What are Israel’s Irrevocable Gifts?

When Paul said, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,” he was talking about Israel (Romans 11:29). But what gifts did he have in mind? Is the calling yet to be fulfilled? Are there any clues in the text of Romans 9-11?

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the book Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Roman 9-11 (edited by Jared Compton and Andrew David Naselli, published by Kregel Academic in 2019).

I am starting with this question because, although it comes from Romans 11:29, answering it will take us to the beginning of Romans 9.

In this post I am going to look at one of the three views represented in the book.

The Restoration View

One of the three views on Romans 9-11 is presented by Michael J. Vlach. In the book, this is called a “non-typological future-mass-conversion view.” In terms of how he understands Paul’s statement, in Romans 11:26, that “all Israel will be saved,” Vlach’s view is that the physical people, the nation, will be saved and then some. That is, they will not only be saved, they will also be restored to their purpose in the world and they will fulfill their national calling among the nations.

I am calling this the “restoration view.” I also call it “Israel will be saved and then some.” According to Vlach this view is a matter of logical consistency:

In my estimation, those who affirm a coming salvation of corporate Israel should be consistent and also accept Israel’s coming restoration.[1]

Here is a quote from Vlach that tells us a little more about “restoration”:

Affirming that a mass of believing Israel will be saved in the future is not the same as grasping that Israel as a whole is headed for national restoration as a political entity with a role to other nations when Jesus returns to rule the nations of the earth…[2]

Romans 9:1-5

This post looks at Vlach’s understanding of Romans 9:4-5, a list of what he calls “privileges” belonging to Israel, and how this relates to Romans 11:29, which says, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”

As you read Romans 9:1-5 below, note that Paul calls these people his kinsmen “according to the flesh.” There is no doubt here which “Israelites” Paul is talking about. This is not the faithful remnant; this is the people viewed as a whole. Also, remember the context: this marks a dramatic shift in Romans from the end of Romans chapter 8. This is the introduction of an extended argument (Romans 9-11). We can expect that what Paul says at the beginning of such a long and important passage is designed to carry some weight and stick in our minds as we follow Paul’s thoughts.

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them 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, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:1-5 (ESV)

Israel’s Present Tense Possession of These Gifts

Vlach points out the present tense of the situation. Romans 9:4 says, in the English Standard Version: “…to them belong the adoption, etc.”

Is Paul just looking back on the past, in the pain of an unfulfilled purpose? Or is this the pain of a purpose that still demands fulfillment? Paul is in anguish because he sees his kinsmen running from a glorious past, but is it also that they are running from a glorious future? (Would that be more painful or less painful?)

For the present, these things still belong to Israel, which Vlach points out:

This list of eight privileges currently “belongs” to “Israelites.” It is not that they once belonged to Israel or have been transferred to another. Israel still possesses them, even while in unbelief.[3]

Paul makes this statement without using the verb “belong.” But he does use the present tense when he says “they are Israelites”. So he is saying something like this: “…who are Israelites, of whom the adoption, etc.” Most English translations do express this in the present tense one way or another.

New International Version: “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory…”

New King James Version: “…to whom pertain the adoption, the glory…”

The New Living Translation is an exception to this, keeping things in the past tense, and leaving it up to us to decide what, if anything, still “belongs” or “pertains” to the Israelites: “They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises.”

The J.B. Phillips New Testament is an interesting case. Here is the Phillips translation of Romans 9:4-5 with some emphasis added. You can see some ambiguity (“what the Israelites have had given to them”) which is then cleared up (“all these are theirs”): “Just think what the Israelites have had given to them. The privilege of being adopted as sons of God, the experience of seeing something of the glory of God, the receiving of the agreements made with God, the gift of the Law, true ways of worship, God’s own promises—all these are theirs, and so too, as far as human descent goes, is Christ himself, Christ who is God over all, blessed for ever.”

How much difference does it make whether this possession of gifts is present tense or past tense? Consider the following scenario:

Tim’s father owns a car dealership. After college, Tim decided to go into a different line of work, much to his father’s disappointment. Tim grew up watching his father run that business; he would have been good at it. But here is a fact that adds perhaps another dimension to the tragedy: the business is still Tim’s to inherit if he changes his mind. The car dealership has not just been rejected; it still waits. Every day is a new rejection.

Is there, likewise, an extra dimension of tragedy in Paul’s opening lament?

That is one question. Here is another one: What exactly does Paul mean by some of the items on this list. I want to look at a few of them.

Covenants and Promises

What does Paul mean by “covenants”? Is he thinking of just two: the old and the new? Is he thinking of several covenants associated with Abraham, Moses, David, or even more? What promises does he have in mind? Vlach sees this as a general and wide-ranging statement:

Paul’s mention of “covenants” and “promises” raises the issue of their content. Since he offers no qualifications, all dimensions of the covenants and promises as explained in the prophets are probably in view. No indication exists that only salvation blessings are intended or that physical and national aspects have been spiritualized or made into something else.[4]

Vlach sees future “physical and national” blessing for Israel in the Old Testament. Here is where your eschatology is going to affect your reading of Romans 9-11. Are there promises to Israel, prophesied in the Old Testament, that are yet to be fulfilled? Or have they all been fulfilled in Christ? However you answer these questions, you are going to bring those answers to Romans 9:4-5. But Romans 9:4-5 will not, by itself, give you those answers.

Temple Service

Another item on the list is “the worship” (ESV), or “the service of God” (NKJV), or “the temple worship” (NIV). All these are translations of the Greek word latreia. Vlach sees here hints of something great:

Paul’s use of “temple service” reveals implications for national Israel since the temple is linked to Jerusalem and the land of Israel.[5]

Since the latreia (still) belongs to Israel, does that mean Israel will build another temple? Well, if you already think that Ezekiel 40-48 describes this future temple in detail, and that 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 predicts that the “man of sin” will sit in it, then why not? Vlach references these, as well as other passages that “link Jerusalem and temple service with new covenant conditions when Israel is restored” (Isaiah 2:2-4; Jeremiah 33:14-18; Zechariah 14:16).

On the other hand, if this is not how you interpret those passages, Romans 9:4-5 is not going to change your mind.

Gifts and Calling Irrevocable

Romans 11:29 says, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” According to Vlach, this points back to the list of gifts we have been considering:

“Gifts” is plural and likely refers to the eight privileges mentioned in 9:4-5.[6]

Is this possible? Romans 9:4-5 and Romans 11:29 are far away from each other. Would Paul still have that list in mind, and would he expect his readers to?

I think so. Look at where these two passages are found: the beginning and the end of this extended teaching. Also, the “fathers” are in that opening list of gifts, and Paul mentions them again at the end, saying that the Israelites are “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28 ESV).

Conclusion

I do think Romans 11:29 refers specifically to Romans 9:4-5. But no matter how you define the gifts, you have to reckon with the Paul’s word “irrevocable” and its implications (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”).

As for the list found in Romans 9:4-5, and what it would look like for these gifts and calling to be restored, I think Vlach pushes things further than the text can carry them.

Your view of eschatology will affect your reading, as I think it does with Vlach. If you are already leaning toward historic premillennialism, you are likely to read Romans 9:4-5 in that light. But you cannot get historic premillennialism out of Romans 9:4-5.



[1] Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Roman 9-11 – kindle location 2448

[2] Three Views – kindle location 2441

[3] Three Views – kindle location 365

[4] Three Views – kindle location 373

[5] Three Views – kindle location 398

[6] Three Views – kindle location 869