No Place for Pride

Romans 11:17-24

July 2, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

Tell them, Pastor Ray, tell them that nothing matters except Christ. The young people need to know this before it’s too late.” So said my friend Jim Johnsen on my visit with him in the hospital shortly before he died.

“Nothing matters except Christ.” We all know it’s true. Why does it take sickness or tragedy for us to believe it? We spend our days and weeks and years chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When we finally reach it, we find the pot is empty because someone stole the gold before we got there.

“Nothing matters except Christ.” It takes a lifetime for most of us to learn that lesson. We learn it, then we forget it, only to relearn it, and forget it again. Most of us are still in the learning process. In one of her books Elizabeth Eliot remarked that growth in the Christian life is the process of destroying our idols one by one. That’s painful because we look to our idols to give us meaning and significance. We hate the idea of giving them up because we fear we’d be nothing without them.

But God says they must go. Listen to the word of the Lord from Isaiah 42:8, ‘‘I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.” When Aaron allowed the people to make a golden calf, Moses ordered that the calf be melted down, and the residue mixed with water, which he made the people of Israel drink (Exodus 32:19-20). Talk about your mixed drinks! The Bible says that God’s anger burned against the Israelites because of their idolatry. It is a divine object lesson teaching us that God will not share his glory with anyone or anything.

Thousands of years have passed, and we still need that same warning today. Romans 11:17-24 brings us face to face with that truth by means of the story of the olive tree. Before we jump into the text, remember that Paul is dealing with the vexing question of Jewish unbelief, an issue that may seem remote to most of us, yet if we inquire a bit deeper, we find that this question leads to some very profound truth regarding our own sinful pride. So far in Romans 11 Paul has argued that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was not total (vv. 1-10). He now develops the thought that Israel’s rejection is not final (vv. 11-32). He sees a time when God will pour out his Spirit upon the Jewish people at the end of this age and multitudes of Jews will come to Christ (vv. 25-26). But that is still future to us. It would be easy for Gentiles to think, “The Jews were in, and now they’re out, and now we’re in.” That sort of thinking soon leads to prejudice and anti-Semitism. And at a deeper level, it causes us to think that because we know the Lord, we’re somehow better than other people. Against such foolish thinking, Paul offers three serious warnings.

Warning #1: Don’t Boast.

That’s the message of verses 17-18. “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.”

An explanation of the symbolism will help us understand what Paul is saying.

The root =The covenant promises made to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3).

The tree = The true believers in every age who embrace those covenant promises.

The nourishing sap = The blessing of salvation from the Lord.

The cultivated, broken branches = Unbelieving Israel.

The wild (uncultivated) branches = Believing Gentiles.

Grafted in = Salvation now extended to the Gentiles.

Perhaps a modern illustration will help us. Imagine a group of men working in a factory. For years they have been complaining that the management doesn’t appreciate them, they are underpaid and overworked, that the boss could never find anyone to replace them. They complained and griped and bellyached until the boss says, “I’m going to give you everything you asked for and ten times besides. I will bless you beyond your wildest dreams.” But the workers by then were so given over to bitterness and so hardened in their anger, they didn’t believe the boss so they said, “We’ll show you, buddy. You can’t treat us that way.” So they walk out on a contract that is better than anything they ever had. That illustration seems absurd because who would walk out on a deal that’s better than anything they have ever had? But that’s precisely what the Jews did when they walked away from Jesus. They said, “No deal,” to heaven’s ultimate offer. What does the owner do, after his original workers have turned down this fabulous offer? He says, “I’ve got to keep my business going.” So he starts hiring some replacement workers. He brings the replacement workers in, they start doing the work, and the factory stays in business while the guys who turned down the incredible contract are on strike.

We are the replacement workers. The Gentiles got in on the deal because the Jews rejected it in the first place. We were out of work, out of luck, and heading for disaster until the Lord opened the door and said, “Come on in.” Don’t get cocky. We’re in because the Jews are out–temporarily. But that doesn’t mean they are going to be out forever. For one thing, many Jews have come to Christ in this present age, and as we hurtle headlong toward the last days, that tickle is becoming a stream that will one day become a river that will eventually be a massive flood of Jewish people coming to Christ for salvation. That’s the whole point of Romans 11. God says, “If my chosen people want back in, I can bring them back in at any time.” The offer is still on the table. Just because they walked out on the deal 2000 years ago doesn’t mean that God has written them off forever. God still offers the gospel to the Jewish people. They can accept it any time they like. Where does that leave us Gentiles? First, it ought to make us profoundly grateful that God found a way to bring us in. Second, we ought to marvel at the wisdom of God’s plan, that he can use the unbelief of the Jews to open the door to the rest of the world. Third, and this is Paul’s major point, Don’t get the big head. Don’t think that because you’re in and the Jews are out, therefore you’re somebody special. The end of this passage reminds us of the kindness and severity of God. Don’t take God for granted, don’t boast, don’t be arrogant. God says he can take that natural branch (the Jews) and put it back on and break you off. You’re nothing but a wild olive branch anyway, you don’t really belong here. The only difference is that you have believed and the Jews haven’t. If they will believe, they can be grafted back in.

