On the morning of May 29th, 1864 Charles Spurgeon began his sermon with the following words: “Such a tremendous weight of meaning is concentrated here, that an archangel’s eloquence would fail to convey its teaching in all its glory to any finite minds, even if seraphs were his hearers. I will affirm that there is no man living who can preach from this text a sermon worthy of it; nay, that among all the sacred orators and the eloquent pleaders for God, there never did live and never will live, a man capable of reaching the height of the great argument contained in these few simple words. I utterly despair of success, and will not therefore make an attempt to work out the infinite glory of these verses. Our great God alone can expound these verses, for He only knows Himself, and He only can worthily set forth His own perfections.”
Pray with me and let’s ask for God’s help…
We’ve come now to a moment of great transition. Romans is, remember, Paul’s most doctrinally robust letter. Which is so exalted and lofty and beautiful, many call Romans Paul’s magnum opus. Paul begins the letter introducing himself and laying out his main theme to his Roman audience, the gospel which concerns God’s Son, the gospel that He doesn’t want them to be unaware of, the gospel that he’s not ashamed of, the gospel that brings salvation to all who believe both Jew and Gentile. After this Paul descends into the depravity of man in Romans 1:18-3:20. Trekking through this cavernous wasteland of gut wrenching reality is difficult and only by God’s grace do we come to agree with God about how fallen and dead in sin we are.
Thankfully Romans doesn’t end in 3:20 but continues on in 3:21 with that famous phrase “But now…” From this point on Paul expounds the remedy to man’s ruin, that by His grace God put Christ forward as an atoning sacrifice for sin to be received by faith. And all who do receive it by faith are declared to be what they’re not, righteous. Paul expands on this doctrine of justification by faith alone by illustrating it in chapter 4 by pointing back to Abraham and proves his case again in chapter 5 by pointing back to Adam. For those who believe, peace with God now comes, and all that we lost in Adam is regained in Christ, the Second Adam. At this point Paul anticipates an objection, that such lavish grace will just be abused, but Paul quickly denies it as he begins chapter 6-7 saying those who truly get grace will see themselves as dead to sin and alive to God as they grow up into Christ in holiness. Therefore, in justification God declared us to be, once and for all, what we’re not, righteous. And in sanctification God slowly but surely makes us into what He’s already declared us to be, righteous.
As if things couldn’t get any better we then arrive at chapter 8. Beginning with no condemnation and ending with no separation we learn that this gospel will take us all the way home. Or to say it like Paul does “…those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.” If we could lose our salvation we would, but we won’t because God preserves us to the end. What end you ask? The end described in chapters 9-11 where Paul describes how God’s righteousness was planned before time, established in history, received by faith alone, preached among the nations, and is now embraced by millions of Gentiles, who by embracing the gospel stir up Israel to jealousy, which ultimately will cause them to return to Christ in the end, and be gathered into the Church. My oh my!
Paul has spoken of the gravity of our sin, the glory of God, the great power of the gospel, and how God grows His people by His grace in that gospel until the end. After all of this, what else can Paul do but rejoice in God’s grand plan to glorify Himself through the redemption of His people? Well, we’ve now come to it. In 11:33-36, Karl Barth says, Paul could not have provided a more fitting conclusion to these eleven chapters. A hymn of praise to God for His purposes and plans that is indeed glorious.
This passage divides into three points of threes. Let’s take them one at a time as they come to us in the text.
Three Exclamations (v33)
Exclamation 1: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”
Exclamation 2: “How unsearchable are His judgments…”
Exclamation 3: “…and how inscrutable His ways!”
In crafting this hymn Paul is careful with his pen. These first three exclamations, in Greek, form two almost identical lines. The grammar in Greek flows like this: they both have five words, the first large and central word in each begins with the same letter, and they both end with the same word. The flow is the same, the meaning is robust, and the cadence is clear. Lesson? Paul isn’t merely writing a fitting conclusion to all this hefty doctrine in a cold academic manner, no. He’s singing praise to God, and Paul’s praise to God is as exact and precise as His doctrine of God has been throughout the letter!
Like a traveler who has reached the summit of an alpine ascent, Paul stops and contemplates over all that’s come before. He begins with the idea of depths, but not dark or musty black depths, no. Depths of God filled with the bright lights of radiant glory, which not only bring to mind God’s vast immensity and profundity but also God’s unplumbable nature. But specifically, what of God does Paul attribute depth to? Three things: God’s riches, God’s wisdom, and God’s knowledge.
