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Romans 11 and the Future of Israel - Part II

We are now prepared to examine vv. 25-27 in which are found the most important statements in Romans 11. It is here that the exegetical and theological battle is waged in all its fury.

We begin with Paul’s declaration in v. 25 that “a partial hardening has happened to Israel.” As it turns out, this is one of the few statements on the meaning of which almost all agree. Israel’s hardening “in part” does not refer to the degree or time but to the extent of the experience in view. Paul is not saying that those hardened are only partially hardened, as if to suggest that their hardening is not as intensive as it could have been. Neither is Paul saying, at least in this phrase, that Israel’s hardening is temporary, as if he meant to assert that “for a while hardening has happened to Israel.” His point is simply that not all Israelites in this present age have been hardened. Although a part of Israel is hardened (the precise numerical proportions are not in view here), there have been, are, and always will be some ethnic Israelites who are saved. In summary, Paul is simply repeating in different words what he said in 11:7.

But what does he mean when he says this hardening has happened to Israel “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”? Let’s begin with the word “until” (achris hou).

The FR view insists that this word “be taken as referring to a point of eventuation that brings the hardening of Israel to an end” (Murray, 2:92). The hardening of Israel has a terminus, an event or occurrence at which time the hardening will end and salvation ensue. “Paul’s meaning,” says Cranfield, “is not that Israel is in part hardened during the time in which the fullness of the Gentiles is coming in, but that the hardening will last until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in. The entry of the fullness of the Gentiles will be the event which will mark the end of Israel’s hardening” (2:575).

The point of this interpretation is that Paul envisions a time after which a change will occur in the spiritual status of Israel: her experience of hardening will terminate with the coming of Gentile fullness. The state of affairs subsequent thereto can only be that of Israel’s national salvation.

Advocates of the HR view argue that, on the contrary, “until” need not imply a time after which the hardening of Israel will cease. Robertson appeals to two lines of evidence in support of this response. First, the “hardening” of which Paul speaks is simply the historical or temporal manifestation of God’s eternal decree of reprobation, the converse of which is election. If this is true, says Robertson,

“the integral role of ‘hardening’ in the processes of salvation through all the ages should make one pause before asserting too quickly that this ‘hardening’ shall cease. It ought to be noted that Romans 11:25 does not make this assertion. The text does not say ‘hardening shall cease among Israel.’ Certainly it is not declared that the overarching principle of God’s electing some and hardening of others someday will have no application in Israel. Instead the text affirms a continuation of hardening within Israel throughout the present age. God’s decrees of election and reprobation continue to work themselves out in history. As a sovereign distinction was made between the twins Jacob and Esau, so throughout the present age, hardening shall continue” (218-19).

In other words, the FR view would imply that the principle of reprobation, operative throughout redemptive history (even in Israel; cf. 9:6ff.), will at some future time cease to be. I find this highly unlikely from a theological point of view.

Robertson’s second argument is to challenge the traditional interpretation put upon the word “until.” He insists that in many cases “the termination envisioned in achris hou has a finalizing aspect which makes irrelevant questions concerning the reversal of circumstances which had prevailed prior to reaching this termination point” (219). The force of the word is to carry actions or conditions to their ultimate point, as for example, when Paul declares that he persecuted Christians “until death” (Acts 22:4). Or again, in the days of Noah people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, “until” the day that Noah entered the ark (Matthew 24:38). That is, their actions continued up to the time their end came. Robertson also cites Hebrews 4:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26; and 1Corinthians 15:25. His conclusion is that the “hardening . . . until” in Romans 11:25 speaks of eschatological termination. In other words,

“throughout the whole of the present age, until the final return of Christ, hardening will continue among part of Israel. ‘Hardening . . . until’ too frequently has been understood as marking the beginning of a new state of things with regard to Israel. It hardly has been considered that ‘hardening . . . until’ more naturally should be interpreted as eschatologically terminating in its significance. The phrase implies not a new beginning after a termination point in time, but instead the continuation of a prevailing circumstance for Israel until the end of time” (220).

I am not as confident about this point as is Robertson. Whereas he is correct in pointing out that “until” may have this meaning, it should be openly acknowledged that this is not its most frequent sense. I am not prepared to say with Robertson that “hardening . . . until” is more naturally interpreted as eschatologically terminating. What I am saying is that it is grammatically possible to take the word as Robertson suggests. However, it becomes probable only in view of the contextual argument in Romans 11 as a whole. Were it not for other conclusive evidence in Romans 11 favoring the HR interpretation, one would be unwise in arguing for that view based solely on what is an admittedly rare sense of “until” in v. 25.

