To Glorify God’s Incomprehensibility
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen. (11:33–36)
Paul bursts out with a marvelous doxology, in which he rejoices that God’s temporarily setting Israel aside glorifies His incomprehensibility. The full wonder of God’s gracious omnipotence is wholly beyond human understanding. It staggers even the most mature Christian mind, including the mind of the apostle himself.
Having completed his argument and affirmed God’s sovereignty, integrity, and generosity, Paul has nothing more to add but a paean of praise for the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge. Further description and explanation are completely beyond the realm of human expression and comprehension. Like a mountain climber who has reached the summit of Mt. Everest, the apostle can only stand awestruck at God’s beauty and majesty. Unable to further explain an infinite and holy God to finite and sinful men, he can only acknowledge that God’s judgments are unsearchable and His ways are unfathomable!
Unfathomable translates anexichniastos, which literally refers to footprints that are untrackable, such as those of an animal that a hunter is unable to follow. It is the exact idea expressed by the psalmist in declaring of God: “Thy way was in the sea, and Thy paths in the mighty waters, and Thy footprints may not be known” (Ps. 77:19). Only God’s own “Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).
Scripture is God’s divine revelation of Himself and of His will, and He has not given it to mock and confuse men but to enlighten them and bring them to Himself. The Lord has made certain that any person who genuinely seeks Him can know enough of His truth to be saved. Although “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14), God nevertheless gives the gracious assurance that “you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
Believers who faithfully study God’s Word can learn and have a certain understanding of His truth—all that is necessary “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness,” in order for us to “be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Our gracious God gives us more than all the truth we need to know Him, trust Him, and serve Him. But no matter how diligently we may have studied His Word, we must confess with David that “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Ps. 139:6).
As his praise ascends in this doxology, Paul presents three rhetorical questions which serve to exalt God, the answer to each of which is obvious and the same. The first two questions, quoted from the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), are: For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? (cf. Isa. 40:13). The very asking shows both questions to have but one answer: No one. Men can ponder the mind of the Lord, but only the Lord Himself can know it. Among men, “in abundance of counselors there is victory,” or safety (Prov. 11:14), but God’s only counselor is Himself.
It is not the countless unrevealed things about God of which Paul is speaking, but the depths of the things which we do know through His self-revelation. Yet even these partially knowable truths conceal elements that are far beyond our comprehension (cf. Deut. 29:29).
Paul’s third question is also taken from the Old Testament. Quoting Job, he asks, Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? (cf. Job 41:11). Because no one was before God and none can give to God what has not first been received from Him, the answer here must also be: No one. God is sovereign, self-sufficient, and free from any obligation except those He places on Himself. He owes the Jew nothing and the Gentile nothing.
We stand in awe before our gracious Lord and rejoice that from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. With the twenty-four elders, who “will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne,” we proclaim, “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (Rev. 4:10–11; cf. 1 Cor. 15:24–28).
To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
That is the inspired apostle’s culminating comment on the first eleven chapters of this magnificent epistle. After traversing all the great realities of salvation, Paul ends with an ascription of glory to his Lord. This simple doxology draws a clear line between the doctrinal section and the final five chapters on Christian duty.
A Christian World-View
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
One thing we have a lot of today is buzz words. “Buzz word” is itself a buzz word. But there are also buzz words in psychology (Freudian slip, guilt complex); politics (Reaganomics, sound bytes, a thousand points of light); education (political correctness); computer technology (input, down time); and business (bottom line, bullish or bearish, and market driven). One of my favorites is “paradigm shift.” A paradigm is a complete model or pattern, originally referring to a list of all the inflectional forms of a verb or noun, showing its complete conjugation or declension. A paradigm shift is a total reordering of how one looks at or evaluates something.
If you love someone and then for some reason cease to love that person and begin to hate him or her instead, that is a paradigm shift. If you began as a communist, as the leaders of the Eastern Bloc countries all originally did, and then become a capitalist, that is a paradigm shift of great proportions.
What is the greatest of all paradigm shifts? The greatest paradigm shift is the one that takes place when a person becomes a Christian—or at least that is when it begins to take place. In our unsaved, unregenerate state, everything revolves around ourselves. We are the measure of all things. Everything in the universe is for us and for our glory. When we become Christians, we see that the world and all that is in it is actually from God, is governed by him, and exists for his glory. It is what the last verse of Romans 11 expresses when it says of God, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
Let me do something unusual here. Let me give a second introduction to this study. It is in the form of a trivia question: What was the last song recorded by the Beatles before their breakup in the seventies? Answer: “I, Me, Mine.” That “last song” is actually the first song as well as the last song of the unregenerate heart. But—in significant and radical contrast—the song of the redeemed is Romans 11:36.
Secular Humanism Is Not New
If we think that the universe revolves around ourselves or that we are the only valid measure of all that is, we are “secular humanists.” That is a buzz word, too, of course. It is particularly popular with fundamentalists and television preachers, who speak of secular humanism as if it were the unique and particularly dangerous enemy of our time. But it is not new at all. In fact, it is the ancient, natural inclination of the unsaved mind and heart.
I have always thought that the very best statement of secular humanism is to be found in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar was king in Babylon at this time. One day, when he was walking on the roof of his royal palace he looked out over the great capital city of his empire and took unto himself all the glory for its existence. He said—this is the classic statement I referred to—“Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). Nebuchadnezzar was saying that the great city of Babylon and its empire, which he admired (and desired) more than anything else in the world, was from him (he “built” it), through him (“by my mighty power”) and for him (“for the glory of my majesty”).
God did not look at it that way, of course. So the next paragraph tells how Nebuchadnezzar was judged by God with insanity and was driven away to live with the wild animals, to look like and behave like them. He was insane for seven years, until he came to his senses both mentally and spiritually, which was God’s way of saying that secular humanism is a crazy way of looking at the world.
Anyone who thinks he or she is the center of the universe is spiritually insane. A person who thinks like this is out of his or her mind.
The Regenerate Mind
The regenerate mind is a renewed mind, as Paul is going to make clear at the beginning of the next chapter: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2a). This mind thinks differently about things. But specifically how? What form does a renewed mind take? Or, to express it differently, what is a genuinely Christian world-view?
Here is an initial statement of what is involved, made by A. W. Tozer in a chapter in The Pursuit of God called “Restoring the Creator-Creature Relation.” Tozer says,
The moment we make up our minds that we are going on with this determination to exalt God over all we step out of the world’s parade. [I think that is a great expression: “out of the world’s parade.”] We shall find ourselves out of adjustment to the ways of the world, and increasingly so as we make progress in the holy way. We shall acquire a new viewpoint; a new and different psychology will be formed within us; a new power will begin to surprise us by its upsurgings and its outgoings.
