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Romans 11 and the Future of Israel - Part I

Many postmillennialists and even some amillennialists agree with premillennialists that Paul is indeed affirming a future restoration of ethnic Jews to salvific blessing and favor. Of course, neither postmillennialists nor amillennialists who hold to this interpretation envision Israel as a second people of God, separate from the church (nor, for that matter, do some premillennialists). They insist that the salvation of the nation as a whole will not be for the purpose of restoring Israel to her Old Testament theocratic glory. Rather, believing Jews will be saved into and as a vital part of the body of Christ, the Church, the true Israel of God.

Although advocates of all millennial schemes may feel comfortable in Romans 11, the fact remains that much of the rationale for a post-Parousia millennial age is at least indirectly related to a belief that God will save the nation Israel as a nation and fulfill in the millennium his Old Testament promises to her. If it can be shown that Paul does not herein affirm a national future for ethnic Israel, the theological underpinnings of premillennialism will be noticeably weakened.

Rather than attempting to comment on each verse I propose to focus attention on several crucial passages and themes which I believe are determinative of the controversy. The question before us in this passage is whether or not Paul is saying that in the future, in some way related to the second advent of Jesus Christ, Israel as a whole will be saved? Will there be a future restoration in mass of ethnic Jews? Or is he saying that the salvation of ethnic Jews has occurred and will continue to occur in no other way than that which obtains in the case of ethnic Gentiles, namely, progressively and individually throughout history?

The former view I am calling the Future Restoration (hereafter FR) interpretation. The latter will be called the Historical Remnant (hereafter HR) theory. Of course it cannot be disputed, O. Palmer Robertson reminds us, "that Jews have been saved and will continue to be saved throughout the present dispensation. This kind of 'future' for the descendants of Abraham is granted on all sides. The question instead is whether or not the . . . [text] under consideration speaks of some distinctive conversion-activity of God among Israel immediately prior to or in conjugation with the return of Christ" ("Is There a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11?" in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology: Papers from the Thirtieth Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 221 (hereafter cited simply as "Distinctive Future"). This article has been slightly revised and updated in The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (P & R, 2000).

The Problem of the People of God

 

Key to Paul's argument in Romans 11 is a problem he earlier addressed in Romans 9:1-5. If Israel is God's covenant people to whom many glorious privileges have been given (9:4-5), how can it be that so few are saved and so many accursed, separated from Christ (9:1-3)? Has God's "word", his covenant promise and eternal purpose, failed? Has the unbelief of the majority of Paul's kinsmen according to the flesh thwarted God's salvific decree, thereby undermining the trustworthiness and fidelity of God's word? Paul's answer to this question is a resounding NO! He will labor to demonstrate that God's eternal purpose never included the salvation of every ethnic Jew. Their unbelief, therefore, can hardly be cited as evidence against the veracity and immutability of God's word.

Paul makes his point by articulating a principle which will serve him time and again throughout Romans 9-11. It is stated in Romans 9:6b, "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." If God's word of promise and eternal purpose is that all ethnic Israelites (i.e., all those 'who are descended from Israel') are to be saved, then clearly his purpose has failed and his word is void. But this is the very thing Paul denies, namely, that God ever intended to save all ethnic Israelites. His purpose has always been to save a remnant within, but not the entirety of, ethnic Israel. Paul is telling us that there is an "Israel" within "Israel," a spiritually elect remnant within the physically ethnic nation. The purpose of this distinction, says John Murray, 'is to show that the conventional promise of God did not have respect to Israel after the flesh but to this true Israel and that, therefore, the unbelief and rejection of ethnic Israel as a whole in no way interfered with the fulfillment of God's covenant purpose and promise. The word of God, therefore, has not been violated' (Romans, 2:10).

