Romans 11:6 “And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”
Whenever the Jewish Christians who were members of the congregation in Rome (to which church Paul was writing this letter) got depressed it was due to another outburst of hatred and contempt that some of them or their friends were receiving from their fellow countrymen. What hostility many Jews showed to the Christian gospel. They were supporting Caiaphas and Annas the chief priests who had succeeded in getting Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah crucified. They were virulent; “He got what was coming to him, that liar, that blasphemer.” That was what they were saying. Those discouraged Jews in Rome who’d become Christians were tempted to think that after everything the Jewish establishment had done God must have rejected his people for ever. Was there any point in trying to win Jews for Jesus? If God were against such an enterprise there was little point in their trying to do anything.
Paul answers them in this section. He is addressing their minds and in that way cheering them; he is helping their joy, and what he says to them can also lift us up. We can look around our nation and see our fellow countrymen so apathetic towards the Christian faith, but God has not rejected us. We are not living in a post-Christian culture. The Lord Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth and he is the one who has laid the Great Commission on us. He didn’t tell us to say, “Come and hear!” He told us, “Go and tell!” We are still under the authority of those words. Let us begin by reminding ourselves that God has not rejected his people, and let’s apply those reasons to ourselves.
1. WHY WE BELIEVE GOD HAS NOT REJECTED HIS PEOPLE.
i] God is saving big sinners amongst us (v.1). The biggest sinner then was Saul of Tarsus. Christians said, “The last person to be saved will be Saul of Tarsus,” and what was he? An Israelite, a descendant of Abraham from the tribe of Benjamin (v.1). If this evil and cruel man was pardoned by God and then greatly used to bring many of his fellow countrymen to salvation then shouldn’t that encourage us not to be choosy in our evangelism, but pray for courage to speak to the roughest and nastiest person we know about the Lord Jesus? God saved the horrible Israelite Saul of Tarsus so go on abounding in the work of the Lord. Don’t stop! Paul is saying, “If God saved me he can save anyone.” Listen to his testimony elsewhere . . .
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example to those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. [Then he bursts into praise.] Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen’” (1 Timothy 1:12-17).
You see Paul’s logic. If God can save Saul of Tarsus then he can save anybody. Spurgeon puts it like this: “If a bridge is strong enough to bear an elephant, it will most certainly carry a mouse; and if the greatest sinner who ever lived has entered heaven by the bridge of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, then no one who has ever lived can say, ‘My sin is beyond forgiveness’.”
So never write anyone off, however hard the case may seem. Why did Paul keep knocking on synagogue doors? Why did he keep exposing himself to such physical pain and persecution? Why did he become as a Jew to win the Jews? Because of what God had done in his life. If you want any justification for Jewish evangelism, Paul says, look at what God has done to me! What a wonderful argument that is! Perhaps when you look at your family circle or amongst your friends, you lose hope that that person you have been praying for will ever be saved. Well, just think what God has done in your life! If he can do it for you, he can do it for others, can’t he?
Maybe you have heard of the Starfish Foundation, an international development charity working with Aids in South Africa. Where did they get their name? The familiar story goes like this; someone was watching a boy standing on a beach where thousands of starfish had been thrown up by the tide; the boy was picking up this starfish and that starfish and throwing them back into the sea. “What are you doing that for?” asked the onlooker. “I’m saving the starfish”, he said. “But there are thousands of them: what difference can it make just to throw a few back into the sea?” The boy was not discouraged; he didn’t stop. He picked up another one and threw it back and another and he turned to the man and said, “It made a difference to that one.” That story is where that organization its name from. Has God rejected his people? “No”, says Paul, “I’m a Jew, and God saved me. It made a difference to this one”. God saves big sinners today. He has saved Chuck Colson and he became a very public unashamed Christian. He has saved Rosaria Butterfield the lesbian professor of English in a New England university, and she marries a pastor and has written her fascinating biography. God has saved the former cabinet member Jonathan Aitken and he has written a biography of John Newton. And also in our own little world we have known big Aberystwyth sinners saved, and that includes most of us. God has not rejected us. But there is another reason for hope . . .
