Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter. All
The scriptures speak often of the "remnant." This word might bring some of us to think of the fabric store where a discount is applied to those small leftover pieces of fabric that remain after the bulk has been sold, for what remains is a remnant. The scriptural application of this word is similar: the remnant are those people who are left over after all others have gone away. However, the issue is not one of geography, but one of theology. When God revealed his call to faith to Abraham, it was only the start of God's revealing of his plan of grace to the whole world. That plan started with the nation of Israel, the descendents of Abraham. God called upon the sons of Abraham to serve as a nation of priests to the world, an holy nation, separated out for God's purpose, bringing God's plan of love and grace to all people. When we think in terms of human logic and history, we would expect that the entire nation of Israel would have done so, since this sounds like God's will. However, God also gave people the free choice to live according to God's plan or according to their own choices, and the profound majority of Israelites chose to reject God. Very few Israelites placed their faith and trust in the LORD. Those who did so are referred to as the 'remnant': the ones who remained faithful after all others had turned from faith and trust in God to other gods, whether they be pagan, secular, or tradition.
This concept of the remnant remains in the world today, both within Israel and without. Most who call themselves Christians today base that profession on their belief in God and their "good" works, not on a total commitment of faith and trust in God. The great majority of Israelites also held to a similar profession. They believed in God, and defined their "good works" in their practice of keeping some of the tenets of Jewish law. Like the ancient Jews, today's uncommitted Christians wrestle with their "goodness." "Am I good enough?" "Does my good sufficiently outweigh my bad?"
God's plan of grace has nothing to do with goodness, and everything to do with grace. In the first eight chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans, he has brought back to the forefront God's original plan of grace, salvation that comes not from the keeping of good works, but the granting of grace to those who place their faith in trust in God without regard to their works. All people have sinned, and that sin separates us from God, whether it be big or little. Consequently, no person is good. We cannot approach God as sinless simply because our good outweighs our bad, since our bad still condemns us. We cannot approach God because we observe the law, because we have still broken some portion of it, and as a law-breaker, our guilt condemns us. God's plan of salvation is simple: When one places their faith and trust in God, the power of sin to separate one from God is destroyed. Sin will not separate the faithful from God, though one is still responsible for, and still experiences the consequences of sin.
How many of the ancient Jews placed their faith in the LORD rather than in their law and tradition? We will find that this number is very small. How many who call themselves Christians have truly placed their faith and trust in the LORD instead of their "good works" or Christian family tradition? We will also find that this number is small. This number is the remnant.
Romans 11:1. I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.
As a member of the faithful remnant, Paul makes it quite clear that God has not given up on those who have not yet placed their faith and trust in Him. Paul was fully outside of that remnant when, as a Pharisee, he actively persecuted the faithful. During the time of Paul's conversion, the Christian church was populated entirely of Jews. God did not give up on him, and as an example of one who had every reason to proclaim his godliness by keeping Jewish law and persecuting those who did not, God saved him from his error. God's purpose of grace is extended to all, and Paul's love for his Jewish people drove him to communicate that purpose to the great, sleeping, body of Jews who simply could not see God's plan for them while blinded by their drive for goodness by keeping the law and traditions.
Romans 11:2-4. God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? how he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, 3LORD, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.
We see in the present, and that sight is limited by our horizons. We draw our conclusions based upon what we can see, not what God sees, so often our conclusions are quite flawed. The Jew's horizons were defined by their status as "sons of Abraham", by their keeping of the law, and by the authority of their traditions. What they saw in their world was sufficient for their understanding of godliness. However, when one has the opportunity to see past those horizons and see God, Himself, everything changes. This happened for Paul on the Damascus road when he met the Messiah, the risen Christ. God has no such horizons to limit His knowledge. God exhibits the attribute of omniscience: the knowledge of all things. God knows all of the events of creation from its inception through to the end of the age when it will be ultimately destroyed. He does not predict the future, nor does He remember the past. As an Eternal God, He simply observes all of created time, and observes what for us is future, and what for us is past. God knows the status of the remnant, and has always worked through that remnant to preserve His message in this world of sin and ignorance.
