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No Promise of God will fail

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May 30, 1999

Romans 11


No message of Scripture is clearer or repeated more often than the unqualified declaration that God can be trusted.

He is the very source and measure of truth. By definition, His divine Word is absolutely trustworthy. Whatever He says is true and whatever He promises comes to pass.

            The last verse of Romans 11 is the place where we begin. (v.36)  “ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.  To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”


Shortly before his death, Joshua testified to Israel, “Now behold, today I am going the way of all the earth, and you know in all your hearts and in all your souls that not one word of all the good words which the Lord your God spoke concerning you has failed; all have been fulfilled for you, not one of them has failed” (Josh. 23:14).

After Solomon prayed before the altar on behalf of his people, “he stood and blessed all the assembly of Israel with a loud voice, saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has given rest to His people Israel, according to all that He promised; not one word has failed of all His good promise, which He promised through Moses His servant’ ” (1 Kings 8:55–56).[1]

No passage of Scripture articulates God’s truthfulness and trustworthiness more eloquently than chapters 9–11 of Romans. As we have seen in an earlier chapter, Paul begins this remarkable section on the nation of Israel with the declaration that it is “Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises” (Rom. 9:4).

God had made clear and specific promises to His chosen nation Israel. Some of those promises were conditional, dependent on Israel’s obedience. But His greatest promises to His chosen people were unconditional and therefore were grounded solely in God’s righteous integrity. Were God to fail in those promises, He would be less than righteous and just. He would be what God cannot be.[2]

God’s first covenant with Israel was through Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people, who became the nation of Israel. Just before He commanded Abraham to proceed from Haran to Canaan, God promised, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3).

Years later God instructed Abraham to cut certain prescribed animals in half, laying the two parts opposite each other. Except as an observer, Abraham did not participate in the confirmation of that covenant. Only the Lord passed between the pieces of the animals, signifying that He alone had dictated and would fulfill the covenant (see Gen. 15:8–21).[3]

And so, the question…(v.1)

I.                     God’s Preservation of a Remnant in Israel (11:1-10)

Three pieces of evidence:

A.      personal (1)

-himself; not only a believer but an apostle

B.       theological (v.2) foreknowing (loving)  and rejection are mutually incompatible

C.    Biblical (2b-7)

                                Ill. The time of Elijah.  After his victory on Mt. Carmel, the normally fearless Elijah fled from Queen Jezebel into the desert and later into a cave on Mount Horeb. There Elijah appealed to God and said (v. 3,4)  Your math is wrong!  There is a remnant.

                In the same way… (v.5)

                During Elijah’s time…

                During Isaiah’s time…

                During Jesus’ time…

                During Paul’s day…

                God would see to the fulfilling of His promises by preserving a remnant according to His gracious choice. Not on the basis of their works. (v.6) Paul is a stickler for the meaning of words.  Grace is grace, and if God’s choosing was on the basis of worthiness in our actions then it is works and not grace. Paul says that this is God’s gracious choice. The election of grace.

                What then? (v.7) That which Israel is “intensely seeking” for she has not obtained…

This is a judicial hardening.  A retribution.  God gives people up to their own stubbornness.  He hardens those hearts who, in rejecting His gracious offer of righteousness, harden themselves to His grace.

Then Paul quotes two Scriptures: (both dealing with closed eyes)

                Isa. 29:10 – like a drunkenness where things don’t really register

                The lights are on but nobody’s home.

                Psalm 69 – the table is to be a place of safety, feasting and sustenance.  But the table of the ungodly will become a snare, and a trap and a stumbling block.  Perhaps it is the Law that Paul has in mind here as that was the place of spiritual sustenance.  But because of their unbelief, that Word became a judgment on them.

                Ill. With eyes darkened and backs bent suggesting the hunched over posture  in which blind peole sometimes walk as they grope their way on a path they cannot see that leads to a destination they do not seek.

                Why has God allowed this and hardened His people in their rebellion?

