The question of our text in Romans 11 is this: “Is Israel’s failure a fatal error?” At this point in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, there is no question that Israel has miserably failed. Worse yet, they are without excuse for their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah.
The remaining question is simple: “Is there any hope for Israel in view of her willful rebellion against God and her rejection of God’s Messiah?” The answer to this question is quite confident: Israel’s hope is sure. The God who started His work with Israel will bring that work to completion.
Israel’s condition must also be explained in terms of human responsibility. While it is true that those who are not “true Israelites” were not divinely chosen, it is also true that they rejected the Messiah. Israel’s unbelief is also the result of her willful rejection of the truth of the gospel, which God revealed in the Old Testament and again in much fuller detail in the New.
The Old Testament Scriptures often spoke of Him who was to come to save condemned sinners. The prophets who spoke of Him were rejected, persecuted, and even put to death. And when Jesus came and presented Himself to His people as their Messiah, they rejected Him as their King. “We have no king but Caesar,” their leaders cried out to Pilate (John 19:15). Their guilt was undeniable and inexcusable.
One of the wonderful characteristics of God is His patience, His longsuffering. In 2 Peter 3, when Peter was answering the question of why the Lord had delayed His second coming, he said, “Regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation” (v. 15). Christ has delayed His coming again so men may be saved. God is longsuffering.
Sovereign Grace and Man’s Failure
Have you ever thought through the Bible considering its emphasis on failure in proportion to its emphasis on success? The Bible speaks far more about failure than success. For example, Genesis begins with the failure of man in the Garden of Eden. From this point on, man’s failure is more prominent than man’s success.
Chapters 28-32 of Deuteronomy speak much more of Israel’s failure than her faithfulness. In reading through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, much more text is given to the description of man’s failures than of man’s faithfulness.
In the New Testament, we see the failure of the nation Israel to receive Jesus as the promised Messiah and the failure of the disciples to comprehend what His teaching and ministry was all about. We observe that virtually all the churches described in the New Testament have problems and failings (see Revelation 2 and 3).
Why the emphasis on man’s failures rather than on his faithfulness? Simply because this is true to life. Man has been tainted by sin. There is absolutely nothing we do which is not tainted by sin.
The reason that we must exchange these earthly bodies for heavenly bodies is due to sin’s permeation of all of creation so that it is doomed to fail. These bodies in which we live, and love, and serve God are dying. Our groaning as Christians, of which Paul speaks in Romans 8, is due to the futility of this world.
Fulfillment and perfection are yet to come. And so the Bible calls it like it is and speaks more of failure than of faithfulness and success simply because we are fallen creatures who live in a fallen world.
I did not say the Bible has nothing to say about success, and blessing, and fulfillment. When there is success in this life, it is because God has accomplished it, by His grace. When the Bible speaks of perfection and freedom from failure, it speaks of heaven. Men and women of faith do not look for perfection here on this earth but in the kingdom of God which is yet to come:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39-40).
Why, then, when the Bible speaks so much about failure and the fallibility of men, do Christians keep thinking, talking, and reading about success in this life?
All of us would love to escape the groanings of this life, but that is not what God has called us to do. Just as Jesus came into this world to endure its imperfections (Hebrews 5:7), and to suffer, so we are called to groan and suffer (Romans 8:18-23; see also 1 Peter 2:21-25).
The emphasis of the Bible on human failure is for several reasons. First, human failure is the reality, the norm. The Bible views and deals with life as it is. The only place in this world you will see perfection is in the commercials which offer and depict perfection in place of failure, and all for the price of the product being advertised.
Second, failure is the point at which grace is required and at which grace alone is sufficient. Jesus came to this earth to welcome sinners and to bestow His grace on them, because we are needy sinners. Sinners came to Jesus while the self-righteous shunned Him. Man’s sin is the occasion where grace alone will suffice and will save.
Third, because God’s grace is sovereign grace man’s failures do not thwart His purposes and promises. Our good works do not earn His favor (grace), and our failures do not forfeit it. Grace is unmerited, independent of our works or our worth.
Praise God for that. God’s sovereignty is such that He can accomplish His purposes through our obedience or our disobedience, through our faithfulness or through our failures. He saved the Ninevites as easily through a willful and disobedient Jonah just as easily as He saved many Gentiles through a willing Paul.
Finally, when God’s grace is revealed at the point of man’s failure, it is God who receives the glory:
For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:26-30).
On behalf of such a man will I boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses. For if I do wish to boast I shall not be foolish, for I shall be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one may credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:5-9).
When you stop to think about it, all through the Bible, from beginning to end, God seems to have used men more in their failures than through their faithfulness. Even the great men of the Bible seem to have experienced more failure than success. Oftentimes what seem to be failures may not be due to sin in the life of the individual. David, for example, spent a considerable period of his life fleeing from Saul and later fighting to maintain his reign due to opposition even from his own family.
Think about your own life for a moment. How many times have you seen the hand of God working through your own failures? Is this not how you came to Christ in faith? Is this not how you have come to depend on Him more fully and to serve Him and praise Him more faithfully? How many times have you seen the gracious hand of God at work in your life because of the failure of others?