Our break with the world will be the direct outcome of our changed relation to God. For the world of fallen men does not honor God. Millions call themselves by his name, it is true, and pay some token respect to him, but a simple test will show how little he is really honored among them. Let the average man be put to the proof on the question of who is above, and his true position will be exposed. Let me be forced into making a choice between God and money, between God and men, between God and personal ambition, God and self, God and human love, and God will take second place every time. Those other things will be exalted above. However the man may protest, the proof is in the choices he makes day after day throughout life.
“Be thou exalted” is the language of victorious spiritual experience. It is the little key to unlock the door to great treasures of grace.
A Christian World-View Text
Romans 11:36 is what I call a Christian world-view text. That is, it expresses in classic language this altered understanding of who God is and who we are and what we owe to God.
It is not the only verse in Paul’s writings that is along these lines, of course. I think also of 1 Corinthians 8:6 (“Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”) or Ephesians 4:4–6 (“There is … one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”) or Colossians 1:16 (“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him”). Yet Romans 11:36 stands out from these other verses as a particularly succinct statement of the Christian outlook: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
There are two areas in which we specifically need to think through what this means.
- God and creation. We think of the creation first because of the words “all things”—“For from him and through him and to him are all things.” “All things” means “all that is,” the entire universe. Romans 11:36 teaches that everything in the universe is from God; it has come into existence and is then sustained through God’s creative power, and it is for God’s glory. John Murray unfolds the meaning of the verse like this: God “is the source of all things in that they have proceeded from him; he is the Creator. He is the agent through whom all things subsist and are directed to their proper end. And he is the last end to whose glory all things will redound.”
There was a time when God was alone. In that time before all time, when even space did not exist, God, the great “I am,” existed and was as perfect, glorious, and blessed in his eternal existence as he is now. Before there was a sun, the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—dwelt in light ineffable. Before there was an earth on which to rest it, the throne of God stood firm. If that great God, dwelling in perfect solitude, chose to create anything at all, whether the universe of which we are a part or any other possible universe, it is clear that the conception of it and plans for it must have come from him, since there was no other from whom they could have come.
But it is not only the plan that has come from God. The actualization of the plan was through him as well. That is, he is also the Creator and then the Sustainer of the universe. When God set out to create the heavens and earth, he did not call for help, since there were none to help him. He did not even make use of existing matter, for matter itself did not exist. God created everything out of nothing. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). That means creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). It is one of the most profound statements ever written, for it is based on the inescapable assumption that if anything exists, then God, the uncaused First Cause, must exist and be the Creator of it all.
For what were the heavens and earth created? That is, what was the purpose of creation? We think of the universe as being made for us. But since God is a purposeful God and planned the universe for an altogether wise and noble purpose before any of us existed, even in his own mind, it is clear that he could not have taken as his purpose a creature that did not then exist. And that means that his motive must be entirely in himself. Creation must be for his glory.
The text is right when it tells us “to him are all things.” And Albert Barnes is right in his Notes on the New Testament when he says, “The reason or end for which all things were formed … is to promote his honor and glory.… It is not to promote his happiness, for he was eternally happy; not to add anything to him, for he is infinite; but that he might act as God, and have the honor and praise that is due to God.”
This should humble us since, if we understand it, we will understand that even the ability to dispute with God or, for that matter, to deny his existence comes from him. This is a point that got through to that brilliant English professor C. S. Lewis and led in part to his conversion. Lewis wrote, “In the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found that I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.”
We could pursue this at greater length, but it should be clear from what I have said how important Romans 11:36 is, when it teaches that the entire universe is from God, through God, and to God. If you have been thinking differently and come at last to think in this biblical way, it will be a paradigm shift of huge proportions.
- God and the gospel. This is the second area in which we need to think through the meaning of Romans 11:36. Like the first, this is obvious, since it is the gospel of salvation by grace that Paul has been concerned about in this letter, and with this context we cannot miss that the way of salvation is also from God, through God, and for his glory.
It is from him, for he has planned it all. Who else could have planned it? No priest. No rabbi. No shaman. No guru. Only God could have planned a way of salvation that meets the austere requirements of his unyielding justice and yet also justifies sinners. Only God could have planned a salvation that is apart from human merit or good works—it is all of grace—and yet be able to transform those who are saved so they achieve a level of righteousness and produce good works that surpass the righteousness and good works of those who are trying to be saved by them.
Even the timing of salvation is of God. He ordained the precise moment in history when the Savior should be born in Bethlehem (Gal. 4:4). He planned the moments of his appearance to the people, his identification by John the Baptist, his years of teaching and healing, his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. And God ordained the precise time of the resurrection and of Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
The accomplishment of our salvation was through him, that is, through what Jesus Christ has done. Salvation is not achieved through anything you or I have done or can do. We can do nothing. Jesus did it all. We rightly sing:
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
Of heaven and let us in.
Moreover, that plan of salvation is to his glory. To be sure, it also achieves an eternity of blessing for those who are redeemed. We benefit greatly and will praise God forever, thanking him for what he has done for us. But if you understand what Paul has been writing about in Romans 9–11, you will know that our happiness is not God’s chief purpose in ordering the plan of salvation as he has. All you have to ask is: “Why are some chosen to be saved while others are passed over? Why are some brought to faith while others are rejected?” The answer is that salvation is for God’s glory and that God is glorified in each case. In the case of the elect, the love, mercy, and grace of God are abundantly displayed. In the case of the lost, the patience, power, and wrath of God are equally lifted up.
Give God the Glory
The final thing I want to accomplish in this study is to make Romans 11:36 very personal for you. For it is obvious that if the entire creation is “from him and through him and to him” and if the way of salvation is likewise “from him and through him and to him,” then you, as a part of that creation (especially if you are a part of that redeemed creation), are “from him and through him and to him” as well. You also exist for his glory and should give it to him.
Let me start with your natural endowments or talents. Where do they come from? That keen mind, those winsome aspects of personality, that attractive appearance and gracious disposition, that smile that you possess—they all come from God. They have been designed for you by his sovereign decree and imparted to you by his providential working. But they are for his glory, not for yours. The Corinthians were a particularly vain people, boasting of their individual superiorities to other people. Paul called them arrogant. But he asked them, “Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
You are no different. Therefore, glorify God.
