Rev. denHartog is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Redlands, California.
The above admonition is a quote from Romans 11:20. In the context the apostle Paul is speaking about God’s sovereign purpose of predestination for both Jews and Gentiles as it is realized in the new dispensation. That this is the subject of Romans chapter 11 is evident from its opening verses. Paul in this chapter is explaining the truth that God will not cast away His people whom He foreknew. The reference is first of all to God’s Old Testament people, the Jews. In spite of the falling away of many of the Jews and the fact that the majority of them rejected the Christ whom God sent to save them (for He came unto His own and His own received Him not), the purpose of God’s election will stand. “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:6).
In Romans 11 Paul sets forth the sovereign purpose of God in the saving of both Jew and Gentile. He does this by means of the figure of an olive tree. The olive tree represents Christ. The branches in this olive tree represent not individual Jews or Gentiles but rather generations of men. If we would make these branches refer to individuals we would end up teaching the error of the possibility of the falling away of the saints. In both the old and the new dispensations the Lord is pleased to save His people in the line of generations. According to God’s sovereign purpose He cut out of the olive tree the unbelieving and apostate generations of the Jews, and in their place He engrafted branches of the Gentiles. This will result finally in the saving of all the elect Gentiles and all the elect Jews (“the fullness of the Gentiles” and the saving of “all Israel”). This will take place through the history of the New Testament age until the day that the Lord returns. This is our interpretation especially of verses 25 and 26.
I want to exhort you to read the entire amazing eleventh chapter of the book of Romans. It is one of the grandest chapters in all the Bible describing the truth of God’s absolute sovereignty in the saving of His people. It really shows what God’s sovereign purpose of salvation is for the entire New Testament age. The inspired apostle Paul himself is so deeply moved by the consideration of the truths of which he writes in this section of his epistle to the Romans that he ends it all by bursting forth in praise to God. “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be the glory for ever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).
We are not going to present in this article any kind of summary interpretation of Romans 11. In this rubric of theStandard Bearer we are asked especially to focus on practical issues related to the calling of God’s people to walk in the fear of God. Our focus therefore is going to be on the admonition: “be not high-minded but fear.” This Word of God is admonishing us regarding the proper attitude that we must have towards the truth of God’s saving His people. This admonition applies to us as we take, so to speak, an overview of the purpose of God through all history in the consideration of how God saved both Jews and Gentiles. That really is the immediate consideration of chapter 11 of Romans. But this admonition also has application to us as we consider our own particular salvation and consider the fearful truth that God has by His sovereign grace saved us, while at the same time He has sovereignly reprobated many thousands of people with whom we come in contact everyday in our life. The admonition above must direct the attitude that we have both before God and to our fellow man in the world.
To be highminded is to be proud, to boast of oneself. In the context of Romans 11 the reference is to be highminded as one stands before God. This is to imagine foolishly and wickedly that we have some special place of favor and glory before God because of who and what we are in ourselves. Our sinful nature makes us prone to such vain imagination. For this reason this admonition is cast in the negative form.
Positively there is no truth of the Scriptures that gives the true child of God more cause for deep humility and fear than the truth of God’s absolute predestination, the truth of His sovereign goodness in saving His people, and sovereign severity in condemning the reprobate. We as Reformed Christians confess these truths. We above all ought to walk in deep humility and fear before our God and men. The Canons of Dordt make this point. “The sense and certainty of this election afford the child of God additional matter for daily humiliation before him, for adoring the depth of his mercies, for cleansing themselves, and rendering grateful returns of ardent love to him, who first manifested so great love towards them” (Canons I, Article 13).
There is indeed a great benefit for the Christian always to be meditating on the doctrines of God’s absolute predestination and the truths of God’s sovereign grace. By no means do these doctrines involve mere abstract questions best left only to the theologians in our seminaries and irrelevant to Christian living. The constant diligent and prayerful consideration of these doctrines by the true child of God will do a great deal to engender in him, by the Spirit of God, an attitude of godly fear and humble gratitude to God. When God opens our eyes we see these doctrines on every page of the Scriptures. We must insist that these doctrines are clearly sounded forth in every sermon preached in our churches. We must know what our beautiful confessions have to say about these great truths. We must teach these doctrines diligently to our children. These doctrines stand at the heart of our salvation and they are the well-spring of the fear of God and humility in the life of the child of God.
We have a sinful nature that is prone to boasting and glorying in ourselves. The whole wicked world as well as the apostate church-world encourages men to boast, by their false doctrines and philosophies. But before God we have no reason to boast. Boasting is a terrible sin before God, for it is a seeking to rob God of His glory. We have only reason to fear when we consider the absolute sovereign goodness of God in saving us and His dreadful severity in condemning the reprobate.
Let us consider some of the fearful details of God’s sovereignty mentioned in Romans 11. God saved us according to His own absolutely sovereign good pleasure without any regard whatsoever to what we were or are in ourselves. The Lord chose us in Christ already from before the foundation of the world in His unchangeable purpose of election. Who will ever be able to fathom the depth of this mystery! If we have even an inkling of what this is all about we will realize how utterly foolish and evil it is for us to boast before God.
I will assume that most readers of the Standard Bearer are from Gentile backgrounds, though it would fill us with joy to know that a number of converted children of God from Jewish background are also reading this paper. In Paul’s inspired letters he is repeatedly reminding those from Gentile background what they once were. We were in our generations once without God, without Christ, and therefore without hope in the world (see Eph. 2:12). Romans 11 speaks of the Gentiles coming from a wild olive tree. The “Gentiles” are a people who are utterly corrupt and depraved in their nature. They live in absolute spiritual darkness and ignorance in spite of their imagined great self knowledge, learning, and wisdom. They walk, Paul says in Ephesians 4, “in the vanity of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all manner of uncleanness with greediness.”
What a description that is of the modern-day “Gentiles” of the world in which we live, also of those who live in our apostate nation. But before we become so “highminded” that we imagine ourselves to be by nature better than even the worst of these “Gentiles,” let us remember that we were once like them, and we are even now according to our depraved sinful nature still like them. But God in His sovereign goodness was pleased to choose His people from eternity even though He who knows all things, knew that in time this people would be nothing better than the ungodly Gentiles of the world. Where then is our reason for boasting, for high-mindedness?
Many of us, by the grace of God, are part of those who have already for generations been children of God. But always we need to remember our origin and what we really are by nature. We all stand by nature condemned to be worthy of everlasting hell. But God in His sovereign mercy in Christ Jesus has saved us. What a fearful truth. God will have us again and again meditate on the wonders of His sovereign grace in saving us against the dark background of what we once were and what we still are by nature. This gives us reason only for humility before God and man.
We are to fear before God also when we consider the sovereign severity of God in reprobation. We confess with fear and trembling the truth of reprobation because it is clearly taught in the Bible. The sovereignty in God’s reprobating unbelieving Israel is emphasized in Romans 11, in verses 7-11, where Paul says that God Himself has blinded the reprobate. He gave them eyes that they should not see and ears that they should not hear. It is evident that reprobation is eternal and sovereign. In that respect it is parallel with election. God reprobates the ungodly in the way of their own wickedness and rebellion against God. In the end God will reveal in reprobation His own just severity. The severity of God is not cruel. The infinitely perfect holy God is not cruel. It is blasphemy to suggest that. God is severely just. He is unassailably just in all that He does. The purpose of God’s reprobation according to Romans is that God is willing to show His wrath, and to make his power known, and so He endures with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction (see Rom. 9:19-22). There are many fearful mysteries about reprobation that go beyond our ability to comprehend. Though we may not be able to comprehend the fearful justice of God in reprobation, we have no right as mere men to reply against God, something that we are in fact prone by nature to want to do.
The truth of reprobation is repeatedly taught in the Scriptures as the background of God’s gracious election and salvation of His people. Of this also our Canons speak.
What particularly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election is the express testimony of the sacred Scripture, that not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal election of God; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow on them saving faith and grace of conversion; but leaving them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at the last for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and to punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of whish is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof (Canons I, Article 15).
What reason all this gives us to fear and tremble before God! Oh the severity of His perfect righteous and holy judgment of the wicked. But all this must be driven home to our heart and soul by the consideration that we are no better than the reprobate and deserve to be condemned by the same severe justice of God. If God would have dealt with us only according to His justice we would all face the eternal horror of hell. What a fearful thing! The only thing that saved us from the condemnation that the ungodly world will suffer is the sovereign grace and mercy of God. Nothing else!
Another reason for fear according to the apostle inRomans 11 is the realization that God in His severity cut off many of the generations of the apostate wicked Jews who were once in their generations children of God. In the place of the Jews who were cut off, God was pleased to graft Gentile branches into His olive tree so that the rejection of the Jews became the salvation of the Gentiles. In our day we see many generations even in Reformed churches who were once children of God that have been cut off and that are completely apostate and ungodly. Their lives clearly reveal that, even though some of them still profess to be “Christian.” What is our attitude over against such? Are we better than they? Again we have no reason for highmindedness. It is only the sovereign goodness of God that preserves us and our children.
The only reason why we at all continue in faithfulness to the Lord is God’s sovereign goodness to us. If God would stop dealing with us according to His mercy we would also be cut off. If God cut off the natural branches from the olive tree we ought to fear that He will also cut us off who were once wild branches. If we were left to ourselves we would long ago have been cut off in our generations because of apostasy.
The fear of God that the consideration of these great truths inspires in the child of God must constrain him to a life of humility, obedience, fear, and humble gratitude to God. We ought also live in humility in our attitude towards our fellow men who in their lives reveal themselves as ungodly. Without the grace of God we too would be ungodly. We are from day to day completely dependent on the grace of God and therefore have no reason to boast in ourselves.
There is a covenantal aspect to this admonition. God warns us in Romans 11 about the real possibility of the branches of the “Gentiles” also being cut off from the Lord because of price and apostasy. We musttherefore walk in the fear of the Lord and diligently teach our children and the generations after us to walk in that same fear.
With fear and trembling we consider the wonderful way of God’s sovereignty in saving His people for His own glory. We join Paul in his doxology of praise to God. “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”