The Religious, The Righteous And The Rest

An Exposition of Romans 11:7-10

Romans 11:7-10 (ESV) : What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.” And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.”

It has been my firm conviction, owing to my experience and observation, that one mark of a great teacher is that he is well able to express his teachings in succinct summaries. Einstein is known to have said, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t know enough about it”. It is not just true in the case of science, but in theology too. Good theologians are very equipped in giving a good gist of deep doctrines. Unless one is capable of doing so, one should consider one’s learning as inadequate. For only when one has deep knowledge of a subject, can one summarize it, without running the risk of being overly simplistic. Moreover, if one knows only to fiddle with theological facts and never be able to draw a reasonable and helpful conclusion, then his listeners are more confused than enlightened. Thus the inability to explain his teachings in a succinct manner, not only proves the inadequate learning of the teacher, but also his inefficiency as a teacher.

The apostle Paul, however, has all the marks of a great teacher. His epistle to the Romans alone is enough to prove that. It is by far the most weighty and systematic treatment of his theology than any other of his epistles we have in the canon. Here we find Paul heralding and expounding the great doctrines of the Christian faith. He moves on in his explanation by drawing further implications of what he has already said. He often does it by pausing and asking questions like “What shall we say then?” or “What then?“. By drawing out implications of his previous statements, he goes onto developing what could be called a full-orbed theology, which not only covers necessary implications of truths being discussed, but also accomplishes to answer objections he anticipates from his readers. Every student of theology and all pastors who are bestowed with the responsibility of feeding God’s sheep by expounding Scripture, ought to know this mark of a great teacher – asking questions. When we approach a text or a proposition of biblical truth, we ought to ask questions that draw necessary implications of it. We should also be able to ask anticipatory questions that our objectors could ask. Doing this will help us to have a deeper knowledge of our subject and enable us to articulate our conviction in a succinct yet comprehensive manner. When framing a gist of our understanding of a truth, knowledge of necessary implications and possible objections helps us to use words in the most calculative way.

Here in our text for today, we have such a statement from Paul. In the passage we are studying, he is summarizing in a succinct manner, all that he has been discussing from the beginning of chapter 11. We will first look at the structure of our passage, expound it and have a brief theological meditation for each of our expositions. Theological meditation is aimed at having a deeper reflection of the doctrines being discussed in these verses and for drawing practical implications for our lives. Since there are two blocks of exposition that mainly constitute this study, there will be two corresponding theological meditations.

Structure of the Passage

The passage begins with Paul’s question “What then?”, signifying that he is gearing to draw a conclusion of all his discourse so far. He then gives us his conclusion in the form of a summary statement in the rest of verse 7. This summary statement has three parts – (i) Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking (ii) The elect obtained it and (iii) the rest were hardened. The remaining passage, verses 8-10 are proof texts which Paul quotes from the Old Testament to prove the third part of his summary statement. We will first deal with Paul’s question “What then?”, to show the context of our passage and to understand the flow of thought of the apostle at this point of the epistle. We will then expound the summary statement in its three parts and have our first theological meditation over the truths we learn from our exposition. Finally we will expound the Old Testament texts quoted by Paul and have our second and final theological meditation.

“What then?” – The Context of our Passage

As noted earlier, Romans is perhaps the closest to a systematic theology text book in the Bible. It is clearly the most systematic of all the epistles of Paul. Some have noted the systematic approach of Paul in Romans as follows. In chapters 1:18-3:20, he deals with sin – explaining our need of salvation; then in chapters 3:21-5:21, he deals with salvation – explaining the way of our salvation; moving onto chapters 6:1-8:39, he deals with sanctification – explaining the life of our salvation; followed by chapters 9:1-11:36 where he deals with sovereignty – explaining the source and scope of our salvation; and finally in chapters 12:1-16:27, he deals with service – explaining the works of our salvation. Our passage comes in that beautiful section of Romans which deals with the sovereignty of God in our salvation. These three chapters can be understood as follows. Romans 9 teaches us the truth of God’s sovereignty in the choice of His people. Paul quotes Old Testament passages and shows how God has always had the prerogative to choose His people (Romans 9:15-16). He chose Isaac, not Ishmael (Romans 9:7). He chose Jacob, not Esau (Romans 9:10-13). He thus has the sovereign free-will to choose which of His fallen, wrath-deserving sinner, He would show mercy and compassion (Romans 9:15). Both His elect and His reprobate serves the same purpose of His – to declare His power and glorious Name (Romans 9:17, 22-23) He concludes by saying how this elect, called out people of God does not just consist of Jews alone, but even the Gentiles (Romans 9:23-33). Moving on, in chapter 10, Paul teaches the importance of faith for our salvation and how that faith comes only by hearing the gospel preached to us (Romans 10:9-17). He shows how salvation is not by works of righteousness, but by faith in the gospel. He explains this to be the failure of Israel (Romans 10:2-8; 18-21)and the reason why Gentiles are being saved now. In chapter 11, he then moves onto answer a possible question that could arise at this point, which is to do with the future of Israel. If Israel is failing and Gentiles are being saved, does that then mean God has rejected Israel forever? He goes onto show that is not at all the case. It would be a gross misinterpretation of the apostles teaching, if anyone draws such a conclusion. Paul goes onto explain how there is a remnant chosen by grace who shall receive the salvation of God (Romans 11:5-6). He directs us to the example of how God preserved His foreknown people, to be faithful to Him during the time of Elijah (Romans 11:2-4). He also points to himself to show how he, although a Jew, is a believer, proves that God has not rejected Jews categorically (Romans 11:1). It is at this point that we come across our text.