Paul draws an example from the experience of Elijah. Following the destruction of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, the pagan queen Jezebel proclaimed her intent to kill Elijah, sending him running into hiding and into depression. Elijah enjoyed a wonderful "pity party" when he thought he was the only faithful person left, for all he saw around himself was pagan practice by those who called themselves sons of Abraham, the children of God. From his perspective, all he could see were the Jews who killed the prophets, destroyed the altars to God and replaced them with altars to the pagan gods. He really believed that he was all alone, the last of the remnant, and his imminent death could only result in a godless world. Such a concept broke the heart of Elijah who, like Paul, desired the salvation of Israel more than any other thing in life. However, God answered Elijah's cry with a simple word of truth: you are not alone: there is a remnant of seven thousand men who are still faithful to God. In our modern scientific scrutiny we want to get out our calculators and ponder this population of seven thousand. We may be reminded that ancient Jewish literature and culture was not as concerned with intrinsic numbers as they were with their meaning. A thousand was the largest, commonly understood arithmetic figure. A million was beyond the concept of most of ancient science or interest. The number seven refers completeness. Consequently, the population of the remnant in Elijah's day was a very large figure, one complete enough to complete the task that God had for them. It was not up to Elijah to solely restore the world to faith in God.
Romans 11:5-6. Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
Paul is speaking to his Jewish peers who had not placed their faith and trust in God as he declares his own state as one of the remnant and invites them to join him. Paul reminds his readers that salvation comes from God's plan of grace, not from man's plan of good works. Paul clearly draws a line between these two concepts, and defines that line as pivotal to salvation. If salvation is of grace it simply cannot be of works. Grace is demonstrated by God's reaching down to man, accepting him as he is, sinful, but faithful. Works is man's attempt to become good enough for God's acceptance by one's own actions. Grace is God's forgiveness for sin, while works are man's attempts to overcome it. The two doctrines are simply mutually exclusive. This exclusivity is characterized by one simple truth: there is no work of man that can nullify the power of sin to separate us from God. No work makes us sinless. The Jew thinks that righteousness comes from keeping the law, but he still breaks many of its tenets every day. The secular Christian thinks his righteousness comes from "being good," but he still commits ungodly acts and attitudes on a regular basis. Works simply cannot save.
Since we are subject to God's judgment, it is only God who can forgive us for our sins. God's plan of grace is, and always has, been simple. God's plan of grace is, and always been the same: God accepts those who place their faith and trust in Him, providing forgiveness based upon that faith, not upon works. The works we do are always mixed with a measure of sin, without regard to our state of faithfulness. However, sin no longer separates those who placed their trust in God. The power of sin to separate the faithful from God is destroyed. This is God's act grace, and involves no ritual or liturgy of man.
So, as Paul states, at this present time, there is also a remnant of faithful. By the time that Paul writes this letter, the remnant is comprised of both Jewish and Gentile converts. In today's culture, the influence of Judaism on the Christian faith is dramatically lessened, but in every other way, the state of the remnant is unchanged. There is a remnant of Jewish believers who have placed their faith and trust in the LORD by the same profession that Paul made on the Damascus road: Jesus is indeed YAHWEH, come to earth. Jesus is the promised and prophesied Messiah. That one profession is sufficient enough for the Jew to place all of his/her theology and training into proper context as the Messiah fulfills its true meaning.
The remnant of faithful among those who call themselves Christians is similar to Judaism in that same characterization. The preponderance of those who call themselves Christians base that profession on anything but faith and trust in God. They will, like the Jew, profess that they believe in God. They will also profess that their righteousness comes from keeping the law, which in the Christian context is simply "being good," "treating your neighbor as yourself," etc. However such a profession tends to ignore the additional imperative to "love the LORD with all your heart, mind, and soul." They, like the unrepentant Jews, fully believe in their own righteousness while living a secular lifestyle that is peppered by godly works. Again, their hope is in their good works and not in the confidence of the grace offered by the God they love.
Romans 11:7. What then? Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded.
