Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved… (Romans 11.25-26 ESV)
In Romans 11, Paul wants the reader to understand the mystery of the partial hardening of Israel and the hope that “all Israel will be saved” (see Romans 11.25-26). Oddly enough, though Paul was intending to make the mystery clear to the reader, that single sentence has proved to be most puzzling for those who are trying to understand what it means that “all Israel will be saved.” There are basically three different ways to interpret the meaning of Romans 11.26.
The Elect, Both Jew and Gentile (the Church)
First, some think that “all Israel’ of Romans 11.26 refers to all of the elect, both Jew and Gentile. In other words, the church has become the new Israel. Indeed, Paul redefined basic terms of Judaism several times in his writings. In Galatians 6.16, Paul described those in Christ as “the Israel of God.” He redefined circumcision (see Philippians 3.3 and Colossians 2.11-12) and what it means to be a descendant of Abraham (Galatians 3.29 and Romans 4). In Romans 9-11, he wrote that not all who descended from Israel belong to Israel (see Romans 9.6) and that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved, with no distinction between Jew and Greek (see Romans 10.12).
However, the primary reason that this understanding of “all Israel” is rejected by most scholars is that it does not fit with the argument Paul is making in Romans 11. Beginning with Romans 11.13, Paul warned the Gentiles not to be “arrogant towards the branches,” meaning that the Gentile believers were not to think of themselves are more loved by God since the Jews by and large had rejected the Messiah. Though the Gentile believers had been grafted into the tree of God’s kingdom, they were not to think too highly of themselves. After all, they were only grafted in by God’s grace and mercy. Which is why Paul wrote, “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand the mystery: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved (Romans 11.25-26). The words of these two verses simple would not make sense if Paul were speaking of the elect among the Jews and Gentiles
The second way that some have understood the “all Israel” of Romans 11.26 is that Paul was writing of the ethnic nation of Israel as a whole. In other words, Paul meant that at some point in time in the future, after the fullness of the Gentiles had come into the Kingdom of God, the nation of Israel would be saved. There are some disagreements as to whether Paul was writing of “all Israel” as in every single member of the nation of Israel or to the people as a corporate whole. In addition, some debate whether “all Israel” means every descendant of Abraham that had ever lived or those Jews who were alive at the time when the fullness of the Gentiles was complete. Regardless, the basic tenet of this view is that after the full number of the elect Gentiles had come to faith in Christ, there would be a mass conversion of Israel to faith in Christ. Most understand that this would happen just prior to or at the moment of Christ’s return, when “the Deliverer will come from Zion” (see the quote from Isaiah 59 in Romans 11.26). At this point, the Messiah would “banish ungodliness from Jacob,” which is usually taken to mean that God would remove the hardening upon Israel (see Romans 11.25).
There are two major difficulties with this view, though this reading is the majority opinion among scholars today. The first problem deals with the proper interpretation of two small Greek words. The first word of interest is the Greek word ούτώς in Romans 11.26. The basic meaning of the word is “in this manner” (Thayer’s Greek Definitions) and usually has a modal sense (dealing with the manner of Israel’s salvation) and never a temporal sense (dealing with the timing of Israel’s salvation). The NIV interprets Romans 11.26 to read, “And so, all Israel will be saved,” which could be read “and after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, then all Israel will be saved,” but this is not the best interpretation of the text. The ESV captures it better by reading, “And in this way, all Israel will be saved.” The “in this way” has already been clearly explained by Paul in Romans 10: faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (see Romans 10.17) and there is no distinction between Jew and Greek as to the manner of salvation (see Romans 10.12).
The second Greek word of interest is άχρι in Romans 11.25. The basic meaning is “until” and is essentially terminative in its significance, implying the end of something. But the context alone determines whether the emphasis is upon what happens after the end of something or upon the end itself. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11.26, Paul instructed the church about the Lord’s Supper saying, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The emphasis was not that the church would cease to celebrate the Supper after the Lord’s return but that the Lord’s return would end the celebration of the Supper. Another example is 1 Corinthians 15.25 where Paul wrote that Christ must reign “until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” The point was not that there would come a time when Christ would no longer reign but that He would continue to reign until the last enemy was conquered. The interpretive question of Romans 11.25 is whether Paul was speaking of a time when the partial hardening of Israel would be reversed or when the hardening is eschatological fulfilled. It seems that the entire idea of a future mass conversion of Israel at some point in history’s future at the return of Christ depends upon these two words being interpreted in a way that is contrary to the context.
But the second major difficulty is that it seems to imply, or at least many who hold to this interpretation insist upon, that the way unto salvation for Israel will be different than the way unto salvation for the Gentiles. Some have suggested that the conversion of all of Israel will happen through a direct revelation of Christ prior to the Second Coming, much like what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. But this seems to contradict the point of Romans 10-11, that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek and that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. It would seem that Romans 10.6 would be rendered meaningless, too.
Others have suggested that there is a two track way to salvation, one for the Gentiles and one for the Jews. In other words, while the Gentiles are being saved by grace through faith, the Jews will be saved by their faithfulness to the Sinai covenant. But this seems to contradict the entire teaching of the book of Romans. How could Paul write “by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight” (Romans 3.20) and then imply that the Jews will be saved if they return to being faithful to the law? Furthermore, if there are two ways to enter the Kingdom of God, then Paul’s analogy of the olive tree (see Romans 11.11-24) makes no sense.
Others have suggested that the future mass conversion of the Jewish people will indeed be the mystery that Paul wrote about. At some point in the future, the hardening will be removed and the Jews, as a whole but not necessarily every single Jewish person, will believe in Jesus and confess Him as Savior and Lord. While this is a wonderful thought, and would indeed be a mystery, it does not seem to fit the plain reading of the text. Despite the interpretation of “until” and “so” of Romans 11.25-26 that was mentioned above, it should be noted that Paul has been speaking of the present tense throughout Romans 11. He wrote of the remnant chosen by grace “at this present time” (see Romans 11.5). He was hopeful that his ministry might make his fellow Jews jealous in order to save some of them (see Romans 11.13-14). He also was hopeful that that those who were disobedient may “now” receive mercy (see Romans 11.30-31). It seems that Paul was in anguish (see Romans 9.2) for his kinsmen according to the flesh to be saved, to confess with their mouth Jesus as Lord. If he were confident that at some point in the future “all Israel would be saved,” then why be in anguish? Indeed, he knew that “not all obeyed the gospel” (see Romans 10.16).
In addition, if Paul wrote about the future conversion of all of Israel, then this would be the only place in the New Testament where this eschatological element is introduced. Jesus did not speak of it in Matthew 24, nor did Paul write of it in 1 Thessalonians 2.14-16 where he wrote of God’s wrath coming upon the disbelieving Jews until the end. It seems to be missing from the vision given to John in the book of Revelation.
The Elect Among Israel
So, the third way of interpreting Romans 11.26 is most convincing to me, though it is by far the minority opinion among scholars today. In this reading, the “all Israel” of Romans 11.26 refers to the elect Jews from among Israel throughout history. In other words, Paul was saying that a partial hardening, not a full hardening, has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. But the elect of Israel will be saved in the same way that Paul had been describing in Romans 9-11: faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.
This reading seems to be the most natural way to read Romans 9-11. Paul already wrote that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9.6) and “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved” (Romans 9.27). Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, both Jews and Gentiles (see Romans 10.12-13), but it will be the predestined who are called and the called who are justified (see Romans 8.29-30). God has not rejected His people, for at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace (see Romans 11.1-7). And while the Gentiles can rejoice that they have been grafted into the Kingdom of God, God has the power to graft the Jews, the natural branches, back into the olive tree (see Romans 11.11-24). It is a mystery that the Jews who were given every advantage to believe (see Romans 9.4-5) have hardened themselves against the Christ. As regards the gospel, Israel as a whole has been an enemy of God, but the elect have been loved for the calling and election of God is irrevocable (see Romans 11.28-29). And just as the Gentiles have come to faith through the disobedience and rejection of the Jews, so too many Jews will come to faith by seeing the mercy of God displayed to the Gentiles (see Romans 11.30-32). Oh, how marvelous are the judgments of God!
There has always been, and continues to be, a remnant chosen by grace among the Jews who believe that Jesus is the Christ, that God raised Him from the dead, and who confess Him as Lord. To the praise of His glorious grace!
For those who want to do some extra research, I would point you to the following articles which were very helpful to me:
Ben Merkle, “Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2000: 709-721.
Christopher Zoccali, “And So All Israel Will be Saved: Competing Interpretations of Romans 11.26 in Pauline Scholarship,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 2008: 289-317.