Romans 11:16-24 and Apostasy
One area of disagreement among Christians concerns falling away from the faith, also known as apostasy. Some say that God will never allow a genuine, born-again believer to apostatize and finally end up in hell. Others say that this does sometimes happen.
Personally, I much prefer the view that genuine Christians do sometimes apostatize and miss out on final salvation. I think this view fits best with the overall teaching of the Bible.
AN IMPORTANT PASSAGE
An important passage on this topic is Romans 11:16-24, where the apostle Paul says the following to the Gentile Christians among his readers:
“16 Now if the firstfruits offered up are holy, so is the whole batch. And if the root is holy, so are the branches.
17 Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, though a wild olive branch, were grafted in among them and have come to share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree, 18 do not brag that you are better than those branches. But if you do brag—you do not sustain the root, but the root sustains you.
19 Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’
20 True enough; they were broken off by unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either.
22 Therefore, consider God’s kindness and severity: severity toward those who have fallen but God’s kindness toward you—if you remain in His kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
23 And even they, if they do not remain in unbelief, will be grafted in, because God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from your native wild olive and against nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these—the natural branches—be grafted into their own olive tree?”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)
In what follows, I will argue that this passage is a strong piece of biblical evidence that genuine Christians sometimes fall away from the faith and miss out on final salvation.
The discussion will proceed in three stages.
First, I will say something about the symbols in this passage.
Second, I will argue that in this passage Paul is warning genuine Christians against falling away from the faith and ending up in hell. At this point I will not yet be asking whether this actually ever happens to genuine Christians. I will simply be arguing that Paul warns genuine Christians against it.
Third, I will argue that the fact that Paul warns genuine Christians against finally missing out on salvation quite strongly suggests that they do sometimes fall away and end up in hell.
SYMBOLS IN THIS PASSAGE
Throughout this passage Paul uses the metaphor of a cultivated olive tree, including references to the branches and root of this tree. He also mentions a wild olive branch (v. 17) that is grafted into the cultivated olive tree and that comes from a wild olive tree (v. 24), and in verses 17-24 he addresses this (formerly) wild olive branch directly. Before we go any further, I need to say something about what all these things symbolize, giving no more detail than will be necessary for the following discussion.
The cultivated olive tree
First, there should be no doubt that the cultivated olive tree symbolizes the saved people of God, both those in pre-Christian times and those living in the Christian era.
To begin with, this perfectly fits the context of chapters 9-11, where Paul is discussing how the rejection of Christ by a majority of ethnic Jews in his day fits with the salvation purposes of God.
Importantly too, the cultivated olive tree can’t be a symbol of ethnic Israel as a whole. Paul refers to Jews who rejected Christ as branches that are broken off the tree (verses 17, 19-20), i.e., that cease to belong to the tree. However, Jews who rejected Him didn’t cease to be ethnic Jews. So this tree can’t symbolize ethnic Israel as a whole.
Nor can the tree be a symbol of saved people only in the Christian era, because the tree is envisaged existing before the Christian era began. When Paul refers in verses 17, 19-20 to branches that have been broken off, the timing of this breaking off is understood to have been when Jews, confronted with the gospel, rejected Christ. This implies that the tree itself already existed before the coming of the Christian gospel.
We should have no hesitation, then, in saying that the cultivated olive tree symbolizes the saved people of God in both pre-Christian and Christian times.
The root of the cultivated olive tree
Second, there is some debate about what the root (verses 17-18) of the cultivated olive tree symbolizes.
The majority scholarly opinion, which I share, is that it refers to Abraham and the patriarchs of Israel. This would fit well with Paul’s description of God’s saved people as a spiritual kind of Israel in Rom 2:25-29; 9:6 and in some of his other letters too.
For our purposes, however, the precise meaning of the root of this tree is not that important.
The wild olive tree
Third, the wild olive tree (v. 24) surely symbolizes unsaved Gentiles. There is nothing else that it could reasonably be.
