16 If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. 19 Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” 20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree (Rom 11:16-24 ESV).
From 2 Peter 2:17-22, I demonstrated how its teaching, specifically that of verses 20-22, fills out our understanding of the eternal security of the believer. Romans 11:16-24 also contains a difficult phrase: “you too will be cut off” in verse 22.
Let’s look at the passage as a whole first. Then we’ll focus on the application of verse 22, in light of the overall context, to the truth that is clearly taught elsewhere in the NT, that all genuine believers in Jesus Christ will enter Heaven.
The overall structure of the passage is that 16 makes a Concession that supports the emphasis of 17-24.
Within 17-24, there is a twofold Progression (17-18 and 19-24). The main points there are the call not to be arrogant (18a) and to fear God instead of being proud (20d-e, 22d).
The main point of the passage, then, is that the nature of the Gentiles as engrafted branches should cause them to fear God in humility. It is faith that connects believers to God’s gracious covenant promises (17c-d, 20c).
So Gentile Christians must fear God instead of being arrogant, and must cling to faith in Christ instead of turning to unbelief (“continue in his kindness”). (Notice how faith and fear are united, as well as unbelief and arrogance. Yet being in Christ is not a reward for faith, but the unmerited kindness of God.)
The question now is this: What does it mean to be “cut off” if you don’t fear God, if you don’t cling to faith in Christ?
What Paul writes elsewhere in Romans and in Galatians helps us understand this passage. Not all Jewish people in his day were really Jewish people. That is, “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical” (Rom 2:28). Rather, to be a true Israelite, you must be spiritually circumcised, praised by God, not men (Rom 2:29). Paul clarifies this truth further in chapter 9, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” (Rom 9:6-7). A true descendant of Abraham is a child of promise (Rom 9:8), that is, one whose birth is miraculous (Gal 4:23), who is in Christ through faith (Gal 3:26, 29).
Therefore, the warning in Romans 11 about the original branches being cut off doesn’t refer to being part of God’s people of promise, by grace through faith, and then being cut off, but being part of a group that externally shares in the benefits of the covenant. It is the same with the warning to the Gentiles in Romans 11: it is those who only look like they are part of the covenant who will be cut off.
Yet such people are often externally indistinguishable from genuine believers; therefore, Scriptural authors address all believers with warnings. God will use those warnings to preserve his saints, so they will never be cut off.