The depth of His riches brings earlier passages in Romans to mind. 2:4, “Do you presume on the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Also, 9:22-23, “What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He prepare beforehand for glory…” Lastly, 10:12, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing riches on all who call on Him.” ‘Riches’ in Romans then is all the good God brings to and lavishes on those who have faith in His Son. And that’s not all, Paul keeps on to the depth of God’s wisdom and knowledge. These two are interrelated. The depth of His wisdom meaning the great plan of salvation in Christ He has executed for Jew and Gentile alike and the depth of God’s knowledge meaning not only God’s omniscience or His knowledge of all things, but His intimate knowledge of all His elect chosen people. Or we could say, knowledge refers to God’s complete and exhaustive understanding while wisdom refers to God’s ordering of all things to the grand design of His great plan. These riches, this wisdom, and this knowledge therefore, all refer to God’s grand redemptive plan that He…has crafted, is carrying out, and will complete. The depth of these realities makes the Grand Canyon look like a mere crack in the pavement.
I said earlier these bring to mind God’s vast immensity and profundity but as we move on in v33 we see Paul adding onto this the idea of incomprehensibility. “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” When we seek to define the incomprehensibility of God we must take great care in what we say. For example, if you looked up the modern definition of incomprehensible you would find the definition to read ‘unable to be understood.’ Do you see what’s wrong with that definition? God, His Person, Work, and Word do not fall under the category of being unable to be understood. We truly can understand God, for God has revealed Himself in the world and the Word, or general and special revelation. How are we then to define the incomprehensibility of God? We must use the older definition of the word incomprehensible, which says God is ‘unable to be fully understood.’ So, to say God is incomprehensible is to say He is infinite and because we’re finite we’ll never be able to understand God fully. Never will we be able to read the Bible and come away feeling a haughty posture as if we’ve mastered what we just read and never need to read it again. After eleven chapters of deep doctrine and gospel logic how does Paul come away from that section? Boasting? Strutting? Arrogant? No. Eleven chapters of deep doctrine brings Paul to his knees, it brings him to wonder and awe leaving him with a feeling that he has barely scraped the surface of God’s wondrous works.
We are often impressed by those with advanced degrees in this world and yet there remains in these degreed minds vast amounts of unknown knowledge. We can truly say that even the brightest minds in the world still have more ignorance than knowledge in them. This is not so with the God. In Him there is nothing but riches, wisdom, and knowledge.God’s judgments, ways, plan, purposes, and decrees are truly knowable and graspable yet unsearchable, inscrutable, and incomprehensible.
Three Questions (v34-35)
“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him that He might be repaid?”
In these two verses Paul builds on v33 by asking three questions. Questions they are, sure, but Paul doesn’t want any answers to these questions. To ask them is to answer them. None have fully known the mind of the Lord, no one has been His counselor, and no one has given a gift to God that God might repay him. These are rhetorical questions. But even though the questions themselves imply a negative answer, do not miss the positive things they teach us. Because none have fully known the mind of the Lord, because no one has been His counselor, and because no one has given a gift to God that God might repay him…God is completely self-sufficient, wholly sovereign, and entirely independent.
These questions don’t just pop out of nowhere either, the first two come from Isaiah 40. In Isaiah 40 God gives Israel great comfort reminding them that He is ever faithful in the midst of their confusion. Salvation for Israel in that day seemed impossible but God promises to save them stating that He will gather them in His arms like a shepherd tends to His sheep and confirms this promise to them by saying “Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows Him His counsel? Whom did He consult, and who made Him understand? Who taught Him the path of justice, and taught Him knowledge, and showed Him the way of understanding?” (Isa. 40:13-14) Paul brings this same thought forward here in v34 to comfort God’s people and confirm God’s promises to them by reminding them that just as He gathered Israel into His arms as their shepherd then so too He will do the same with the Church He’s creating out of Jew and Gentile. How will He do this? Through Christ. That’s not to be missed. Because Paul also quotes Isaiah 40 in 1 Cor. 2:16 but adds afterwards, “But we have the mind of Christ.” Meaning, none truly have been the Lord’s counselor, but One has known His mind, Jesus Christ, and all in Him gain a true knowledge of God’s mind and will.
Paul’s third question in v35 also comes from the Old Testament. Not Isaiah 40, this time Paul quotes from Job 41. Remember? Job suffered greatly, we know that, but in his suffering he had strongly objected to God’s rule over all things going as far as saying that God had worn him out, given him up to the ungodly, and run him down like a warrior (Job 16). Well beginning in Job 38 God responds to these accusations and in Job 41 God is nearing the end of His 63 questions to Job, “Where were you, Job, when the foundations of the earth were laid?…Can you catch the Leviathan with a fish hook?…Who then is he who can stand before Me? Who has first given to Me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven in Mine.” Job learns his place in this questioning and Paul quotes Job 41 to teach that what Job learned back then, every Jew and Gentile need to learn today. That: 1) God is God and we are not – that God is not in our debt – that God doesn’t owe us anything, and 2) all the redeemed are ever in God’s debt because of His grace.
Three Prepositions (v36)
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.”