ii] God has got a remnant amongst us (vv.2-4). It is not just this one drug peddler in London, and an infamous serial killer in New York, and this Russian gangster– these individuals – are being saved. No! God has his eyes on a people and an assembly. There is a whole crowd, a living organism, a body, the bride and God loves them as a whole. He is going to people eternity with them. They are together going to be to the praise of his grace. He has made up his mind to save the lot of them, and redeem them he will. How little we know about the church of Jesus Christ. Even the greatest of the prophets, Elijah – whom you’d expect to know everything about the kingdom of God in Israel – didn’t know it as he should. If the mightiest servant of Jehovah had only a tiny grasp of what God was doing then it wouldn’t be surprising if the rest of them thought it was all over for Jehovahism and everyone was going over to serve Baal. But God had to tell him, “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (v.4). What was Elijah saying? “Nobody loves the Lord any longer. Just little old me; I’m the only one who trusts in God.” What was Elijah doing? He was bringing a lawsuit against Israel. He was saying to the Lord, “They’ve all turned against you, and so you pour out your judgment upon them.” Elijah was not like Abraham. In Genesis 18 Abraham was pleading with God for mercy to the inhabitants of Sodom. Here is Elijah crying to God against Israel. “Judge them for what they’ve done!” Things had got that bad in the nation – so Elijah thought. It had all become quite irremediable. How little Elijah knew of the kingdom of Jehovah. So God told him straight how things really were. They were not half as bad as he imagined; “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (v.4). You see the result of the divine loving initiative? Thousands were safe.
Let me illustrate it like this. You walk into Aberystwyth railway station, and there you discover crowds of people on the platform. It is the last day of term and hundreds of students are packing onto the train. Will you be standing all the way to Shrewsbury? No you will not. Why? You’ve reserved for yourself a seat. You get to London and it’s a holiday week-end with big sporting fixtures and concerts in the city. Will you be able to get a hotel room? Are they all booked up? No. Why? You have reserved for yourself a room in a fine hotel. It is yours and no one else’s. So there were seven thousand, maybe a symbolic number meaning a vast crowd of people, who were not falling before the foul Baals and their fertility rites. Why? Were they the smart and cool one in Israel? Were they the religious crowd? No. It was not because of them. It was because God had reserved for himself these thousands of disciples. Ralph Dale Davies says, “These words of God to Elijah are the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus saying, ‘I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’” It seemed to Elijah as it seems to us in our more unbelieving moments that the people of God are shrinking, but God will never leave himself without witness. There is always a “remnant chosen by grace” (v.5). Then there is another encouragement why we should not be in despair and stop evangelizing . . .
iii] God is blessing evangelism among us (v.5). Paul tells them, “At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (v.5). It happens in my reading scheme that I have been reading through Acts this past week and I got to the beginning of chapter 14 and this was the opening verse, “At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed.” Does that evangelistic blessing suggest to you that God had rejected his people? He was saving great numbers of Jews and Gentiles. And isn’t the case today that many of us reading this message have become believers and it was by the personal and individual work of God in our lives? He has not rejected us, and we are one small congregation! We have seen two or three Muslims come to bow before God and make him their Lord and Saviour giving very moving testimony of the reality of Jesus Christ in their daily lives. I think of the situation 48 years ago when I first began to preach here and in how few pulpits in the town was the blood of Jesus Christ the Lamb of God proclaimed. In numbers of churches it was despised. It is different now. No one could say today that God has forsaken Aberystwyth. There has been a turning away from modernism to historic Christianity. There was once in the university two religious groups, the Student Christian Movement, muddled and modernistic, and then there was the fundamentalist, obscurantist, evangelical Inter Varsity Fellowship beyond contempt. Today the S.C.M. has disappeared in virtually every single university in the country. No students today have even heard of its existence, but God is sustaining his own people who are faithful to biblical Christianity. I was in our monthly fraternal this week. We always begin by talking one by one of our churches, of our encouragements and needs, and I heard two preachers in particular talking about some unusual conversions they have witnessed in the past few months. There was a single mother overwhelmed by her need to know God for herself, and she was led to a particular church and she found her spiritual home there at once. I am saying to you that we in our town and church can quote these words of verse five, “At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (v.5). Then, notice how Paul adds these great words to make sure we understand what the phrase “a remnant chosen by grace”, means; “and if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (v.6).
