NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER ELEVEN (Lesson VI)
German Lutheran scholar John Bengel states that when it comes to salvation, the decree of God is absolute. In other words, nothing mankind does can infringe on the sovereignty of God’s choices. Says Bengel: Nature demands works; faith accepts grace. So in his view, in the first part of verse 6 works are excluded because nature is not being satisfied, and in the second part grace is established because the supernatural is being filled. The first states the conditions under which grace is needed, and the last part announces the conclusion of grace applied.1
John Taylor believes that in order to understand what Paul is saying here about works and grace, we must keep in mind that he was talking about the Jews’ dependence on the Law to save them. His point to them is this: Your obedience to the Law by doing good works is not part of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus the Messiah. This is only possible by God’s grace and your faith in Christ, who did the work for you, meeting in harmony. Therefore, salvation is not a privilege bestowed on those who qualify based on their own merit or self-worth. It can come only as a gift from a gracious God for reasons known only to Him.2 Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards implied that if you especially want to see some invincible proof of the doctrine of election, you’ll find it here in Romans 5:11.3
Adam Clarke follows the same line of thinking. He understands that Paul is making the point that when he speaks of the “election by grace,” he is referring to those being saved in his day as examples of those who were to be saved in the future. They are chosen by God’s grace, not on account of any worth or excellence in themselves. Only through His goodness are they chosen to have a place in His Christ’s Church and continue to be God’s people, entitled to all the privileges provided in the Last Covenant.
The election by grace simply signifies God‘s benevolent design in sending the Christian message into the world, and through it saving all those who believe in Christ Jesus, and nothing else. Thus the believers in Christ are chosen to inherit the blessings of the Gospel, while those who seek justification by the works of the Law will never qualify.4 This is another way of saying: No credit for my salvation goes to me, not even my confession and sinner’s prayer. All credit goes to God’s grace for selecting me for such an honor, so all praise and glory goes to Him.
Clarke goes on to say that it is important that we understand what election by grace really means. It is not arbitrary nor done at random, it is God’s rule for choosing any person He desired to be His child based solely on His free grace, and that includes everyone who willingly believes in His Son Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Some Jewish people did believe. Therefore, those believing Jews are a remnant according to the election of grace. They are saved in a way by which God alone will save those who believe. And if by grace – then let these same Jews remember, that their election and inclusion in the covenant of God has no connection with their old legal works.
If it turns out that they had been chosen by according to their humanitarian deeds, then grace would lose its divine nature, and cease to be what it really is – a free undeserved gift from God. Clarke concludes that we may observe farther, that since this is not the case, they, as well as the others, have been excluded by remaining in unbelief as others did. The intent of this election of grace sent individually to all Jews, notwithstanding that they were all sinners, was to provide the opportunity for them to receive it by faith. In doing so, Christ, then, would be the only reason why any of them were chosen. This is the true essence of the election of grace. It is not a case of our selecting Yahweh to be our God, but Yahweh electing us to be His children.5
Robert Haldane then gives his understanding of election by grace. As we know, the opponents of the doctrine of election maintained that people were chosen on account of their good works, some done in the past, and some to be completed in the future. But here the Apostle Paul expressly declares that it is not on account of works at all, whether past, present or future. What, then, is the source of election by grace? It is an act of grace done with love, kindness, and mercy as part of God’s selection process. It has nothing to do with good deeds of any kind, but purely at God’s favor. Grace and works are here stated as diametrically opposite and totally irreconcilable. If, however, election is somehow understood to include works, that would imply a stark contradiction. Grace would not then be grace. Here we have the guarantee of Scripture for asserting that any discrepancy reveals an untruth and that no authority is sufficient to establish two propositions which actually clash with each other.6
Albert Barnes also makes several important points here. He saw it as being similar to what happened to Elijah back in his day. God had reserved for Himself all that turned away from idolatry, so now in Paul’s day, it was by the same gracious sovereignty that God had a remnant that was saved from rejecting the Messiah, Yeshua of Nazareth. The Apostle here does not specify the number, but there can be no doubt that a multitude of Jews had become believing Christians, though compared with the multitude who rejected the Messiah, it was but a remnant. The Apostle shows that neither were all the ancient people of God cast away nor that any yet to come would He outright reject. Those who were rejected were done so because of stubbornness and unbelief. Yet still, there were some who were steadfast in their faith and thus found favor with God. That’s why the Jews in Paul’s day should not think that somehow this was a new or remarkable idea. The story of the remnant selected in Elijah’s day was recorded in their own Scriptures for their own benefit.7
Barnes concludes, that if the fact that any remnant had been reserved by grace, then it cannot be that they were chosen upon merit. That’s why Paul uses that occasion to combat the universal notion of the Jews, that they were justified by obedience to the Law. He reminds them that in the time of Elijah it was because God had reserved them; the same was the case now; therefore, their doctrine of merit could not be true.8 Again, if people are justified by their works, it could not be a matter of favor, but would be seen as a debt God owed them. If it could be that the doctrine of justification by grace could be accepted and yet the doctrine of merit allowed to be included, then it would follow that grace had undergone a change and was different from what the word properly signifies.
