Romans 11:22-23 presents an interesting difficulty for the Reformed Protestant doctrine of perseverance, according to which it is impossible for the Elect to lose their salvation. Consider what St. Paul writes in Romans 11 about the People of God as an olive tree. The Jewish people are the cultivated tree; we Gentiles are branches from wild olive trees that have been grafted into the tree.
Remember God’s severity as well as his goodness: his severity to those who fell, and his goodness to you as long as you persevere in it; if not, you too will be cut off. And they, if they do not persevere in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for it is within the power of God to graft them back again. (NJB)
Here’s the thing: a person either is or isn’t grafted into that tree. If he is then he is obviously one of the Elect; if he isn’t, then he cannot be one of their number. It is flatly impossible (as well as more than a little nonsensical) to imagine God grafting wild branches into that tree with the plan of later snapping them off and destroying them. So to be grafted into that tree (or to be a part of it by nature, as believing Jews were and are) just is to be numbered among the Elect. A farmer isn’t about to waste time and energy grafting in branches while planning all the time to chop ’em off again later. The illustration just falls apart.
Now consider St. Paul’s words. God grafts branches in, and if they do not persevere then He cuts them off again. Meanwhile those who have been cut off already can be grafted back in if they repent. How then can one say with divine certitude in this life that his eternal home is assured? I do not see how it can be done in the face of what St. Paul writes here.
What about election? Does it not assure this very thing? Well, the problem with that appeal is that no one knows whether he is Elect (in the sense that he knows God has chosen him for eternal life in His eternal plan). We just don’t, and we can’t. Let us allow Scripture to interpret Scripture, shall we? Consider Deuteronomy 7, where Moses says to Israel:
Yahweh set his heart on you and chose you not because you were the most numerous of all peoples—for indeed you were the smallest of all—but because he loved you and meant to keep the oath which he swore to your ancestors: that was why Yahweh brought you out with his mighty hand and redeemed you from the place of slave-labour, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut. 7:7-8, NJB)
God chose them: they were the Elect. Now, please note that Moses says this particularly about the generation who came out of Egypt: the ones who died in the desert. In short: here are God’s chosen people failing to persevere. Just the same as in St. Paul’s example of the olive tree. The Reformed Protestant notion of perseverance does not make sense of this biblical data. We can indeed fall away, and we must be careful to avoid that. On the other hand, God is able to graft us back in again too. If we fall away, we can also be restored.