and deals with life as it is. The only place in this world you will see perfection is in the commercials which offer and depict perfection in place of failure, and all for the price of the product being advertised. Second, failure is the point at which grace is required and at which grace alone is sufficient. Jesus came to this earth to welcome sinners and to bestow His grace on them, because we are needy sinners. Sinners came to Jesus while the self-righteous shunned Him. Man’s sin is the occasion where grace alone will suffice and will save.

Third, because God’s grace is sovereign grace man’s failures do not thwart His purposes and promises. Our good works do not earn His favor (grace), and our failures do not forfeit it. Grace is unmerited, independent of our works or our worth.26 Praise God for that. God’s sovereignty is such that He can accomplish His purposes through our obedience or our disobedience, through our faithfulness or through our failures. He saved the Ninevites as easily through a willful and disobedient Jonah just as easily as He saved many Gentiles through a willing Paul.

Finally, when God’s grace is revealed at the point of man’s failure, it is God who receives the glory:

For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:26-30).

On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I shall not be foolish, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one may credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:5-9).

When you stop to think about it, all through the Bible, from beginning to end, God seems to have used men more in their failures than through their faithfulness. Even the great men of the Bible seem to have experienced more failure than success. Oftentimes what seem to be failures may not be due to sin in the life of the individual. David, for example, spent a considerable period of his life fleeing from Saul and later fighting to maintain his reign due to opposition even from his own family.

Think about your own life for a moment. How many times have you seen the hand of God working through your own failures? Is this not how you came to Christ in faith? Is this not how you have come to depend on Him more fully and to serve Him and praise Him more faithfully? How many times have you seen the gracious hand of God at work in your life because of the failure of others?

As I look at my life, the lives of others, and at the Scriptures, I find that when God accomplishes that which is good, it seems often to be almost accidental, coincidental, or unknown and unrecognized by those whom God has used as the instruments of His grace. The difference between God’s use of Israel in her disobedience and His use of us is not that we are faithful and they were not. They were unknowingly used of God; we can be knowingly used. Christians too may be used unknowingly. This may be because we are selfless in our service (for example see Matthew 25:34-40) or because we are disobedient and therefore dull in heart and mind to the hand of God (see Jonah).

The sovereign grace of God requires that Christians look at life in an entirely different way than the unbeliever views life. If “God causes all things to work together for good” for His children (Romans 8:28), then we must agree this includes not only our own failures but the failures of those who have touched our lives. Have we been mistreated? God meant it for our good. Have we been abused? This too God has granted for our good. The sovereignty of God is the believer’s basis for viewing failure, our own and that of others, differently than others do.

Our failures are never fatal when they cause us to turn to the sovereign grace of God. They are for our good. They are for His glory. Sovereign grace views failure in an entirely new light.

I will not ask you if there are failures in your life. I know the answer to this question. But I will ask, “Have you thought that God has given up on you because you have failed?” Do you think that God is only interested in you when you succeed? Then you have completely failed to understand the grace of God. Sovereign grace means that man’s failure is the occasion for God’s grace, if we simply acknowledge our failure, our need, and receive His grace. Grace is never more sweet than it is to one who has failed. Grace is never so distasteful than it is to one who thinks he has been successful.

One last thing must be said. The grace of God is never to be abused as an excuse for our sin or as an excuse for living our lives carelessly, as though our failures and our sin do not matter. Our failures cannot hinder or frustrate the work God has purposed and promised to do. But our failures are always costly to us personally. When we sin, we suffer. We who trust in Christ shall not suffer God’s eternal wrath, for we have been delivered from His wrath, once for all. But we will suffer the consequences of our own sin. We also suffer because we live in a world which has been contaminated by sin. It is never worthwhile to sin. But when we do sin, we do not frustrate God’s purposes or His promises. Praise God!

Our concluding thoughts in this lesson must focus for a moment on the implications of divine sovereignty as it relates to human failure. Our next lesson will focus on the sovereign grace of God as it relates to success.

8 The term used in Romans 8 and 11 for divine election is “foreknew” (Romans 8:28; 11:2).

9 See Romans 4:9-17.

10 In the Old Testament, one was saved by believing that God would provide the means for his salvation. This provision was to be in the person of the Messiah who was yet to come. In the New Testament, men are offered God’s salvation through faith in the Messiah who has come—Jesus Christ. In both the Old and New Testaments, salvation is by faith, not works, and it is based upon the work of Jesus Christ. Old Testament faith looked forward; New Testament faith looks back. Both look to the cross of Calvary (see John 8:56; Romans 4).