Part of that conclusive evidence is found in Paul’s statement concerning the “fullness” of the Gentiles. This surely refers to the full number of the elect from among the Gentiles, the salvation of whom is realized progressively throughout the present age, at the end of which the total number thereof will have come in.

Almost all interpreters, whether they hold to the FR or HR viewpoint, agree on this meaning. John Murray is the exception, perhaps because he realizes the inconsistency this entails for the FR view (Cranfield also notes the inconsistency in passing). Let me explain.

Murray interprets v. 12 to mean that after the fullness of Israel has come in, i.e., after the final end-of-the-age-mass-salvation of Israel as a nation has occurred, even greater salvific blessing will accrue to the Gentiles. “Thus there awaits the Gentiles,” says Murray, “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” (2:79). It is here that the problem for the FR interpretation becomes acute. For if the fullness of the Gentiles (v. 25) means the total number of elect to be saved, then the salvation of all Israel (which awaits and follows the coming in of Gentile fullness) would terminate any further expansion among the Gentiles of the kind of blessing v. 12 suggests. In other words, if all elect Gentiles are to be saved before Israel is restored (and according to the FR view, that is what vv. 25-26 assert), how can Israel’s restoration yield subsequent, additional, indeed unprecedented, Gentile salvation?

The only escape from this difficulty is to interpret the fullness of the Gentiles as something other than the full number of elect Gentiles to be saved. According to their interpretation of vv. 12-15, Murray, and the FR view in general, must somehow make room for unprecedented Gentile salvation after Israel’s final, national restoration. But vv. 25-26 will not permit this! Murray obviously recognizes this and proceeds to say that Gentile fullness denotes “unprecedented blessing” for them but does not exclude even greater blessing to follow. The “greater blessing” to follow the final restoration of national Israel is, of course, the conversion of the world in accordance with Murray’s postmillennial eschatology.

This seems to me to be altogether inadequate. Not only does it strain the sense of the term “fullness,” but Paul’s statement that at the end of the age this fullness will have “come in” or will have reached its culmination is emptied of significance if in fact beyond that point there is yet more Gentile “fullness” to come. In other words, if, according to Murray, Israel’s national salvation must await the coming in of Gentile fullness, how can Gentile fullness extend beyond the salvation of Israel? Or again, if Gentile fullness does not terminate with Israel’s salvation, as Murray is forced to say, why must Israel’s salvation await it?

Murray rightly insists that the fullness or fulfillment of Israel in v. 12 and the fullness of the Gentiles in v. 25 are similar, if not identical, in significance. Therefore, since Israel’s fullness entails a mass national salvation at the end of the age (so says Murray), it is only natural to assume that the coming in of Gentile fullness implies the same for them. Thus, Murray’s view entails the following end-of-the-age scenario:

mass salvation of Gentiles à mass salvation of Israel à yet another mass salvation of Gentiles.

Is this really what Paul is saying?

Finally, it is far more likely that the coming in of Gentile fullness is what Paul earlier described in vv. 16-24 under the imagery of unnatural branches being grafted into the olive tree as they come to faith in Christ, a process on-going in the present age from Paul’s day to the present. If so, then on Murray’s FR view the fullness of the Gentiles comes in a manner radically different from the way in which Israel’s fullness comes in. Gentile fullness would be a progressive, throughout-history occurrence, whereas Israelite fullness would be an instantaneous, at-the-end-of-history occurrence. But this would violate the point of vv. 16-24 and vv. 30-31, namely, that both Gentile and Jew are now (from Paul’s perspective) and into the future being saved, and are together and in parallel fashion being grafted into the one olive tree.

The more I reflect on Murray’s interpretation of Gentile “fullness” the more evident it becomes that he alone, among advocates of the FR view, has realized the contradiction between v. 12 and vv. 25-26. If Gentile “fullness” refers to the full number of elect Gentiles, the conflict seems inescapable. Unfortunately, Murray’s attempt to provide an alternative interpretation of Gentile “fullness” is, in my opinion, the weakest and least coherent piece of exegetical work in his otherwise excellent commentary on Romans.

This brings us to the crucial phrase, “and thus all Israel shall be saved.” There are two important questions to be addressed. First, who or what constitutes “all Israel,” and second, what does Paul mean by the words “and thus”?

