God Has No Counselors

In chapter 11, Paul continued to defend his affirmations of the inviolability of divine sovereignty in the salvation of the elect and the impossibility of their ever being forsaken. The disobedience of Israel and their consequent “partial hardening” do not contradict Paul’s argument, but rather establish it. He argues from the consistency of God’s method, the predictions of Scripture, the intricate interactions between justice and mercy, the relation between human blameability and divine sovereignty, and the final goal of God’s glory.


I. God has not rejected Israel but has operated with them in the way that he always did. He has saved a remnant. 1-10

A. In Verse 1, Paul proposes the possibility that God has rejected his people. The immediate answer that rules out the possibility is the conversion of Paul himself. No person could claim a higher pedigree of Jewishness that Paul, yet he is converted. Also, none could fit more into the category of “disobedience and obstinate” than Paul. In Galatians 1, Philippians 3, and 1 Timothy 1, he lines out the high level of his commitment to Jewish tradition and his obstinate, even murderous, approach to the followers of Jesus as Messiah. He was “more exceedingly zealous for the traditions” of his fathers than his contemporaries. In zeal he was a persecutor of the church and in his relationship to the law, he judged himself righteous. Though he is an example of the most obstinate of the Jews, grace found him and constituted him as a believer.

B. Paul gives a second reason for his strong “May it never be!” The people of Israel are foreknown. In Romans 8:29, 30 he set forth the unbroken chain from foreknowledge to glorification. It is impossible for God to reject those whom he has foreknown, that is, upon whom he has set his love in eternity in the covenant of grace.

  1. Paul cites the words of Elijah who saw the seemingly invincible rebellion against true religion in favor of the worship of Baal (1 Kings 19:14). This gross idolatry had overtaken a people that had the law, the designated sacrificial system, the strong warnings about doing all things according to God’s instructions (Deuteronomy 12:10-14).
  2. Pursuing his argument for the remnant (9:27), Paul points to the preservation of 7,000 in the time of Elijah that had not bowed the knee to Baal. In accordance with the principle of election we observe the language, “I have kept for myself.” They were God’s from eternity; he has not forsaken them, but he kept them for himself.
  3. When Paul used himself as an example, the rebellion was centered upon self-righteousness because of severe misappropriation of the Law and a blindness to the need for redemption. In the example of Elijah’s time, the apostasy was into pure idolatry of the basest sort. In both cases, only grace could distinguish the lost estate from the saved estate.
  4. Jesus tied the unbelieving Jews in his day, self-righteous Pharisees and Scribes, with the idolatrous murderers of the prophets. In Matthew 23:1-28, Jesus gave a relentless expose of the Pharisees and scribes as self-centered, ostentatious, oppressive, superficial, hateful, self-righteous hypocrites. While they adorn the graves of the prophets, they are in fact just like those who killed them. They are no better than all those who opposed the righteous throughout the Old Testament from the time of Abel, slain by Cain, through Zechariah, whose prophecy gave clear attention both to the rebellion and restoration of Israel. They would prove that this is so by their crucifixion of Christ, as well as their weeping for him, an event that Zechariah himself prophesied (Zechariah 12:10-13:1).

C. Even as then when things seemed so hopeless, God has “at the present time” a remnant (5). This remnant does not exist because of its goodness, but only because of the “gracious choice,” the “election of grace.” Paul has in mind the small number of Jews that do respond in faith when he preaches in the synagogues, even in the midst of a general resistance and hostile response (Acts 4:4; Acts 14:1, 2; 17:1-5; 18:8; 19:8, 9).

  1. “If it is by grace” then all works must be excluded. These works are those that supposedly constitute the righteousness of the doers. It is now impossible from the standpoint of humanity’s moral corruption to do any work that fully coincides with the absolute and spiritual standard of the Law of God. The grace of justification must be fully and only of grace—the grace of imputed righteousness. If God’s gracious reception of sinners for Christ’s sake only includes something considered worthy from the sinner, then grace loses its very nature. “Grace is no longer grace.”
  2. Some manuscripts include the converse reasoning on this issue “But if it is of works, it is not longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” The omission seems to be certain from the manuscript evidence, but the addition by some copyist is perfect in its logic and constitutes one of the earliest commentaries on this verse. If works of righteousness need any supplement by grace, then it is no longer work, for work achieves perfect righteousness. In the matter of justification, grace and works cannot mix.