The idea of being saved by merit contradicts the very idea of grace. If a person owes a debt and pays it, it cannot then be said that it was canceled by favor, or by grace. The person to whom they owed the debt had a claim against them, so when they paid that debt, they were not doing the person to whom they owed the debt a favor, they were obligated to pay it.9 Why would, or how could, anyone be bold enough to think that God owed them anything? There were some among the Jews who believed that because God allowed the sin of Adam to jeopardize their place in the kingdom-to-come, God owed them some type of reparation. Also, there were those who held that if they took the time and put in the effort to abide by every law and do things according to the very letter of the Law, then certainly God should give them preferential treatment. But this must all be rejected because the doctrine of grace does not allow any thought of God owing the sinner any special favors.
H. A. Ironside makes the point that the great thing for Israel to understand is this: if they are saved at all, they are saved exactly as Gentiles were saved, and that is by grace. Grace, as we have seen, is unmerited favor. In fact, we may put it even stronger: it is favor over merit. This precludes any thought of getting what you’ve worked for. If merit of any sort is taken into consideration, then grace is weakened. If it could be that salvation can be had through works, this leaves no place whatsoever for grace because it would be overshadowed by a meritorious character built on good works and, therefore, not needed. The two principles: salvation by grace, and salvation by works, are diametrically opposed, to one another. There can be no commixture of law and grace; they are mutually incompatible principles.10
Preacher Octavius Winslow focuses on the term, “grace,” here in verse 6. He turns our attention to a similar passage which declares that the salvation of the sinner is by an act of mere GRACE. The reader must keep in mind one simple definition of grace: it means God’s unmerited favor to sinners. It leaves no room for a person with a sterling character to qualify based on their own merits. This is the glory of the Gospel: “By grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”11 “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”12 “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace.”13 “And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it is by works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”14
Winslow goes on to ask how the doctrine of grace and the free gift of atonement could be made any clearer or more conclusive than the verses just quoted? You can see the true force of the Apostle’s argument. It stands boldly upon this principle: If there be anything of merit in the individual; if the works of any sinner are the grounds; even partially, on which salvation is bestowed, then the reward, or the blessing, is not a free gift, but the discharge of a debt – a debt, let it be kept in mind, due from God to the sinner! And as a consequence of their merit, and as a result of their works, pardon and justification are then handed over to the sinner as a deserved reward. What doctrine can be more horrendous than this? what idea can be more opposed to God’s Word?
And yet the distorted doctrine that teaches us that we may present ourselves before a Holy God with some self-made fitness of our own, holding some trophy in our hand designed to merit God’s forgiveness, this is what those people are saying that preach this doctrine of salvation by good deeds. Look again at the Apostle’s argument: if there be anything of merit in the individual, if it be so much as the raising of their hand, salvation then is not of grace, the Atonement is not free; and God, we tremble while we write it – God becomes the sinner’s debtor!15
1 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 329
2 John Taylor: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 341-342
3 David S. Lovi. The Power of God: A Jonathan Edwards Commentary on the Book of Romans (p. 243)
4 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 215-216
5 Clarke: Ibid
6 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 526
7 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 See Romans 4:4-5; Galatians 5:4; Ephesians 2:8-9.
9 Barnes: ibid.
10 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Ephesians 2:8-9
12 Romans 4:4-5
13 Ibid. 10:16
14 Ibid. 11:6
15 Octavius Winslow: op. cit., The Freeness of the Atonement: The Anxious Sinner Venturing on Christ.