The eleventh chapter of Romans opens with the apostle Paul, a descendant of Abraham, asking the question: “Has God rejected [ethnic Israel]?” The short answer to this question is given in verse 5: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” This comes after Paul alludes to Elijah’s rebuke of Israel for killing God’s prophets and destroying His altars (vv. 3–4; see 1 Kings 19:10, 14).
But the question about Israel’s status permeates much of the letter to the Romans, especially chapters 1–2 and 9–11. Israel’s status is particularly emphasized in chapters 9 and 10, while chapter 11 focuses on the fact that Israel’s judgment is neither total nor final. There are two verses that are most helpful in understanding Paul’s discourse on the mystery of Israel’s salvation. The first is Romans 9:6: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Here Paul makes a distinction between natural or ethnic Israel (physical descendants of Abraham ) and spiritual Israel (those who share the faith of Abraham). Paul makes the same distinction in his letter to the Galatians, especially in 4:21–31. But Paul is not alone in this line of reasoning. Jesus argues similarly in John 8:37–41. The remnant alluded to in Romans 9:5 that are chosen by grace obviously refers to some from among the natural descendants of Abraham who are also spiritual descendants.
The second verse is Romans 11:26: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” This is a much debated passage, with different interpretations even among Reformed theologians. Some maintain that “all Israel” in this verse refers to all spiritual Israel, which includes both Jew and Gentile. Others suggest that “all Israel” refers to all of the elect from the natural descendants of Abraham — the remnant alluded to in verse 5. Yet others contend that the meaning of “all Israel” is literally the nation of Israel as we know it today. A fourth view is that the verse refers to a point in time when there will be a mass conversion among the Jews.
In any event, this verse elaborates Paul’s negative answer to the question we pointed out at the beginning of this article. In verses 11–12, the apostle mentions Israel’s fall and their failure. Verse 22 speaks of God’s severity toward those who have fallen, and in verse 28, Israel is depicted as being “enemies of God” regarding the gospel — all of this in spite of the fact that Israel had been the recipients of many privileges from God, truly His unique people (9:4–5). Yet at the time of Paul’s writing, most ethnic Israelites had rejected the Messiah and His gospel.
As mentioned above, Paul’s point in this chapter is that although their obstinacy had been met with severity from God, they had not been fully and finally rejected by Him. Paul himself was proof that the saving grace of God could (and would) penetrate the unbelieving Jewish heart.
In Romans 11:11–15, Paul also makes the point that the rejection of the Jews had been to the advantage of the Gentiles. We must exercise caution in making this point, so that it is not made to appear that salvation among Gentiles is somehow a back-up plan by God. To the contrary, Romans 4:13–17 expounds the fact that God’s promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations always included the Gentiles, who would come to share Abraham’s faith. The rejection of the Jews was simply the means by which God’s eternal plan and purposes would be accomplished.
In the same way, Jesus tells His disciples in Acts 1:8 that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria.” But the circumstance that leads them into Judea and Samaria is a surge of persecutions headed up by Saul of Taurus. In Romans 11:25, Paul says, “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” This partial hardening would explain the rejection of the gospel by many Jews, and the fact that it was partial would also explain the embrace of the gospel by other Jews.
In short, I would side with those who take the position that Paul is alluding to widespread conversion among the Jews at some point in the future. That being the case, the real mystery of Israel’s salvation is the flip side of the mystery of the Gentiles’ salvation. The Gentiles were the enemies of God, without the Mosaic law, and were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel. Yet God, by His grace, brought them to faith in Christ. The Jews, on the other hand, having all that the Gentiles lacked, failed to see Jesus as the end of the Law and the substance of God’s promises. But just as God’s grace and mercy have been extended to the Gentiles, thereby overpowering their unbelief, so also will He overpower the obstinacy of unbelieving Israel and bring them to saving faith in the One they once rejected. In both cases, it is the merciful and sovereign grace of God that transforms enemies into children of God, just as Paul says in closing the eleventh chapter of Romans: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”