Let’s move to salvation. We have seen that the plan of salvation was conceived by God, that it was accomplished through the life and death of Jesus Christ, that its ultimate goal is God’s glory. If that is so, and it is, you should abandon the arrogant assumption that getting saved was your idea or that it was accomplished by you, even in part, or that it is meant to honor you. It is not for your honor, but for God’s glory.
Do you think God saved you because of any righteousness you possess or might one day acquire by your efforts? The Bible says, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).
Do you think it was because of some little germ of faith that God was able to find in you but not in some other less deserving person? The Bible says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
Have you had any longings after God? Do you want to pray? Do you find that you want to read God’s Word and come to understand it better? Do you seek to worship God? Are you attracted to the company of other Christian people? If those things are true of you, let me ask: Where do you think those desires came from if not from God? They are not from you. You are sinful. In yourself you have no aspirations after God. Holy desires come from a holy God and are present in you through the working of his divine Spirit. They are for his glory.
Therefore, glorify God. Praise him for them.
What about temptation? We live in a world in which sin and evil bombard us and in which we are attacked even by the powers of evil themselves. What keeps you from falling? What is it that enables you to stand your ground against Satan’s forces? It is God, God alone. The Bible says, “… God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
It is God who keeps you. Therefore, glorify God.
Finally, I ask you to think about your work, particularly your work for God as a Christian. Perhaps you say, “Surely that at least belongs to me, is achieved by me, and can be for my honor.” Really? If in your unsaved state you had no righteousness of your own, understood nothing of spiritual things, and did not seek God (as Romans 3:10–11 tells us), how could you even have had a desire to work for God unless God himself put it there? Our work for God flows from our love of God. But “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). How can anything be achieved except through God? Even the ability to plan a secular project or the strength to dig a ditch comes from him, since all is from God. If that is true of even secular efforts, how much more true must it be of Christian work? Spiritual work must be accomplished through God’s Spirit. So it is not you or I who stir up a revival, build a church, or convert even a single soul. Rather, it is as we work, being led in the work by God, that God himself by the power of his Holy Spirit converts and sanctifies those whom he chooses to call to faith.
Do not take the glory of God to yourself. It is fatal to do that in any work, but especially in Christian work. Instead, glorify God.
I end with these words from Charles Spurgeon:
“To whom be glory forever.” This should be the single desire of the Christian.… He may desire to see his family well brought up, but only that “To God may be glory forever.” He may wish for prosperity in his business, but only so far as it may help him to promote this—“To whom be glory forever.” He may desire to attain more gifts and more graces, but it should only be that “To him may be glory forever.”
At my work behind the counter, or in the exchange, let me be looking out to see how I may glorify him. If I be walking in the fields, let my desire be that the trees may clap their hands in his praise.… Never be silent when there are opportunities, and you shall never be silent for want of opportunities. At night fall asleep still praising your God; as you close your eyes let your last thought be, “How sweet to rest upon the Savior’s bosom!” In afflictions praise him; out of the fires let your song go up; on the sick-bed extol him; dying, let him have your sweetest notes. Let your shouts of victory in the combat with the last great enemy be all for him; and then when you have burst the bondage of mortality, and come into the freedom of immortal spirits, then, in a nobler, sweeter song, you shall sing unto his praise. Be this, then, your constant thought—“To him be glory forever.”
What is the chief end of man? The answer comes from The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
Soli Deo Gloria
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
The title of this study is not an exact translation of the second half of Romans 11:36, but I have selected it because it is the way the Protestant Reformers expressed what this verse is about and because the words, though in Latin, are well known. Soli Deo Gloria means “To God alone be the glory.” Soli Deo—“to God alone.” Gloria—“the glory.” These words stand virtually as a motto of the Reformation.
The Reformers loved the word solus (“alone”).
They wrote about sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture alone.” Their concern in using this phrase was with authority, and what they meant to say by it was that the Bible alone is our ultimate authority—not the pope, not the church, not the traditions of the church or church councils, still less personal intimations or subjective feelings, but Scripture only. These other sources of authority are sometimes useful and may at times have a place, but Scripture is ultimate. Therefore, if any of these other authorities differ from Scripture, they are to be judged by the Bible and rejected, rather than the other way around.
The Reformers also talked about sola fide, meaning “faith alone.” At this point they were concerned with the purity of the gospel, wanting to say that the believer is justified by God through faith entirely apart from any works he or she may have done or might do. Justification by faith alone became the chief doctrine of the Reformation.
The Reformers also spoke of sola gratia, which means “grace alone.” Here they wanted to insist on the truth that sinners have no claim upon God, that God owes them nothing but punishment for their sins, and that, if he saves them in spite of their sins, which he does in the case of the elect, it is only because it pleases him to do so. They taught that salvation is by grace only.
There is a sense in which each of these phrases is contained in the great Latin motto Soli Deo Gloria. In Romans 11:36, it follows the words “for from him and through him and to him are all things,” and it is because this is so, because all things really are “from him and through him and to him,” that we say, “To God alone be the glory.” Do we think about the Scripture? If it is from God, it has come to us through God’s agency and it will endure forever to God’s glory. Justification by faith? It is from God, through God, and to God’s glory. Grace? Grace, too, has its source in God, comes to us through the work of the Son of God, and is to God’s glory.
Many Christian organizations have taken these words as their motto or even as their name. I know of at least one publishing company today that is called Soli Deo Gloria. It is also an appropriate theme with which to end these studies of the third main (and last doctrinal) section of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Indeed, what greater theme could there be? For what is true of all things—that they are “from” God, “through” God, and “to” God—is true also of glory. Glory was God’s in the beginning, is God’s now, and shall be God’s forever. So we sing in what is called the Gloria Patri.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now
and ever shall be:
World without end. Amen.
At the beginning of this series—in volume 1, chapter 2—177 studies ago, I mentioned a revival that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, under the leadership of a remarkable Scotsman named Robert Haldane (1764–1842). He was one of two brothers who were members of the Scottish aristocracy in the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. His brother, James Haldane (1768–1851), was a captain with the British East India Company. Robert was the owner of Gleneerie and other estates in Perthshire. When he was converted in the decade before 1800, Robert sold a major part of his lands and applied the proceeds to advancing the cause of Jesus Christ in Europe. James became an evangelist and later an influential pastor in Edinburgh, where he served for fifty-two years.
In the year 1815, Robert Haldane visited Geneva. One day when he was in a park reading his Bible, he got into a discussion with some young men who turned out to be theology students. They had not the faintest understanding of the gospel, so Haldane invited them to come to his rooms twice a week for Bible study. They studied Romans, and the result of those studies was the great Exposition of Romans by Haldane from which I so often quote.
