Sermon preached on Romans 11:1-31 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/3/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“That He May Have Mercy on All”
I’ve mentioned that chapters 9-11 in Romans have been dealing with the subject of Israel and the Gentiles. Paul’s been discussing the surprising reality that so many Israelites are not saved, and so many Gentiles were becoming saved. That discussion comes to a culmination with today’s passage. Several important truths are found here in this final chapter on the subject. And so our first point will be look first at Israel’s current state. Second, we’ll look at the Gentiles’ current state, talking about our engrafting. Third, we’ll consider the controversial statement of verse 26, “All Israel will be saved.”
So, let’s first begin by describing Israel’s current state. This is something we especially see in verses 1-12, but also in verses 25-32 to some degree as well. The context, by the way, is especially the last few verses of chapter 10. That was where Paul mentioned that Israel was a disobedient and contrary people who was continually rejecting God’s gracious offer of forgiveness and grace. Our passage then opens with the question if God has rejected his people. By no means, Paul says. And so that is the first thing to note about Israel’s current state. They have not been rejected by God. Even though they had been so wayward, so stiff-necked and disobedient, God’s plan of salvation yet included them.
However, Paul then goes on to explain what he means. It’s what he’s already been saying the last couple chapters, but he says it again in a slightly different way to clarify. Paul says that we know God has not rejected Israel because he himself is an Israelite. Paul was saved in Christ, but this was after a time of extreme rebellion. Remember, Paul had been a staunch persecutor of the Christian church. He had boldly rejected Christ and denied the gospel. But God changed Paul. Paul was one of God’s elect, and so in just the right time, God intervened in Paul’s life and brought him to know the righteousness of faith.
Paul uses himself as an example of a larger truth. That God has continually been preserving a remnant among Israel. For the sake of the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he has not fully cast off the nation of Israel. No, according to his divine foreordination and election, he has been saving a remnant among Israel all along. Verses 2-4 show how this was the case back in Elijah’s day, even. Elijah the prophet served during a very dark time in Israel’s history. This was the time of evil king Ahab and his horrible wife Jezebel. Wicked and dark days for Israel. Someone might have asked the same question about Israel back then as Paul asked in verse 1. Has God rejected his stubborn, sinful, people? That’s essentially what Elijah thought in the quote from verse 3 about his days. But Elijah was wrong. God informed his prophet then that there was yet a remnant. God had preserved seven thousand men who hadn’t turned to Baal. Well, Paul says that’s the same thing for his day. Verse 5, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.” This remnant, of course, is God’s elect among Israel, per verse 7. So, this is the second point about Israel’s state, there has been and continues to be a remnant among Israel that is saved.
A third truth we see here about Israel’s current state is that they are experiencing a hardening. This is verses 7-10. We talked about this idea of God hardening Israel earlier as well, back in chapter 9. Those who have hardened themselves against God, may find that God further adds to their hardening as a punishment. Those among Israel during Paul’s day that were not believers in Christ, were not saved. And so they had been hardened against the gospel message. However, what this passage does is introduce an element of hope to all of this. You see, we might think at this point in Romans that the people who are hardened against the gospel are not the elect. That they are the reprobate. But at this point in Romans, that would be too simplistic. You see, Paul sees that for some of these people who are currently hardened to the gospel, that this status might change. That they might yet be saved. This is starting to get at a major theme in this chapter. That among those Israelites who are currently hardened against the gospel, some might yet be saved. In other words, some might yet be seen to actually be a part of God’s elect among Israel. This is what verse 25 is getting at when it talks about how Israel has experienced a partial hardening. In other words, for many in Israel, their hardening will only be temporary. Don’t misunderstand to think that Paul is saying this is just something for the future. No, even in Paul’s day, he saw that going on. In verses 13-14 Paul says that he magnifies his current ministry among the Gentiles, with the goal to spark jealousy among the Jews, that he would save some of them.
And so this is Israel’s state right that day. In general, like far too often in their history, they were stubborn and rebellious. In Paul’s day that meant so many had hardened themselves against the gospel. But God had not rejected his chosen ones among Israel. And so, it’s as he said back in chapter 9 when dealing with this, “They are not all Israel who are of Israel.” Those who are really Israel, are the remnant. This is a remnant chosen by grace. This is the elect who either have or will turn to Christ. The rest are not really of Israel. The rest will remain hardened, under condemnation, and cast off from the people of God.
