One of the important signs of the times, as we noted in a previous article, is the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. This sign confirms the biblical teaching that Christ is the promised seed of Abraham, the One in whom all the families and peoples of the earth will find blessing and salvation. It is also a sign that bellies the common prejudice of many believers that the signs of the times are chiefly characterized by opposition to Jesus Christ and the coming of God’s kingdom. Not all of the signs of the times are portents of the world’s opposition to the gospel. Some rather show the certain victory of God’s saving purpose to give the nations to His Son as His rightful inheritance (Psalm 2).
There is a further aspect of this first sign, the preaching of the gospel to the nations, that remains for us to consider. This aspect concerns what might be termed the salvation of the “fullness” of Israel. What does the Bible teach regarding God’s purpose,in the preaching of the gospel to the nations, with respect to His peculiar people, Israel?
Admittedly, this question raises a host of related questions regarding the future, and cannot be completely disassociated from divergent views of the so-called millennium. Pre-millennialists and dispensationalists have an answer to. this question that fits comfortably with their general conception of the future and the unfolding of God’s purpose for Israel and the church. Since we will be considering these differing views of the millennium in several future articles, we will refrain from entering into a discussion of them as much as is possible at this point. However, the specific question of God’s saving purpose regarding Israel cannot be avoided or put off at this juncture. For it relates directly to the way in which the preaching of the gospel to the nations in this present period has implications for the salvation of Israel.
To address this question, I will begin with a brief review of some Old Testament promises regarding the restoration and salvation of Israel. These passages provide a context within which to consider the most important New Testament passage which addresses God’s purposes regarding Israel, Romans 9–11. Our main concern, therefore, in what follows will be to consider what this passage teaches about God’s saving purpose for Israel.
THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
The Old Testament background which provides the biblical context within which to consider this question, includes, as we noted in our previous article, the promise of salvation for all the peoples of the earth. However, this promise that in the latter days God would grant salvation to the Gentile nations and peoples, always included the continuance and fulfillment of His saving purpose for Israel. The promise was not that God would forsake His people Israel, substituting the nations as the object of His saving love, but that He would include all the nations under the canopy of His saving mercy. The Lord’s promise to Israel was that through her and not apart from her the promise would extend as well to all the peoples. This promise was already confirmed throughout the history of the Lord’s dealings with His old covenant people, whenever non-Israelites or “aliens” were gathered into and numbered among the people of God. However particular and limited the Lord’s dealings may have been with a special nation, Israel, it was never the case that His purpose was limited to this nation.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that the Lord’s promise regarding a future gathering of the Gentile nations was joined to His promise of the salvation of Israel. At the center of the future realization of the Lord’s purposes of salvation remained His purpose for His people, Israel. When, for example, Psalm 22 speaks of the future day in which “[all] the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before Thee” (vs. 27), this will be in the company of all the “descendants of Jacob,” the children of Israel. The blessing that falls upon Israel will be the means whereby the Lord’s salvation will be made known among all the nations (Ps. 67). The announcement of salvation to Zion will take place “in the sight of all the nations, that all the ends of the earth may see the salvation of our God” (lsa. 52:7,10). In the future day of the Lord’s coming to save His people, the nations are described as coming to the light of Zion, and kings are said to come to the “brightness of [her] dawn” (lsa.60:1–3).
The Old Testament promise regarding the salvation of the nations is, accordingly, always joined with the realization of the Lord’s purpose through Israel. The story told in the book of Acts, which traces the gospel’s testimony as it is preached, first in Jerusalem and then “to the remotest part of the earth” (1:8), was already promised in the Old Testament. The sapostle Paul’s well-known declaration, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; emphasis mine), corresponds perfectly to the promise of the Lord that salvation for the Gentile peoples would be effected through Israel and not apart from her.
