Israel's Fate

Question
I'm interested in your interpretation of Romans 9:27-28 and Romans 11:26-27. Is it God's intention to save all of Israel at time's end whether or not they accept Christ as their savior?
Answer
You raise an important question in light of these two texts which, on the surface, might appear to contradict one another. The short answer is that we believe that no one is saved apart from Christ -- all those who deny Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, will perish eternally without him.

Romans 9:27-28 is very important in this regard. In the context of Romans 9 as a whole, it emphasizes God's determination to save only "the children of the promise" (Rom. 9:8), excluding some who belong to the community of Israel (Rom. 9:6-8,11). Only those who pursue righteousness by faith and not by works (Rom. 9:30-33) will be saved -- these are the one's whom God has mercifully chosen to bring to saving faith (Rom. 9:15-18). Some of these whom God has chosen to save are from the community of Israel (Rom. 9:6,11,23-24,29), while others are Gentiles (Rom. 9:24-26,30). Romans 9:27-28 specifically say that some will not be saved.

Romans 11:26-27 is a passage with a long history of variety in its interpretation. Some claim that it refers to "spiritual Israel," that is, to all the elect including both Jews and Gentiles. Some claim that it refers to the entire nation of Israel. Personally, I think the context of the book and the chapter indicate that it refers to the elect remnant within national Israel, but before I explain my reasoning, I need to make one further clarification.

Most interpreters of Romans 11:26-27 have thought that these verses apply to the time of Christ's return, or to the entire period between Christ's first and second advents. Some have seen a great turning of Jews to Christ at his return (either in full or in majority). Others have understood this passage to explain how God is faithful to Israel by saving a remnant of Jews in every generation through the normal means of the preaching of the gospel. Still others have understood these verses to refer to God's faithfulness to the church (Jew and Gentile) in all generations. I am of the opinion that while Paul's words have implications for the entire period between Christ's first and second advents, his main point has to do with his own times -- the church and Israel as they existed during Paul's own ministry.

Thus, my position is that "all Israel" refers to the elect Jews, and that it primarily refers to those who were alive during the time of Paul's ministry. A major emphasis in Paul's ministry was his attempt to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers in the church (e.g. the book of Galatians). We see a wonderful and compact version of this in Ephesians. Notice that in Ephesians 1:3-2:10 he explained the plan of salvation in Christ. Then, in Ephesians 2:11-19, he explained that one significant aspect of Christ's work was that it allowed Jews and Gentiles equal access to God's covenant blessings, including salvation. He pointed out that Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way (the way of faithful Jews), and on that basis argued for the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the church. Neither group can claim any superiority over the other because neither has a superior claim to salvation. In Ephesians 3:6, Paul laid out the great mystery to which he frequently referred in his letters: "Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." After explaining this, he proceeded to a doxology praising God for this great reconciliation (Eph. 3:20-21), and then used the metaphor of the body to encourage believers -- Jew and Gentile alike -- to live lives of unity in the church (Eph. 4:1-16).

In a much more detailed fashion, this is also what Paul did in Romans 1-12. First, he established the plan of salvation in Christ which applied to both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 1-9). Next, he explained specifically that this same plan applied to Jew and Gentile (Rom. 10:1-11:32). Then he proceeded to a doxology praising God for this great wonder (Rom. 11:33-36), and then used the metaphor of the body to encourage believers to live lives of unity in the church (Rom. 12:1-16). Now, as we have seen, the plan of salvation will not change in the future, but Paul's main goal was not to lay out a theology of salvation. Rather, his point was to argue from this theology to the application that Jews and Gentiles should be reconciled in the church -- particularly at the time when he was writing.

With that background, here are some specifics from Romans 9-11 that support my reading:

In Romans 9, Paul took great pains to explain that God was faithful to Israel. He did this by redefining Israel: "They are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6). In the latter portions of Romans 9 and in Romans 10, he did use the terms "Israel" and "Jew" to refer to the entire people group, but he did this with the idea firmly in mind that this people group consisted of two distinct sub-groups: those who believed, and those who did not. In Romans 11:1, he again addressed the issue of Romans 9:6 -- has God rejected Israel? Paul answered no, insisting that God was faithful to his promises because he was faithful to the faithful Israelites. In Romans 9, he had called these elect people "Israel" in distinction from their apostate brethren. In Romans 11, he adopted the idea of "remnant" to identify this same group (Rom. 11:1-6).

