I said last time that Paul gives three reasons why the Gentiles should not be proud and boast over unbelieving Israel. In other words, Paul is very concerned with any rise of anti-Semitism — any feelings or attitudes or words or actions that puff up Gentiles at the expense of Jews. I dealt with one of his reasons last week, and will take one more today.
There is reason for his concern about pride. The truth that Paul teaches could be taken by a proud heart and made into a platform for pride. What is that truth? You see it in verse 19: “Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true.” It is true that in God’s mysterious way of designing redemptive history, the unbelief of Israel is a means of salvation for the Gentiles. And the salvation of the Gentiles in turn is going to be a means of salvation for the Jews in the future. Look at the summary statement of the whole chapter in verses 30–32:
Just as you [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God [a reference to all the centuries that they went the nations went their own way while God dealt mainly with Israel] but now have received mercy because of their [the Jew’s] disobedience.
That is what we are seeing in Romans 11:19–20. Because of the disobedience of the Jews in rejecting their Messiah, Gentiles are now receiving mercy. Or as verse 19 says it:
Branches were broken off [Jewish people rejected Christ and were cut off from the covenant blessings] so that I [a Gentile] might be grafted in.
Verse 30 and verse 19 are saying the same thing.
How Does Israel’s Disobedience Bring Mercy to the Gentiles?
A little review: How does the unbelief and disobedience and breaking off of Israel result in mercy for the Gentiles? Two answers from two texts: first recall what John the Baptist said to the crowds of Jewish leaders outside Jerusalem:
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7–10)
In other words, he is saying that being Jewish (having Abraham as your father) is no guarantee of salvation. You must repent and bear fruit that fits with repentance. Otherwise, the axe is laid at the root and you will be cut off from the covenant promises. (Notice the similar imagery to Romans 11:17–24.) He sees an objection rising in their minds and says, “Don’t say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.”
In other words, don’t bank on your physical descent from Abraham to save you. And don’t think that God is locked into Abraham’s physical descendants to make a people for himself. In other words, don’t think that God has to save you, because otherwise he won’t have a covenant people and won’t be able to fulfill his promises. Don’t raise that objection. Why? “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” If natural Israel is cut down by the axe, or broken off because of unbelief, don’t think God is without a people to praise him. He will raise them up from stones.
“God aims to have people to worship and praise his Son.”
And that is what he has done in saving Gentiles. So you can see how advantageous it was to stones that Israel, in fact, did refuse to repent and believe on her Messiah. God turned to the Gentiles. He applied the new covenant promise to the nations and took out of their heart the heart of stone and put in a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26), and he is bringing the nations to himself by a great sovereign work of grace. So the first answer to the question: How does Israel ‘s disobedience bring mercy to the Gentiles is this: God aims to have people to worship and praise his Son, and if Israel won’t do it, God will create his people out of Gentile stones.
The second answer comes from Romans 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 stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.
The point here is that the law of Israel stops the mouth of the world — Jew and Gentile. It silences all our objections that God is unjust in punishing us. We all know that we are guilty and have no claim in God’s court.
The role of Israel in this global indictment is that they are exhibit A that the law cannot save. They had the law. It was addressed to them. They were favored with all manner of blessings, along with the law. But they could not measure up to the highest demands of the law. And so no justification could come by the law (verse 20). Israel was a lesson book for the nations: we Gentiles saw in Israel ‘s inability the hopelessness of law-keeping as way of justification and we discovered that the only hope is by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone.
And in this way the fact that Israel stumbled over the stumbling stone of grace and faith in Christ opened the door for us. We saw that it is futile to insist on human distinctives and prerogatives, even Jewish ones. How much more futile Gentile ones. So we were helped by Israel’s fall to see that all is by grace. We fled to Christ ourselves and were saved.
So in these two ways Romans 11:30, 19 came true. Jewish branches were broken off from the tree of the covenant so that we Gentile branches might be grafted in. Or as verse 30 says it, “We have received mercy because of their disobedience.”
Their disobedience meant that God turned to the Gentile “stones” to make a people for himself.
The failure of Israel to have a righteousness based on law showed us that salvation must be by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone, so even Gentiles could be included.
And to be sure that we have the whole picture of the summary in verses 30–31, we have to see that this mercy shown to Gentiles will later result in the future Israel’s salvation. Verse 31: “So they [the Jews] too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.” So the salvation of the Gentiles is not the end of the story, as if God were finished with Israel. All Israel — that is, some future generation of Israel — will turn to Christ and be saved, because of the mercy shown to the Gentiles. Their disobedience leads to our salvation. Our salvation will lead to their salvation.
Beware Lest You Make the Most Humbling Doctrines into a Ground for Boasting
Now, all this is meant to destroy boasting and make Jew and Gentile humble and broken and dependent under the mercy of God. But we are all sinners and our pride can find reasons to boast even in the most humbling doctrines. And that is what Paul is dealing with here. And oh, how crucial this is for us to hear — us who believe that true doctrine really matters. Let us be aware that you can take the most humbling of doctrines and use them as a ground of boasting. Paul sees that about to happen in this text — or maybe it is already happening. Verse 19:
“Stand in trembling awe that you are saved by mercy alone.”
Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
The central concern here is: “Do not become proud.” Do not boast over the broken off branches. Do not speak of unbelieving Israel in a way that exalts you. Speak of them in a way that shows you tremble with fear and awe at the freedom of God’s grace in saving you. Don’t be proud, but fear — stand in trembling awe that you are saved by mercy alone.