2. WHAT WE’RE TO KNOW ABOUT THE SAVING GRACE OF GOD.
Paul is making this point, that if God’s grace has loved us, and so chosen us, and thus saved us then the reason for that does not lie in any work whatsoever that was done by us. You see the contrast, that if we’ve been saved by God’s grace then it is totally and absolutely certain that we’ve not been saved by our works. That is what he is saying in verse six isn’t he? That is true for every single Christian without exception, and that, even numerically, is a vast conception. No man in the Great Day will possibly be able to count them, and yet amongst those billions entering glory there’ll not be one single person – not one – who was chosen to join them and be redeemed because of some works that he or she alone had done. Not one! That is what Paul is saying isn’t it? To join the company of the remnant then there is only one entrance, and across the lintel are the words, “YOU JOIN THIS REMNANT BY GRACE ALONE.” The only way you can be saved is by the grace of God; only thus can you be one with the remnant, not by what you are, and not by what you’ve done. Then, over the entrance to hell, written across its lintel are these true words, “YOU ENTER HELL BY YOUR OWN WORKS.” There is the contrast and there are the alternatives; it is either by God’s grace on a narrow way or by your works on a broad way and each way leads to totally different destinations. And if it is by God’s grace then it is because of nothing that we’ve done. If it were then our acceptance in heaven would not be by grace. We’d done something in order to get a place there. In other words we’d earned it. We deserved it some how, and we merited it. We made a good decision and we acted in the proper way, not like those who ended up in hell. So it would not be God’s undeserved mercy alone that did it. Our actions triggered off the mercy.
Let me make this clear. Some of you, still a little confused but wanting to be taught, think vaguely that God had chosen to set his love upon you because of something that first of all you’d done. For example, you have worked at thinking about the Lord Jesus. You have read books. You have sorted out your life. You have stopped doing bad things and replaced them with good things. You have gone to services and heard sermons. You have put money in the collection. You have read the Bible each day. You have chosen to be baptized. You have become a deacon or an elder or a youth leader or a Sunday School teacher. You have done religious stuff. You have believed religious things. You have made religious decisions. All that is great, but you are mistaken in thinking that because of these works God chose you. It was rather because God chose you that you did these works. The works were the fruit of the choice not the cause of it. It was not you who took the initiative. It was not you who had to make the first step. God’s hands were not tied. He was not doing nothing but carefully watching you all the time, waiting for you to act, so that once you did some such works he could press a button and set the wheels of regeneration and redemption and adoption all in motion. It was not that he was utterly impotent to do this until you’d made the first move. That would have been his post-destination, not pre-destination. I am saying that if that really were the case then the logical consequence would have been this, that unlike the rest of us you weren’t chosen by divine grace. It was your works that saved you. You’re different from the majority sitting around you. We have no idea at all why God could love us sinners in particular, but you believe that God’s grace came to you because you’re a good egg. Ultimately then you appointed yourself; you were chosen by your own decisive human action. That is what you are taking into eternity with you. “I made the decision . . . God was simply the great Responder! It was what I’d freely chosen to be and to do that triggered off the reaction of God in saving me. And Paul is saying in our text in verse 6 that the unavoidable consequence of thinking and speaking like that is this, grace is no longer grace. Works have saved you. All hail redeeming works! There’s a new hymn that you are singing, ‘A kindly responder I have, unseen but for ever at hand!’
Is this what the Bible teaches? What do we find elsewhere? Turn with me to Romans 9 and verse 11 and 12; “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls – she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” Paul is showing us here the divine freedom of election. It was God who chose Jacob as over against Esau. God alone had to make the choice because it was made pre-natally before they could possibly make any decisions. He selected Jacob before either of the boys had done anything at all. Before they had done one good work, said one word, or thought one thought. Then God made the choice of the younger brother, born after the older. It was not that this younger one’s works were so remarkable that God simply had to love him – he was so lovable! No, the purpose to save was all of God, and all in God alone, because neither boy was born when the choice was made. These verses couldn’t make it clearer. It was not because of good that Jacob had done and evil that Esau had done that the divine discrimination was made. That is what Romans 9 and verse 11 is laying out before us isn’t it? It was all because of the calling of God. And because God called Jacob the younger then Esau the older served him. Grace wouldn’t be free if it were based on what Jacob was to do. Grace would be slave grace, chained to our prior works; grace would certainly not be grace. Grace would not be the divine pity redeeming and glorifying, and we could never sing, “A debtor to mercy alone.” Everyone going to heaven would be doing so because God put them in his balances and judged that they deserved to go to heaven; we are in debt to our own wisdom. God couldn’t help choosing them. Jesus had to unlock the gate of heaven and let them in. Their lives demanded this. Sheer justice demanded it. So that grace was not such ‘amazing’ grace after all; it was obvious grace, and others went to hell and that was because they also deserved to go there. Works saved us for heaven, and works condemned others to hell. Who is going to sing, “Amazing works how sweet the sound”? when none of your works has ever been perfect, when in fact in God’s sight our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. That is why we need grace alone and always.
