Piper on Romans 11

First, let me say I love John Piper. This week, he posted an article titled "Five Reasons I Believe Romans 11:26 Means a Future Conversion for Israel." I respect such a view, but must humbly disagree. I think this reading of Romans 11 is much better than the Dispensational view of the chapter. A future millennium, a future earthly Davidic Kingdom, restoration to Jerusalem, and/or a restoration of a geo-political state must be inserted from outside. These are nowhere to be found in this wonderful chapter. Piper's view (along with Schreiner's and Moo's) is different from the classic dispensational one in that these future Jews will be added to the church when Jesus returns.

Here are his reasons, followed by my two cents:

1. The term “Israel” in verses 25 and 26 most naturally refers to the same thing.

Not necessarily. Romans 9:6 is the thesis of Romans 9-11. There, Paul uses Israel in two different ways in the same verse: "For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" (ESV).

2. The reference in verse 26 to banishing ungodliness from Jacob fits with the national view of “all Israel.”

A major difference I have with Piper is his view of the quotation of Isaiah 59:20-21 in Romans 11:26-27. He writes, "This seems most naturally to be a picture of the second coming," but Isaiah 59 is found in the "gospel of the Old Testament," namely chapters 40-66. These chapters are all about the new covenant. When Romans 11:27 quotes Isaiah 59 saying, "and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins," surely he has that same new covenant in mind. Jeremiah's famous new covenant promise similarly says, "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." Romans 11:26-27 is a new covenant promise, not a promise for some later period. In other words, "The Deliverer will come from Zion" refers to the first coming of Christ - not the second coming. Isaiah's new covenant is the same as Jeremiah's - and both are for the church - i.e. Jews or Gentiles who believe in Christ.

Romans 11 is all about Paul's 1st Century context - not thousands of years into the future. Notice the oft-neglected, but clear and important time indicators (my emphasis):

  •  Romans 11:1 - "I ask, then, has God [currently] rejected his people? By no means! For I myself [currently] am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin" (cf. 11:13-14). 
  •  Romans 11:5 - "So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace." 
  •  Romans 11:30 - "For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience," 
  •  Romans 11:31 - "so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy." 
Paul seems pretty clear as to what time period he is referring to.

3. The parallel between the two halves of verse 28 point to all Israel as the nation as a whole.

I take Romans 11:28-29 differently. Paul is repeating what he said in 11:1 and 11: God has not completely rejected ethnic Israel. Then can still be saved if they believe in Christ (Rom 10:11).

Piper's view is that the nation as a whole will be converted. But can "all" mean "most?" Furthermore, that would only be a small fraction of the Jewish people. The conclusion of Piper's view is actually fairly anticlimactic if we take "all Israel" to be most Jews who are alive at the return of Christ. Also, to say that only most will be saved is to say that the period of their hardening remains in part. This doesn't seem to do justice to the flow of Paul's thought. If anything, it would probably be more consistent to say that every single Israelite alive at the return of Christ will be saved since the period of hardening would then be over for ethnic Israel.

4. The parallels in verse 12 point in the same direction.

5. The same thing is true about the parallels in verse 15.

Regarding verses 12 and 15, Piper is assuming that Paul is dealing with the future, but as we have seen from Paul's explicit time indicators, he is not dealing with the future but with the present. The "partial hardening" in 11:25 is not a temporary hardening, but a qualitative hardening. The "in this way" or "so" of 11:26 is speaking of manner - not time.

Another difficulty with this view is the emphasis of Romans 9-11. Paul has been pounding away at the fact that God never promised to save the whole nation of Israel - but only the elect (9:6-18, 11:4-7). Romans 10:12 says there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. In chapters 9 and 10, Paul rejects any notion that being an Israelite ethnically grants one a special privilege. In Piper's view - he ends up reinstating such a view at the end of the section. Contrary to such a view, "God shows no partiality" (Rom 2:11).

Paul has already defined what true Jewishness is in the letter to the Romans. In 2:28-29, he explicitly defines Jewishness inwardly - not outwardly (in other words, not ethnically). Circumcision is not outward and physical. In Romans 4:11-12 and16-19, we see that Abraham is the father of all who have faith. Paul is at pains to show that God is doing exactly what he promised Abraham he would do: bless the nations through his seed. His seed is Christ. All who are united to Christ are children of Abraham.

"All Israel," like "the Israel of God" in Galatians 6:16, consists of those who are in Christ. Israel has been hardened in part, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come [into Israel - into the root of the Olive tree] and in this manner, all Israel will be saved. All Israel is the whole tree consisting of elect Jews and Gentiles. Paul has redefined Israel in light of Jesus. He has argued that God has kept his promises to Israel by means of the salvation of Jews and Gentiles being united to Israel's Messiah through faith. This does not mean that God has altogether cast off ethnic Israel. No way. They can respond positively to the gospel just like Gentiles. They are not totally hardened. In this way, all Israel will be saved.

Furthermore, the rest of the New Testament is silent on such a future mass conversion. This doesn't mean it is not true, but one would expect other letters to mention it. The New Testament is very clear that it is those of faith who are the children of Abraham (i.e. Israelites):

Ephesians 2:11-22 is clear and powerful: Gentiles, who were once far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Jesus has made Jews and Gentiles one. He has created in himself one new humanity out of the two. Now, Gentiles are fellow citizens and members of the household of God along with the Jewish people. Consider several other passages that reinforce my view:

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 - "For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved--so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God's wrath has come upon them at last [eis telos]!"

 Matthew 21:43 - "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits."

 Acts 18:6 - "And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.""

 Acts 28:28 "Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen."

 Galatians 3:7 - "Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham."

 Galatians 3:28 - "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."

 Galatians 6:15-16 - "For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God."

 Philippians 3:3 - "For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh"

The mystery mentioned in Romans 11 is not different than the mystery spoken of in Ephesians 3:1-6:

 "For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles--assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel."

Finally, I think Piper's view could hinder gospel urgency. If one held to Piper's view of Romans 11, one could change his evangelistic perspective. If a friend was absolutely opposed to the gospel, one could probably encourage them to consider Judaism since "all Israel" will be saved at his return. Such a person's unbelieving friend may die before Christ returns, but maybe not.

In conclusion, I think Lee Irons nails it when he says, "What, then, is Paul's theology of Israel's future? In a word, the church."

For similar views, see:

  • N.T. Wright, "Christ, the Law and the People of God," in The Climax of the Covenant.
  • Ben Merkle, "Romans 11 and the Future of Ethnic Israel."
  • O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God (Ch. 6).
  • O. Palmer Robertson, "Is there a Distinctive Future for Ethnic Israel in Romans 11? in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology ed. Kenneth Kantzer and Stanley N. Gundry.
  • Lee Irons, "Paul's Theology of Israel's Future."
  • Paul Williamson, "Covenant," in NSBT.