Is God Really Merciful?

I love Cracker Barrel. The dining experience is second only to the country store on the other side of the building. I remember being younger and ordering at the restaurant. I saw chicken salad on the menu. That sounded great, so I told the waitress that I wanted chicken salad! After playing that game with the pegs a few times, I left for a moment to play checkers against my brother. We saw the food arriving at our table, so we left our game to consume the feast that was now awaiting us. They had brought me the wrong order. Before me was the mysterious light brown mesh of ingredients. I’m sure it had chicken in it, but it looked like someone had pureed it without my consent. Where were my chicken tenders? The luscious green leaves? My ranch dressing!!! Apparently, chicken salad can mean two different things. I learned an important lesson that day.

There are many truths that we have discovered about our Lord so far as we have studied the book of Romans. This book has been humbling for us. It has glorified Christ as king and has attributed to Him all authority absolutely. He is the one who calls to salvation. He is the only one who redeems. He has authority over life and death, over heaven and hell, and over the destination of every person. In this, there are some who draw a certain caricature of the biblical worldview. If Christ has this authority, they say, it must be the case that Christ is divinely working and drawing some to Himself and that He is divinely working to keep others from knowing Him or confessing that He is the Christ. After all, Christ has all authority, right?

It is easy to misunderstand certain biblical doctrines, just as it is easy to misunderstand someone’s order at Cracker Barrel. Here is what I want to strive to understand today: What does it mean for us to say honestly that we are not saved by our works? What are the implications of such a statement?

Romans 11:25-36

So that you will not be conceited, brothers, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery: A partial hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written:

The Liberator will come from Zion;

He will turn away godlessness from Jacob.

And this will be My covenant with them

when I take away their sins.

Regarding the gospel, they are enemies for your advantage, but regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs, since God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable. As you once disobeyed God, but now have received mercy through their disobedience, so they too have now disobeyed, resulting in mercy to you, so that they also now may receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience, so that He may have mercy on all.

Oh, the depth of the riches

both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!

How unsearchable His judgments

and untraceable His ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been His counselor?

Or who has ever first given to Him,

and has to be repaid?

For from Him and through Him

and to Him are all things.

To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

God’s mercy

As we begin thinking together about Romans 11, we want to remember context. When someone writes a story, there is a reason the earlier chapters precede the later ones. There is a reason the old testament precedes the new. There is a reason that God has worked history together as He has. In Romans 11, Paul is continuing to address a question that he has asked in chapter 9. Has God failed? Why has Israel rejected her Messiah? Is God not going to fulfill His promise to deliver Israel? Paul’s heart is in anguish regarding this question. Will God not show mercy on His own chosen national people? As we have read through Romans together, we have noticed here in the first 11 chapters that everything begins with God and that God is the one working all things together- especially the justification of His people and the judgment of the world. Remember, order is important. It sets the context. If we don’t begin in the proper place, it will be difficult for us to understand the difference between chicken salad and chicken salad.

    1. In chapters 1 and 2, Paul spells out that we are slaves to our own nature. While we are prone to work for whatever righteousness we think we ought to have, the truly righteous person lives by faith. This Gospel comes through Jesus Christ and was promised beforehand. It is only through Jesus we receive grace and are called (1:1-5).
    2. In chapters 3-11, Paul stresses God’s sovereignty in all things and concludes with the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ over and in all things.
    3. Here in chapter 11, there is a transition being made as Paul shifts from writing about God’s sovereignty to our response in light of God’s sovereignty and Christ’s lordship. Next week, we finally get to consider our response to the sovereign king Jesus. Before we get there, we are reminded of a few things:
      1. God is saving a people for Himself even when it seems like all are forsaking Him (v. 1-5).
      2. This is not on the basis of human works. If it were, grace would not be grace (v. 6).
      3. People could not obtain God while seeking for Him by their own efforts, only by God’s choosing (v. 7-10).
      4. People cannot fall from God because they could not obtain God by their works. God works through transgression and failure and God brings fulfillment (v. 11-12).
      5. God is able to save and condemn. He is both kind in His salvation and severe in His condemnation. He works in physical peoples to accomplish His redemptive work (v. 13-24).
      6. Israel rejected as a national people for the sake of the Gentiles. The Gentiles received the Gospel for the sake of the Jews. God is saving for Himself a singular people from all nations (v. 13-24).
      7. There has been a partial hardening of Israel for the benefit of the Gentiles (v. 25-27).
      8. God’s gifts and His calling are irrevocable (v. 28-29).
      9. God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all (v. 30-33).
      10. No one can know God’s mind or advise Him. God has given first. He receives all glory (v. 34-36).

When we observe what God has done with Israel, we can see what He is doing with all nations. God has created. God has been doing this work of redemption. God has been hardening hearts, or shutting up in disobedience, as we see with Israel. God is showing mercy to all people, as we see also with Israel. So, it is the case that God is showing mercy to all people. This is not universalism. Not all people are being justified. All people do get to taste of God’s mercy and God’s goodness, for all things are from Him and provided by Him.

Everything is from God.