II.    God’s Purpose in the Rejection of Israel (11:11-15)

...a chain of blessing (sequence of thoughts repeats throughout the chapter) 3 links

First, already through Israel’s fall salvation has come to the Gentiles.

Secondly, this Gentile salvation will make Israel envious and so lead to her restoration or fullness.

Thirdly, Israel’s fullness will bring yet much greater riches to the world.

The blessing ricochets back and forth from Israel to the Gentiles, from the Gentiles to Israel, and from Israel to the Gentiles again.

                Israel’s rejection of God’s own son and His kingdom did not thwart God’s plan.  God’s temporarily setting Israel aside is not an afterthought.  God used that terrible transgression of His people to accomplish His own divine objective.  To bring salvation to the Gentiles and to the Jews.

“I say to you,” Jesus promised, “that many [Gentiles] shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom [unbelieving Jews] shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:11–12).[4]

The second link

Paul already had reminded his Jewish readers of God’s ancient revelation concerning His purpose for the Gentiles. Through Moses He said, “I will make you jealous by that which is not a nation, by a nation without understanding will I anger you,” and through Isaiah said, “I was found by those who sought Me not, I became manifest to those who did not ask for Me” (Rom. 10:19–20).[5]

0And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn[6]

III.   God’s Power with Regard to Israel (11:16-25)

... an olive tree     

As always, Paul’s logic is irrefutable. If the first piece of dough be holy, he points out, the lump is also. First piece of dough translates the single Greek word aparcheµ, which literally means a firstfruit (as in the KJV) offering of any kind, animal as well as grain. It refers to the first portion of an offering which was set aside specifically for the Lord.

Through Moses, God instructed His newly-delivered people: “When you eat of the food of the land, you shall lift up an offering to the Lord. Of the first of your dough you shall lift up a cake as an offering; as the offering of the threshing floor, so you shall lift it up. From the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord an offering throughout your generations” (Num. 15:19–21). Those cakes, or loaves, were given to feed the priests, who served—and thereby represented—the Lord in their unique ministry in the tabernacle and later in the temple. Therefore, before any bread would be eaten by a household, a special portion, the first piece of dough, was first consecrated and presented to the Lord.

Although only a portion of that special piece of dough represented the entire loaf (the lump), all of which was acknowledged as being from the Lord. In other words, they were giving back to the Lord a representation of all He had provided for them. It is for that reason that the lump is also holy (“set apart”). That idea is expressed in the lovely stanza sometimes sung in worship services just before or after the offering:

We give Thee but Thine own,

Whate’er the gift may be.

All that we have is Thine alone,

A trust, O Lord, from Thee.

William W. How

Another, and somewhat reverse, analogy is given using the figure of a tree or vine. And if the root be holy, the branches are too. If the foundational part of a plant (the root) is holy, then that which it produces (the branches) must likewise (too) be holy.

But Paul’s specific use of the analogy in this passage points up the truth that, if the firstfruits and root of Israel—perhaps symbolizing the first patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)—were holy, consecrated to the Lord, so were all their descendants, the people of Israel. Therefore, for God to forsake Israel would be for Him to renege on His promises to those patriarchs—something His holy character will not allow.

Even John Murray, a leading amillennialist (one who does not believe in a literal, 1,000-year earthly kingdom promised to the Jews and ruled by Christ on the throne of David in Jerusalem, but who generally believes that God’s dealing with the nation of Israel ended with their rejection of Jesus Christ), cannot resist the power of the marvelous truth that Paul stresses here. In his commentary on Romans, Murray amazingly observes that “there cannot be irremediable rejection of Israel. The holiness of the theocratic consecration is not abolished and will one day be vindicated in Israel’s fulness and restoration” (The Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], p. 85).

In order to be faithful to His own Word, the Lord must provide a future salvation for Israel. Israel has not yet completely fulfilled God’s covenant promise to Abraham or His countless reiterations of that promise to redeem and restore Abraham’s descendants. If the root, Abraham and the other patriarchs, is holy, then the branches, their descendants, are holy too. They were divinely called and set apart before the foundation of the world and God’s work with those branches will not be complete until they bear the spiritual fruit He intends to produce in and through them, until the end of the age when they actually become the holy people they were destined to be.

