Photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez
Sermon text: Romans 11:1–6
Title: Kept by Grace
Preached at Winnetka Bible Church, 9/3/2017
Preaching question: Does God keep his people and his promises?
- Known by God (v. 1-2)
- Chosen by God (v. 3-5)
- Kept by Grace (v. 6)
The crowds that were following Jesus were hungry, so you know the story: Jesus fed them with loaves and fish. Obviously, they wanted to make him king. So they tried to seize him by force, but Jesus slipped away, and they got in their boats and followed him.
Jesus responded: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus wants to show them that their greater need than food is him. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and who ever believes in me shall never thirst.”
They were angered by him saying he came from heaven. We know Joseph & Mary, and where they are from. Why do you call yourself the bread of life? Jesus digs in. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This aggravated the crowd even more. Jesus deeper: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus is being graphic about their spiritual hunger, and he is the only one who can satisfy. He is not trying to win popularity points. This is not how you build a crowd. Jesus knew he was bothering them, and still he goes further. “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
These people were wanting Jesus for what he might offer them on their terms, but he is exposing their greater need: to desire his glory. John tells us that “after this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”
Jesus turned to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon responds, “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Jesus’ response is to Peter is staggering. The majority of the people just deserted Jesus and rejected him as their Messiah, when only a few hours before they wanted him as their king. Everyone else has rejected him, but only a small few have remained with Jesus, not deserting him like everyone else. Peter and the twelve are still choosing Jesus. Jesus answered them by saying, “Did I not choose you?”
For eight chapters, Paul has been writing big fat checks with bold promises signed by God. These promises are magnificent and weighty. When someone hands you a check, you need to know that you can trust the name on the signature line. What makes you believe that when you take that check to the bank, it is not going to be returned, “insufficient funds”? Promises, like checks, require trust.
And after eight chapters filled with promises, we slam into a brick wall with chapters 9–11: It might look to some like God’s checks to Israel are bouncing. How can you trust God to keep his promise to you, if he didn’t keep his promise to them? Because if God’s word to Israel has failed, then his signature on these promises mean nothing.
So in chapter 9, verse 6, Paul makes the claim that he spends 3 chapters defending: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed.” Even though Paul looks out and sees a heartbreaking reality, namely that the people of Israel for the most part rejected their own messiah, he spends three chapters explaining that God has kept his word perfectly.
First of all, Paul reminds us, God never promised to save every ethnic Israelite. From the very beginning of Israel’s history, God exercised his freedom to fulfill his promise to Abraham through Isaac, not through Ishmael; Jacob not Esau. Before these brothers—even twin brothers—were even born, God made clear his freedom to set his love on whomever he desires apart from anything they would or would not do.
The reason Paul spends so much of chapter 9 in a lengthy discussion of God’s freedom in election is because he is defending God’s trustworthiness to keep his promises. And in order to do that, we have to be clear on what God’s promise was, and who exactly he gave those promises to in the first place.
Then in chapter 10, Paul explains why we find ourselves in a period in history where the people God had been so gracious toward have largely rejected their savior. Why has the majority of Israel—the people who were promised a messiah—rejected their messiah while he is being embraced mostly by Gentiles? Paul explains that they tripped over Jesus because they were so busy trying to keep the God’s Law that they missed the fact that God’s Law was actually about Jesus, the only one who could keep the Law.
The very people to whom the promise was given received their savior and they rejected him, with very few exceptions. They have rejected God’s righteousness in Christ. But now the question to which Paul turns is: Has God rejected them?
We see this question chapter 11, verse 1, “I ask then, has God rejected his people?” This seems like a valid question in light of what he has just been explaining, that the Gentiles are finding the Messiah that they weren’t even looking for. Israel has rejected Jesus, so has he retaliated by rejecting them?
Just before, in 10:20 he quoted Isaiah, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” Does this stream of non-Israelites to the Jewish Messiah mean God has rejected Israel forever? Paul’s answer is emphatic, in 11:1, “By no means!”