General revelation

Paul has already stated in Romans 1:20 that people are without excuse. God has made things about Him apparent and understandable through what has been made. Paul has also stated that even though God had made knowledge about Himself understandable in this way, we still did not honor God because our foolish hearts were darkened. It is not that God hides from people or divinely leads them away. Our unrighteous nature is what keeps us from seeing God in His creation. It is why so many people look at the stars and know the amazing intricacies of the universe and would rather say that it’s possible we were genetically engineered and seeded by extra-terrestrials than created by an intelligent and all-powerful God.

In this type general revelation, even though the unrighteous nature of people blinds them, God has had great mercy even on those who stand condemned. He has not intervened divinely in order to lead people into Hell. It is because of our own unrighteousness that we are destined for an everlasting existence apart from God. Even many of those who seek God cannot obtain Him because they are trying to do so by their own works and by their own effort. God, because He is merciful, has provided general revelation that is available to every person such that all people are without excuse. Those who never come to know Christ are still recipients of great mercy. Those who will never surrender to Jesus still get mercy. Those separated from Christ forever have still received a great degree of God’s boundless mercy. This does not remove or negate the truth of eternal suffering in a place called Hell but does reveal a great deal to us concerning God’s boundless love, a love He has for the whole world (John 3:16).

All things, then, are not only from God but also through Him. God has not only created all things. He not only initiates all things. He sustains all things so that all things reveal Him, even if our unrighteousness blinds us to that truth. The universe remains in existence through God alone. I continue to have faith through God alone. It is why, here in Romans 11, that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (v. 29). It is why Jesus would say things like, “This is the will of Him who sent Me: that I should lose none of those He has given Me but should raise them up on the last day” (John 6:39). After Jesus taught in this way, thousands of people stopped following Him and walked away because the teaching was too difficult. We also read:

“I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

“You are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).

“Now to Him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of His glory, blameless and with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time, now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

“…keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:2).

Everything is through God.

Special revelation

God also has mercy on those He calls. We saw this in Romans 10:20, “I was found by those who did not seek me, I became manifest to those who did not ask for me.” While we failed to see God by mere general revelation, God is revealing Himself to us particularly and calling a people for Himself and His calling is irrevocable. So it is that God shows mercy upon mercy to all people and especially to those who are called by Him. For those who truly know Christ, this realization ought to do two things. First, it ought to humble us more and more. Second, it ought to produce such an unmatched gratitude within us that we can do nothing but fall on our faces before our Lord

Here is what I know about my relationship with my mom. She brought me into this world. She raised me. When I acted up, she loved me still. She did what she thought was best for me even though many times I complained and even hated her for bringing me pain. Looking back on my childhood in this world, I get it. This is the picture we receive of God through Scripture and especially in the book of Romans. He is being a good parent. Looking back, I have so much gratitude in my heart for many things my mom did and didn’t do. How much more gratitude should I have before the good, good Father? He created me. He shut me up in disobedience. He showed me what mercy was. He called me. His calling is irrevocable. He will never leave me nor forsake me. By His authority alone am I sustained, sanctified, and preserved for eternity. This is not a work of mine, but, according to Scripture, His working all things together.

What does it mean for us to say honestly that we are not saved by our works? It means precisely what is said. There is nothing we can do to contribute anything to God’s saving work in our lives. If we did contribute something, grace is no longer grace (v. 6). God is doing things this way because He is the one who is to receive all glory (v. 36). If I were to ever claim that we contribute some work of our own to God’s grace in salvation, according to this text I would be denying grace altogether.

There are many people who claim to be Christians who have a problem with this idea. In fact, a vast majority of professing Christians believe that they must contribute something even though this idea is a direct contradiction to Scripture. This disconnect is present for one of two reasons. Either people think too highly of themselves and think that they somehow deserve to be saved or they hear me ordering chicken salad when I actually want chicken salad. I think there are both types of people.

To those who think too highly of themselves, I have to say that there is not a single person who deserves to experience the great mercies of God. We are sinners. We are unrighteous. We are rebellious. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. Those who believe that they can earn justification prove their unrighteousness according to Romans 1-3 and I encourage you to visit christoa.com or graceabounds.church and find those sermons.

To the rest, I need to make a clarification so that we are not confused regarding this topic. Paul even states that he does not want people to be uninformed of this mystery (v. 25), and spent much time in the first 11 chapters explaining this. When we say that we cannot contribute any work of our own to salvation we do not mean to indicate that people have no responsibility before God. What we mean is that God does 100 percent of His saving work in the lives of His people. People are still responsible before God. People are still without excuse. There still is a very real response to God’s saving grace. In salvation, there truly is nothing that we can contribute because we are unrighteous people. Order is important. Christ saves and there is a response. Salvation is and must be entirely by grace, else grace ceases to be grace.

Everything is to God.

Oh, the depth of the riches

both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God!

How unsearchable His judgments

and untraceable His ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been His counselor?

Or who has ever first given to Him,

and has to be repaid?

For from Him and through Him

and to Him are all things.

To Him be the glory forever. Amen (v. 33-36).

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