Romans 11: Two Birds, One Stone

There is a passage in Romans 11 which I think refutes Dispensationalism and Once Saved, Always Saved that it requires almost no commentary, Romans 11:13-21:

I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

The Root, of course, is Christ. But look at what it says: the unbelief of some Jewish people caused them to be broken off from the saving Root, Christ. The Old Testament Jews, whether they realized it or not, worshipped a Triune God, which is to say, that they worshipped Christ. When He appeared to them in the flesh, some rejected the very God who they’d worshipped up until that point – out of ignorance or something worse is a call only God can make. But there were certainly those who cast themselves out of Israel/the Church by their unbelief – Paul tells us so. And with that, the notion that “Covenantal Israel = all ethnic Jews” is flatly refuted.

But that also refutes the notion of Once Saved, Always Saved. They went from being in a right relationship with God (being connected to the Root) to being “broken off because of unbelief.” The very action involved describes a breaking of a previously-existant connection. The classic argument “they just thought they were saved, they weren’t really” doesn’t make any sense if they were broken off from the Root. They were just fake-branches which weren’t really attached. They were natural branches, Paul tells us. And what’s more, he warns his readers (and us, by extention) that it can happen to us! He’s writing this to believers warning them that they can be broken off from the Root, Christ.

I decided to see how Calvin convinced himself that this didn’t refute his views. He says of this last part:

And here again it appears more evident, that the discourse is addressed generally to the body of the Gentiles, for the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God. Paul therefore declares to the Gentiles, that if they exulted over the Jews, a reward for their pride would be prepared for them; for God will again reconcile to himself the first people whom he has divorced.

Certainly, it’s true that Paul is writing to the group of Gentiles (this is, after all, one of the things we think Calvinists miss in Romans 8-9, so it’s interesting that Calvin acknowledges it here), but he’s writing to the group about each of their individual salvation, and using the salvation of the individual Jews as a reference point. Calvin’s logic here seems to be: since I’m right about Perseverance of the Saints, this must not refer to individuals, but to “the body of the Gentiles.” Of course, that interpretation makes little sense. Here’s why:

  1. Textual Integrity: Not all Jews were broken off – only individuals, individuals who were unbelieving. They went from saved (connected branch) to unsaved (unconnected branch) by being “broken off” for their unbelief. Whether you read this as being addressed to a group of individual Gentiles, or “the body of Gentiles,” it’s still dealing with the “breaking off” of some individual Jews, since we know that they weren’t, as a body, broken off.
  2. Logical Inegrity of Individual/Group Distinction: But besides that, let’s assume that Calvin is right that this passage deals with the body of Gentiles. If it’s possible that the body of Gentiles, in full or in part, is cut off due to their arrogance (or faithlessness), that cutting off can only entail the cutting off of individuals. The body of Gentiles is nothing more than the sum of Gentile individuals. Which means that if Calvin’s right that “the excision, of which [Paul] speaks, could not apply to individuals,” then it can equally not apply to groups. It’s like saying, “This disease will kill the Americans.” And then saying, “But don’t worry – it’s not fatal to individuals. It’ll just wipe out the group of Americans.” If there’s a way that’s a logical construction, I’m not seeing it.
  3. Relation to Galatians 3:28 – Explaining this by reference to the entire groups, Calvin’s painted himself into a corner, so he writes as if all Jews are unsaved (claiming that God has divorced Himself from them as group?), and what’s more, that God will choose one group or the other, as if they’re competing with one another (“if [the Gentiles] exulted over the Jews […] God will again reconcile to himself the first people whom he has divorced”). It all runs quite counter to Galatians 3:28, to say nothing of the plain meaning of the passage. It makes no sense for Paul, in Romans, which is all about being a Jew or a Gentile isn’t what’s important – that it’s Faith – to then turn around and say, “Jews v. Gentiles – only one of you can win.”

4 Comments

  1. Just a couple of things…

    – I disagree that the root is Christ/God. Paul is talking about the nation of Israel in terms of salvation history. It is a nation rooted in the patriarchs and the covenants. For a devout RC, I love your broadly encompassing Christology, but I think you go a bit far claiming that Paul writes the Jews once worshiped Jesus and now they don’t. No. They worshiped YHWH, LORD God – of which Jesus is as much as the Father is.