Fourth, it makes sense to think that each branch symbolizes an individual person. Each natural branch of the cultivated olive tree that is attached to the trunk of this tree symbolizes a saved Jew. Each natural branch of the cultivated olive tree that is broken off this tree symbolizes an unsaved Jew. And each branch of the wild olive tree that is grafted into the cultivated olive tree symbolizes a saved Gentile.
This means that the formerly wild olive branch, now grafted into the cultivated olive tree, that Paul addresses in verses 17-24 symbolizes each individual Gentile Christian.
There are some, however, who claim that the ingrafted branch that Paul addresses in these verses symbolizes not each individual Gentile Christian but Gentile Christians as a whole.
Sometimes those who make this claim use the following argument to try to support it:
Even in Paul’s day there would have been many more saved people than the number of branches that would be found on a literal olive tree. And today there are millions who are saved. This means that if each branch symbolizes an individual saved person, we would have the absurd picture of a tree with an impossibly large number of branches. Therefore, we should take the formerly wild olive branch that is grafted into the cultivated olive tree as a symbol of the mass of Gentile Christians as a whole.
This argument is very weak. There are a few points to make here:
(1) Biblical metaphors often allow for artistic license, and there is no need at all to expect the metaphorical olive tree to correspond precisely to olive trees as they are found in real life. It is in any case very easy for us to grasp the concept of a tree that has millions of branches.
(2) If we were to take the single formerly wild olive branch as a symbol of Gentile Christians as a whole, we have a difficulty.
In verses 17, 19-20 Paul, referring to unsaved Jews, says that multiple branches were broken off the cultivated olive tree. Similarly, in verses 23-24, again referring to these unsaved Jews, he says that multiple branches could potentially be grafted back into this tree again.
If the single formerly wild olive branch in this passage symbolized Gentile Christians as a whole, we would expect Paul to have used a single branch to symbolize unbelieving Jews who were broken off or who might be grafted in again. We wouldn’t expect him to have symbolized one group of people as multiple branches and another group of people as one branch.
The fact that he refers to multiple branches being broken off or potentially being grafted back in suggests that each of these branches symbolizes an individual Jew. And if each of these branches symbolizes an individual Jew, we would expect the formerly wild olive branch to symbolize an individual Gentile Christian.
(3) There is another difficulty with taking the single formerly wild olive branch as a symbol of Gentile Christians as a whole.
In verses 20-21 Paul tells this branch to be afraid lest it is broken off the cultivated olive tree.
This warning looks natural if it is directed to each individual Gentile Christian.
However, it looks strange if directed to Gentile Christians as a whole. Viewed in this way, Paul would be speaking as if God might decide to suddenly remove salvation from all Gentile Christians. But Paul surely didn’t believe that God would actually do this or anything remotely like it, so it is difficult to understand why he would want to phrase things in this way.
All things considered, then, we do much better to understand the formerly wild olive branch that Paul addresses in verses 17-24 as a symbol of each individual Gentile Christian.
DOES PAUL WARN GENUINE CHRISTIANS NOT TO LOSE SALVATION?
Now that I have said something about the symbols in this passage, we are ready to turn to our first question:
In the passage does Paul warn genuine, saved Christians not to fall away from the faith and finally end up in hell?
At this point we are not asking if this actually ever happens to genuine believers. For the time being, we are simply asking if he warns them against this.
Paul surely does give this warning
Paul surely does warn genuine Christians not to miss out on final salvation. There are a few reasons for believing this:
(1) As I have already said, the cultivated olive tree symbolizes the saved people of God. And as I have said too, the formerly wild olive branch, now grafted into the cultivated olive tree, that Paul addresses in verses 17-24 surely symbolizes each individual Gentile believer. So when Paul tells each ingrafted branch to be afraid in case God does not spare it (verses 20-21), it makes sense to think that he is warning genuine, saved Christians against losing salvation.
(2) We must take note of the clause “you stand by faith” in v. 20 that Paul speaks to each ingrafted branch. Paul would hardly say this to people who he didn’t really believe had saving faith.
(3) We should carefully note too how in v. 22 Paul says that in order to experience God’s kindness and to avoid being cut off, his readers must remain in His kindness. But surely only genuine, saved Christians would be told that they would have these benefits by remaining as they already are.