That’s about as strong as Paul ever gets. If you want to know what gets under Paul’s skin, do a search for the phrase “by no means” in his letters. Here are just a couple from Romans:
- Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! (3:31)
- What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! (6:1–2)
- What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! (7:7)
- Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! (7:13)
Paul is refuting this question in the strongest possible terms. Has God rejected his people? Not a chance! Don’t even think about it! May it never be! OF COURSE HE HASN’T REJECTED HIS PEOPLE! Israel may have rejected their Messiah, but their Messiah hasn’t rejected them. That’s exactly how he ended chapter 10: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
Point 1: Known By God
Paul will defend this answer throughout chapter 11, despite what seems like evidence to the contrary. The first reason he gives why they aren’t rejected by God is because they are known by God. Look at the beginning of verse 2: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” This is a loaded phrase, and like so many things in Paul’s letters, that word “foreknew” is like a freight train of meaning. One of the ways we know God has not rejected all of Israel is because some of them are foreknown.
This foreknowing is a very personal term every time it shows up in Paul, and the New Testament in general. You might remember this word from chapter 8: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 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 8:29–30).
These two verses have been called the “golden chain of salvation” because there are no broken links—no one gets dropped. Who is predestined? Everyone who is the the category of “foreknown.” Who is called? All those who were predestined? Who is justified? Everyone who is called? Who is glorified? Each justified saint. No remainders, no one falls through the cracks.
And this is an intensely personal knowing of someone. If I asked you if you knew the Queen of England, most of you would not say “Yes” simply because you know about her. The kind of knowing is deeply relational.
The apostle Peter uses this word for “knowing” to describe the kind of knowledge the Father had of the Son for all of eternity even before the creation of the universe. 1 Peter 1:20 says, “[Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the same of you who through him are believers in God.” This knowing is intimate, and it is personal. It doesn’t miss the trees for the forest. God does not know his elect in the way a governor knows his constituents; this is the kind of knowledge of a Father and Son.
Now, you should not trust me that this is the way Paul is using this word here simply because I have done a word-search. It’s not enough for me to simply say, “That’s how this word is used elsewhere, and so that is obviously how Paul is using it here.” What if he was using the word differently this time? We need to look at the context of his logic in verse 1 and 2 in order to be sure he is using foreknown in this personal way. So let’s look at the context together:
In verse 1 Paul asks the question: Has God rejected his people? NO WAY. And in verse 2 he says, God doesn’t reject those whom he “foreknew.” But look at what he does in between. “For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”
The word “for” in the middle of verse 1 means that Paul is using himself as an example that God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. He gives three different proofs that he qualifies to be included in this category: Israelite, a descendent of Jacob whose name became Israel. He is a child of Abraham, the one to whom God gave the promise of a messiah from his family. And he is of the tribe of Benjamin, the last and favorite son of Israel. Paul is not on the fringe of the people of Israel. He is an Israelite through-and-through. And Paul has not rejected the promised Messiah. In fact, he calls himself a “slave of Christ” in the first five words of the letter.
Paul uses himself as an example of how God is still keeping his promise to save people from Israel. Yes, many (most) from Israel have rejected the Messiah, but there are believing Jews like Paul. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. This does not include every ethnic Jew, Paul has already made that point in chapter 9 with Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau. But he will fulfill his promise through individually and intimately known children, not through roughly drawn crowds of people. God has not rejected his people because he doesn’t ultimately save groups, he saves people.
Apply: Paul’s first point in defending God’s trustworthiness is an important balm to our soul. Christian, you are saved into a people, this is true, but if you are in Christ it is because you are personally and individually known by God. God’s promises to his people trickle down to the hearts of each man and woman, boy and girl. You are not a statistic to God, you are known as a son or daughter. The same love and knowledge that the Father has for the Son he has for you. I will confess it almost makes me uncomfortable to say that, out of fear that it might diminish God or make us think too highly of ourselves, but that is exactly what Jesus prayed for. Jesus asked the Father that “the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:23).