D. That which Israel sought by its organized, rules-based, legalism in its pursuit of favor with God, it missed entirely. Their missing it is the result of a false view of righteousness and sin, and thus a resistance to the necessity of redemption by their Messiah. Those who have believed have done so because they were chosen from the beginning to salvation. Those who did not obtain were given over to even more hardness. Stupefaction of heart is a matter of human sin and its remaining and continuing in even more intense measures is a matter of divine judicial hardening.

  1. Paul cites Moses’s word to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:4, when, at the end of forty years of both judgment and provision, he said, “Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see and ears to hear, to this very day.” It is not unbelief that should shock the observer, but belief. The Lord himself must give belief; he does it according to his own electing purpose.
  2. He also cites (9, 10) from Psalm 69:22, 23, a messianic Psalm of David whose words of judgment are provoked by the perverse cruelty of David’s enemies. What David by inspiration wrote concerning himself and his enemies applied by prophetic application to the Jews who even at the time Paul was writing refused to believe the message of Christ’s redemptive work.
  3. This time of rejection, therefore, is not a new phenomenon among the Jews; nor is it unanticipated in the biblical revelation. “Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. Therefore, it happened, that just as He proclaimed and they would not hear, so they called out and I would not listen, says the Lord of hosts.” (Zechariah 7:12, 13) It all serves to highlight the sovereignty of God in salvation alongside the impossibility of any sinner’s ability to achieve it.


II. Their disobedience has meant that now the world, that is the Gentiles, will come into favor and find the blessings of salvation. If Jewish disobedience means salvation for the world, what will their acceptance be? A massive conversion of large numbers of both Jews and Gentiles will occur. 11-15.

A. Their stumble at the tumbling stone did not produce a final and total fall. No, certainly not, such is not the plan at all. It is this stumbling that open the door of salvation to the world, a word used synonymously with Gentiles. That the Gentiles have embraced the Jewish Messiah and so energetically claim him as their own, eventually will provoke the Jews to a jealousy that will become a means of reclaiming them.

B. The transgression of the Jews, while involving them in the poverty of lostness and condemnation, has become riches for the world.

  1. Their failure has given all the riches intrinsic to the messianic fulfilment of righteousness to the Gentiles. “He who spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things” (Romans 8:32).
  2. Paul justified his ministry to the Gentiles on the basis of Christ’s ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:5-7). The ransom for “all” does not mean that Jesus’s death was objectively given as propitiation of all the sins of all men, but that Gentiles as well as Jews were included in the covenantal faithfulness of Jesus.
  3. John records that Jesus saw that his time had come when Philip told him that the Greeks were asking to see him (John 12:20-23). In the ministry of Jesus and through the book of Acts, we see how God prepared for the inclusion of the Gentiles as recipients of the saving work of Christ.
  4. John also refers to this richness for the world, or the inclusion of the Gentiles, when he wrote, “And he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Here, as in Paul’s statement concerning “a ransom for all” the principle is the inclusion of Gentiles as well as Jew. “Not for ours only,” meaning the “circumcision” to whom he had been appointed as an apostle (Galatians 2:6-9), but also the Gentiles, the “uncircumcision” to whom Paul had been sent.
  5. “How much more?” In spite of the Jewish rejection of the single person who fulfilled all their Scriptures and brought about the presence of God among men in redemptive grace, outsiders have received him. How much more will the redemptive purpose of God flourish when the Jews also take up the chorus of redemption accomplished and applied.

C. In verse 13, 14, Paul explained that the more success God gave him with the Gentiles, then the more probable would be the conversion of the Jews. Thus he magnifies his ministry. He works hard at taking the gospel to the Gentiles, he endures “all things for the sake of the elect” (2 Timothy 2:10) among the Gentiles, with the side effect that Jews might also be swept in. The long-term goal of God to reclaim the Jews involved the blessing given to a formerly uncovenanted people. Why do the Gentiles enjoy the blessings of messianic rule promised to the Israelites? Is that not the natural birthright of the Jews? Did not the promises begin with Abraham and result in the establishing of a “peculiar people, a holy nation?” Hopefully a spiritual jealousy would emerge, and “some of them” would be saved—some now, many later.