11 Technically, Paul begins to lay the foundation for human responsibility in chapter 9, beginning at verse 19 and building up to an indictment in verses 30-33. This is then explained much more fully in chapter 10.

12 It should be noted that there are two types of promises in the Old Testament, conditional promises and unconditional ones. But in this context we are speaking of those unconditional promises which form the basis for Israel’s hope.

13 For a more thorough definition and explanation of the term “foreknew” see Lesson 24, where this is discussed in much greater detail in the exposition of Romans 8:29.

14 I am personally not at all convinced that Elijah did that at God’s command. There is no such instruction found in the text. All the Scriptures tell us is that God commanded him to announce that there would be no rain and then later that there would be rains. The New Testament Scriptures speak of Elijah’s prayers concerning the rains (James 5:17-18) but not of his contest on Mt. Carmel. Was this Elijah’s idea which God merely tolerated? I think this is a distinct possibility. Not all agree with me on this point.

15 As the marginal note for 1 Kings 19:3 reads in the NASB, the text can either be translated, “And he was afraid,” or “And he saw.” I believe the second rendering is to be preferred. While Elijah may have become frightened, he was not afraid to face Ahab, all of Israel, and 450 false prophets the day before. If he was “afraid,” it was because he “saw” that his attempt to turn the nation around had failed.

16 From the overall context of 1 Kings 17-19, I believe Elijah was wrong in three major premises, all of which God seeks to point out and to correct in chapter 19. Paul does not mention all of these in our text, because he is seeking to establish one point in particular. Nevertheless, let me suggest the three avenues of error exposed and corrected by God in chapter 19. First, Elijah confused that which was spectacular with that which was successful. He thought the spectacular confrontation at Mt. Carmel would convince and convert the nation. It failed. God was not found in the spectacular wind, earthquake, and fire, but rather in the gentle sound of the wind (19:11-13). Success is not to be equated with the spectacular. Second, Elijah equated his significance to God as a person with his success as a prophet. God was more intimate with Elijah in his failure (19:5ff.) than He was with him in his success (contrast 17:2-16). God personally served Elijah hot baked bread (with butter?) after he failed, while before this Elijah was fed by unclean ravens and a Gentile widow (see Luke 4:25-26). Third, Elijah equated his personal success as a prophet with Israel’s prosperity and blessing (18:22; 19:4, 10, 14). God humbled Elijah by instructing him to select his successor and by appointing less than godly men, through whom God would bring about His purposes for the nation Israel (19:15-17).

17 When Elijah says, “I am no better than my fathers” (19:4), I believe he means, “I am no better than the prophets (fathers) who have preceded me.” He was a prophet. He wrongly supposed he was the only prophet left alive (see 1 Kings 18:4). The term “father” was applied to one’s forefathers, but it was used in reference to the prophets (see 2 Kings 2:12; 13:14). Elijah somehow expected to surpass all of his predecessors, when the fate of a prophet was to be rejected (see Acts 7:51-52).

18 Paul sees a continuity, not only to the character of God, but to the way in which men respond to God and in the way in which He deals with men. Thus, those who would conclude that all hope for Israel is lost fail to see that Israel’s present dilemma is little different from where they have been many times in the past. The cycles so evident in the Book of Judges continue on down through Israel’s history.

19 I take it Paul means by this that their future entrance into God’s promised kingdom are assured (see Hebrews 11:13-16; 39-40). The past tense is often employed in the Old Testament to speak of future events which have not yet occurred, but which are viewed as a certainty and spoken of as though they had already happened.

20 Notice that in verse 16 of Isaiah 29 those who were deprived of a clear understanding of God’s Word were the very ones who were so bold in their unbelief as to accuse God of having “no understanding.”

21 The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:3-6 have a very familiar sound in the light of Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 29:18-19.

22 I wonder if David is petitioning God for divine judgment on the basis of the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 28-30. These prophetic words certainly give David’s petition a biblical basis.

23 There is a danger here of separating divine sovereignty and human responsibility into that which is “divine” and the other which is “human.” Divine sovereignty focuses on God and on His infinite power and control of all things. Human responsibility is that accountability which men have to God for their actions and attitudes. Human responsibility is the responsibility which men have toward God.

24 See 1 Corinthians 15:35ff.

25 See 2 Peter 3:8ff.

26 So much then for those who say that God sent His Son to die for us, because we are of such value to Him. This is a denial of grace and a backhanded claim that men do not need grace. It is sloppy sentimentalism and not Scriptural truth.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)

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