Before moving onto the details of the specific context of our text in chapter 11 of Romans, I would like to deal with an objection raised by some on our understanding of Romans 9-11, which I delineated above. Some have argued that we who are Reformed, are so caught up with Romans 9 that we do not have a proper grasp of chapters 10 and 11. They seem to suggest that if we who are Reformed were to read and study Romans 10 and 11, we would come to see that our conclusions in this matter of God’s sovereignty from Romans 9 is not balanced or just plain wrong. They give an impression that the strong statements of Paul on God’s sovereignty in Romans 9 are some how dismissed by the apostle in chapters 10 and 11. In other words, they suggest that if we study chapters 10 and 11, then we would not read chapter 9 the way we do. Now, this charge of our detractors is first of all ignorant of the Scriptures and secondly ignorant of we who are Reformed. This is because unlike their suggestion there is no such dismissal of God’s sovereignty in chapters 10 and 11. Thus their suggestion is not faithful to this part of God’s Scriptures. Secondly, I know of no Reformed preacher or theologian who bases his whole understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation on Romans 9 and then never deals Romans 10-11 honestly. The fact that one often comes across more commentaries on Romans by Reformed Christians than any other group of Christians is enough to prove this charge as false. How then do we understand the relationship of these three chapters? I submit to you that there is no difficulty for Reformed Christians in this matter of how these chapters hang together. Unlike our detractors who see Romans 9 as teaching God’s sovereignty which is then modified or “dismissed” by chapters 10 and 11, which supposedly teach human responsibility as they perceive it, we who are Reformed understand these chapters to be one building upon the other. In other words, we see Paul, first laying out the foundation of God’s sovereignty in our salvation in chapter 9, moving onto the next layer of the instrumentality of faith in the gospel in chapter 10, and in chapter 11, explaining how even Jews, a remnant of them, shall receive the same salvation on the same terms – faith in the gospel, owing to the same source – God’s sovereign and gracious choosing. Thus chapters 10 and 11 though talks about the importance of faith, it does not dismiss God’s sovereign choosing of His people as taught in chapter 9. Chapter 9 serves as the theological undergirding of all that happens to those who are saved by faith – whether Gentiles in chapter 10 or the Jews in chapter 11. Thus even though dealing in the context of Israel’s unbelief, hardening and future salvation, we see Paul here teaching the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in human salvation. It is thus suffice to say that it is not us, but our detractors who are not faithful to this passage of Scripture.

How then do we understand the relationship of these three chapters? I submit to you that there is no difficulty for Reformed Christians in this matter of how these chapters hang together. Unlike our detractors who see Romans 9 as teaching God’s sovereignty which is then modified or “dismissed” by chapters 10 and 11, which supposedly teach human responsibility as they perceive it, we who are Reformed understand these chapters to be one building upon the other. In other words, we see Paul, first laying out the foundation of God’s sovereignty in our salvation in chapter 9, moving onto the next layer of the instrumentality of faith in the gospel in chapter 10, and in chapter 11, explaining how even Jews, a remnant of them, shall receive the same salvation on the same terms – faith in the gospel, owing to the same source – God’s sovereign and gracious choosing. Thus chapters 10 and 11 though talks about the importance of faith, it does not dismiss God’s sovereign choosing of His people as taught in chapter 9. Chapter 9 serves as the theological undergirding of all that happens to those who are saved by faith – whether Gentiles in chapter 10 or the Jews in chapter 11. Thus even though dealing in the context of Israel’s unbelief, hardening and future salvation, we see Paul here teaching the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in human salvation. It is thus suffice to say that it is not us, but our detractors who are not faithful to this passage of Scripture.

Finally, a word on the immediate context of our passage. As noted earlier, in chapter 11, the apostle is answering a possible question that could arise from his preceding discussion in chapters 9 and 10. In chapter 10, he showed how salvation is not by works, but by faith in the gospel and how Israel has missed it precisely because they sought it without faith. His previous summary statement before the one we are considering in our text today found in Romans 9 : 30-32 goes on like this : What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. He moves onto show how Israel even though was told the gospel, they did not hear it effectually. All this could raise a question in the mind of his hearers as to whether this means God has rejected Israel. Paul anticipates it and deals with in chapter 11. His argument in chapter 11 so far till our text is that God has not rejected Jews, but has a remnant and that remnant has been chosen by Him in grace. It is at this point Paul asks “what then?”. In other words, if Israel as a nation is largely failing, while Gentiles are being saved by faith in the gospel and that there is a remnant in Israel chosen by grace, what are we to make of God’s plan of salvation?

