Previous article in this series: February 15, 2013, p. 226.
One of the passages of Scripture that are especially important to postmillennialism is. This passage is explained by the advocates of postmillennialism as promising a dramatic conversion of large numbers of Jews in the future. According to the postmillennialists, this conversion of the Jews will occasion a similar conversion of large numbers of Gentiles, indeed a majority of the population of the world. Thus, the conversion of the Jews will both signal and actually bring about the onset of the thousand-year reign of Christ—the “golden age” of earthly power, peace, and prosperity for the church.
is important for postmillennial theology because, to the mind of postmillennialism, it is the one passage that clearly and definitely forecasts a great, noticeable, and dramatic positive for the kingdom of Christ in history, prior to the second coming. The reasoning of postmillennialism is that if there is going to be such a large-scale conversion of Jews yet in future history, there can well be also all the other dramatic events dreamed of by postmillennialism, resulting in the millennial kingdom of Christ.
In the previous article in this series, I have shown the appeal to this passage and the explanation of it by the Puritans and their contemporary disciples, including Iain H. Murray; the Christian Reconstructionists; and the Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel.
Not Necessarily Postmillennialism
It must be acknowledged that the expectation of a future conversion of large numbers of Jews, on the basis of Romans 11, has been widespread in Reformed churches. This is evident from the explanatory notes appended toin the Staten Vertaling, Dutch Bible—the equivalent in Dutch of the Authorized Version in English—the translation of the Bible in Dutch that was authorized by the Synod of Dordt. In explanation of , the note appended by the orthodox translators reads: “That is, not a few, but a very large multitude and, as it were, the entire Jewish nation.”1
Similar is the note appended to Romans 11:26 in the Geneva Bible—the translation of the Bible into English by Reformed scholars in Calvin’s Geneva in 1560. “He sheweth that the time shall come that the whole nation of the Jews, though not every one particularly, shall be joined to the Church of Christ.”2
Such an expectation, however, is not necessarily the expression of postmillennial eschatology. Nor does it involve the return of the Jews to Canaan, much less the restoration of much, or even some, of the Old Testa ment economy of the civil and ceremonial life of Old Testament Israel. For the Jews are no longer the kingdom of God. The church is. And should it please God to save large numbers of Jews in the future, which every Gentile Christian would rejoice at, He would form them as instituted churches, wherever they happen to be living, or add them to existing churches in their countries. Earthly Canaan, that strip of land along the east shore of the Mediterranean Sea, means nothing today. Nor does the earthly city of Jerusalem.
And even if Romans 11 is prophesying the future conversion of many Jews, it is not teaching the millennium of postmillennial eschatology. Postmillennialism’s introduction of its “golden age” of earthly power, peace, and prosperity into Romans 11 is unfounded, indeed reprehensible. Whatever may be the doctrine of Romans 11 concerning the Jews, the blessings that the chapter proclaims are the spiritual blessings of the gospel: mercy; faith; union with Christ Jesus (the ingrafting into the olive tree); the taking away of sins; and godliness.
Will Many Jews be Converted?
But does Romans 11, in fact, teach a large-scale conversion of Jews in the future?
The chapter does not teach a restoration of the nation of Israel. The nation of Israel has been fulfilled in the Messiah of Israel, Jesus the Christ, and His church. This is fundamental Christian doctrine. All talk of a restoring of the nation of Israel is inexcusable deviation from fundamental Christian and Reformed theology on the part of Reformed theologians who use this language, regardless that they may have been translators of the Staten Vertaling or of the Geneva Bible. Such talk is dispensational, not covenantal.
The believing church of Jews and Gentiles is the New Testament, spiritual, and Messianic kingdom of God in the world. The Holy Spirit teaches this in, where, among descriptions that identify the church of the elect as the fulfillment and reality of Old Testament Israel, He calls the church “an holy nation.” Thus, the Spirit applies to the church the designation that Jehovah God first gave to Old Testament Israel, in .
The Reformed creed makes the identification of the church as the nation and kingdom of God binding truth for Reformed theology in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the second petition of the model prayer. “What is the second petition? Thy kingdom come. That is . . . preserve and increase thy Church.”3
Not only does Romans 11 not teach a restoration of the nation of Israel in the future, but also it does not teach a future conversion of large numbers of Jews, probably a majority of Jews in the thinking of postmillennialism.
Election Determines “All Israel”
The error of this interpretation, especially of verses 25 and 26, is that it fails to reckon with the dominating truth of election.
Romans 11 concerns the issue of God’s faithfulness in the covenant, specifically with regard to the Jews—the physical seed of Abraham. The main thought of the chapter is established in verses 1 and 2:
I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.
God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew. Wot ye not what the scripture saith of Elias? How he maketh intercession to God against Israel, saying, etc.
An argument could be made that God has, in fact, cast away the Jews. It could have been made in Paul’s day. It could be made today. The Jews generally, the vast majority of them, were, and are today, unbelieving. Either they were, and are, worldly, or, in the language of our day, secular, or they practice a religion other than that revealed by Jesus Christ.
But Paul reminds his readers that Elijah, in similar circumstances of prevailing Jewish unbelief and disobedience, was guilty of the same erroneous argument. Already in the day of the prophet it seemed that God had cast away His people, to the extent that Elijah was “left alone” ().