We all need grace tonight. We all need the closing words of benediction every day and that will never end, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us!” Grace is for those Christians who thought they’d be further along by now, but they’re not. Grace is for those who promised the elders and the congregation that henceforth they’d be good, but they weren’t and needed forgiving again. Grace is for us dim-eyed preachers who have always showed the path to our congregations but have occasionally lost the way ourselves. Aren’t you glad that there is such a power in this world as the grace of God, that it is certainly for younger prodigals, but for older prodigals too, for men and women who’ve come to themselves and returned back to the Father, and done that more than once?
In other words grace is preached by a sinner who’s received it to sinners whose only hope must be focused on that same grace. The message comes to us through a sinner who found and kept finding grace and it is preached to a congregation who has found and needs to keep finding grace. We all say to one another, “Our Father is very, very fond of us, and we don’t know why. He loves us beyond measure, as we are, not as we should be, because none of us is as we should be.”
What we believe about the grace of God is this, that God is the Father who comes running down the country lane to embrace the prodigal before the prodigal utters a word. So there is hope for ragamuffins like me and you. If God did not love us in eternity, quite apart from whom we are, or were, or are becoming, or will be, or what he will make of us, then we could never be sure of the grace of God. If God’s acceptance of us is based on all that’s happened in our own world and our own words and our own works, and not on what has once happened quite outside of us, in and by Christ’s works and words in Christ’s world and, then there is no hope for any of us scallywags. That is why it has to be all of grace and then,“it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”
That means that whenever we meet and a verse like this is before us then I have the opportunity to speak again about the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. Then I put the brakes on glorified Bible studies, walking sedately through passages of Scripture, and ‘doing books’ of the Bible. I stop and I say, “Let’s consider again God’s marvelous and extraordinary grace.” There’s no greater help I can be to you than to make you understand, believe and love the grace of God in Jesus Christ. I don’t think that meeting together on Sundays is therapy. It is the worship of undeserving formerly hell-bound sinners of the God of all grace. I am convinced we are way too self-absorbed, too prone to applause. How unprofitable it all is. A lot of the therapeutic model of Christianity would collapse if we didn’t live our lives in the touchy-feely world of focusing on ourselves and on what sort of week we’ve had, and how are out relationships, rather than turning from all that, and speaking of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and preaching about it, and singing about it, and praying about it. How rich he was and yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich. There is no other way to a rich life than by the grace of Christ. And once you’ve grasped that then there wouldn’t be so much of this keeping up appearances. What is all that but a focusing yet again on our works, and we have to resist it. I have to resist it, the elders have to resist it, and the deacons have to resist it and the members have to resist it and the young people have to resist it like a killing virus, because it is the language of death not life. I have to resist it as an old man even more than when I began this pilgrimage. “I pace the dark and sleep the day and hear my Father say, ‘It’s all of grace’” The congregation can say nice things, still all is grace. My daughters can call and show concern, but still all is grace. A prodigal who came home to such love is what I’ll always be, and still my Father is running to me. All is grace. It’s first, last, and always all of grace. It’s not works. It’s nothing if it’s not grace.
3. HOW WE ARE TO THINK BECAUSE OF THE GRACE WE’VE RECEIVED.
Not all things are good for us to know, and so God has not revealed them to us. There are other things that are good for us to know even when we can’t explain them fully, or might not appreciate being told them; we might even find them disagreeable. But God never consulted with us first as to what our views of him and his redeeming grace were like. In Deuteronomy 29:29 Moses said, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” There are things God does not intend us to know. They wouldn’t be good for us. For example in Acts 1:7, Jesus says, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” Knowing too much of the future wouldn’t be good for us. In fact we know almost nothing about what will happen tomorrow. James 4:14 says, “You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.” Another example would be Psalm 131 where David says, “I do not exercise myself in great matters that are too high for me.” There are many things out of our reach. One of these is why God should have chosen us in particular, you and me, and passed by others so much nicer and smarter and holier and worthier than ourselves. It is not good or necessary for us to know why. We know that God is fair in all he does. We are prone to ask more questions than God chooses to answer, and there’s a great danger that the questions of pipsqueaks will pass over into accusations of the Holy One.