Exposition of Paul’s Summary

Paul gives his answer as a summary statement in the rest of verse 7, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened”. As noted earlier, we can break this into three parts.

(i) “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” – The Religious

Paul begins by noting something which he has been saying for quite some time in this section of Romans, which is that Israel with all its religious zeal is failing to obtain that which it is pursuing. If we take a look at the previous summary statement of Paul in Romans 9:30-32, we can see a clearer picture of what Paul is saying here. He says there, “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” With this text in mind, we can make the following observations of our text.

First, when Paul says Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking, he is referring to their seeking of righteousness before God. In other words, we are in the domain of justification. It is noteworthy to see how salvation for Paul has everything to do with justification – a right standing before a holy God. A God-centered understanding of salvation would inevitably understand justification to be the centre of it all. This is one reason why sound Evangelicals in all ages of the church have recognized justification to be the heart of the gospel. Wherever Christianity declines to a mere man-centered “program” for earning physical blessings, justification would inevitably be downplayed. Even though Israel cannot be charged with that failure, they did fail in attaining it. For if our understanding of justification is erroneous, despite the many good things we might have, we are losers in the end. Look at the Jews itself for example. They were not pagans lying in darkness. They were the recipients of God’s revelation. They had good doctrines. They had good ethical standards. However they failed, simply because on this matter of justification, they erred. To have the right understanding of justification is thus of paramount importance to anyone seeking salvation.

Secondly, Jews failed not because they sought the wrong thing, but they sought the right thing the wrong way. It is one thing to affirm that justification is the heart of salvation. It is quite another thing to pursue it the right way. Look at the Jews again. They did seek the right thing. They did seek a right standing before God. In other words, they zealously sought justification before God. However they failed. The point to be noted here is that despite their good intentions, they failed because they did not seek it the way God wanted them. Justification cannot be earned by works. As Paul says in Romans 9:30, justification comes by faith alone. However Israel did not seek it by faith and thus sought to establish a righteousness of their own by their works. In turn they failed to attain such a righteousness, for sin has so tainted us that it is impossible for us to keep the law perfectly and attain righteousness by our own works.

Thus we see here how outward religiosity despite all its zeal for right things would not lead one to justification and true salvation.

(ii) The elect obtained it – The Righteous

Paul now moves onto the positive and shows who in God’s scheme of salvation receives justification. He uses the word elect. The Greek word here could mean both election as an act, or elect when referring to persons. Now clearly its persons being referred to here and therefore new translations use the word elect, whereas some old translations use the word election. Whichever be the case the message of the apostle is quite clear. People who are the subject of divine sovereign grace obtains justification. Here we are to take note of two important things. Firstly, that quite contrary to popular evangelical beliefs, doctrines of predestination and election have everything to do with our salvation. It is common for preachers, especially in India to just quote Romans 8:29 and say, well predestination has to do with sanctification alone – God the Father predestining the end of sanctification as Christ-likeness. First of all, the verse there is not talking about God predestining an event, rather it talks about He predestining a people. Secondly such preachers also do not take into consideration the immediate context of that verse where Paul very clearly says how those who are justified by God are only those whom He predestined. Here in our text, Paul explicitly says who those are whom God justifies – the elect. Thus being the elect of God has everything to do with one’s justification or salvation.

Second thing to be noted here is the use of the word elect instead of Gentiles, unlike his previous summary statement of Romans 9:30-32. This change of terms can be explained by two reasons. Firstly, as we have been saying, the apostle is trying to answer a possible query that could be raised from his discourse, namely, had God rejected Israel as a whole? We have noted how Paul is trying to convince his readers how that is not at all the case. Thus to ensure that no possible misinterpretation is made of his teaching, he uses a broader category of elect than any racial categories. Moreover in chapter 10, he has clearly shown how the Lord is the Lord of all and that He saves all those who call on Him in faith. In other words, he has already shown that the mark of God’s people, the elect, is faith and not race. All this would well explain the use of the word elect in our text. Before moving onto the second reason why Paul used the word elect here, let me give you an implication of this truth that the mark of God’s elect is faith and not race. We see it in the beginning of Romans 10. Paul knowing that God is the savior of all those who believe the gospel, despite their racial backgrounds, was earnest in his prayers for the salvation of his people (Romans 10:1). Thus the practical implication for us, who believe this truth that the identity of God’s elect is faith and not race, is that we should be zealous to pray for the salvation of all peoples. Since salvation is by faith, people of any and all races are welcomed by the gospel. We need not worry about anyone’s racial background, for God will save anyone who calls on His Name. Moreover, we know from the whole of New Testament that God has His elect in all people groups and this truth should make us zealous to pray for the salvation of people from all ethnic groups. In short, when it comes to people groups, our prayer should be as broadminded as God is in His gospel.