This is some heavy theology that I have laid on you. You can think on it for a while. We were not originally invited, but because some people did not come, the table is opened for us. It’s like going to a five-star restaurant without a reservation only to discover that someone who made a reservation didn’t show up. We get the table that was meant for someone else. Paul’s point is, don’t boast about how lucky you are and don’t think you deserved your seat at God’s table. Be grateful and enjoy the feast, but don’t look down your nose at those who aren’t there.

Warning #2: Don’t Be Proud.

“You will say then, ’Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid for if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either” (vv. 19-21).

This is one of the most serious warnings in the New Testament. When James Montgomery Boice preached on this passage (Romans, III, pp. 1351-1358), he devoted a whole section of his sermon to what he called the “fall of national churches.” He mentions a number of examples of churches that once knew God’s blessings that later fell into lethargy, indifference, and in some cases, they completely disappeared. We can think of the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3. This was the scene of Paul’s extensive missionary labors. This was where the church first expanded outside of Judea and Galilee. By the end of the first century, there were thriving churches all over Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). If you read Revelation 2-3, you can see that amidst the vitality, there were already signs of serious problems–moral compromise, doctrinal laxness, spiritual indifference, zeal without love. Jesus warned the churches that he would come and “remove the candlestick” (a sign of his presence and blessing) if they did not repent. Boice points out that many of the early church fathers came out of Asia Minor, including Basil of Caesaria, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. But over time the church completely lost its vision, its passion, and its purity. First it declined, then it disappeared. Every single one of those seven churches of Revelation ceased to exist. Once the Muslims conquered Turkey, Christianity virtually disappeared. Today the land where Paul did so much of his ministry remains a vast mission field.

Along the same lines we can think of the church in North Africa that produced Origen, Augustine and Tertullian, some of the greatest thinkers in the early church. But it too lost its vitality and was eventually overtaken by Islam. Today North Africa remains solidly in the Islamic fold. From being a birthplace of great theologians, North Africa has become one of the hardest areas for Christian witness.

Dr. Boice then speaks of the church in Italy, which thrived despite decades of persecution by the Roman Empire. Eventually under Constantine, Christianity became accepted, the Holy Roman Empire was born, and the church, no longer persecuted, became protected and favored. But as is often the case, once the persecution ended, so did the spiritual vitality of the Christian witness, culminating centuries later in the corruption of many church leaders who sold salvation through the system of indulgences, which provoked Martin Luther to post his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, sparking the Protestant Reformation. It would be easy to take a swipe at the Catholic Church, but that’s beside the point. History is what it is, and the problem rests not in the Catholic Church but inside every human heart, where we fight the battle against pride and arrogance, and most of the time we lose because fallen human nature rears its ugly head and whispers to us, “You deserve this. You’re better than the rest. You’ve earned it.” That seductive whisper comes with the hiss of hell.

Then there are the great Reformation churches of Europe that sprang up—state churches, usually, in places like Sweden, Denmark, England and Norway. But those state churches are largely dead and mostly empty. They have a form of religion but deny the true power of God in the gospel. They too became complacent, indifferent, fat, bloated, unconcerned, uncaring, visionless, prideful, judgmental, and ultimately irrelevant, which is why fewer than 4 percent of Europeans attend church today. Do you like those huge churches in Europe? They’re beautiful, aren’t they? Go visit them. You’ll enjoy the architecture. But don’t plan on hearing a gospel message in most of them. That ended generations ago. They are mostly museums to the creative genius of those who built them. You could put up this sign in front of most of them: “A great church once worshiped here.” Europe and Great Britain, which gave birth to the evangelical movement, have become part of the mission field.

Our Mother Jesus

But what about the churches in America? One wonders if things are any better. It’s quite true that among all the nations of the West, America has the highest rate of church attendance. And it’s true that we still have the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s further true that many conservative, evangelical churches are thriving, including many newer churches with innovative worship styles. But the influence of Christianity in our culture is unquestionably on the decline as public symbols of our faith are being removed one by one. Many of the mainline churches are in serious trouble because they have followed the line of least resistance in terms of doctrine and morality. One has only to think of the ongoing debate over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church, which just elected Katharine Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop. In a sermon at the recent General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, she referred to “Mother Jesus,” thus effectively transgendering the Son of God. R. Andrew Newman (Our Mother Jesus) tells how it happened:

At the convention’s closing Eucharist, the new presiding bishop preached, “Colossians calls Jesus the firstborn of all creation, the firstborn from the dead. That sweaty, bloody, tear-stained labor of the cross bears new life. Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation – and you and I are His children.”