All those students were converted and in time became leaders in church circles throughout Europe. One was Merle d’Aubigné, who became famous for his classic History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. We know the first part of it as The Life and Times of Martin Luther. Another of these men was Louis Gaussen, author of Theopneustia, a book on the inspiration of the Scriptures. Others were Frédéric Monod, the chief architect and founder of the Free Churches in France; Bonifas, who became an important theologian; and César Malan, another distinguished leader. These men were so influential that the work of which they became a part was known as Haldane’s Revival.
What was it that got through to these young men, lifting them out of the deadly liberalism of their day and transforming them into the powerful force they became? The answer is: the theme and wording of the very verses we have been studying, Romans 11:33–36. In other words, a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty.
We know this because of a letter from Haldane to Monsieur Cheneviere, a pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church and Professor of Divinity at the University of Geneva. Cheneviere was an Arminian, as were all the Geneva faculty, but Haldane wrote to him to explain how appreciation of the greatness of God alone produced the changes in these men. Here is his explanation:
There was nothing brought under the consideration of the students of divinity who attended me at Geneva which appeared to contribute so effectually to overthrow their false system of religion, founded on philosophy and vain deceit, as the sublime view of the majesty of God presented in the four concluding verses of this part of the epistle: Of him, and through him, and to him, are all things. Here God is described as his own last end in everything that he does.
Judging of God as such an one as themselves, they were at first startled at the idea that he must love himself supremely, infinitely more than the whole universe, and consequently must prefer his own glory to everything besides. But when they were reminded that God in reality is infinitely more amiable and more valuable than the whole creation and that consequently, if he views things as they really are, he must regard himself as infinitely worthy of being more valued and loved, they saw that this truth was incontrovertible.
Their attention was at the same time directed to numerous passages of Scripture, which assert that the manifestation of the glory of God is the great end of creation, that he has himself chiefly in view in all his works and dispensations, and that it is a purpose in which he requires that all his intelligent creatures should acquiesce, and seek and promote it as their first and paramount duty.
A testimony like that leads me to suggest that the reason we do not see great periods of revival today is that the glory of God in all things has been largely forgotten by the contemporary church. It follows that we are not likely to see revival again until the truths that exalt and glorify God in salvation are recovered. Surely we cannot expect God to move among us greatly again until we can again truthfully say, “To him [alone] be the glory forever! Amen.”
To Him Be the Glory
Romans 11:36 is the first doxology in the letter. But it is followed by another at the end, which is like it, though more complete: “To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen” (Rom. 16:27). It is significant that both doxologies speak of the glory of God, and that forever. Here are two questions to help us understand them.
- Who is to be glorified?
The answer is: the sovereign God. For the most part, we start with man and man’s needs. But Paul always started with God, and he ended with him, too. In fact, the letter to the Romans is so clearly focused on God that it can be outlined accurately in these terms. Donald Grey Barnhouse published ten volumes on Romans, and he reflected Paul’s focus in the titles for these ten volumes, all but the first of which has God in the title. Volume one was Man’s Ruin. But then came God’s Wrath, God’s Remedy, God’s River, God’s Grace, God’s Freedom, God’s Heirs, God’s Covenants, God’s Discipline, and God’s Glory. We say with Paul, “To God be the glory forever! Amen.”
- Why should God be glorified?
The answer is that “from him and through him and to him are all things,” particularly the work of salvation. Why is man saved? It is not because of anything in men and women themselves but because of God’s grace. It is because God has elected us to it. God has predestinated his elect people to salvation from before the foundation of the world. How is man saved? The answer is by the redeeming work of the Lord Jesus, the very Son of God. We could not save ourselves, but God saved us through the vicarious, atoning death of Jesus Christ. By what power are we brought to faith in Jesus? The answer is by the power of the Holy Spirit through what theologians call effectual calling. God’s call quickens us to new life. How can we become holy? Holiness is not something that originates in us, is achieved by us, or is sustained by us. It is due to God’s joining us to Jesus so that we have become different persons than we were before he did it. We have died to sin and been made alive to righteousness. Now there is no direction for us to go in the Christian life but forward. Where are we headed? Answer: to heaven, because Jesus is preparing a place in heaven for us. How can we be sure of arriving there? It is because God, who began the work of our salvation, will continue it until we do. God never begins a work that he does not eventually bring to a happy and complete conclusion.
“To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
The great Charles Hodge says of the verse we are studying;
Such is the appropriate conclusion of the doctrinal portion of this wonderful epistle, in which more fully and clearly than in any other portion of the Word of God, the plan of salvation is presented and defended. Here are the doctrines of grace, doctrines on which the pious in all ages and nations have rested their hopes of heaven, though they may have had comparatively obscure intimations of their nature. The leading principle of all is that God is the source of all good, that in fallen man there is neither merit nor ability, that salvation, consequently, is all of grace, as well satisfaction as pardon, as well election as eternal glory. For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things; to whom be glory forever. Amen.
So let us give God the glory, remembering that God himself says:
I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.
How can I let myself be defamed?
I will not yield my glory to another.
People Who Give God Glory
What of the objections? What of those who object to the many imagined bad results of such God-directed teaching? Won’t people become immoral, since salvation, by this theory, is by grace rather than by works? Won’t they lose the power of making choices and abandon all sense of responsibility before God and other people? Won’t people cease to work for worthwhile goals and quit all useful activity? Isn’t a philosophy that tries to glorify God in all things a catastrophe?
A number of years ago, Roger R. Nicole, professor of systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Divinity School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and now at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, answered such objections in a classic address for the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology (1976), basing his words on an earlier remarkable address by Emile Doumergue, a pastor who for many years was dean of an evangelical seminary in southern France. Nicole’s address was likewise titled “Soli Deo Gloria.” The quotations below are from his answers to three important questions.
- Doesn’t belief in the sovereignty of God encourage evil by setting people free from restraints? Doesn’t it make morality impossible?
“I suppose one could proceed to discuss this in a theological manner—to examine arguments, consider objections, and line up points in an orderly disposition. I would like, however, instead of going into a theological discussion, to challenge you in terms of an historical consideration. In the Reformation, there was a group of men who made precisely these assertions. Over against the prevailing current, they said that man is radically corrupt and is therefore totally unable by himself to please God. He is incapable of gathering any merits, let alone merit for others. But did these assertions damage morality? Were these people a group of scoundrels who satisfied their own sinful cravings under the pretense of giving glory to God? One does not need to be very versed in church history to know that this was not so. There were at that time thefts, murders, unjust wars. Even within the church there was a heinous and shameful trafficking of sacred positions.