The second reason why Paul would have used the word elect here is directly dependent on the immediate context of the passage. In his reply to the anticipated query on Israel, Paul speaks about a remnant chosen by grace. By the word elect, he could be referring to that elect remnant within Israel. In other words, the text here is not speaking about God’s elect in a broad sense, but only referring to Israel. In that sense, the verse is saying, Israel as a nation is largely failing, however the elect Israel shall receive justification, while the rest of the Jews are hardened. This is a very possible way of reading this verse, though it does not shun the other way of reading it in broad terms. In other words, it could be argued that keeping in mind the immediate context, Paul could be speaking about Israel and the elect Jews, however it would not be wrong of us to read this verse in a broader sense as dealing with Israel and then the elect – both Jews and Gentiles. What we need to see is that in both the readings, this truth is held intact, that it is God’s election that determines one’s reception of His justification by faith.

Thus we see here how true justification and salvation comes to God’s chosen people only, by His grace and through their faith in the gospel promises.

(iii) “but the rest were hardened” – The Rest

Since we have found that the word “elect” could be interpreted in two ways, the word “rest” here also can have two meanings. In the immediate context, if we see the word “elect” as referring strictly to the remnant of God in Israel, then the rest is referring to all the remaining Jews. However in the wider theological sense, we take the word “elect” as referring to God’s elect comprising of all peoples, both Jews and Gentiles, then the word “rest” here refers to all the non-elect of the world. Since the former is a subset of the latter, we could carry on our study by seeing the rest as the non-elect of the world. Now what happens to these peoples? The text says they are hardened. In other words, their hearts are made callous. In the case of the Jews, it speaks of their obstinacy to believe in Jesus Christ (John 12:37-40). In the case of the Gentiles, it speaks of their perverse and immoral lifestyle in rebellion to God (Ephesians 4:17-19). In other words, we could say that they receive this hardening of their hearts as a punishment from God for their tenacious unwillingness to yield to God and His ways. The more they rebel and not believe the gospel, the more their hearts are hardened and incapable of believing in Him. In short, when people harden their hearts to God, God responds by employing divine hardening of their hearts. How terrible a punishment!

Paul goes onto give much details of what this hardening entails in the case of God’s reprobates in the following verses. We will deal with it when we expound them. At this point, it is suffice to say, that both the religious Israel and the irreligious pagan sinner, stubborn in their rejection of the gospel, makes up what Paul calls here “the rest” and are subject to God’s hardening. They thus never believe the gospel to receive true justification. Here we thus see two camps of people – those who receive God’s justification and those who do not. The second camp can be further divided to two groups, namely the religious and the irreligious. As we see at the beginning of Romans, there are two kinds of sinners – the pagan of chapter 1 and Jewish sinner of chapter 2. Pagan sinner of chapter 1 can be religious and also irreligious indulging in all kinds of immoralities. Here when we say religious people, it includes both Jews and Gentiles who are seeking justification by means of diligent religious works.

The Religious, The Righteous and The Rest – A Theological Meditation

Let us take a closer look at these groups of people, for in this matter of seeking justification, we fall into either of these groups. Not only is it true for all the people in the world, it is true for Christians too. For we also fail and fall into these groups time and again in our pursuit of God. First, lets look how all human beings fall into either of these groups. We have first of all the religious man. All religions except the gospel is an attempt to have a right standing before a God by means of works. Only the gospel gifts man this right standing by means of Another’s perfect works. The religious man is so proud of himself to receive any such gift. He believes in earning his justification and thus wants to live a life which we could describe very well as performance-driven. Secondly, there are those who couldn’t care less about religion and God. They think they do not seek any kind of justification. The fact of the matter is, they do. All human beings yearn to be in right standing before their heart’s master. We cannot help but seek justification before our ‘god’. Take the irreligious pagan who is into serving the idols of his heart like money, sex, power etc. What does it mean to serve the idols of his heart but to obey the dictates of these idols and be in a right standing with these idols of his heart? The idol lies to him that if he obeys its sinful dictates he will have eternal life and joy. Seeking that pleasure of sin, he very religiously fulfils his duty to this idol. This kind of hedonistic life could be described by us as pleasure-driven. Finally we have true Christians. These are people who seek true justification before the true God by means of trusting in Jesus Christ. Unlike the performance-driven chap, a Christian trusts in the perfect record of Jesus’ performance for him. Unlike the pleasure-driven person, a Christian enjoys life and joy in the God who has justified Him freely and graciously. Thus we could describe a Christian’s life as promise-driven. Lets study these three ways of living a little more closer, for as noted earlier, we though Christians can fall into these traps in our pilgrimage.

(I) Performance-Driven Life

Like the religious person, who seeks to be justified before God on the basis of his performance of religious duties, a Christian can fall into the pit of legalism and think that he is accepted by God on the basis of his own works. Even though he is a true believer in Christ, he can functionally be living a performance-driven life, where one’s confidence in the acceptance of God is directly proportional to one’s satisfaction in the fulfillment of religious duties. Thus even though he confesses his salvation to be by the gospel, he makes the efficacy and sufficiency of that gospel contingent upon his personal holiness. That is in a nutshell the definition of this error.

