For God's Sake, Let Grace Be Grace!
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 "Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life." 4 But what is God's reply to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
The title of today's message is, "For God's Sake, Let Grace Be Grace!"
"Let grace be grace!" comes from verse 6: "But if it is by grace - that is, if the preservation of a remnant of believing Israel is by grace - it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." So let grace be grace! Don't put anything in the place of grace.
"For God's sake!" comes from verse 4. "What is God's reply to [Elijah]? 'I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." I kept them. I brought about this faithful remnant, and I did it "for myself" - for my own sake, for the sake of my glory and my name. If there had been no remnant of my chosen people, I would have been disgraced. Therefore I took the initiative. I exerted my power. These 7,000 believers are believers because I acted for my name's sake.
This is the title of the message. This is the point of the message for us today at Bethlehem - and for the church of Christ in the 21st century: For God's Sake, Let Grace Be Grace!
O Lord, grant us grace to see and understand and savor the freedom of your sovereign grace. Help us to feel our helplessness without it. Help us to see our sin and our bondage to sin - our sinful nature. Help us to realize in the depths of our soul that we are slaves to pride and that without grace we are hopeless and lost. So humble us before you and before each other. And grant us to trust in the fullness of what Christ purchased for us - the riches of your grace, the fellowship your suffering, and the everlasting joy of your presence. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Main Point: God Has Not Rejected His People
To understand grace in these verses, let's get the flow of Paul's thought before us. His main point is that God has not rejected his people Israel. Verse 1: "I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!" So God is faithful. He keeps his promises. We who trust him today can bank on his reliability.
First Argument: Paul Himself Is an Israelite
Then his first argument to support this is that he himself is an Israelite. Verse 1b: "For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin." So, if I am not rejected, and I am an Israelite, we know God has not stopped working for the salvation of his people.
Second Argument: God Foreknew Israel
The second argument to support God's commitment to Israel is that he foreknew them. Verse 2: "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew." "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2). God chose them freely for his own and knew them the way a husband takes a wife and makes a covenant with her.
The Third Argument: In Elijah's Day and Paul's Day, God In His Sovereign Grace Chose and Kept a Faithful Remnant for Himself
Then Paul develops a third argument that God has not rejected the Israel of his own day. He compares his own day to the terrible days of Elijah. And he argues that since there was a remnant of Israel in those days, there is also a remnant in his day. But the argument isn't based on the mere historical likelihood that if there was a remnant in those terrible days of idolatry, surely there will be a remnant in Paul's less idolatrous day. The argument isn't that if people stayed faithful in threatening days, people will surely stay faithful in less threatening days. That's not the argument at all.
What is the connection between Elijah's day and Paul's day that makes Paul so sure that a faithful remnant then means a faithful remnant now? Let's read starting in the middle of verse 2:
Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 "Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life." 4 But what is God's reply to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
The link between Elijah's day and Paul's day is the sovereign grace of God exercised in choosing and keeping a faithful remnant for himself. Paul sees this - and we can see it - in God's words in verse 4: "I have kept for myself seven thousand men." In the Old Testament Hebrew of 1 Kings 19:18, it means literally "I caused to remain" (wehiiuarti). Paul read this and saw in it the sovereign work of God.
Be careful here. Don't make a mistake: The point of God's work for these seven thousand is not to keep them alive. When God says, "I have kept for myself seven thousand men," he didn't mean, I have kept them from Jezebel's sword. That wouldn't help Paul's argument at all. He's not trying to answer the question whether believing Israelites had died. He's trying to answer the question whether Israelites are believing and being saved and inheriting the promised blessings of God.
So when God says (v. 4), "I have kept for myself seven thousand men," he doesn't mean "I saw to it that they stayed alive." He means, "I saw to it that they were faithful. I saw to it that they believed."
Now that makes Paul's argument work, and that's exactly the point that he draws out of God's work in Elijah's day for his own day. There will be a remnant in my day, he says, because just as God sovereignly brought about faithfulness in Elijah's day, so he is bringing about faithfulness in my day. The link is not historical likelihood of how people act, but divine certitude. God did it then. God is doing it now.
An Election of Grace
And the way Paul draws out the connection is with the words, "chosen by grace" in verse 5: "So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace." Literally: "according to the election of grace." This phrase sheds light back onto the work of God in Elijah's day. Paul says, God kept seven thousand men for himself in those days, and in the same way (houtos) there is a remnant "chosen by grace." So "chosen by grace" is what Paul saw when he looked at the sovereign work of God in Elijah's day. If it was God who caused them to be a faithful remnant, then God had chosen them, to make them faithful. And the way he chose them was by grace. And therefore, God has the authority and freedom and power to do the same in Paul's generation. Therefore there is a chosen remnant of believing Israel. And God has not forsaken his people. That's the third argument.
But evidently Paul is concerned that we may not grasp the impact of what he has said in the phrase "chosen by grace," or "according to the election of grace." The implications of this for history and for your faith and prayer and faithful obedience and evangelism and love are huge. So Paul lingers here for a moment and clarifies. Let's read verses 5 and 6 together: "So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace (according to the election of grace). 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." Paul is jealous for us to make the election depend absolutely on grace, not works.
