Paul’s Use of the term “Israel” in the Book of Romans

Introduction:  There are those who will say that Jews who do not accept Jesus as Messiah are not “true Israel” — but rather Gentile Christians and Jewish believers in Messiah form what is termed “true Israel“.  Does the Scripture teach that “Israel” is part Jewish by descent and part Gentile by descent — and if not, what do the passages in question really mean?

In this article, which is Part 1 of 3, we explore how Paul uses the term “Israel” in the book of Romans and then consider what he is saying in Romans 9:6-8.

What Does Paul Say in Romans 9: 1-8?

Those that claim that Gentile Christians, along with Jewish believers in Messiah are part of something termed “true Israel” point to two verses in Romans 9 as a major “proof text”;

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants.”

Romans 9:6-7

…so before examining these two verses, let’s look at the term “Israel” and how it is used to elsewhere in Scripture to refer to the ethnic nation / national covenant people of the Old Testament (the Jews).

“Israel” is used more than 2500 times in all of Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) and more than 70 times in the New Testament, alone.

Paul uses the term “Israel” 12 times in ten verses of Romans — as well as once in 1 Corinthians, twice in 2 Corinthians, once each in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians and 3 times in Hebrews, so before considering what Paul is saying in Romans 9:6-7, let’s look at how he uses this term in the other 10 verses of Romans.

1. Romans 9:27, Paul says that “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved”.

2. Romans 9:30-31: Paul says What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.

3. Romans 10:1: Paul says “Brothers my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.

4. Romans 10:19: Paul referring how the Gentiles would make Israel jealous says “But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.”

…and continuing along in his thought, Paul says;

5. Romans 10:21: “But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”

6. Romans 11:2: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?

…and continuing along Paul says;

7. Romans 11:7-8: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”

8. Romans 11:25 “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 the next verse;

9. Romans 11:26 “And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob”.

In the above 9 verses of Romans, Paul uses the term “Israel” as it is used elsewhere in the New Testament — to refer to the national covenant people of the Old Testament.

Does Paul suddenly redefine who Israel is in Romans 9:6-7?


What is Paul saying in Romans 9:6-7?

The entire discussion of Romans 9 up until verse 6 is only about physical Israel. There isn’t anything mentioning or alluding to Gentiles.

Paul introduces the chapter by sharing his heart-felt desire for “my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh”, who he defines as Israelites;

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience is testifying to me with the Holy Spirit that I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart. For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. The ancestors are theirs, and from them, by physical descent, came the Messiah, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen.”

Romans 9:1-5

It is clear here that Paul is speaking about the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Jews.

If there is any doubt, Paul says that;

to them [the people of Israel] belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ (Messiah).

Romans 9:4-5

Clearly, Paul is not talking about Gentiles here, because he is speaking of specific things that only belong to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Jews:

Paul says that the adoption belongs to the Jews — that is, God having chosen the Jewish people as His own possession (Deuteronomy 7:6: For you are a holy people belonging to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be His own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth” and in Exodus 19:5 Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine”). The adoption of the physical descendants of Abraham refers to the Abraham Covenant where God chose the descendants of Abraham, and through Isaac and Jacob and as we’ll elaborate on below, the Abrahamic Covenant was ratified by God alone and the penalty for it being broken rested on Him.  As a result, The Abrahamic Covenant is an “everlasting covenant” and the Land which He promised the Jewish people is theirs as an “everlasting (or eternal) possession” (Genesis 17:7-8). 

While the nation as a whole did break God’s Law — and as a result, broke the Mosaic Covenant, God promised the New Covenant to the “House of Israel” and the “House of Judah” in Jeremiah 31:31-34. As well, God’s dealings with the nation of Israel was always in light of the “faithful remnant” that He said would always exist.  Even in the midst of exile from the Land for our sins, God promises that He would always leave a remnant;

“Yet I will leave a remnant when you are scattered among the nations, for throughout the countries there will be some of you who will escape the sword.

~Ezekiel 6: 8

Even though we broke the covenant (the Mosaic Covenant) that He gave us when He lead us out of Egypt, God promised the Jewish people a New Covenant to the people of Israel — to the Jews. As shocking as it may seem to those who have not heard it before, the New Covenant, ratified at the cross, was promised to the Jews;

“Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke even though I had married them”—the Lord’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Paul continues in Romans 9 to list things that only pertain to the people of Israel.