D. In verses 15, 16, Paul reminds the Gentiles, that their privilege has not worked an exclusion toward the Jews, but a more expansive opportunity. Christ’s work of reconciliation was preached to the Gentiles because of Jewish rejection of the gospel (Acts 13:46-48; 23:11, 12; 28:26-28). Now that it is clear, however, in the process of gospel preaching, that Christ’s work has reached not just to the sons of Abraham, but to the sons of Adam in general, their acceptance would result in a resurrection from spiritual death of a people who had been prepared for centuries to expect this atoning priest, perfect prophet, and ultimate king. The holiness of their beginning cannot be undone. The lump, the promise made to Abraham, set apart him and his descendants for special blessings, and like leaven, that promise permeated the entire existence of the people. He makes the same point by shifting the image from bread to a tree. The root was holy, set apart for blessings, so the reality of those blessings like nutrients from the root must still surge through the branches to bear fruit. It will be a remnant, but the promise has not been forgotten.


III. Gentiles should not be haughty about this shift, therefore, for just as easily as the Jews disbelieved so may the Gentiles turn from the gospel and disobey. And just as the natural branch, the Jews were taken out and the Gentiles grafted in, so even more easily can the natural branch, the Jews be grafted back in. 17-24

A. Note that Paul continues to use the idiom, “some of,” to indicate that the Jews’ rejection has been neither full nor final, but some of the branches were broken off. Even as Paul worked that he might save some of both Jews and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), he knew that the elect would come, and they would come by means of the preaching of the gospel. This passage is not a warning that any of the elect can be removed from their standing in the saving grace of God, but that the Gentiles should not become dismissive of the Jews but take their present assignment to unbelief as a warning. The present open door for Gentile belief is not separated from the long history of God’s work with the Israelites, elect and reprobate alike. As Paul began this long argument in 9:1-5, every aspect of eternal salvation was revealed in the context of the history of Israel and the Redeemer himself came from the stock of Israel, even from David the king (Romans 1:1-3). Gentile salvation, therefore, does not constitute a separate action of God over and above his work through the elect nation, but is an expression of the historic work. The root of divine revelation and covenantal promise through Israel supports Gentile conversion.

B. In verses 19-21, Paul points to unbelief as the reason for the Jews’ having been broken off and to faith as the foundation upon which the Gentiles stand. Faith is incompatible with arrogance or a sense of worthiness. Calvin notes that “the natural consequence and inherent property of faith is to produce in us self-abasement and fear.” Self- abasement means we recognize our personal unworthiness and the damnability of our sin. Fear is a profound distrust in our own abilities that leads to an enduring sense of reliance on the efficacious grace of God. Should that leave and be replaced by arrogance and self-confidence, we would show that the fruit of election was not present in us. God has for a time largely given the Jews over to their natural propensity to unbelief, even though they come from a root of grace. His suspension of saving grace to the Gentiles could come even easier, for they are unnatural branches, their root itself is in unbelief, rebellion, idolatry, and death from father Adam.