It is true that we are corporately the bride of Christ, but we must never forget that God saves us individually. And only then are we given a place in a community of his people, his body, his bride, the church. The staggering news of the gospel is that we are brought into this kingdom individually, as we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead. If you are in Christ, you have been foreknown by God personally and intimately. Paul can point to himself as an individual and say, “God has kept his promise. I myself am an Israelite. And God is still keeping his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob one soul at a time.”
But also hear this warning, friends: we don’t get to slip through the crowds on the basis of our associations. Paul has already reminded us in chapter 9 that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Perhaps you are here this morning thinking that being part of this group means you will get swept into the kingdom by association. There’s a reason our baptism tank is small. We enter the kingdom soul by soul.
We want you to be a part of this community of faith, but you do not enter the kingdom because of your associations. You do not enter the kingdom because of who your parents were. You do not enter the kingdom because of your friends. We enter by a personal relationship with a God who knows his people. We welcome you to know God and be known by him personally, intimately. Knowing about God is not the same as knowing about him. God does not reject those whom he foreknew. Are you known by him? Do you have a relationship with him? Perhaps this morning you are hearing him call you by name as you hear this gospel proclamation: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
Review: The first way God defends God’s trustworthiness to not reject his people is by making sure we are defining who his people are correctly. God’s promise to the group of Israel is ultimately carried out at the individual level. So even though Paul is grieved and heartbroken that Israel as a group has largely rejected their Messiah, there are still people, like Paul himself, who have embraced their long expected Messiah.
Transition: The first point, Known by God, is that God doesn’t reject his people whom he foreknew. The second point is a reminder that God’s people are chosen by him, so even if Israel as a group chooses to reject the messiah, the choice of who individually will experience that saving foreknowledge belongs to God.
Point Two: Chosen by God
We see point two in verse 5: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” The important word to pay attention to here is “chosen.” This is another one of those freight train words that is critical to Paul’s message in these chapters. God’s sovereignty in choosing is critical to Paul’s defense of God’s trustworthiness.
Discussing the choosing of Jacob over Esau, Paul writes in 9:14, “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 him who calls—[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’”
The word “election” in chapter 9 is the exact same as our word in 11:5, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” God has chosen this remnant in the same way he chose Jacob instead of Esau, to prove he is not influenced by works. It was done when “they had yet done nothing either good or bad.”
This word shows up again later in chapter 11, verse 7. “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” Within the group of Israel there are two groups: the elect, or chosen who obtained the thing they were seeking, but the rest who didn’t and were hardened. God chose some to be gracious toward apart from anything they did or did not do.
Once again, don’t trust me that this is how Paul is really using the word just because I can right click on my bible software and look up some Greek words. What is Paul’s point in this context by using this word “chosen”? Well in verse 2-4 he tells us a story from 1 Kings 19 about Elijah. Notice the emphasis in Elijah’s language:
“Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life!” (Romans 10:3). Elijah is quite concerned about God’s ability to keep his promises. He has just seen God’s powerful showdown with the prophets and priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, and yet, he engages in a little prophetic pity party against Israel. “Everyone is after me, and I am the only one who is still following you!” It’s a them-versus-me moment, and it’s all about me. Well, God isn’t having any of it. Look at the Lord’s response in verse 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.’” (Romans 10:4).
Sorry, Elijah, it’s not about you and your faithfulness. God’s response to Elijah is twofold: First, you aren’t the only one who is faithful. There are actually 7,000, Mr. Elijah. Second, the language here is emphatic: “I have kept them for myself. If you are faithful, Mr. Prophet, it is because I have kept you. I chose you. My choosing here is the operative principle. Your faithfulness is the result of my action.” That is why Paul deduces, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”
The reason Paul emphases election in Romans 9–11 is the exact opposite of puffing up our ego. God’s sovereign choice of his people has a very specific theological purpose: to completely incinerate any notion that your works have contributed to your salvation. Election is the foundation on which the doctrine of salvation by grace alone rests. That is why Paul’s conclusion to the story of Elijah is that there is a remnant, chosen by grace. In stark contrast to Elijah’s cockiness, the Lord makes clear that his choosing is utterly divorced from our choosing.