If You Go on Boasting, You Too Will Be Broken Off
Seeing Israel in her unbelief and lostness should produce trembling, not taunting. But it was about to produce pride and boasting. So Paul gave three reasons why this was utterly wrong. The first we saw last time: Verse 18b: “Remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.”
The one we want to deal with today is found in verse 21: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” What does this mean? Verse 22 explains: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”
The second reason I want to deal with for why we better not boast over the broken off branches — why we better avoid all anti-Semitism — is that if we go on boasting in this way, we will be broken off ourselves: Verse 22b: “You too will be cut off.”
How Does This Fit with the Perseverance of the Saints?
The main question I want to deal with here is how this threat fits with the biblical teaching of eternal security and the perseverance of the saints. Can we teach that a genuine believer in Christ — a person who has been born again by the Spirit of God and is justified by faith — should be threatened this way? Does such threat imply that Paul believed genuine believers — regenerated, justified people — could perish?
My answer is that yes, we should use these kinds of threats when we speak to the church which has in it genuine believers and false believers; and no, this does not imply that Paul thought genuine believers could lose their salvation. What’s our basis for affirming these two things?
The basis is that both are in the Bible: the Bible teaches that God will cause his elect people to persevere to the end in faith (not perfect faith, and not without struggles); and the Bible threatens Christians in general that if they make shipwreck of their faith they will be lost. The reason this is not inconsistent is that these threats are one of the means God uses to keep his people faithful to the end.
When he gives a threat, like “Don’t become proud, don’t boast over the unbelieving Jews (verse 20, 18), because otherwise you too will be cut off” (verse 22), the true believers take it to heart and stand in awe. They fear. They tremble at how fragile they are and how dependent on grace they are, and how crucial their authenticity is and how urgent it is that they prove real in their behavior. In this way, the threat serves to keep them from falling.
On the other hand, the hypocrites in the church — the pretenders, the people who are not really spiritual and are only going through the religious motions — do not tremble humbly at the warnings of the Bible. They may even use the doctrine of eternal security or perseverance to justify their indifference to these texts. That is a sign that they are in great danger and may not be true Christians at all.
“You can be a church member and not be a child of God.”
Let’s make sure you see that the Bible does indeed teach that God will keep his own and, though they may stumble often in this life, he will not let them fall utterly and abandon the faith. This was promised as part of the new covenant in the Old Testament. For example, Jeremiah 32:40: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” God will work so deeply and transformingly in the hearts of his people that they will always come back to him as their treasure over all the idols of this world. Then you come to the New Testament and find this same teaching:
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
[Christ] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:8–9)
In other words, if he called you, his faithfulness commits him to sustain and keep you. (See Jude 1:24–25 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24.)
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:30)
It does not say, “Some of those whom he justified will be glorified.” It says, “Those whom he justified he also glorified.” There is a rock-solid assurance that if we are justified by grace through faith in Christ, we will be glorified. God is faithful and will keep us believing.
What About Those Who Seemed to Be Christians but Went Away from the Faith?
What about those we know who seemed to be Christian and have gone away from the faith, never to return? The apostle John writes about them like this in 1 John 2:19:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
The crystal clear teaching here is this: someone may be a part of the church, baptized, eating the Lord’s supper, attending worship, morally upright on the outside, but “not of us” — that is, not truly born again and not truly trusting Christ and not truly justified. “For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”
“If we don’t persevere, then we never had become a partaker of Christ.”
The teaching is not that they were really saved and lost it. The teaching is that they proved, by their failure to persevere, that they were not truly saved. “They were not of us.” Or as Hebrews 3:14 puts it, “For we share [literally: have shared] in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” That is, our perseverance to the end is the ongoing evidence that we have become a partaker of Christ. If we don’t persevere, then we never had become a partaker of Christ.
What Does It Mean That Some We Will Be Cut Off and Not Spared?
So, in conclusion, what does Paul mean then, when he speaks to the church in Rome, and says at the end of verse 21, “Neither will he spare you”? And at the end of verse 22: “You too will be cut off”? He means that, on the one hand, there are real, genuine, spiritual, inward attachments to the tree — the covenant of grace and salvation; and, on the other hand, there are unreal, counterfeit, unspiritual, outward attachments to the covenant. If a person gives way to on-going pride and anti-Semitism, they show that their attachment is merely external and unspiritual and non-transforming, and they will be cut off.
When Does the Cutting Off Happen? What Is It Like?
But let’s be specific, when does this cutting off happen and what is it like in experience? Notice that in both warnings, the future tense is used. Verse 21b: “Neither will he spare you.” Verse 22b: “You too will be cut off.” When does that happen? What is it like? My answer is that it takes place at the final judgment and surprises many people. The cutting off will be the severing from the people of God and from God once and for all forever. This is what Jesus said in Matthew 7:22–23:
On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
In that word “Depart from me,” we hear the terrible squeezing of the omnipotent clippers lopping a fruitless, unspiritual, hypocritical church-going Christian from all attachment to the family of God.
A Warning to Us All
Oh, what a warning to us all! Listen carefully and lay this to heart: just as in the Old Testament you could be a circumcised, sacrifice-offering, outwardly law-abiding, physical child of Abraham and not a spiritual child of Abraham (John 8:39–44; Romans 9:8), so in the New Testament church — so in Bethlehem — you can be a baptized, communion-taking, worship-attending, tithe-giving, doctrine-affirming church member and not be a child of God.
I close with the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 13:5:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
And one of the tests, Paul says, is: Don’t become proud, and boast over the branches. But tremble with a humble thankfulness that you are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Amen.