    – To say they were once saved but because of unbelief the Jews became unsaved doesn’t best describe anything. Salvation for the nation of Israel rarely had anything to do with individual sin redemption. There are only a couple of places in all of the OT where we can be led to believe that. Most of them are in Psalms and possibly all relate to either David or another leader/king/prophet (a singular manifestation and representative of the whole nation) asking for forgiveness of “my sins.” For the nation in most all the OT, salvation meant redemption from captives, return/restoration of the nation/land, deliverance from captives or oppressive/idolatrous leaders.

    – If the root is the covenant/patriarchs and the branches are the people groups of the Nation/nations (nations, tribes, clans, houses, families), then I believe it completely reasonable to state that it is not individual salvation for Heaven from individual sin that Paul is talking about, but instead the group blessing/curse which you disagree with. Remember the covenants. By his grace alone, God chose the people first and first delivered them/saved them. [Noah from a sin filled world, Abraham form Chaldea, Moses from Egypt, David from unrighteous leadership]. Then, after granting deliverance, God made His covenant with them. The covenant had both blessings and curses. The people do not lose being chosen for deliverance, they only either receive further blessing or receive later curses.

    – Further, as you’ve pointed out before I think, this wasn’t the time of the Enlightenment. The notion of individual anything was quite foreign. It existed to be sure, and it was important, but to make the leap to individual salvation or loss thereof when considering all the other references in Romans I think is presumptive at best. The whole book is full of “they,” “we,” plural “you,” plural Jew, plural Gentile. Again, I think you take things too far yourself to make a point against OSAS much as you accuse Calvin the opposite. (For the record, I’m not sure I agree with him either.)

    (continued)

  2. (continued)

    This is all critically important in terms of the church at Rome…writing as he is to the church…and not to an individual. It is also important to all churches today. Whether the invisible church, local churches, the RCC, or however you want to define it in my opinion. Paul is writing to the church, and in Rome’s case, a church very much based in a culture that is highly nationalistic. Speaking of Jews and Gentiles as groups makes far more sense in the context I read it. Further, you can’t stop at v.21.

    25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;

    26 and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.”

    27 “This is My covenant with them, When I take away their sins.”

    28 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;

    29 for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

    30 For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience,

    31 so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy.

    Using your reasoning, that passage I point to makes zero sense. Especially v.28-29.

    In my opinion, here, he is not talking about individuals at all, and he is most certainly not refuting OSAS. If anything, his writing actually further supports it here – minimally in terms of salvation as understood by people groups.

    DJ|AMDG

  3. Sorry…forgot this last point. Look at 30-31 and consider what you wrote about recently regarding the Jewish people during the years of the early church. The covenant with Abraham as a clear purpose and God says as much in Genesis – That God will be known among His people and that through/by/from His people, God will be made known among all people. Paul is pointing to that covenant in 30-31 but reversing the roles. The Covenant is made New in Jesus who is both representative of The People just like Abraham or David was, and representative of God (since he is God). It’s a perfect Covenant because of that and those within it are perfectly sealed within it. Jesus represents all parts of the Covenant now – God, Man, and the blood sacrifice. God can no more reject a member sealed within this Covenant (that member being represented by Jesus) than he can Jesus himself! And in 30-31, Paul is pointing out the new covenant people/nation (like the nation of Israel) will be a blessing upon all others (especially the ethnic Jews) and those others (as nations) will soon come to know the Lord, too!

    IT’S SO AMAZING!!! Getting carried away, here!

    BUT AGAIN! The curses of the covenant are not a loss of salvation or a loss of being a chosen people. Yet, they are most certainly something to be feared! God made a promise to the people/nation of Israel which at the time of Romans writing must be equated with ethnic Israelis because there is no other context. Verse 26 makes the point for that promise to be fulfilled in some future. Zion cannot be understood to be anything other than the fully redeemed and heavenly/new Earth manifestation of Jerusalem – The City of God. So, if the Deliverer will come from there to “save” the remnant of Israel…He hasn’t done it yet.

    DJ|AMDG

  4. Joe,

    For what it’s worth, I agree with you, certainly about the “once saved always saved” refutation and that Paul had in mind the Gentiles’ individual salvation.

    Thanks also for the laugh at Calvin’s expense. It’s always good to see his bad logic brought into the light of day.

    Regards,

    Chris

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