This is part of a series of posts on Romans. The main focus of this series will be chapters 9-11 of the letter. These chapters, particularly chapter 9, have been interpreted in various different ways. My aim is to demonstrate what I consider to be the correct interpretation. I will do this by considering the structure and context of the letter and then focusing in on these chapters, showing how the proposed interpretation fits with the context and structure of the letter, as well as being internally consistent within chapters 9-11. Click here for the contents page.
Following Paul’s metaphor of an olive tree for the spiritual people of God, and his teaching that unbelieving ethnic Israelites are still able to join the spiritual people of God, we’re now reaching the end of this section of Romans (11:1-32). Paul continues his message to the Gentile believers:
“ For I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers, lest you be wise in your own opinion: a hardening of part of Israel has happened until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, [26a] and in this way all Israel will be saved.”
The phrase ‘a hardening of part of Israel has happened’ is sometimes translated as ‘a partial hardening has happened to Israel’. The question is whether the word ‘part’/’partial’ refers to the extent of the hardening (i.e. only a part of ethnic Israel has been hardened) or the degree of the hardening (i.e. it is not a “full-strength” hardening but only a “partial-strength” hardening). If it refers to the extent of the hardening, then ‘Israel’ in this phrase refers to all ethnic Israelites, with only a ‘part’ of these being hardened (i.e. only the unbelieving ethnic Israelites). If it refers to the degree of the hardening, then ‘Israel’ must refer only to the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, because Paul has already explained that only the unbelieving ethnic Israelites have been hardened.
Whichever translation is used, the situation is the same: some ethnic Israelites have been hardened, while the others are already trusting in Christ. This matches with verse 7, which states that ‘Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened’. Therefore, only a ‘part’ of ethnic Israel has been hardened. The ‘elect’ ethnic Israelites (those already trusting in Christ) have not been hardened. As Paul has just been explaining, this hardening of the unbelieving part of ethnic Israel has been resulting in Gentiles coming to faith in Christ (verse 11), and Paul has already stated his hope that the inclusion of these Gentiles will result in at least some of his fellow ethnic Israelites (who have been hardened) turning to Christ (verse 14). The hardening that they are experiencing (whether understood as a “partial hardening” or simply a “hardening”) therefore does not make it impossible for them to trust in Christ.
I prefer the translation of ‘part’/‘partial’ to refer to the extent of the hardening, rather than the degree of the hardening, but both are consistent with Paul’s teaching. The concept of there being different “degrees” of hardening has not been discussed elsewhere by Paul, so this translation does not fit the context as well as the “extent” translation, which has been explicitly set out by Paul earlier in the chapter.
The unbelieving part of ethnic Israel has been hardened, and this situation will remain ‘until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’. Paul is speaking of Gentiles “coming in” to the spiritual people of God – the olive tree from the previous verses. During this time, there have been some ethnic Israelites who have transitioned from being unbelievers to being believers (such as Paul himself), and Paul has spoken of the possibility of his fellow ethnic Israelites (who currently do not believe) being saved (verse 14). This hardening therefore cannot mean that no unbelieving ethnic Israelites can become believers until the last Gentiles are saved. It therefore must be possible for individual hardened, non-elect (see verse 7), ethnic Israelites to move into the unhardened, elect, part of ethnic Israel (which happens when they trust in Christ). The hardened ethnic Israelites who are not currently believing (at the time of Paul writing the letter) do not have to wait until ‘the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’ before they can become believers. We are now about 2000 years after this; there are still Gentiles coming in and there have been ethnic Israelites putting their trust in Christ throughout this time.
Paul is therefore talking about a process that is taking place within his generation, and will continue to take place ‘until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’. Paul does not speak here of anything happening after ‘the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’. Instead, Paul describes the current situation, stating that it will last ‘until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’, and he goes on to say ‘and in this way all Israel will be saved’. This is Paul’s summary of the process that is currently taking place. At the end of this process, ‘all Israel’ will have been saved. Paul does not say “and then after this something else will happen which will result in all Israel being saved”.
