God's Faithfulness in Times of Decline (Romans 10:16-11:6)
Sermon for April 5, 2020
You are welcome to join our Sharing & Prayer Time!
11:30-12:30pm on Sunday
Please click this link https://zoom.us/j/870747692 to join by computer or smartphone.
Or to join by phone, dial 253-215-8782, and when prompted, enter the meeting ID – 870 747 692.
Greetings New Cut Presbyterian Church and friends,
First of all, I would like to invite you, if you are watching this video or reading the manuscript before 11:30am on April 5th to join in our sharing, fellowship, and prayer time. Information for joining is on our Facebook and website page. Also, keep an eye out for the Wednesday devotional this week. We will focus on the cross of Christ. Then on Easter, the sermon message will focus on the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Our Scripture reading for this message is Romans 10:16-11:6. In this passage, the background is that, in Paul’s day, many who had identified with the people of God had fallen away from the faith. Then Paul sets out in this passage to show that many falling away does not negate God’s faithfulness to his people. While the circumstances of the passage are not happy circumstances, it is a hopeful passage that highlights God’s faithfulness.
But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord who has believed our message? Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:
“Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”
Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First Moses says,
“I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.”
And Isaiah boldly says,
“I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”
But concerning Israel he says,
“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.”
I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah – how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.
When I was in undergraduate school and seminary, I did a lot of my homework in the same local coffee shop. Since I was frequently in this same coffee shop, I was able to figure out who the other “regulars” were. There were some retired folks who liked to frequent the shop. There were several contractors who liked the atmosphere, and probably also figured several coffee’s a day was less expensive than renting an office. I struck up friendships with some of them. One person I think of was Lloyd. Lloyd, knowing that I was a seminary student, challenged me a lot about Christianity. He wasn’t a Christian and asked questions to undo the faith. This provided opportunities for sharing the faith and we had a good conversations. One day Lloyd said, “Your job outlook isn’t good. Churches all over Pittsburgh are being turned into bars.” He was absolutely right. In fact, one of the most popular restaurants in Pittsburgh was Church Brew Works, a giant, high-ceiling cathedral, that had been converted into a bar-restaurant when the cathedral closed. The overall point that he was making was, churches are closing and being turned into bars. Christianity must not be true then. This brings us to the question of decline in the church. If there is decline in the church, does that change the truth? If there is decline in the church, does that mean that God has forgotten the church?
Certainly, decline in the church does not mean that Christianity is not true. And certainly, decline in the church does not mean that God has forgotten his people. There can be several types of decline in the church. The types of decline that Lloyd had pointed out were most immediately numerical and financial. The church had to close and lost its building. There are many types of decline that a church can experience. A church can also decline by not affirming God’s truth, not worshipping the one and only true, living God, not worshiping God rightly, not respecting God, and not obeying God. But if a church on a large scale declines in any way, it does not change the truth and it does not change God’s faithfulness to his church.
The issue that Paul is dealing with in Romans 11 is decline in the people of God. He is talking about the Israelites. But that doesn’t mean that what he is saying only applies to the Israelites. While there is in ways discontinuity between the Israelites in the Old Testament and the New Testament church, we are still talking about the same God and the people of God. The Israelites experienced decline. The church in America has experienced decline over the years. So, we can learn from what Paul says in Romans 11. When the church experiences decline, know that God has not rejected his people.
Paul opens up in Romans 11:1 with the question, “I ask then: Did God reject his people?” What brought Paul to ask this question in Romans 11:1 was the decline among God’s people. He points out this decline starting in Romans 9. The decline happened mainly by the people of God, the Old Testament Israelites, largely rejecting the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul says in Romans 9:2-3 “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race.” Paul continues addressing his desire for the Israelites to put their faith in Jesus in Romans 10. He writes in Romans 10:1, “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” He unfolds how the Israelites had rejected the gospel in Romans 10, what the gospel is, and the need to share the gospel. However, after Paul unfolds the need to share the gospel, he points out in verses 16-21 that many Israelites heard the gospel, had some understanding of the gospel, but rejected the gospel nonetheless. If there has been this massive rejection of the gospel among the people of God, this massive decline, does that mean that God has rejected his people?
Paul answers strongly in negative in verse 1, “By no means!” He then goes on to assert his own Israelite identity, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendent of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” Paul here uses himself as an example of God’s faithfulness. While many Israelites had turned away from following God by not following the promised Messiah, Paul, and many other Israelites had followed God by trusting in the Messiah, in the Christ. While there was a massive turning away from God, God still was faithful, and preserved his people for himself. A massive group turning away from God did not change who God was. It did not change God’s truth. It did not change God’s faithfulness.
