Romans 11:2-4: Learning with Elijah


  • Elijah’s context
  • Elijah’s contest
  • Elijah’s complaint


Believing that the grace of God abounds to the chief of sinners is a view we all hold in theory but soon lose hold of when it is tested. Technically we can all confess that God is a God of grace and that there is no sin bigger than the effectiveness of Christ’s atoning death. However, how many times have we thought to ourselves, ‘I have done it this time, God won’t take me back.’ I wanted to show you how bad you are at believing God’s grace for yourselves as a starting point, because as we move out from ourselves to others we are even worse. That grace which we fail to see applied to us is less consistently applied to others when they sin. Many of us are well practised at applying God’s grace to us and may be more comfortable with the fact that we are irretrievably justified in Christ, and we may have put to death the little legalist that accuses us to ourselves. But this is only the first step of putting to death our small view of the grace of God, for we also need to extend that grace to others.

You can know that your inner legalist still lives if you withdraw affection in marriage after being hurt, misunderstood, or just not put first as if you were royalty. You weigh out justice for offences instead of continuing in constant grace which is unconditional and gives when it does not receive in return. Your inner legalist still lives when at work you when you plan revenge for mistreatment by dragging your feet, doing shoddy work, or cutting off all communication. Dishing out punishments and not pursuing love is law not grace.

The symptoms of our failure to get God’s grace manifest in self-accusation; accusation of others; and also in a deep despondency in the face of the great sin around us. This is the issue that Paul is addressing in Romans 11. The Jews have sinned big, they have sinned in the biggest way in rejecting the very one sent to save them, in fact they killed the one who came to rule them. The Gentile church in Rome is struggling to see how they cannot be totally cast off because of their monumental sins. Paul has been refitting our view of God’s grace, our view has been too small and he is expanding it. He has already used the example of himself as proof that God is still gracious to the Jews and is not finished with them, now he turns to the OT to the story of Elijah to continue to teach us to keep a big view of God’s grace.

We are going to be camping out in 1 Kings 18-19 because this is the lesson that Paul tells us we need to learn. V2, ‘Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah?’ Paul is appealing to the well-known story of Elijah on Mt Carmel and the fallout from that as the lesson we need to apply to the problem of Jewish unbelief. But just before we go there, there is a technical issue in the text that I would like to deal with. A question that arises from the beginning of v2, ‘God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.’ You will well know that the doctrine of election is a controversial one. There are various views that arise to support and reject the view we hold of unconditional election. That God did not look into the future to see what choices we would make, but rather we understand that God sovereignly determined all things from the beginning apart from the foreseen acts or intents of us. One of the storm centres of the debate is the word ‘foreknow’. Arminians have traditionally taught a reactive view of God’s election where God reacts to our free choice which He knew ahead of time, ‘foreknew.’ This takes the two parts of the words in their literal sense and interprets them. We of course disagree. We do not take the word in its parts and make it mean the whole of its parts. This does not always work in language, such as in the case of the word ‘butterfly.’ Instead we have argued that given the fact that the word describes God’s actions, the normal way of reading it must be modified to agree with the bible’s teaching on God’s knowledge and eternity. We have also argued for a more Hebrew way of reading the word where the word means ‘loved beforehand’ not merely intellectually. The use of the word here in 11:2 confirms that use. It flows from verses in the OT like Amos 3:2, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.’ Here the word known cannot mean know intellectually but relationally.

However there is a problem that will occur to the discerning reader. In Rom. 8:29 the word ‘foreknow’ is used to describe God’s election unto salvation, for all whom He foreknows, He predestines, calls, justifies and will ultimately glorify. The word is used there as a link in a chain from eternity past that inevitably eventuates in salvation for the one foreknown. But in Heb. 11:2 Paul is using the word in a different way. Here Paul is using the word ‘foreknow’ to describe the whole nation of Israel who are made up of the elect and non-elect. On the basis of this difference some have started with 11:2 and read back its corporate use into 8:29 and sought to deny the Calvinistic view of election. But this is to read the text backwards. You see Paul has already given us a framework that allows us to use words in a double way. For example in Rom. 9:6 he uses the word Israel in two ways so that we can speak of the Israel within Israel. We need to speak in the same way of God’s elect within the elect (11:28), in other words, those who are elected to salvation in the nation that was elected as God’s OT people from among the nations. And we must speak of the foreknown among the foreknown; that is those who are eternally known and loved for salvation among those who have been known from amongst the nations of the world. If that was a question that arose in your mind I trust it is answered. If not come and see me afterwards for more discussion.