A good explanation of a “thorny” topic:
This phrase has often stymied students of the New Testament, and has been a verse with many interpretations. I offer mine. To adamantly conclude that I have the right one, or even one that has not been proposed by others is presumptuous. What I’m offering is merely from my Bible reading and not from diligently studying other authors on the subject, so I could likely be repeating what another has said. I also realize that a lot rests on the interpretation of this phrase, so one has to very careful to know the context.
Who is “all Israel”?
In my opinion, though Israel is discussed in various ways in Romans 9-11, “all Israel” in this verse (11:26) is “all elect Israel.” I believe Paul is saying, “and so, all [chosen] Israel will be saved.” This comports with 9:6-13 below. Please read it carefully:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “Through Isaac Your descendants will be named.” That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
In the entire section of chapters 9-11, Paul is making the point that the children of promise are those God chooses and calls (9:23-24). These are the elect such as Isaac and Jacob (9:8-13). Some are Jews and some Gentiles, for God says in Hosea, “I will call those who were not my people, ‘My people’” (9:25). Israel as an ethnic entity has rejected God’s offer of Christ, and “it is the remnant that will be saved” (9:27). Whatever one says about the sentence, “and so all Israel will be saved,” we must remember that it will only be the remnant that will actually be saved among Israel and that remnant is the true Israel about whom the promises were made.
Who Responds by Faith?
In chapter 10 of Romans, we see that ethnic Israel as a whole has not responded by faith in Christ, even though they have had a zeal for God. They bypassed God’s way of righteousness through Christ, and continued in law works. The possibility of belief was close to them, but it was the Gentiles who responded much better. Officially, Israel, as the perverse generation, rejected Christ. God “stretched out His hand” and “hardened” the hearts of Israelites because of this—except for the elect remnant.
Are The Promises Made to Israel Abrogated?
Chapter 11 is where our often misinterpreted phrase is found: “and so all Israel will be saved.” How does Paul develop his thoughts?
First of all, Paul asks the question that provides the theme of the chapter: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be.” Paul introduces his argument in this chapter by using two illustrations—himself and the Elijah story. Israel is not rejected by God because, Paul says, “I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.” In other words, he is saying, “I am a case in point that Israel is not rejected and that the promises made concerning them are being fulfilled, because I have believed in Christ as an Israelite.”
And, secondly, Paul reminds them of Elijah. What did God tell Elijah when he thought there were none like him who would follow God? “I have kept for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (11:4). So, Paul proposes that “in the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (11:5). This idea sets the course for the rest of the chapter: God’s promises to Israel are being fulfilled through the remnant of Israel who believe in Christ. Only the chosen obtained what Israel was seeking, “and the rest were hardened” (11:7). Paul makes plain that this salvation for Israel is not by law works, but through faith, just as it is for the Gentiles.
Though judged severely, Israel did not completely fall. “May it never be!” In fact, the judgment of partial hardening among Israel produced some good.
Israel’s rejection was the means by which the gospel came to Gentiles. Paul reminds these Gentiles in the Roman church not to forget who was first to believe. They are grafted into the trunk of the olive tree of God’s salvation and blessing, which was the first believing Jews. This favor of God to those Gentiles who believe makes Israel jealous. In fact, Paul preaches to the Gentiles in part to promote this jealousy, so that some of Israel will be saved. But the Gentiles were reminded that they are grafted in only because of faith. God is able to break them off again if they begin to disbelieve, so “don’t be conceited, but fear, for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either.” God has the ability to graft Israel back in also, if they do not continue in unbelief. In either case, the called Gentiles are in the Olive tree only by faith. We should notice however that the illustration Paul uses includes the word, “some”: “some of the branches [Israel] were broken off” (11:17). The hardening is only partial.
The Mystery Revealed
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation—that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and SO all Israel will be saved. (11:25-26)
It is a great “mystery” that Gentiles were included in the promises of God spoken originally to Israel (Eph 3). Here is another mystery that needs to be expounded: ALL of elect Israel will be saved as was promised. Not all Israel as an ethnic entity, but all true elect Israel: “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6).
In my view, the emphasis on our famous statement is on the word “so.” It could read as “thus,” or “in this manner.” “And IN THIS MANNER, all Israel will be saved.” The effect is to reveal how He will save the true Israel remnant. It is not at a great future awakening of Jewish interest just before Christ comes again, but all along at the same time as Gentiles are coming in. It is happening while they are in a partial hardening. It is happening as the remnant is responding to Christ. That is the way they will be saved.
We cannot say if there will be periods when larger numbers of Jews believe in Christ, as happened to them at the beginning during Pentecost when 3000 were saved, soon turning to 5000. We can pray for that. But there is no guarantee of such a thing in this passage, nor is there such a guarantee for Gentiles to experience revival in Scripture. God will act to carry out His intentions as He pleases by bringing in the remnant Israel as He promised alongside the Gentile elect, those who were originally “not His people, but now are the people of God.” Hopefully it will include such times of special visitation to breathe life into the churches and to stir up laborers. We can pray for that, but it is not promised.
We see then that God has not rejected Israel, nor forsaken His promises in any way, but will fulfill His promise “IN THIS WAY,” that is, when Gentiles also are being saved and while Israel as an ethnic group is partially hardened to Christ. When the fullness or completeness of Gentiles is finished, you can be sure that God will have simultaneously saved elect Israel—all Israel who was called, all Israel of the promise, all Israel who are elect, all Israel who come by faith, all the remnant of Israel. God has not forsaken any who are truly His in Israel, for “the gifts and callings of God are irrevocable” (11:29). Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20-21 to reinforce the fact that Christ came to do this for Jacob, or Israel, in His first coming. The Isaiah passage would be strained to mean Christ’s second coming.
Paul has now successfully vindicated God for His judgment of Israel which left them in this partial hardening as a nation, and for his inclusion of believing Gentiles when it appeared to some that the promises were made to Israelites alone. This unfolding of God’s mystery in Romans was meant to help the Jewish-born believers in the church of Rome to accept their fellow Gentile believers, and for believing Gentiles to accept Jewish-born believers. Paul has proven that God has not lied about His promises or changed His plans. And, while doing so, he has proclaimed that the gospel is offered to all, both Israelites and Gentiles. That, after all, is the burden of Paul’s message throughout Romans.
Finally, notice the word, “now” in Paul’s concluding remarks.
For just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God, but NOW have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also NOW have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you [Gentiles] they [Jews] also may NOW be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all. (11:30-31)
A God of Purpose
God never intended to save all of ethnic Israel. He always intended that the children of promise or elect Israel were to be the heirs of the promises. That has not changed. Gentiles are included as children of the promises made to Abraham. That has not changed either. It is about mercy, not law-righteousness. All who receive this mercy come to Christ by faith. God’s intention is that both Jews and Gentiles, though all shut up in disobedience, are given mercy. The writing of this amazing truth causes Paul, the Jewish-born apostle to the Gentiles, to erupt in a doxology to God for His unfathomable mercy.