Israel and the Divine Purpose
—Present and Future
The Leading Principle of All Divine Truth
In addition to his Bible teaching ministry at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas, Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a visiting professor at Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana and Tyndale Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, Holland.
With sincere appreciation to Dr. Johnson, we publish his seventh and final study on the weighty subject matter of Romans 11.
At this point in Romans eleven Paul seems to be caught up in the spirit of Wesley’s “Love Divine,” with its “lost in wonder, love and praise.” What can we say, when the apostle is so overcome?
And as far as understanding what Paul has been saying is concerned, Riddle is right in saying, “we have learned Paul’s meaning only when we can join in this ascription of praise.”1
The marvelous truth of verse thirty-two, that God in His determinate counsel and infinite wisdom has purposed to exercise mercy to all without distinction, has forced from the beloved apostle’s heart this exclamation of astonished wonder. It is, as Gifford aptly says, “a noble conclusion to the great argument of the epistle.”2 It is striking that the wrath that Paul said in chapter one was revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness has merged now into the divine mercy that God has extended to all the nations of the earth.3
The apostle, of course, has had primarily upon his mind God’s dealings with Israel and the Gentiles in the flow of redemptive history, from the Fall on to the Second Advent. In this reflection upon it and in his exposition of it, however, there has emerged quite clearly a general and universal truth, namely, the truth of the sovereignty of the infinite God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps we should say the truth of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is sovereign, to be sure to stress the divine Person and not simply a truth about Him. At any rate, the God who is infinite in His knowledge, wisdom, purpose, mercy and grace has been before the reader. The climax is reached in the doxology (Rom. 11:33-36).
The doxology underlines this leading principle of all divine truth, namely, the God who is sovereign. In fact, there are few passages in the Word of God that declare as forcefully the conviction that God is all in human salvation, while man is only a helpless beneficiary of divine love and grace. This truth stands out in the four verses and confirms the appropriateness of the great titles given our Sovereign God, such as “The First and the Last,” “The Beginning and the End,” “The One Who Is, Who Was, and Is To Come,” and “The Alpha and the Omega.” The prophets and the apostles alike proclaim the blessed but humbling message, “Salvation is of the Lord” (cf. Jonah 2:9)
The Profundity and Inscrutability of the Divine Purposes
The exclamation (33). The short paragraph begins with a striking exclamation, “Oh, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God!4 The apostle marvels at the course of the divine elective purpose as it is seen in the ages of salvation history. The three terms, “riches,” “wisdom,” and “knowledge” impress him. What do they connote?
“Riches” is the broadest of them and refers to God’s unlimited resources, and in this context particularly His mercy (cf. v. 12; 2:4; 9:23; 10:12; 2 Cor. 8:9; Eph. 2:4, etc.).
“Wisdom” is mental excellence in its highest and fullest sense, one lexicographer has said, and perhaps we may add that it often represents the means employed in the use of knowledge. God’s wisdom is the infinitely perfect use of His complete knowledge.
“Knowledge,” particularly as meant by the word used here in this context, refers to the infinite store of truth of all types in the mind of God. In this context especially it refers to the knowledge from which has come God’s purposes.
Is it necessary to note that Paul finds these qualities, infinite knowledge, infinite wisdom, and the infinite riches of mercy in God? Where else could they be found?
The following line, “how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!,” heightens the picture. His “judgments” are the purposes of God, the determinations that flow from His infinite knowledge and wisdom, while His “ways” are His methods of procedure in accomplishing His intentions. The apostle states that His judgments are unsearchable, beyond the comprehension of man the creature, and that His ways are beyond the reach of the scientific method. The adjective, “past finding out,” is derived from a Greek verb that means to trace out by tracks. Finite human methods of inquiry terminate at the border of infinity. At this “Checkpoint Charlie” revelation alone provides light.
The explanation (justification?) (34-35). The “for” of verse thirty-four introduces the explanation of this state of things. Infinite knowledge, infinite wisdom, and infinite riches of mercy necessarily lead to human astonishment.
The words of the Scripture justify the statements of verse thirty-three. Two quotations, the first from Isaiah 40:13 and the second from Job 41:11 (Heb. 41:3), are cited to show that God’s knowledge, wisdom, and riches of mercy are beyond human reach. The Scriptural texts are in the form of questions, and they support the preceding observations in reverse order.