“But what happened?
“These people, who believed that man is corrupt and that only God can help him, came forward like a breath of fresh air. They brought in a new recognition of the rights of God and of his claim upon the lives of men. They brought in new chastity, new honesty, new unselfishness, new humbleness, and a new concern for others. “Honest like the Huguenots,” they used to say.… Immorality was not promoted; it was checked by the recognition of the sovereignty of God.
“ ‘That is impossible,’ some say. Yet it happened.”
- Doesn’t belief in the sovereignty of God eliminate man’s sense of responsibility and destroy human freedom? Doesn’t it destroy potential?
“Again, rather than going into the arguments of the matter, let us merely examine what happened in the sixteenth century when the sovereignty of God was asserted. Did the people involved allow themselves to be robbed of all initiative? Were they reduced to slavery under the power of God? Not at all! On the contrary, they were keenly aware of their responsibility. They had the sense that for everything they were doing, saying and thinking they were accountable to God. They lived their lives in the presence of God, and in the process they were pioneers in establishing and safe-guarding precious liberties—liberty of speech, religion and expression—all of which are at the foundation of the liberties we cherish in the democratic world.
“Far from eclipsing their sense of freedom, the true proclamation of the sovereignty of God moved them toward the recognition and expression of all kinds of human freedoms which God has himself provided for those whom he has created and redeemed.
“ ‘It is impossible that this should happen,’ we are told. Perhaps! But it happened.”
- Doesn’t commitment to God’s sovereignty undercut strenuous human activity? Doesn’t it make people passive?
“We may make an appeal to history. What did these people—Calvin, Farel, Knox, Luther—what did they do? Were they people who reclined on a soft couch, saying, ‘If God is pleased to do something in Geneva, let him do it. I will not get in his way’? Or, ‘If God wants to have some theses nailed to the door of the chapel of Wittenberg Castle, let him take the hammer. I will not interfere’? You know very well that this is not so. These were not people lax in activity. They were not lazy. Calvin may be accused of many things, but one thing he has seldom been accused of is laziness. No, when the sovereignty of God is recognized, meaningfulness comes to human activity. Then, instead of seeing our efforts as the puny movements of insignificant people unable to resist the enormous momentum of a universe so much larger than ourselves, we see our activity in the perspective of a sovereign plan in which even small and insignificant details may be very important. Far from undermining activity, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God has been a strong incentive for labor, devotion, evangelism and missions.
“ ‘Impossible!’ Yet it happened.”
God’s Blessings for Our World
Nicole continues: “In the first century the world was in a frightful condition. One does not need to be a great authority on Roman history to know that. There were signs of the breakdown of the Roman Empire—rampant hedonism and a dissolution of morals. But at that point God was pleased to send into the world that great preacher of the sovereignty of God, the apostle Paul, and this introduced a brand new principle into the total structure. The preaching of Paul did not avert the collapse of the Roman Empire, but it postponed it. Moreover, it permitted the creation of a body of believers that persisted through the terrible invasions of the barbarian hordes, and even through the Dark Ages.…
“In the sixteenth century … the church had succumbed to deep corruption. It was corrupt ‘in its head and members.’ In many ways it was a cesspool of iniquity. People did not know how to remedy the situation. They tried councils, internal purges, monastic orders. None of these things seemed to work. But God again raised up to his glory men who proclaimed the truth of his sovereignty, the truth of God’s grace. In proclaiming this truth they brought a multitude of the children of God into a new sense of their dependence upon and relationship to Christ. In proclaiming this truth they benefited even the very people who opposed them in the tradition of the church. They are small, these men of the Reformation. They had little money, little power and little influence. One was a portly little monk in Germany. Another was a frail little professor in Geneva. A third was a ruddy but lowly little man in Scotland. What could they do? In themselves, nothing. But by the power of God they shook the world.
Radically corrupted, but sovereignly purified!
Radically enslaved, but sovereignly emancipated!
Radically unable, but sovereignly empowered!
“These men were the blessing of God for our world.”
“To God alone be glory!” To those who do not know God that is perhaps the most foolish of all statements. But to those who do know God, to those who are being saved, it is not only a right statement, it is a happy, wise, true, inescapable, and highly desirable confession. It is our glory to make it. “To him be the glory forever! Amen.”
36 Paul’s affirmation of the centrality of God in all of creation may relate specifically to v. 35—no one is in a position to demand anything from God, for he is …27—but probably reflects on all of vv. 33–35. The concept of God as the source (ek), sustainer (dia), and goal (eis) of all things is particularly strong among the Greek Stoic philosophers. Hellenistic Jews picked up this language and applied it to Yahweh; and it is probably, therefore, from the synagogue that Paul borrows this formula. An ancient and widespread interpretation finds a reference to the Trinity in the three prepositional phrases. But this view is now, correctly, almost universally rejected. Paul is clearly speaking of God the Father; and his purpose is to underline the uniqueness and sovereignty of God that has been the focus of these verses. What should be our response to our contemplation of God’s supremacy in all the universe? Like Paul’s, doxology.
33 O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!
34 For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?
35 or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?
36 For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen.
33–36 The theme of verses 33, 34 may be stated as the incomprehensibility of God’s counsel. The terms “unsearchable” and “past tracing out” indicate this. It is a mistake, however, to think that God’s incomprehensibility applies only to his secret, unrevealed counsel. What God has not revealed does not come within the compass of our knowledge; it is inapprehensible. What is not apprehended is also incomprehensible. But the most significant aspect of incomprehensibility is that it applies to what God has revealed. It is this truth that is conspicuous in this passage. What constrains the doxology is the revealed counsel, particularly that of verse 32. The apostle is overwhelmed with the unfathomable depth of the scheme of salvation which has been the subject of discourse in the preceding context. Besides, the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God which he views as a great deep are not unrevealed. They are the riches of grace and mercy, the deep things of God revealed by the Spirit, and the wisdom not of this world disclosed to the saints (cf. 1 Cor. 1:24; 2:6–8). Furthermore, the judgments that are unsearchable and the ways past tracing out are those of which the apostle had given examples.
