Today we read Romans 11, which contains this interesting passage:
5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Who is this “remnant”?
First, we must understand the context of this passage and in this case the general story of salvation history as a whole. The story of the bible pretty much follows a pattern that we can see over and over. God raises up his people. They fall back into sin but a small group or “Remnant” remains faithful. God uses the remnant to restore his people. Repeat.
This is the basic story of Abraham. This is the basic story of Noah. And this is the basic story of Elijah, which Paul is directly referencing in the beginning of Chapter 11.
If we read the begging of Chapter 11 closely we can see that Paul is comparing the present state of Israel with this historical pattern, particularly with the story of Elijah. Normally, the remnant is that small number of Jews that remain faithful and God uses to restore Israel. Paul is saying that this time the remnant is those Jews that have converted to follow Christ. This faithful remnant exists within the Church and will preserve Israel’s fidelity to the Lord until the time when all Israel will be restored.
The Church teaches that this faithful remnant continues to exist in all generations. They are the converts who by grace achieve great holiness. Many Jewish people who convert to Christianity tell of feeling a special pull of grace and an infusion of grace after conversion that brings a deep robust faith. Jewish converts will tell you that after converting to Christianity they feel more Jewish than they ever did before. For a great book on the subject consider reading “Salvation is from the Jews” by Roy H. Schoeman.
Also, this remnant is not necessarily only Jewish converts any longer. There may well be a Muslim remnant, a Buddhist remnant, etc. It is those people of other faiths who through their conversion hold their ethnic brethren in an associated good standing with God. There likely even is a “Christian remnant” or a “remnant with the remnant” that are the truly faithful and holy Christians.
But what about what this passage says about works? Knowing the context illuminates the meaning of the passage. At the time of Elijah a large numbers of the Israelites had fallen away and slipped back into paganism and were worshiping Baal. Elijah thinks he is the only one left and God tells him of this faithful remnant. Now, let us look at the whole passage in context:
Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
So we are talking about Israelites, who follow the works of the Mosiac law – the temple sacrifices, ritual purification, keeping the Sabbath, etc. These works were not enough to keep them from falling into Pagan worship but God chose, by the giving of grace, to keep some faithful, to keep some protected from falling. Thus, the passage makes perfect sense in light of the proper Catholic understanding of the relationship of grace, faith and works. It is grace that keeps you faithful and works (mosaic works of the law or good works) do not save you. However, having been kept faithful by grace the works of the remnant remain meritorious to God during the time of the Elijah. It remains the same today.