The sinfulness and salvation of all Israel in Romans

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Paul preaching in the synagogue in Thessalonica, after Gustave Doré

I want to look at a couple of related questions about Romans, from a couple of unrelated sources. First, Jo is not convinced that the string or catena of Old Testament quotations in Romans 3:10-18 is directed exclusively against the Jews, as I maintain in The Future of the People of God. My contention is that Paul’s argument throughout this section is premised on the prospect of a temporal and realistic wrath against the Jew (cf. Rom. 2:1-10) and is to a large extent a reconstruction of his disputes with the synagogue communities of his mission field. This puts constraints on how we interpret the “theological” content of the letter. Romans is not a piece of universal or standardised “Christian” theologising.

Secondly, I will take the opportunity to say why I think that Jared Compton gets Paul’s “all Israel shall be saved” statement all wrong in his piece this week for the Gospel Coalition. What particularly connects the two questions is Paul’s use of Isaiah 59.

Who are the unrighteous enemies?

Jo suggests that the quotations from Psalms 14:1-3, 5:9, 140:3, and 36:1 “are all about the unrighteousness of the enemies of God’s people, with the exception of Isa 59:7-8 probably pointing to God’s own people.” Therefore, Paul is developing an argument about sin and redemption (“propitiation by his blood,” etc.) here that applies to all people.

No, I say. The quotations are all about the wickedness of the enemies of the righteous, and of the righteous poor in particular, among God’s people. They raise the expectation that YHWH will act to judge and reform his people in a way that will enhance his reputation among the nations. Romans 3:21-26, therefore, is not about the salvation of humanity but about the salvation of Israel.

I will defend the point by looking, first, at the immediate argumentative context of the Old Testament quotations and, secondly, at the texts in the Psalms and Isaiah. Then we will consider the connection with the statement about all Israel being saved, which Compton calls “a riddle of a verse, wrapped in a mystery of an argument.” It’s nothing of the sort. Paul’s meaning is perfectly clear.

The argument

Paul has argued, in an explicit challenge to “the Jew,” that circumcision counts for very little if the circumcised person does not keep the Law. In fact, Gentiles who do what the Law requires will put unrighteous Israel to shame when the day of God’s wrath comes (Rom. 2:27). It’s a matter of the heart, not of outward observance.

But in that case, what’s the point of being circumcised (Rom. 3:1)? It’s a sign of the covenant. Israel can rely on God’s faithfulness, even when Israel is unfaithful.

There’s the paradox.The righteousness of God cuts two ways.

In the words of David (more or less), when Israel sins, God is perfectly entitled to act in judgment (Rom. 3:3-4). Indeed, he has to inflict wrath on his own unrighteous people, for how else can he judge the world (Rom. 3:6)? How can the God of Israel judge the pagan nations for their idolatry, perverse passions, and general wickedness (cf. Rom. 1:18-31) when his own people are as bad, if not worse? How will YHWH establish his credibility among the nations? By first putting his own house in order.

So are the Jews any better off than the Gentiles? Not at all. They are just as much “under sin,” and therefore just as much liable to judgment, as the uncircumcised Greeks. When Paul now proceeds to list a slew of Old Testament texts, it is precisely to underline this point. The Jews don’t need to hear from the psalmist that the Gentiles are sinners. They need to hear from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, that they are sinners—and that if they don’t repent and call on the name of the Lord, etc., there will be all Gehenna to pay.

The Old Testament texts used by Paul to make his point about the sinfulness of his own people

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Ps. 14:1–3; cf. 53:1-3 = Rom. 3:10-12)

Paul has edited the opening verses of Psalm 14. He omits the bit about the fool who thinks that there is no God, and he does not have God looking down from heaven on the “children of man.”

The language is somewhat generalised, but it seems to me that there is good enough reason to restrict the argument of this sequence of psalms to Israel. In Psalm 11 we read that the eyes of the Lord “test the children of men” from heaven. He “tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Ps. 11:5). In Psalm 12 David calls out to the Lord to save because “the godly one is gone; …the faithful have vanished from among the children of man” (Ps. 12:1). If the ungodliness consists in the fact that everyone “utters lies to his neighbour” and speaks duplicitously (Ps. 12:2), it is very close to home. The problem is that the rich and powerful in Israel are abusing and exploiting the poor (Ps. 12:5). This is not an international dilemma.

In this setting, it is not foreigners but righteous Israelites who “seek after God” (Ps. 14:2; cf. Ps. 24:6; 63:1; 69:6; 70:4; 78:34). God is not with the wicked in Israel, who “eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD,” but with “the generation of the righteous” (Ps. 14:4-6).

Significantly, considering where this is going, the psalmist concludes with a prayer that “salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad” (Ps. 14:7).

