It seems that Paul was criticized from all sides. He was misunderstood in Jerusalem by those claiming that he was teaching against the Law, and apparently there were those who misunderstood the inclusion of the Gentiles somehow meant a change in status of the Jewish people. At least Paul anticipated such a claim. He addresses it in Romans 11.
“I ask then, Did God reject his people? May it never be! For I also am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God didn’t reject his people, which he foreknew. Or don’t you know what the Scripture says about Elijah? How he pleads with God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have broken down your altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life.” But how does God answer him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Even so then at this present time also 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.” (Romans 11:1–6 WEB)
- ESV — I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!
- HCSB — I ask, then, has God rejected His people? Absolutely not!
- NKJV — I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not!
Paul is leaves us in know doubt about which people he is talking about. He is talking about Israelites— those who are “descendant of Abraham”. The verse ending chapter 10 is the context for 11:1.
“But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”” (Romans 10:21 NRSV)
Paul is not talking about a spiritualized Israel; he is not even talking about a “remnant” of Israel. He is talking about all of Israel— “physical” Israel— including “disobedient and contrary” people. There is nothing new in this perspective. God's faithfulness to His promises is not dependent on human behavior. It was never the case that Israel's special relationship with God was the reward for their good behavior.
“When the LORD your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the LORD made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, then, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the LORD from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place.” (Deuteronomy 9:4–7 NRSV)
God did not bring Israel out of Egypt because they were righteous— it was because of the promises that God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Paul, in fact, argues that the unfaithfulness of Israel does not undo God's faithfulness.
“What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (Romans 3:3–4 NRSV)
Paul uses similar language again towards the end of Romans— God keeps his promises even when we are unfaithful.
“For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.” (Romans 15:8 NRSV)
- NCV— I tell you that Christ became a servant of the Jews to show that God’s promises to the Jewish ancestors are true.
- NLV — Christ came to help the Jews. This proved that God had told the truth to their early fathers. This proved that God would do what He promised.
Paul explains why God continues his care for Israel— the Jewish people.
“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:5–6 NRSV)
- GW— chosen by his kindness
- TLB— as a result of God’s kindness in choosing them
- NLV— chosen because of God’s loving-favor
- NLT— because of God’s grace—his undeserved kindness in choosing them
In Galatians, Paul mentions the promise to Abraham— he assures us that a later covenant does not cancel the earlier promise.
“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say, “And to offsprings,” as of many; but it says, “And to your offspring,” that is, to one person, who is Christ. My point is this: the law, which came four hundred thirty years later, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” (Galatians 3:16–17 NRSV)
Later in Romans 11 Paul again emphatically claims that God's promise to Israel is unconditional.
“Concerning the Good News, they are hostile for your sake; but concerning chosenness, they are loved on account of the fathers—for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:28-29 TLV)
We should probably note what the Bible says about Abraham’s trust in God’s promises.
“And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” n(Genesis 15:6 NRSV)
This is the text upon which much of our theology is built; do we really believe that God is trustworthy? Do we, like Abraham, really believe His promises?
Are there conditions in anything God said? If you do this then that, otherwise something else? Yes, there are conditions inside some of the promises. Does that mean the whole thing is conditional— that the entirety of God’s promises are all conditional? Does God have a plan-B if plan-A fails? Here is an example to consider.
“If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully, [then] I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:3–4 NRSV)
There continues after verse four a long list of blessings that will follow if the people the statutes and keep the commandments— so, yes there are conditions built into the promise. But, there is more.
“But if you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, [then] I in turn will do this to you: I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.” (Leviticus 26:14–16 NRSV)
God does not say, “If you are good, I will be your God, but otherwise I will ignore you and have nothing to do with you”. God is still there, still in the picture regardless of the condition— God’s involvement is unconditional! The promise continues:
“If you continue hostile to me, and will not obey me, [then] I will continue to plague you sevenfold for your sins.”
(Leviticus 26:21 NRSV)
“I will lay your cities waste, will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing odors. I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you; your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste.” (Leviticus 26:31–33 NRSV)
We can see here that there are conditions that are part of the promise, but that the promise as a whole is not conditional— there are no circumstances where God abandons Israel and walks away. We can see that God either blesses or punishes but there is no mention of abandonment. God does not leave us in any uncertainty about the promise as a whole.
“Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, or abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God; but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 26:44–45 NRSV)
What is God saying here? “Yet for all that”— even though they have been disobedient— “I will not break my covenant with them!” He goes on— “I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors.” This— this part is unconditional! There is nothing, good or bad, that Israel can do to cause God to break this promise.
Does God discipline His people? Yes, but discipline is not abandonment— it means continued love and care.
“And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children— “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:5–7 NRSV)
My appeal is that we have the faith of Abraham— the faith for which he was commended— in believing that God keeps all his promises including his promises to Israel. There are no circumstances in which God abandons Israel.
“The LORD has made a promise to Israel. He promises it as the one who fixed the sun to give light by day and the moon and stars to give light by night. He promises it as the one who stirs up the sea so that its waves roll. He promises it as the one who is known as the LORD who rules over all. The LORD affirms, “The descendants of Israel will not cease forever to be a nation in my sight. That could only happen if the fixed ordering of the heavenly lights were to cease to operate before me.” The LORD says, “I will not reject all the descendants of Israel because of all that they have done. That could only happen if the heavens above could be measured or the foundations of the earth below could all be explored,” says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 31:35–37 NET)
Let us never say that God has rejected Israel— they will always be the chosen people.
“God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew...” (Romans 11:2 NRSV)
- GNT— God has not rejected his people, whom he chose from the beginning.
- ICB — God chose the Israelites to be his people before they were born. And God did not leave his people.
- PHILLIPS— It is unthinkable that God should have repudiated his own people, the people whose destiny he himself appointed.
- NCV — God chose the Israelites to be his people before they were born, and he has not thrown his people out.
- NIRV — God didn’t turn his back on his people. After all, he chose them.
- NLV — God has not put His people aside. He chose them from the beginning.
- VOICE— God has not, and will not, abandon His covenant people; He always knew they would belong to Him.