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,” God said to Israel through Isaiah, “who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him” (Isa. 51:1–2). God established His permanent relationship with Israel through His covenant with their forefather, Abraham. They were consecrated as a people in the consecration of Abraham.

Paul continues with the figure of a tree: But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree.

Here the apostle makes his point by referring to the familiar practice of grafting. Olive trees were an agricultural and commercial mainstay in ancient Palestine and much of the Near East and Mediterranean areas, and still support a valuable industry in most of those regions today. Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, but as they age, they become less and less productive, and in order to restore productivity, branches from younger trees are grafted to old ones. When a branch ceased to produce olives, a younger one was grafted in its place.

That is the figure Paul uses here. The old, unproductive branches of Israel were broken off. Centuries earlier God had warned His people of what their continued unbelief and idolatry would bring. “The Lord called your name, ‘A green olive tree, beautiful in fruit  and form’; with the noise of a great tumult He has kindled fire on it, and its branches are worthless. And the Lord of hosts, who planted you, has pronounced evil against you because of the evil of the house of Israel and of the house of Judah, which they have done to provoke Me by offering up sacrifices to Baal” (Jer. 11:16–17). Jesus Himself warned His own people Israel, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation [better, “a people” NIV] producing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:43).

In place of the unfaithful, unproductive branches of Israel, those of a wild olive, the believing Gentiles, were grafted in among them. Those Gentile branches, people from all nations who believe in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, then became partaker with them, the believing descendants of Abraham, in the rich root of the olive tree, the root of divine blessing and of eternal relationship to God through salvation.

At the beginning of that verse, Paul makes clear that some, but not all, of the branches were broken off. That is also indicated by the phrase among them. There always had been a believing remnant in Israel, and many Jews believed in Christ during His earthly ministry and in the time of the early church. Probably until the end of the first century, most Christians, including all the apostles, were Jews. Those original Jewish branches remained attached to the rich root of God’s olive tree, as have Jewish branches from then until now. Gentile believers are joint heirs with them and of Abraham, “the father of all who believe without being circumcised [without being or becoming Jews], that righteousness might be reckoned to them” (Rom. 4:11).

Now comes a command to the Gentiles based on that truth: Do not be arrogant toward the branches, that is, the unbelieving Jews who were cut off; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root (the promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” Gen. 12:3), but the root supports you. The Gentiles themselves were not the source of blessing any more than believing Jews had been. Believing Gentiles are blessed by God because they are spiritual descendants of faithful Abraham. We are blessed because we have been grafted into the covenant of salvation that God made with Abraham and now graciously offers to all who believe in Abraham’s God. As Paul had explained to the churches in Galatia a few years earlier,[7]

IV.   God’s Promise of Restoration for Israel (11:26-36) glorify God’s sovereignty (25,26a) glorify God’s integrity (26b-29)

... to glorify God’s generosity (30-32) glorify God’s incomprehensibility (33-36)

To Glorify God’s Sovereignty

For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; (11:25–26a)

Paul had just warned Gentile believers about becoming proud and conceited because unbelieving Israel was cut off from blessing in order that it might be offered to Gentiles, explaining that “if God did not spare the natural branches [Israel], neither will He spare you [the Gentile church]” (Rom. 11:20–21). If in His sovereign grace He is now granting salvation to believing Gentiles, “how much more” will He bring His covenant nation Israel back to Himself in belief and for blessing and cut off the apostate Gentile church (vv. 24). God is not finished with His ancient chosen people, and even during this time when Jews as a nation are severed from God’s special blessing because of unbelief, anti-Semitism in any form is anathema to the Lord. Whoever harms God’s chosen people “touches the apple [pupil] of His eye” (Zech. 2:8).

Doubtless with great joy and expectation, Paul tells believing Jews and Gentiles alike that he does not want them to be uninformed of a marvelous mystery. At the end of the epistle Paul defines mystery as being a revelation “which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God” (Rom. 16:26; cf. Eph. 3:5–7).

