The Goodness & Severity Of God
The Olive Tree

In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 55c of 83


22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. 23 And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:22-23).

[We saw in our first instalment of our exposition of this text that the apostle is very much building upon his Olive Tree metaphor (v. 17). And the Olive Tree, no doubt, represents the Church Visible. Local congregations may be viewed as branches of this tree; while individuals may be viewed as sprigs and children as shoots.

In our second instalment, we saw that the goodness of God means in this context refers to the hope of salvation together with all the means of grace and provisions of the visible church. In this final instalment, we must consider what is the severity of God in the context. —JJL]

3.  The Severity of God

Paul is clearly speaking about Church Discipline when he refers to the cutting off of unbelieving branches. From one angle, Church Discipline reflects the goodness of God. It reflects the goodness of God for it is a primarily a means to restrain any wandering tendencies in the hearts of those who are already members of the church or branches of the Olive Tree. Church Discipline as such is not available to anyone outside the church. If you are not a member of a local church that is faithfully exercising church discipline, you may wander from the faith, and there will be no means to restrain you or to restore you.

Now, none of us ought to be so arrogant as to say: “So be it, if I wander let me wander!” Or “If I am elect, then I will not wander away from the faith, but if I am not elect then why do I need any means to keep me in the faith?” The fact is, Church Discipline is one of the means which is instituted by Christ for the perseverance of the saints. And no child of God ought to despise this means.

But now, from another angle Church Discipline really reflects the severity of God. Unbelieving Israel was cut off for unbelief. God cut them off when He pruned the Olive Tree so that it may not become a mockery to the world. Today under the administration of the church, which the Lord Jesus appointed, Church Discipline is the ordinary means by which God cuts off dead or fruitless branches from the Olive Tree.

Thus the Lord Jesus himself instructs His disciples to excommunicate any member of the church who persists in sin despite repeated attempts to secure his repentance. He says:

“… if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:17-18)

This, of course, does not mean that the church has the power to admit or refuse admittance to heaven to anyone. What it means is the church is to declare what God has already determined in heaven. Or in other words, elders are to declare provisionally, based on their knowledge, as to whether a person would be cut off by God, given his persistence in sin.

Now, this duty of excommunication is also taught elsewhere, such as in 1 Corinthians 5, where the apostle Paul charges the Corinthians to excommunicate a member of the church who was guilty of incest. It is also taught in Revelation, where we see the Lord chiding the Church of Pergamos and Thyatira for maintaining as members those who held to false doctrines or immoral practices (Rev 2:14, 15, 20).

Church Discipline, in other words, is an important biblical ordinance. A church that does not faithfully exercise Church Discipline is simply being unbiblical. And in so far as Church Discipline is a manifestation of the goodness and severity of God, only a church that exercises Church Discipline would be faithfully serving God. It is right and proper for a church to emphasis on the love and goodness of God. But when the church fails also to manifest the severity of God in Church Discipline, then she fails as a church of Christ and becomes party to bring shame to the name of Christ when scandalous sin arises in the church.

For this reason, the exercise of faithful Church Discipline is recognized as mark of a true Church by most faithful Protestant Churches since the time of the 16th Century Reformation. That is to say, most Protestant Churches that are faithful to the Reformation principles, whether they are Baptist or Presbyterian or otherwise, will regard a congregation to be not a true church of Christ if faithful Church Discipline is not exercised. Says Calvin:

“As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, though which the members of the body hold together.… Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline… are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church” (ICR  4.12.1).

The situation in the church today is a far cry from the purity of the early church, or the church during the Reformation. As we indicated earlier, Church Discipline is practically non-existent in most modern churches. Most who profess to be Christians today cannot stomach the idea that God is also severe. But Paul says: “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God!” Well, they say “O, but we are Christians! As Christian, we know that God is loving and kind and He will always forgive us no matter what happens!”

But what does the apostle Paul say? He says, that we shall experience the goodness of God, if we continue in His goodness: otherwise we shall also be cut off like the Jews.

The fact is that God is not only good towards His saints. He is also severe towards unrepentant sinners. And it behoves the church of Christ to reflect this attitude.

Make not mistake: toleration towards scandalous sin, is not a virtue of a spirit-filled man. It is, as someone once said, “the virtue of a man without conviction.” A man who thinks and lives as if God is only love and has no wrath, is serving a different God from the God of the Bible. He is serving a god of his own imagination.

Dear reader, what is your attitude towards church discipline?

Are you a member of the church? Have you resolved in your heart that you will humbly submit to the discipline of the elders appointed over you if the occasion should arise? Will you resolve in your heart today that you will not dishonour Christ by simply leaving the church for another if you should come under discipline?

Now, remember that Church Discipline is not equal to excommunication, though it can lead to excommunication in the case of an unrepentant member. But ordinarily, Church Discipline may include private and public admonishments and warnings, as well as baring from the Lord’s Supper and deposition from offices.

Are you still not a member of good standing in a faithful church? I want to urge you to seek to honour the ordinance of Christ. Church membership and Church Discipline go hand in hand and together to manifest the goodness and severity of God. So I would urge you not to contribute to the decline of the practice Church Discipline in this land by your failure to submit to the responsibility of church membership.

Well, I suppose part of the blame must go to the leaders of today’s churches for failures to exercise discipline faithfully. But to a large extend the decline of the practice of Church Discipline is surely due to individual believers who would not submit to church authorities. In fact this is often the reason why many like to hide in big churches where they are unknown and have no responsibility towards anyone.

But this is unbiblical and makes a mockery of Christ and his institution of the Church. Rather, every Christian should seek to be members of the church where they know they will be called to account by the elders.

So dear reader, if you have been church-hopping or church-shopping for a while, and are no longer under any meaningful oversight by Christ’s under-shepherd, then may I urge you to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

Seek membership in a faithful church as soon as possible. If you cannot settle down in the congregation you are currently visiting, then do not delay to seek another faithful communion where you can be a comfortable, faithful and fruitful shoot of the olive tree of Christ. Do not allow yourself to become comfortable as long-term a visitor or adherent.

Conclusion

Christianity is a heart religion. But it is not only that. It is a covenantal relationship. Christians are united together by union with Christ. This union of the saints find expression in local churches so that the individual Christian life cannot be divorced from the corporate Christian life.

It is for this reason that the apostle Paul teaches us to behold the goodness and severity of God in terms of our being on the Olive Tree, the visible covenant body of Christ. Therefore, I would urge you not to allow any reason to cause you to despise the goodness and severity of God.

The Olive Tree that the apostle Paul talks about is the Church of Christ in the whole world. If you are in a faithful church, it may be regarded as a branch of that tree. The adult members of the church are part of the tree, and so are the baptised covenant children. They are the shoots growing on the Tree.

For the glory of Christ, let us pray for ourselves and for each other that we may all be mindful of both the goodness and severity of God, and seek to be faithful and fruitful sprigs of His Olive Tree. Amen.

—JJ Lim