As far as our first question is concerned, there appear to be five possible answers. “All Israel” may refer to

(1) all ethnic descendants of Abraham of every age; or

(2) all ethnic descendants of Abraham living in the future when Christ returns; or

(3) the mass or majority of the ethnic descendants of Abraham living in the future when Christ returns; or

(4) both elect Jews and elect Gentiles who together comprise the Church of Jesus Christ, the true “Israel of God”; or

(5) all elect Israelites within the ethnic community of Israel (cf. Rom. 9:6).

View (1) is a form of ethnic universalism. But since Scripture nowhere endorses the notion of a “second chance” to be saved after death, and since Paul has already denied in Romans 9:6ff. that all ethnic Israelites will be saved, this interpretation must be rejected.

View (2), argues Murray, is contrary to the analogy drawn in Romans 11 between Israel’s national apostasy and her national restoration. “The apostasy of Israel, their trespass, loss, casting away, and hardening were not universal. There was always a remnant, not all branches were broken off, their hardening was in part. Likewise restoration and salvation need not include every Israelites. ‘All Israel’ can refer to the mass, the people as a whole in accord with the pattern followed in the chapter throughout” (2:98). (See 1 Samuel 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chronicles 12:1; Daniel 9:11, for the idea of Israel “as a whole” but not necessarily all.)

View (3) is widely held today. The belief is that Paul is describing an end-of-the-age salvation of the nation as a whole, though not necessarily including every single member of that nation or every single ethnic Jew. There are numerous objections to this view, most of which will be mentioned later on. Here I direct your attention to only one problem with this view. Robertson puts it best:

“The problem in this viewpoint arises from the contradiction created by the proposal that a mass or majority, though not all, of Israel shall be saved when the ‘hardening’ is lifted. For the ‘hardening’ in this context refers to the historical outworking of the principle of reprobation, as indicated earlier. . . . If a day is coming in which the principle of reprobation is to be inactive among Israel, then it must be assumed that every single Israelite living at that time will be saved. If even one Israelite of that period is to be lost, then the principle of ‘hardening’ or ‘reprobation’ still would be active” (223).

Robertson’s point is that if one takes “all Israel” to be ethnic Jews living at the time of Christ’s return, view (2) is preferable to view (3). Every ethnic Jew must be included.

View (4) suggests that a way to avoid all such problems is to take “all Israel” as a reference to the Church, elect Jews and Gentiles who are together the Israel of God (cf. Galatians 6:16). This is Calvin’s interpretation:

“Many understand this of the Jewish people, as of Paul were saying that religion was to be restored to them again as before. But I extend the word Israel to include all the people of God, in this sense, ‘When the Gentiles have come in, the Jews will at the same time return from their defection to the obedience of faith. The salvation of the whole Israel of God, which must be drawn from both, will thus be completed, and yet in such a way that the Jews, as the first born in the family of God, may obtain the first place.’. . . [Thus] in Gal. 6:16, he calls the Church, which was composed equally of Jews and Gentiles, the Israel of God, setting the people, thus collected from their dispersion, in opposition to the carnal children of Abraham who had fallen away from faith” (John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, translated by Ross Mackenzie [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1973)] p. 225).

The problem with Calvin’s interpretation is that the term “Israel” appears ten other times in Romans 9-11 and always refers to ethnic Jews (cf. 9:4,6[2],27,31; 10:19,21; 11:1,2,7). Also, what becomes of Paul’s statement in v. 25, immediately preceding v. 26, that “Israel” is experiencing partial hardening? If “Israel” in v. 25, a clear reference to ethnic Jews, is not carried over to v. 26 with the same denotation, Paul’s argument does not make sense.

Note well, however, that regardless of which view one holds, “Israel” in v. 26 is not the precise equivalent of “Israel” in v. 25. According to the FR view, “Israel” in v. 25 refers to the ethnic nation as a whole during the inter-advent period, whereas “Israel” in v. 26 is restricted to one generation of ethnic Jews living at the time of the Parousia. The HR view differs only with regard to the use of “Israel” in v. 26, in which case it refers to all elect ethnic Jews in the present age. On the HR view, therefore, the distinction between “Israel” in v. 25 and “Israel” in v. 26 is the same as the one Paul makes in Romans 9:6. Nevertheless, the important point which unites the HR and FR theories is their insistence that “Israel” in vv. 25-26 is exclusive of ethnic Gentiles.