So then, let’s turn to our second point now. Let’s consider the Gentiles current state according to this passage. Of course, he’s not talking about every single Gentile. He’s talking about the many among the Gentiles who’ve become saved through faith in Christ. Paul says that these saved Gentiles have become one with the saved among Israel. More specifically, he talks about how these saved Gentiles have been incorporated into the existing root of God’s people. A root that extends back into the people of Israel, all the way back to the forefathers of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Paul uses two illustrations for this, beginning in verse 16. First, he says that if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy. This is an analogy from the Old Testament where Israel was to offer some of the first fruits to God as a sacrifice. The result was that the whole of the crop was then holy unto God. It seems that this is a reference to the patriarchs of the faith. They are holy, and the rest that follow them in their same faith are holy too. The second illustration, and the one he develops further, is about the root being holy, and so therefore the branches are holy. Again, the forefathers of the faith are likely in view here again, particularly the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God’s people since then have come from this holy stock.
He develops this by discussing an olive tree. Israel as a whole is seen as the branches flowing from this olive tree. But amazingly, some of these natural branches have been ripped off by God. This, of course, is because of their unbelief. They didn’t receive Jesus. They didn’t believe in the gospel. And so God ripped them off. On the other hand, Gentile believers in Christ, have been grafted onto this tree of God’s people. Paul refers to such Gentile converts as wild olive branches. There is something unnatural to them being grafted onto this holy olive tree. But, nonetheless, that is the glorious thing God has done.
This tree is that of the people of God. Those who call upon the name of the Lord. Those who come to God in faith and look for his grace to save them. It is a holy thing to be a branch on this olive tree. And so this is why Israel made such a big deal about being sons of Abraham. And it’s why elsewhere Paul makes a big deal that Christians have become sons of Abraham. There are not two different olive trees in God’s garden. He has the one tree. He has the one people.
Realize how this shows the continuity of the one church of God, throughout all human history. There is not a separate Old Testament church and now a New Testament church. Nor is there going to be a church of Jews and a separate church of Gentiles. Neither is there one way to be saved in the old covenant and new way to be saved in the new covenant. Abraham and Moses and David were all saved by grace through faith. Just as you and I, Gentile converts in Christ, are saved. They had faith in God’s promises from afar. We have faith in the clear fulfilled promises that have come in Christ. But together, we are all one church. Together, we are united to God, in Christ, and by his Spirit. You know, there are certainly differences between the Old and New Testaments. There are certainly some big differences in sacraments and how we worship, for example. But there is also a great connection. It’s a passage like this which shows this to be the case. We, have been engrafted into the one church of Jesus Christ.
Well, so far, we’ve talked about the current state of Israel and the current state of the Gentiles. I’d like to turn now to talk about the statement in verse 26 that says that all Israel will be saved. It’s a phrase that has confused some as they read it, and I hope I can offer some clarity today as we study it. But to understand this phrase, we have to first observe the previous verse and a mystery that it mentions. In verse 25, Paul tells us about a mystery that he would have us Gentiles to recognize. Verse 25, “For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.”
A mystery, in Scriptural terms, is something we would not know about, if God hadn’t revealed it to us. Paul tells us about one such mystery. The mystery is about the interesting dynamics here between Jew and Gentile. It’s at the heart of what chapters 9-11 have been about. He tells us what the mystery is in verse 25, but let me explain it further. The mystery is essentially this: The Gentiles have been disobedient in the past, but now they are becoming saved. But this has only happened because the Jews have become disobedient. In the Jews’ rejection of the gospel, God has in turn sent out the gospel to the nations. The result is many Gentiles being saved. However, the beauty is that God is then using the Gentile’s conversion to spark unbelieving Jews to jealousy. This will happen until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so, essentially God is working this interesting circular dynamic between Jew and Gentile up to Christ’s return. Gentiles saved because of the Jew’s unbelief. The Gentile’s belief leading to the Jew’s belief.
