By Grace, Not Works

If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

- Romans 11:6

Do you want proof that God has not abandoned ethnic Israel even though the majority of Jews have rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ? Look to Paul the Apostle and the remnant of ethnic Jews who believe in the Savior. That is Paul’s argument in Romans 11:1-5, as he stresses that ethnic Israelites still have a place in the kingdom and have not been cast aside as we might find taught in a so-called replacement theology that says the church replaces Israel. As we will see, the church does not replace Israel; rather, it is the fulfillment of Israel. In fact, under the new covenant, Israel is enlarged to include both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles united by faith in Christ (vv. 17-24).

The continuing existence of a remnant of ethnic Jews who believe in Jesus as the Messiah is possible only because of divine grace (v. 5), and grace is a theme that pervades Paul’s discussion of the salvation of Israel in Romans 9-11 and, indeed, the entire book of Romans. Lest any of us forget what grace means, the Apostle reminds us in today’s passage that grace is antithetical to works. Ethnic Israel’s remnant was not chosen because of the good that it does or even because the Lord knew which ethnic Jews would believe in Jesus. Instead, the existence of this remnant is God’s free choice, based on nothing but His good pleasure, just as He chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau (9:6-13).

Following Paul’s example and teaching, we must be clear that salvation is by grace alone and that works are merely the fruit of what God does in us and not the means for meriting eternal life. Grace and works cannot mix in any way when we consider the grounds of our justification before the Lord. Once that happens, John Calvin notes in his commentary on today’s passage, salvation becomes a reward that our Creator is obligated to give us and not a gift that is wholly unmerited by us. In keeping with the rest of Romans, the term “works” in Romans 11:6 may have special reference to the works of the Jewish law; however, Paul ultimately sees works as human doing, so even good works that are not specifically Jewish are included (see also Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-7). Our efforts do not become an acceptable basis for justification if they are done apart from the Mosaic law or if God gives us the power to do them. Grace-enabled works that some theological traditions talk about are just as antithetical to salvation by grace alone as non-grace-enabled works. Once we believe our effort explains our election or final salvation, we have missed divine grace.

Coram Deo

Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans: “These two concepts—grace and works—are mutually exclusive… . It is one or the other, grace or works.” A day does not go by in which we are not tempted to make our effort at least a small part of the reason why the Lord accepts us. That is why we must keep coming back to the Bible’s teaching on grace. If we waver on this and admit our works in any sense, we have compromised the gospel and have no assurance of salvation.

Passages for Further Study

Ephesians 3:1-13
1 Peter 1:10-12

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