It is not certain to how much of the preceding part of the epistle this doxology is intended to be the conclusion. It could be the whole of the epistle up to this point. There is an obvious transition at the end of this chapter to concrete and practical application in the spheres of Christian life and behaviour. The doxology is a fitting conclusion to all that precedes. It could also be the climax to this well-defined section of the epistle (9:1–11:36). There can be no dogmatism on this question. If a preference might be suggested it is for the second of these alternatives. The question of Israel is the one with which this section began. The apostle had dealt with various facets of God’s counsel as they bear upon the unbelief and rejection of Israel. In the latter part of chapter 11 (vss. 11ff.) he comes to deal with Israel in relation to God’s worldwide redemptive design and shows how both the rejection of Israel and their restoration promote the salvation of the nations of the earth. Casting his eye on the future unfolding of this saving design he sees the fulness of both Gentiles and Israel, and these in their conditioning of one another. It is this sequel of abounding grace that is the final answer to the problem of Israel, a sequel that is brought to fruition by God’s mercy and by that alone. In the unfolding of this prophetic survey he places even the unbelief of Israel in the perspective of God’s merciful design and not only the unbelief of Israel but that of all nations and makes the astounding statement of verse 32. This is the grand climax. It is this climax in particular that evokes the doxology and the latter is thus directly related to the theme of this section (9:1–11:32).
The word “riches” in verse 33 could be taken, as in the version, to denote the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge. When Paul uses this term, most frequently he speaks of the riches of some attribute of God or of his glory (cf. 2:4; 9:23; Eph. 1:7; 2:7; 3:16) or of the riches of something else (cf. 2 Cor. 8:2; Eph. 1:18; 2:4; Col. 1:27; 2:2). But he can also speak of God’s riches directly (Phil. 4:19) as also of the riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8; cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). Hence the three terms can be taken as coordinate and so the rendering would be: “O the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God”. In this event the “riches” would have in view particularly God’s grace and mercy upon which so much stress falls in the preceding context. The challenge of verse 35a would thus find its appropriate antecedent and reason in the word “riches”, and this would be the strongest argument in favour of the second rendering. On the other hand, it could be said that the riches of God without any specification would be expected to include wisdom and knowledge and, since these are mentioned separately, the intent of the apostle was to characterize God’s wisdom and knowledge by the exclamation “O the depth of the riches”. Furthermore, the apostle proceeds to speak of God’s judgments and ways and then utters the challenges of verse 34 which are concerned with knowledge and wisdom in that order. There is good reason, therefore, why the accent in these two verses should be placed upon wisdom and knowledge. For in God’s providential ordering of events to their designed end (cf. vs. 32) it is the wisdom and knowledge of God that come to the forefront for adoration and admiration. The question, however, may not be settled with certainty. Both renderings are appropriate to the context.
Knowledge refers to God’s all-inclusive and exhaustive cognition and understanding, wisdom to the arrangement and adaptation of all things to the fulfilment of his holy designs. In God these are correlative and it would be artificial to press the distinction unduly. His knowledge involves perfect understanding of interrelationships and these, in turn, are determined by his wisdom; the relations of things exist only by reason of the designs they are to promote in his all-comprising plan.
“Judgments” can be used in the sense of decisions or determinations. This meaning appears frequently in the use of the corresponding verb (cf. 14:13b; 1 Cor. 2:2; 7:37; 11:13; 2 Cor. 2:1; Tit. 3:12). But preponderantly, if not uniformly, in the New Testament “judgment” refers to judicial decisions or sentences. In the preceding contexts there are several examples of this kind of judgment on God’s part (cf. 9:18, 22; 11:7b, 8–10, 20–22, 25, 32). Thus God’s judicial acts may be in view. In any case these may not be excluded. The “ways” of God are not to be understood in the restrictive sense of the ways of God revealed for our salvation and direction (cf. Matt. 21:32; Luke 1:76; Acts 13:10; 18:25, 26; Rom. 3:17; 1 Cor. 4:17; Heb. 3:10). They refer in this instance to God’s dealings with men and are to be understood inclusively of the diverse providences in which his decretive will is executed. God’s judgments are unsearchable and his ways past tracing out (cf. Eph. 3:8). The praise of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge preceding is eloquent witness to the contrast between God’s knowledge and ours. It is of our understanding Paul speaks when he says unsearchable and past tracing out. But it is the depth of God’s wisdom and knowledge that makes it so for our understanding.
Verses 34, 35 are confirmation drawn from the Old Testament after the pattern so frequently occurring in this section of the epistle. Verse 34 is practically a verbatim quotation from the Greek version of Isaiah 40:13. This quotation may attach itself to wisdom and knowledge in verse 33, though in reverse order. “Who hath known the mind of the Lord?” witnesses to the unfathomable depth of God’s knowledge. “Who hath been his counsellor?” implies that God alone, without dependence on any creature for counsel, devised the plan of which providence is the execution. With change of person from the first to the third, verse 35 appears to be from Job 41:11 (Heb. 41:3). As indicated above, this may refer back to God’s riches (vs. 33). This is not necessary, however, and may be artificial. In the preceding context there has been repeated appeal to the grace and mercy of God and no instance is more relevant than the climax which introduced the doxology (vs. 32). God is debtor to none, his favour is never compensation, merit places no constraints upon his mercy. The three rhetorical questions, all implying a negative answer, have their positive counterparts in the self-sufficiency, sovereignty, and independence of God. This truth finds its reason in what brings the doxology to its own climax: “For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things” (vs. 36).
Verse 36 should be compared with other Pauline texts in which similar sentiments are expressed (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; Col. 1:16; cf. Heb. 2:10). The view of older interpreters, however, that there is reference in this text to the Father as the one of whom are all things, the Son as the one through whom are all things, and the Holy Spirit as the one unto whom are all things is without warrant. The fallacy can be readily seen in the fact that the Holy Spirit is not represented elsewhere as the person of the Godhead unto whom by way of eminence are all things. Paul is here speaking of God inclusively designated and understood and not by way of the differentiation evident in other passages (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:5, 6). Of God as the Godhead these ascriptions are predicated. He is the source of all things in that they have proceeded from him; he is the Creator. He is the agent through whom all things subsist and are directed to their proper end. And he is the last end to whose glory all things will redound. The apostle is thinking of all that comes within the created and providential order. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last (cf. Prov. 16:4; Rev. 4:11). And to him must not only all glory be ascribed; to him all glory will redound.
