I have a very specific agenda in this post. I want to propose a reading of Romans 11 very different from those commonly available on the market today. In particular I want to take a close look at Romans 11:25-27 and attempt to give an answer to the difficult question of what Paul means when he says "all Israel will be saved". I don't want to show my cards too quickly, though, so let’s start with the broader context and build our way step by step.
What is Romans 9-11 all about? We do good to ask this question at the outset of our study in order to keep the answer at the front of our minds while wading through the details. We should reject the old notion that this section is peripheral to the thrust of Paul’s argument. It is no mere addendum to an otherwise coherent systematic theology, rather it is the theological crescendo of a letter with a very pressing pastoral concern.
Paul has just mounted eight chapters of the most robust and deliberative argument with the intent of placing Jew and Gentile on the same footing in the family of Abraham. This has been his logic: God’s covenant faithfulness has been now been revealed, stunningly apart from Israel’s observance of Torah, through the singular faithfulness of Israel’s representative, Jesus of Nazareth; and therefore Israel has no ethnic boast, because membership in the covenant does not stand on the grounds of national boundary-markers like circumcision, but rather on the grounds of a Spirit-empowered faithfulness responding to the faithfulness of Jesus.
So now the question confronts us: If all this is so, and God’s promises stand on the grounds of faith, through Jesus, and not on the grounds of Torah, then what do we say of Israel herself? Since the majority of the nation presently rejects this Jesus, what does this all say of the covenant God made with Abraham? Is it suspended? And if so, how does this reflect on God’s own righteousness? This is what chaps. 9-11 are all about.
Paul’s reply to this question becomes explicit, first of all, in 9:6 and 9:14. "But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect… What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!" Echoing the main theme of chaps. 3-4, Paul declares that God actually has remained faithful to His promise to Abraham, stunningly in spite of Israel’s widespread rejection of the gospel. But the real issue, Paul replies, is who Abraham’s "seed", the children of promise, really are: “for they are not all Israel who are of Israel”. What does this mean?
Many are quick to point out that this phrase doesn’t necessarily imply that Gentiles are included in the true “Israel”, that in and of itself it only insists negatively that not all Jews are included in that company. That's true. However, Paul doesn’t mean for this to be a stand-alone statement. He goes on to state positively: “But the children of the promise are counted as the seed”. The question is, Who are the ones that are counted as Abraham’s descendants? Considering the foundation Paul has laid already in chap. 4 and following the logic of the present passage to his own conclusion in vv. 23-33, it seems hard to deny that he includes Gentiles in the “children of promise”, the “seed”, and thus in the true eschatological “Israel” of v. 6.
The initial answer which Paul gives to the question concerning God’s righteousness is perhaps different than many would expect. In an argument sprawling throughout chapters 9 and 10 and built upon all he has said thus far in the letter, the apostle declares boldly that the word of God actually has taken effect (9:6-13), that there is presently a company enjoying the covenantal privileges of 9:4-5. Surprisingly (and undoubtedly just as controversial to Paul's audience as it is to us) we find that this group is comprised largely of Gentiles, but that many of those descended from Israel have forsaken their standing in the covenant, because, as Paul says, they have not submitted to the righteousness of God unveiled in Christ (9:30-10:4, 14-21).
Chapter 11 then begins by asking the appropriate question, now that God's reputation has been cleared of the accusation of unrighteousness: “has God cast away his people?” Certainly, given what Paul has said in 9-10 alone, such a conclusion would be quite easy to reach. But Paul responds, just as resoundingly as he did in 9:6, with an unwavering “Certainly not!” He then goes on in 11:1-10 to point out that the present remnant of Christian Jews (of which he himself is a prime example) demonstrate well enough that God has not rejected the Jewish people. Paul realizes that one could reply, however, that while the present remnant may prove that God has not rejected ethnic Israel, that fact alone does not suggest that any more would return. Has the remainder of as-of-yet-unsaved Israel stumbled beyond recovery? Paul's response to this further inquiry makes up the rest of chapter 11.
Most Christians are at least vaguely familiar with Romans 11:11-36, but this is the point at which it is most important for us to keep our finger on the text and not short-circuit the process of exegesis by assuming we already know where Paul is going. Very different groups at opposite ends of the theological spectrum have a deep investment in their particular interpretations of this passage, so we do well to tread lightly on this ground and with an awareness of how it has been mishandled in the past. The goal of this exercise does not boil down to a pat on the back in an "ivory tower" for having figured the text out. Hearts and lives are involved here.
Romans 11:11-36 and the question of "all Israel"
There have historically been two primary interpretations of what exactly Paul's main point is in Romans 11:11-36, finding their biggest point of disagreement in vv. 25-26. The first would say, with different variations, that Paul is speaking prophetically of a corporate salvation of the Jewish people at the end of the age. The second would say, also with variations, that he is speaking of the salvation of all God's people, Jew and Gentile alike, and that "all Israel" in v. 26 refers to that company. Although this second position is by far the minority view in both the Church and the academic world today, it is by no means completely abandoned and recently it has even been making somewhat of a comeback through the revamped interpretations of notable scholars like N.T. Wright.