Before Paul identifies and explains the particular mystery of which he is speaking here, he once again cautions Gentiles against pride, warning them to avoid construing the truths of that mystery as reasons for being wise in their own estimation.

The first component of this mystery is that a partial spiritual hardening has happened to Israel. Partial does not modify mystery but Israel. That is, those who are hardened—the great majority—are totally hardened, but not every Jew has been or will be hardened. As always through the ages of redemptive history, God sovereignly has preserved for Himself a believing remnant. That is the gracious truth Paul emphasizes in the first part of this chapter (11:1–10).

The second component of this mystery is that the hardening will remain only until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. Until refers to time, fulness indicates completion, and together those terms denote impermanence. The hardening will last only for God’s divinely-determined duration. It began when Israel rejected Jesus as her Messiah and Savior, and it will end when the fulness of the Gentiles has come in.

Has come in is from eiserchomai, a verb Jesus frequently used. He used it of entering the kingdom of heaven/God (Matt. 5:20; Mark 9:47; John 3:5; cf. Acts 14:22) and of entering eternal life (Mark 9:43, 45), both of which refer to receiving salvation. Israel’s unbelief will last only until the complete number of the Gentiles chosen by God have come to salvation. Paul’s special calling was “to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, that my offering of the Gentiles might become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:16). In his letter to Titus, Paul refers to himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God” (1:1). The mystery ends when the gathering of the elect is complete.

That, of course, is also the calling of the church. Although many Jews have been saved through the church’s witness, the vast majority of converts have been, and will continue to be, Gentiles—until their number is complete. That will signal the beginning of events that lead to Israel’s redemption, when all Israel will be saved—a truth that must have filled Paul’s heart with great joy (cf. Rom. 9:1–3; 10:1).

All Israel must be taken to mean just that—the entire nation that survives God’s judgment during the Great Tribulation. The common amillennial view that all Israel refers only to a remnant redeemed during the church age does injustice to the text. Paul’s declaration about all Israel is set in clear contrast to what he has already said about the believing Jewish remnant which the Lord has always preserved for Himself. The fact, for instance, that only some of the branches (unbelieving Jews) were broken off (v. 17), plainly indicates that a remnant of believing Jews—those not broken off—will continually exist while the fulness of the Gentiles is being completed. These are Jews being redeemed who are not part of the spiritual hardening that has come upon Israel because of her rejection of her Messiah (v. 25).

 Before all Israel is saved, its unbelieving, ungodly members will be separated out by God’s inerrant hand of judgment. Ezekiel makes that truth vividly clear:

“As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out, I shall be king over you. And I shall bring you out from the peoples and gather you from the lands where you are scattered, with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm and with wrath poured out; and I shall bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there I shall enter into judgment with you face to face. As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you,” declares the Lord God. “And I shall make you pass under the rod, and I shall bring you into the bond of the covenant; and I shall purge from you the rebels and those who transgress against Me; I shall bring them out of the land where they sojourn, but they will not enter the land of Israel. Thus you will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezek. 20:33–38, emphasis added; cf. Dan. 12:10; Zech. 13:8–9)

Those who hear the preaching of the 144,000 (Rev. 7:1–8; 14:1–5), of other converts (7:9), of the two witnesses (11:3–13), and of the angel (14:6), and thus safely pass under God’s rod of judgment will then comprise all Israel, which—in fulfillment of God’s sovereign and irrevocable promise—will be completely a nation of believers who are ready for the kingdom of the Messiah Jesus.

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:31–34; cf. 32:38)

God’s control of history is irrefutable evidence of His sovereignty. And as surely as He cut off unbelieving Israel from His tree of salvation, just as surely will He graft believing Israel back in—a nation completely restored and completely saved.

It is helpful to note an additional truth that Paul does not mention at this point—namely, that, just as the fulness of the Gentiles will initiate the salvation of Israel, so the salvation of Israel will initiate the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ.