11:33–36 / Eastern Orthodoxy has always taught that worship begins where theology ends. Where the legs of reason grow weary, the heart may yet soar on wings like eagles. Verse 33 marks the frontier between theological argumentation and sublime worship. Paul’s long and difficult philosophy of history now yields to a doxology to God’s wisdom. A lesser soul than Paul, having plunged into the labyrinth of divine sovereignty and human sin, might, like Job, have emerged shaking his head in despair. Not so the apostle. The severity of the problem magnifies the greatness of God. Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! (v. 33). What the mind cannot know, the heart, as Pascal recognized, may know by other reasons. The limits of reason lead not to defeat and despair but to the threshold of faith.
The doxology at 11:33ff. does not follow the normal pattern of Jewish doxologies. It is patterned rather after the end of chapter 8, though here the doxology exalts God’s wisdom rather than his love. This doxology is not the result of Paul’s argument in chapters 9–11, but the assumption which underlies it. Paul begins with God’s unsearchable judgments (v. 33), just as he began chapter 9 with God’s sovereign judgments in Israel. He concludes with God’s inscrutable ways (v. 33), just as he concludes chapter 11 with the mystery of God’s redemption of Israel. Unfathomable love governed God’s work of redemption at the end of chapter 8; unspeakable wisdom directs God’s course in history at the end of chapter 11. Where the mind cannot know God’s thoughts (v. 34), the heart may yet trust his character. If God’s love spelled salvation by surprise, his wisdom results in sovereign acts in history leading to mercy. All things, says Paul, are from him and through him and to him (v. 36). This verse finds a close parallel in 1 Corinthians 8:6, though whereas the prepositions there refer to Christ, here they refer to God, who is at once creator, sustainer, and goal of creation. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
The Divine Plan of Salvation
Big Idea Paul offers a hymn of praise to God for his plan of salvation.
Understanding the Text
The Text in Context
Romans 11:33–36 is a hymn of praise to God’s plan of salvation; it consists of three strophes:
- Three characteristics of God’s plan: riches, wisdom, knowledge (11:33)
- Three rhetorical questions about God’s plan (11:34–35)
- Who has known the mind of the Lord? (11:34a)
- Who has been the Lord’s counselor? (11:34b)
- Who has given to God that God should repay? (11:35)
- Doxology to God’s plan (11:36)
Note the chiastic structure of 11:33–35:
A Riches (11:33)
B Wisdom (11:33)
C Knowledge (11:33)
Cʹ Who has known the mind of the Lord? (11:34a)
Bʹ Who has been the Lord’s counselor? (11:34b)
Aʹ Who has given to God that God should repay? (11:35)
Historical and Cultural Background
- Romans 11:33 is rooted in Jewish apocalypticism. Thus, for example, 2 Baruch 14.8–9 raises questions similar to those Paul raises in 11:33 with regard to the destiny of God’s people during their exile (see also 1 En. 63.3; 93.11–14; 4 Ezra 4:21; 5:36–40; 8:21). Moreover, the apocalyptic nuance of mystērion (11:25) continues to influence Paul in 11:33: the undiscoverable wisdom of God’s salvation history has been revealed to Paul, the apocalyptic seer (cf. Dan. 2:20–23).
- Jewish wisdom traditions inform Romans 11:33–35, particularly the notion that God’s wisdom was revealed to Israel in the form of the Torah (Sir. 24:23; Bar. 4:1). Indeed, A. T. Hanson has argued convincingly that the two Old Testament texts quoted by Paul in 11:34–35—Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11—were connected in rabbinic literature to say that the Torah is none other than God’s preexistent wisdom. I have argued elsewhere that Paul well knew this connection between Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11 and made use of it here in Romans 11:34–35. But Romans 11:33–35 begs to disagree, arguing instead that the Torah is finished in God’s plan of salvation (cf. Rom. 10:4) because Christ is God’s preexistent wisdom (cf. Rom. 10:5–8).
- Romans 11:36 shares the language of Stoicism, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Pseudo-Aristotle, Cosmos 6; Seneca, Mor. Ep. 65.8; Marcus Aurelius, Medit. 4.23). Hellenistic Judaism borrowed Stoic language in praise of the one true God (Philo, Spec. Laws 1.208; Cherubim 125–56). Paul continues the Hellenistic Jewish pattern, except that he applies the language to both God and Christ elsewhere (1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16–17). Indeed, Paul probably applies that language to God and Christ here in Romans 11:36.
11:33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! Romans 11:33–36 appropriately concludes Paul’s overview of salvation history in chapters 9–11, the driving force of which is God’s mercy. Verse 33 is the first strophe in Paul’s hymn to God’s plan; it contains a threefold description of that plan: “riches,” “wisdom,” and “knowledge.” To think that God’s mercy through Christ is being shown to Gentiles in the present and to Jews in the future is breathtaking. Indeed, this was his plan all along, beginning in the Old Testament and culminating at the parousia, the return of Christ. No human could have figured that plan out; only God could reveal that to his own, through his point man, the apostle Paul, an apocalyptic seer.
|Key Themes of Romans 11:33–36
■ The content of God’s plan of salvation history is that he is fair in showing both wrath and mercy to Jew and Gentile alike. Such a plan defies human comprehension.
■ God’s plan of salvation is accomplished through Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God, not through the law of Moses.
■ The participants in God’s plan of salvation are those whose faith is in Christ.
11:34–35 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” … “Who has ever given to God?” Verses 34–35 constitute the second strophe, which raises three rhetorical questions about God’s plan. As we noted above, Paul’s composite quotation of Isaiah 40:13 and Job 41:11 in 11:34–35 serves to sever the Torah from wisdom. Christ, the preexistent wisdom of God, has fulfilled and terminated the law of Moses (see sidebar). It is interesting that Isaiah 40:13 begins the second half of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah 1–39 predicts judgment and exile—the covenant curses—upon Israel for their disobedience to Yahweh. But Isaiah 40–66 predicts that Israel will repent and turn back to the Torah and God in the future. This will be the restoration of the covenant blessings. With this as the subplot to 11:34–35, we see how Paul, to the contrary, hints that Israel’s future restoration will come because they obey Christ, not the Torah. Indeed, the chiastic structure of 11:32–35 (see above) suggests that this theme of the restoration of Israel through Christ the wisdom of God, not the law, undergirds the divine plan of salvation history.
11:36 For from him and through him and for him are all things. Fittingly, Paul concludes the hymn of 11:33–36 with a doxology to God. All things, especially the plan of salvation, originated in God and were implemented through him and for his glory. And Jesus Christ was the means for doing so. Thus, the plan of salvation is based not on the works of the law or any human merit, but rather on God’s grace through Christ, who is God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge.
