The Kindness and Severity of God
Preached Sunday morning, December 26, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ
Chapters nine through eleven of Romans deal with the question of God’s Old Testament promises to Israel. Specifically, if the church is the new people of God, what about the promises God made to Israel through Abraham and the patriarchs (Gen. 17:4-)? Are the Jews still God’s people, or have God’s promises to Israel somehow been taken away? The answer is, quite simply, that the ethnic nation of Israel is still God’s people (Rom. 11:1). But while God has not rejected them, they have for the most part rejected him . Drawing on imagery from the time of Elijah, Paul points out that even after the majority of Jews had rejected Jesus the Messiah, there is still a remnant of faithful Jews (11:5). To make sense of the teaching here on God’s people, it helps to keep in mind that there are, in a sense, two Israels—one ethnic, the other spiritual (9:8). Gentiles have no part in the first, but do indeed enjoy the benefits and promises made to the second .
God’s promises are still in place for the “tree” of Israel, but new branches have been grafted in. Those branches are the Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. Notice that there is only one tree, not two. God did not cut down the old tree of the Jews and plant a new tree for Christians. Both Jews and Gentiles are part of the same tree. In fact, it is only through the failure of the Jews that salvation is offered to the Gentiles (11:15). What’s more, eventually all Israel will be saved (11:26). That does not necessarily mean that Christians must support Israel as a political or geographic entity. In context it is clear that Israel will be one day reconciled to God in the same way Gentiles are reconciled today—through faith in the Messiah, Jesus.
In the meantime, God is delaying the full inclusion of the Jews so that the “full number” of Gentiles may be reconciled to God (11:25). Till that time, these words of Romans 11 offer both encouragement and warning to all who look to Jesus Christ for our salvation. These words are a reminder of God’s grace in bringing us into a saving relationship with him, of our obligation to continue in the faith, and—most importantly—of God’s character as loving and holy.
Paul uses two metaphors to describe the chosen nation of Israel. In verse 14, we see Israel described as a lump of dough. This image recalls the language of Numbers 15 describing the heave offering Israel would make to God in thanksgiving. The image developed more completely, however, is of the olive tree, an image also found in the Old Testament .
That olive tree is Israel, the chosen people of God. Biblically, the Jews would be familiar with this image from Jer. 11:16 and Hosea 14:6. On a more practical level, every Christian in Rome would be familiar with the olive, the most cultivated fruit tree in the empire. In this imagery, the root of the tree is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while the trunk is ethnic Israel . Some branches of the Jews have been cut off for their unbelief, while other branches of Gentiles have been in-grafted based on their faith in Jesus (Rom. 11:17).
Notice that Paul does not say that the Gentiles of the church are now Israel, although he does makes it clear that we have been grafted onto the same tree . Although in one sense there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in the “spiritual” Israel (Rom. 10:12), Paul is still holding out a special hope for his own kinsmen, the ethnic people of Israel. We Gentiles worship the God of Israel and enjoy the benefits of the Old Testament promises to ethnic Israel . At the same time, the wild olive branches of the Gentiles maintain a distinct identity . Yet all Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, are God’s people through faith in Jesus Christ. Did any of us, Jew or Gentile, earn that wonderful status? Of course not. Salvation depends not on our effort, but on God’s mercy (9:16). The Gentiles are included only because of a special act of mercy from God. Like the banquet of Matthew 22, the invited guests (the Jews) were found to be unworthy of their invitation, so the call went out to everyone (Gentiles) to come to the feast.
For that reason, Paul warns us, we should not be arrogant. The warning is worth remembering, because Christians seem to find it so easy to forget. Historically, Christians have often been savage to the Jews. At times Christian abuse of the Jews has moved from hatred and bigotry to large-scale murder. How terrible, and how darkly ironic. At the time of Christ, the Jews considered themselves God’s own favorites because of the patriarchs and thus despised the Gentiles. In the centuries that followed, Christians have considered themselves God’s favorites because of faith and thus despised the Jews .
