So, I had the immense joy of preaching Romans 11 to my church (Redemption Church) on Sunday. (You can find that sermon here). We concluded the service (as we normally do) with a time for Q&A—the questions and answers are included at the end of the sermon audio. There weren’t a lot questions, but the ones we did receive were almost all about the same thing: how does Paul’s olive tree metaphor (see Romans 11:17-24) not contradict his belief in the irrevocable nature of God’s promises (see Romans 11:29)?
I tried to answer that question on Sunday, but time constraints limited my ability to really explain this well. So, here is a bit more info, if you’re interested.
Let’s start with a few basic facts. First, we need to realize is that the metaphor is a metaphor – which means we cannot overemphasize it’s details without destroying the picture that Paul is painting. Second, let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Paul’s metaphor is inspired Scripture so we can’t just ignore it. Finally, we have to reckon with the purpose and context of the metaphor; in Romans 11 Paul is teaching us that God has a plan for the salvation of the totality of his people, Jew and Gentile alike (see my earlier post on Romans 11).
Here is how the metaphor works. The olive tree is Israel, but Paul wants us to remember that not all Israel is true Israel (see Romans 9:6-7). So, Paul says that there are some branches of Israel that are unbelieving. These branches are ethnic Israelites who believe that they can achieve righteousness on their own by keeping the law. Paul asserts that these unbelieving branches will be removed from the tree because they are not part of true Israel. Furthermore, other wild branches (e.g. Gentiles who have put their faith in Jesus) are grafted into the tree and become part of true Israel. So far, so good.
But at this point, the metaphor gets tricky because the apostle warns the grafted wild branches (Gentiles) that they could be removed from the tree, and that the natural branches which were cut off (ethnic Israelites) could be grafted back in. At first glance this seem like Paul is saying that God can change his mind and that salvation can be lost, regained, and lost again, but a deeper examination of the metaphor reveals that Paul is saying something quite different.
Unbelieving Jews who were removed from the tree can be grafted back in IF they repent and believe. While unbelieving Gentile who assume that they are part of the tree will be removed because of their unbelief. So, Paul is basically warning the Gentiles not to presume upon God’s kindness as unbelieving Israel had done.
In other words, Paul is teaching that no true believer will be removed from the tree, but false believers who arrogantly presume that their own “righteousness” will lead to God’s kindness will be removed. This is done so that everyone will know that salvation is a merciful gift that they do not deserve.
Hope this helps…