The Remnant of Grace
Paul continues in Romans 11, asking,
1 I say, then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew... .
How could Paul contend that God had not rejected His people? Had they not violated the covenant through which they had become "My people?" Had not God cast out Israel in the days of Isaiah because of their disobedience? Did not Jeremiah later prophesy that God would cast out Judah in the same manner? Look at Jer. 7:15,
15 And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim.
In the days of Jeremiah, the people had made the temple into a den of robbers (Jer. 7:11). A den of robbers is a hideout from the law, a place where evil men may be lawless without suffering the consequences for their sin. That was the state of the temple, even though they continued to practice the rituals of the law.
God then cast out the people and sent them to Babylon for 70 years. Many later returned and re-instated the nation of Judah. After 500 years had passed, Jesus was born, and when He began to preach the Word, the temple priests and leaders again rejected the Word—for the same reason as in the days of Jeremiah. Hence, Jesus said in Matt. 21:13,
13 And He said to them, "It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a robbers' den."
This sentence upon Jerusalem and the temple resulted in the same destruction in 70 A.D. that had occurred in the days of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
Was this not God's rejection of Judah? Did God not cast them out even as He had cast out the whole seed of Ephraim?
Yes and no. Though Judah was cast out, Jeremiah was not rejected by God. Jeremiah was part of Judah. Baruch was his scribe. Baruch was not rejected by God. In other words, while the nation as a whole may be cast out, God also treats each person as an individual. When the nation as a whole was cast out, God retained certain individuals as "My people." This, Paul says, is the remnant of grace.
I am thankful for this, because in my view America too has rejected God as a nation, and as a nation, America too has been rejected by God. I am thankful that God knows my heart and will not make me personally liable for the sins of the government. America, in its present form of government, will pass away. Along with all nations, it will be replaced by the Kingdom of God.
Paul understood this, saying, No, God has not rejected His people, for I am an Israelite myself. As a believer, Paul knew that he was one of God's people. It is important to understand, however, that Paul's "My people" status was based upon the New Covenant and his faith in Jesus Christ—not upon his genealogy, nor upon the Old Covenant.
When the nation of Judah rejected Jesus Christ and refused to consider His death to be a Sacrifice for sin, the nation as a whole became "not My people." The nation of Judah was cast out, even as the nation of Israel and the seed of Ephraim had been cast out many centuries earlier.
Only the remnant of grace which had faith in Jesus Christ remained as God's people.
Paul's Personal Status with God
In Paul's early years, he was not among the remnant of grace but was among those who had rejected Jesus Christ. In those days he was known as Saul, and as a young rabbinical student, he had been taught to reject Jesus as the Messiah. Hence, there was a time when he was "not My people," notwithstanding his genealogy.
Paul's appeal to being one of God's people is based upon his status as part of the remnant of grace.
Likewise, when the seed of Ephraim was cast out in the days of Isaiah, there were certainly true believers whom God retained as a "remnant of grace." And when Judah and Jerusalem were cast out, there remained still a remnant of grace among them. These are "His people." Those who reject Christ are "not My people" and remain so until they hear and receive the Word.
Becoming a True Israelite
Jacob was not born an Israelite. He became one after a long time of spiritual training. He was given the name Israel only after he had learned the sovereignty of God. His descendants were later called "Israelites" in that they were physically descended from the man named Israel. However, most of them proved to be unworthy of the name, for their lives bore a different testimony. God then had every right to disinherit them and strip them of that special Birthright Name—Israel.
But God also provided a way for the Israelites and Judahites to return to a covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As they accept Him and come under the New Covenant, they regain a covenant relationship—not by the same covenant that was broken in the past and which was abolished, but by a New Covenant that was designed never to end.
As those ex-Israelites of the dispersion accept Christ, along with all the other ethnos, the promises of God are fulfilled in them. At first, there is only a "remnant of grace" that responds to the gospel of Christ. This is the next theme that Paul develops, and he makes it clear that he himself had followed this path since his conversion on the Damascus Road.
Paul had enough genealogical credentials to claim citizenship in Israel, if that had been the requirement. "For I too am an Israelite, a descendent of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin" (Rom. 11:1). But in Galatians 3:26-29 Paul tells us that we are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, that there is no distinction in this regard between Jew or Greek, slave or free man, male or female.
29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Being an Israelite is a matter of citizenship that is obtained by faith in Christ. It is not limited to any particular genealogy. Paul's entire ministry fought for the rights of equal citizenship rights for all, provided they were truly citizens by faith in Jesus Christ. No one's genealogy made him more chosen than another. In fact, this was the most hotly-contested issue of the first century Church. It is a shame that we must again debate this question today.
New Covenant Citizenship
The nations of Israel and Judah were composed of citizens under the Old Covenant. That covenant was broken and so became "obsolete" (Heb. 8:13). Because of their sin, God stripped both Israel and Judah of their citizenship in the Kingdom. The only way to regain citizenship is by the New Covenant. One can no longer use the Old Covenant as the basis of citizenship in the Kingdom.
Yet in Romans 11, Paul presents himself as the example to show that Israel has not really been cast out. Everyone has opportunity to renew their covenant relationship with God, if they would be willing to sign on to a New Covenant.
Paul himself did so when he was apprehended on the Damascus Road. Up to that point, he thought that he was still in a covenant relationship with God through the Mosaic covenant. He learned differently when Jesus revealed Himself as the Mediator of the New Covenant.
