What does Paul mean when he says that all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26)? Does he mean, as some have suggested, that at the end of time a wholesale revival will come up among the Jews and they will all be saved? Certainly not.
Earlier in the book of Romans, Paul was careful to define who was an authentic Israelite. Jewishness isn’t outward and physical, being defined by circumcision and ethnic identity (Romans 2:28). Instead, true Jewishness is determined by the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit (Romans 2:29). Being a true Jew is the result of the work of God, not the result of who your grandfather or grandmother is.
This is similar to Paul’s teaching in Romans 9:6, where he says, “Not all Israel . . . are of Israel.” Simply put, being a physical descendant of Abraham didn’t make you a part of the promised lineage. It was God’s promise that made you a part of the spiritual family of Abraham (Romans 9:8).
So what does Paul mean when he says all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26)? This is the punchline to an argument that begins in Romans 11:16–24. There, Paul likens Israel to a tree. That tree was made up of ethnic Israel. In that tree were many branches. Some of the ethnic descendants of Abraham (including Paul) were also spiritual descendants of Abraham, because they believed God’s promise. Other branches of that tree were only ethnic Israel, because they didn’t embrace their spiritual calling to believe God’s promise in Christ. The ethnic descendants of Abraham who didn’t believe were broken off the tree of Israel (Romans 11:17, 20). Gentiles who believed were branches grafted into the tree of Israel (Romans 11:17).
Our spiritual status is not unchangeable. Breaking branches off or grafting them in isn’t necessarily permanent. We can change our status by faith or by abandoning the faith. If those who were broken off want to exercise faith, they can be grafted back into Israel (Romans 11:23). Additionally, if those who were grafted in boast of Jesus and then abandon the faith, they will be broken off (Romans 11:20, 21). When the full number of the Gentiles are grafted into the tree of spiritual Israel (Romans 11:25), then all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26).
So what does Paul mean when he says all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26)? He means that when all the Gentiles who will ever put their faith in Jesus, along with all the Jews who will ever put their trust in Jesus, have finally put their trust in Jesus, then all of true Israel will be saved.