All of us who think someday is a bad day for we forgot to read our Bibles or do our witnessing and therefore we may not be accepted by God, has fallen into this trap of performance-driven life. Like the religious Jews, the thing we are pursuing is very good – having a right standing before God. Even the things we seek to do – like Bible reading and witnessing etc are also good. However to base our justification before God on these things is very bad. That’s where we fail. This is exactly what we could call the great Roman Catholic error of putting sanctification as the basis of our justification.

What we need to keep in mind is the gospel truth that we are accepted before God only in Christ. Every time we seek to base our justification before God on our obedience, we are in effect telling God that Christ’s righteousness is not sufficient enough to give me a right standing before God. This is how performance-driven life betrays the gospel.

(II) Pleasure –Driven Life

Like the irreligious hedonist who follows his sinful heart, a Christian can fall into seasons of backsliding where he under the influence of bad teachings, like say the Carnal Christian doctrine which denies the Lordship of Christ over a Christian, can fall into the pit of antinomianism and live a pleasure-driven life. In such a season, the Christian falls excessively for the lies of sin, serves the idols in his heart, seeks right standing before these idols by religiously obeying their sinful dictates, in pursuit of everlasting joy and pleasure. However time and again, he finds at the end of his sinful deed, that it did not give him everlasting satisfaction. Rather it brings guilt which hinders him from seeking true joy and peace in God. Thus the vicious cycle continues. That I believe is a fair description of the pleasure-driven life – both of the irreligious worldly man and even the falling Christian.

It betrays the gospel because it lies that true identity, meaning, purpose and joy in life is found by having a right standing with the idols of one’s heart. If the idol of a man’s heart is work, then he will try to find his identity in work by striving to be the best and gloating over those who are not working like him. He will find meaning in life by looking at his work, his accomplishments and future goals. He will find purpose in life by looking at his work, which is his reason for existence. He will find joy in life by looking at his work, for its rewards are his joy. If affection of the opposite sex is a man’s idol, then he will try to find his identity in having a girl friend or wife and looking down on all those miserable singles. He will find meaning in life by looking at this fact that someone of the opposite sex thinks he is really worthy and thus living is worthwhile. He will find purpose in life by loving and serving his girl friend or wife as she is his reason for existence. He will find joy in life by seeking the joy his girlfriend or wife gives him. If however he cannot find a person of the opposite sex interested in him, he will sentence himself to condemnation, thinking of himself as good for nothing and unworthy of living. We all have such idols in whom we try to find our identity, meaning, purpose and joy in life by seeking a right standing before them.

However the gospel says our identity is in Christ – for we are righteous in Him before the Father and thus the subject of the Father’s perfect love; our meaning in life is in Christ – for even while we were wretched sinners, God loved us so much that He gave His Son for us; our purpose in life is Christ – for we live to love and serve Him; and we find our joy in Christ – for everlasting life and joy is in Him and He has given it to us through the gospel.

(III) Promise-Driven Life

True Gospel Christianity can best be described as promise-driven life. Here we do not seek to be justified before God by our works. Rather we base our justification, entirely and exclusively on the promises of Christ in the gospel. We believe that when Christ obeyed the Law of God during His earthly life, He was weaving a robe of righteousness with which He now clothes His people. For as Paul says in Romans 5:19b, “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”. The key word to be noted there is “obedience”. It does not say by one man’s righteousness many will be made righteous. Rather it uses the word “obedience”, signifying that the righteousness which shall be imputed to the “many” is an actively obeyed righteousness. Too many Evangelicals just take it for granted that the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ is referring to His inherent divine righteousness. However that is not the case, for as we see here very clearly that the righteousness which shall be the basis of our justification is Christ’s active obedience during His earthly life. He lived that perfect life we could not have lived and He lived so, for us to have perfect acceptance before the Father, all the days of our life. A proper grasp of this truth would set one free from legalism. We sure would pursue religious duties, but from a completely different motive. In fact it can be argued that the person who lives the promise-driven life performs far better than a person who seeks to live the performance-driven life. For his good works are tokens of gratitude to a God who has justified him freely and perfectly in Christ. Whereas the good works of a legalist are aimed at seeking justification before God apart from Christ. How can any such Christ-denying, Gospel-diminishing works make God pleasing toward us? Our Protestants Fathers were right, for we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone.

Unlike the pleasure-driven life, Gospel Christianity finds everything and all in Christ. Jesus gives us our true identity of being the beloved of God. By His work of justifying us, He has made us absolutely righteous before and absolutely loved by the Father. The Father now loves us as He loves the Son(John 17:23b). Thus, being a Child of God, dearly loved and priced by God as He does His Son Jesus, is our identity. Our identity is not in any earthly person, vocation or worse an idol of sin, but in Christ. Jesus makes our lives meaningful to live, for despite all the pain, sufferings and trials, we know from the gospel that God loves us and is at work to make all things work for our good. If He loved us when we were wretched sinners, how shall He not love us when we are justified sinners in Christ? This confidence gives us reason to live. Jesus gives our lives purpose by being the purpose of our lives. Through the gospel He becomes our raison d’être – the purpose that justifies our existence. We live to love Him, worship Him and serve Him. When we look into the future of our lives, we see Him. Like the apostle Paul we cry, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Jesus also gives us eternal life and joy to enjoy. Unlike the lies of sin which promises to give us eternal satisfaction and then deceives us, Jesus keeps His promise to give us eternal satisfaction in Him. Thus it can be said that the person who lives the promise-driven life enjoys far greater and eternal pleasures at God’s right hand than a person who seeks to live a pleasure-driven life.