That three-stage plan of God was predicted in the Old Testament and proclaimed in the New. In about a.d. 50, a council of “the apostles and the elders came together” in Jerusalem to discuss whether or not Gentiles had to submit to the Mosaic law, including circumcision, in order to be saved (Acts 15:1–6). After considerable debate, including statements by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas,

James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon [Peter] has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, in order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old’ ” (vv. 12–18).

After Israel is temporarily set aside, God will gather Gentile believers for Himself, then (“after these things”) He will restore and reclaim His ancient people Israel (figuratively, “the tabernacle of David”), and finally He will establish His glorious kingdom on earth.

To Glorify God’s Integrity

just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (11:27–29b)

Scripture is replete with affirmations of God’s utter truthfulness and trustworthiness. “God is not a man, that He should lie,” Balaam informed Balak, “nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num. 23:19). The writer of Hebrews gives the encouraging assurance, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). From Peter we have a similar affirmation: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s promises are certain and they are punctual. They will be fulfilled in exactly the way and at exactly the time that the Lord has determined and declared. Others cannot thwart God’s promises, and He Himself will not break them. In every form and to every degree, His Word is immutable.

As he nears the conclusion of this momentous section on God’s dealing with Israel (chaps. 9–11), Paul emphasizes once again God’s sovereignty and integrity. In saving “all Israel,” the Lord will display Himself to the One who always keeps His promises and fulfills His covenants. Just as it is written, Paul says, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob” (emphasis added; cf. Isa. 59:20–21). Quoting again from Isaiah, he then says, “And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins” (cf. Isa. 27:9).

Salvation is the forgiveness and removal of sin, the eradication of that which separates fallen man from the holy God. The power of salvation is God’s grace, and the condition of salvation is man’s faith. But even that required faith is divinely provided. As Paul has already made clear, our calling to salvation, our justification, sanctification, and glorification all flow from God’s sovereign grace, the fruit of His divine foreknowledge and predestination (Rom. 8:29–30).

The ultimate salvation of Israel is also assured by divine certainty. In order for “all Israel [to] be saved,” all her sin must be forgiven and removed. And that is expressly what God promises to do: remove ungodliness from Jacob and take away their sins. The promise is un- conditional. It will not depend on Israel’s deciding on its own to comeback to the Lord but on the Lord’s sovereignly bringing Israel back to Himself.

Perhaps God’s most dramatic promise of final, unconditional dealing with His chosen people Israel is seen in the mysterious and unique covenant He made with Abraham that is described in Genesis 15. In answer to the patriarch’s question, “O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess [the land]?” God directed him to take “a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram” and to cut them in half (vv. 8–9). The parts of each animal were then laid out opposite each other, along with a turtledove and a pigeon. After causing Abraham to fall into a deep sleep, God alone passed between the pieces, thereby sealing several divine promises. Abraham would die peacefully in old age; after 400 years of oppression and enslavement, his descendants would be delivered from a foreign nation; and God’s promise of the land was reiterated (vv. 10–21). But unlike other covenants, not only its terms but its ratification were wholly God’s doing. Despite his being asleep, Abraham was aware of what God was doing and saying, but only as a silent onlooker. Abraham was not required so much as to acknowledge, much less agree to, this covenant. The promises were without condition. This covenant amounted to a divine and unalterable declaration, to which God bound Himself in the unique act described in this passage.

Paul continues to explain that, from the standpoint of the gospel they [Israel] are enemies for your [the Gentile’s] sake, but from the standpoint of God’s choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. As he has already explained at some length (vv. 11–24), because of Israel’s transgression in rejecting her Messiah, she was set aside—becoming God’s enemies, as it were—in order that salvation could come to the Gentiles. That was her temporary situation from the standpoint of the gospel. But from the permanent, eternal standpoint of God’s sovereign choice, Israel is even now (they are) and forever will be beloved for the sake of the fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When the Lord elected (by divine choice) the nation of Israel to be His own people, He bound Himself by His own promises to bring the Jews to salvation and to be forever His beloved and holy people. During this present age, Israel might be called the “beloved” enemies of God. Because of unbelief, they are, like all the unsaved, at enmity with God (Rom. 5:10; 8:7). But God’s eternal election guarantees that their enmity is not permanent, for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Gifts translates charismata, which carries the fuller connotation of grace gifts, gifts flowing from the pure and wholly unmerited  favor of God. Calling refers to God’s divine election of Israelto be His holy people. God will not change His plan for Israel’s spiritual regeneration.