Decline does not negate God’s truth and God’s faithfulness. This is so important to know, because when you see decline in the church, it can affect your faith. I’ll give some examples here. First example: the decline of spiritual leader. People can be hurt by their leaders. And what does that do with the faith that the leader taught? Jesus addresses this in Matthew 23:2-4, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
Here the spiritual leaders are hurtful towards the people. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on the people’s shoulders. And they are teachers as well. What do the people make of the teaching when it is done by hurtful teachers? They might think, “Any other teaching, please.” But what does Jesus say here. He says, “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” He says in effect, don’t neglect what is true based on their decline. If there is a decline of a spiritual leader, or if you have had a bad experience with a spiritual leader, a pastor, it does not negate the truth of God or God’s faithfulness. Hold onto that unchanged truth, and continue to trust in God because he is trustworthy.
Here is a second example of how decline does not negate God’s truth and God’s faithfulness: deconstruction stories. A deconstruction story is a story of how a person left the faith, that is, left the church. These stories are shared to convince people to leave the faith as well. Can they be persuasive? Absolutely. We all know that a personal testimony is persuasive. We happily share our testimonies of coming to Christ, often times hoping that others will be influenced. A deconstruction story is a testimony working in the other direction. Often times, these deconstruction stories are most widely shared by influential and famous people. The persuasion is along the lines of: they are influential, famous, and people listen to what they say; maybe I should too. However, the only thing a deconstruction story means is that an influential, famous person turned away from God. It doesn’t change God’s truth or God’s faithfulness. Hold onto that unchanged truth, and continue to trust in God because he is trustworthy. He is faithful to his people.
I remember one deconstruction story I heard. I was going about some kind of business, and I could be identified as probably a Christian by what I was doing. So, a person asked me if I was a Christian. I said, “yes.” Then he said that he used to be a Christian, but later became older and wiser, and now he wasn’t. That was the whole story. It wasn’t presented with personal discoveries and philosophy like deconstruction stories often times are. But it was really the basic outline of any deconstruction story: I was that, now I am this, so that wasn’t true. All this deconstruction story means is that that person changed, not that God or the truth changed.
So, when we see decline, we should care deeply as Paul did. We see his deep care expressed in his heart’s anguish expressed in Romans 9. We don’t see decline in the church and shrug our shoulders indifferently. While we don’t shrug our shoulders indifferently, we don’t let decline throw our own faith into a frenzy. We can be grieved by a deconstruction story. But we can look at passages like Romans 11, see Paul’s guidance and affirmation of God’s faithfulness, and not have our faith shaken. There is decline, but God’s faithfulness and truth stay the same.
Facing decline can shake a person up. However, there are words of encouragement in Romans 11:2-5, which says “God did not reject his people whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah – how he appealed to God against Israel: 3Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me.”? 4And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.” Here, Paul uses the example of Elijah.
Two weeks ago I preached on Elijah in 1 Kings 17-18. There was a famine because Ahab led the people to worship the false god, Baal. Ahab would not repent of this sin. The people of Israel were largely following the same sin of Baal worship. That Baal worship was the decline. Elijah the prophet confronted Ahab, and then there was a showdown between Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal. During this showdown, by divine intervention, the LORD was shown to be the one and true living God. Many hearts were turned back towards God. However, Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, after this happened, threatened Elijah’s life. So, Elijah fled and hid in Horeb. It was here that God spoke to Elijah, asking Elijah what he was doing in Horeb. Elijah said that he was zealous, but that the Israelites had rejected their relationship with God, and that he was the only one left. Elijah was at his end, on his own, no allies, not fellowship, unable to continue. But God told Elijah that there were actually 7,000 reserved in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. There was hope. Overwhelmed by the decline, Elijah didn’t see the hope, and wasn’t looking for it, but it was there.
In the account of Elijah in 1 Kings and in Romans 11, the apostacy wasn’t downplayed. There really was a massive turning away from God. And it was bad. However, Elijah’s estimation that there was absolutely no one faithful left was incorrect. There were still 7,000 people who remained faithful to the LORD and never bowed the knee to Baal. Now, when it comes to spiritual decline, decline in the church, it is bad. It’s bad any time that decline happens. But remember God’s faithfulness and truth does not go away. God always preserves for himself a remnant. Elijah thought it was over. God said otherwise. No matter what, remember that God is faithful to his people.
God does not reject his people. He is faithful to his people. Some may turn away, but that does not change God’s faithfulness. For you who have faith, their faith need not be shaken. Whoever truly believes is secure in Christ. Whoever truly believes is a part of God’s people. Thank God for his faithfulness.