Lesson 41: Romans 11:1-6
Only a Remnant Foreknown
by Bob Burridge ©2012
Luther was grieved when he considered the condition of Christ’s church in his day. By the early 16th century the church had invented the office of Pope. Whoever held that office was declared to be infallible in his official pronouncements, and was venerated with the honor due to Jesus Christ alone.
The church had come to believe that saved souls spent time in a place they called purgatory. A person could buy certificates called indulgences promising to excuse them from their sins on the basis of good deeds done by the saints. The bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper were believed to be transformed physically by the mass to become the literal flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
Critics were few, and those who spoke out were ridiculed or disciplined by a powerful church. Some were even accused of high crimes and executed painfully.
Bibles were rare and only available in languages that the scholars could read. The masses of people, some of whom dearly loved God and trusted in his provision, were deceived and led into superstitious, pagan, and fanciful beliefs by a corrupt church, one very much like corrupted Israel in the time of the New Testament.
The state of the church had deteriorated horribly. This pattern is seen repeatedly in the history of those who consider themselves to be God’s people. By the time of Noah, the world had mostly turned away from the heritage of Adam, Able, and Seth. By the time of Abraham, paganism had again gripped God’s world. In the time of Jesus and the Apostles, those who claimed to be God’s nation crucified the Savior and persecuted his people.
Sadly, we see the same pattern in our era at the beginning of the Third Millennium after Christ. Those who claim to be God’s people are dominated by a popular corruption of the truth. People see all the denominations, cults, and religions that call themselves “Christian”, and become confused.
In Paul’s words to the Romans in chapter 11 we learn that it’s all part of a plan that is working toward a glorious end. We will see this more clearly as we come to the end of the chapter.
The particular issue that moved Paul to write this chapter was the corruption of God’s chosen nation of Israel, their rejection of the promised Messiah, and the dawning of a new era, the age when God’s church would see the fullness of the gospel message.
To learn what we can do about this problem in our own era, we need to go back to Paul’s answer to the Romans. The ancient prophets had warned Israel about her neglect of God’s law. The moral law condemned them before God, but they limited it to just certain superficial things, and violated the spirit of the law. They had come to believe that they were able to be morally pure by their personal efforts and by the rituals performed by the Priests.
The sacrificial laws as God gave them pointed forward to the coming of the Christ as the suffering Savior, but the teachers of Israel turned the sacrifices into empty rituals, and imagined that the promised Messiah would be a Jewish champion who would give them earthly power over the Gentiles. Therefore, God was going to bring the punishments of his covenant upon them. The Jews would no longer be his special nation, and the Gentiles were to become to predominant population of his true church on earth.
The Messiah (the Hebrew word for Christ) was not what most of the Jews expected. When he came they were not able to recognize him, so they rejected Jesus, and had him Crucified.
This tragic rejection of the promised Redeemer was their final condemnation. When the gospel call came to the Jews, they persecuted the messengers. Having had the word of the ancient prophets, and the special warnings sent through the Apostles and by the Christ himself, they were without excuse for their disobedience.
Paul wanted to clear up an important point.
God had not rejected his true people. He started with a question (a favorite method of Paul).
Romans 11:1a, “I say then, has God cast away His people? …”
His answer was quick and emphatic:
Romans 11:1b, “… Certainly not! …”
The original words he wrote are, may genoito (μη γενοιτο), “let it not be”. It was the ancient Greek way of saying, “No way! Such a thing should not even be considered!” God had not rejected his people.
He gave two lines of argument to support this.
First he pointed out the obvious …
Romans 11:1c, “… For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.”
Paul himself was one of them. He was a Jew by physical heritage, a descendant of Abraham, particularly of the honored tribe of Benjamin. He was obviously not teaching that God was rejecting all Israelites. Not only Paul, but all the Apostles, and most of the early church were Jews.
Next, he reminded them about God’s own promise in Scripture.
Romans 11:2a, “God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew. …”
This had been a common promise in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalm 94:14 said, “For the LORD will not cast off His people, Nor will He forsake His inheritance.”
The confidence they had was in God foreknowing them. This was an expression that had to do with the Covenant the Lord made. To “foreknow” in Scripture is not just knowing things before hand. The Greek word used in the original passage written by Paul is a form of the verb proginosko (προγινωσκω). Literally it simply means “to know beforehand”. But what kind of knowing is this?
