Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Perseverance Of The Saints Part 3: The Ancient Olive Tree

This passage is very similar in meaning and application as the passage previously discussed from Christ’s discourse in John 15. It may well be that Paul was familiar with Christ’s teaching on the Vine and the branches, and had His discourse in mind while writing about the olive tree in Rom. 11:15-24:

[15] For if their rejection [the Jews] be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? [16] And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. [17] But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive were grafted among them and became partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree, [18] do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. [19] You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; [21] for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. [22] Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. [23] And they also, if they do not continue in there unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. [24] For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree. [NASB]

This passage of Scripture is problematic for Calvinism on multiple levels. Paul is discussing the present state of Israel throughout chapters 9-11. Calvinists find Rom. 9:6-24 to be a primary text for their doctrines of unconditional particular election and irrevocable reprobation. It is not difficult to come to such an understanding of the text when the rest of the context of Romans 9-11 is ignored. This has been the usual practice of many Calvinist exegetes. James White completely ignores Romans 9:30-33 and 11:15-32 in his exegesis of Romans 9 in The Potter’s Freedom. This is strange behavior, especially when we consider that Rom. 9:30-33 represents Paul’s conclusion to his preliminary argument in Rom. 9:1-29. Likewise, Piper [The Justification Of God] and Schreiner [Still Sovereign] neglect to give Rom. 11:15-32 any exegetical treatment in their respective works on Rom. 9 and election.

Paul has not changed subjects in Romans 11:15-24. He is still discussing the reprobated Jews described earlier in Rom. 9:6-24. What he says concerning these Jews is troubling to the Calvinist interpretation of unconditional election and irrevocable reprobation. Paul speaks in terms of an ancient olive tree. This tree represents the true Israel of God. It is the election of God’s people in Christ. The tree cannot represent national Israel due to the fact that many of the branches [Jews] were “broken off”. Paul is speaking of the spiritual descendants of Abraham; those who have received the promise by faith. [Rom. 4:13-25].

The unbelieving Jews have been “broken off” from the true Israel and are estranged from the promise of God’s salvation in Christ. Paul, however, holds out hope for these broken off Jews. He plainly states that they can yet be grafted in again if they do not persist in their unbelief. This truth clashes with the Calvinist belief that these unbelieving Jews have been reprobated due to an eternal and irrevocable decree. If Paul had really been teaching such a concept of reprobation in Romans 9, then he could not hold out hope for these Jews in Romans 11:23 and 11:30-32.

The further difficulty this passage poses to Calvinism is Paul’s plain declaration that those who now stand by faith may yet be broken off through unbelief:

[19] You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; [21] for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. [22] Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

Calvinists have traditionally tried to resolve the difficulty in one of two ways. The first way is to say that the branches do not represent individuals, but nations. The broken off branches represent the nation of Israel, and the engrafted branches represent the Gentiles as a people group. The problem with this interpretation is that Paul is speaking of individual branches that have been broken off and grafted in to the true Israel of God. The branches clearly represent individual Jews, for the entire nation has not been rejected. There are believing Jews [the remnant] who have remained in the olive tree. The grafted in branches represent individual Gentiles as only believing Gentiles have come to enjoy the favor and election of God. It is only believing Gentiles that can be called spiritual descendants of Abraham, and it is beyond argument that not all Gentiles have embraced Christ.

Joseph R. Dongell provides an excellent summary:

Paul distinguishes the irrevocable call of the nation of Israel as a whole from the fate of individual Israelites. While the final destination of the people of God is absolutely certain, the future of any given individual is determined by his or her continued faith and trust in God. Gentiles who believe are grafted into the ancient tree, whereas Jews who fall into unbelief are broken off. Since faith is the sole condition for remaining engrafted, Paul issues both warning and hope. On the one hand, those Gentiles who have recently been grafted into the ancient tree through faith must humbly guard against falling into unbelief, since they too would then be severed from the tree. On the other hand, the natural branches lying on the ground can “be grafted into their own olive tree” if “they do not persist in unbelief” (Rom. 11:23-24). In other words, the destiny of God’s people as a whole is unchanged throughout the ages, though each individual branch participates in this salvation only if he or she remains engrafted by faith (cf. Jn.15:5-6). As Paul Achtemeier explains, Paul teaches destiny without teaching individual determinism. [Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, page 87]

It would seem that the interpretation of the text that would rule out the individuality of the branches is very difficult to sustain.