What’s the result of this? Of this mystery being worked out in history? Verse 26, thus all Israel will be saved. And so here we are. What does Paul mean by this? A very common interpretation is that this refers to some future time just before Christ comes back when Israel as a nation has some mass, wide scale, turning to Christ. This is often claimed to be the most literal view. That sounds nice. I’ll be making a bigger case against that view, but let me just point out to start that such a view is not that literal, because why should the words “all Israel” from such thinking only include some final generation of national Israel? What about all the Israelites according to the flesh that weren’t saved in the past? Paul has already said that there are people who are ethnically Jewish, but aren’t really the elect Israel of God. Esau for example. Or take all mass of people who turned away from God during Elijah’s time. They don’t appear to be saved. So, that’s certainly one problem with this first view.
A second view is one that people such as John Calvin have advocated, and others have adopted as well. Calvin said that “all Israel” here refers to all the elect, made up of both Jew and Gentiles, from all time. Now, I do think there is a lot to commend that view. I do think that the language of “Israel” can be used to refer to the true church, made up of Jew and Gentile. This chapter tells us that such a concept is legitimate with the one olive tree illustration. But, even though the language of Israel could be used that way to refer to both Jews and Gentiles, I don’t think that’s the best read of verse 26. That’s because the immediate context seems to be discussing Jews in distinction from Gentiles. There seems to much of an ethnic context here to consider Gentile Christians in view in verse 26.
So a third view, and what I’m advocating, is that verse 26 refers to elect Israel. The Israel that is really Israel. In other words, Israel that doesn’t include the Esaus of Israel, and all the wicked unbelieving kings, and all those who turned away from God, etc. Under this view, this need not even be tied to one final climactic turning of Jews to Christ at the end. Rather, this is essentially affirming what was going on at Paul’s day, and will continue to the end — that is while Gentiles are being saved, unbelieving Jews will become jealous and some will turn in faith and be saved. That there will always be a remnant among Israel of true Israelites. God will save these all along the way, and so the result will be that all Israel will end up saved. All elect Israel, that is. Thus, God’s promises have not failed, nor has he rejected his elect among Israel.
Now it might be argued that this is a rather uninteresting statement, if that is what Paul means. If Paul has the elect Israel in mind, is this not simply saying that thus all the elect will be saved. Isn’t that an obvious point? Opponents might ask how this does justice to Paul’s talk of a mystery here. What’s so mysterious about all of this, if Paul is just saying the elect are saved. Well, first off, realize that’s not the mystery here. The mystery, as we pointed out, is how God is saving Jews and Gentiles together in this interesting dynamic between them, with the final result that God will save all his elect Israel and all his elect Gentiles. The fullness of both peoples will come to salvation in one church; verses 12 and 25 affirm this.
Second, we need to recognize that verse 26 isn’t some grand new revelation or insight. It’s just a final summary statement of the point he’s been developing for 3 chapters, chapters 9-11. Just walk through them with me again, and you’ll see that this is what the context dictates. At the start of chapter 9, Paul expressed how sad he was that so many Israelites were not saved. But in 9:6 he addresses the concern over whether or not God’s Word concerning Israel had failed. Paul said no! But his reason was simple: they are not all Israel who are of Israel. That has to govern our understanding of verse 26 here! That’s how Paul started this section out. It’s how he defined his terms. Right at the start of chapter 9, he’s saying God’s promises about Israel have not and would not fail because not every Jewish-born person is really God’s Israel. They are not of God’s chosen promised line. Not Ishmael, not Esau, not the unbelievers of Isaiah’s day, nor those of Elijah’s day. Paul said in chapter 9 that it was the elect among ethnic Israel who were really Israel. And so Paul has repeatedly introduced the idea of the remnant in these chapters. 9:27, Paul said it was the remnant that would be saved. Would Paul be contradicting himself now in verse 26? Of course not. He just said it again in verse 5 of this chapter. That even in Paul’s day there was a remnant saved by grace. And so Paul’s been making the point that God’s promises about saving Israel have not failed just because some Jewish-born people go to hell, frankly. That’s because Paul says that the promises to Israel were always to the elect of Israel, and that this repeatedly was shown through God preserving a saved remnant among Israel. That happened in the former days. It happened during Paul’s day. And it continues to happen today. It will happen all the way until the end, until the fullness of Jewish and Gentile converts come into Christ’s church. The result will be that all Israel will be saved. All true Israelites, that is all the elect of Israel, the Israel that is really Israel — they will be saved.