Based on this theological reflection of ours, let me draw two practical implications of this meditation. First regarding our sanctification. In light of our discussion so far, we can see how sin tempts. When we are tempted, sin is setting up an idol in our heart as a pseudo-savior. Sin promises us everlasting satisfaction on condition of our earning a right standing (justification) before this pseudo-savior by means of our ‘works’ (sinning). Sin deceives us to believe that if we thus seek justification or a right standing before this pseudo-savior, then that justification will also be the justification for our existence. The key to overcoming sin then is to discern this ploy and to turn to the gospel, where we have the true Savior who has given us true justification before the one and only true God and has gifted us everlasting life and joy, the knowledge of whose love liberates us from seeking a right standing before these idols. It is thus justification before God through Jesus that also justifies our existence. Sin, on the other hand, tells us that we would be losers and worthless if we do not seek it. However by the gospel we know we are dearly loved and priced by the Father through Jesus. Sin tells us life would be pretty miserable if we do not seek it. However we know from the gospel, life is in knowing God. Sin tells us everlasting joy can be had by seeking it. However by the gospel we know, everlasting life and joy is found in Jesus alone. Thus we overcome the temptations to seek pleasure in sin by rehearsing the gospel of justification by free grace in Jesus Christ.

Not only do we overcome sin by the gospel, the positive side of our sanctification which is keeping the law is also made possible by the gospel. In his treatise on Good Works, Martin Luther explains how faith in free justification through Jesus Christ is crucial to our obeying of the Ten Commandments. He notes first of all how all the commandments from the second to the tenth flow from the first. In other words, only if one keeps the first, can one keep the rest. He says the First commandment “is the very first, highest and best, from which all the others proceed, in which they exist, and by which they are directed and measured”. Thus in effect he says the first commandment is the first because it is to be kept first if we have to keep any of the rest. Why did he say that? He explains that in his larger catechism as follows : “the meaning and true interpretation of the first and chief commandment, from which all the others must flow and proceed, so that this word: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, in its simplest meaning states nothing else than this demand: Thou shalt fear, love, and trust in Me as thine only true God. For where there is a heart thus disposed towards God, the same has fulfilled this and all the other commandments. On the other hand, whoever fears and loves anything else in heaven and upon earth will keep neither this nor any. Thus the entire scriptures have everywhere preached and inculcated this commandment, aiming always at these two things: fear of God and trust in Him.. Thus the First Commandment is to shine and impart its splendor to all the others. Therefore you must let this declaration run through all the commandments, like a hoop in a wreath, joining the end to the beginning and holding them all together, that it be continually repeated and not forgotten; as, namely, in the Second Commandment, that we fear God and do not take His name in vain … derived from love and trust according to the First Commandment. In like manner such fear, love, and trust is to urge and force us not to despise His Word, but gladly to learn, hear, and esteem it holy, and honor it. Thus continuing through all the following commandments towards our neighbor likewise, everything is to proceed by virtue of the First Commandment.. Again, that you do your neighbor no harm, injury, or violence, nor in any wise encroach upon him as touching his body, wife, property, honor, or rights, as all these things are commanded in their order, even though you have opportunity and cause to do so and no man would reprove you; but that you do good to all men, help them, and promote their interest, howsoever and wherever you can, purely from love of God and in order to please Him, in the confidence that He will abundantly reward you for everything. Thus you see how the First Commandment is the chief source and fountainhead which flows into all the rest, and again, all return to that and depend upon it, so that beginning and end are fastened and bound to each other.” Thus when we keep the First Commandment – placing all our confidence, trust and faith in the only true God, we keep the rest of the commandments. Now the question is how do we keep the First commandment? Luther replies in his treatise on Good Works as follows : “But if you ask, where the faith and the confidence can be found and whence they come, this it is certainly most necessary to know.. thus must thou form Christ within thyself and see how in Him God holds before thee and offers thee His mercy without any previous merits of thine own, and from such a view of His grace must thou draw faith and confidence of the forgiveness of all thy sins.

Thus Luther’s logic is that, to have faith in God is the fulfillment of the first commandment, which will ensure the keeping of all the other commandments and that one needs to keep the gospel before him to draw such a faith in God. Thus the gospel promise of justification by grace alone is the chief motivation for having on-going faith and confidence in God, which is the keeping of the First Commandment, whereby we keep all the rest of the commandment. Here we see how the gospel helps us to keep the Law of God. Thus we have seen how the gospel helps us in our sanctification, to not only say no to the pleasures of sin, but also to say yes to God’s law.