He says that the [Shekinah] glory belongs to the Jews and that the “covenants” (plural) belong to the Jews.  Here, Paul is referring to the Abrahamic Covenant (which we will discuss below) and the Mosaic Covenant.   Paul says that God gave the Law to the Jewish people as well as the specifics on how He was to be worshiped.  He speaks of the promises (plural) — so many promises!  God promised that we’d always be a people, that the Land was ours as an everlasting possession (even when we were exiled from it for our sin!), that we were to be a light to the Gentiles and that the One whom would ultimately redeem both the Gentiles and the Jews, and that the Light of the World, the Messiah, would be born a Jew. God gave promises about the future salvation of the nation of Israel beyond the “faithful remnant” that we see now (i.e. “when the “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”) and of the “faithful remnant” itself!  He promised us the New Covenant by which He would redeem us from our disobedience. So many promises! The  Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — from whom the whole nation of Israel comes are the Jewish people’s and as we covered in Part One of this article, the Messiah Himself would be born to a physical descendant of the Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Jews (Genesis 12:3).

There is no doubt that In verses 1-5 of Romans 9, Paul is speaking about the physical nation of Israel — so this is context of verse 6. In fact, it is not until verse 22 of Chapter 9 that Paul even mentions Gentiles!

What is Paul saying in Romans 9:6?

Paul has just itemized the blessings that belong only to the people of Israel; the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises, the patriarchs, and according to the flesh, the Messiah and in verse 6, Paul is reflecting that he could not imagine ‘Israelites’ who do not belong to physical Israel. 

The point that Paul is making in Romans 9:6 is that while the promises of God to Israel may have appeared to have ‘failed’ — in that Israel is predominantly unbelievers, there is still “the faithful remnant” within Israel – the ‘Israel’ within ethnic Israel.

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring.”

Romans 9:6-8

Paul is NOT distinguishing here between something supersessionists* call “spiritual Israel” (the Church, both believing Jews and Gentile Christians) and “physical Israel” — but is saying that the promises made to physical Israel are fulfilled through the faithful remnant — even though some of Israel’s descendants are not included.

*Note: Supersessionists are those that hold to what is commonly called  "Replacement Theology"; believing that the Church is the "new Israel".

So who are “Abraham’s children” and the “children of promise”?

What Paul is saying in Romans 9:7-8 needs to be understood in the context of what Paul is saying in verse 6.  He has just said that the promises made to physical Israel are fulfilled through the faithful remnant, even though some of Israel’s descendants are not included — and then makes a distinction between “Abraham’s natural children” and the “children of promise”;

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants. On the contrary, your offspring will be traced through Isaac. That is, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but the children of the promise are considered to be the offspring.”

Romans 9:6-8

Paul is saying in this passage that while the promises of God to Israel may appear to have ‘failed’, in that Israel is predominantly unbelievers — there is still the faithful remnant. This is supported by the fact that just a few verses down in verse 27, Paul refers to the faithful remnant; “

“Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved”.

Romans 9:27

Paul uses the term “Abraham’s children” and “children of promise” to refer to both Gentile Christians and Jewish believers. For example, in Romans 4:9-17, Paul refers to Gentiles as having Abraham as their “father” (i.e. Gentiles are also “Abraham’s children”) and as “children of promise”.

In Romans 9:1-5, Paul is only talking about physical Israel so based on the context, Paul is speaking only about physical Israel in verses 6-8, as well.

Paul does not redefine “Israel” as being “part Gentile” as supersessionist assert. In Romans 9:6-8, Paul is referring to the Israel within ethnic Israel — the faithful remnant (Jewish believers), who are a subset of physical Israel.

In conclusion, Paul used term “Israel” used in Romans 9:6-8 no differently than the way he uses “Israel” in the other 9 verses of the book of Romans — and no differently than it is used throughout the New Testament.

“Israel”, whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament refers to the ethnic nation / national covenant people of the Old Testament, the Jews.

Some thoughts…

It should be noted that in Romans 9, where Paul lists the blessings that belong to the physical nation of Israel (the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and the coming of Messiah as a Jew) that the verb tense used by Paul is the present tense. That is, these blessings belonged to physical Israel when Paul wrote his letter to the Romans — and still belong to Israel, as there is nothing in Scripture which indicates any change has since Paul penned those words.

In the list of blessings, Paul refers to the Abrahamic covenant (which God said was an “everlasting covenant” in Genesis 17:7-8) in the present tense, signifying that the Abrahamic Covenant belonged to physical Israel in the first century — and still belongs to them today. 

Part 2 of this series of 3 articles can be found here: http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/gods-promises-to-the-gentiles-in-the-abrahamic-covenant/