Some have suggested that it means, that God formed his plans by looking ahead to see what we might decide. That cannot be the meaning of the word as it is used here regarding the basis of God’s promise to his people. First, that interpretation does not fit with the way it is used in the sentence. It does not say “because of what God foreknew, but “whom foreknew.”
The God of Scripture is not presented as a changeable deity who looks into the future to see what individuals would do if he didn’t do anything, then decide to decree to do what they would have done anyway.
We need to see how the expression “to know” is actually used in the Bible, before we can know what it means to “know beforehand.”
“Knowing” can have several meanings in any language. One kind of knowing is the factual kind. You might know things like what you did yesterday, what is the square root of 9, what is the capitol of New York State, or the names of the U.S. Presidents. Another kind of knowing is more personal. This is where we “know” someone because we have met them personally and gotten to be friends. There is still another kind of “knowing” that is much more intimate. This is when we uniquely know someone in a very special way. It is when we come to love them like a family member. I may have known a teacher I had in school, but I did not know him in the same way that I know my own children.
An example might help illustrate this distinction. When I went to seminary I read the works of the great theologian Cornelius VanTil. I knew of him factually because I knew things about him and had read some of his books. When a friend of mine was visiting me in Philadelphia we got the idea of calling Dr. VanTil on the phone. To our surprise he invited us over for the first of what came to be several visits at his home. In time we got to know him more personally. VanTil knew many students and friends that way. While we were there we were served lemonade and snacks by the professor’s wife. We got to know him as a friend, but Dr. VanTil knew his wife much more intimately.
The Bible uses the word “to know” in each of these ways. We determine which meaning the word has in each use by the context.
God factually knows everyone and everything. So his foreknowing in Romans 11:2 could not mean just a factual knowing. Factually, God knows everything and everybody eternally, his eternal enemies too. It would have no special meaning for his own people compared with others as it says here. We also know that the facts about us cannot be the reason he made us his people, because Paul reminds us in verse six that it is not by works, but by grace that we were chosen to be his own in that special way.
Therefore, in this context, it must mean that God knows some specially in a way that he does not know others. He knows Israel and his church personally by the outward and formal covenant he made with them as a nation. However, within Israel and the church he knows his elect children intimately. He sent the Savior to redeem them and to make them heirs of the riches of his glory forever.
Jesus used this word in this very special sense too. He said to the superficial believers in Matthew 7:23, “… then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ ”
Jesus was quoting the ancient prophet Amos who was telling Israel what God was saying to them. Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The word translated “known” is actually the Hebrew word yada’ (ידע), the common word for “to know”. Amos was saying that God “knew” his people specially. That was why he treated them differently. As his own children, he was not going to let them continue in their destructive sins. By his covenant promise he was going to discipline them in love. God knows his own people with a personal and intimate kind of knowing.
Jesus was saying that of those who come to him and claim to be his on the last judgment day there will be some he does not know. He could not mean that he was ignorant that they existed, or unaware of what they had done. It could only mean that these were among those he did not know intimately as his own. They were not among those “foreknown” by God as stated here in Romans 11.
For God to foreknow his people, is to know them beforehand with that special kind of knowing. He entered into a special covenant relationship with them from before the foundation of the earth. This is the meaning of Ephesians 1:4-5, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”
Paul had used the same expression back in chapter 8:29-30, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.”
Again, his predestining, calling, justifying and glorifying of them was not based upon what he foreknew about them, but upon whom he foreknew. It was those whom he would justify in Christ and one day glorify. He had known them specially before hand, from all eternity.
To teach us about his election of some to save them from among all those of the fallen race, God chose Israel as a nation. He made a covenant with her, and called her to be a testimony to the world. Though they had a special place in God’s plan, not all of them were redeemed. The same would be true of his Church in this post-apostolic age. Many belong to the church, but not all are truly transformed by the atonement of the Savior.
When the time came to judge Israel as a nation, it was not a failure of God’s plan. It was the execution of his already revealed plan. The warnings of the Covenant were about to fall upon those who showed themselves not to be among the redeemed. Their rebellion clearly demonstrated man’s depravity. God showed his grace by adopting some of the undeserving ones to be his own special children.
He also showed his love by not letting his loved children linger in sin. That was the point Amos was making. A Father does not punish the children down the street, they are not his to punish. He loves his own so much that he will not let them develop habits that are harmful and wrong. This is why God often brings hard times upon his people. It is because of his deep concern for them. He reminds them of how they need to depend upon his care, and that his care never fails. He reminds them of the awesome love that sent the Savior to suffer and to die in their place.