At least three theological truths meet us in Romans 11:33–36. First, this text concludes chapters 1–11. Romans 1:1–15 is the preamble, identifying God through Christ as the author of the gospel of salvation. Romans 1:16–17 is the historical prologue, announcing that God’s restoration of the covenant blessings is provided for in the gospel of Christ. Romans 1:18–4:25 replaces the law of Moses as the stipulation of the old covenant with faith in Christ as the stipulation to enter into the new covenant. Romans 5–8 records the ironic fact that it is Gentile Christians who are enjoying the covenant blessings, but Romans 9–11 laments the reality that the covenant curses abide on Israel because of their rejection of Jesus the Messiah, which itself has been spawned by the law. But in 11:25–32 Paul reveals that the conversion of the Gentiles is designed by God to stir Israel to jealousy and thus drive them to embrace Christ in the end time. No wonder Paul offers a hymn of praise to God’s plan of salvation history in 11:33–36. Second, God is holy and merciful. And ultimately, it is Jesus Christ who has met the holy standard of God so that he can pour out his mercy on sinners. Third, good theology (like that of Rom. 1–11) should always lead to worshiping and glorifying God (11:33–36).
Teaching the Text
An effective message on Romans 11:33–36 could be entitled “The Divine Plan of Salvation,” and it would follow the three-point outline of the chiastic structure of 11:33–35, relating each point to Christ. First, Christ, not human merit, is the basis of God’s riches of grace. That Paul has Christ in mind in 11:33, 35 is clear in the way that elsewhere the apostle associates Christ with the spiritual riches of God (e.g., Eph. 1:3–10; Phil. 4:19; Col. 1:27). In other words, God’s riches of salvation are poured out on sinners through the grace of God according to his riches in Christ Jesus. Second, Christ is the wisdom of God, the means of salvation history, according to 11:33–34. Recall the hourglass illustration concerning the remnant of God’s people in the Bible (see the “Teaching the Text” section for Rom. 11:1–10). In that diagram, the Old Testament story narrowed from the creation of the world, to the calling out of Israel, to the faithful few who followed Yahweh, to the prophetic expectation of the Messiah and then expanded the plan of God from the twelve disciples, to the church, to the world. Third, Christ is the knowledge of God, the ultimate revelation of his mysterious ways, according to 11:33–35. In Colossians Paul says that Christ is the fullness of the knowledge of God (1:27), and Paul goes even further by asserting that Christ is the fullness of God himself (2:9). To put it another way, the key to the meaning of life is Jesus Christ. Whereas once that honor might have been accorded to the law, now it belongs exclusively to the Son of God.
|Christ the Preexistent Wisdom of God
According to Martin Hengel, it was Jesus’ exaltation as the Son of Man and the Son of God through the resurrection that prompted the early church to transfer the predicates of wisdom to him, especially the attribute of preexistence. Hengel describes this process:
After the introduction of the idea of pre-existence it was natural that the exalted Son of God also attracted to himself the functions of Jewish Wisdom as a mediator in creation and salvation. Even the pre-existent Wisdom, which was connected with God in a unique way, could no longer be regarded as an independent entity over against the risen and exalted One and superior to him. Rather, all the functions of Wisdom were transferred to him, for ‘in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col 2:3). Only in this way was the unsurpassibility and finality of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth expressed in a final, conclusive way.
For Hengel, the logical consequence of all of this, especially as reflected in Paul’s writings, was the shattering of the connection between wisdom and law:
If, however, the Son of God entered into the all-embracing function of Wisdom as mediator, then the function of the Torah, which was identified with Wisdom, was also completely shattered. For the Jews the Torah had an authoritative, ontologically based function in the ordering of the world and in salvation. Paul, the former Pharisee and scribe, drew the ultimate radical consequences here. If others before him pondered as to what changes were brought about in the Torah through the interpretation of the true will of God in the message of the Messiah Jesus, his characteristic statement ‘Christ is the end of the law to every believer for righteousness’ (Rom 10:4) expresses in a fundamental way, against the claim of the Torah, the unique soteriological function of the crucified and risen One as the all-embracing, final, eschatological revelation of God. Not just Moses, but the Christ of God alone mediates salvation.
Illustrating the Text
The seeking mind must turn to the heart’s praise
Hymn Text: “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” by William Cowper. A renowned poet and hymnist, Cowper (1731–1800) spent a great deal of his life in deep, chronic depression, even experiencing suicidal thoughts. Nevertheless, he left us many great hymns, among them “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” which seems an appropriate illustration to use at the end of verses from Romans that discuss the hard mystery of God but conclude with a hymn of adoration. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if Cowper had Romans 11:33–36 in mind when he wrote, in the second stanza, “Deep in unfathomable mines / Of never failing skill / He treasures up his bright designs / And works His sovereign will.”
Christ is the basis of God’s riches of grace, not human merit
Bible: Hosea. The book of Hosea relates the story of Hosea and his wife, Gomer. Hosea is faithful to his unfaithful wife and forgives her and reconciles with her despite her frequent willful abandonment of him and her family for adulterous activities. Hosea is an evocative illustration of God’s grace. He is only able to do what he does because of the grace with which God infuses his spirit in order to bring about such obedience to God’s will. There is nothing in Gomer that merits a single action of Hosea; she is the recipient of pure grace.
Christ is the knowledge of God, the ultimate revelation of his mysterious ways
Science: Using words such as “infinite,” “mystery,” and “wonder,” Maria Spiropulu, a University of Chicago experimental physicist, says, “Our view of things has changed tremendously in the last five years. We are being totally surprised by what we observe in nature.” Apparently, something unknown that exerted a great gravitational force keeps galaxies bound together. Scientists call it “dark matter,” and although we can measure its presence, we can neither see nor feel it. Theoretical physicist David Gross says that scientific “string theory” can explain all the particles and forces that we see as vibrations of the same object. “So, instead of having dozens of particles,” he says, “you have one string. We don’t know whether it really works yet. But it has this wonderful feature of unifying everything.” Science can demonstrate for us the beauty and joy that come from explaining what was once unexplainable, as well as the way new knowledge can illumine reality in new and sometimes unexpected ways.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Vol. 2, pp. 134–136). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: God and History (Vol. 3, pp. 1465–1480). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
 Moo, D. J. (1996). The Epistle to the Romans (pp. 743–744). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Murray, J. (1968). The Epistle to the Romans (Vol. 2, pp. 104–108). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Edwards, J. R. (2011). Romans (pp. 278–279). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Pate, C. M. (2013). Romans. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (pp. 228–233). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.