February 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What does Paul mean when he said that ‘All Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26)?

In Romans 11, Paul deals with the salvation of the Gentiles in relation to the mystery of Israel’s election. Using the vivid imagery of tree husbandry, Paul speaks of Gentiles being grafted into the olive tree – a metaphor for Israel – even as the original branches are broken off due to unbelief.

In verse 25, however, Paul issues a caution to the Gentiles, lest they be conceited. The partial hardening that had come upon Israel, he asserts, will persist only until ‘the fullness of the Gentiles has come in’ (verse 25). It is in this way, Paul says in verse 26, that ‘all Israel will be saved’.

Scholars have debated on what Paul could have meant by the phrase ‘all Israel’. Did the Apostle think that every single Jew that had ever lived will in the end be the recipient of divine salvation? Should ‘Israel’ in this passage be understood in terms of ethnicity alone?

In order to understand what Paul meant by ‘Israel’ in 11:26, we need to refer to his statements in 9:6-8. There, the apostle makes it very clear that when he speaks of Israel he has in mind, not simply ethnic Jews, but ethnic Jews who are, in his words, ‘the children of promise’ also (9:8).

Paul makes the important distinction between ethnic Jews and those who have faith in God and his promises when he writes, rather straightforwardly, that ‘not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring’ (9:6b-7).

‘Not all who are of Israel is Israel’. This statement indicates that there is an ethnic Israel and a true Israel. Only the Israelites or Jews who live by faith in the divine promises may be said to belong to the latter. But, he goes on to argue, it is because there is indeed a true Israel that God’s rejection of Israel is not complete – there is a remnant that will be recipients of God’s promised salvation.

This brings us back to 11:25-26. Here, the juxtaposition of ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ and ‘all Israel’ is exegetically significant. Just as the expression ‘the fullness of the Gentiles’ does not suggest that all Gentiles will be saved but only those who would put their faith in Christ, so the expression ‘all Israel’ does not refer to all Jews.

Thus, the Reformed theologian Louis Berkhoff is right in stating that ‘“All Israel” is to be understood as a designation not of the whole nation, but of the whole number of the elect out of the ancient covenant people …’

Putting the same point across slightly differently, the New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce maintains that ‘all Israel’ does not mean ‘every Jew without a single exception’, but ‘Israel as a whole’.

‘All Israel’ therefore does not refer to every Jew; it certainly does not refer to the modern secular state of Israel.

The question that must be addressed at this point is: On what basis are the Jews saved? Must Jews put their faith in Jesus Christ in order to be included in God’s kingdom? Or are there two paths to salvation – one for Jews, and another for Gentiles?

Some Christians are of the view that Jews do not need to put their faith in Christ in order to be saved. The covenant that God had made with them, they argue, is an enduring covenant. And as long as they are faithful to it, they will be saved.

In 2002, a group of scholars and theologians issued a statement entitled, ‘A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People’. Signatories include Lutheran theologians like Franklin Sherman and Roman Catholic theologians like Peter Phan.

The Statement insists – against the theology of supersessionism that states that the old covenant must give way to the new – that ‘God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever’.

‘With their recent realisation that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal’, the Statement argues, ‘Christians can now recognise in the Jewish tradition the redemptive power of God at work. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ’.

What are we to make of this? I think the response to this view is found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans itself.

In Romans 9:1-3, Paul speaks of his ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ of heart over the situation of the Jews who have rejected the Gospel of Christ. So great was his concern over their salvation that Paul writes these moving words: ‘I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh’.

Paul said that he is willing to be cut off from Christ, if that would mean that his ‘kinsmen according to the flesh’ would be saved, that is, that they would put their faith in Christ and be found in him. For Paul (indeed, for the whole of the New Testament) there is only one means to eternal life – faith in Christ.

Addressing a primarily Jewish audience at Solomon’s Portico, the apostle Peter exhorts his hearers to ‘Repent, therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things about which God spoke by the mouth of the prophet like me from your brothers’ (Acts 3:19-20).

Finally, there are some Christians who believe that immediately before or at the second coming of Christ, there will be a mass conversion of Jews to Christianity. Multitudes of Jews will suddenly acknowledge Jesus as Saviour. However, there is nothing in Romans 11 (or elsewhere) that supports this idea or theory.

Indeed, NT scholars like Tom Wright have rejected the idea that there will be a ‘large-scale, last-minute salvation of ethnic Jews’. Instead, Wright argues, ‘Paul is envisaging a steady flow of Jews into the church, by grace through faith’.

Christians are called to bring the Gospel to everyone (Matthew 28:18-20). They are called to proclaim to Jews and non-Jews alike the wonderful Good News that salvation and eternal life can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.