Whenever I tell people about God’s goodness, I can just about guarantee that someone will call for balance and say I should also preach on God’s severity. Then they will quote this verse:
Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in his goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. (Rom 11:22, NKJV)
“You see, God is kind, but he’s also severe, so watch yourself! God has given you a chance to repent, but now you have to prove you were worth it by getting your act together, otherwise it’s the chop for you!”
And we wonder why unbelievers don’t get excited about this so-called gospel!
In my ongoing series on eternal security, I have maintained that we are saved by grace and kept by grace. Your eternal security rests on God’s promises, not your behavior. But, the insecure don’t believe it. They read the above passage and worry that they will be cut off if they fail to continue in the Lord’s kindness.
How do you continue? The insecure are uncertain, but it probably has something to do with working hard, being good, and hoping for the best. But look at what Paul says:
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. (Rom 11:19)
This is about belief not behavior, faith not works. “They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith.” Continuing in God’s goodness is less about working and more about trusting. But I am getting ahead of myself. Before we go further we need to ask an an important question:
Who is Paul talking about?
Who are the “they” that were broken off and who are the “you” that were grafted it? Paul is not speaking about individuals and he is not speaking about the church. He is talking about Jews and Gentiles:
Concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” … I am talking to you Gentiles. (Rom 10:21, 11:13)
The nation of Israel, as a group, was broken off and the Gentiles, as a group, were grafted in. The Jews had been shown favor from the Lord but they did not receive it (although certain individual Jews had, such as Paul himself). God reached out to the Jews in love but they gave him the cold shoulder. Now God’s favor is also extended to the Gentiles.
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. (Rom 10:12)
God’s desire is to bless everyone, but not everyone receives his blessing. As a group the Jews tried to earn his favor and were cut off. That sounds like divine judgment as though God were rejecting them. But look at what Paul says:
Did God reject his people? By no means! … God did not reject his people… they stumbled … they were broken off because of unbelief. (Rom 11:1,2,11,20)
The condemnation of unbelief is self-inflicted. Refuse his blessings and you won’t be blessed. You’ll be cursed. This is why Paul warns the Gentiles to “continue in God’s kindness.”
What is God’s kindness?
God’s kindness refers to his unmerited favor or grace which comes to us through Jesus:
In order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:7)
To continue in kindness is to continue in grace which is to continue in Christ.
As a nation, the Jews stumbled in unbelief. But the grace of God is for the whole world. Hence Paul says, “Don’t boast over the Jews – you Gentiles have a window of opportunity, like they did, and it won’t last forever. Receive God’s goodness! Receive Jesus! Confess him as Lord (Rom 10:9). Clothe yourself with Christ (Rom 13:14).”
What about God’s severity?
Here is the wrong way to interpret the severity passage: “I need to work hard for God and keep 100% of his commands to avoid getting cut off.” That’s what the Jews thought and it led to their downfall. By betting on their performance they rejected God’s grace.
And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Rom 11:6)
At the start of his letter to the Romans, Paul says everyone receives one of two gifts from the Lord. We either receive the free gift of his righteousness that comes by faith (Rom 1:17), or we receive, through hard-nosed and stubborn unbelief, the unwanted gift of his wrath (Rom 1:18). The Jews, as a group, had chosen the bad gift (Rom 10:21). We do well to choose the good one.
Who is in danger of being cut off?
Not those who are joined to the Lord.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:28)
The insecure thinks, “If I can graft myself in through belief, then I can cut myself off through unbelief.” To this I respond, “You are saved by Jesus and kept by Jesus. You are one with the Lord and what God has joined together, no man can tear apart.”
“But what if I stop continuing in his kindness.” Paul answers that question when he talks about the importance of continuing in the faith. Although there are consequences to not continuing, Paul never says the Christian will be cut off. You are the body of Christ and Jesus doesn’t self-amputate.
Continue in his kindness, otherwise, you also will be cut off. (Rom 11:22)
Remember, Paul is addressing groups – Jews and Gentiles – not individuals. He clarifies this in the next two verses: “And if the Jews… You Gentiles…” (Rom 11:23-24, GNB). The Jews, as a group, were written off even as individual Jews, such as he and all the apostles, were grafted in through faith. Similarly, the Gentiles as a group have benefited from the kindness of God, but individual Gentiles may yet miss out through unbelief.
None of this talk about being cut off from Christ applies to Christians. But don’t take my word for it. Here is the Believer’s Bible Commentary:
It must be constantly borne in mind that Paul is not speaking of the church or of individual believers. He is speaking about the Gentiles as such. Nothing can ever separate the Body of Christ from the Head, and nothing can separate a believer from the love of God…
Romans 11 is a warning to those who, like the Jews, stubbornly refuse the grace and goodness of God. Reject his blessings and you’ll curse yourself. This should not frighten the believer. Although the Gentiles as a group may receive or miss out on God’s grace, the body of Christ will never, ever experience the sternness or severity of God. It’s one or the other, not both. Don’t let anyone curse what God has blessed.
Romans is good news for the believer!
Romans 11 has been used to sow fear and terror into the children of God. It has been twisted into a works-based message of conditional salvation that is a million miles from Paul’s heart. We would not fall for this nonsense if we had an assurance of our Father’s love and grace. If only Paul had given us such an assurance. He does!
For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. (Rom 8:15-16)
The Holy Spirit says you belong to your heavenly Father and you are his dearly beloved child. If a sermon on Romans 11 fills you with fear, you can be sure that the spirit behind it is not the Holy Spirit. If Romans 11 scares you, read Romans 8.