Just as God’s sovereign grace and election cannot be earned, neither can they be rejected or thwarted. They are irrevocable and unalterable. Nothing, therefore, can prevent Israel’s being saved and restored—not even her own rebellion and unbelief, because, as Paul has just declared, her ungodliness will be sovereignly removed and her sins graciously taken away (vv. 26–27). What is true of elected believers is true of elected Israel: “Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thess. 5:24).

To Glorify God’s Generosity

For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. (11:30–32)

Mercy is from eleeoµ, which carries the basic idea of having a compassion for those in need that leads to meeting their need. Because man’s greatest need is to have his sins removed and be given spiritual life, God’s mercy generously provides just that.

The psalmists declared, “Thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness [mercy] to all who call upon Thee” (Ps. 86:5), and “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His lovingkindness [mercy] is everlasting” (Ps. 136:1). Solomon testified before the Lord: “Thou hast shown great lovingkindness [mercy] to Thy servant David my father, according as he walked before Thee in truth and righteousness and uprightness of heart toward Thee; and Thou hast reserved for him this great lovingkindness [mercy], that Thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day” (1 Kings 3:6).

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, exulted over the prophesied ministry of his newborn son, saying, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76–79, emphasis added).  In his first letter, Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3, emphasis added; cf. Eph. 2:4–5). Just as He bestows forgiveness, which is not deserved, at the same time He rescinds His punishment, which is deserved.

Paul’s explanation has gone full circle, as it were. Because of Israel’s unbelief, the nation was partially and temporarily set aside and the gospel of salvation was extended to the Gentiles. And if God extended His grace to pagan Gentiles even while they were in unbelief, how much more surely will He extend His grace again to His chosen people Israel while they are in unbelief? Specifically, he says, if you, as Gentiles, were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of Israel’s disobedience, how much more will Israel, because of the mercy shown to you Gentiles, also… now be shown mercy.

Whether for Gentile or for Jew, salvation is based on mercy, not merit. It is an expression of God’s sovereign and generous grace. About his own gracious salvation, Paul testified: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:12–14). In his second letter to Corinth the apostle calls the Lord “the Father of mercies” (2 Cor. 1:3).

Through the centuries, theologians have struggled with what is called theodicy, the explanation of God’s righteousness and omnipotence in the light of evil. No doubt almost every believer has at some time wondered about where evil came from and why God allowed it to enter His perfect world. Although God’s Word does not fully answer that question, Paul gives at least a partial explanation, declaring that God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all.

Disobedience (“unbelief” KJV) is from apeitheia, which has the basic meaning of being unpersuadable. It denotes intentional and obstinate refusal to believe, acknowledge, or obey. In his letter to Ephesus, Paul twice refers to unrepentant sinners as “sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2; 5:6).

Man’s sin, manifested in his willful disobedience, provides a means for God to demonstrate the magnitude and graciousness of His mercy. Were there no disobedience, there would be no need for and there could be no expression of God’s mercy. To reveal Himself as merciful, He permitted sin. He has shut up all—the whole world, Jew and  Gentile—in disobedience and unbelief in order that He might show mercy to all who repent of their sin and turn to Him for gracious salvation.

By His nature, God is a Savior, as seen in Paul’s uses of the phrase “God and Savior” in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. He could not display that feature of His person without allowing for sin and hell.

In His sovereign omnipotence, God has allowed man intellectually, morally, and spiritually to fall into a state of sin to the extent that, on his own, he is unable to be convinced of God’s truth, specifically the truth that he is lost and condemned and that he is powerless in himself to change his condition. God allowed man to fall into sin in order that his only hope would be divine mercy.