View (5) is that “all Israel” means the total number of elect ethnic Jews, the sum total of all Israel’s remnants throughout the present, inter-advent age. “All Israel” thus parallels the fullness of the Gentiles (v. 25). “And if ‘All Israel’ indicates, as it does, that not a single elect Israelite will be lacking ‘when the roll is called up yonder,’ then ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ similarly shows that when the attendance is checked every elect Gentile will answer ‘Present’” (Hendricksen, Romans, 381).

Several objections have been raised against this interpretation by advocates of the FR view. Most of these have already been answered earlier in this chapter. Let me here respond to two others. Often one hears that Paul must be referring to a future restoration of Jews in vv. 25-26, for he has used the future tense repeatedly in this chapter whenever describing salvation. But surely this is no reason for accepting the FR view, for how else could Paul possibly have spoken? If someone in the first century is writing about the salvation of others that has yet to occur, it is only normal that he should employ the future tense. In other words, if Paul is describing in his day (obviously) the manner in which all elect Israelites will come to faith up to the end of the age, how else could he have stated it if not with the future tense? May I also remind the reader of the repeated emphasis Paul makes on the present as well (cf. 11:1-2,5,31).

Another objection goes something like this: “If all Paul meant to say is that all elect Israel will be saved, the climactic element in v. 26 is lost. Of course all the elect of Israel will be saved! How utterly prosaic!” But this objection fails to realize what that so-called climactic element in v. 26 really is. Paul is not simply asserting that all elect Israel will be saved but is describing the mysterious manner in which it will occur. That is, it is not so much the fact as it is the fashion in which they will be saved. It is by means of nothing less than the incredible scenario of Jewish unbelief à Gentile salvation à Jewish jealousy and salvation à Gentile blessing. This is the way in which all elect Israel will eventually and progressively come to saving faith. Furthermore, in a context in which the question has been raised whether any Israelites will be saved (cf. 11:1-5), it is even less prosaic, indeed, it is profoundly important!

Is it compatible with what we read in the New Testament to suggest that God will in the future obligate himself to save all (or at least most) of a particular group of people based on an external, which is to say, non-spiritual characteristic? Part of the word of the cross is that by his death Jesus Christ has abolished the distinction between Jews and Gentiles as far as spiritual privilege is concerned. Jews are still Jews and Gentiles are still Gentiles, but neither has any advantage over the other simply because he is a Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:28). It is spiritual circumcision of the heart, not physical circumcision of the flesh that avails before God (Romans 2:25-29; Philippians 3:2-3). It is not Abraham’s blood but his faith that gains entrance into the olive tree (Galatians 3:16-29). But if the FR view is correct, a different state of affairs shall obtain when Christ returns, in which one’s ethnicity alone either guarantees or at least greatly increases the probability of being saved.

We must now deal with the second crucial issue in v. 26, namely, the force of the words, “and thus” (kai hout"s). Although not impossible, it is highly unlikely that the words should be translated “and then,” with a temporal or sequential force. If that were Paul’s intent he would probably have used kai tote or eita or epeita. One simply cannot use the phrase “and thus” to prove that Israel’s salvation is temporally subsequent to the coming in of Gentile fullness.

At best, no more than 4 of the 205 instances in which this phrase appears in the New Testament may reasonably be taken in the sense of “and then,” “thereafter,” “and consequently,” or some such idea (cf. John 4:6; Acts 17:33; 20:11; 28:14).

The most common meaning of kai hout's (“and thus”) is “in this way,” “in such a manner,” “in accordance with this pattern,” etc. In other words, Paul is not telling us when all Israel shall be saved but how. All right, then, how shall all Israel be saved? All Israel shall be saved in the way Paul has described in the first twenty-four verses of Romans 11:

“First the promises as well as the Messiah were given to Israel. Then, somehow in God’s mysterious plan, Israel rejected its Messiah and was cut off from its position of distinctive privilege. As a result, the coming of Israel’s Messiah was announced to the Gentiles. The nations then obtained by faith what Israel could not find by seeking in the strength of their own flesh. Frustrated over seeing the blessings of their messianic kingdom heaped on the Gentiles, Israel is moved to jealousy. Consequently they too repent, believe, and share in the promises originally made to them. ‘And in this manner’ (kai hout"s), by such a fantastic process which shall continue throughout the entire present age ‘up to (achris hou) the point that the full number of the Gentiles is brought in, all Israel shall be saved” (Robertson, 222).