Paul describes those who have placed their trust in their status and works as fall short of the goal that they seek: righteousness. Righteousness before a holy and perfect God is simply not found using the method they have chosen for themselves. However, they are so convinced in the effectiveness of their own plan of salvation that they are completely blinded to the truth. To them, the truth of the gospel is foolishness. To them the proclamation of the gospel is something to be treated as ignorant heresy and is to be stopped. It was that blindness that caused the ancient Jews to turn away from God, turn to the pagan and secular religion that lacked the power to save. It was that blindness that led the Jews to "kill the prophets."
It was that blindness that led the Jews to persecute even the Messiah and bring about the circumstances for His crucifixion... however, we must remember that the Jews did not kill Jesus, nor did they or the Romans crucify Him. As Jesus told Pilate, "you have no power other than what God has given you..." the crucifixion was not an act of man overpowering God. It was an act of God's love and grace as He took upon Himself the penalty for the sins of those who place their faith and trust in Him. It was Calvary that provides the righteousness that Israel seeks for. It was Calvary that empowers the election that Paul speaks of.
Blindness is often of no fault of the blind, but the product of ignorance. One who is physically blind cannot see simply because of the inability of the eyes and brain to form the signals that the brain can interpret as sight. One who is spiritually blind cannot see simply because of their lack of knowledge of the truth. Paul dedicated his life to the task of bringing that truth to the ignorant.
Romans 11:8-10. (According as it is written, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear;) unto this day. 9And David saith, Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumblingblock, and a recompense unto them: 10Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back alway.
Paul describes a mass of people who are asleep, who are blind, and who are deaf. David describes their table (that which they choose to consume in this life) to be a snare that produces this ignorance of the truth. How does God "let their eyes be darkened"? How does God allow this ignorance? If we misunderstand the context, we might come away with the concept that God placed this snare in their path, or that God purposely blinded and deafened the people. Nothing could be further from the truth. What God has done is to give people a free choice to follow Him or reject Him. It is though this freedom that people choose their own paths in this life. God has given us the freedom to "place on our table" that which we choose, and when our choices are based upon our own plan for righteousness, and we choose to discredit the truth of scripture either by volition or by ignorance of it, we darken our own eyes. God gives us this choice, thus He can state, "Let their eyes be darkened." God does not force His will upon us, but gives us the opportunity to choose it.
How can so many people today, who call themselves Christians, be so lost in slumber? Nothing has changed: the problem is still ignorance. How many of those who call themselves Christians actually know anything of consequence about Godís Word? The ancient Jews based their righteousness upon their ancestry and upon their law and tradition. Yet, their ancestry was compellingly flawed, mixed with pagan marriages, and for the most part assimilated into other nations. Their law and tradition was so complex that only the scribes and Pharisees who had access to it actually spent much time with it. Not much has changed. The Bible is still the best selling book on earth, but is also the most infrequently opened. The model for most Christian churches is to gather for worship once each week and listen to a speaker discuss a verse or small passage of scripture, if scripture is even used at all. The message that is soon forgotten is one of only 52 at best in any given year. With so little exposure to the scripture, its contents becomes irrelevant. Many pulpits today preach secular philosophy over fundamental Christian doctrine. Secular humanism from the pulpit justifies secular humanism in the congregation. Where the pagan Asherah poles of Israel's Baal worship promoted the acceptance of secular practices including homosexuality and child sacrifice. Pulpits today do the same thing when they use secular philosophy to justify every manner of sin, whether it be homosexuality or child sacrifice. Many congregations today battle for the acceptance of homosexual clergy, and the Christian support of abortion as form of birth control has become the pattern of the norm rather than the exception.
As a result, the remnant today is much like the remnant that existed in ancient Israel, and the remnant that existed in Paul's day. When the prophets exposed the ungodliness of those outside of the remnant, they were persecuted and killed by the nation at large. When Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership, they plotted his death. Paul suffered persecution when he also exposed the hypocrisy of those outside of the faithful remnant. Today, there is little such persecution, if any. Some Christians do suffer significant persecution when they hold to their beliefs in violent anti-Christian cultures. However, there are few voices that cry out against the sleeping, blind, and deaf that may be the great majority of those who call themselves Christians.