The argument that God had cast away His people, the Israelites, was wrong in Elijah’s day, and it is mistaken today.
Indeed, the argument is sinful. How could it ever be that God casts away His people? That is, how could God be unfaithful in the covenant, failing to keep His covenant promise to be the God of His people?
The fundamental truth is that the covenant is governed by election. The covenant people from the seed of Abraham, then and now and to the world’s end, are Jesus Christ and the elect in Him (see). Paul expressed the truth that election governs the covenant and its salvation in the very answer that is the response to the question whether God has cast away His people: “God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew” ( ). Paul then quoted God’s response to Elijah when the prophet questioned God’s faithfulness to His people: “I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal” ( ).
The truth of the gospel concerning Israel—the Jews—and concerning God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise to save the Jews is this: “There is a remnant according to the election of grace . . . . Israel hath not obtained that which he seeketh for; but the election hath obtained it, and the rest were blinded” (). The covenant people of God from the natural progeny of Abraham, whom God promised to save and whom He does infallibly save, is—in full reality is—the elect. In preserving them, God does not cast away His people which He foreknew.
This truth of election governs all the rest of Romans 11. The exegete may not interpret verses 25 and 26 apart from the truth of election in verses 1-6. Specifically, “all Israel” in verse 26 are not large numbers of Jews, probably the vast majority of Jews, alive at a certain time in the future. Rather, they are all the elect Jews in Jesus Christ, even though they are a minority of physical Jews—a “remnant.”
Likewise, the “fullness” of Israel in verse 12 is the complete number of elect Jews, even though numerically they be fewer than unbelieving Jews. Has not the Spirit deliberately spoken of the “remnant” in verse 5? A remnant is not a vast, impressive number, but the few, unimpressive persons left over when the large, impressive majority are hardened in idolatry, false religion, or secularism.
A Difference between “So” and “Then”
Postmillennialism, which, in keeping with its dream of earthly success and large numbers, ignores election, in Romans 11, is also guilty of another critically important error in its interpretation of. It explains verse 26 as though the text read: “And then all Israel shall be saved.” This was also the mistake of the Reformed translators of the Dutch Staten Vertaling. The note that is supposed to explain reads: “That is, then . . . .”4
But the Greek original of Romans 11:26 does not read, “And then.” As the Authorized Version rightly translates, the verse reads, “And so,” that is, ‘in this way.’5
The passage is not teaching that when, at some time in the future, the fullness of the Gentiles is saved, then all Israel shall be saved.
What the passage teaches, rather, is that all the while the Gentiles are being saved, that is, throughout the entire new dispensation, from Pentecost to shortly before the return of Christ, God is also grafting into the olive tree the elect Jews. As the apostle has written in verse 25, blindness has happened to Israel only “in part.”
When, at the very end, the fullness of the Gentiles be come in, that is, all the elect among the nations have been saved by the gospel, “so,” or “thus,” or “in this way,” also all Israel shall be saved, that is, in the saving of all the elect Jews throughout the present age.
To explain verse 26 as predicting a time in the future when there will be a dramatic conversion of large numbers of Jews is simply mistaken by virtue of the hard textual fact that Romans 11:26 does not read “then,” but “so.”
Herman Hoeksema’s interpretation of the passage is correct.
If the apostle had intended to teach that after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, all the Jews will be saved, he would have written, “And then all Israel shall be saved.” In fact, he wrote, “And so all Israel shall be saved.”
Throughout the new dispensation the Jews are hardened in part; the others are saved. And thousands of Jews have already been brought in. The hardening in part must remain until the end. And the glory of the plan of God is that when the last Gentile shall have been brought in, the last of the Jews shall also have been brought in. In this way—so—all of the elect Jews shall be saved.6
Not the Beginning of a Millennium
There is yet another criticism to be raised against the postmillennial interpretation of Romans 11:25, 26. It makes the conversion of the Jews the beginning of the millennium. According to postmillennialism, after the conversion of the Jews, and occasioned by it, will follow the conversion of masses of Gentiles, so that the majority of the human race, if not every single person alive at the time, will be saved, and, therefore, rule the world.
The text, however, makes the salvation of all Israel dependent on the bringing in of the fullness of the Gentiles. The salvation of all Israel, therefore, is not the harbinger of a revival that saves a majority of the human race and of a millennial kingdom of another one thousand years of human history. Rather, the salvation of all Israel, which is contemporary with the coming in of the fullness of the Gentiles, is the goal of God with history. Therefore, it will be the occasion of the rise of Antichrist, the great tribulation of the church, and, quickly, the second coming of Jesus Christ.
As little as do the prophecies in the Old Testament of the coming glories of the kingdom of Christ and Matthew 24 does Romans 11 give any support to postmillennialism. This doctrine of the last things is devoid of biblical basis.
1 The translation of the Dutch is mine.
2 The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
3 Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 123, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 352.
4 The Dutch has: “Dat is, alsdan.” But the Dutch “alzoo” does not mean “alsdan.”
5 The Greek is: “houtoo.”
6 Herman Hoeksema, “The Mystery of the Salvation of All Israel,” in Righteous by Faith Alone: A Devotional Commentary on Romans (Grandville, MI: RFPA, 2002), 559.