For there is no truth in their mouth; their inmost self is destruction; their throat is an open grave; they flatter with their tongue. (Ps. 5:9 = Rom. 3:13a)

The focus of this psalm is quite clearly, I think, internal to Israel. David is in the Lord’s house, deceitful and bloodthirsty people should not enter (5:7-8); they have transgressed and rebelled against YHWH, therefore they are to be driven away. Israelites who love the name of the Lord, on the other hand, will be protected. The boundary runs between the wicked and the righteous in Israel.

They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps. (Ps. 140:3 = Rom. 3:13b)

David’s enemies are depicted not as a foreign force but as wicked people close at hand, who plot against him, set traps for him and snares “beside the way” (140:4-5). The battles to which he refers are internal, civil strife (140:7-8). He prays that the slanderer will not be established in the land, and that violent men will succumb to harm (140:11). The line, again, is drawn between the unrighteous and the righteous in Israel.

His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression… (Ps. 10:7 = Rom. 3:14)

It is not the Israelites as a nation who are pursued by the wicked but the “poor” in Israel. The wicked person is the Israelite who is greedy for gain, and who “curses and renounces the Lord,” who says to himself, “There is no God” (Ps. 10:3-4). He “sits in ambush in the villages; in hiding places he murders the innocent” (Ps. 10:8). He has come to the conclusion that the God of Israel is actually indifferent to his actions; he has no fear of being held to account (Ps. 10:11-13).

In the last stanza the psalmist says, “The LORD is king forever and ever; the nations perish from his land” (Ps 10:16). This, I suggest, is an allusion to Deuteronomy 8:20: “Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” The God who destroyed or drove out the polytheistic Canaanite peoples from the land will also destroy or drive out unrighteous Israel from the land.

Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. (Ps. 36:1 = Rom. 3:18)

The transgressor, who has no fear of God, is likewise a person who plots trouble against the psalmist, who is close enough that the “foot of arrogance” might come upon him or the “hand of the wicked” drive him away (Ps. 36:3-4, 11-12).

Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know… (Is. 59:7–8 = Rom. 3:15-17)

This final quotation is part of an extended appeal to Israel to change its ways. I’ve taken it out of sequence because it gets us to the other question that I want to touch on. But to conclude here, the quotations depict a state of affairs in which the rich and powerful in Israel oppress the righteous and poor; therefore, God can be expected to judge the nation. The Law speaks to those under the Law so that “the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19).

First the Jew, then the Greek But this is all about the Jew.

The deliverer will come from Zion

If we follow Isaiah 59 passage through, we come to the verse that Paul quotes in Romans 11:26-27 with reference to the salvation of “all Israel.”

Israel’s persistent sins—the violence, the lies, the injustices, the dishonesty—have separated the people from YHWH (Is. 59:2-8). Israel has become a benighted and lawless place (59:9-15). YHWH sees that there is no person able to rectify the situation, so he decides to intervene directly himself. He dresses for battle and sets out to reinstate righteousness in the land: “According to their deeds, so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies” (Is. 59:18).

So there we have the wrath of God against Israel as a failed state with a view to putting things right. The argument is mirrored precisely in Paul. He accuses the Jews of being under sin: they are quick to shed blood, they bring ruin and misery, they have not known the way of peace. Therefore, the God of Israel will take matters into his own hands; he has lost patience with these “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction”; and he will act decisively to reorder things—in the way that things were typically reordered in the ancient world—as a demonstration of his commitment to the agreement made with the patriarchs.

So, in the words of Isaiah 59:20 (more or less), the deliverer will come from Zion he will banish ungodliness from Israel, and God will forgive the sins of his people and establish a new covenant. The echo of Psalm 14:7 should be noted: when the poor in Israel are oppressed by a corrupt powerful class, social-political salvation will come from Zion.

Now, about all Israel being saved…

Jared Compton peddles the standard line that we are still waiting for all Jews to come to faith in Jesus, when the full number of Gentiles has come in, “which will occur just before Jesus returns and, therefore, just before the resurrection Paul mentions in Romans 11:15.” This solution raises all sorts of exegetical questions, but the main problem is that it fails to grasp Paul’s historical perspective on the matter.

Paul is writing in the mid-50s. I presume that he shared the view of Jesus and the churches in Jerusalem and Judea that if the nation persisted in its defiance of YHWH, disaster would come upon it in the next decade or so. I imagine, too, that he expected this to have a damaging impact on diaspora Judaism. It certainly would not boost the standing of Jews in the ancient world: think of the captives and treasures looted from the temple being paraded in triumph through the streets of Rome. Some of that wealth was used to fund the building of the Colosseum.

Deliverance or salvation from Zion goes hand-in-hand with judgment, for the simple reason that salvation delivers the poor and righteous from their oppressors. A righteous remnant—justified by its belief that Jesus has been made judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations—is saved. But the wicked are destroyed from the land… unless, of course, they have a change of heart.

