Booted from God’s Family?

On random occasions, when my two and a half year old son – whom my wife and I adopted last year – acts out in his little not-so-cute depravity, I stoop down beside him, grab him by the arm, stare into his eyes, and utter these words: “If you don’t cut it out then I am going to give you back!” He cackles so I seize his other arm and scream. “That does it! You are no longer my son. I take back my name. I take back my gifts. You are unadopted.” At this point, he finally breaks, his bottom lip quivering, his young eyes brimming with tears. As I escort him out the front doors of my house, I glare at him before uttering one final declaration: “I adopted you out of love, when you didn’t deserve it…but you forfeited your sonship when you tossed that bowl of ravioli!” The door slams and he is now cut off from our family and my fatherly graces.

Now obviously, neither I nor any loving father would do this to his children. Sadly, however, a plethora of Christians today believe (or at least function as if) this is the modus operandi of God our Father. “Screw up and you’re out!” we think we hear Him utter. A handful of passages in Scripture seem, at first glance, to substantiate this declaration; but it is a complete misnomer that misinterprets these various passages, misunderstands the nature of grace, and misrepresents the steadfast, eternal affection of our Divine Father.

One of those such difficult to understand passages surfaced this past Sunday at B28. This fall we have been entrenched in the difficult Romans 9 – 11 portion of the Bible. We have labored through the doctrine of unconditional election, the gift of saving faith, the responsibility of humanity, and how Hebrew believers from both the Old and New Covenant and Gentile believers are united into one body in Christ Jesus. This final reality was illustrated by Paul through an olive tree in Romans 11. For a more detailed explanation of that illustration you can check out the sermon online, but in the midst of his writing Paul makes clear that Gentiles who have trusted in Christ are now part of the universal body of believers (represented in the Olive Tree). He then makes this somewhat bewildering statement in verse 22:

“Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”

As I mentioned above, at first glance this passage is a head scratcher. Is Paul inferring that Gentile believers are actually united to Christ by faith and then cast away by “not continuing in that faith?”  The answer is a resounding no.

One of the most basic rules of Biblical hermeneutics is that we as Christians must unpack the difficult passages of Scripture in light of the easily understood portions of Word. While all of the book of Romans is weighty and complex, chapter 8 unquestionably speaks in far more clarity than does chapter 11. In “the Great 8” Paul heralds this manifesto of mercy:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He has already declared in 8:1 that there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. In fact, as you continue reading chapter 11 you see Paul declare in verse 29 that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. In context (another important law of hermeneutics) these “gifts” and this “calling” are salvific in nature, referring to all that Paul has been discussing. Therefore, the gifts of grace and calling of the Spirit to inherit these gifts are irrevocable (which in the Greek carries the weight of “an impossible change of mind or direction”). So, if we are not condemned in Christ, cannot be separated from the covenant love of God, and the salvation we receive by grace is irreversible, what then does Romans 11:22 mean?

It is important that we never form a Biblical theology off of an analogy. Illustrations – like the Olive Tree – are helpful in explaining truth but are flawed in establishing truth. The point of this analogy is to show the commonality of grace through faith extended to Jews and Gentiles in Christ. However, Paul does warn those Gentiles in the church of Rome who are professing the faith but not continuing in it that though they may claim to be part of the true body – the cultivated Olive Tree – their unfaithfulness is a sure sign that they, like the unbelieving Israelites, are cut off from salvation and the promises of God. We would not say that the Jews who were “cut off” because of their unbelief were ever actually sons and daughters of God. Therefore, we cannot make this claim in reference to the Gentiles either. The big idea is that by faith (a faith which obviously perseveres) all true Christians are part of the body of Christ. Conversely, all those who reject Christ, failing to continue in the faith, are not part of the true Olive Tree – the body of Jesus. The warning is plain: those who do not continue loving and trusting in Christ are not His. To make this analogy say more than this, or to build out a doctrinal position from one illustrative warning, is textually unfaithful and dangerous.

If anything, this analogy reinforces the Biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. All those who are truly in Christ Jesus, part of His body (the cultivated Olive Tree or True Israel) will continue in the faith, preserved by His grace to the end, and will be eternally saved. This is what Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 when he says:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”

It is also reinforced in 1 John 2:19:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

In the Reformed tradition I cling to the Biblical truth that all true sons and daughters of God are held forever in the grip of grace, and that they will, by His grace, continue in the faith. We are not in danger of being booted from the family of faith (1 John 5:10-13; Philippians 1:6), plucked from the Father’s hand (John 10:27-29), or separated from the love of the Sovereign (Romans 8:38-39). To say otherwise is to ignore clear statements of Scripture, villainize the Fatherhood of God, and pollute the beauty of grace (Romans 11:6).

However, we must understand the warning of Paul for what it is, acknowledging that a refusal to continue in faithfulness to Christ is clear evidence that we have never experienced grace. May we, as His people, cling tightly to the Gospel pressing forward in devotion to Jesus throughout this life.

Semper Reformanda.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *