Romans 11:1-6 – Has God rejected ethnic Israelites?

, posted by kingswoodhart

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.

Having finished Romans 10:14-21, we’re now on to 11:1-32. This section matches in the structure of Romans 9-11 with 9:6-29, which we haven’t considered in detail yet. We are considering this section first as it resolves some questions that are left unanswered in 9:6-29. We can then use what we have learnt when we consider 9:6-29, to ensure that we reach an interpretation which is consistent with this section. As this section is a big section which makes some important points, we will be going through it carefully and splitting the analysis into a few posts. This first post covers Romans 11:1-6.

As we will see, both this section (11:1-32) and its matching section (9:6-29) are considering whether the situation set out in 9:1-5 is God’s fault. The situation set out in 9:1-5 is that there are many ethnic Israelites in Paul’s day who are not currently trusting in Christ. Each section considers the situation from a different angle. The first section (9:6-29) considers whether God was obliged to save all of ethnic Israel, and explains that he was not obliged to do this. The second section (11:1-32) looks from the opposite angle and asks whether God has rejected all of ethnic Israel, so that none of them can be saved. Let’s see what Paul has to say about this:

“[1] I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”

We can see what Paul means by ‘his people’, as he goes on to explain that he himself is ‘an Israelite’ and a member of the tribe of Benjamin, showing that his ethnic heritage is in view. If he had meant something else by ‘his people’, to follow this by stating that he is an ethnic Israelite would not have justified his negative answer to the question. This interpretation is backed up by the context of Romans 9:1-5, which introduces this section of Romans (chapters 9-11) and is about the ethnic Israelites, and the various references to the ethnic Israelites in the preceding and following verses, including the previous verse (10:21). Paul is clearly talking about ethnic Israel.

Paul’s conclusion is that God has not rejected his people, i.e. God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites. Paul’s first evidence for this is himself. He is an ethnic Israelite and is also trusting in Christ and therefore in a right-standing with God. He is a living example that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites. The fact that there exists one ethnic Israelite who is trusting in Christ is a sufficient example to prove that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites.

Of course, the fact that God has not rejected a group of people does not mean that all people in the group necessarily will trust in Christ. It just means that the door is still open for them to receive God’s blessing. We can see that this is what it means to be “not rejected” by God from 1 Samuel 12:19-25:

“[19] And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” [20] And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. [21] And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. [22] For the LORD will not reject his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. [23] Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. [24] Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you. [25] But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.””

The Israelites are “not rejected” by God, and therefore have the opportunity to ‘fear the Lord and serve him faithfully’, but the possibility of them not doing this still remains, in which case they will be ‘swept away’.

The fact that Paul is trusting in Christ shows that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day. If God had rejected the ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day, then it would not be possible for any of them to trust in Christ, including him. The point Paul is making is that God has not made it impossible for any ethnic Israelite to trust in Christ and therefore reach a right-standing before God. He is not saying that every ethnic Israelite always will do this.

After beginning with the example of himself, Paul continues with an example from history to show that this situation with ethnic Israel is the same in his day as it was in the past:

“[2] God did not reject his people whom he knew before – do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? [3] “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” [4] But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.””

Paul refers to the ethnic Israelites during the days of Elijah as an example of a generation of God’s people in the past – those ethnic Israelites whom he ‘knew before’ (see the translation discussion below). To be “known” by God refers to more than his mere knowledge about them, but includes a relational aspect as well (this is consistent with Amos 3:2, in which God says to the people of Israel ‘you only have I known among all the families of the earth’). Clearly God knows about all the families of the earth, so this special “knowing” refers to more than this. God’s “knowing” of the ethnic Israelites (‘his people’) applies to the nation as a whole, even when they sin against him, as was the case in Amos 3:2, which continues with ‘…therefore I will punish you for all your sins’.

The example with Elijah’s generation shows that God did not reject the ethnic Israelites during the time of Elijah, even though at that time, as in Paul’s time, there were so few ethnic Israelites trusting in the Lord. There were 7000 men who did not bow the knee to Baal, because they were instead trusting in the Lord. All of the Israelites at that time could have trusted in the Lord (thanks to the word of God coming to them and enabling them to trust Him – see discussion of Romans 10:4-13), but many did not do so and turned to Baal instead.

In the account of this event in 1 Kings 19:18, when God is speaking of punishment by death being inflicted, God says ‘yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him’. God chose to punish those who did not trust in the Lord, but to preserve those who did trust in him. God’s criterion for determining who to punish and who to preserve was whether the person was trusting Baal or trusting the Lord. This fits with what Paul has been saying earlier in Romans – that salvation comes to those who have faith in the Lord (e.g. Romans 10:13). Those with faith in the Lord are credited with righteousness as a gift by God’s grace (see 4:1-17), so that they do not receive the punishment they deserve.

Paul may have found himself seeming to be in a position like Elijah, as apparently the only ethnic Israelite in his community that was actually trusting in the Lord. However, Paul knows that, like in Elijah’s day, he is not alone and there are other ethnic Israelites also trusting in the Lord. These other ethnic Israelites from Paul’s day are further examples that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites.

Having finished his example from ethnic Israel’s past, Paul continues with:

“[5] So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. [6] And if it is by grace, then it cannot be based on works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”

The phrase ‘so too at the present time’ shows that Paul has switched from an example in the past (those whom God ‘knew before’) to a discussion of the present time (i.e. Paul’s present time) – the ethnic Israelites whom God “knows” now (we saw God’s love for the ethnic Israelites of Paul’s day in Romans 10:21).