The term ‘in this way’ (or ‘so’) links verse 26 with verse 25. It is the situation of verse 25 that results in ‘all Israel’ being saved. Paul has already explained that the situation of Gentiles coming in to the spiritual people of God is intended to make the unbelieving ethnic Israelites envious (verse 11), resulting in some of them turning to Christ and being saved (verse 14). The process of:
- unbelieving ethnic Israelites being hardened,
- some Gentiles coming in as a result of step 1, and
- some of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites from step 1 coming in as a result of step 2
is the way in which God is saving ‘all Israel’.
We must then ask what ‘all Israel’ means in verse 26. First, it cannot have the same meaning as ‘Israel’ in verse 25. Verse 25 refers to a hardening on part of ethnic Israel that was already underway at the time of Paul’s writing and will continue ‘until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’. This covers at least about 2000 years up to the present day. ‘Israel’ in verse 25 therefore includes all unbelieving ethnic Israelites stretching at least as far back in time as Paul’s time of writing and stretching on into our future. Not all of these ethnic Israelites turned to Christ so not all of these people will be saved (if they were all saved then Paul would have no reason to wish for himself to be cut off for their sake, as he did in 9:3).
In contrast, all of ‘Israel’ from verse 26 will be saved, so the term ‘Israel’ must have different meanings in these two verses. There is no problem with the term ‘Israel’ having two different meanings when used so close together – this has already happened in Romans 9:6 (in the parallel section of Romans 9:6-29), where the term ‘Israel’ is used twice in one verse and has two different meanings. Romans 9:6 states that ‘not all of Israel is Israel’, i.e. not all ethnic Israelites are part of the true Israel – those who share in Abraham’s faith. These are the same two meanings of the term ‘Israel’ used in Romans 11:25 and 11:26.
In verse 26, Paul is referring to the true Israel, i.e. those who share in the faith of Abraham. Other parts of Romans help to demonstrate this. In Romans 9:8, Paul says that:
“It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”
Romans 2:28-29 states that:
“ For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.  But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
Romans 4 states that:
“ [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
“ That is why the promise depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,  as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’”
The ‘Israel’ of Romans 11:26 is therefore all believers – the true spiritual people of God, which corresponds perfectly with the olive tree metaphor of verses 17 to 24. All believers, both Jew and Gentile, are in the olive tree, while all non-believers, both Jew and Gentile, are not in the olive tree. Anyone outside the olive tree can become part of the olive tree (and therefore part of the true Israel) by believing in Jesus (see 11:19-20 and 11:23).
There are some people who interpret the phrase ‘all Israel’ in verse 26 differently. Some consider it to refer only to believing ethnic Israelites, rather than all who believe (believing ethnic Israelites and believing Gentiles). This interpretation doesn’t have an effect on the interpretation of any other parts of Romans 11, but seems less likely to be correct given Paul’s emphasis throughout Romans of the lack of any distinction between believing ethnic Israelites and believing Gentiles (e.g. 3:22-23 and 10:12), and the situation that believing ethnic Israelites and believing Gentiles are part of the same olive tree as expressed a few verses earlier in chapter 11.
Others consider the phrase ‘all Israel’ to refer to all (or most) ethnic Israelites alive at a particular time in the future. This is something of a surprising interpretation, as Paul has been talking about his fellow Israelites throughout chapter 11 (e.g. verses 5, 14, 23 and 31), rather than looking ahead to a future generation. This interpretation would disconnect this phrase from the rest of chapter 11, whereas the preferred interpretation above fits comfortably with the rest of the chapter.
The context of Romans 9-11 is that Paul is looking upon his fellow ethnic Israelites alive at the same time as him (see 9:3). In chapter 11 he is asking if there is still any hope for them, or if they have been rejected by God. A belief that salvation will come to a future generation of ethnic Israelites would have been of little comfort to Paul, who was so concerned about people he actually knew. Paul’s point in chapter 11 is that there is still hope for his fellow ethnic Israelites because they can still be saved (see verses 1, 11, 14, 23 and 31-32 – discussed below). There is no suggestion that he is looking ahead to a particular generation in the future. Finally, Paul has not used the term ‘Israel’ in this way anywhere else in Romans, but the interpretation of the term I have set out above is the same as its interpretation in 9:6.
Some people who take the “future generation” view use the language of optimism when referring to this future generation. However, compared to Paul’s view, the “future generation” view is very pessimistic. Paul was optimistic for his own generation of ethnic Israelites – it was possible for them all to turn to Christ. Paul also believed that this situation would apply throughout the age until Christ returns, so any generation of ethnic Israelites could come to trust in Christ in large numbers.