To speak personally for a moment, I have spent a good amount of time on both sides of the fence in regards to this passage, and over time I have found them both to be lacking in green. They both fall short, that is, in the most important details of uncovering the grammatical coherence and inner logic of vv. 25-26, and then in fitting that into the larger context of what Paul is getting at in the passage. But what if there was a third option? What if there was a reading that did more justice to the text than either seeing 11:26 as speaking of (a) a mass end-time conversion of the Jewish race or (b) seeing the "Israel" there as the redefined "Israel" of 9:6-8? I believe there is, and I will spend the rest of this post attempting to expound this third option.
Through reading Wright's Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Romans and his chapter on Romans 9-11 in Climax of the Covenant I have been convinced about one thing: Romans 11:26 is not talking about an end-time salvation of the whole nation of Israel. If it was it would stand in direct contradiction to Paul's real purpose in that chapter. Many think that when Paul says “how much more their fullness!” in verse 12 he is implying what they already assume he means in v. 26, i.e. an eschatological salvation of the whole Jewish race. But he continues in the very next line, connecting it to what he's just said with the conjunction gar ("for"), that he expects “some” of his ethnic brethren to be saved through his mission to the Gentiles. There is a sober realism to v. 14, reflecting years of hard missionary experience and being flogged in synagogues. Verse 15 then continues in the same vein, connected itself to v. 14 by gar.
But it’s not only Paul's “some” that stands in the way here. It’s also the “if” of v. 23, which suggests that Paul genuinely doesn't know what the “full number” of ethnic Israel will look like. Combine both of these with the fact that the “fullness” of the Gentiles in v. 25 obviously doesn’t imply that “all Gentiles” will be saved, and that v. 31 assures us that the time of mercy for Israel is “now”, and I think we can safely say that neither v. 12 nor v. 15 can be taken to imply a mass salvation of ethnic Israel at or around the second coming. The text just doesn't allow for this.
And all of this of course has bearing on v. 26 as well. Since 11:25 begins with the conjunction “for” and v. 26a continues with “and”, we should assume that they are an explanation of what has gone before and not a new and radically separate point (which is exactly what a mass end-time salvation of ethnic Israel would be). Furthermore, the wording at the start of v. 26—translated “and so” in the NKJV and NASB, and “and in this way” in the ESV—does not denote a temporal progression, but rather a logical one. Nowhere in Romans does houtos ever come close to meaning “then” or “after that”. Paul is explaining that this is how (houtos) God is saving all Israel, not that this is when he will save all Israel (i.e. after the fullness of the Gentiles comes in). Those who attempt to find support for a mass eschatological salvation of ethnic Israel from this passage would do good to look elsewhere.
The problem I've found with Wright’s reading, however, is that I don’t think he follows through on his own critique. He makes a big deal of how the conjunction which introduces the thought of vv. 25-26 ("for") links that thought with what has just preceded in vv. 11- 24, but then he fails to show how his interpretation of those verses actually explains the train of thought in vv. 11-24. Sure, it stands in continuity with much of Paul’s agenda in Romans as a whole, and it is definitely preferable to the Dispensational reading, which has no support whatsoever, but Wright fails to explain what purpose a supposed polemical redefinition of “Israel” serves in relation to Paul’s main purpose in this passage.
Paul is concerned, right up until the statement in question, with developing an argument for why God is not finished with ethnic Israel: “How much more”, he says in v. 24, “will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree.” The “for” (gar) that v. 25 begins with suggests that Paul is still developing the “how much more” argument of the preceding verse, not intruding into it from outside with a claim that Israel's hardening and the ingathering of the Gentiles is actually the way by which God is saving all his people, a renewed "Israel" comprised largely of Gentiles. Yes, a redefined “Israel” has precedent from 9:6-8, but Paul’s argument has moved on from there. If we are committed to reading vv. 25-26 in continuity with the preceding sequence of thought—and the rules of exegesis demand that we should—then we must not be content with Wright’s reading of those verses, for it fails to do justice to the central concern and inner logic of the text itself.
And nor does it do justice to the verses that follow. If we take out vv. 25-26 we find that vv. 28-32 continue right where v. 24 left off: Ethnic Israel may have been cast away for the sake of the Gentiles, but they are still beloved for the sake of the Patriarchs and chosen for God’s purpose by his immutable grace (vv. 28-29). For in the same way that the Gentile Christians were once rebellious and yet have presently found mercy through the rebellion of the Jewish people, even so the Jews have been rebellious in order that God might now show mercy to them also (vv. 30-31). For God has committed them all to disobedience in order that he might have mercy on all (v. 32).
In line with the previous 10 chapters of Romans, Paul here envisions redemptive history playing itself out in a great circle: (1) humanity falls; (2) God chooses Israel to be his instrument of salvation through the law; (3) Israel fails, so that God sends his son, the Messiah, to save the world apart from the law; (4) God provokes Israel to jealousy by the world’s coming into Israel’s promises through Israel’s Messiah; (5) all of humanity, both Jew and Gentile, are saved by God’s grace alone. There is a special emphasis on parts (3), (4) and (5) as Paul closes off the main theological portion of the letter. We can see part (4) of this sequence most clearly throughout Romans 11:11-32, because that of course is Paul's main concern in this passage. The problem with Wright's view of vv. 25-26 is that he effectually erases this step from the process.
