Romans 11

(I’m taking part in a Twitter Bible reading group covering Romans to Revelation over the second half of 2014. Today (July 28th) is Romans 11, and my comments need a more sustained argument than is practicable on Twitter. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)

“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (v33)

Although it is impossible to fully understand God, we still need to try, and get as far as we can! But it means that any explanation we give can only be partial at best, and even runs the risk of being wrong. And maybe even Paul doesn’t get it completely right, or over-emphasises things, or puts things in ways we find hard. There are three things in this chapter that I struggle with; and I recognise that my own concerns may themselves be wrong!

“Has God rejected his own people, the nation of Israel?” (v1)

Of course not! But what does it mean to say that Iserael is God’s own people?

Paul is coming from a particular perspective: belonging to Israel, who saw themselves as a chosen race, a people who enjoyed particular favour from God. He is trying to understand why, if this is true, most of Israel has rejected what he believes to be a fuller revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and a new way of receiving righteousness and salvation. This has been the subject of chapters 9-11, and it finishes with what feels like a heartfelt sigh of incomprehension, that God’s ways are unfathomable.

Paul does see a greater good: that the Gentiles, non-Jews, people other than the nation of Israel, can also receive God’s righteousness and salvation. But, though the way he describes this may be comforting to Jews, I do wonder how an original Gentile audience would have felt. At times it seems condescending, even arrogant.

For example, he seems to suggest that the Gentiles were offered salvation through Christ only because the Jews rejected it: “They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles.” (v11) This is supported by Paul’s own experience, as he told the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia: “It was necessary that we first preach the word of God to you Jews. But since you have rejected it and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we will offer it to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46)

Although there is some encouragement, it is the corollary that wories me: is Paul saying that the Gentiles wouldn’t have heard the word of God if the Jews had accepted it?

Paul goes on to describe Jews and Gentiles as branches of an olive tree – an interesting metaphor, and similar to one used by Jesus himself (the vine, in John 15). But Paul’s emphasis here is on the difference between Jews and Gentiles, in the nature of their branches: Jews being ‘original’ parts of the olive tree, and Gentiles grafted in from a wild olive “contrary to nature” (v24). Again, is Paul saying that the Gentiles weren’t supposed to be part of God’s olive tree?

This is not, of course, the whole story; elsewhere Paul is clear that there in the new relationship with God through Jesus “there is no longer Jew or Gentile” (Galatians 3:28). So once again, as I noted in my posts on chapters 3 and 9, Paul is (over-)emphasising just one part of the truth to make his point. In this case, the point is that, even though most Jews have rejected the message, there is still hope: “Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not!” (v11)

So, while I would agree that God has not “rejected his own people”, I think it would be better to take a wider view of who “God’s own people” are, and to recognise that God loves all of us equally, and does not show favouritism – a point that, to be fair, Paul does make in many other places.

“All Israel will be saved.” (v26)

But saved in what way?

“Most of the people of Israel have not found the favour of God they are looking for so earnestly.” (v7) But some have – and this seems to have always been the case for Israel, as Paul illustrates with part of the story of Elijah: when he thought he was the only one left, God told him “I have 7000 others who have never bowed down to Baal” (v4, quoting 1 Kings 19:18). This is the idea of the ‘remnant’, a small number of people who remained faithful to God in times of great trouble.

For Paul, the new way to be right with God is through faith in Jesus Christ (see 3:21-22), and I suspect that this is what he has in mind here, and the small number of Jews who have believed. But how could this apply to the remnant of 7000 in Elijah’s time, who had never heard of Jesus?

Earlier, Paul makes the point that being made right with God is a matter of faith, in the sense of trusting God, and is a consequence of God’s action. Although as a Christian I believe that this is mediated through Jesus Christ, I do not hold this belief exclusively. In particular, I do not believe that it is necessary to have such explicit Christian faith in order to be “saved”, nor that not having it means that you are not.

I think that Paul’s example of the remnant actually supports such a view. Elijah thought he was on his own, because he did not know about the 7000 – either because he had never met them, or possibly he hadn’t seen anyone else living in the same way that he did, and made assumptions. It is very easy for any religious group to set its own conditions, and to assume that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ (= everyone else) are wrong. But this is a dangerous assumption to make.

The fact that the remnant in Elijah’s time was unknown to him means that we can never be sure who is in the ‘remnant’ and who isn’t; i.e. who belongs to God and who doesn’t.

So, while I believe in the possibility that “all Israel will be saved”, I don’t think it is down to Christians to determine the manner of that salvation, but that we should leave it to the greatness of “God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge”. This doesn’t rule out evangelism to those of other faiths, but means it becomes more of a dialogue, seeking mutual understanding.

“God’s grace … free and undeserved” (v6)

But how does God’s grace work? This opens up questions that I have explored before, in the post on chapter 9.

“Most of the people of Israel have not found the favour of God they are looking for so earnestly. A few have – the ones God has chosen – but the hearts of the rest were hardened.” (v7)

Paul is keen to emphasise the fact that God’s grace is “free and undeserved” (v6), but once again I think he goes too far in doing so, or at least leaves himself open to that interpretation. Verse 7 suggests that there are two groups of people: those whom God has chosen, who have found the favour of God, and everyone else, whose hearts have been hardened. This appears to make God’s choice completely arbitrary, and perhaps pre-determined; and even to suggest that God actively prevents some people from coming to him. The quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures that follow this verse reinforce that, saying for example that God “has shut their eyes so they do not see, and closed their ears so they do not hear.” (v8, based on Deuteronomy 29:4 and Isaiah 29:10 – but again with different contexts than the original)

If this were all that Paul had to say on the subject, I would find it very worrying. But fortunately it is not: “God … is severe towards those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness” (v22). This is part of the metaphor of the olive tree, and goes on to give a warning and a hope: “But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again.” (vv22-23)

This means there is an element of human action, decision, or at least attitude, in relation to whether God is ‘kind’ or ‘severe’ to us. It also means that the ‘chosen’ may become ‘unchosen’ and that those with ‘hardened hearts’ may be ‘softened’. Paul’s earlier categories are not fixed and unchanging in terms of their membership.

So, while I believe that “God’s grace … is free and undeserved” (v6) – because all of us have sinned (ch5), and still sin (ch7)! –  I do not think it is arbitrary, or that we can be complacent. To return to the potter / clay metaphor of chapter 9, I think that it is right for God to be angry if the pots (us) don’t turn out the way he wants, but I also think that ‘turning out wrong’ isn’t because God made (or chose to make) us that way, unlike lifeless clay. We all have the potential for trust or disobedience, and that potential is with us all our lives.

Reviewing this post, it feels quite negative towards Paul and this chapter of Romans. But I could not be true to myself if I did not express my struggle. My concerns may be right or wrong, but they are mine; others may disagree with my conclusions, or even my questions.

And to end on a more positive note, this chapter is really about the potential for salvation – for all of us, if we “continue to trust in [God’s] kindness” (v22):

  • because of God’s grace, free and undeserved;
  • not because of belonging to a privileged people;
  • not by adherence to a specific set of doctrines;
  • not through an arbitrary, pre-determined decision.

“For everything comes from [God] and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.” (v36)

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