Paul proves his thesis in Romans 9:6-13 by appealing to the family of Abraham (vv. 7-9) and to the family of Isaac (vv. 10-13). Although both Isaac and Ishmael are Abraham's physical descendants (i.e., "Israelites"), Isaac alone is a true or spiritual 'Israelite'. It is likewise with the descendants of Isaac. Whereas both Jacob and Esau are the physical seed of Isaac, indeed they were twins, only Jacob is the sort of "Israelite" whom God purposed to save. Notwithstanding the unbelief of Ishmael and Esau, God remains faithful to his word. Though the physical descendants of Abraham be ever so numerous (Rom. 9:27-29), God will save only a remnant. Neither the presence of Abraham's blood in one's veins nor the mark of circumcision in one's flesh has been or ever shall be a sufficient cause for salvation. Abraham's faith is the only necessary and sufficient condition.

The unbelief of Israel as a whole is taken up yet again by Paul at the close of Romans 10. "Surely Israel's unbelief is excusable," comes the charge. "If they did not believe the gospel, it must be because they did not hear the gospel. Right?" Wrong, says Paul, for "their voice has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." (10:18). Again the objection echoes, "But if Israel did not believe it must be because they did not understand. Right?" Wrong, says Paul, for "all the day long I [the Lord] have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people" (10:21).

Does this mean, then, that God has rejected his people whom he foreknew? That is the question Paul addresses in Romans 11. In other words, does widespread unbelief among ethnic Israelites mean that God has withdrawn his covenant promise, reneged on his word, forsaken his beloved, and rejected the people whom he foreknew? God forbid!

But indignant denial is not proof. We feel compelled to ask Paul, "what evidence do you have to prove your point?" "Me," says the apostle, "for I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin" (Rom. 11:1b). The suggestion that God has rejected his people is falsified by the salvation of Paul himself. Paul is an example of the remnant within the nation as a whole, an individual who is both an ethnic and elect Israelite. The proof that God has not reneged on his word despite unbelief in the nation as a whole is the same as has been true all through redemptive history, to wit, that God never foreknew or foreloved in saving grace all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but only a remnant, of which Paul is a current, living constituent member.

An important consideration here is the identity of the 'people' whom God foreknew. Who are they? Who are the "people of God"? Two answers have been given. On the one hand, it would seem that if Paul cites his own salvation as proof that God has not rejected his people then surely the "people" whom he foreknew is the remnant according to the election of grace. This answer, however, has not been accepted by everyone. Both John Murray and C.E.B. Cranfield, for example, insist that the "people" whom God foreknew, the people whom Paul says God has not rejected, is the nation as a whole, ethnic and elect Israel alike. They appeal to Rom. 10:21 where ethnic Israel as a national body is in view. They argue that since Rom. 11:1 follows immediately upon 10:21 the "people" referred to in the former must be the same as the "people" in the latter. Whereas this view may be correct, it faces two obstacles.

First we must remember that in Romans 9-11 the title 'people of God' may be understood in one of two ways. Certainly ethnic Israel as a whole was God's 'people' in that her blessed her with all the theocratic privileges described in Rom. 9:4-5. This is undoubtedly the sense in which Israel is God's 'people' in 10:21. It is to the nation, the theocratic entity, comprised of Abraham's physical descendants that the divine appeal noted in 10:21 is issued. But if ethnic Israelites are God's 'people' why do they not believe? Because, says Paul, there is a 'people' within the 'people'. There is an elect Israel within ethnic Israel (cf. Rom. 9:6). Israelite unbelief in 10:21 must be explained on the same terms as Israelite unbelief in 9:1-5. God never intended to save all ethnic Israelites, i.e., all his theocratic 'people', but only elect Israel, the remnant. Therefore, Rom. 9:6 could easily have been stated this way: 'But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all my 'people' who are of my 'people'.' Similarly, Rom. 11:1 could just as easily have been written as follows: 'I say then, God has not rejected his people, has he? May it never be! For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel, i.e., all the ethnic 'people' are not necessarily the elect, remnant 'people'.' In other words, Rom. 9:6 and 11:1-2 are making the same point!

