In the French Geneva Bible that I have been handwriting recently, the word “residue” is found where many English translations will put “remnant”:
Rom 11:5 (1616 French Geneva), “Ainsi donc aussi au temps present il y a du residu selon l’election de grace.”
Rom 11:5 (my translation), “Therefore then also in the present time there is residue according to the election of grace.”
Rom 11:5 (NKJ), “Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”
Several thoughts. First of all, residue sounds like a much smaller percentage than remnant. Residue relates to that which remains in a pot after the usable food has been removed with a spoon or spatula. Residue relates to that which is unusable or a byproduct to be discarded in a chemistry experiment.
On the other hand, the word remnant sounds like what is remaining when a woman takes several yards of cloth and cuts out the pieces that she needs to sew something. In this case, the material that is leftover is the remnant. She may even keep the remnants in a container so that she can later make a quilt from the remnants.
In the first case, a cook will take all the edible food out of the pot and place it in the sink so that the residue can be scrubbed out. The residue is usually not worth keeping. There are clearly two different implications locked into the two words used.
In the context of Romans 11:5, citing 1 Kings 19, Elijah felt all alone in Israel as a prophet of God. The connotation is more like the residue at the bottom of a container, than the remnants from a bolt of cloth. Elijah, rightfully or wrongly so, felt like he was all alone in following God. He said, “I alone am left” (1 Kings 19:10).
But what are the theological implications of this text? God was revealing to Elijah that His gracious work of election comprised of a small percentage of Israel. This must have been alarming to Elijah, who likely worked out of the understanding that all of God’s circumcised people were elect. After all, they were God’s chosen nation (Deut 32:8-9).
But God’s work of election worked from a different calculation. He chose a terebinth from among the people (Isa 6:13). A small portion.
Most interestingly, Paul tooks this limited election of grace, that included only a residue, and applied it to the New Testament church, “so in the present time.” Thus, God’s electing work did not only refer to a small portion of Israel, but also to a small portion of the Gentiles in the contemporary times.
So what may be the implications for the church? In the Parable of the Sower, the last three soils outwardly respond to the gospel: the shallow soil, the weed-infested soil, and the good soil. Could not the residue principle explain why only a small percentage of those who profess Christ or profess to be Christians are truly saved? For only the good soil bears fruit, and you shall know them by their fruit (Matt 7:20).
Or how does this “residue” impact church families? It is well known that many young Christians of high school age go off to college only to be turned from their faith by the overt and covert persecution that they encounter. They seem to represent the shallow soil, being scandalized when they encounter persecution because of the word of God. Could this also be a matter of the residue?
In this light an interesting promise is given to the sons of Jonadab son of Rechab in Jeremiah 35:
Jer 35:19, “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not lack a man to stand before Me forever.’”
God did not promise that the entire progeny of Jonadab would be saved, but merely one man in each generation. Imagine that!
It is sobering to consider God’s saving designs. May God grant us to be found faithful in following after Him:
2 Cor 13:5, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified.”