My argument is that “And in this way (houtōs) all Israel will be saved…” in verse 26 looks back to the parable of the olive tree in Romans 11:17-24. The quotation from Isaiah 59 has nothing to do with Gentiles coming in and making Israel jealous; rather it picks up on the idea that the Jewish branches that have been broken off may not continue in their unbelief and may be grafted back in (Rom. 11:11:23). Verse 25 is, in effect, a parenthetic statement explaining the “mystery” of Israel’s rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“In this way,” therefore, means “by not continuing in their unbelief and by being grafted back into the olive tree that grows from the root of the patriarchs.” The salvation of all Israel is conditional upon the repentance of all Israel.

Paul still hoped that the startling influx of Gentiles into this movement of eschatological transformation would make the Jews jealous and so bring them en masse—as a people—to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus. That would avert the catastrophe of divine judgment, but it was looking increasingly unlikely.

There was another possible outcome, however. Perhaps Israel would repent after the deliverer had come from Zion to banish ungodliness from Israel and renew the covenant—after the nation had suffered the devastating wrath of God. Perhaps when, at the climax to this dreadful story, the Jews saw “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (cf. Mk. 14:62), and themselves cast into the outer darkness (cf. Matt. 8:12), they would finally admit that Jesus had been right all along.

Sadly, that didn’t happen either.


Thank you for the response. That is very helpful. 


Sorry to dig this up again. Though Paul used the OT texts to make his point about the sinfulness of his own people, and Jews were as sinful as the Greeks. Isn’t that he was still saying that they all (both Jews and the Greeks) had sinned? Since Rom 3:9 already states that both Jews and Greeks are under sin.

The sinfulness of the Greeks has already been firmly established in chapter 1: they have chosen idols over the living God, therefore they have been handed over to sexual depravity and all manner of social evils, in advance of the impending wrath of the one true God.

Paul knows that the Jew with whom he is arguing agrees with that. What the Jews in the synagogues across Asia Minor and around the Aegean stubbornly refuse to admit, as Paul sees it, is that Torah observance is not working. The Law in which they boast is not producing righteous behaviour. Therefore, it is Paul’s belief that the God whom the Jews worship is bound to hold his own people to account before he judges the  Gentiles. The Jew first and then the Greek.

So the argument from scripture in Romans 3 is not that all people are sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike, but that the Jews are as bad as the Gentiles and have no cause for complacency.

This is not particularly significant in itself, perhaps, but it helps us to understand the overall thrust of Romans a bit better, and in particular, I would say, it locates the “atonement” statement in Romans 3:25 in a Jewish rather than Gentile narrative.

Can you explain why limiting 3:25 to ‘Jesus die for the righteous Jews instead of both Jewish and gentile believers’ is important to your reading?

I was reading Acts 13 this morning and thought verse 38-41 can support your reading of Romans.

“Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through this one forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you.”Acts‬ ‭13:38-39‬ ‭NET

“Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: “‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’””  Acts‬ ‭13:40-41‬ ‭ESV‬‬

LXX, ‭‭Habakkuk‬ ‭1:5‬ ‭

5ἴδετε, οἱκαταφρονηταί, καὶἐπιβλέψατε, καὶθαυμάσατε θαυμάσια καὶἀφανίσθητε· διότι ἔργον ἐγὼἐργάζομαι ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ὑμῶν ὃοὐμὴπιστεύσητε ἐάν τις ἐκδιηγῆται.

Net Bible note “sn A quotation from Hab 1:5. The irony in the phrase even if someone tells you, of course, is that Paul has now told them. So the call in the warning is to believe or else face the peril of being scoffers whom God will judge. The parallel from Habakkuk is that the nation failed to see how Babylon’s rising to power meant perilous judgment for Israel.”

Paul had Habakkuk in mind when he talked to Jews in synagogues of Pisidian Antioch. If they believed Paul’s message about Jesus, they could receive justification (saved from perish or death); otherwise, God would judge them, and they would die under Roman swords.

Hi Andrew,

You can ignore my question. I think you want to avoid later universalized atonement theory, especially PSA, since that only fits the Jewish story.

There are better reasons than trying to avoid the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. That’s a side benefit.

We read Paul as a Christian theologian and assume that pretty much everything he says applies to the universal human condition. I think that we have to learn to read him as a self-consciously Jewish apostle, who speaks—perhaps always—from that limiting historical perspective.

So I emphasise the limiting context of Romans 3:25 partly in order to make the methodological point. There are some very clear signals throughout Romans 1-8 that what is generally taken to be a classic exposition of general Christian theology is an argument directed to and against the Jews.

This is important in the context because it allows us to see the eschatological narrative in chapter 3, which otherwise easily gets collapsed into a generalised final judgment. Jew first, then the Greek. God must first inflict wrath on his own people before he can credibly hold the “world” accountable.

But the other point is that the language and logic of the specific argument in Romans 3:21-25 is thoroughly Jewish. There is no hilastērion under the terms of the Law for the sins of the Gentiles as described in Romans 1:18-31.