It must be noted that this saving mercy is shown to all. The perfect, satisfactory work of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection has met the demands of the justice and holiness of God, and thereby has removed every barrier to forgiveness for all, and any person who seeks forgiveness and salvation will receive it. As John Brown observed, God’s revelation of mercy in the gospels refers to men as sinners, not as elect sinners.

Christ died for the world and is reconciling the world to Himself because He loves the world.

As Paul explained earlier in this epistle, the Lord gave His law “that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). Sin came to all mankind through the Fall, and knowledge of and accountability for sin came “to all the world” through the Law. “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested,” he continues, “being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace [expressed in His mercy] through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (vv. 21–24).

To Glorify God’s Incomprehensibility

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. (11:33–36)

Paul bursts out with a marvelous doxology, in which he rejoices that God’s temporarily setting Israel aside glorifies His incomprehensibility. The full wonder of God’s gracious omnipotence is wholly beyond human understanding. It staggers even the most mature Christian mind, including the mind of the apostle himself.

Having completed his argument and affirmed God’s sovereignty, integrity, and generosity, Paul has nothing more to add but a paean of praise for the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge. Further description and explanation are completely beyond the realm of human expression and comprehension. Like a mountain climber who has reached the summit of Mt. Everest, the apostle can only stand awestruck at God’s beauty and majesty. Unable to further explain an infinite and holy God to finite and sinful men, he can only acknowledge that God’s judgments are unsearchable and His ways are unfathomable!

Unfathomable translates anexichniastos, which literally refers to footprints that are untrackable, such as those of an animal that a hunter is unable to follow. It is the exact idea expressed by the psalmist in declaring of God: “Thy way was in the sea, and Thy paths in the mighty waters, and Thy footprints may not be known” (Ps. 77:19). Only God’s own “Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).

Scripture is God’s divine revelation of Himself and of His will, and He has not given it to mock and confuse men but to enlighten them and bring them to Himself. The Lord has made certain that any person who genuinely seeks Him can know enough of His truth to be saved. Although “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14), God nevertheless gives the gracious assurance that “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

Believers who faithfully study God’s Word can learn and have a certain understanding of His truth—all that is necessary “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” in order for us to “be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Our gracious God gives us more than all the truth we need to know Him, trust Him, and serve Him. But no matter how diligently we may have studied His Word, we must confess with David that “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Ps. 139:6).

As his praise ascends in this doxology, Paul presents three rhetorical questions which serve to exalt God, the answer to each of which is obvious and the same. The first two questions, quoted from the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), are: For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? (cf. Isa. 40:13). The very asking shows both questions to have but one answer: No one. Men can ponder the mind of the Lord, but only the Lord Himself can know it. Among men, “in abundance of counselors there is victory,” or safety (Prov. 11:14), but God’s only counselor is Himself.

It is not the countless unrevealed things about God of which Paul is speaking, but the depths of the things which we do know through His self-revelation. Yet even these partially knowable truths conceal elements that are far beyond our comprehension (cf. Deut. 29:29).

Paul’s third question is also taken from the Old Testament. Quoting Job, he asks, Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? (cf. Job 41:11). Because no one was before God and none can give to God what has not first been received from Him, the answer here must also be: No one. God is sovereign, self-sufficient, and free from any obligation except those He places on Himself. He owes the Jew nothing and the Gentile nothing.

We stand in awe before our gracious Lord and rejoice that from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. With the twenty-four elders, who “will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne,” we proclaim, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Rev. 4:10–11; cf. 1 Cor. 15:24–28).

To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

That is the inspired apostle’s culminating comment on the first eleven chapters of this magnificent epistle. After traversing all the great realities of salvation, Paul ends with an ascription of glory to his Lord. This simple doxology draws a clear line between the doctrinal section and the final five chapters on Christian duty.


[1]MacArthur, John F., Romans: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, (Chicago: Moody Press) 1994.

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