I’m saying to you that we won’t always know how some particular doctrine in the Bible is good for us. Welsh church-goers are especially pragmatic and demanding. If they don’t see the payoff of a doctrine immediately, they say it’s of secondary importance and tend to ignore it. We are acting like foolish children when we do that. Every parent knows that children must be made to learn things without knowing how they will some day be useful. We teach them the particulars of table manners when they are small, for example, so that later they will be able to navigate every social situation with grace. And they don’t have a clue why you are telling them to hold the knife with the handle into the palm of your hand and not as if it were a pen. They have to take your word for it about that just like that about the sun is standing still, and the earth being a ball, and that green vegetables will make them healthy, and a little bag of rat poison will kill them. If children must know these things before they know why or how, imagine the distance between us and God and how much we may have to know without us knowing how it’s going to help us.
The effects on our lives of what we know are always more than we know or can explain. Sometimes we must simply learn something because God says it’s true. Then later we may see how that knowledge protected us, or strengthened us, or humbled us, or purified us, or guided us, or lifted us up, or enabled us to see other things as being true. The issue boils down to trust. Do we trust that God has revealed what’s good for us to know in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament? With the doctrine of grace we don’t know all the ways it’s good for us, but we can know some of them. Let me turn to that.
4. HOW WE ARE TO LIVE IN THE LIGHT OF DISTINGUISHING GRACE.
John Piper suggests six implications which I have modified.
i] Be humbled. Learn that you were saved by grace and be humbled. You were dead in sin, blind, rebellious. And then, by grace alone, you were awakened to the beauty of Christ crucified for sinners. And, by grace alone, you believed. When you stand before God at the last day and give an account for being there while others are not – why you believed and others didn’t – you won’t even think, let alone say, “I guess I was wiser, more spiritual, smarter.” With tears streaming down your face, and with trembling in your voice, you will whisper, “How great thou art.” Wouldn’t it be a beautiful church where everyone’s pride was broken and we all knew that we deserve nothing good, so that every trouble would be received without grumbling and every pleasure would be received with quiet gratitude for grace? Believe me, if you abandon this theology of grace and cultivate any other atmosphere, you don’t yet know God as you ought to know him.
ii] Pray for hardened unbelievers. Since God in grace can take for himself any one he chooses, therefore may that encourage you to pray with boldness and confidence. God is able to save the most hardened unbeliever whom you love – Gentile or Jew. Sovereign grace is a great incentive to pray with hope for hardened people. If God must wait for the initiative of the lost – if God must wait for the blind to see and the deaf to hear and spiritual corpses to raise themselves – then you may as well hang up the telephone to heaven. But if God is able to raise the dead, give sight to the blind, cause the deaf to hear, and grant repentance to those taken captive by the devil (2 Timothy 2:24-26), then you may ask him and believe that he will work the wonders of salvation.
iii] Share the gospel with everyone. Since God’s grace can take for himself anyone he chooses, therefore share the gospel with everyone, and trust the power of God to triumph over all obstacles. Tell the good news of salvation to the most unlikely sinner. For God saves by sovereign grace and is no respecter of persons. If he kept for himself seven thousand in the days of Baal worship, he can keep as many as he please from among those who worship money. Then remember this . . .
iv] Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cors. 9:6). God’s rich grace to us inspires and motivates us to be rich towards others. He also promises this, that “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). Therefore, Christian, be generous and trusting with your money and all your stuff and all your strength and all you time and all your life for the sake of the perishing. You cannot lose. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:38). No. Nothing. Sovereign grace chose us. Sovereign grace called us. Sovereign grace keeps us. So consecrate your life for your neighbours. This is why God makes you secure. So you can show where treasure and security is found.
v] Exult in the Lord of grace. Exult in the Lord of grace! Worship the Lord of grace. Love the Lord of grace. Be happy in the Lord of grace. Let grace be grace – for your joy and his glory. Wake up in the morning and remember: saved by grace, thank you God! Go to work and remember: saved by grace, thank you God! Come home and remember: saved by grace, thank you Father! Do something for someone and remember: saved by grace, thank you Jesus! Exult in the God of grace. Let your heart overflow with praise and thanks to him. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.
vi] Don’t think, let alone say, “I may not be chosen.” Rather say, “Since all God’s choosing is by grace, there is absolutely no reason to think I should be excluded.” Better for a poor man to presume rather than doubt, but better still to trust what Jesus said. May you hear the Lord Jesus calling: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
5th May 2013 GEOFF THOMAS