This week, we move into the third and last chapter of this section of Romans where Paul devotes himself to defending the truthfulness of the word of God. To review, the accuracy of the Old Testament had been called into question by some of the Jewish Christians of Paul’s day. They interpreted several of the prophetic Old Testament texts to mean that the coming of the Messiah (which they knew to be Jesus) would bring the Jews great blessing and a massive turning to God among the Jews. Instead, they were met with the reality that almost all the Jews had rejected the Messiah while scores of Gentiles, who had never known much of anything about the God of the Hebrews, were coming to faith in Christ.
In many different ways, Paul labors in these chapters to show that the failure did not lie with the word of God, but in two other directions. Paul shows that one failure was with a wrong understanding of several Old Testament texts about the Jews which did NOT in fact promise that the Jews would come to God in droves with the coming of Christ, but showed that God would open His arms to the Gentiles. The second failure Paul highlights again and again was with the Jews themselves who, when Christ came onto the scene, rejected him. Perhaps the most direct statement about this failure of the Jews to respond to God we saw last week in the final verse of chapter ten. Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah through whom God said, “But concerning Israel he [God] says, “all day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
With that and other statements in this section which reveal the hard hearts of the Jews, Paul feels compelled to assure his readers that, even though the Jews had failed God again and again, He was not rejecting His people. With that burden Paul opens chapter 11 and says, “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don't you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah--how he appealed to God against Israel: 3"Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me"? 4And what was God's answer to him? "I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. These verses only communicate one major truth and that is: God will never reject those whom He has chosen to be His own. That was true in Paul’s day and it is true today. Paul makes this claim of God’s faithfulness to His people and then he builds two pillars of support for that claim.
The first support He gives to bolster his claim that God would never reject His people is autobiographical. Paul uses his own life as exhibit “A” to prove that God had not rejected the Jews. He describes himself as “an Israelite…a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul, as a converted Jew doesn’t hesitate to reveal his spiritual pedigree. Paul was all Jew and in fact he uses his “Jewishness” as evidence that God has not rejected the Jews. The question is, why does Paul use himself as an example here? Why didn’t he say to the Jewish Christians who were reading this letter, “Of course God did not reject the Jews, you are Jews and you believe in Jesus!” That would have been a powerful argument. Why was Paul’s conversion to Christ as a Jew more powerful evidence that God had not rejected the Jewish people than the lives of these converted Jews in Rome? There are perhaps several reasons, but one is this, Paul’s uniquely powerful testimony. Paul was not just a Jew, he was by all accounts a “super-Jew.” That’s what he says in Philippians three where he, in effect, makes the claim that “If any of you have reason to boast in your religious zeal, I have more.” Then, in verses 4-6 in that chapter, Paul trots out a Jewish religious resume that is probably without peer.
As a Jew, Saul of Tarsus is a Pharisee and that alone puts him in a fairly elite group. He was an expert in Jewish law. Beyond that, he studied with Gamaliel, a rabbi who up to this day is regarded as one of the greatest teachers of all time in rabbinic tradition. Many of his works are in the Mishnah, a Jewish commentary on the Torah and are still cited today by Orthodox Judaism. Only a select few of the most brilliant young scholars were allowed to study with Gamaliel. For a Jewish religious scholar to say they had studied under Gamaliel would be a little like an artist saying they had studied under Michelangelo.
Finally, Saul was so zealous for the faith, he was spearheading the attack against what was perceived to be a potent threat to the Jews, this new sect of Jesus followers. He was a central figure in a Jewish effort to squash the young church by persecuting Christians, dragging them to prison and, as in the case of Stephen, standing there holding the cloaks of those who were executing him. Saul of Tarsus was in a class by himself as a Jew. What better example of God’s faithfulness to the Jews than by citing himself, one who had in ignorance been fighting against God. Yet, God in His grace miraculously transformed him on the Damascus road and the church has never been the same. Paul, in using himself as an example of a Jew whom God had saved through Christ is citing a uniquely powerful witness to the fact that God had not rejected His people.
The second support Paul gives to bolster His claim that God had by no means rejected his people is the example of those in the Old Testament who did not bow down to Baal in the time of Elijah. As Paul moves to this second pillar of support, he more tightly focuses his understanding of how God has not rejected his people even though so many ethnic, national Jews had rejected Christ. Before he mentions the example he cites from 1 Kings 19, he says this. “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” Here, Paul defines God’s people not as ethnic or national Israel, but God’s people are those “whom He foreknew.” Paul uses that phrase to qualify just who God’s people are? As we’ve seen before, this word “foreknew” is loaded with meaning and unless we know what Paul means by it, we will miss a big part of what he is saying. For God to “foreknow” some person or persons means far more than to know what they would do in the future. The word used here does not allow us to understand it that way.