Second practical implication from our theological meditation is regarding our assurance. It is often the question of so many Christians on how they can know they are the elect of God. Though many vital things need to be taken into consideration – like introspection, growth in holiness etc, at this point, we need to note that the very first thing that is to be done is exposure to the gospel. For in the Bible, our love for God is a response to the gospel (I John 4:19). Thus to investigate whether our hearts have really turned to God, we must expose ourselves to the gospel and see if there is any kind of response to it. Even if there is an ounce of love welling within the deep recesses of our heart towards the glory of Jesus in the gospel, we have reason to rejoice. In short, do not venture into meticulous introspection in the absence of the gospel, but rather do it after having exposed yourself to conscious meditation of the gospel.

Exposition of Paul’s Proof Texts

We now move to verses 8-10, which contain proof texts quoted by Paul to justify his teaching on reprobation. Paul first blends two verses from Deuteronomy and Isaiah, and then quotes verses from Psalm 69, an imprecatory Psalm. Thus he quotes the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms to show how the entire Old Testament canon bears witness to his teaching on reprobation. Verse 8 shows us what does reprobation or hardening entails and verses 9 and 10 are curses for such hardened people.

(I) What hardening entails?

In verse 8 we see that God is actively working out the punishment of His reprobates. Just as He is actively working out the salvation of His elect, He is actively working out the damnation of His reprobates. Hence the quotation begins with God as the subject. It is God who is doing what is being said in this verse. He puts them in a spirit of stupor or slumber. In other words, they are put in a state of spiritual numbness, a dullness towards spiritual matters. The word also has a meaning of pricking. Thus the idea is a state of deadness resulting from repetitious pricking. They have been hearing God’s word again and again, being pricked by it but not responding to it and thus have come to a state of inability to respond. Just like repetitious pricking would make a portion of our body numb, God’s reprobates have come to a place of spiritual numbness that they are incapacitated to respond. The more one hears the gospel and fails to respond, the more one’s heart grows cold like this. Secondly, their hardening involves spiritual blindness and spiritual deafness. Though they are well able to hear and see physically, they are spiritually blind and deaf. They hear the gospel and see no glory in it. This is a common theme through out the scripture when it comes to reprobation (Deuteronomy 29:4; Isaiah 6:9; Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:26).

(ii) What curses hardening brings?

In verses 9 and 10, Paul quotes David’s imprecatory Psalm to show the curses involved in God’s reprobation. First he tells that their table shall be turned into a snare, a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution. The idea here is that their source of nourishment, implied by the metaphor “their table”, shall in turn be the source of their judgment. This is especially true of unbelieving Israel. All the spiritual blessings they have enjoyed from God, will now turn back against them and be the means of their judgment. They will not only be a snare and a trap working out their judgment, it will also be the stumbling block which keeps them from coming to Christ. The greatest spiritual blessing that Israel received from God was the revelation of God in the Old Testament canon. That same blessing due to their hardening would be the stumbling block which keeps them from coming to Christ. This is true not just for religious Israel, but for all unbelieving religious nominal Christians. The very thing they consider as their source of nourishment – the Bible they hold, would be the stumbling block which keeps them from coming to Christ. They read and not hear, they see and not understand, they know but would not come to Christ. Like for the Jews a veil is over the Bible, every religious nominal Christian has a hard heart incapable of seeing, hearing and believing in Christ.

The next curse is that they be given spiritual blindness. In other words, the faculties that should have been used to know and believe Christ is cursed to be darkened. As we saw earlier, when we harden our hearts, God also harden our hearts in judgment. In the same manner, when we refuse to see and hear, God makes us more blind and deaf. The more Israel rejected the Messiah, the more God made her blind to recognize her true Messiah. The more Gentile sinners suppressed the truth about God and did not honor or thank Him, He gave them over to darkened hearts and futile minds (Romans 1:21-23).

Finally, the Psalmist cries out for their backs to be burdened forever. The picture is that of being in a posture of bent backs under burden. It is difficult to understand what exactly the Psalmist is referring to. However a plausible explanation can be suggested. It could be referring to being a captive slave under sin – its guilt and judgment. Since this burden is to be forever over them, it cannot be referring to anything temporal. Thus it could be referring to the eternal weight of guilt and punishment that all who reject the gospel have to bear.