The second Calvinist explanation is the usual explanation that the broken off branches could only represent false converts and hypocrites who never had saving faith to begin with. This interpretation is impossible to sustain due to the fact that Paul speaks of these branches as presently standing by faith. If it is a faith that makes them “stand” then it must be genuine. It is because of their present faith that they can be said to be in the elect olive tree. Paul further confirms this when he threatens these Gentiles, who have been grafted in by faith, that they can yet be broken off from this tree if they do not “continue in His kindness”. They remain among the elect body so long as they continue in faith. If they should not continue, then God will treat them the same as the unbelieving Jews who were broken off before them. They too will be cut off “for there is no partiality with God”. If the branches that Paul threatens represented false converts, then they would have never been in the tree in the first place. How then could they be broken off?

Perhaps we should add a third interpretation. Perhaps some will say that Paul is merely presenting a hypothetical construct and threatening these branches with impossibilities. What possible effect could such a threat carry for those who could not possibly fall prey to the consequences of it? If the branches stand by faith, and those who begin in faith will inevitably continue in faith [according to Calvinism], then why warn them to continue with the threat of being cut off? If God causes believers to continue in saving faith, then to warn believers to continue is nonsensical. If God infallibly preserves the believer, and faith is a gift that we cannot help but to continue in; then to warn someone to continue in the faith would be as useless as warning someone who is hooked to a respirator to “keep breathing”.

Some will say that the warnings are God’s means by which He ensures the perseverance of His saints. Where then is the doctrine of eternal security? Can we truly be convinced that we are eternally secure, and also take the warnings of falling away seriously? If we are eternally secure then there is no danger of being cut off from the true Israel of God. If the danger is real, then there is no unconditional security. If we went to our mailbox and found a note on the door that read, “Do not open this mailbox, else a 600 pound tiger will emerge and devour you”, would we take such a warning seriously? Would such an impossible consequence truly worry us and prevent us from getting our mail?

It would seem then, that Calvinism fails to offer a valid solution to the clear teaching of Rom. 11:15-24 that those who stand by faith may yet be broken off to their own eternal ruin. Let us heed Paul’s emphatic warning: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

In reading Romans 11 we should always remember that the Apostle was speaking at times of the whole nation and also at times of individuals. We are told that the Jewish fall is not a complete fall and that this is part of God’s plan. Perhaps the confusion comes in where he talks of branches being broken off, if we look at what he says in verse 16 we will see that he is addressing the whole Jewish nation. For the Jews were given a peculiar honor to be the chosen people of God. In that regard the Jews were able to partake of the covenant that God made with their fathers, the Gentiles did not participate yet in the covenant as a whole. That is what is meant by verse 16, holy here refers to the Jewish race as a nation being the chosen ones of God that got to participate in the covenant. At the time the Jewish people got to enjoy all of the external privileges of being the chosen people of God. When you see it like that then you would see that Abraham was the root of the visible Church. We see that Ishmael was broken off and that the tree continued to grow through Isaac. We then see that Esau was broken off and the tree grew through Jacob. When we are told to fear this we must remember where fear comes from, who gives us fear? I will point the reader to Jer. 32:40 to find the answer themselves.

Why would the elect need such warning? We must always remember that we are in constant battle with our flesh. We must do all we can to subdue the pride that would spring up from our flesh, for it wants nothing to do with salvation or anything of God. We can see this from verse 25 where he sums it up that we should not be arrogant. We must also remember that he was addressing not just believers, but also people who were only believers in name only.

kangeroodort said...

Hello anonymous,

If you should continue to post here, could you please leave a name. You can either create a google account or just select "other" and write in your name. It is hard to keep track of so many anonymous commentators.

I think your assessment of the olive tree is fair, though I am convinced that the olive tree is speaking of more than just the general covenant that God made with Israel. The context suggests to me that the olive tree is the true Israel: those who are of the faith of Abraham. That is why the unbelieving Jews were broken off.

While the nation of Israel was God's chosen people and received His special favor [Rom. 9:4, 5], individual Jews were not saved unconditionally. The Jews of Paul's day have largely rejected their Messiah and have sought their own righteousness, rather than the righteousness that comes by faith [Rom. 9:30-33; 10:21].

These are the Jews who were broken off. They are not of the seed of Abraham because they have rejected the "Seed" of Abraham. They have not received the promise by faith.

God has not completely cast off His people, because He will yet again show favor to them; but the fact remains that the unbelieving Jews are estranged from God's salvation for as long as they persist in unbelief.

The olive tree cannot represent the nation of Israel as a whole, or the general conevant with Israel, because even the unbelieving Jews are still of the nation of Israel [Rom. 11:28].

The olive tree must represent the true Israel of God which is made up of all believers both Jew and Gentile [Rom. 1:16; 3:27-30], the spiritual descendents of Abraham [Rom. 4:13-25], and the children of promise. Otherwise, it would not make sense to say that the Jews were broken off because of unbelief.