And so realize that what this is not saying is that Jews could be saved apart from faith in Christ. Sadly some have suggested this. They might appeal to verses 28-29 for that idea too. But there is nothing in Romans that would allow for that. Paul had made it very clear from the start, and even in this passage today, that Jews are saved through the gospel. Romans 1:16 says the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, first for the Jews! And again here, Paul talks about how Israelites are saved when they become jealous over the Gentiles’ faith and become believers themselves. There is nothing in Romans that would suggest Jews are saved just because of their blood line. In fact, Romans makes it clear that the opposite is true. Only through faith in Christ will any Jew will be saved. But, because of the mystery that’s been mentioned, and because of God’s divine election, we know that God will save each and every one of his chosen ones born even of Israel. The fact that Israel as a whole has rejected Christ, will not keep God from working his salvation among Israelites via a remnant.
Hopefully I’ve made this case clearly in our limited time today. If you have follow ups to this text, please feel free to ask me afterwards. I know this is one many people have had questions on before. As we close this sermon, I’d like to offer two points of application that apply regardless of how someone interprets verse 26.
First, this passage directly calls Gentiles to humility. Back then evidently there was a temptation among the Gentile believers in Rome to have pride when comparing themselves to Jewish unbelievers. You could imagine how the conversation might go. Jews and Gentiles, in general, had a lot of animosity in general at that time. Christian Jews and Gentiles were having to get over that. But you could imagine that Gentile Christians and unbelieving Jews still had some animosity and tension between them. You might imagine the Gentile Christian then taking pride in their own salvation in such a way that gives them the credit. They might think things like, “I’m glad I’m not like those foolish Jews that missed the Messiah that was born right in front of their own eyes! I’m glad I was smart enough to not miss it.” That of course would be a wrong kind of pride. Salvation is by grace! And so, this is verse 18’s application. Don’t boast Gentiles against these unsaved Israelites that have been ripped of the tree. They could still be regrafted in, if they believe. You could yet fall away. So be humble. Watch yourself, in other words.
Well, this applies today to us, in how we interact with Jews today. But it would seem an extended application would apply to believers in general. This seems to be a more common temptation for us today. We can look around at the pagan world around us and think how foolish they are. We could say in our mind, how could anyone be so stupid as to miss Christ. We could in turn puff up ourselves, thinking we were someone smart enough to get it. That of course would be to miss the point of how we are saved. We are saved by grace. Even our faith was God’s initiative in our life, to soften our hearts and draw us to himself. It would be hypocritical to become puffed up toward unbelievers as if we earned our salvation. No, let us be humble. We are saved because Christ died for us. He’s the ultimate root of our salvation and the church. As we abide in Christ, we will bear much fruit. Christ died and rose again for us, and drew us to himself by his Spirit. Saved by grace. Let us be humble as we trust in him.
A second application is concerning our relationship with unsaved Jews today. It’s drawn from verses 28-29. Verse 28, “Concerning the gospel they [Israel] are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Some have thought this meant that we should treat all Israelites as elect, even if they don’t believe the gospel, because God will ultimately save them. Of course, we’ve already made the case that not all ethnic Jews will be saved. Only the true elect of God. Any elect, unbelieving Jew, would be an enemy to us in terms of the gospel, but they’d be beloved because they are elect. However, none of us knows which unbelieving Jews are elect or not. This is where the reference to the fathers seems important here. Since we don’t know which are elect, we instead think of the election of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These unbelieving Jews today are their children. And these unbelieving Jews are wayward. They reject Christ and the gospel. Should we treat them as enemies, even though they are? Not really. But, should we treat them as saved? No, definitely not. How should we treat them? I think the closest analogy is that we treat them in a way similar to our wayward covenant children today. When I spend time with a grown up covenant child that has left the church and rejected Christ, I don’t treat them as an enemy. But I don’t treat them as saved. They do have a special status. I treat them in a special status because of the election of their parents. And because of their own rich spiritual heritage. And because I yet hope and pray that they would yet be saved. That’s what Paul’s been talking about in terms of wayward Israel. It seems then that this is the best way to treat wayward Israel today.
And so to wayward Israel, and throw in our own wayward covenant children, do what Paul does. Pray for them. Share Christ with them. Call them to faith. Let them know your heart breaks for them. And preach Christ to others as well, for who knows? God might spark them to spiritual jealousy as they see others come and taste and see that the Lord is good. Let’s pray for them now. Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.