Christians and the Biblical Doctrine of Reprobation – A Theological Meditation

Let us reflect upon how the Bible expects us to study these painful and crushing truths about God’s reprobation. On the outset itself, let me clarify, that the Bible never gives us such details about God’s judgment on His non-elect, for His elect people to gloat over unbelievers and apostates. In my judgment, the doctrine of reprobation has been included in God’s Bible for two reasons. Firstly, to show God’s people the severity of God’s holiness and secondly, to make them have a deeper appreciation of God’s grace towards them in light of that severity. In Romans 11: 22, Paul bids his readers to consider “the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you”. He does not ask them to merely consider the kindness of God towards them, but rather asks them to consider it in light of His severity towards those who have fallen. Paul thus wants his readers to consider the doctrine of reprobation and see both – (i) the seriousness of God’s judgment and (ii) the preciousness of God’s grace. In Malachi 1:2-3, when the prophet reminds God’s people of the election of Jacob, he reminds them of it in light of the reprobation of Esau. Thus the doctrine of reprobation serves a two-fold purpose in the revelation of God. First, it teaches God’s elect to be humble and fearing, not to be arrogant or trifle with God’s goodness. Second, it deepens the appreciation and awe of God’s elect for God’s love in the gospel. In light of this truth, how are we to study the passage we just dealt? I propose that we consider the converse of all that this passage says about the reprobate and we will find it is true in our case. Thus we will see what God has done in the lives of His elect instead of these judgments. Seeing those graces in contrast to these judgments on the reprobate will help us to appreciate God’s grace in our lives.

Firstly, in the place of spiritual slumber, the Bible says God has awakened us by the gospel through regeneration (Ephesians 2:4-6; James 1:18). Secondly, in the place of spiritual blindness, He has opened our eyes to have the light of the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Thus we do not see the gospel as foolishness or a stumbling block, but see Christ as the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Thirdly, in the place of spiritual deafness, God has given us spiritual ears to hear (Romans 10: 17; John 5:25). Through the preaching of the gospel, when the Spirit of God bears witness to the testimony of God that eternal life is in Jesus Christ, we receive that testimony. The very fact that we see the gospel as full of the glory of Jesus Christ and hear the testimony of God concerning His Son, proves that we have been awakened by His gospel. How marvelous is His grace toward us in His gospel!

A possible query could be how one is to distinguish between such effectual hearing and a mere physical hearing of the gospel? In other words, how can one be sure that one has truly been awakened and is not merely attracted to beautiful concepts of the gospel? If one is merely attracted to the beautiful concepts of the gospel, one only has a mind which has grasped the idea of the gospel. However if one rightly understands the gospel, then one would scarcely have just right thinking. For right thinking always leads to right affections driving one to right doings. Thus in a truly awakened soul, sure there would be right thinking, however that right thinking would in turn kindle right affections for Christ, driving one to right doings. Thus with mere physical hearing a shrewd man can get excited about good doctrines, however only a regenerate heart can hear good doctrine and be excited about Jesus. Deep, theologically astute, exegetically rigorous meditation leading to warm, passionate, exulting in the gospel, moving one to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, strength and mind and his neighbor like himself, happens only if one is truly regenerated. If that’s so, one can be sure one has not merely physically heard the gospel, but has been gifted by the Spirit to effectually hear the gospel.


Let us conclude our study by summarizing our main points and drawing one major application for us. We saw in our text three main truths, namely : -

1. Religious works are never capable of earning God’s favor. A right standing before God cannot be obtained by our performance of religious duties, no matter how zealous we are.

2. True justification before God is obtained for us by God Himself in His sovereign grace. A right standing before God is offered to us as a promise in Christ and we experience it by faith in Him alone.

3. God is actively working out the punishment of His reprobates as much as He is actively working out the redemption of His elect people.

In light of these truths, we draw one major application for our lives as Christians – that our lives ought to be characterized by greater communion with God through the gospel. If we lived our lives, not banking on our religious merits, not seeking the pleasures of sin, but relying entirely on who Christ is and what He has done for us in the gospel, how would our lives look? It will be one which is characterized by a glorious and deep communion with God through the gospel. To that end, let us keep exposing ourselves to the promises of God in His gospel, employ every God-given and renewed faculty in us to taste and see that the Lord is good. Let us bask ourselves in the love of God, promised and purchased for us in Christ and then our love for and communion with Him will be deepened. We will thus live our lives where we have our supreme confidence in the love of God for us in His gospel. Yes we love Him, because He first loved us and if we love Him, we shall keep His commandments. Thus drawing from His love in the gospel wherein we have been accepted freely in Christ’s perfect righteousness, we shall love Him dearly and by loving Him dearly, we shall be able to obey Him freely. May God, the Father, the source of all true blessings, bless us all to live such a promise-driven, Christ-centered, gospel-saturated life, by keeping His gospel of sovereign grace in His Son Jesus Christ, at the center of all our thinking, feeling and doing. Amen.

No strength of nature can suffice
To serve the Lord aright:
And what she has she misapplies,
For want of clearer light.

How long beneath the law I lay
In bondage and distress;
I toll’d the precept to obey,
But toil’d without success.

Then, to abstain from outward sin
Was more than I could do;
Now, if I feel its power within,
I feel I hate it too.

Then all my servile works were done
A righteousness to raise;
Now, freely chosen in the Son,
I freely choose His ways.

“What shall I do,” was then the word,
“That I may worthier grow?”
“What shall I render to the Lord?”
Is my inquiry now.

To see the law by Christ fulfilled
And hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child,
And duty into choice.

(Love constrained to Obedience by William Cowper,
The works of The Rev. John Newton,
Olney hymns Book III, Hymn 62, page 590)


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