Why would the elect need such warning? We must always remember that we are in constant battle with our flesh. We must do all we can to subdue the pride that would spring up from our flesh, for it wants nothing to do with salvation or anything of God. We can see this from verse 25 where he sums it up that we should not be arrogant. We must also remember that he was addressing not just believers, but also people who were only believers in name only.

I don't see how this helps the Calvinist position any. It is true that we are at war against the flesh, but Paul ultimately warns against being broken off from the true Israel of God. Was the threat of being broken off real or imaginary? To say that Paul is speaking to unbelievers does not resolve the issue either, for he is threatening those who now "stand by faith" that they can yet be broken off.

God Bless,
Ben

Todd said...

The Apostle speaks more of groups than of individuals in these passages, the groups being Jew and Gentile. I think that we both would agree that God has always had one unified group/people. We see that most of the covenant people in the OT were Jewish. Of course there are exceptions to this as we see in the OT that some Gentiles were grafted into the tree. Likewise, under the new covenant and in the NT most of the covenant people are Gentile. This does not exclude the fact that if a Jewish person was to turn to God that he would then be grafted into the tree. He would be grafted in even though as a group the Jewish people have rejected Christ. I have found nothing in these verses that speaks of individuals being cut off because of their individual unbelief, at least so far as having at one time being united to the tree.

kangeroodort said...

The Apostle speaks more of groups than of individuals in these passages, the groups being Jew and Gentile. I think that we both would agree that God has always had one unified group/people. We see that most of the covenant people in the OT were Jewish. Of course there are exceptions to this as we see in the OT that some Gentiles were grafted into the tree. Likewise, under the new covenant and in the NT most of the covenant people are Gentile. This does not exclude the fact that if a Jewish person was to turn to God that he would then be grafted into the tree. He would be grafted in even though as a group the Jewish people have rejected Christ.

I have no real disagreements here.

I have found nothing in these verses that speaks of individuals being cut off because of their individual unbelief, at least so far as having at one time being united to the tree.

Can branches be broken off from a tree they were never in? Does not Paul warn the engrafted Gentiles who "stand by faith" that they can yet be "cut off" if they fail to continue in God's "kindness"? Are you saying that Paul was warning against impossibilities? Are you saying that Paul was mistaken when he said that they had been grafted into the olive tree, and stood by faith?

kangeroodort said...

Todd,

BTW, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Are you the "anonymous" who wrote the previous comment?

God Bless,
Ben

Todd said...

Sorry for not being clear, I am saying that Paul is referring to groups(Gentiles). He is not addressing an individual being cut off because of his individual unbelief.

Todd said...

Yes, sorry for that. I was not aware that we could put our name without a Google account. I do like that I do not have to sign up for an account.

Todd said...

I came to find your blog through the blog of Turretinfan. I go to his site about once a week and saw recently where you responded in a comment section. I look forward to reading your site.

kangeroodort said...

Thanks Todd,

I appreciate the interaction.

Albert said...

Though I am not convinced of the Arminian interpretation, I liked the new design and the larger font used in this blog. God bless you. :)

Nick Norelli said...

Ben,

Great post. I think you handle Romans 11 well. My only point of disagreement would be that I do see the olive tree as representing the 'covenant' and not the 'true Israel' per se. Although the disagreement seems more semantic than anything.

Keep up the good work. I look forward to the rest of the series.

kangeroodort said...

Hey Nick,

I admit that I have been struggling with how exactly to view the olive tree. I agree that it might represent the covenant of God with His people, but I think the branches must represent those who share in that covenant by faith. That is clear from Pual's language concerning how one participates in the olive tree, "you stand by faith", "they were broken off because of unbelief". So, if nothing else, the branches in the tree represent the true Israel of God.

However we view the tree, it still follows that those who are broken off cannot share in God's covenant, and are excluded from the salvation that is in Christ.

I am sure we are both in agreement on that.

kangeroodort said...

Though I am not convinced of the Arminian interpretation, I liked the new design and the larger font used in this blog. God bless you. :)

Thanks Albert. It was time for a change.

Nick Norelli said...

"However we view the tree, it still follows that those who are broken off cannot share in God's covenant, and are excluded from the salvation that is in Christ.

I am sure we are both in agreement on that."


Indeed we are. Our disagreement (if there even is genuinely one)seems very minor in relation to the bigger issue.

Keep up the good work!

J.C. Thibodaux said...

Excellent post, this passage was actually one of the main candidates I considered when writing my challenge to the fifth point of Calvinism. The only reason I didn't use it was because it takes longer than the other three to establish that it is speaking of individuals and salvation (the needed context is nearly the entire chapter); but once that is done, it is among the most compelling of evidences of the possibility of a believer falling away.