The Jews were blinded by pride in their physical ancestry. Do we allow ourselves to be blinded by our spiritual ancestry? Paul saw the danger of Christians becoming puffed up regarding their faith. If we allow ourselves to fall into that trap, where our faith becomes a work of our own righteousness, we are the same as the Jews who allowed themselves to be cut off from God’s promises. Both cases involve taking pride in one’s position. Biblically, of course, the only legitimate pride is in the goodness of God . Christians who pride ourselves in obedience to God’s Word must be especially careful to avoid the sin of arrogance. Our position of righteousness before God is not a reward of faith—it is a gift from God (Rom. 5:17).
And what a gift it is! We are made righteous before God, able to enter his presence with the confidence that our sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus the Messiah (Heb. 10:19). We have vital communion with him, may draw nourishment from him (Jn. 15:5). It is an unspeakably great gift—an unearned, but not unqualified gift.
How do we know it is not unqualified? Look at verses 20b-21, “So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.” These are harsh words that remind us of Jesus’ own teaching in John 15:6—“Unless a person abides in me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. People gather such branches and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” We need to remember these rather harsh teachings of God’s Word. If earlier generations of Christians stressed God’s wrath at the expense of his love, we need to make sure today that we don’t do the opposite. Both the wrath and mercy of God are equally a part of his dealings with mankind. Paul explains these two qualities of relationship as the “kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). Both of these sides of God’s relationship to man reveal an essential part of his nature: God’s love and holiness. His love manifests itself to us as mercy, while God’s holiness is manifested as his severity against arrogance in all its forms .
Here, in the face of that mercy and severity, is where the necessity of Christian discipleship comes into play. Severity is in store for those who have fallen, while God’s kindness is reserved for those who “continue in his kindness.” It’s pretty clear from Romans that while God’s salvation is not won by our goodness, it can be lost by our arrogance and rebellion. We must “continue in his kindness” unless we want to be cut off from the people of God.
And how do we continue in that kindness? What does God require of his people that they not be cut off from the tree of salvation? First, we need to remember that God’s love does not do away with his holiness. We have to join him in his holiness to enjoy the blessings of his love. This is fundamental to Christian discipleship. As we saw in chapter 10, faith in Jesus as Lord is basic and essential to salvation and discipleship. That belief, by its nature, includes repentance and results in obedience. In our baptism we are cleansed and made holy through the grace of Jesus Christ; we take on the righteousness of Christ, a righteousness we do not deserve but which is imputed to us by grace. Our response to that grace should be one of gratitude and joy. If, then, we try to make our faith a work that earns us salvation, we are rejecting God’s grace. Faith is a way of accessing God’s gift of salvation, not a way of earning it.
That’s what continuing in his kindness means—remembering his gift of grace and expressing that remembrance in mind, heart, and action. Our obedience and worship is not a way to gain his kindness, but to continue accessing the kindness he has shown us through faith in Jesus the Messiah. It is then natural to ask, How much obedience does God require? How good do we have to be to continue in his kindness?
Those are reasonable questions, but not ones we really need to worry about. God does not play “Gotcha!” When it comes to severity and kindness, God has made it clear through every page of Scripture which one he prefers to express toward mankind. God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Ti. 2:4). God is “merciful & gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” God desires so much for us to remember this fact that he tells us not once, not twice, but five times in the pages of the Old Testament (Ex. 34:6; Ps. 86:16, 103:9, 145:9; Joel 2:13). God wants us to continue in his kindness, and he will help us to do so (Rom. 8:28).
In being on the tree of the chosen, we are called to share in God’s own character. We are called to show mercy to one another (Lk. 10:37) and live at peace with all men (Rom. 12:18). We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the poor, and visit the sick and imprisoned (Mt. 25). We are to do good to all persons, especially our fellow Christians (Gal. 6:10). Why? Because in doing so we reflect the character of our Lord, and we continue in his kindness. And what a kindness it is! Let’s rejoice—and continue—in the wonderful gift of that kindness and love.
1. Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2, College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1998, p. 204.
2. Cottrell, 205.
3. Cottrell, 249.
5. Thomas Constable, Dr. Constable’s Notes on Romans. Online commentary at www.soniclight.com, p. 122.
6. Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1972, p. 396.
7. Constable, 122
8. John Phillips, Exploring Romans: The Gospel According to Paul. Chicago: Moody Press, 1969, p. 170.
9. Nygren, 401.
10. Cottrell, 259-60.
Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