In addition to these general promises of the salvation of the nations as they are joined with Israel in receiving the Lord’s mercy and grace, there are also many direct promises of a future restoration that will come to Israel. These promises, often receiving earlier and initial fulfillment in the restoration(s) of Israel that occurred in the Old Testament history of redemption, point forward to a great restoration yet to come.1 Frequently, in His dealings with His Old Testament people Israel, the Lord spoke of how He would restore them to favor and salvation after a period of judgment and disfavor, provided they turned to Him in repentance and faith (compare, for example: Deut. 10:10; 1 Kings 8:46–52; Jer. 18:5–10; Jer. 31:31–34; Jer. 29:12–14; Ezek. 36:33; Hos. 11:10).
Therefore, the future held for Israel the prospect not only of the gathering of the nations and peoples to Zion but also of her restoration to renewed fellowship and favor with the Lord.
“AND SO ALL ISRAEL SHALL BE SAVED”
All of these promises of the Old Testament regarding the future of Israel, her place in the unfolding of God’s purposes of redemption, bring us to the great question that is posed nowhere as poignantly as by the apostle Paul in Romans 9–11. This passage, which is the primary passage addressed to the place of Israel in God’s redemptive purpose and in the context of the preaching of the gospel to the nations, can only be understood within the framework of the Old Testament promise that we have been considering.
In order to answer our question regarding the place of Israel in God’s purpose through the preaching of the gospel to the nations, then, we have to take a careful look at this passage.
To understand the argument of Romans 9–11, at least that part of it addressed to God’s redemptive purpose for Israel, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the problem posed by the apostle Paul in Romans 9:1–6. That problem, in brief form, is: has the Word and promise of God regarding Israel failed?
This problem arises within the setting of the apostle Paul’s resounding conclusion and confident affirmation in Romans 8. Having set forth the mercy and grace of God in the salvation of His people in Christ through faith, the apostle sings of his confidence that nothing will be able to separate us, those who have been called according to God’s purpose and electing grace (Rom. 8:28–10), from God’s love in Christ Jesus. This song of confidence in God’s grace and redemptive purpose seems almost to be the conclusion to which the entirety of the argument in Romans 1–8 has been leading. Though all men are by nature sinners, deserving of the wrath and judgment of God, there is a way of salvation provided to believers through faith in Jesus Christ. Though the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18ff.), and though there is “none righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10), the grace and mercy of God in the free justification and salvation of sinners is the hope of all believers. The conclusion of Romans 8 is a kind of climactic affirmation of the victory of God’s grace in Christ for all who believe.
However, this raises an inescapable problem for the apostle Paul. How can the believer exult in the triumph of God’s grace in Christ through faith, when this grace seems to be of no effect among the people of Israel? If God’s purposes and promises regarding Israel have terminated in failure and unbelief, how can we say that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation “to the Jew first and also to the Greek”? Indeed, if God’s Word has failed with Israel, who dares to be so confident that it will not terminate with a like failure in regard to the Gentiles? This is the kind of problem that presses in upon the apostle at the outset of Romans 9–11, as the opening words of chapter 9 eloquently attest:
I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the Word of God has failed. (vv.1–6a)
The question, then, to which the entire argument of Romans 9–11 is addressed, is whether the Word and promise of God have failed, due to the apparent apostasy and unbelief of many of the children of Israel at the preaching of the gospel.
The general resolution
To this troublesome question, the general answer of the apostle Paul, developed at some length in Romans 9:6–11:12, is a resounding “No”! The Word of God has in no wise failed. Rather, just as had been the case in the history of redemption previously, God’s “purpose according to election” has been and is being realized (9:11). Just as that purpose of election discriminated between some who were children of Israel only according to the “flesh” and others who were true children according to the “promise” and purpose of God, so that purpose of election continues to be realized in the salvation of some and not others.
Thus, the apostle Paul answers generally the question regarding the supposed failure of God’s Word and promise by appealing to the doctrine of election and reprobation, by arguing that throughout the whole history of the Lord’s dealings with His people Israel, some were brought to salvation and others were hardened in their unbelief according to God’s purpose of election. At no time in this history was there any instance in which God’s purpose failed or fell short of being realized in any way.
Though, for our purposes, it is not necessary to trace out all of the steps in the apostle Paul’s argument in this passage, it is evident that he wants to address the question of Israel’s apparent unbelief and apostasy in the course of the history of redemption from the standpoint of God’s electing grace and purpose. Consequently, he cites in chapter 11 the history associated with the name and times of the prophet Elijah. Though there were many among the children of Israel who disbelieved and fell away during the days of Elijah, this in no respect meant that God had “rejected” His people. Even during this relative low point in the history of the Lord’s dealings with His people, there remained “a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5), a number of those in whom God’s purpose of election was being fulfilled.
Despite this rather abbreviated statement of the general resolution to the question presented in this passage, it is not difficult to capture the gist of the apostle’s answer to it. In the whole course of the history of redemption, God has been working out His electing purpose. This purpose is the only basis for the salvation of some from the entire number of the children of Israel in the past. This purpose is also the only basis for the salvation of any, whether Jew or Gentile, in the present and the future. Of one thing, the apostle is insisting, we may be certain: God’s purpose of election has not failed in the past, is not failing in the present, and will certainly not fail in the future. All those whom God has chosen to save in Christ will unfailingly be saved!
The specific resolution
However, that is only the general resolution to the question that the apostle Paul offers in this passage. His specific resolution of the problem, dealing with the particular circumstance of the apparent unbelief and apostasy of many of the children of Israel at the preaching of the gospel, remains to be stated.
This specific resolution takes the form of the apostle Paul’s inspired understanding of the “depth of the riches of both the wisdom and knowledge of God” (11:33) in His respective purposes for Israel and the Gentiles. The main lines of the argument are as follows. In God’s redemptive purpose, the unbelief and apostasy of many (though not all) of the children of Israel has been the redemptive-historical occasion for the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. As many of the children of Israel disbelieved and took offense at the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of the gospel has been extended to the Gentiles who, in the purpose of God, are being brought unto salvation. The apostle Paul describes this in terms of the “cutting off” of the children of Israel, the “natural” branches, and the “ingrafting” of the Gentiles who believe (11:17–24). The unbelief of Israel, accordingly, has been within the purpose of God the occasion for the gathering of the Gentiles and the realization of God’s electing purpose. The “poverty” of Israel has thereby in God’s wisdom been the occasion for the “riches” of the Gentiles (11:12).
But this is not the end of the story. By no means! According to the further argument of the apostle Paul, the riches of the Gentiles, their response by God’s electing purpose to the preaching of the gospel, will be the further occasion by which Israel will be provoked to jealousy and her “fullness” be saved! Rather than state the matter in my own words, listen to the climactic conclusion of the argument in Romans 11:25–26:
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will remove ungodliness from Jacob” (emphasis mine).
The specific answer, therefore, to the question whether the Word of God had failed with respect to Israel is that, in God’s electing purpose as it is being worked out in the history of redemption, the salvation of the Gentiles will serve to provoke Israel to jealousy and so the “fullness of Israel” will be saved. The “gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29), the apostle concludes, and therefore the unbelief of Israel will not be permanent and universal. The time is coming when the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles will occasion the turning of Israel in faith to Christ.
If this is the specific answer to the question regarding the place of Israel in God’s saving purpose—that “all Israel” will eventually be saved—then the one issue that needs yet to be considered is the precise meaning of this phrase. How are we to understand the language, “all Israel”? There have been primarily three views of this phrase in the history of the church.