The Contrast Is Not Works vs. Faith, But Works vs. Grace
Let's clear away immediately a misunderstanding. Paul does not contrast works and faith in this text, as he does elsewhere (e.g., Romans 3:28; 9:32). There is no mention of faith here at all. So the point is not that works are things we do to earn God's favor and faith is something we do that receives God's favor. That's true in many texts in Paul. But that's not the point here.
What Paul contrasts here is works and grace, not works and faith. Verse 6: "If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." So the contrast is not between two kinds of human activity: faith and works. The contrast is between divine activity (grace) and human activity (works). The point is that if election is based on anything we do, it is not longer grace. If we provide the decisive act in causing our election, it is no longer an "election of grace."
Just think of it for moment: What meaning could it have for election (not the subsequent acts of salvation but the very first act of election in eternity) to be gracious if it depended on our decisive initiative? If God watches (even ahead of time in eternity with his foreknowledge) and waits, as it were, for us to act, and then in response to that self-generated act, he chooses us, then we are not "chosen by divine grace"; we are chosen by a decisive human act. God would simply be a responder. We would determine his action. And grace would no longer be grace.
The Parallel Between Romans 9:11-12 and Romans 11:5-6
Just to confirm that we are tracking with God's mind here, look back with me at the very close parallel text in Romans 9:11-12. It's describing the freedom of God in election as he chooses Jacob over Esau before they were born: "Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad - in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call [literally: because of him who calls] - she was told, 'The older will serve the younger.'"
You can see the parallels with Romans 11:5-6. Again Paul mentions human "works," but again the contrast is not with faith, but with God's divine calling of Jacob over Esau. And the reason for calling Jacob before they were born or had done anything good or evil is so that God's purpose according to election might stand. Election would not be free if it were based on what Jacob did. And grace would no longer be grace.
This means that grace is free, or it is not grace. The spring of grace is God's electing initiative, not God's response.
Bottom line: How can Paul be sure that God will have a faithful remnant in every generation? How can he be sure that God will finally bring all Israel to himself? The answer of verse 5 is this: God acts "according to the election of grace" (v. 5). God freely - by grace - saves a people of his own choosing and creates a remnant. He can cause seven thousand not to bow the knee to Baal, or seven million to believe in Jesus Christ. And no one's personhood, no one's accountability, is undermined.
The main point is this: God has not rejected his people, and no rejection of theirs can stop God from saving a remnant or saving a nation when he chooses to remove the hardness.
I close with six implications for your life.
1. Be Humbled
Learn that you were saved by grace and be humbled. You were dead in sin, blind, rebellious. And then, by grace alone, you were awakened to the beauty of Christ crucified for sinners. And, by grace alone, you believed.
When you stand before God at the last day and give an account for why you are there and others not - why you believed and then didn't - you will not say, "I guess I was wiser, more spiritual, smarter." With tears streaming down your face, and with trembling in your voice, you will say, "Thank you" (Romans 6:17).
Would it not be a beautiful church where everyone's pride was broken and we all knew that we deserve nothing good, so that every trouble would be received without grumbling and every pleasure would be received with amazed gratitude for grace? Believe me, if you take this theology of grace and cultivate any other atmosphere, you do not yet know God as you ought.
2. Pray for Hardened Unbelievers
Since God's grace can take for himself any one he chooses, therefore pray with boldness and confidence that God is able to save the most hardened unbeliever you love - Gentile or Jew.
Sovereign grace is a great incentive to pray with hope for hardened people. If God must wait for the initiative of the lost - if God must wait for the blind to see and the deaf to hear and spiritual corpses to raise themselves the dead - then you may as well hang up the telephone to heaven.
But if God is able to raise the dead, give sight to the blind, cause the deaf to hear, and grant repentance to those taken captive by the devil (2 Timothy 2:24-26), then you may ask him and believe that he will work the wonders of salvation.
3. Share the Gospel with Everyone
Since God's grace can take for himself anyone he chooses, therefore share the gospel with everyone, and trust the power of God to triumph over all obstacles. Tell the good news of salvation to the most unlikely sinner. For God saves by sovereign grace and is no respecter of persons. If he kept for himself seven thousand in the days of Baal worship, he can keep as many as he please from among those who worship money.
4. Take Risks with Your Money and Your Life
Since God's grace keeps us from falling and preserves us "for himself," and nothing can separate us form his love. Therefore, Christian, take risks with your money and your life for the sake of the poor and the perishing. You cannot lose. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?" (Romans 8:38). No. Nothing. Sovereign grace chose us. Sovereign grace called us. Sovereign grace keeps us. So take risks with your life for the sake of the poor and the perishing. This is why God makes you secure. So you can show where Treasure and Security is.
5. Exult in the Lord of Grace
Exult in the Lord of grace! Worship the Lord of grace. Love the Lord of grace. Be happy in the Lord of grace. Let grace be grace - for your joy and his glory. Wake up in the morning and remember: saved by grace, thank you God! Go to work and remember: saved by grace, thank you God! Come home and remember: saved by grace, thank you Father! Do a good deed for someone and remember: saved by grace, thank you Jesus! Exult in the God of grace. Let your heart overflow with praise and thanks to him. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31; 2 Corinthians 10:17).
6. Do Not Say, "I May Not Be Chosen"
Finally, a word to you who are not yet believing - not yet saved. Listen carefully and may God speak this word into your own soul: Do not say, "I may not be chosen." Rather say, "Since all God's choosing is by grace, there is absolutely no reason to think I am excluded."
May you hear the Lord Jesus calling: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).