“I ask, then, has God rejected His people? Absolutely not! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew. Or don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah — how he pleads with God against Israel? Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars. I am the only one left, and they are trying to take my life! But what was God’s reply to him? I have left 7,000 men for Myself who have not bowed down to Baal. In the same way, then, there is also at the present time a remnant chosen by grace. Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Romans 11:1-6 HCSB)
We all long for acceptance. It is one of the strongest motivation factors and needs in the life of many people and all young teens. We will often do almost anything to be accepted by our peer groups. While this need might diminish with maturity, I’m not sure it ever completely goes away. In fact, I can remember the very first time I attended a meeting with other state pastors at Falls Creek. it was an annual event where pastors would gather for fellowship, training and relaxation. I was young, niaive, uncomfortable and seeking acceptance. I can remember standing in the bathroom that evening after the first session and looking in the mirror. I was not only the youngest pastor in attendance, I was also the only one with a beard and a red one, at that. I picked up my razor, looked one more time at my reflection and then began removing my beard. Why? Because I believed I would “fit in” better and not “stand out” as different from everyone else. I would look more like them and less like me. Isn’t that what “trends” and “styles” are all about? The only pressue to change came from inside me, not from them.
Why is it that we care about looking more like everyone but God? We’re concerned how others view us, how others perceive us, and whether others accept us. We are concerned that our clothing style, hair style and even our deodorant and perfume/cologne be stylish and like everyone else’s. We want to look good and even smell good in front of everyone but we tend to ignore how we look or whether we stink when it comes to God. Does God really care about how we look and how we smell? Not in a stylish sense, but He does care. He cares about our character, our holiness. Does holiness have a look or a smell? Perhaps more than we realize.
This week, we encounter another of Paul’s rhetorical questions at the very beginning of our study. “Has God rejected His people?” He anticipates this question based on what we studied last week, the Israelites turning away from God in disobedience and God revealing Himself “to those who were not asking for Me (v. 10:20).” So, has God’s mission to the Gentiles resulted in wholesale rejection of Israel? Of course not, Paul points to himself as proof that God continues to seek and draw His own people to faith in Christ alongside the Gentiles. But, therein lies the key. His rejection of Israel and acceptance of Gentile believers is due to Israel’s rejection of His Messiah and Gentile belief, acceptance and faith in Christ.
In many ways, Israel reflected the attitude of a modern Christian (or teen) in how they responded to God. Instead of trusting God’s promises and faithfully seeking to know and follow Him, they began to follow their peers and trust their words. Many of us look at the restrictive dietary laws and customs of the Jews and question God’s reasons for such things but God wanted a people who would trust Him, follow Him and “stand out” from the rest of the world as a beacon of obedience and faith. Instead they chose to “blend in” and adopt the worship practices, lifestyle choices, the actions and looks of their peer nations. They ceased looking like God’s unique people and started looking like everyone else. Well, that sounds eerily familiar…
The modern church is facing a similar struggle. We have been called to be God’s unique people. While most of us aren’t Jewish and bound to the Old Testament dietary laws and regulations, we are called to be obedient to God, to walk by faith and to look like our Lord and not our peers. Instead of “blending in” to our culture we are called to “stand out” from the world by our worship practices, lifestyle choices and how we act, react and look more like Jesus than like everyone else. We are called to be light and salt in a dark and tasteless world. But being different doesn’t mean being mean, harsh and offensive. Jesus was not rude and mean to those who were hurting, struggling and “sinners” in His culture. He loved them, called them to repentance and invited them to come “walk” with Him in their journey to faith in God. While He wasn’t harsh towards the oppressed and hurting, He was quite harsh with the religious elite who developed religious regulations and hurdles to keep the hurting and oppressed from God. We need to carefully heed that lesson. It’s not an issue of theological compromise as much as an issue of attitude adjustment. Be a light, but not a “stop light.”
He then reminds them that Elijah had felt isolated, alone and threatened in his obedience to God, “I am the only one left, and they are trying to take my life!” Elijah felt alone, but he wasn’t. God told him that He had a remnant of 7,000 men who had not “bowed down to Baal.” In the same way, God still has a remnant of Israel who are chosen by grace. That remnant existed in Paul’s day and it exists in our day. God’s promise to Israel might seem to have faded away into an unfulfilled promise, but God IS faithful and keeps His promises. A remnant still exists, and it is growing.