We should have no hesitation, then, in saying that in this passage Paul warns genuine, saved Gentile Christians against falling away from the faith and finally ending up in hell.
An attempt to avoid the conclusion
Although the passage seems so clearly to be warning Christians against losing the salvation they already have, there are some who try to avoid this conclusion.
One such attempt is based on the idea that I mentioned earlier, that the formerly wild olive branch that Paul addresses in verses 17-24 symbolizes not each individual Gentile Christian but Gentile Christians as a whole.
The argument goes in this way:
If we were to think that the formerly wild olive branch symbolizes each individual Gentile Christian, then it would be fair to conclude that the passage is a warning to Gentile Christians not to lose salvation. However, this branch doesn’t symbolize each individual Gentile Christian. It actually symbolizes Gentile Christians as a whole. And Paul can’t have thought that God would actually break off this branch, i.e., remove salvation from all Gentile Christians. This shows that Paul is using the metaphor loosely without trying to make the details of the metaphor match the details of the reality the metaphor is symbolizing. In fact, the image he has created of this branch potentially being broken off is not supposed to be taken at face value. Instead, we should interpret this image as a warning to Gentile readers simply to make sure that they have come to saving faith in the first place.
It is true that Paul uses the metaphor loosely. I have already said something about this when I noted that Paul’s metaphorical olive tree has many more branches than would be found on a literal olive tree.
It is true too that Paul can’t have thought that God would remove salvation from all Gentile Christians.
Nevertheless, this argument fails. There are two points to make here:
(1) As we have seen, there are good reasons why the branch should be understood to symbolize each individual Gentile Christian rather than Gentile Christians as a whole.
(2) Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to assume that the branch symbolizes Gentile Christians as a whole, the effect of the passage would surely be the same as if the branch symbolized each Gentile Christian. From the perspective of a reader of Romans, any warning given to Gentiles as a group would be the same as a warning given to each Gentile. So anyone who agrees that if the branch symbolized each Gentile Christian then the warning is about losing salvation, should also agree that if the branch symbolizes Gentile Christians as a whole then the warning would also be about losing salvation.
This attempt to claim that the passage is not a warning against losing salvation therefore fails.
Another attempt to avoid the conclusion
There is another way in which some try to avoid the conclusion that the passage warns genuine Christians against losing salvation. The argument goes as follows:
In verses 17, 19-20 Paul refers to branches that were broken off the cultivated olive tree. This refers to ethnic Jews who fail to believe in Christ and are therefore not included in the saved people of God. However, these Jews were never included in the saved people of God. In terms of the metaphor, this means that they were never really part of the olive tree. So Paul must be using the metaphor loosely without trying to make the details of the metaphor match the details of the reality the metaphor is symbolizing. Therefore, given that Paul can speak about branches (i.e., Jews) being broken off the tree (i.e., the saved people of God) who were never really part of the tree, he could easily be doing the same in verses 20-21 regarding Gentiles. This means that the warning Paul seems to give in this passage to Gentile Christians against losing salvation could really be a warning to his Gentile readers simply to make sure that they have a genuine faith in Christ in the first place.
This argument also fails.
Again, it is true, as I have already noted, that Paul uses the metaphor loosely.
I think it is true too that the metaphor is being used loosely in the way described in this argument regarding ethnic Jews. I think that at least some of the unsaved Jews that Paul describes as branches that have been broken off were never really saved. This means that in terms of the metaphor at least some of these branches were never really part of the tree. I do think it is possible that some Jews really did lose their salvation at the time they rejected Jesus as Messiah. However, the point does seem to stand that Paul refers to at least some branches (i.e., Jews) being broken off the tree who he believes were never really part of the tree (i.e., the saved people of God) in the first place. I accept that.
