In the previous two posts we started working through Romans 9-11 and I said I’ve got five questions. Here is the second: How does Paul explain who Israel is?
Answer: Paul demonstrates God’s electing work among Israelites and distinguishes them from elect Gentiles.
In Romans 9:6, “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.” The principle at play is that God chooses. He chose Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Romans 9 is famously about God’s sovereignty in election, and famously bothers many who wrestle with the implications for salvation.
Election to salvation is the primary point, and the burden of the passage is how election to salvation applies to Israel. But note that “Israel” is still within Israel. That is, those chosen to receive the promises of Israel are still physical, ethnic descendants of Jacob. Paul does not say that true Israel are the elect whoever they are, from whatever nation. At the end of chapter 9 Paul maintains the distinction: “he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (verse 24). Gentiles “attained” righteousness (verse 30), they were not “my people” but now are called “sons of the living God” (verse 26). Israel did not succeed in reaching the law (verse 31).
But nowhere does it say that Gentile believers are now Jews or the “new” Jews or the “true” Jews, though it does say that God has elected to redeem many of them. If “Israel” meant something else, that would have been a lot easier for Paul to explain than what he does in these chapters.
For the Jews there are two categories: spiritual calling and national calling. National election does not equal spiritual election (as Romans 9:6 states), but that doesn’t mean that national election means nothing in any way. If the point of Romans 9-11 is to vindicate God’s faithfulness to His promises, the solution is not to redefine His promises. Israel by any other name would not be Israel.