severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you,
provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in,
for God has the power to graft them in again.
24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree,
and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree,
how much more will these, the natural branches,
be grafted back into their own olive tree.
Concluding the olive tree metaphor, Paul reinforces a couple of themes: (1) the possibility that Gentiles could be cut off the tree if they do not continue in God’s kindness, that is, if they cease to believe; and (2) God is able to graft Jews back into their own olive tree if they abandon their unbelief. The latter looks ahead to Paul’s dramatic conclusion: all Israel will be saved.A kindness that saves
Our salvation is possible only through God’s kindness. Verse 22 is one of four places Paul refers to kindness as an attribute of God, and each has to do with salvation. The others are Ephesians 2:6–7, Titus 3:3–5, and Romans 2:4 (“God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”) Colin Kruse makes this point: “In Paul’s letters, then, wherever the kindness of God is mentioned it is related, not merely to a benevolent disposition, but always to his kindness in leading people towards or bestowing upon them his salvation.”
Faith must persevere
Verse 22 restates for emphasis the warning for Gentiles in verse 21. They must continue to believe or God will not spare them from the fate of unbelieving Jews. (The phrase “provided you continue in his kindness” is a third-class conditional construction.) Only those who persevere in faith will remain in God’s kindness. The alternative is to meet God’s severity, meaning eternal condemnation.
This warning also restates what Paul said in 2:4–5. People who think they can keep on sinning while judging others show contempt for God’s kindness and store up wrath for themselves on the day of judgment. These are the people who, in the language of our present verse, will experience God’s severity.
It’s also similar to what we saw in 8:13—“if you live according to the flesh you will die.” On verse 22 Douglas Moo states, “In issuing this warning, Paul echoes a consistent NT theme: ultimate salvation is dependent on continuing faith; therefore, the person who ceases to believe forfeits any hope of salvation (cf. also Rom. 8:13; Col. 1:23; Heb. 3:6, 14).” The verse 23 phrase “if they do not continue in their unbelief,” on the other hand, suggests that a person can return to a state of saving faith.
Unbelief is sin. Doubt is not sin and can prove beneficial if it becomes the route through study and prayer to deeper faith.Lifestyle reveals faith
Is it possible for a person to be grafted into the tree and then “be cut off” from the tree? Obviously it is, otherwise Paul would not give such a warning. J. I. Packer writes in his Concise Theology, “Scripture holds out no hope of salvation for any who, whatever their profession of faith, do not seek to turn from sin to righteousness (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Rev. 21:8).”
Packer points to 1 John 1:8–2:1 and 3:4–10 to show “that it is not possible to be in Christ and at the same time to embrace sin as a way of life.” The phrase “way of life” is significant. The Bible does not expect sinless perfection of believers, and John assumes that believers sin (1 John 1:9 through 2:1) but then repent and seek to be cleansed of unrighteousness when they do sin. Christians love what Jesus loves and hate what Jesus hates—imperfectly, but heartfelt.Faith versus presumption
Presumption is the fatal error of those Jews who trusted in their ethnic pedigree rather than receive the gospel. Jews used to point to Gentiles as being outside the camp, and now Paul warns Gentiles against arrogantly doing the same to Jews. Romans 11:22 is a stern warning to everyone who presumes on the basis of God’s kindness that having once believed in Christ they have an automatic ticket to heaven and can live in disregard of Jesus’ commandments (John 14:15, 21, 23–24).
Faith is the primary commandment, which is to believe that Jesus was sent by the Father (John 6:28–29) and is the way to eternal life (John 14:6). To hold fast to Jesus—growing in love for him and for what he loves—is what it means to continue in the kindness of God. If we do that, this will be true of us: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).God’s power to restore the Jews
Verses 23 and 24 set the stage for Paul’s conclusion in verse 26 about the future of Israel. God has already done what is contrary to nature—graft wild branches onto a cultivated tree. Certainly he has the power to graft cultivated branches back onto their natural tree. Again, Paul’s metaphor bends the rules of nature to assert theological truth.
In the end, there will be one tree to which all branches, Jew and Gentile alike, adhere by faith, united in their worship of the one Lord Jesus Christ.