This word translated “foreknew” connotes a special, intimate knowledge within the context of a relationship. Paul says in First Corinthians 8:3, “…the man who loves God is KNOWN by God. This is the same word “know” translated from the original and this text brings out its meaning. This idea of knowing is connected to a relationship of love. That is, for God to KNOW you in this way, you must be in a love relationship with God. Using the same word, Jesus says to those self-deceived people at the judgment who think they know him, “I never knew you.” He is not saying to them, “’I’m sorry, your name doesn’t ring a bell. I’m not familiar with your portfolio.” He doesn’t know them in the context of a relationship. We see this in the area of God’s future knowledge of a person in the Greek translation of Jeremiah 1:5. God tells Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;…” God isn’t saying to Jeremiah, “Before you were born, I knew all the things you would do.” The word he uses doesn’t mean that kind of knowing. God is telling Jeremiah, “Before you were born, I knew you intimately and personally."
Now that we know that is Paul’s understanding of God’s foreknowledge, let’s read verse two again. “God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew.” Do you see what Paul is doing here? In verse one he makes the claim that God has not rejected his people. Here in verse two, he harmonizes that claim with what he has said in chapter nine. Remember, in chapter nine he has said that there are two groups of Jews. One group is made up of those who are purely ethnic and national—they are only biologically descended from Abraham. The other group is much smaller and is comprised of Jews who are not only ethnic Jews but are also the spiritual descendants of Abraham. In chapter nine he says God has chosen for himself this group of Jews just like He chose Isaac but not Ishmael, just like he chose Jacob but not Esau. There are these two groups within the Jews.
Here in verse two he is simply restating what he said in chapter nine. “God did not reject his people, WHOM HE FOREKNEW.” He is making a distinction between those whom he did NOT foreknow and those whom he DID foreknow. God did not reject these spiritual descendants of Abraham, these Jews whom he foreknew. God did not reject HIS people whom He chose before the beginning of the world. In other words, Paul is here bringing us back to the issue of election. Now, for those of you who weren’t here when we were laying a foundation of what the New Testament teaches about election, a the manuscripts from a series of messages on that topic are found on the foyer table and will hopefully bring you up to speed. If this truth of God choosing or electing people to be saved raises questions for you, those messages attempt to answer those questions. We know that when God foreknows someone he will elect them to be saved by the air tight connection Paul has already made between God foreknowing someone and His electing them. Chapter 8:29 says, “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…”
So, as Paul seeks to support the claim that God has not rejected his people, he reiterates the truth that only those whom He has elected are truly his people. And Paul confirms he is speaking of election in verse two by the illustration of Elijah he uses in verses 2b-4. The example speaks clearly about God choosing a small number of people out of a larger number of people to be in covenant with Him. You’ll remember, Elijah boldly stood against the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18 and God won a marvelous victory. But in chapter 19, the narrative records that after this great victory Elijah just disintegrates emotionally. He complains to God that he alone had remained faithful to God in Israel. Paul uses this narrative to illustrate that God had not rejected his people. Let’s read this beginning with the second half of verse two. “Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”
Israel at the time of Elijah was largely apostate. That is, they had, by a great majority turned away from God. Yet, in the midst of this apostasy, notice what God did. He says, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed down to Baal.” He does not say, “There are seven thousand who have decided to remain faithful in the midst of this mass apostasy.” He doesn’t place any stress on the faithfulness of the seven thousand. He makes it clear that this small group of Jews had not turned away because He had kept them back for Himself. HE caused them to remain faithful to Him. The implication is, if God had not intervened in the lives of these 7000, they would have turned and worship Baal as well.
Paul draws a parallel between the apostasy in Elijah’s time, when the vast majority of Jews rejected Yahweh in favor of Baal, and the apostasy within Judaism at the time of his writing. They had rejected the Messiah and as Paul says in 10:21, they were a disobedient and obstinate people who had repeatedly spurned God. More to the point, Paul says that just as in Elijah’s day God elected out of unfaithful Israel this small group of 7000 who would worship Him, He has in Paul’s day elected from the larger, ethnic Israel a small group of Jews who would enter into the New Covenant with Him through faith in Christ. This is what he means in verse five when he says, “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” The New American Standard translation more accurately reflects the original. It says, “…there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice.” The electing grace of God is at the center of both Paul’s Old Testament example and the New Testament reality faced by this small remnant of Jewish believers.
In verse six, Paul concludes this thought on God’s choosing the small remnant of Jewish believers, emphasizing that this salvation through election is by grace and not works. “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer by grace.” Notice that in verse four Paul explicitly speaks of the active, electing work of God in salvation and in verses five and six, Paul tightly links God’s election to His grace. Here you see the almost synonymous relationship there is for Paul between the grace of God in salvation without any room for works and His work in election. From this and chapter nine, it becomes apparent that God’s election of sinners is at the center of Paul’s understanding of God’s saving grace. On the basis of these three chapters, its safe to say that if a person were to have walked up to the apostle Paul and said, “I believe that salvation is all about the grace of God, but I don’t believe God elects people to be saved,” he would have been dumbfounded. That would blow him out of the water on the basis of Romans nine and eleven.