We do not need to wait until the last generation of ethnic Israelites (whenever that may be) to see many of them trusting in Christ. This could happen in any generation. We should share Paul’s excitement about this and share the good news with our ethnic Israelite friends, knowing that they can come to faith even if they are not in the last generation before Christ’s return.
The “future generation” view also has a disturbing implication. In this view, God will do something different at the time of the future generation that will result in all/many ethnic Israelites from that generation turning to Christ. The implication of this view is that whatever it is that God will do in the last generation is something he has refrained from doing for every generation before the last generation. God is therefore acting in every generation before the last generation in a way to limit the number of ethnic Israelites being saved, and he will only stop this at the last generation. An advocate of this view may suggest that it is God’s hardening of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites that has been limiting the number of them coming to faith. However, Paul has explained that God’s hardening of them is actually intended to increase the number of them that are saved (verses 7, 11 and 14). In the “future generation” view, the unbelieving ethnic Israelites from Paul’s day have an excuse for not believing – God has been limiting the numbers of the ethnic Israelites who believe. This view contrary to Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 that the situation of ethnic Israelite unbelief is in no way God’s fault and is in every way their fault, and is in particular contrary to Paul’s teaching of chapter 11 that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites of his day.
Continuing with Romans 11
“[26b] As it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will turn away ungodliness from Jacob”;  “and this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.””
The presence of the words ‘as it is written’ show that the references to scripture that Paul is about to make are intended to reinforce what he has just taught, not to introduce something new. We should therefore not derive significant additional teaching from these references.
The deliverer is Christ. He will take away the sins of those who believe in him (those in the true Israel), and in doing this he will turn away ungodliness from Jacob (i.e. Israel, again referring to the true Israel). Christ, the Deliverer, will come when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. He will come from the heavenly Zion and will live in this city (the new Jerusalem) with his people (Hebrews 12:22, Revelation 21:2).
The context of the quote in verse 26 is helpful. The quote is from Isaiah 59:20-21, and the previous verse (19) says ‘so they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun’. This verse is talking of people believing in the Lord from west to east – across the whole world. It is therefore the true Israel being spoken of, which includes in-grafted Gentiles from across the world (Matthew 8:11 uses similar “east and west” language to refer to Gentiles entering the kingdom of heaven).
Paul goes on to refer to Isaiah 27:9. Just before this, in verse 6, it states ‘Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit’. Again, the spreading out of blessing throughout the world is in view. Verse 13 goes on to speak of exiled Israelites returning to worship God, showing the hope of restoration for ethnic Israelites. This hope remains until Christ returns, and some ethnic Israelites are being restored throughout this period.
“ As regards the gospel, they [unbelieving ethnic Israelites] are enemies for your [believing Gentiles] sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.  For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
Having finished his Bible references, Paul is continuing to talk to the believing Gentiles (see verse 13), and therefore ‘they’ refers to the unbelieving part of ethnic Israel (i.e. those ethnic Israelites who have been hardened, as referred to in verse 25). The reference to ‘enemies’ means that believing Israelites can’t be included in those that are being referred to. No believer is an enemy of God, but non-believers are (Romans 5:10). The non-believing ethnic Israelites are God’s enemies because they have not believed the gospel. Of course, when a non-believer becomes a believer, they are no longer God’s enemy. The non-believing ethnic Israelites are ‘enemies for your sake’ (i.e. for the sake of the believing Gentiles) because these Gentiles have come to faith as a result of the rejection of God by the non-believing ethnic Israelites (see 11:11 and 11:19, for example).
God still loves all of unbelieving ethnic Israel – they are ‘beloved’. He loves them as he loved their forefathers. He wants them to become believers and therefore become elect. All of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites are non-elect at Paul’s time of writing, as is clear from verse 7 (Paul does not say they are elect in verse 28), but any of them who trusts in Christ will at that time become elect, as they will then begin to share in Christ’s blessings, including the blessing of his chosenness (as explained here). The statement that ‘as regards election, they are beloved’ must therefore refer to God’s love for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites and his hope that they will benefit from the blessing of election, which will happen to individual ethnic Israelites if and when they put their trust in Christ.