Then Paul reminded them of the example of Elijah.
Romans 11:2b-4, “… Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, ‘LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life’? But what does the divine response say to him? ‘I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ “
Paul’s example came from 1 Kings 19. Most all the nation of Israel had gone off after the worship of Baal. Even the king bowed to this pagan idol. At the call of God, Elijah stood against the masses and the powers that ruled the nation. As God’s spokesman, he challenged and defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Then he pronounced the end of a long God-imposed drought over the land. However, when the wicked queen Jezebel issued a threat against Elijah’s life, he became depressed, went off alone, and prepared to die. He thought he had been left as the only faithful one remaining.
Paul refers to what Elijah said in 1 Kings 19:10. He said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Elijah had become so focused upon himself, that he missed how he fit into a much larger picture. He needed to be reminded of God’s electing grace. It is God who preserves his people. It is not they who preserve God or their place in God’s heart. The Lord announced that more judgments were coming, but through it all 7,000 will be preserved who would not have bowed to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
God had chosen a remnant for himself from among all the unfaithful. Paul makes it emphatic in Romans 11:4 where God says, “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men.” It was not the faithful 7,000 who kept themselves true. It was God who by his covenant promises preserved them as his dear children. The remnant who remained true in the face of a prospering but compromising majority had been firmly held by the loving hands of their Heavenly Father.
The remnant principle is important for
believers to understand in every age.
Romans 11:5-6, “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.”
The remnant principle applies all through redemptive history. Though the majority of those who seemed to be God’s church were deceived, God preserved some by grace alone to show his special redeeming love. It was true in every era. We think of the times of Noah, Moses, the Judges, the Kings of Israel, the prophets, Jesus and the Apostles, the times of Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and it’s true today.
God brings judgments, sometimes upon the masses, but he is not pleased to let his own perish. He will keep them specially by grace. That is what Peter wrote of in his 2nd Epistle. 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”
Peter had used several examples leading up to this statement. The angles who had rebelled perished in judgment. Though the world was destroyed, Noah and his family were preserved by grace. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, but Lot and his family were saved by grace.
Peter set the theme in the first chapter of this letter. In 2 Peter 1:10 he wrote, “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble.”
Those specially called and known of God will be kept by him and will not stumble. Therefore strive to show evidences in your life that you are among those who are redeemed.
Paul concludes with the reason for it all, grace. The remnant is kept by that one thing alone. It is God’s choice alone. It is not based upon the works of individuals, or those of a church.
Do you sometimes wonder why there are so few today who look to the Bible as God’s holy and infallible word? Why is it only a minority that sees his word as our only rule in matters of faith and life? Why are so many unwilling for God to be truly and completely Sovereign as he presents himself in Scripture? Why do only some see man’s great hope not in his esteem of himself, but in his esteem of his Savior’s love. Why are they not willing to forsake the ways of the world though God condemns such things? Why do they not come to worship honoring God rather than to be entertained, pampered, or humored?
If our works of the past, present, or future are in any way the cause of our blessing, then grace is no more grace as verse 6 tells us. When grace is abandoned, all these principles of Scripture come tumbling down.
God has preserved a remnant according to the election of grace.
Don’t let the numbers, or the media, or the appealing programs of a vacant religion discourage you or make you lose heart. As Israel was not all lost by its corruption in the days of Paul, the church is not all lost by its corruption today.
There is always a remnant kept by the eternal and intimate love of God. They are not identified by what the world counts as success, or by what the masses approve. They are known by their faithfulness to what God himself declares as centrally important.
Attitude controlling drugs may make you feel good for the moment, but they kill you slowly and only cover up what is really important in your life. The vain and popular forms of religion, even of so called Christianity, do the same thing for our souls. They numb their victims to the really important things, while they jubilantly dance their way toward destruction, the destruction of society and ultimately of their own souls.
But God is faithful. We ought not fear that God has lost control, or that his plan is off track. Though we may feel alone at times, as did Noah, Elijah, and many others, we must persevere in our trust in the promises and principles of God’s word. We must persevere in the duties and work he calls us to do. We must rest in grace alone, not in substitutes. That alone is what saves us now and prepares us for eternal glory.
Our hope is in the fact that God has foreknown his people eternally. Therefore they are eternally his in an intimate and special love that cannot fail.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)