However, the fact that Paul uses the metaphor loosely in this way doesn’t mean that his warning to Gentile Christians against being broken off the tree isn’t really a warning against losing salvation. There is a big difference between the Jews who Paul says were broken off the tree and the Gentiles he warns against being broken off the tree:
In verses 17, 19-20 Paul just gives a bare mention of branches (i.e., Jewish unbelievers) being broken off the tree. He doesn’t give any more information about these people. It is therefore not difficult to take the image of being broken off imprecisely and think that some or all of them were never really part of the tree, i.e., saved.
By contrast, when it comes to the Gentiles who might potentially be broken off the tree, Paul gives much more than a bare mention. Referring to his readers who were in this category, he says in v. 20, “You stand by faith.” Surely this has to be referring to genuinely saved believers. He also says in v. 22 that in order to experience God’s kindness and to avoid being cut off, his readers must remain in His kindness, and surely only genuine, saved Christians would be told that they would have these benefits by remaining as they already are.
It is therefore not possible to use the looseness of the metaphor to argue that Paul is not really directing a warning to genuinely saved Gentile believers against losing salvation.
In view of all that we have seen, we can be confident that the natural sense of this passage is the correct one. In it Paul is warning genuine, saved Gentile Christians against falling away from the faith and missing out on final salvation. And we can be sure that in other contexts he would also have wanted to warn Jewish Christians in the same way.
DOES THIS PASSAGE SUGGEST THAT CHRISTIANS DO SOMETIMES FALL AWAY AND END UP IN HELL?
We are now ready to ask our next question:
Does the fact that Paul warns genuine Christians against falling away and missing out on final salvation suggest that this does sometimes happen?
Some say that the warning is to genuine Christians yet God still never allows any of them to finally fall away
There are some Christians who would agree with my conclusions so far in this article but who would still say that God never allows a born-again believer to apostatize and end up in hell.
These believers rightly accept that Rom 11:16-24 contains a warning to genuine Christians against losing salvation. However, they say that God uses this warning (and others in the Bible) as a means of keeping believers in the faith, and that He always makes sure that this means succeeds.
Thinking through the logic of the warning
We need to ask if this makes sense. Is it really plausible that Paul would warn Christians against doing something that God would never allow to happen?
I think this would probably make sense if God never allowed Christians to fall away but they were unaware that He never allowed this. In this case, God could use the fear of what would happen if they fell away to spur believers on to remain in the faith, even though He would know that He wouldn’t allow them to fall away.
However, those who say that God never allows genuine Christians to apostatize are almost always clear that believers should know that He will not allow them to apostatize. And they also (rightly) say that believers should have assurance that they are saved at the present time. (Genuine Christians do often struggle with assurance, but that is another issue.)
But if Christians know that they are currently saved and that God will not allow them to apostatize, the warning in Rom 11:16-24 (along with other similar biblical warnings) becomes extremely difficult to understand. If it is not possible for a Christian to fall away and finally be lost, these texts are warning us against doing something that we know God will never allow to happen.
Let me give a comparison. Suppose you went to an airport perimeter fence and saw the following sign:
WARNING! HUMAN BEINGS, DO NOT GROW WINGS AND FLY UPWARDS OR YOU MAY HIT AN AIRCRAFT.
If we saw a sign like this, we would think that someone was trying to make a joke. We couldn’t possibly take it seriously as a warning, because we know that the thing we are warned against cannot possibly happen. A warning is a psychological thing, and it is very difficult to understand how a warning is supposed to psychologically impact people if they know that that thing cannot possibly happen.
If Christians know that God will never allow any genuine believer to apostatize, the warning in Rom 11:16-24 against losing salvation is closely similar to this hypothetical warning at an airport. Both would involve warnings against things that we know can never happen, but this sort of warning looks bizarre to say the least.
It seems more than a little unlikely, then, that we are supposed to think that Rom 11:16-24 warns Christians against doing something that they know God will never allow to happen. Instead, we do much better to think that this warning exists because God does sometimes allow born-again Christians to apostatize and miss out on final salvation.
As an overall conclusion to our discussion, we can say that Romans 11:16-24 is a strong piece of biblical evidence that genuine, born-again Christians do sometimes fall away from the faith and end up in hell.
For a broader discussion of this topic, see my article:
And see also my articles:
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