The second reason why the 'people' in 11:1-2 may well be the remnant and not ethnic Israel as a whole is because God 'foreknew' them. If the 'people' in 11:1-2 are all ethnic Israelites, then God's 'foreknowledge' of them must be something less than salvific in nature. This is clear, for all concede that not every ethnic Jew has been or shall be saved. But it would appear that in view of Paul's reference to divine 'foreknowledge' in Rom. 8:29, the burden of proof is on those who argue that 'foreknowledge' in 11:2 is not salvific. It seems more likely that the 'people' whom God foreknew are the elect remnant (cf. 11:5) precisely because they were foreknown, i.e., foreloved or forechosen. Otherwise we are forced to conclude that all the people whom God foreknew in Rom. 8:29 are to be called, justified, and glorified, whereas the majority of people whom God foreknew in Rom. 11:2 are to be given a spirit of stupor, eyes that see not and ears that hear not!

 

Murray merely asserts, without proving, that 'to foreknow' in 11:2 is generic. The use of the word in 11:2, he says, is 'not the particularizing and strictly soteric import found in 8:29' (2:68). The only reason I can see why Murray takes this position is that otherwise he must adopt the alternative interpretation of 'people' in 11:1-2.

I should point out that even should it be granted that 'people' refers to ethnic Israel as a whole, this in no way substantiates the FR perspective. If by 'people' Paul is referring to ethnic Israel as a nation, his point would still be 'No, God has not ceased his saving activity altogether among those whom he elected to theocratic blessing. The proof that God has not totally abandoned ethnic Jews is my own salvation, for I am an ethnic Jew of the tribe of Benjamin.' The important thing to note is that on either view the FR finds no support for positing a mass restoration at the end of the age. Paul still maintains that it is the remnant within the nation as a whole, and not the nation itself, that God intends to save. The proof that God still has a saving purpose for ethnic Israel, the proof that God has not rejected his people, is the present remnant, not a future restoration.

Paul's appeal to himself in Rom. 11:1 for the question of Israel's 'future' salvation is crucial. When Paul denies that God has cast off his people whom he foreknew, many immediately and perhaps unconsciously assume something Paul never says. They assume his denial means that God intends to deal uniquely with Israel in the future, at the second advent of Christ. But Paul's question and answer pertain not to some alleged future restoration but to the far more fundamental issue of whether God ever intends to save Israelites at all. And in answer to the question, 'has God rejected his people?' the apostle immediately points to himself as living proof that God is dealing in a saving way with ethnic Israelites. It is worth noting, says O. Palmer Robertson,

'That the apostle does not respond to his own question by asserting specifically that God has not cast off his people Israel with respect to some distinctive future reserved for them. This conclusion might be reached by inference; but the apostle specifically points instead to the concrete realities of God's activity among the Jews in the present. He himself is an Israelite, thus indicating that the grace of God is working currently among Judaism.

 

In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice (Rom. 11:5, NASB).

 

Paul emphasizes specifically the present position of Israel by the phrase 'in the present time' (en to nun kairo). Dramatically in the current situation a remnant of Israel remains. These two references orient this first paragraph of Romans 11 (vv. 1-10) to the question of God's dealing with Israel in the present hour. Paul's discussion of the OT remnant-concept in these verses as it has been manifested throughout redemptive history intends to alleviate his readers' concern over the present condition of Israel. Not all Jews currently are believing the gospel, to be sure. But never has the salvation of the totality of ethnic Israel been God's determination' ('Distinctive Future,' 210-11).

The fact that God intends to include ethnic Jews in his redemptive activity is proven not by an appeal to a hypothetical future for the nation as a whole but by the very concrete work of God among Jews in the present, of which Paul is one example. Consequently, Paul's answer to his own question 'in no way spells out the details of a massive turning of the Jews to Christ at some distant date in the future. His answer deals with the present state of Israel in the gospel era. Indeed the apostle's answer does indicate that ethnic Israel has a 'future.' But this 'future' is integrated explicitly with the current era of gospel-proclamation' (214).

In 11:2-4 Paul illustrates his point by citing the example of Elijah and the doctrine of the remnant. Murray and Cranfield insist that the salvation of a remnant of Jews throughout redemptive history, whether in Elijah's day or in Paul's, is a token or pledge that the people as a nation had not been cast off. It is a token or pledge that God would yet save all the nation Israel as a nation.

But this simply cannot be true. The appeal to the remnant in Rom. 9-11 is to demonstrate or prove that God never intended to save the nation as a whole. Paul's point is to show how God is faithful to his word despite extensive unfaithfulness in ethnic Israel. The proof is the remnant. The remnant, of which Paul is a part, is not cited to prove that God will save the nation, but is cited to explain why he didn't! He did not save the entire nation, but only a remnant within it, precisely in order that his sovereign and distinguishing purpose according to the election of grace might be manifest. In saving some, but not all, ethnic Israelites, not based on physical descent or human attitudes or actions, God demonstrates his own glory, power, and unalterable purpose. To suggest that Paul's appeal to the remnant is to prove that God saves a part as a pledge of his intention to save the whole is, I believe, utterly antithetical to the purpose for which Rom. 9-11 was written.

Israel's Fulfillment

 

The FR view finds perhaps its most persuasive data in vv. 12-15. Verses 12 and 15 appear to be asserting the same truth: if the transgression, defeat, and consequent rejection of the majority of Israelites has resulted in such glorious salvific blessing for the Gentiles, how much greater must the Gentile blessing be which will result from Israel's 'fulfillment' or 'acceptance.' In other words, if God did great things for the Gentile world when Israel sinned (in rejecting the Messiah), how much more will he do for them when Israel is saved!

The central question here is the meaning of the word 'fulfillment' in v. 12 and the word 'acceptance' in v. 15. Murray insists that Israel's 'fulfillment/fullness' and 'acceptance/receiving' must be the antithesis of her 'transgression' and 'failure.' This means

 

'that Israel is contemplated as characterized by the faith of Christ, by the attainment of righteousness, and by restoration to the blessing of God's kingdom as conspicuously as Israel then was marked by unbelief, trespass, and loss. . . . Hence nothing less than a restoration of Israel as a people to faith, privilege, and blessing can satisfy the terms of this passage. The argument of the apostle is not, however, the restoration of Israel; it is the blessing accruing to the Gentiles from Israel's 'fulness'. . . . Thus there awaits the Gentiles, in their distinctive identity as such, gospel blessing far surpassing anything experienced during the period of Israel's apostasy, and this unprecedented enrichment will be occasioned by the conversion of Israel on a scale commensurate with that of their earlier disobedience. We are not informed at this point what this unprecedented blessing will be. But in the view of the thought governing the context, namely, the conversion of the Gentiles and then that of Israel, we should expect that the enlarged blessing would be the expansion of the success attending the gospel and of the kingdom of God' (2:78-79).

Clearly, then, Murray believes that v. 15 reiterates the assertion of v. 12. As a result of Israel's transgression and failure (v. 12) she has been rejected or cast away (v. 15). Israel's fulfillment which brings increased riches to the Gentiles (v. 12) is therefore equivalent to her acceptance which yields a virtual life from the dead (v. 15). The point Murray is making is this: Since the rejection (v. 15a) Israel experienced was national, their acceptance (v. 15b) must also be national. The restoration must be commensurate in scale with the rejection. Israel as a whole fell and therefore Israel as a whole must be saved. Finally, Murray believes that the 'life from the dead' which results from Israel's acceptance into national favor is salvation for the Gentiles, not bodily resurrection. It is, he says, 'an unprecedented quickening for the whole world in expansion and success of the gospel' (2:84). He therefore envisions a world-wide conversion consequent upon the restoration of the nation Israel.

The HR view responds to this first by acknowledging that vv. 11-15 describe a sequence in which Jews reject their Messiah, after which Gentiles believe, thereby provoking the Jews to jealousy and faith. This conversion of the Jews in turn leads to an even greater blessing for the world. As we have seen, the FR view, expounded by Murray, contends that Israel's transgression or falling away coincides with the present gospel age, whereas their fulfillment or acceptance refers to a national or en masse conversion in the future, at the end of our current Christian era.