What I find most interesting and challenging in God’s reponse to Elijah is that He addressed Elijah’s concerns over being the only one left to serve and obey God, “I have kept 7,000 men who have not bowed down” as a believing remnant to serve me. But God’s response to Elijah’s fears about losing his life was simply a call to continued obedience. I believe Paul responds to the Roman church with the same intent. “You may feel like Elijah, all alone and a target of retribution in your obedience to faith in God through Jesus Christ but don’t run and hide like Elijah. You’re not alone, God still has a remnant chosen by grace. Don’t fear, just trust God and be faithful in your obedience to Christ. We must also let Paul’s words echo in our ears and souls as we face similar struggles. We’re not alone in our faith and obedience to God. He has faithful people who are willing to follow Him, obey Him, serve Him, and even die for Him. You’re not alone, keep walking with Him…
That brings me to the last part that I want to address this week, “Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” God doesn’t choose followers and extend grace based on human effort, religious achievement, good looks, athletic prowess, cultural influence, financial success, or political power and, in the same way, He doesn’t reject us based on our lack of these things. Pay close attention to this, Jesus chose Matthew (a despised tax collector) before He chose Nicodemus (a very knowledgable and deeply religious teacher). Why? Because it was not based on works, but was by grace. It is hard for us to abandon our personal efforts at religious acceptance and accept God’s grace.
Yeah, we are back where we started… being accepted. This time it is in relation to God and not our peers but we still face the same issues. We’ve created what we believe is acceptable, even favored, behavior in relation to God. However, our list is doomed to failure before we even get started. Why? Because God isn’t looking at our religious piety, personal achievements and cultural success as a measure of our relationship with Him. What does He seek? What does God desire in us? First, He wants us to seek truth and embrace wisdom (see Ps. 51:6). Jesus tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 HCSB https://www.bible.com/72/jhn.14.6.hcsb) So, our journey begins by seeking the TRUTH about God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ – He IS the way, truth and life.
Next, a little further along in Psalm 51 David tells us that “You do not want sacrifice, or I would give it… the sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit.. a broken and humbled heart (Ps. 51:15-15).” Instead of standing before God in the pride of our moral goodness, personal achivements and cultural successes, we must come before God broken by our sin and humbled by our failures. We are incapable of receiving God’s gift of grace as long as our pride sustains us and our sin blinds us to our need for grace.
Pauls says, grace ceases to be grace when we base our relationship with God on works. What are “works” in a Christian’s life? We try to make this complicated, but I really think it is simpler than we often make it. WORKS are any efforts on our part to earn or obtain God’s blessings or favor. Paul told us earlier in Romans, “death is what you earn because of your sin, but grace is the gift God gives us through Jesus Christ – eternal life. (see Rom. 6:23 – this is my paraphrase of that verse). When we try and earn God’s favor, it always ends in sin and earns us only death. When we accept the gift of God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, it brings life and peace with God, eternal life. Life as it was meant to be.
Grace is a gift. Unmerited. Not earned. Not as a result of our efforts, but as a gift of God’s love through faith in the Word of God, the Truth of God, the Son of God – Jesus. But we consistently fail to receive grace when we continually strive to earn it. Grace ceases to be grace when we strive to earn it by our own efforts. Just for a second, I want you to consider what would happen in your heart if you were given a gift that you were not expecting and could never earn on your own but you desperately needed because your very life depended on it? Would you respond by rejecting the gift? I’m sorry, I can’t accept that. I really need to do this on my own. I won’t be indebted to you. I can’t base my future on your grace and kindness, I need to do this myself. Or, would you be willing to accept and receive it, knowing you would never be able to do this on your own? Your only hope was someone else’s kindness and love and it causes a grateful heart, tears of joy, overwhelming gratitude.
That, my friends, is what happens when we clearly understand our sin and God’s grace. That’s what Paul wants the Roman church to grasp and what I want us to grasp. That is what comes through in David’s cry of repentance in Psalm 51…
“Be gracious to me, God, according to Your faithful love; according to Your abundant compassion, blot out my rebellion. Wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me. Against You — You alone — I have sinned and done this evil in Your sight. So You are right when You pass sentence; You are blameless when You judge. Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me. Surely You desire integrity in the inner self, and You teach me wisdom deep within. Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Turn Your face away from my sins and blot out all my guilt. God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not banish me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit. Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways, and sinners will return to You. Save me from the guilt of bloodshed, God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing of Your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise. You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; You are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.” (Psalms 51:1-17 HCSB)
When grace overwhelms you, true worship pours out of you. Stop trying to earn your place with God and let His grace overwhelm and flood over you. Grace ceases to be grace when you try and earn it. Grace ceases to flow when pride stands in the way. Worship, obedience and prayer flows from a heart overwhelmed by God’s grace. Do they flow from you? If not, cease striving and start trusting. Stop impressing and start loving. Stop performing and start worshiping. Stop working and start following…