Our mother Jesus?

Bishop Schori felt no need to cloak her language so as not to scandalize the average Episcopalian. Tossing aside the New Testament, she transgendered the Lord without a qualm in the world — and for all the world to hear.

In an interview with CNN, when Schori was asked if it is a sin to be homosexual, she replied,

I don’t believe so. I believe that God creates us with different gifts. Each one of us comes into this world with a different collection of things that challenge us and things that give us joy and allow us to bless the world around us. Some people come into this world with affections ordered toward other people of the same gender and some people come into this world with affections directed at people of the other gender.”

Cal Thomas addresses the matter this way (Church Lite):

Maybe the question for Bishop Schori and her fellow heretics should be: if homosexual practice is not sin, what is? And how do we know? Or is it a matter of “thus saith the opinion polls” and lobbying groups, rather than “thus saith the Lord”? With the bishop’s “doctrine” of inclusion, why exclude anyone? How about applying the religious equivalent of “open borders” and let everyone into the church, including unrepentant prostitutes, murderers, liars, thieves and atheists. If the Episcopal Church denies what is clearly taught in scripture about important matters like sexual behavior, why expect its leaders to have any convictions about anything, including directions to Heaven? How can anyone be sure, if the guidebook is so full of errors?

His conclusion is short and to the point:

Conservative Episcopalians are too few in number to stop the theological drift. If they intend to preserve their congregations without further theological seepage, they should “come out from among them and be separate.”

The Presbyterians have the same problem, plus now we are being told that the Holy Trinity is sexist because of the masculine terms Father and Son. My brother Andy sent me an editorial cartoon by Doug Marlette that shows four contestants playing a game called “Name That Trinity” under a banner reading, “Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly.” The first person says, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” the second says, “Mother, Child and Womb,” the third says, “Rock, Redeemer, Friend,” and the fourth says, “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” The caption reads, “Bad news. We just got word the Episcopalians are praying for us!” But why should any of this surprise us? Once you leave the solid rock of biblical authority, you step into the quicksand of shifting public opinion where anything goes and no one can tell you that you are wrong. The doctrinal defection runs deep, and across the country true believers inside those denominations have tough choices to make. It’s going to come down to property–who owns it, who gets to keep it. At this late stage, no one’s mind is going to change. The liberals won’t change, the conservatives can’t, and there is no middle ground.

What about the evangelical churches of America? While some are flourishing, many languish in a state of spiritual torpor, self-satisfaction and unconcern. In many churches tradition long ago replaced the fresh wind of the Spirit. We are divided racially, economically, doctrinally, denominationally and spiritually. From my travels around the country in recent months, I conclude that the church in America is very much a mixed bag, with some signs of vitality and signs of deep trouble existing side by side. Two weeks ago I received a phone call from a pastor who leads a large congregation. After years of blessing and growth, controversy has erupted that threatens to undo his ministry and force him out of the church. The ugliness became so pronounced that a veteran leader remarked that he had never seen anything so ugly in fifty years of ministry, proving the axiom that there is no fight like a church fight. Unfortunately I hear stories like this on a regular basis. Today expectations are higher than ever and patience seems lower than ever. We would do well to heed the words of Galatians 5:15, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” We’re not as well off as we think we are.

Finally, we must not miss the individual implication of this passage. It is all too easy to read this brief survey, especially if we attend a church that we think is thriving, and say, “Thank God, we are not like that.” The ultimate implication comes down to you and to me. The Jews were set aside because of unbelief, and this unbelief came in spite of all the advantages Paul mentions in Romans 9:4-5.

They had Abraham.

They had Moses.

They had David.

They had the prophets.

They had the covenants.

They had the Torah.

They had the Messiah himself.

And still they would not believe. Look what Paul says in verse 21. “You stand by faith.” He means more by this that simply believing the right things. Standing by faith means that you have received God’s mercy, confessed your sin, and you have run to the cross for forgiveness. But even that is not the end of it. To stand by faith means that you live each day by faith, trusting in God’s mercy to you in Jesus Christ, knowing that you have no other hope. Last week I preached at the MEF Conference in Colorado Springs. At the end of one of my messages, I remarked that Lewis Sperry Chafer defined faith as trusting in Christ so much that if he can’t take me to heaven, I’m not going there. Afterwards Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, who was also speaking at the conference, told me that Chafer had said it in a more shocking way. He said that when he dies, if God asks him, “Why should I let you into heaven?” he will reply, “I am trusting in Jesus Christ and him alone for my salvation.” At that point if God says, “That’s not enough,” Chafer said, “I will simply walk away and burn in hell forever.” He was right to say that. If faith in Christ is not enough to get me into heaven, then I too will go to hell because I have no Plan B. Jesus is my only hope. I am living and dying by faith in him.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand.