C. In verse 22-24, Paul calls this phenomenon an example of the kindness and severity of God.

  1. Paul juxtaposes Gentile unworthiness with kindness in Titus 3. After describing the dismal condition of the Gentiles when left to themselves, Paul wrote “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us.” God’s kindness involves every aspect of his saving work to bring those who are naturally under wrath and in pursuit of sin into a state of justification and the hope of eternal life.
  2. Severity does not mean that God is more harsh than a situation calls for, but that he is perfectly just enacting upon the disobedient a perfect and impartial punishment exactly commensurate with their crime. The fact that such perfect justice is considered severe points to the depth of any offense against God.
  3. Now, having pointed to kindness and severity as the two manifestations of divine interaction with both Jew and Gentile, Paul again issues a warning, that they should “continue in his kindness.” They should continue with a sense of gratitude, not gloating. To continue in kindness means that one always attributes his salvation in every part to the unmerited operation of God toward him, for election in eternity, to justification by Christ’s obedience and death, to the persevering grace of the indwelling Spirit.
  4. Since unnatural branches were grafted in with such success, (verse 24) so that every benefit of covenantal promise has come to them, certainly God is able to graft back in the natural branches. They can be granted a new heart by which they would believe and take their place in the benefits of all the promises given to their fathers. Again, we see the remarkable restoration prophesied by Zechariah, “I will bring them back, because I have mercy on them. They shall be as though I had not cast them aside; for I am the Lord their God, and I will hear them . . . I will whistle for them and gather them, for I will redeem them; and they shall increase as they once increased.” (Zechariah 9: 6-8).


IV. Verses 25-32 – This hardening of the Jews has come about by divine purpose so that the full number of Gentiles will come in as a part of the true Israel spoken of in Romans 2:28, 29. When the full number of the Gentiles has come in, God will remove the blindness from ethnic Jews because of his promises to the Fathers [in accordance with his divine purpose of election.] Both Jew and Gentile come into salvation out of what seemed to be an insuperable condition of unbelief. Sovereign mercy triumphs!

A. Paul reminds them that this very complex arrangement of severe justice and free mercy is all part of God’s revealed truth (“this mystery”).

  1. We could not contrive it but must study it according to God’s revelation and marvel at the coordination between eternally generated sovereign purpose and human instrumentation. He wants the Gentiles to know that their blessing has not come because of any superior wisdom or moral responsiveness, but only as an outworking of sovereign choice. “Do not be wise in your own estimation;” you have not accomplished this, but only God’s determination for mercy has done it.
  2. A “partial hardening, has come upon Israel. Though a matter of God’s sovereign choice, it happens also in harmony with their perpetual tendency to disbelief. This extreme revolt against the gospel on the part of many of the Jews is the very thing that drove the early church to note the responsiveness of the Gentiles and engage in a mission to them (Acts 10:44-48; 15:6-21).
  3. “Until” indicates that a time will come when the largest part of the Gentiles has been saved. Since there is presently a “partial hardening” some Jews are presently receiving the Person and work of Jesus as their eternal hope. So then, after the “fulness” has come in, some Gentiles will continue to be saved, but the greatest amount of conversion will be among the Jews.

B. Verse 26 says, “and so all Israel will be saved.” Commentators have disagreed as to whether Paul has in mind ethnic Israel or whether he is using the word “Israel” to speak of all those justified by faith and thus are of the “seed” according to the “faith of Abraham” (4:16).

  1. I believe that this is a vital part of Paul’s continuing argument for justification by faith and that righteousness in itself is no respecter of persons (See 2:28, 29; 3:9, 19, 22-26, 30; 4:11, 12; 5:12, 18, 19).
  • He uses the phrase to include all those grafted into the true stock of the fathers of Israel including believing Gentiles and believing Jews. If he does not mean to include the Gentiles here, then the weight of his argument in the aforementioned Scripture passages becomes irrelevant and does not constitute a coherent part of his discourse.
  • Also his labor in showing that the Gentiles do not stand on their own but are being grafted into the stock and have become “partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree” (11:17) makes the inclusion of the Gentiles in this phrase “all Israel” contextually necessary for proper exegesis.
  • It seems to be consistent with his use of “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. The Israel of God in that context is defined by the observation, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:14). Then Paul states, [my translation] “And as many as according to this standard of measurement align themselves, Peace be upon them and mercy, even upon the Israel of God.” The ascensive use of the conjunction “kai” makes perfect sense in this context. He enforces the rule, the revealed standard of measurement, of the new creation to emphasize the entire argument of Galatians that only this defines the Israel of God.
  1. But also, he is reflecting the revealed truth that this entire gospel of redemption from which the Gentiles are benefitting exists only because God selected the Jews to be the nation through which all provisions for the appearance of the Savior would be made. God told the nation, just before they entered their promised land, “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for himself, a special treasure above all the peoples who are on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2). When God brings in, therefore, the fulness of the Gentiles, he will fulfill the promises of Isaiah 59:20, 21 cited here in Romans 11: 26 and 27 in forgiving the sins of Israel. “All Israel” will include a large influx of ethnic Jews, perhaps so many that they constitute a majority and thus both spiritually and naturally look like the original olive tree—many grafted-in branches but clearly from root and branch to stem maintaining the power and appearance of the original plant.
  2. Paul adds two more ideas that relate to the regrafting of the natural branches. One, God’s election of Abraham and election of the nation was not only as a vehicle for promises, written revelation, messianic offices, and finally the Messiah himself but as a demonstration of saving mercy. While their enmity to the gospel (28) has opened a door to the Gentiles, there still exists a prior election of the fathers and this will bear fruit in their descendants. Many, therefore, will not be isolated simply to the election of office but as elect to salvation. Second, the fullest manifestation of calling is not to a function, but to true holiness, repentance, faith and redemption (Acts 2:39; Romans 1:1, 6; 8:28, 30; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Ephesians 1:18; 1 Peter 1:15; 3:8; 2 Peter 1:3).