The HR interpretation takes a different approach. Listen to the explanation of O. Palmer Robertson:

'The whole cycle could be considered as having fulfillment in the present era of gospel proclamation. In context, Paul compares the experience of Israel to the experience of the Gentiles. According to v. 30, Gentiles once were disobedient, but now have received mercy. In the same manner, Israel now is found disobedient, that they also now may receive mercy. Both in the case of the Gentiles and the Jews, the full cycle of movement from a state of disobedience to a state of mercy occurs in the present age. From this perspective, the receiving of Israel would refer to the ingrafting of believing Jews throughout the present era, which would reach its consummation at the point in time at which their 'fullness' would be realized. The parallel experience of the Gentile world offers no support to the idea that Israel's period of 'falling' and 'casting away' coincides with the present gospel age, while their 'receiving' and 'fullness' is reserved for a subsequent era' (214-15).

It is clear from v. 14 that Paul has in view individual Jewish salvation in the present era, parallel to what the Gentiles now experience, and not some national conversion at the end of the age. There Paul speaks of his hope that by his ministry he might move to jealousy his fellow-countrymen and save some of them. This saving of 'some,' says Robertson

'ought not to be regarded as the deliverance of some pitiful minutia of Judaism hardly worthy to be compared with the 'fullness' to be effected at the end of time. Much to the contrary, this saving of 'some' should be viewed as conjoining integrally with one of the major themes of Romans 11. As Paul says, there remains at the present time a 'remnant' according to the election of grace (v. 5). It is not that 'some' which the apostle hopes to save is equivalent in number to the 'remnant' which he discusses throughout the passage. But the saving of 'some' and the maintaining of a 'remnant' are interrelated ideas. Paul's hope that 'some' would be saved through his current ministry is based on the principle that a 'remnant' would remain throughout the ages' (p. 215).

Paul has said in v. 11b that Gentile salvation is designed to provoke Jews to jealousy. Paul is an apostle to the Gentiles, striving to achieve this very effect among his fellow-countrymen in order that they might be saved. This activity by Paul, in his day (I emphasize once again) is directly related to the 'acceptance' of the Jews in v. 15. As Robertson points out, 'the 'for if' (ei gar) of verse fifteen connects the 'receiving' of the Jews with the present ministry of the apostle Paul in the gospel era. By his present ministry among the Gentiles, the apostle hopes to move the Jews to jealousy, and thereby to save some from among Israel. Their 'saving' as described in v. 14 corresponds to their 'reception' in v. 15. In each case Paul describes the hoped-for consequence of his current ministry' (211).

My question for advocates of the FR view, therefore, is this:

How can Paul's ministry in the first century contribute to Israel's 'fulfillment' (v. 12) and acceptance' (v. 15) if the latter is supposedly not to occur until after the present age in association with the second coming of Christ?

Advocates of the FR view are forced to argue that the 'fulfillment/acceptance' of Israel described in vv. 12 and 15 pertains to the salvation of but one generation of ethnic Jews living at the end of the age when Christ returns. But if this is true, how can Paul's ministry to the generation of ethnic Jews in the first century sustain any meaningful relationship to it? Or, to put it yet another way, if Israel's 'fulfillment' refers to her national, en masse conversion at the end of the age, how is it that Paul at the beginning of the age is contributing to it? Paul very clearly tells us that his ministry, in the early stages of this present age, is designed to contribute to, or perhaps even hasten, the 'fulfillment' and 'acceptance' of Israel.

The 'fullness' or 'fulfillment' of Israel, therefore, is simply the sum total of all Israel's remnants throughout history, to which Paul contributes by saving some in his day. I am forced to conclude that the 'fulfillment' of Israel, her 'acceptance,' should be viewed from the perspective of what God has been doing throughout history and is doing now among the Jews, not what many think God will do only at the end of the age. Thus, 'the 'receiving' of the 'full number' is being realized. For this reason, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to posit some future date in which the 'remnant' principle will be superceded by a newly-introduced 'fullness' principle. The completed number of the 'remnant' of Israel is identical precisely with the 'fullness' of Israel' (216).

Murray has argued that the salvation or fulfillment or acceptance (vv. 12, 15) of Israel is a mass, national restoration at the end of the age. But in v. 14 Paul perceives himself as contributing to the fullness of Israel by provoking Jews to jealously, and thereby to salvation, in his own day. Again, in v. 31, it is God's saving activity among individual Jews like Paul, now, in the present age, by which Israel's fullness is eventually to be attained.

