I have to say honestly that the book of Romans has caused me a great deal of trouble over the years. At the same time, I also have to say that it is trouble for which I am profoundly grateful. Although these were difficulties which I did not request, a retrospective look is cause for nothing but thanksgiving. Of course saying that Romans is a troublemaker is like the temptation that Ahab felt in calling Elijah a troubler of Israel. The trouble was actually more Ahabian than the king realized.
Statements such as these about Romans make one think immediately of “those chapters” in the latter part of the book (8-11). These are the chapters that come perilously close to saying that God is God. At one time, the issues surrounding a statement like this were more trouble than I wanted to have. This was all a great difficulty “when I was first coming to the Reformed faith,” but this phrase actually sounds far too grand. It would be more accurate to say that when I first noticed that I was being dragged in that Reformed direction by invisible forces, beyond my control and without my permission, “those chapters” troubled my thinking a good deal.
And of course, the sovereignty issues woven throughout these chapters were the most obvious. But though they were foundational to all that followed, they were not the truths that unsettled my world the most. After a time, my new “Calvinism” started to rest on me easily. As a result, I too quickly assumed that “those chapters” were now a friend to all my doctrinal assumptions. But lurking deep in chapter 11 was more trouble. The lesson there was one which I (now) commend to modern evangelicals everywhere. For those interested in keeping their feathers unruffled, the lesson can easily be avoided by reading Romans only occasionally, and by looking at the lesson of the olive tree as teaching us that plants grow, or something else equally general.
That olive tree overthrew all my assumptions about the relationship of the people of God in the Old Testament to the people of God in the New. Paul presents the image of one olive tree, and uses this image to describe the nature of the people of God in the transition between the old and new covenants. But the entire time there is one tree. If a certain modern doctrinal assumption is to be believed, God had an olive tree in the Old Testament, which He chopped down in the first century, and now He watches over a second tree He planted, which is a peach tree.
But in Paul’s mind, the Jews were the branches on this one tree in the Old Testament, and the root, as always, was Christ. When the Messiah came, many Jews did not believe, and so they were cut out of the one olive tree, and separated from the covenant people of God. Those Gentiles who had believed, wild olive shoots, were grafted into the olive tree. They were then warned, with great solemnity, to remember their brothers, the Jews. If God did not spare them, natural branches as they were, then how much less would He spare grafted branches which fell into the same sin. The root supports the branches, and not the other way around. And this truth stands whether or not the supported branches are natural or grafted. When the metaphor is allowed to speak to us in the way Paul intended for it to speak, certain things follow. And these things which follow are unsettling to many of our cherished assumptions.
First, covenant membership is not the same thing as individual election. The number of the elect cannot be increased or diminished, and known unto God are all His works from all eternity. This includes the work of decreeing the salvation of this individual or that one. But the number of those who are covenant members can be increased and diminished, and this happens all the time. Every time someone is baptized or excommunicated the number changes.
Secondly, covenant membership, even when held by someone who is not elect, is true covenant membership. Jesus teaches us the same thing in John 15, when He says that He is the Vine, and we are the branches. The branches are then told to abide in Him. Those who do not abide in Him will be cut off, taken away and burned.
Far too many exegetes try to say these warnings are hypothetical. In this view, God warns us about things that can never happen – it is like posting a great, big “Beware of the Cliff” sign in the middle of the plains of Kansas. But these biblical warnings are real, and apostasy is true sin, committed by real people. We alter the apostolic metaphor to make it fit with our doctrinal notions. We do not want olive branches to be able to be cut off anymore. In the new covenant, we want all the branches to be made of stainless steel, and we call this eternal security. But the Bible teaches the perseverance of all the elect. It does not teach perseverance of all covenant members. Further, non-elect covenant members have a genuine connection (of some sort) to Jesus Christ. They have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the coming age. They have to be connected to Him in order to be removed from Him. We do not want to admit genuine connection, and so we deny genuine removal. The apostate, we say, is not a branch being removed, but rather a bit of tumbleweed that got stuck in the branches, and is now taken out. But this trifles with the force of Paul’s image.
In doing this kind of thing, we negate the force of Paul’s warning. He says not to be haughty, but rather to fear. But we rush in to whisper loudly – fear not.