The first view takes this phrase to refer to the people of Israel as a totality (though not necessarily every individual Jew) who will be converted at some time after the fullness of the Gentiles has been gathered. Among those who take this view, there are three distinct forms of it that are defended: first, dispensational interpreters link this conversion of Israel as a totality with God’s special program for the Jews in the future millennium; second, pre-millennial interpreters who are not dispensationalists understand it to refer to a future conversion of the Jewish nation; and three, some interpreters who are neither dispensationalists nor premillennialists take it to refer to a future conversion of the people of Israel, not as a separate nation or people, but as a large company of those among the Jewish people who will turn in faith to Christ at the preaching of the gospel In all of the various forms of this view, it is maintained that the “fullness of Israel” must refer to the special people of God who will be converted at some time in the future, as they are provoked to jealousy by the salvation of the Gentiles.2
The second view takes this phrase to be a reference to the salvation of all the elect, Jew and Gentile alike, gathered through the preaching of the gospel in the whole course of the history of redemption. John Calvin, for example, took this position and argued that “Israel” here refers, not to a distinct people among the peoples of the earth, but to the “people of God” in the general and comprehensive sense, embracing Jew and Gentile alike.
The third view takes this phrase to be a reference to the total number of the elect from among the people of Israel. According to this view, the “fullness of Israel” refers to the sum total of all elect Jews who constitute the “remnant” of believers gathered throughout the history of the church until the time of Christ’s second coming.3
Though the arguments, pro and con, for these various views are quite diverse and, at times, complicated, I would like to summarize briefly the considerations that lead me to adopt the first view. In my judgment, these considerations, taken cumulatively, suggest that the best understanding of this phrase is one which takes it to refer to the totality or fullness of Israel as a people, who will be brought to salvation subsequent to or after the gathering of the fullness of the Gentiles. The “fullness of Israel,” therefore, refers to the salvation, not necessarily of every individual member of the people of Israel, but of the greater number or totality of the people of Israel at some time in the future, prior to the return of Christ. These considerations are as follows:
• “Israel” in this phrase must refer to the special people of God, not all the elect whether Jew or Gentile gathered throughout the entirety of redemptive history. In Romans 9–11 this term is used no less than eleven times, and in every instance refers to the special people of God, the people of Israel. It is hard to see why Romans 11:26 should be taken as an exception.
• To take “all Israel” as a reference to the total number of the elect among the people of Israel throughout all of the history of redemption would be anti-climactic and unrelated to the apostle Paul’s interest in Romans 9–11. In these chapters, as we have seen, the apostle is dealing with “this mystery,” that is, the mystery of God’s will for the salvation of the people of Israel, a people who have largely disbelieved the gospel but whom God has not forsaken nor cast off irrevocably. Were the reference only to all the elect of Israel, the entirety of the remnant according to God’s purpose of election, it would not answer to the argument that the apostle Paul specifically develops in this passage.
• The argument of this passage is that the hardening of the people of Israel will eventually come to an end, and this will occur after the people of Israel have been provoked to jealousy by the conversion and “riches” of the fullness of the Gentiles. Through their being provoked to jealousy, the “fullness” of Israel (11:12) will come to salvation. This “fullness” is the equivalent in Romans 11 of what is variously described as the “acceptance” of Israel (11:15), the “grafting in” of Israel (11:23–24), or the “all Israel” of this phrase (11:26).
• Though the expression, “and so” that is used in Romans 11:26 refers primarily to the manner in which “all Israel” will be saved—it will occur as Israel is provoked to jealousy by the conversion of the Gentiles it also has a temporal aspect that cannot be suppressed. There is an obvious sequence of events in the history of redemption that the apostle Paul is describing in Romans 9–11: the unbelief of the people of Israel leads to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles; the faith and conversion of the Gentiles thereupon leads to the jealousy and subsequent conversion of the fullness of Israel. Within this sequence of events, the phrase, “and so all Israel shall be saved,” most naturally seems to mean that, after the fullness of the Gentiles is ingrafted, the time will come when the people of Israel, provoked to jealousy, will be converted and God’s purposes of redemption be accomplished in them.
