“There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). That’s a relief to read, isn’t it? If the apostle Peter had trouble understanding Paul, is it any wonder we do too? I sometimes wonder if Romans 11:26, which says that “all Israel will be saved,” was on Peter’s mind.
It’s a riddle of a verse, wrapped in a mystery of an argument, inside a densely reasoned letter. It’s also one of the best clues we have about how Paul understood Scripture as a whole.
But did I mention it was tough? Let me see then if I can shed light on this statement by answering four questions, one on each part of the verse. This won’t give us all the answers, but it’ll point us in the right direction.
1. What Does He Mean by ‘Saved’?
Let’s start with the easiest part. By “saved” Paul means rescued or delivered from God’s judgment on sin. We could say more—Paul does. But that’s the basic gist.
Paul confirms this for us in the next verses when he writes, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins” (Rom. 11:26–27). The “Deliverer” is Jesus, and the rescued are those who believe in him (see Rom. 11:23 in light of Rom. 9:30–10:4).
2. What Does He Mean by ‘Israel’?
By “Israel” Paul means ethnic Israelites (Jews). For Paul the world was divided into two types of people: Israel and everybody else (Gentiles). And according to Paul, Israel comprises the people God set apart for himself, made promises to, established covenants with, and entrusted with his law (Rom. 9:1–5). They are Abraham’s descendants—not every last one, but those freely chosen by God’s mercy, like Isaac and Jacob (Rom. 9:6–13), and Paul (Rom. 11:1).
They are a people whose response to Paul’s gospel should not have surprised anyone (Rom. 9:31). After all, on more than one occasion, God had anticipated their unbelief (Rom. 10:19–21; 11:2). What’s more, they were the people Paul kept one eye fixed on as he carried out his mission to Gentiles, hoping and praying that “somehow [he might] make [his] fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Rom. 11:13–14).
Gentiles are the outsiders. If Jews were God’s people, Gentiles were not (Rom. 10:19), at least not at first and never in precisely the same way. True, God was always free to reverse the “not his people” status of Gentiles. In fact, hints that he would were given to Abraham right from the beginning (Rom. 4:17–18) and subtly affirmed along the way (Rom. 9:25–26; cf. Rom. 10:19; 15:9–11).
God was always free to reverse the ‘not his people’ status of Gentiles. In fact, hints that he would were given to Abraham right from the beginning.
But there’s still a sense in which Israel and the Gentiles are distinct. That’s what Paul is getting at with his olive-tree metaphor (Rom. 11:17–24). Believing Gentiles are connected to Abraham’s family tree, but in a slightly different way than believing Israel is. They’re connected in a way that is “contrary to nature,” which is something that can’t be said for believing Jews (Rom. 11:24).
3. What Does He Mean by ‘All’?
“All” refers to the sum of the Jewish remnant and the hardened majority. Here’s the formula: Jewish remnant + hardened majority = all Israel. “All Israel,” then, is nothing less than the sum of the two groups that have always existed within Israel (Rom. 9:27–29; 11:1–9). This is what God’s preservation of a remnant had always anticipated and implied (Rom. 11:16), even when the implication seemed so far out of reach (Rom. 9:1–6; 10:1; 11:1). Eventually all Israel–both Jewish remnant and hardened majority–will be saved (though see Paul’s clarifying remarks in Romans 9:6, when he basically says, “Yes, yes…. You’ve got the math right. Just remember, it won’t include every member of that hardened majority.”)
Here’s the formula: Jewish remnant + hardened majority = all Israel.
How will this happen? Paul explains. God promised that Abraham’s family tree would be full of natural branches (Israelites). This guaranteed that the long-standing asymmetry of Abraham’s family tree—caused by so many of his kin being cut off—would one day be addressed. And in a breathtaking stroke, God reveals that he is going to use wild branches (Gentiles) to do it—to restore Israel’s symmetry.
And he will do this not by grafting in a bunch of wild branches in the place of the natural branches, but by using grafted-in wild branches to gain the attention of the natural branches. This was a “mystery” long hidden and only lately revealed (Rom. 11:25). God had promised to save Gentiles and provoke his stubborn people (Rom. 10:19). But nobody saw this coming: God fulfills the promise latent in the remnant’s preservation through Gentile inclusion. Nobody foresaw that it would be “in this way” (Rom. 11:25) that all Israel will be saved.
4. When Does He Mean by ‘Will Be’?
When will “all Israel be saved”? Answer: after “the full number of Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25), which will occur just before Jesus returns and, therefore, just before the resurrection Paul mentions in Romans 11:15 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23; 2 Pet. 3:8–15). The two Old Testament passages Paul cites in Romans 11:26–27 may point in this direction too.
When will ‘all Israel be saved’? Answer: after ‘the full number of Gentiles has come in.’
The big question, however, is whether Israel’s full salvation happens all at once or gradually. Does the lifting of Israel’s partial hardening await the final Gentile convert, or has it begun already?
To ask it another way, did Paul regard Jews converted in his day (and ours) as gradually swelling the ranks of the remnant or as gradually reversing the hardening of the majority?
I’m inclined to the latter option, which would mean that the reversal of Israel’s hardening has already begun. After all, when Paul talks about Jewish conversion from Romans 11:11 onward, he talks about re-grafting (Rom. 11:23–24) and reversal (Rom. 11:25), not adding to the remnant. This lines up with what Paul says in Romans 11:31: God’s mercy is not something the hardened majority must wait to receive.
That said, this reading doesn’t rule out a long process ending with a climactic revival. To learn whether it will, we simply must wait and see.
Oh the Depth!
Peter was right. Some passages in Paul are difficult. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid them. On the contrary, passages that require digging are those that often yield diamonds.
Romans 11 is one such passage. It’s a story full of twists and turns, marvel and mystery (Rom. 11:33–36). But what else would we expect from a God like ours?