Paul says that the situation is the same now (‘so too’) as it was in the past. There is a ‘remnant’ within ethnic Israel – i.e. only some people within ethnic Israel are trusting in the Lord.

The remnant is ‘chosen by grace’ because they do not deserve to be chosen. Their chosenness, along with their justification, is God’s gracious gift to people who don’t deserve it. This is why justification can’t be based on works, as then anyone obtaining it would have earned it and would therefore deserve it. Paul is making the same point here as in Romans 4:2-5:

“[2] For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. [3] For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” [4] Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. [5] And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”

It’s important to note that Romans 11:5 does not explain how God decides which ethnic Israelites will be in the remnant. It simply explains that those who are in the remnant do not deserve their chosen status (i.e. they are ‘chosen by grace’). Verse 6 then explains that they are not chosen due to their works. Paul wants to teach his ethnic Israelite audience against the idea that ethnic Israelites can achieve righteousness by their own works (see Romans 9:31-32). If this were achievable, those who would be successful (if any!) would deserve their chosen status, and therefore would not be chosen ‘by grace’. Paul therefore rules out works as being the determining factor in who is chosen. He doesn’t explain in this verse what the determining factor is, only that they are chosen ‘by grace’, i.e. their chosenness is not deserved but is a gift.

We must turn to other verses to understand how God graciously decides who will be his chosen people – those who are considered righteous. Thankfully, there are plenty of these verses, such as Romans 4:5 (quoted above) – it is not about works but about belief/faith. Another relevant verse is Romans 4:16: that is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace. Philippians 3:8b-9 is also helpful: in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. This is consistent with Paul’s example of Elijah’s day that I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal – God decided that his chosen people would be those who trusted in him rather than in Baal.

God has graciously decided that everyone who trusts in Christ will be his chosen people. Any ethnic Israelite who trusts in Christ will be in the remnant. It’s as simple as that. We will see this view of election confirmed in the next post.

Other interpretation

The translation of verse 2a I have used above is ‘God did not reject his people whom he knew before. It should be pointed out that many modern translations follow the King James Version in using the word ‘foreknew’ instead of ‘knew before’. The translation ‘knew before’ appears in the Tyndale Bible (written before the KJV) and in Young’s Literal Translation.

The significance of this difference is that the English word ‘foreknew’ refers to knowledge of something before it happens/exists – knowledge that looks ahead into the future, whereas ‘knew before’ does not carry this implication. For example, I can say that my grandfather (who passed away a few years ago) is someone I ‘knew before’ – I knew him in the past while he was still alive. It would be different to say that I ‘foreknew’ my grandfather – that I knew him before he existed. This is of course not true for me but it would be true for God. The theological term “foreknowledge” refers to God’s ability to know events and people before they happen or exist. God does have this kind of knowledge, but it is helpful to be clear that this verse is not talking about this kind of divine knowledge.

From the context of verse 2, there is no suggestion in the surrounding wording that God’s knowledge of the future is in view. The reference to God’s people whom he ‘knew before’/‘foreknew’ is immediately followed by a reference to God’s people in the past – the ethnic Israelites of Elijah’s generation, so the meaning ‘knew before’ fits perfectly with that. Paul is looking back to God’s dealings with these people in the past, and there is no reason to add in an element of God’s knowledge of these people from a point in time even further in the past, with God looking into the future from a time before they existed.

The relevant Greek word appears in other places in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s speech in Acts 26:5, where it is not translated as ‘foreknew’ (including by the KJV and popular modern translations). Acts 26:4-5 states:

“[4] The Jewish people all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. [5] They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that I conformed to the strictest sect of our religion, living as a Pharisee.”

The knowledge that these Jewish people had for Paul was not foreknowledge (knowledge of Paul in advance). It was knowledge from the past, because they knew Paul in the past. Their knowledge of Paul coincided with the existence of Paul. This corresponds with Romans 11:2, which speaks of God’s knowledge in the past of a past generation of ethnic Israelites.

The relevant Greek word therefore does not necessarily imply a future-knowing element, but the English word ‘foreknew’ does imply this, which makes the word ‘foreknew’ a flawed translation as it brings in a meaning not present in the original Greek and not apparent from the context of this word in Romans 11:2.

When the word ‘foreknew’ is used instead of ‘knew before’ in verse 2, the effect of this is that verse 2a then links more closely with verse 1 rather than the rest of verse 2. In the ‘knew before’ version discussed above, verse 2a introduces the example from the past in verse 2b. In the ‘foreknew’ version, verse 2a states that ‘God has not rejected his people, whom he foreknew’. This verse therefore makes a similar statement to verse 1, which asks ‘has God rejected his people? By no means!’. Both verses are saying that God has not rejected the ethnic Israelites, with verse 2a now adding the extra information that the ethnic Israelites were “foreknown” by God, i.e. God knew the ethnic Israelite nation in advance (with this “knowing” most likely including the relational sense as explained above).

The choice of ‘knew before’ or ‘foreknew’ doesn’t have a significant impact on the overall meaning of this passage – most Christians (me included) already believe that God did know the ethnic Israelites in advance. The question isn’t whether or not this theological statement is true, but whether or not this verse is about that. For the reasons set out above it seems that the ‘knew before’ translation should be preferred. The link of verse 2a into verse 2b fits more comfortably than the understanding of verse 2a mostly repeating what Paul has already said in verse 1. It also fits well with the switch to the present time in verse 5. The understanding of the ‘knew before’/‘foreknew’ distinction will also be of relevance when we come to consider the use of this word in Romans 8:29, which will be covered in a future post.

In the next post, we’ll consider Romans 11:7-10 and will answer the question, “who are the elect”?

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.