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Commentary On Romans by Jean Calvin

Romans 11:16-21

16. For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches.

16. Quod si primitiae sanctae, etiam conspersio; et si radix sancta etiam rami:

17. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;

17. Si vero ex ramis quidam defracti sunt, tu vero oleaster quum esses, insitus es pro ipsis, et particeps factus es radicis et pinguedinis oleae;

18. Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.

18. Ne contra ramos glorieris: quod si gloriaris, non tu radicem portas; sed radix to.

19. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in.

19. Dices ergo, Defracti sunt rami, ut ego insererer.

20. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear:

20. Bene; propter incredulitatem defracti sunt, tu vero fide stabilitus es; Ne animo efferaris, sed timeas.

21. For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.

21. Si enim Deus naturalibus ramis non perpercit, vide ne qua fit, ut et tibi non parcat.

16. For if the first-fruits, etc. By comparing the worthiness of the Jews and of the Gentiles, he now takes away pride from the one and pacifies the other, as far as he could; for he shows that the Gentiles, if they pretended any prerogative of honor of their own, did in no respect excel the Jews, nay, that if they came to a contest, they should be left far behind. Let us remember that in this comparison man is not compared with man, but nation with nation. If then a comparison be made between them, they shall be found equal in this respect, that they are both equally the children of Adam; the only difference is that the Jews had been separated from the Gentiles, that they might be a peculiar people to the Lord.

They were then sanctified by the holy covenant, and adorned with peculiar honor, with which God had not at that time favored the Gentiles; but as the efficacy of the covenant appeared then but small, he bids us to look back to Abraham and the patriarchs, in whom the blessing of God was not indeed either empty or void. He hence concludes, that from them an heredity holiness had passed to all their posterity. But this conclusion would not have been right had he spoken of persons, or rather had he not regarded the promise; for when the father is just, he cannot yet transmit his own uprightness to his son: but as the Lord had sanctified Abraham for himself for this end, that his seed might also be holy, and as he thus conferred holiness not only on his person but also on his whole race, the Apostle does not unsuitably draw this conclusion, that all the Jews were sanctified in their father Abraham.

Then to confirm this view, he adduces two similitudes: the one taken from the ceremonies of the law, and the other borrowed from nature. The first-fruits which were offered sanctified the whole lump, in like manner the goodness of the juice diffuses itself from the root to the branches; and posterity hold the same connection with their parents from whom they proceed as the lump has with the first-fruits, and the branches with the tree. It is not then a strange thing that the Jews were sanctified in their father. There is here no difficulty if you understand by holiness the spiritual nobility of the nation, and that indeed not belonging to nature, but what proceeded from the covenant. It may be truly said, I allow, that the Jews were naturally holy, for their adoption was hereditary; but I now speak of our first nature, according to which we are all, as we know, accursed in Adam. Therefore the dignity of an elect people, to speak correctly, is a supernatural privilege.

17. And if some of the branches, etc. He now refers to the present dignity of the Gentiles, which is no other than to be of the branches; which, being taken from another, are set in some noble tree: for the origin of the Gentiles was as it were from some wild and unfruitful olive, as nothing but a curse was to be found in their whole race. Whatever glory then they had was from their new insition, not from their old stock. There was then no reason for the Gentiles to glory in their own dignity in comparison with the Jews. We may also add, that Paul wisely mitigates the severity of the case, by not saying that the whole top of the tree was cut off, but that some of the branches were broken, and also that God took some here and there from among the Gentiles, whom he set in the holy and blessed trunk.

18. But if thou gloriest, thou bearest not the root, etc. The Gentiles could not contend with the Jews respecting the excellency of their race without contending with Abraham himself; which would have been extremely unbecoming, since he was like a root by which they were borne and nourished. As unreasonable as it would be for the branches to boast against the root, so unreasonable would it have been for the Gentiles to glory against the Jews, that is, with respect to the excellency of their race; for Paul would have them ever to consider whence was the origin of their salvation. And we know that after Christ by his coming has pulled down the partition-wall, the whole world partook of the favor which God had previously conferred on the chosen people. It hence follows, that the calling of the Gentiles was like an ingrafting, and that they did not otherwise grow up as God's people than as they were grafted in the stock of Abraham.

19. Thou wilt then say, etc. In the person of the Gentiles he brings forward what they might have pleaded for themselves; but that was of such a nature as ought not to have filled them with pride, but, on the contrary, to have made them humble. For if the cutting off of the Jews was through unbelief, and if the ingrafting of the Gentiles was by faith, what was their duty but to acknowledge the favor of God, and also to cherish modesty and humbleness of mind? For it is the nature of faith, and what properly belongs to it, to generate humility and fear. But by fear understand that which is in no way inconsistent with the assurance of faith; for Paul would not have our faith to vacillate or to alternate with doubt, much less would he have us to be frightened or to quake with fear.

Of what kind then is this fear? As the Lord bids us to take into our consideration two things, so two kinds of feeling must thereby be produced. For he would have us ever to bear in mind the miserable condition of our nature; and this can produce nothing but dread, weariness, anxiety, and despair; and it is indeed expedient that we should thus be thoroughly laid prostrate and broken down, that we may at length groan to him; but this dread, derived from the knowledge of ourselves, keeps not our minds while relying on his goodness, from continuing calm; this weariness hinders us not from enjoying full consolation in him; this anxiety, this despair, does not prevent us from obtaining in him real joy and hope. Hence the fear, of which he speaks, is set up as an antidote to proud contempt; for as every one claims for himself more than what is right, and becomes too secure and at length insolent towards others, we ought then so far to fear, that our heart may not swell with pride and elate itself.

But it seems that he throws in a doubt as to salvation, since he reminds them to beware lest they also should not be spared. To this I answer, -- that as this exhortation refers to the subduing of the flesh, which is ever insolent even in the children of God, he derogates nothing from the certainty of faith. And we must especially notice and remember what I have before said, -- that Paul's address is not so much to individuals as to the whole body of the Gentiles, among whom there might have been many, who were vainly inflated, professing rather than having faith. On account of these Paul threatens the Gentiles, not without reason, with excision, as we shall hereafter find again.

21. For if God has not spared the natural branches, etc. This is a most powerful reason to beat down all self-confidence: for the rejection of the Jews should never come across our minds without striking and shaking us with dread. For what ruined them, but that through supine dependence on the dignity which they had obtained, they despised what God had appointed? They were not spared, though they were natural branches; what then shall be done to us, who are the wild olive and aliens, if we become beyond measure arrogant? But this thought, as it leads us to distrust ourselves, so it tends to make us to cleave more firmly and steadfastly to the goodness of God.

And here again it appears more evident, that the discourse is addressed generally to the body of the Gentiles, for the excision, of which he speaks, could not apply to individuals, whose election is unchangeable, based on the eternal purpose of God. Paul therefore declares to the Gentiles, that if they exulted over the Jews, a reward for their pride would be prepared for them; for God will again reconcile to himself the first people whom he has divorced.

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