Romans 11:11-12. I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. 12Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?
Does God's gift of the freedom of choice doom the lost to eternal damnation? Of course not. People can change. People who stand firmly on their beliefs can change those beliefs when they hear the truth if they can simply open their hearts to Godís Word and to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. God demonstrated His desire to save all people when the gospel was shared with the Gentiles almost immediately after it became known. The self-righteous Jews could only respond to this in a form of jealousy when their traditions convinced them that God only loved the Jews. However, this jealousy was prompted only by their own world view, one that based its value on things of this world, whether they be the temple, the law, or the traditions. By absorbing the world culture into their application of their religion, what they considered of great value actually becomes worthless to the kingdom of God.
During the ancient times, there were many faithful who were caught up in the paganization of their culture. The same is true today as the church accepts compromise after compromise, lulled to sleep as they do not realize that they are falling down the slippery slope of error. The nation of Israel wanted to "be like the nations (1 Sam. 8:5)." They wanted to be accepted in their secular culture. That same pressure exists today, and as the church becomes more secular, it is lulled to sleep by its own complacency, and its effectiveness for the gospel of grace is nullified. Thousands of churches are lulled to sleep by their own traditions, and in their tenacity to hold to some image of the past, have become irrelevant to the needs of today's lost souls, are populated almost entirely by senior adults, experience no growth, experience no saved souls, and will die from the simple ordinance of funerals. Many churches today spend more time on internal strife with people grappling for personal power and control than they do on demonstrating God's love. While the church sleeps, satan laughs. While the church is blinded by their own religion, billions die without ever hearing the gospel.
Still, the remnant remains. To quote the word of God to Elijah, there is still a remnant of "seven thousand." Of course, the remnant today numbers in the millions, yet the principle is still the same. God has preserved a remnant of faithful that is sufficient to carry on the kingdom work of making disciples, bringing people to a saving faith in God, and spreading that word throughout the world. The challenge for us is simple. Those who call themselves Christians need to look deep into their heart to determine if that profession is really true. Do you prefer to follow Godís Word, or do you prefer to follow this secular culture? Do you love the word of God, and meditate on it day and night, or do you love the entertainments of this world and fill your life with its sensual, gratifying, and valueless content? Do you pick and choose which Christian doctrines fit your definition of the faith, or are you willing to fully embrace Godís Word and make needed changes in your life that truth would reveal? It is easier to remain in slumber. It is more gratifying to enjoy the sensual and ungodly pleasures of this world. It is easier to devise our own plan for righteousness that might somehow justify our sin. This is the path that was taken by ancient Israel. The only remnant remained in the tribe of Judah (and some from the tribe of Benjamin). All but these were assimilated into secular culture when the kingdom of northern Israel was destroyed. Most of those remaining in Judah were protected in Babylon when Judah was destroyed. The remnant was small, but it continued. It continues today to hold fast to the simple doctrine of grace, as it seeks to live in obedience to Godís Word.
Romans 11:13-14. For I speak to you Gentiles, inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify mine office: 14If by any means I may provoke to emulation them which are my flesh, and might save some of them.
Paul recognized that the gospel is for all people. He saw the small remnant that came out of both Jewish and Gentile cultures. Called by God as an apostle to the Gentiles, Paul never gave up on his brothers and sisters in the Jewish tradition. He saw the Gentile nations as a mission field. He saw the Jewish nation as a similar mission field that was also a sleeping giant, holding to the form of religion but knowing nothing of its power.
The church will not wake up from its slumber, nor will it find spiritual relevance in this world until it joins the remnant: those that have resisted the temptation to succumb to this secular world and hold to their faith. It is up to the faithful to proclaim the truth of the gospel to the sleeping church, for if there is no one to share, how can they hear? So, the challenge for the remnant is to remain pure, to be deeply engaged in prayer and the study of Godís Word, and to be actively engaged in the call to spread the gospel to all the world, not only to those in distant lands, but to those close by who are lost, not because of their geography, but because of their theology. It is not theology that saves. It is simply a fully committed faith in God.