As I look at my life, the lives of others, and at the Scriptures, I find that when God accomplishes that which is good, it seems often to be almost accidental, coincidental, or unknown and unrecognized by those whom God has used as the instruments of His grace.
The difference between God’s use of Israel in her disobedience and His use of us is not that we are faithful and they were not. They were unknowingly used of God; we can be knowingly used. Christians too may be used unknowingly. This may be because we are selfless in our service (for example see Matthew 25:34-40) or because we are disobedient and therefore dull in heart and mind to the hand of God (see Jonah).
Our failures are never fatal when they cause us to turn to the sovereign grace of God. They are for our good. They are for His glory. Sovereign grace views failure in an entirely new light.
I will not ask you if there are failures in your life. I know the answer to this question. But I will ask, “Have you thought that God has given up on you because you have failed?” Do you think that God is only interested in you when you succeed?
Then you have completely failed to understand the grace of God. Sovereign grace means that man’s failure is the occasion for God’s grace, if we simply acknowledge our failure, our need, and receive His grace. Grace is never more sweet than it is to one who has failed. Grace is never so distasteful than it is to one who thinks he has been successful.
One last thing must be said. The grace of God is never to be abused as an excuse for our sin or as an excuse for living our lives carelessly, as though our failures and our sin do not matter. Our failures cannot hinder or frustrate the work God has purposed and promised to do. But our failures are always costly to us personally. When we sin, we suffer. We who trust in Christ shall not suffer God’s eternal wrath, for we have been delivered from His wrath, once for all. But we will suffer the consequences of our own sin. We also suffer because we live in a world which has been contaminated by sin. It is never worthwhile to sin. But when we do sin, we do not frustrate God’s purposes or His promises. Praise God!
A few important truths are taught in this text which we should consider in conclusion.
(1) Privileges and blessings bring greater responsibility, but they do not indicate superiority. Israel in the past, and the church in the present time, have been given great blessings. They have also been given a high privilege which brings with it great responsibility. These privileges and blessings are the result of God’s grace and not an evidence that we are better than others. We should be humbled by the grace of God. Arrogance flies in the face of grace. It is a perversion of grace. Grace is unmerited. Grace is sovereignly bestowed. Grace is given to the needy who believe, not to the self-righteous who think they are better.
What we are, in our sin, our ignorance, and our rebellion, is that for which we are responsible and for which God must deal with us in His severity. What we are, in Christ, is that for which God deserves all the glory. There is no basis for pride in Christ. There is ample basis for praising Him, from Whom, through Whom, and unto Whom are all things (Romans 11:36).
(2) Grace therefore gives the Christian a new perspective on failure and a new perspective on “success.” Failure cannot frustrate the purposes and promises of God. Failure can bring about the severity of God. Our own failures will be forgiven if we turn to God for grace. The failures of others only show that they are no different than we are. The failure of others should serve as a warning to us and must not become a false basis for a sense of superiority on our part.
The truths of this text help explain Paul’s agony described in Romans 7. Our failures remind us of who we are in Adam and of our need to cling to Christ. They remind us that we have not arrived, spiritually speaking, but that we are in a constant struggle with the sin which still indwells us. It is allowed and purposed by God to keep us humble and to keep us clinging to Him and Him alone.
Every success in life must be seen as a gift of God’s grace and not as an evidence of merit on our part. If we “succeed” as a parent, and our children are faithful to Him, it is by His grace alone. If we prosper materially, it is ultimately not our work ethic or our greater determination, but God’s grace. If God blesses our lives and our ministry, it is an evidence of His grace. If God gives us greater knowledge of His Word, it is grace. Every blessing is a gift of grace, which should turn us toward God in humility, dependence, and praise. Why is it that we, like the Jews and Gentiles of past days, seek to take credit for the work of God?
(3) The failures of men in the past are a warning to us in the present. Heeding them may spare us from repeating the sins of those who have gone before us. The Old Testament Scriptures are of great importance and value to the New Testament Christian (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13ff.). Let us study them diligently. Let us listen to them and learn.
(4) Our response to the offer of salvation through Jesus Christ will determine whether we eternally enjoy His kindness or eternally endure His severity. The “kindness and the severity of God” are reflected in the person of Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry. Jesus was kind toward sinners, who acknowledged their sin and who received His grace. He said to the woman taken in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). But Jesus was not so kind to those who condemned her and justified themselves. Jesus was severe in His indictment of the Pharisees and those who were self-righteous (see Matthew 5:20; 23:1-39). Jesus stormed the temple and thrust out the money-changers (Luke 19:45-46).
The goodness and severity of God can best be seen in the two comings of our Lord. In His first coming, Jesus came to “seek and to save those who are lost.” He came to be gracious to sinners.
When He comes the second time, it will be to judge the wicked. The severity of God will be eternally and irreversibly evident when He returns. The grace of God, available to sinners now, will no longer be offered to men. Throughout all eternity, you will either enjoy His kindness or endure His wrath. The difference is determined by belief or unbelief. Do you believe?