As with a lot of the book of Romans, the thorny issue of election and predestination sprouts up here in Romans 11. But this time in a different way. This time, though St. Paul reminds us of Israel’s election (verse 28) and that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (verse 29), he also lays before us the terrible possibility of apostasy.
The truth is that though God is absolutely sovereign and elects His chosen people, we are to seriously consider the goodness and severity of God. On those who fall, God will show severity, without partiality. On those who continue in God’s goodness, God will show goodness, without partiality.
There is a lesson here for every one of us: a lesson of pride and a fall, and the lesson of mercy and redemption. Consider first, how Israel continued to walk in the ways of the 1st Adam, who, though he was chosen by God and planted in God’s Promised Land, was expelled from that land and cut off because he did not continue in God’s goodness. Likewise, although Israel was the heir of the promises of God, they did not continue in God’s goodness, and the nation whom God personally chose and cherished for almost 1500 years did not persevere because they did not continue in God’s goodness but chose to go their own way.
Paul warns us to be not haughty but to fear. That word “fear” is a curious one because modern Christians have attempted to tame Christ. Countless times I have heard Christians say that we are only to fear God in the sense of honoring Him or loving Him (understood primarily as an emotion). But usually when the Scriptures speak of fear, they mean fear: knee-knocking, organ-melting, brain-scrambling fear of One who is terrifyingly above us and who is a living, consuming fire.
It’s funny how we know to teach our kids that they shouldn’t touch fire and not to look at eclipses lest their precious little retinas be melted like 8mm film by a hot movie projector light bulb (I’m showing my age). And yet we teach them to think that Jesus Christ, who is much brighter than the sun, is never to be feared.
“Do not be haughty, but fear,” Paul says (verse 20).
“For our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
When Saul of Tarsus met Jesus Christ, the meek and mild hippie, He came as an intense light that knocked Saul to the ground and reduced this man-beast to a trembling, astonished, and blind mass of flesh and blood. How quickly we forget the Revelation of Jesus Christ who is a blinding light that makes St. John melt at his feet! And John was a godly man and chosen man! How much more afraid should evil-doers be?
But Hebrews 11 is also a message of redemption, for even the Gentiles, who were far away from God and salvation have seen the Great Light. And those who were not of the shoot of Jesse have been grafted in and made a part of the covenant.
But even in the midst of the joy of our salvation, our being united to Jesus Christ, we often forget Whom it is to whom we have been united. We see Christ through our theologies and our experiences, and we allow these to cloak and hide Him. And so we hear of Christians who so blot out the light of the Son that they actually believe “once saved always saved, no matter how I live.” Or we allow our myopia and astigmatism and glaucoma and lazy eyes to see a distorted, diminished, and hazy Christ. We allow our presbyopia or methopia or baptopia or episcopia to blind us, and we see Christ as a human organization.
The key to it all, to fearing the Lord and considering His severity, and fearing the Lord and considering His goodness, is found in verse 22: we must continue in His goodness. It is by the goodness of God alone that we are saved, for He is the Tree of Life, and we are the branches. It is only as we live in His life that we have life and only as we live in His Light that we see.
It is not enough to say that Jesus Christ was good for me and to me, so it doesn’t matter what I do: we must continue in that goodness that God has given us, when all we were was evil. And, yes, this means we have to do something to make our calling and election sure. God’s calling and election are sure, but He is not afraid to cut off those of His people who insist on living without continuing in His goodness.
How can we make sure that we continue in that goodness? To me, the best way to continue in God’s goodness and maintain a healthy and salvific fear of the Lord is to keep seeking the vision of God. Keep looking to the Light, and keep seeing the Christ of Revelation. Don’t allow yourselves to picture Christ as the Bearded Lady Christ of the Victorian and Edwardian age, and don’t allow yourselves to picture Christ as the gentle hippie or good buddy or cool dude of the 20th century.
Look for Him especially in His Body here on earth. Don’t look for Him up in the skies or in your imagination, for He has clothed Himself in a Body and is present with us through His Church, which He has elected. Graft yourself quickly and firmly into your local church, so that you will not only see Christ better but also more fully be grafted into His life and the means by which He feeds His people. Do not cut yourself off from that heavenly fellowship, that fellowship of Jesus Christ which is your local church. Serve and be served, love and be loved in your local church: that is the safest way I know to both see Jesus Christ and to continue in His goodness, which, in turn, is the safest way to avoid the severity of God and receive instead His goodness.
Resolution and Point for Meditation: I resolve to spend some time today considering both the severity and the goodness of God. Consider what you know of God’s severity in His judgment, both in the Bible and at the end of time. Consider what you know of God’s goodness, in the Bible and church history, in your life, and for all eternity.
After meditating on these for a while, allow the Lord to direct you into what action He would have you take as a result of having seen His severity and goodness.
Prayer: THE UNIVERSAL PRAYER (attributed to Pope Clement XI)
Lord, I believe in you: increase my faith.
I trust in you: strengthen my trust.
I love you: let me love you more and more.
I am sorry for my sins: deepen my sorrow.
I worship you as my first beginning,
I long for you as my last end,
I praise you as my constant helper,
And call on you as my loving protector.
Guide me by your wisdom,
Correct me with your justice,
Comfort me with your mercy,
Protect me with your power.
I offer you, Lord, my thoughts: to be fixed on you;
My words: to have you for their theme;
My actions: to reflect my love for you;
My sufferings: to be endured for your greater glory.
I want to do what you ask of me:
In the way you ask,
For as long as you ask,
Because you ask it.
Lord, enlighten my understanding,
Strengthen my will,
Purify my heart,
and make me holy.
Help me to repent of my past sins
And to resist temptation in the future.
Help me to rise above my human weaknesses
And to grow stronger as a Christian.
Let me love you, my Lord and my God,
And see myself as I really am:
A pilgrim in this world,
A Christian called to respect and love
All whose lives I touch,
Those under my authority,
My friends and my enemies.
Help me to conquer anger with gentleness,
Greed by generosity,
Apathy by fervor.
Help me to forget myself
And reach out toward others.
Make me prudent in planning,
Courageous in taking risks.
Make me patient in suffering, unassuming in prosperity.
Keep me, Lord, attentive at prayer,
Temperate in food and drink,
Diligent in my work,
Firm in my good intentions.
Let my conscience be clear,
My conduct without fault,
My speech blameless,
My life well-ordered.
Put me on guard against my human weaknesses.
Let me cherish your love for me,
Keep your law,
And come at last to your salvation.
Teach me to realize that this world is passing,
That my true future is the happiness of heaven,
That life on earth is short,
And the life to come eternal.
Help me to prepare for death
With a proper fear of judgment,
But a greater trust in your goodness.
Lead me safely through death
To the endless joy of heaven.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
© 2014 Fr. Charles Erlandson