In v36 we have what many have called the ‘sum and substance’ of the whole counsel of God. Here we have the conclusion of the doxology and in it Paul does much a few words. Perhaps I should say small words because here three prepositions are central. From, through, and to. “For from Him…” means God is the owner and source of all things. “…and through Him…” means God is the ultimate cause and instrument by which all things come to pass. “…and to Him are all things.” Means God is the end for which all things were created, the end to which all things are headed. Paul then concludes with the only words suitable for such a moment, “To Him be glory forever. Amen.”
Three exclamations, three questions, and three prepositions. Now, what do we take away from Paul’s doxology? Allow me to put forward four applications for us.
First, only a big God brings great joy.
Romans is a book filled with doctrine that is wildly debated. Yet for Paul, the big and sovereign God of the book of Romans brings him great joy. We should be reminded from this that great joy doesn’t come from elevating human accomplishment or human virtue, no. Great joy comes from seeing ourselves as we are: sinful, wretched, unable, completely dependent on God to save. These are the things that bring Paul the deepest joy. Do they to you? If not, what does bring you deep joy? (expand…)
Second, there is no worship without truth.
The doxology of Romans doesn’t come to us from Paul by itself, in isolation from everything else. In context, it comes to us after truth, with the truth, and alongside the truth. Like twigs in a fire, truth is the kindling of the flames of worship. We do not stir ourselves up in a kind of frenzy to worship rightly. We do not empty our minds to worship rightly. No. Right worship is always a response to revelation, the Revelation of God in the Scriptures to be specific. When it fills our minds it renews our minds, and when it renews our minds it also enflames the heart and ignites the will. The whole soul is then fully alive in praise to God.
Third, there is no truth without worship.
Paul doesn’t handle the great doctrines of Romans as a scientist would in a lab. There is no such thing as studying God’s truth in a detached, cold, or unaffected manner. Psalm 111:2 says it well, “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.” Yes the works of God are great, and yes the great works of God are to be studied. But, by studying the great works of God, God means to increase our delight in Him. So, if we’re studying rightly, feeling the weight of the text, and are moved by God (as Paul is here in our text) what will result? Worship.
Fourth, do not miss the bridge! When we take a step back from the book of Romans to look at the whole book, a thing of beauty that stands out. We’ve already mentioned how the first 11 chapters of this letter give us some of the richest, deepest, and thickest theology in the entire Bible. After writing this glorious treasure trove of theology in Romans 1-11, what happens? Paul explodes into praise and this praise from Paul has often been called the bridge in Romans because of where it comes from and where it leads to.
I say where it comes from because before the bridge we have rich theology; and I say where it leads to because after this bridge we have chapter 12 which begins the last section of Romans that deals primarily with application. Why is this important? Because a pattern reveals itself here. Is it any surprise that rich theology leads to deep praise, and deep praise then leads to robust application? No, at least it shouldn’t surprise us. Therefore, Romans 11:33-36 functions as a bridgebetween orthodoxy (sound doctrine) and orthopraxy (sound living). This praise connects to the two and in a true sense unites them in common purpose and common joy. Imagine Paul writing this as a boiling pot of water getting hotter and hotter to the boiling point as he is finishing chapter 11. He then explodes in praise, because that is what the theology has led him to. The praise then leads Paul to describe how the theology affects our everyday relationships including other believers, our authorities, and weaker brothers/sisters.
So, contrary to popular opinion, theology done correctly leads to the praise of God. So many people believe theology is a word that gives images of damp libraries, musty tomes, and somber monasteries. That couldn’t be more wrong. When people give up on deep thinking about the deep things of God they give up the very thing that will lead them to deep worship of God. I do not know whoever began saying that seminaries should be called cemeteries, but they obviously did not see this pattern in Romans. If you’re a deep thinker of God and love deep theology, this is for you. If you feel you can only scratch the surface of Paul’s thought, this is for you. No matter if you dive in over your head, or jump in the shallow end of theology, it should lead you to praise, and that praise should lead to a practical out working of the great truths you have learned.
 Charles Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit – Volume 10, 1864 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1991 reprint) 301.
 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1972 reprint) 423.
 Douglas Moo, Romans – NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996) 740.
 Grant R. Osborne, Romans – Verse by Verse (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017) accessed via Logos Bible Software 10/2/19.
 Frederic Louis Godet, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1977) 416.
 John Murray, Epistle to the Romans – NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968) 106.
 R.C. Sproul, Romans – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009) 394.
 Murray, 107.
 Grant R. Osborne, Romans – IVP NTC (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004) 315-316.
 Sproul, 398.
 Application 2-4 are taken from Tim Keller, Romans 8-16 For You (Epsom, Surrey, UK: The Good Book Company, 2017) 98-100.
 R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness From Heaven – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991) 198.