For Paul, as it relates to salvation, election and the grace of God are almost synonymous. One of the leading scholars in Romans today passionately writes, “Those who deny unconditional election introduce, albeit subtly, the notion that human works play a role in obtaining justification and open the door for human boasting. For Paul the purity of grace is bound up with the conviction that God elects apart from any work on the part of human beings…Luther defended the doctrine of the bondage of the will and unconditional election so vigorously because the denial of either compromised the Pauline gospel that justification is by grace alone through faith alone. The Reformation was propelled by scholars who believed in and preached passionately the doctrine of grace; it [the Reformation] would probably not have occurred if Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were semi Pelagian.” A semi-Pelagian is, for our purposes, someone who believes a person’s salvation is ultimately dependent upon their so-called “free will” to choose God, rather than God, out of his grace choosing hopelessly lost sinners to be saved.
Likewise as a side bar, those who believe they can lose their salvation implicitly believe in salvation by works. If you believe you can lose your salvation, but you end up in heaven as one of those people who didn’t lose yours, you have something to boast about. “Yep, there were many Christians who lost their salvation, but not me—I stayed faithful.” If its possible to lose your salvation, then it must also be possible to PREVENT YOURSELF from losing your salvation and keeping your salvation intact while others are squandering there’s is a work, pure and simple. You have something to boast about before God.
What are some further points of application that we can draw from what Paul says in these verses? One deals with the issue of assurance. If God never rejects those whom he foreknew, then He will never reject any true believer. If you are known by God within the context of the relationship, he will never, ever kick you out of his family. Think about it. Before the foundation of the earth, before you had a chance to do one thing for God and with God knowing every single sin you would ever commit—God chose you to be one of His children. Its totally by grace. Why would God ever reject you, when he chose you before you were born, knowing everything about you—all your sins and all your weaknesses? If God doesn’t save us based on anything we have done FOR Him, how could he ever reject us on based on anything we could do AGAINST Him? Salvation is not about OUR doing, but about God’s grace. If there is nothing we can do to GET this status with God, why would there be anything we could do to forfeit our place as God’s child? We are saved by the grace of God and we are KEPT by the grace of God. You can’t get any more secure than that.
Now, should we use that security as an excuse to sin against God? Paul has already covered that in chapter six. Besides, how can a person who knows that God has showered His saving grace on them, ever respond by using it as a weapon against God? It’s a ridiculous notion. But if you are a believer and have fallen, or even dove head-first into sin, you need to know that God hasn’t rejected you. You are his child and that is a fixed relationship from before you were born. If you think you have sinned so much or so wickedly that you could never get back into close fellowship with God, you’ve believed a lie. You need to repent of your sins by God’s grace if you haven’t done so, but God will not erase a name in his book that He himself penned before the foundation of the earth. Your sins are no surprise to God. Repent of your sin and come with a humble heart to God. He has never loved you any more than He does right now regardless of your sin and He never will. Isn’t God wonderful?!
Another application is one we’ve made before but it bears repeating. We should never write any sinner off as being so wicked that God can’t save them. The reason for that is salvation is initiated and completed by God, not the individual. You see, if we believe that a person is saved ultimately because they more or less independently come to see the reasonableness of the Christian faith, then the serial killers or any other sinner will never come to Christ. A person can’t go from being an axe murderer or rapist or cocaine addict or any sinful person to being a Christian if its ultimately dependent upon THEM to decide affirmatively for Christ. But if salvation is from God and is rooted in his purposes in election, it doesn't matter how far that elect person may run from God, He WILL save them. And what a privilege to know that we can be part of His eternal plan for even the vilest person by boldly praying for them and showing them the love of Christ!
If salvation is purely of grace and not the will of man, then who knows who may be saved? I’ll tell you one thing, when the Jews first heard that Saul of Tarsus had been converted, their first reaction without a doubt was disbelief. “Saul of Tarsus has become a follower of Christ—nonsense. Don’t you know he is at this moment on a mission to arrest the leaders of this sect? He’s a Pharisee and a student of Gamaliel—and you tell me he’s a Christian—that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” God is in the business of doing “ridiculous” things. He consistently confounds us. If God can save Saul, the chief of sinners, he can save anyone. And we should not feel the least bit sheepish about bringing before his throne the names of some of the hardest hearts we know of. With the power of God’s grace, they like Saul, will bend the knee and we can be part of that through prayer and evangelism.
May God give us the grace to understand and to celebrate the way He works for His glory in the lives of sinful people like us.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
(c) 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your minstry.