The opening line of verse thirty-four, “For who hath known the mind of the Lord?,” refers to the knowledge of God, the last of the astonishing infinities of the preceding verse. In the context of Isaiah 40:13, the prophet stands in the midst of the announcement of the coming redemption of the people by the exalted Person of the Lord God (cf. vv. 1-11). The questions that follow seek to give the people in exile the sense of His greatness as Creator (vv. 12-14) and Governor (vv. 15-17). In the background of the questions is the popular current idolatry, and the prophet is contrasting the common falsehoods with the truth concerning Jehovah, the true God. The question that Paul has cited stresses Jehovah’s infinite knowledge as displayed in His creative work. He needed no philosopher to inform Him regarding reality.
The second line in verse thirty-four, as in Isaiah’s prophecy, has to do with wisdom. He needed no teacher, or engineer in physical sciences, to instruct Him in the the science of creation. All the earth sciences repose in His mind in perfection. The carnal mind of man, often baffled by the divine works, tends to affirm that that which surpasses our reason is impossible, but we must remember that His incomparable power and mind are inscrutable. Let us submit our weakness, rashness, and occasional insolence to His unsearchable counsel in becoming humility. “All the reason or understanding that we have,” Calvin reminds us, “is mere darkness, till we have been enlightened by Christ.”5
The depth of His riches of mercy finds emphasis in verse thirty-five in the citation from Job 41:11 (Heb. 41:3).6 No one has so given to Him that His benefits may be regarded as a requital for that giving. It is not that we first give to Him, and then He gives in response. All His gifts are in free grace and overflowing generosity. He, as Paul has said, “is rich unto all that call upon Him” (10:12). And they call upon Him, not to give Him something, but to receive what they cannot earn.
No doubt the apostle had Israel in mind here, for the root of the error of his generation was the self-righteous notion of earning God’s blessing and favor by previous merit. The divine activity is not determined and conditioned by human calculation and action. The creature can do nothing to put God under obligation to Him, Everything Paul has been teaching denies this — justification by the merit of Christ in grace, sanctification by the Holy Spirit and not by the power of human free will, and divine election and calling according to the divine purpose and not by the foreknowledge of faith through human free will.
The Independent Sovereignty of God
The source. The “for” (lit., because) introduces the reason why man cannot lay God under obligation to him. God Himself is the source, the mediator, and the goal of all things. How can He be anyone’s debtor? He is the first cause of all, the agent who works all in all, and all things have Him as their final cause (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:6; Heb. 2:10). The whole process of salvation, even including its negative aspects of disobedience, wrath, and retribution, is due to God’s initiative, who performs His purposes through the Son and the Spirit.7
The mediator. The phrase,” through Him,” marks out God as the mediator of all things and is inclusive of His providential ordering, care, and preservation of them.
The goal. The entire redemptive purpose has as its goal the Lord God and the publication of His excellencies, as the final clause indicates.
These three phrases, “of Him,” “through Him,” and “to Him,” express most forcibly the independent sovereignty of God over this created universe and its intelligences and creatures (cf. Dan. 2:21; 4:35).
One might ask at this point, “What is independent sovereignty?” There is great confusion today over the meaning of sovereignty. Almost all Christians believe in the sovereignty of God, but few are able to define the term. This is not the place to settle the matter, but perhaps a few comments will clarify it. Sovereignty, a comprehensive term, includes three elements, supremacy, independence, and optional power. A sovereign is supreme in his dominions. A sovereign has the power of independent action in both external and internal relations. And, finally, a sovereign has optional power, that is, the power to act or not in a given instance. He has the power of free alternative action. The sovereignty of God, then, denotes God’s supremacy, independence, and optional power in the kingdom of God.
It is when the specifics of this power are discussed that men, and surprisingly even Christian men, fall into disagreement and disputes. If God is sovereign, then He must be sovereign in election, regeneration, and salvation. And if He is sovereign in these matters, then He must have the optional power of electing or passing by a sinner. If God has no alternative in regard to election, regeneration, and pardon, then what sovereignty has He in the salvation of a sinner? We can only say, “none.” Let the offence of the doctrine fall where it may. God has decided the matter, and He has written it in both testaments. To Moses God said, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exod. 33:19). And Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, reaffirmed the sentiment and cited the text in this same epistle (cf. Rom. 9:15), adding his own imprimatur in this concluding interpretive comment, “Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth” (9:18; cf. Prov. 1:24-29).
The gospel of sovereign grace, a doctrine pervading the Word of God, has always been the object of the world’s contempt, for the world is a world of self-satisfied enemies of God, confident of self-justification. Nevertheless, the Scriptures extol the grace of God who sovereignly saves those who acknowledge their need and rest in sovereign grace.