• The main point of Romans 11:25 seems to be that the “hardening” of Israel will come to an end and thereupon Israel will be restored. This point would actually be undermined, were we to understand the “all Israel” of Romans 11:26 to be only a reference to the total number of the elect people of Israel who comprise only a remnant throughout the history of redemption.
Though these considerations could easily be elaborated upon and various objections answered further, this should be enough to show that perhaps the most likely reading of this passage is one which takes it to teach the future in-gathering and conversion of the totality of the people of Israel. This does not mean necessarily that every individual member of the people of Israel will ultimately be saved, or that all members of this people will be converted at some future time. The “fullness of Israel” need not mean the salvation of every member of this people any more than the “fullness of the Gentiles” means the salvation of every Gentile. However, it does suggest that the apostle Paul taught that through the preaching of the gospel to the nations the time will come in which there will be a fullness of Israel converted, an ingrafting again of Israel as a people, a restoration of this special people of God to gospel favor and blessing.
If this understanding of the future salvation of the fullness of Israel through the preaching of the gospel is correct, then there are two corollaries that I would like to mention briefly by way of conclusion.
The first corollary is that there is but one way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike, and that is the way of faith in response to the preaching of the gospel (compare Romans 10). The burden of the argument of the apostle Paul in Romans 9–11 is that all who will be saved will only be saved as they are grafted into the one olive tree, in fellowship through faith with the one and only Savior whose righteousness answers to the need of Jew and Gentile. Nowhere in the Word of God do we have a clearer repudiation of any teaching that suggests that there are different pathways to salvation for Jews and Gentiles. Today this idea is often taught in the form of what is termed a “two covenant” theology, the one covenant unique to the people of Israel, the other covenant unique to the Gentile nations. Though Romans 9–11 suggests that God’s purposes of redemption include a purpose uniquely addressed and suited to the special people of Israel, it stands wholly opposed to any such two covenant position. All who will be saved will be saved through faith in response to the same gospel and within the fellowship of the one people of God (compare Eph. 2).
The second corollary is that Reformed believers should have a keen interest in the work of evangelism, the preaching of the gospel, to the people of Israel. Rather than concluding that God’s purposes have somehow been concluded with His special people Israel, we should preach and evangelize expectant that, because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, His gifts and calling to Israel will not terminate in her wholesale unbelief but rather in her fullness being saved. This should be a stimulus and encouragement, then, to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. Any presumption that God has wholly abandoned Israel to her unbelief is just that, a presumption that is without biblical warrant.
And so let the gospel be preached, to the Jew first and also to the Gentile, for God’s purposes of salvation will not fail!
1. For example, when the children of Israel returned from their exile in Babylon, their restoration was an initial fulfillment of promises like those recorded in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36. However, it is evident from subsequent history that this initial restoration was itself but a type of an even more glorious future restoration (d. Hebrews 8).
2. Only the third of these forms of this first view is consistent with the classic Reformed understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the future. Though a few Reformed believers in the history of the church have attempted to defend a premillennial eschatology, the predominant number of Reformed believers have rejected premillennialism (the teaching that Christ will return before, “pre-”, a literal period of one thousand years in which He will reign upon the earth) in all its forms, especially more recent dispensationalist pre-millennialism. All believers, Jew and Gentile alike, are saved through faith in Jesus Christ in response to the preaching of the gospel; and all believers will be gathered into the church during this present period of history prior to Christ’s return, al which time the eternal state of God’s kingdom will commence. d. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. I (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 91–103, who defends the third form of this view. I will defend this view in its third form as, on balance, the best view, in what follows.
3. O. Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 139–47, who provides an able defense of this view. The weakness of this view is that it does not answer to the structure of the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 9–11. The salvation of all the elect of Israel, the sum total of what is only a remnant throughout the history of redemption, does not fit with the sequence of unbelief and subsequent conversion that this passage suggests.