Let’s return to that question of what happens when we see people fall either due to false teaching or to moral failure. I’m thinking specifically of religious leaders here. Some people have argued that because Romans 11:29 describes God’s gifts and calling as irrevocable that even when a leader falls, they can and should be restored to their role and that we cannot lose the spiritual gifts that have been given to us, therefore, our aim when someone falls should be to seek a way back so that we can continue to benefit from the gift.
To understand the point Paul is making, we need to see the verse in context. So, let’s have a look at the last bit of Romans 11.
Read Romans 11:25-36
Something partial and temporary
Israel has experienced a “partial hardening”. Partial both in that this is something temporary and that it does not apply to all of Israel, rather there have been a remnant who have not been subjected to this hard heartedness towards Jesus. Paul wants the Gentile believers who have come to faith through his ministry to be fully aware of God’s purpose in doing this. The hardening will last until the mission to the Gentiles has been filled and all those who are going to be saved from other nations have been brought in to God’s kingdom (v25). However, God’s plan remains that “all” Israel will be saved. In that salvation of all Israel and only in that salvation, God’s promise of a deliverer is fulfilled (v26). This is because the covenant agreement God had made with his people, Israel, was that their sin would be forgiven (v27).
Paul uses strong terms to describe the Jews of his day. They are enemies of the believers in Rome. Taken out of context we might perceive this as antisemitism so it is important to remember two things. First, Paul himself was a Jew, he describes his own people and also, the church in Rome will have included Jewish believers. This is a political and religious enmity not an ethnic one. Secondly, they are specifically enemies in terms of the Gospel because they are trying to prevent its proclamation through persecution. So, it is only in one specific context that the Jews were regarded as enemies by Paul. He then introduces a context in which they were not enemies. When it came to the issue of election – being chosen by God as his people, then Jews were part of that one people of God, chosen through and in their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (v28).
We then have a statement which is often misunderstood, again because of a failure to consider context. Paul says that God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable. Some have used this to suggest that church leaders, even should they morally fail can be restored to office. They’ve also suggested that because of this verse, we should assume that someone who has a gift of preaching, prophecy, healing whatever will always have that gift no matter what they do. However, that is, as with misrepresentation of verse 28 to rip the statement from its context. At this point, Paul isn’t talking about individual spiritual gifts or about calling to ministry. His point is that God made covenant promises, he called a people to himself, he gave them all of the privileges of his covenant and he was not in the business of going back on his word. We can trust God to keep his promise and that has implications for Israel (v29).
Paul keeps putting what is happening with Israel back into the context of his bigger, long-term plan. Just as Gentiles moved from being disobedient and under judgement to receiving mercy by Israel’s disobedience, so, Israel although disobedient will receive mercy. God’s purpose is that all will receive mercy. This fits with the theme throughout Romans that God’s purpose is to show grace so that no-one can boast about their relationship to him on the basis of their own self-worth (v30-32).
The intended affect
This amazing truth prompts Paul to exclaim in praise. There are three things that he declares. First, he gets us to see the depth of God’s wisdom and knowledge compared to the shallowness of our understanding. God is so great and amazing that we can never claim to fully comprehend and know him (v33-34). Secondly, he describes the infinite nature of God’s resources. God is not someone who needs or can be paid back. This again emphasises grace, our righteousness is a gift not a wage or a loan (v35). Finally, these first two great truths are wrapped up in the truth that everything is both from him, he is the creator and source of all goodness and to him or for him. Everything that exists and everything that happens is for his glory (v36).
It’s important to get a full sense here of the intended affect of God’s actions. What purpose is he working todays. It is helpful to remember at this point the old puritan statement from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The purpose of God’s actions described through Romans 9-11 in terms of his dealings with Israel are to draw us to that place of praise, of enjoying God, of trusting him, of knowing his love and being drawn towards greater love for him.
This means two things. First, that when Paul talks about our inability to know and comprehend God, the tone is not of the kind that suggests a capricious or arbitrary nature to God. It’s not a “mind your own business” kind of thing. That would draw entirely the opposite response to what is intended. Rather, it is to give us a sense of how God is greater and more wonderful and more merciful than we can ever imagine.
Secondly, the aim is not to encourage a kind of philosophical debate about free-will or sovereignty. I frequently come back to the point that predestination and election are pastoral doctrines not philosophical ones. The aim is to encourage a greater trust in God and awareness of his love.
Thirdly, as we have seen before, our reaction to other people’s stories should not be to make judgements about them. Rather, we should see a little more of God’s great love and mercy as well as his sovereign rule.
Paul’s focus in these chapters has been on Israel, her calling as God’s people and that the gifts of the covenant were irrevocable, not to be withdrawn. Paul insists that God has not and will break his promises.
We should not misuse the promises God has made by applying them to situations they were not intended for. There’s no guarantee that a pastor who falls into sin will be restored to the pastorate, indeed I believe that certain patterns of sin such as financial impropriety or adultery do exclude people from return to pastoral ministry. This is different to the possibility to being restored in terms of relationship to Christ and to the church body.
The main thing we can learn from Romans 11, indeed from the whole ch9-11 section in Romans is that we can trust God to be faithful to his covenant promises. God has not abandoned plan A for plan B but rather has been consistently working towards his first plan of bringing together a people from all nations to love him and honour his name. Knowing that God is faithful to his covenant then is a warning. We should take heed of our own situation and make sure that we are walking faithfully before him. It is also a great encouragement. He will fulfil his great purpose and he will complete the work he has begun in our lives too.
 See Isaiah 59:20-21 and 27:9.