All other ground is sinking sand,

All other ground is sinking sand.

Can you say that? When you stand at the gate of heaven and God says, “Why should I let you in?” what answer will give?

“I was a member of Wesley Methodist Church.” Not good enough.

“I was an elder at Wayside Chapel.” You’ll be in big trouble.

“My father built our church.” That’s good, but it’s not the right answer.

“I lived a good life.” We’re happy for you, but you weren’t good enough.

“I gave to feed the orphans in Namibia.” That’s truly wonderful, but that won’t open the doors of heaven.

“I was baptized by Father O’Reilly.” I’m sure he was a good man, but that’s not enough.

“I read the Purpose-Driven Life five times.” That’s a good book, but it won’t get you to heaven.”

“I read Pastor Ray’s sermon every week.” Not even close.

If you want to go to heaven, you must trust in Jesus Christ and him alone. You must go “all in” on the Son of God who loved you and died for you. You must believe in him so much that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there.

We are saved by grace, we stand by faith, and we depend completely on the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Don’t be proud or cocky or arrogant. If you make it to heaven, it will only because of God’s kindness toward you. And between now and then, stand by faith. Live by faith. Walk by faith. Run to the cross every day. Lay hold of Christ and never let go.

Warning #3: Don’t Take Your Blessings for Granted.

“Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!” (vv. 22-24)

If God removed the Jews for unbelief and replaced them with the Gentiles, he can graft the Jews back into the tree of his blessing if they do not continue in unbelief.

All of this is perfectly consistent with God’s nature.

Behold his severity toward the Jews for unbelief. They were removed from the tree 2000 years ago.

Behold his goodness toward the Gentiles in allowing us to be part of the tree of his blessing.

God still loves his people Israel. They are still his chosen people. The day is coming when they are coming back in. What we are going to find out is that in the meantime, God has been building a bigger table. There are going to be plenty of seats around God’s table, more seats than we think anybody could ever feed. Anyone who wants to come in is going to have a seat at the table in the end. Between now and then don’t be proud, don’t be arrogant, and don’t boast. There is no place for pride in the Christian life. There is no place for arrogance. There is no place for boasting.

Boast in the Lord

I conclude with the words of Jeremiah 9:23-24.

Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me.

The reason God does what he does is to demonstrate that he alone is the source of our salvation. It’s not your wisdom or your intellect or your memorized Bible verses that brought you to Jesus. And you are not a Christian because you are a good person or a church member or because your father was a preacher and your mother was a Sunday School teacher. Salvation is of the Lord. God wants us to know that he is the reason we came to Christ. And in Christ we find wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption. If we believe this, then our boast will be in the Lord alone. When it comes to salvation, we contribute nothing but the sin that makes it necessary to be saved. God does the rest. God chooses whom he pleases, and he does so by choosing those whom the world overlooks.

If we believe what this passage teaches, it will change the way we look at ourselves, and it will change the way we talk about ourselves. Some of us talk so much about ourselves that we hardly talk about the Lord at all. Our real problem is the vast difference between our view and God’s view.

We look at the outward; God looks at the inward.

We value popularity; God values character.

We look at intelligence; God looks at the heart.

We honor those with money; God honors those with integrity.

We talk about what we own; God talks about what we give away.

We boast about those we know; God notices those we serve.

We list our accomplishments; God looks for a contrite heart.

We value education; God values wisdom.

We love size; God notices quality.

We live for fame; God searches for humility.

Our view is shallow; God’s view is deep.

Our view is temporary; God’s view is eternal.

When we look closely at the truth, we discover that God destroys human pride two ways:

1) By sending a Savior to die on a hated Roman cross,

2) By choosing the “wild branches” (the Gentiles) to be part of his family.

We wouldn’t have done it this way, but that brings us back to the fundamental point that God is different. He doesn’t play by our rules. By arranging things this way, God destroys human pride and glorifies his Son at the same time.

Boast in the Lord. Make much of him. Praise his name.

We were made to boast in the Lord.

We were created to magnify his name.

We were born to honor him.

From the same God comes forth both judgment and mercy. When you take your blessings for granted, you run the risk that God will take them away from you and give them to somebody that will appreciate them. How many of us have gone through this week complaining when we should have been praising, griping when we should have been on our knees thanking God every day for his abundant blessings to us?

My friend Jim Johnsen was right. “Nothing matters except Christ.” How sad that it takes most of us a lifetime to learn that truth. Human wisdom says, “I did it all myself.” God’s wisdom says, “Without the Lord I am nothing and I have nothing.” Here’s a very simple application. Boast about Jesus this week. Talk about him. Share with someone else what Jesus Christ has done for you. It will do your soul good, and it may lead someone else to eternal life. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?