But notice in particular that there is an instrumental relationship between parts (3) and (4), where Paul sees Israel’s blindness serving a sovereign purpose both for the Gentiles and, paradoxically, for Israel herself. He claims throughout this passage that the salvation which has spread to the world as the result of Israel’s transgression is not in itself the end of the story, but rather serves a purpose of its own—that is, to “provoke them to jealousy”. Over and over again Paul sums up the previous theme concerning Israel’s call to be a “vessel of wrath” for the sake of the world: “by their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11); “their trespass means riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles” (11:12); “their casting away means the reconciliation of the world” (11:15); “you have received mercy because of their disobedience” (11:30). This repeated emphasis is clearly a major theme of 11:11-32, but it is not the main one. Rather, it forms the first part of a double movement, each of these statements having a second part: “…in order to provoke them to jealousy” (11:11); “…how much more their fullness!” (11:12); “…their acceptance will be life from the dead” (11:15); “…even so they have now been disobedient, so that through the mercy shown to you they might now receive mercy” (11:31).
This pervasive double movement may give us the key to understanding the meaning of houtos in 11:26. If context counts for anything, it very likely refers to the paradoxical relationship between Israel’s fall and her restoration which has been the subject of the whole passage. Just like her representative, the Messiah, so Israel must come through the process of death and resurrection, as v. 15 says with its echoes of 4:17 and 4:25. Or, again, as the logic of vv. 30-32 runs: God has committed Israel to disobedience so that (significantly, houtos appears again in v. 31) he might ultimately have mercy on Israel.
This, then, is how I now believe 11:25-26 should be interpreted: God’s method of saving ethnic Israel is to harden them, i.e. committing them to the rebellion which they persistently chose, so as to create a period of time in which the Gentile mission could be accomplished, and, paradoxically through this mission, to provoke Israel to jealousy so that they might let go of their death-grip to Torah, relinquish their ethnic claim, and come in by the same gracious mercy which God has shown to the Gentiles, i.e. by faith. The emphasis is not on the number who will be saved, the "all" (which can only mean the same thing as the "fullness" of the previous verse and the "all" of v. 32, i.e. all who will come to God through repentance), but rather on the manner of their salvation, the "this is how" (i.e. through being cast away so that they might be saved, along with the Gentiles, by God's grace through Christ). It seems to me that this reading has much more going for it, both contextually and gramatically, than the other two alternatives.
As I have already noted, Paul sees this whole process taking place progressively in the present, the salvation of Jews and Gentiles taking place side by side—he does not envision the salvation of “all Israel” taking place at some separate dispensation in the future, for he hopes that the current remnant of Jewish Christians will be greatly enlarged through his own ministry to the Gentiles (11:14). Just as the Gentiles can receive mercy “now” through Israel’s disobedience, so too the same offer of mercy is held out to Israel “now” (11:30-31), but only “if they do not continue in unbelief” (11:23).
But what do we make of Paul's quotations of Isaiah in vv. 26b-27? Surely, many would argue, Paul is quoting Isaiah 59 with Christ's Second Coming in mind, so he must therefore be thinking of a large-scale act of salvation at the end of the age throughout these verses, not the steady process of "jealousy" and consequent coming to faith that has been the theme of the chapter so far. This reading has of course been very popular, but considering both the context of Isaiah 59 and the particular way in which Paul has been reading the OT throughout Romans, I think we can safely say that he has something very different in mind here.
The first half of Isaiah 59 is about Israel's failure to walk out their calling as God's Servant to the world and how instead they have gone down an unjust and crooked path, turning in on themselves in ever increasing wickedness and rebellion against their God. In response to this, the second half of the chapter pictures God acting, by "his own arm", to bring salvation for both Israel and the world, dealing with their sin finally and forever. In its own context, the verse which Paul quotes is all about Israel's sins being forgiven, the exile being undone and the covenant being renewed by the "word" and the "Spirit" which were promised long ago. And this, we remind ourselves, is precisely what Paul says God has done through Jesus. The theme of Isaiah 59 is thus the perfect backdrop for the whole theme of Romans, the good news that God's righteousness has been unveiled, apart from the law, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
The cumulative point of 11:25-27, built especially upon 2:17-3:26 and 7:5-8:30, is that God has accomplished through Jesus what Israel hoped and yet failed to accomplish through the rigorous observance of national law. Paul recognizes that the covenant could not be renewed and Israel could not be redeemed through the law but only through an initiative from God himself—or, as Isaiah says, "by his own arm". And just like Isaiah, Paul recognizes that there had to a be casting away in order for there to be restoration. Israel had to be committed to disobedience in order that her God might have mercy on all. This is the mysterious process, according to God's great and unsearchable wisdom, through which all Israel will be saved.
Oh, the depth of the riches of both the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become his counselor? Or who has first given to him and it should be repaid to him?” For of him and to him and through him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.