In this verse, Paul is therefore contrasting the way in which the unbelieving ethnic Israelites are enemies of God in one sense (because they have rejected the gospel), but are loved by God in another sense (because God wants them to become elect).
The ‘gifts’ in verse 29 seems to refer to the benefits of being an ethnic Israelite, as discussed by Paul in Romans 9:4-5 and 3:1-2. The ‘calling’ (a different Greek word from that translated as “call” in Romans 8 and 9) seems to refer to their calling by God to the position and benefits of being an ethnic Israelite. The ‘gifts’ and ‘calling’ are both ‘irrevocable’ as there continue to be benefits of being an ethnic Israelite (3:1-2). This applies despite the disobedience of most ethnic Israelites in Paul’s time.
The ‘gifts’ and ‘calling’ are ways in which God is loving the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, so this verse is demonstrating Paul’s point from the previous verse that they are ‘beloved’ (which is why verse 29 begins with the word ‘for’). God continues to love these people and he wants them to turn to him: ‘of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people”’ (Romans 10:21).
“ For just as you [believing Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their [unbelieving ethnic Israelites] disobedience,  so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy.  For God has consigned all to disobedience, so that he may have mercy on all.”
Paul is summarising the process that he has been talking about throughout chapter 11 – the disobedience of many of his fellow ethnic Israelites has resulted in mercy for many Gentiles, which is intended to result in mercy for at least some of those disobedient ethnic Israelites due to provoking jealousy in them. Paul is talking about the same two groups of people throughout, and he explains how what happens to one group is affecting what happens to the other group. Those who have been disobedient (the unbelieving ethnic Israelites) are the same people as those who ‘may now receive mercy’. They ‘may now receive mercy’ because they can trust in Jesus ‘now’ and immediately receive mercy, just as the Gentiles have ‘now’ received mercy (verse 30).
The word ‘now’ also shows that Paul is talking about his fellow ethnic Israelites throughout, and does not switch mid-sentence to refer to a distant generation (the other interpretation discussed above). There are some manuscripts that omit the second word ‘now’ in verse 31. The “final generation” interpretation requires this word ‘now’ not to be present in order for it to fit with the text. In contrast, the view I have put forward is consistent with the text whether or not the word ‘now’ is present. It therefore seems likely that the word ‘now’ was present in the original manuscript and was removed by someone who held to something like the “final generation” view and was trying to correct the inconsistency between the text and his view. There would be no need for someone taking the view I have proposed to add or remove the word ‘now’, whichever was the original form.
The point Paul is making in saying that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites ‘may now receive mercy’ is that any of his fellow ethnic Israelites who are not currently trusting in Christ could start doing this and therefore receive God’s mercy. As Paul stated at the beginning of chapter 11, God has not rejected his people. Paul’s great news is that his fellow ethnic Israelites can still be saved!
Verses 30 and 31 have similar forms. Verse 30 is about Gentiles transitioning from (their) disobedience to (God’s) mercy, and verse 31 is about ethnic Israelites going through the same transition. Just as Paul’s Gentile audience (verse 13) has already gone through this transition, so it is possible for the unbelieving ethnic Israelites to go through the same transition.
Verse 32 brings verses 30 and 31 together and explains that all have been consigned to disobedience (‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ – Romans 3:23). The reason for this is so that God ‘may have mercy on all’ (‘For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; for the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’ – Romans 10:11-13). Paul truly means ‘all’ both times in verse 32. God has consigned all to disobedience because he wants to have mercy on all (see also 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9). The reason it says that God ‘may’ have mercy on all is that, although God wants to have mercy on all, this will not necessarily happen. The question of whether or not God will have mercy on someone depends on whether they will accept or refuse his gift of righteousness (Romans 9:30-32).
The great news of Romans 9-11 is that God wants to have mercy on all people, and that he enables us to come to him in faith so that we can receive his mercy. This applies even to all ethnic Israelites (see earlier discussion on Romans 10:8 and 10:21), many of whom were rejecting Christ at the time of Paul’s writing.
Here is a structure for this section (Romans 11:1-32):
We saw in the previous post how the central C2-B2-B part (11:17-24) has a chiastic structure of its own.
The words and phrases listed above regarding the C2-B2-A sections do not appear in the central C2-B2-B section.
In the next post, we will look at the ending of Romans 9-11: Paul’s outburst of praise in Romans 11:33-36.
This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.