C. The Gentiles should have a keen sense of how mercy can reverse all the condemning ugliness of disobedience.

  1. For generation upon generation the Gentiles were in darkness, “aliens to the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Now through Christ they have been brought near, having embraced the gospel.
  2. Amazingly, through the disobedience of the Jews (30), their rejection of Christ Jesus, their hatred of him and enmity toward him, their negotiating his crucifixion brought about the very event by which the propitiatory sacrifice was made. In this way, Jesus was made Messiah not only of the Jewish nation to be a conquering King, putting all enemies under their feet, but was made a Redeemer of sinners descended from Adam, participants in his disobedience, death and corruption. Not only for the natural sons of Abraham does Jesus lead to God, but on account of their disobedience he has redeemed Adam’s race from sin, death, and hell.
  3. In addition, their disobedience to the preaching of the gospel (as discussed before) opened the door wide for the Gentiles.

D. The Gentiles must realize, therefore, that a present disobedience does not rule out a future manifestation of great mercy (31). If mercy can bring the Gentiles to humble repentance, faith, and worship of the one true God through Jesus Christ our Lord, so can mercy restore those among the descendants of the fathers and the heirs of the promise to sincere worship and praise.

E. In verse 33, Paul brings back in the argument from Romans 5:12-21 that the entire human race from Adam forward are shut up to disobedience. There is no distinction (3:22) in the sinfulness of people, so there is no difference in the manner in which mercy releases a person from the penalty of sin. In his rights of sovereign management of the world he has created, and has done so for his own glory, God demonstrates his absolute prerogative in “showing mercy to whom he will show mercy” (9:15). All are shut up to disobedience, so all are completely at the mercy of God.


V. Paul can only adore such wisdom and unsearchable judgments. God has designed the entire scheme and none can stand as his advisers telling him how he should conduct his purpose of grace. It is for Him alone that he has created, and that he sustains and that he redeems. All of the events will redound to the glory of God.33-36.

A. When one considers the intricacies of divine providence, providence that involves angels and men, providence that gives no redemption to the one but establishes redemption for the other, providence that establishes human responsibility and culpability within the framework of divine determination, one realizes how far beyond our puny powers of reasoning and observation is the wisdom of God. We can only exclaim “Oh the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!”

B. For what we do know of the free grace of God’s redemptive scheme can be communicated only by revelation. None of the faculties of man in either senses or reason could have predicted or contrived any method of redemption, but “God has revealed them to us by his Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10).

C. Paul quotes (34, 35) passages from Isaiah 40 and Job 35 and 41 that treat the mystery of God’s determining counsel in redemption and in providence and poses the rhetorical questions in such a way as to indicate the impossibility of any creature, fallen or unfallen, to counsel God about his purpose for the world.

D. Instead we must confess with simple and undiluted praise to God in realization that it all has been brought into being (“From him”), continues to exist (“through him”), and will finally be brought to a conclusion by him (“to him”) in order to demonstrate his glory. “To him be the glory forever. Amen.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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