There are some who would argue that Jews and Israelites remained in a covenantal relationship with God on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant. However, the Covenant with Abraham was with the seed of Abraham and was always in effect. But who is the seed of Abraham? Is it by the flesh, or is it by faith?
The divine law itself shows that a fleshly Israelite could be disinherited and "be cut off from among his people" (Lev. 17:4) for violating the covenant. Such a person could not claim pure genealogy to overcome this sentence of the law. What mattered was his relationship with God.
Israel and Judah (as nations) could not avert the judgment of the law by claiming genealogy back to Abraham. When a Roman centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus said about him in Matt. 8:11, 12,
11 And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Obviously, Jesus was unimpressed by men's genealogical connection to Abraham. He looked at their heart of faith. He never examined their DNA or asked them to show their pedigree.
Being cast out of the kingdom is not a permanent situation, of course. Neither is death. But faith is required to obtain citizenship. There is a lawful path to salvation, and no one can bypass the door of faith in Jesus Christ to obtain it. No one gets a free pass on account of his genealogy.
The Remnant vs. the Majority
By the time Paul gets to the end of Romans 11, he concludes that "all Israel will be saved." But first he spends time to explain the difficult, winding path toward that end. He shows how the majority of the Israelites worshipped false gods and persecuted the prophets:
2 . . . Or do you not know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 "Lord, they have killed Thy prophets, they have torn down Thine altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life."
This is a reference to 1 Kings 19:14. Elijah had showed great courage in the showdown with the prophets of Baal. But Queen Jezebel vowed revenge, and Elijah fled to the cave at Mount Horeb, where the Law had first been given. There God asked him, "What are you doing here?" Elijah responded in 1 Kings 19:14,
14 Then he said, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, torn down Thine altars and killed Thy prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Israel as a nation had broken both the Abrahamic covenant through their lack of faith as well as the Mosaic covenant, by which they had bound themselves to obey God's Law. Paul then reminds us of God's response to Elijah in Rom. 11:4,
4 But what is the divine response to him? "I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal." 5 In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to an election [ekologayn] of grace . 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.
The seven thousand men of faith in Elijah's day represented a remnant of grace. "An election" has a numeric value of 144. The Greek word is eklogayn, which means "the act of picking out, or choosing." These are the "elect," or "chosen ones." In other words, by an act of sovereignty, God personally chose this "remnant" for Himself so that He would always have a witness on the earth in spite of apostasy and covenant violation.
7 What then? That which Israel is seeking for, it has not obtained, but the election [eklogayn] obtained it, and the rest were hardened; 8 just as it is written [in Isaiah 29:10], "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day." 9 And David says [in Ps. 69:23], "Let their table become a snare and a trap, and a stumbling block and a retribution to them. 10 Let their eyes be darkened to see not, and bend their backs forever."
From this passage we see first that "the elect" (i.e., "the chosen") are only a remnant and NOT the entire nation of Israel. Just because someone can trace their genealogy back to a tribe of Israel does not make that person "chosen" to be part of the elect remnant of grace.
Secondly, we see that the chosen remnant all have one thing in common—they have FAITH. They are different from the average Israelite Baal worshiper, who, in turn, hardly differed in his actions from the pagans of other nations.
Third, this chosen remnant did not choose themselves. They did not choose themselves. Yet they are distinguished from others by the faith that God imparts to them by causing them to respond to his voice (10:17). In other words, their positive response to His voice is the prime indicator that they have been divinely chosen to be part of this elect remnant of grace.
We see that even as God chose a remnant of grace, so also did He harden the hearts and blind the eyes of the average Israelite. God hardened Pharaoh's heart, and God also hardened the hearts of the majority of Israelites. In both cases, God took credit for it. This is incomprehensible to most people, because they do not understand the whole story. They cannot fathom the injustice of God in hardening the hearts of the vast majority, because they think that God will condemn them to a burning hell as punishment for their hardness of heart.
It is only when we understand the plan of universal salvation in Romans 5 that we can justify God's sovereign acts. But when Paul tells us the underlying purpose of God in hardening the hearts of the Israelites, we find that it is for a good purpose:
11 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the ethnos, to make them jealous.
Here is where many become confused, if they do not understand the divine plan. When men think that Jews are saved apart from Christ and/or the New Covenant, it is largely on account of this verse. Paul says that God hardened their hearts and blinded their eyes, NOT so that they would "stumble" in the ultimate sense.
In other words, theologians have told us that the Jews are chosen in spite of their lack of faith in Christ, and many have followed this course to its logical conclusion—that Jews are saved apart from Christ. They tend to conclude that "all Israel will be saved" in spite of their rejection of Christ, and this leads many to teach a Dual Covenant Theology. That is the belief that Jews are saved by the Old Covenant, while "Gentiles" are saved by the New Covenant.
Such theologians often are torn between two opinions. First, they teach that one must be saved through Christ alone. Second, they teach that Jews have a special relationship with God so that they are exempted from the path that the rest of the world must follow in order to be saved. They wrestle with this inherent contradiction and come up with various conclusions according to their understanding.
The truth of the matter is that it is indeed true that "all Israel will be saved," as Paul concludes in 11:26. But not all Israel will be saved at the same time, nor are all Israelites believers during their life time here on earth. Most will be saved at the Great White Throne when "every knee will bow."
In this present age God is working with an election of grace that is a small minority. In the Ages to come, after the general resurrection, God will use the chosen ones to bless the others and bring correction by means of divine judgment. In other words, most men—including those ungodly Israelites— will be saved AFTER they have died and have been raised to life again. But they will be saved only after experiencing the divine corrections in the "lake of fire."