Let me summarize in a series of propositions God’s sovereign grace. First, God loves in sovereign grace. Paul described the Thessalonians as “brethren beloved of the Lord” (2 Thess. 2:13). Second, He elects sinners in sovereign grace. Paul added that the Thessalonians were beloved, “because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation” (2 Thess. 2:13; II, 1:4). Third, God calls in sovereign grace, making the unwilling willing, as the apostle notes in Galatians 1:6, saying to the Galatians that God “called you by the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6. NASB). Fourth, God justifies in sovereign grace. In one of his greatest passages Paul writes that the Romans were “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). We could go on and on, but I will pass by His adopting and sanctifying grace to mention finally that God perseveres in sovereign grace, securing the eternal salvation of all His adopted family. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish” (John 10:27-28). All His sheep shall enjoy a safe arrival in the presence of the Lord.
That is part of what is meant by, “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things.”
The Ineffable Glory of God
Its reference. It’s no wonder, then, that the apostle concludes on the note of the ineffable glory of God. All events are “full of God,” and that is no dry theological statement. It is a call to worship, and that Paul does with, “To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Gifford wrote, “As the rivers return again to the place whence they came, they all come from the sea, and they all run into the seas again: so all our store as it issued at first from the fountain of His grace, so should it fall at last into the ocean of His glory.”8
Barrett puts it this way. “The sola gratia and sola fide of these eleven chapters can only issue in this soli Deo gloria. What it means to give glory to God, and how far removed this is from mere pious ejaculations, will appear in chs. xii-vi.”9
Its essence. The essence of the glory of God may be defined as all the divine perfections in full display. This we see most fully and clearly in the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, for God has given the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 5:13).
Its endlessness. The endlessness of the manifested glory of God is a requirement of the endlessness of His eternal being. When time no longer exists as it does now the manifestation of the excellencies of God’s being shall be as fresh and striking as they were when we first came to know Him.
Conclusion. And let us not forget the application of these truths to God’s beloved nation Israel, the people of whom the mad prophet Balaam prophesied, “for from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” (Num. 23:9-10). The God who preseveres His saints today shall presevere Israel as a nation for her future destiny of salvation.
“It is true,” David Baron, a Christian Jew, wrote, “that the testimony which they bear while in a condition of unbelief is, for the most part, though not wholly, passive; but still it is most valuable. How thankful, for instance, we should be that in these days, when even theological professors cooly assert that it is doubtful whether Abraham was an actual personality — that there is a whole nation who, whenever they name Abraham, say ‘Abraham abinu’ —’Abraham, our father’; and when some who condescend to admit the existence of Moses as an historical personality confidently declare that he certainly had very little or nothing to do with the giving of the law —that to this day there is a whole people scattered through the earth who, whenever they name the name of Moses, say, ‘Moshe rabbinu’ —‘Moses, our Teacher’ — as if in solemn protest against those wild, unreasonable, and unjustifiable theories which are palmed off in the name of criticism.”10
Israel the nation, it is true, is a monument of the judgment of God, but they are also a monument of the truth of God’s Word and of His faithfulness to its doctrine of sovereign grace.
The doxology is a most appropriate conclusion to the doctrinal section of Romans, that wonderful epistle which probably more clearly than any other part of the Word of God presents and defends the divine plan of salvation by grace, the doctrine upon which the faithful in all ages have rested their hopes of heaven and the presence of God. Its leading principle is that of the Bible itself, namely, that of a Sovereign God, the source of all good, who elects, regenerates, and pardons fallen men, in whom there is neither merit nor ability to turn to Him, and finally in that same sovereign grace brings His own to eternal glory. “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”
1 Cited by Stifler, p. 212.
2 Gifford, p. 201.
3 Cf. Gifford, p. 201.
4 My rendering. The genetives are best taken as depending on the word, “depth.” The early Greek commentators and the structure favors it. And the construction is simpler. Cf. IDNT. VII. 517-22.
5 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, ed. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948) p.219.
6 Paul followed the LXX in v. 34, but now the MT, since the LXX is inaccurate here (or was a different Hebrew text rendered?).
7 Cf. Gifford, p. 229.
8 Gifford, p. 203, citing Bishop Sanderson’s sermon on Romans 15:6.
9 Barrett, p. 230.
10 David Baron, “Miracle of History,” p. 4.