The two views of vv. 12-15 that we have been examining thus agree on the fact but differ on the manner in which the 'fullness' of Israel comes in (v. 12), or the manner in which Israel is 'accepted' (v. 15). The FR view insists on a one-time, end of the age, en masse restoration of Jews. The HR view, on the other hand, insists that Israel will experience theirs, namely, by individual faith in response to the gospel throughout the course of the present age.

There is yet another problem for the FR view that must be addressed. Verses 12-15 assert that the fullness of Israel yields increased blessing for the Gentiles, what Paul in v. 15 refers to as a 'life' from the dead. Murray takes this to mean that after and as a result of Israel's mass conversion there will occur a spiritual vivification or quickening of the Gentile world. But how can this be if the 'fullness' of the Gentiles will already have come in, i.e., if the salvation of all elect Gentiles will have antedated the coming of Israel's fullness? According to the FR interpretation of vv. 25-26, all elect Gentiles will have been saved before Israel is restored. For the sake of argument, let us assume that is correct. How then can Israel's restoration yield not only additional but unprecedented Gentile salvation? One answer may be that it is not salvation but some other form of blessing (but what kind? when? how?). Murray will attempt to deal with this by offering a different interpretation of Gentile 'fullness' in v. 25. More on this later.

The HR view, however, has a perfectly plausible explanation of the data. During the progressive realization of Israel's fullness in the present age, that is to say, as elect Jews are being saved, there accrues to the Gentile world even greater and more widespread opportunity for salvation than there resulted from Israel's initial unbelief. As Jews are saved, the salvific blessings of the gospel are dispensed throughout and upon the Gentile world with greater and more decisive results than in the first century, when in consequence of Israel's rejection of Messiah the kingdom of God was taken from them and given to a nation bearing the fruit thereof.

In bringing this discussion of Israel's fulfillment to a close, we must briefly note one element in Paul's discussion in vv. 16-24. The 'first piece of dough' and the 'root' (v. 16), in my opinion, refer to Abraham and the Patriarchs. Their initial consecration to God is indicative of God's purpose to save ethnic Jews, be they ever so few, throughout history (cf. v. 28). According to Murray, 'this fact of consecration derived from the patriarchs is introduced here by the apostle as support for the ultimate recovery of Israel. There cannot be irremediable rejection of Israel; the holiness of theocratic consecration is not abolished and will one day be vindicated in Israel's fullness and restoration' (2:85).

I agree that the consecration of the patriarchs supports the expectation of a restoration of Jews, but why is it simply assumed that this restoration will be national and in mass at the end of the age only? The unproven (and in my opinion false) assumption by Murray and others who espouse the FR view is that the regrafting of Israel, described in vv. 17-24, must entail a distinctive future for the nation as a whole. They assume that the figure of the olive tree and regrafting of the natural branches demands or at least implies a corporate inclusion in mass of ethnic Israelites at some definite time in the future.

But Paul clearly draws a parallel between the experience of Israelite believers and Gentile believers. Consider, for example, the statement at the close of his argument in vv. 30-31: 'For just as you [Gentiles] once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their [Israel's] disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy.' Through Paul's ministry and that of others, Gentiles are being grafted into the olive tree when they believe. As individual Gentiles come to faith (v. 20), says Paul, they receive all the blessings of redemption. Why should we think it is any different for Jews, especially when Paul says in vv. 30-31 that it is the same? As Gentiles are saved through Paul's ministry the Jews are provoked to jealousy and saving faith. It is then, when they believe, that they are grafted back into the olive tree from which they had been broken off (v. 17).

I am compelled to agree with Robertson that 'nothing in the imagery of regrafting suggests a delay in the incorporation of the believing Israelite. As each Jew believes, he becomes a partaker of the blessings of the olive tree. The current ministry of the gospel provides the catalyst for the salvation of the Jews precisely in the same manner as it does for the Gentiles. The major thrust of the apostle's argument about the grafting process is that Israelites experience salvation and incorporation among God's people precisely in the same manner as the Gentiles. Nothing in the figure of ingrafting necessarily communicates the idea of a distinctive and corporate inclusion of ethnic Jews at some future date' (216).