But what about the Old Testament confirmation of this truth which Paul cites in vv. 26-27? In these verses Paul combines Isaiah 59:20,21, and Jeremiah 31:33-34 (and possibly alludes to Isaiah 27:9 and Psalm 14:7). Although many have simply assumed this is a reference to the second coming of Christ, it seems more likely that Paul has in view the work of Messiah at his first advent. The future tense in the passage (“the Deliverer will come . . . will remove”) is future from the perspective of the Old Testament prophet who is speaking and not necessarily from the perspective of Paul in the first century. It was by virtue of Christ’s atoning death and resurrection that the New Covenant has been inaugurated and the foundation laid for the removal of ungodliness from Jacob (i.e., from elect Israel). The forgiveness of sins is available to both ethnic Gentiles and Jews because of what Jesus did at his first coming when he ratified the New Covenant in his blood (see especially Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 8:6-13; 9:15; 10:11-18). It is therefore by means of this which the Deliverer accomplished at his first advent that all elect Gentiles (“the fullness of the Gentiles”) and all elect Israelites (“all Israel”) will be saved.

Finally, what contribution do vv. 28-32 make to our discussion? Most agree that the “enmity” of the Jews is not subjective, that is to say, it is not their enmity against God but God’s enmity against them because of their unbelief. We know this to be the case from the contrast drawn between being, on the one hand, “enemies” of God and, on the other hand, “beloved.” To be an enemy of God is to be the object of his wrath; to be beloved is to be the object of his love and grace.

But who are “they” in v. 28 of whom these things are said? Surely they are “all Israel” (v. 26), those whom God intends to save by taking away their ungodliness and forgiving their sins (vv. 26-27). Consequently, the “enemies” of God and the “beloved” of God are the same people, the elect of ethnic Israel. Their rejection of the Messiah, as a result of which the gospel comes to the Gentiles, incurs divine wrath and enmity. Hence they are God’s enemies. But when they are in turn saved, being provoked to jealousy and faith by Gentile blessing, they enter a new relationship with God, that of being beloved because of election (cf. Romans 5:6-11).

Therefore, I disagree with Murray who says that the “election” or “choice” in v. 28 is theocratic, that is, non-salvific, and is therefore different from the “election” of vv. 6-7. The failure to observe the connection between v. 28 and the preceding description of the salvation of all Israel in vv. 26-27 accounts for his error.

It is because all Israel is elect that in God’s redemptive purpose they are transformed from a status of enmity to one of love. In saying they are beloved “for the sake of the fathers” Paul does not mean their election is a result or reward for any supposed merit or innate goodness in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. Romans 9:6-13). Rather, Paul is referring to the divine promise given to Abraham of an elect remnant from among his physical seed, in fulfillment of which “all (elect) Israel” is being saved. Therefore, they are beloved because God promised a saved remnant to the fathers in the Abrahamic covenant, and to his word God is ever faithful. The “gifts” and “calling” of God, therefore, are not non-salvific theocratic privileges given to all ethnic Jews regardless of their relation to Messiah. They refer to the products of God’s special, saving, electing grace such as faith, hope, love, and peace, that is to say, those spiritual blessings which accompany the salvation of those whom God has called to himself.

The “for” with which v. 30 begins indicates that what follows confirms and illustrates the assertion of vv. 28-29. Why is this significant? Simply because in vv. 30-31 Paul explicitly declares that the salvation of elect Israel, their experience of being beloved of God in fulfillment of the divine and irrevocable promise given to the fathers, is being realized now! Note well in vv. 30-31 the three-fold “now” which emphasizes that the salvation to which Paul has just referred is being realized in the gospel era, the now of gospel proclamation. The irrevocable gifts and calling of God (v. 29) which account for the ultimate realization of “all Israel’s” salvation as God’s beloved are being experienced now. This salvation, this removal of ungodliness from Jacob, this forgiveness of sins, this restoration of all Israel is not said to be restricted to the end of the age, in some way associated with the second advent of Christ, but is presently being realized as a result of Christ’s first advent.

Anthony Hoekema (The Bible and the Future) is wise to remind us that the HR interpretation of Romans 11 “does not exclude a possible large-scale conversion of the Jews to Christianity in the future, but leaves room for it. In fact, why should there not be more than one such large-scale turning of Jews to Christ in the future? There is nothing in the passage which would rule out such a future conversion or such future conversions, as long as one does not insist that the passage points only to the future, or that it describes a conversion of Israel which occurs after the full number of Gentiles has been gathered in” (p. 147).