God's Ways are Inscrutible: Reflections from Romans 11 part 2

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If you are in Christ, then God has promised never to forsake you. He knows you and has known you before you even came into being, and He has promised to be with you through every trial. This is something I have had to be reminded of this week as we have hit some walls in our progress as a church-plant. God knows what we are going through. God is not asleep in some remote corner of the universe. But when it seems to us like he is because of our limited perspective we need to remind ourselves of the truth that it is in those times that God may, in fact, be at work in extraordinary ways behind the scenes. In the Old Testament we are told of a story about how the prophet Elijah felt like he had been abandoned by everyone and even God. Paul reminds us of Elijah when he cried out to God in his time of difficulty. What did Elijah find out? God showed him something surprising that he had not even considered. Elijah found out that God’s ways demonstrate his grace. In Romans 11:2a-6 we read:

“…Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?  3 "Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life."  4 But what is God's reply to him? "I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal."  5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

Never doubt for a moment that the narrative of the Old Testament is all about God’s grace. God’s act of creating a people for his own possession out of Abraham, formerly an idol-worshiper, and calling Moses (who had been guilty of murder!) to establish Israel as a formidable nation through which to give the world Jesus, the Messiah, was all about God’s grace. At the heart of the ancient nation of Israel was an earthly demonstration of God’s ways according to his love and grace. David Holwerda writes:

In essence Israel is and has always been, the people who were called into existence by God’s love and who continue to live from his love. Promise, call, gift [grace!], and love are the actions of God embracing and sustaining Israel, and Israel [was supposed to] always respond with a faithful acceptance of that which God promises and gives. If Israel [forgot] its essential nature, if Israel trie[d] to establish another basis for its existence, then it live[d] outside the promise and gifts of God. While God’s word and promise can never fail, Israel in its historical existence frequently forgets its essential nature and fails to respond in faith as it should (Romans 4:11f.)[1]…. But such an Israel, one that fails to respond in faith to God’s actions [and grace] that establish salvation, lives in denial of its own essential nature as the people of God.[2]

So, Paul sees God’s grace demonstrated in the story of Elijah; a parallel to his own times. After evil Queen Jezabel the wife of Ahab, the godless king of Israel, had sent to put to death all the true prophets of God and many prophets had caved in and bowed down to the Canaanite idol Baal, Elijah fled to hide away and thought that he was the only prophet still serving the LORD. But the LORD assured him that there was a reserved company hidden in a cave who had not caved in to idol worship. Likewise, in Paul’s day there was a remnant who were chosen by grace. These who trusted God in the face of adversity – even when they were being persecuted by other Israelites who had adulterated themselves to other gods (Baal in Elijah’s day and religious-works-righteousness in Paul’s) – had been preserved by God according to his grace.

 It is the same for us today. Following Jesus radically, truly taking him at his word and living by faith and not by sight is something granted to us by God’s grace. Many people go through the motions of religion and never by God’s grace see the radical life of love and grace Jesus calls us to live. When you do venture out on that road, however, those who are comfortable in their religiosity and position and friendship with compromise will likely find ways to persecute you. In that hour you will need God’s grace. And God will be faithful to supply it. That’s the way he does things – and his grace will be sufficient. Paul had learned this before. He had asked God to remove a nagging trial under which he was constantly suffereing. God's answer was not what Paul perhaps had expected: But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).

Part of the way we receive that grace from God in difficult times is by acknowledging that God’s ways are sovereign and living and trusting accordingly. This is what we will look at in more detail in Part 3: Romans 11:7-10 God’s ways are sovereign.

[1] Holwerda, 156.

[2] Holwerda, 158