Apply: Christian, if you are trusting in Christ right now, don’t make the same mistake Elijah made, and fall into the trap of thinking your faith is the ultimate agent of your salvation. Praise God that you have not bowed your knee to the Baals if this world. Perhaps you feel the self-righteousness rising in you that wants to tell God, “I alone am left.”
Remember the words of Peter, when he responded to Jesus: “See, Lord, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). What was Jesus’s response? “You aren’t losing anything on this deal. The greatest sacrifice you could ever make is only gain. Truly, truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–30).
God isn’t impressed by your sacrifices because you gain everything by following him. Your works aren’t impressive to God. You have nothing to offer him. He didn’t chose you because of your value. He chose you because he chose you. He loves you because he loves you.
Like Elijah and like Peter, we often want to boast about how hard we have worked for God. We are tempted by the illusion of self-importance to think that we can contribute something to the equation. If you have been known by God intimately and personally before the foundation of the world, lay down your pathetic attempts at justifying yourself before God. He’s not impressed. And, like Elijah, you are embarrassing yourself. You may think you are the only one—but there are 7,000. And they are faithful because they were chosen, too.
Point Three: Kept by Grace
If we have been known by God, and chosen by God through grace, he will keep us till the end. Look at how Paul concludes in verse 6: “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Paul’s conclusion to this passage about God keeping his promise to the remnant of Israel is to lift high grace.
I will be honest and say that this really surprised me. It originally seemed to me like an odd outburst in the middle of chapter 11, which is primarily dealing with God’s faithfulness to his promises to ethnic Israel, and how that relates to Gentiles, and what that means now and in the future. But follow Paul’s progression here: “Has God rejected his people? No. He doesn’t reject those whom he foreknew, like Paul. And God is keeping for himself the people he chose.”
But what are we to conclude about God’s faithfulness to keep his promise to Israel, person by person? Why is God doing it this way? So we will know that this is about grace, not works. Grace is not an outburst, it is Paul’s conclusion.
If God did not do it this way, grace would not be the shining gem. Look at his conclusion: “otherwise grace would not be grace.” If Paul says “otherwise” what would be the alternative? The alternative to a remnant chosen by grace would be an entire ethnic group chosen by their lineage or law keeping. God’s freedom to know and choose his people has a very specific purpose: grace. Grace is unearned, undeserved, unsought, free, capricious, prodigal favor.
Paul wants us to see that the way God is keeping his promise to Israel means that we must no longer view salvation as on the basis of works, but completely by God’s own sovereign initiative to know and love a people that he will keep for himself.
Apply: God’s freedom is a fortress for our faith. Do you worry that your faith is not strong enough to hold on? Do you feel the pressure to bow the knee to Baal? Do you feel like Elijah, like you are the only one left who is still faithful, and all the powers of the world are after you trying to wipe you out? What gives you confidence that you will stay in the faith? Does your faith ever feel like a flicker, just one breath away from being extinguished?
Grace is the message of God to you: “I have kept for myself 7,000 who did not bow the knee to Baal.” This is staggering. This remnant, these few followers in the midst of an Israel that had utterly rejected Yahweh, remained faithful and did not cave. Why? God kept them. God knows them. God chose them. And at the present time, God is keeping a remnant by grace.
If salvation were on works, if your choice were the determining factor, then that is a very unsure foundation. We are prone to wander. Our hearts are fickle. But if you have been known by God and loved by God, if you were chosen by him, then even when all the world turns back and Jesus asks you, “Do you want to go away as well?” You will respond “You have the words of eternal life.” And you will respond that way because Jesus answers, “Have I not chosen you?”
Jesus told the crowds asking for bread, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). Later Jesus told the crowds that he was the Good Shepherd, and “my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father has given them to me” (John 10:27–29).
When I fear my faith will fail, Christ will hold me fast
When the tempter would prevail, He will hold me fast
I could never keep my hold through life’s fearful path
For my love is often cold, He must hold me fast.