What Does Paul Mean When He Says "All Israel Will Be Saved"?
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“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.” - Romans 11:25-27, ESV
Taking an isolated phrase out of context is one of the most common ways of distorting something someone says. For example, if I were to say, "I used to think that tattoos are immoral, but even if I don't personally like them, it's pretty tough to build a biblical or moral case against them." Someone intent on distorting my words could say, "Pastor Jason said, 'Tattoos are immoral' and 'I don't personally like them.'" Technically, they would be correct, but that would be a gross distortion of what I actually said.
Some Bible teachers have done something similar with Paul's words in today's passage from Romans 11. They say, "All Israel will be saved," and by that they mean that every ethnic Jewish person will go to heaven because they're part of God's chosen people, regardless of their personal faith or lack of faith in Jesus Christ. But such a position clearly contradicts just about everything else Paul says in Romans.
Others say that "All Israel will be saved" means that 100% of the Jewish nation will definitely turn to faith in Christ in the final years before Jesus returns. While Paul does seem describe a future turning of Jewish people to Jesus, he is not saying it will be all Jewish people. Further, this is not really what he means by "All Israel will be saved." So, what do these words mean?
To pick up the full context of Paul's meaning, we need to go back to Romans 9:6-8:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. (ESV)
So, according to Paul's definitions, Who is Israel? Who are the children of Abraham? It is the children of promise, not the children of flesh. Or, as Paul himself put it in Galatians 3:29, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise."
"All Israel" means all the chosen children of the promise. We know this is what Paul means because the bringing in of the Gentile believers, along with the Jewish remnant and the future Jewish converts are all immediately in view when Paul says, "In this way, all Israel will be saved."
In the end, God will save 100% of those who have been chosen by grace and who are internally, effectually called by His Holy Spirit. Not one will be lost. The way God does this in the midst of a world of rebellion and unbelief is a testimony to His great wisdom and power, which is why Paul ends this whole section with a stirring doxology of praise to God -
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
- Romans 11:33-36, ESV