Then, in Romans 11:7-15, Paul explained that the Jews at-large had been hardened to the gospel in order that salvation might come to the Gentiles. That is, because the majority of Jews rejected the gospel, the church began to evangelize the Gentiles. But Paul believed that not every Jew who had been hardened was hopelessly lost. Rather, he believed that some elect Jews had been temporarily hardened in order that the Gentiles might be saved, but that God would bring these elect Jews to faith as soon as the church had sufficiently gained a foothold with the Gentiles. This is why he spoke of his hope that he himself might move his countrymen to jealousy and bring them to faith (Rom. 11:14) -- Paul hoped to see the hardened Jews turn to Christ during his own lifetime and ministry (compare "at the present time" [Rom. 11:5]).

However, Paul also recognized that the tensions between the Jews and the Gentiles in the church might make it difficult for the Gentiles to desire the evangelization of these elect but temporarily hardened Jews. Thus, he gave the Gentiles a reason to respect even unconverted Jews by using the metaphor of the olive tree (Rom. 11:16-24). In this metaphor, he again referred to his present time by telling the Roman Gentile Christians not to be arrogant toward the Jews (Rom. 11:18), and by explaining that the branches (Jews) that had been broken off the olive tree were capable of being re-grafted into the olive tree if they did not continue in their unbelief (Rom. 11:23). Paul was not just talking about the group as a whole, but he highlighted the fact that individual branches could be grafted back into the tree if they received the gospel. His point was simply that there were yet more Jews whom God would save, and the Gentiles should receive them into the church warmly when these Jews converted.

Next follow the verses which have generated the controversy about the "fullness of the Gentiles" and "all Israel" (Rom. 11:25-32). In this section, Paul again told the Gentiles to not to reject these elect (Rom. 11:28) but yet unconverted Jews, and again argues from the plan of salvation. He reminded the Gentile believers that there was a time when they themselves did not believe, and also reminded them that they were converted and saved. Then he asserted that, in the same way, the yet unconverted Jews were capable of being saved. Paul expected the salvation of these Jews to take place during his ministry: "These also now ... they also may now be shown mercy" (Rom. 11:31). Notice also that he foresaw a problem with the present Gentile believers when these Jews received the gospel. He was not speaking of a far-off time, but of his own time.

Of the "fullness of the Gentiles," it is hard to speak definitively. The term is not a common one, so to assign a particular meaning to it on the basis of the word "fullness" is rather dangerous. I believe that Paul simply meant to refer to the time when the Gentiles had become a mainstay in the church, the time when enough Gentiles had been converted that they were a noticeable and permanent presence, and when their numbers were significant enough to move the Jews to jealousy (Rom. 11:14). In any event, we must understand the term in light of the fact that Paul expected it to take place during his ministry.

"All Israel," in turn, cannot refer to the entire nation in light of Paul's teaching in Romans 9. Moreover, nowhere in this context did Paul use the term "Israel" to refer to anyone who was not of this people group (as in "spiritual Israel," believing Jews and Gentiles together). In fact, he specifically said that he was talking about his "fellow-countrymen" (Rom. 11:14). Since he had already established the use of "Israel" to refer to the elect remnant within national/religious Israel, we may expect him to use the term either to refer to the nation or to the elect remnant. The context must show us which meaning he intends to convey in any particular verse. Paul obviously did not think he was contradicting himself, so the logical conclusion is to understand that by "all Israel will be saved" he meant that all the elect Jews who were alive in his day and had temporarily rejected the gospel would soon come to faith. When those elect Jews who were not yet converted joined those Jews who had already been converted, then "all Israel" would be saved. This is why he is so thankful in his doxology -- he expects his ministry and that of his fellow evangelists to accomplish what he wants it to accomplish, namely the conversion of many of his contemporary countrymen (Rom. 11:14).

Of course, one implication of this teaching is that Gentiles in all ages should not be arrogant toward unconverted (or converted) Jews. Because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29), we can expect that there will always be an elect remnant within national/religious Israel. We should always seek reconciliation and unity within the church, and we should always desire and welcome the conversion of the Jews.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.