Romans 11 and the Plan of God

Universalism in Paul, Pt 3

Abjan van Meerten
13 min readAug 18, 2023


For the first article in this series, see “Romans 3 and the Faith of Christ.”, and for the second, see “Romans 5 and the Superiority of Christ”.

C. Romans 11

25 I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, 26 and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:

“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
27 And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.”

28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. 30 Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
36 For from him and through him and for him are
all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 9–11 starts out with the following question: seeing the fact that the majority of Israel — God’s elect, privileged people from whom came the promised Messiah (Rom 9:1–5; cf. 1:2) —have rejected that Messiah, and the pagans have accepted him instead, did God’s word derail (9:6a)? [1] The rest of Rom 9:6b–11:10 is essentially Paul’s ‘no’ to that question: this was part of God’s plan. Moreover, from 11:11 on, [2] Paul shows how God’s word will, paradoxically, through the present situation, reach its intended end. So, the present situation —only some Israelites are saved, as well as pagans— is, on the one hand, not contrary to God’s plan, but on the other hand also decidedly not ultimate to God’s plan; it is part of a bigger movement, as we will see below.

9:6–23, God’s Sovereignty, and Human Vessels

In 9:6b, Paul dives into a discussion of God’s sovereignty in election throughout salvation history (based on what Barclay calls the ‘incongruity’ of God’s grace) — now hardening those, now giving mercy to those, regardless of anything they themselves bring to the table (9:11–12, 14, 18). Jews would be very familiar with this history. There have always been ‘vessels of wrath’ and ‘vessels of mercy’ (see 9:22–23) — and they have of course been the latter. So far, so good; up to this point, Paul has not said anything that a Jewish teacher wouldn’t agree with. [3]

But to understand more clearly what Paul is arguing here, we have to ask whether these ‘vessels’ (1) refer to individuals or groups of people, and (2) denote a temporary or permanent state of affairs.

1. Individual or Corporate?
Looking at 9:6–23, the ‘vessels of mercy’ or ‘wrath’ referred to famous individuals who represented nations: the nation of Israel on the one hand (Isaac, Jacob, Moses) and Gentile nations on the other hand (Ishmael = Arabia; Esau = Edom; Pharaoh = Egypt), including their individual constituents of course. And the context of Paul’s broader argument confirms this corporate reading: Romans 9–11 is all about Israel and the nations, the inclusion of the latter in God’s people and the seeming exclusion of the former (and again, of course, in the form of their individual constituents). Thus, the answer to this question is ‘both’, but with an emphasis on corporate.

2. Temporary or Permanent?
With the last example of Pharaoh, Paul explains that the rejection of vessels of wrath is a means to an end, namely “that I [God] might show my power in you [Pharaoh] and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 9:22 expands on this, clarifying that God’s purpose is showing his “wrath” as well as his power, which does not seem to bode well for the vessels of wrath; they seem to be heading for “destruction”. And indeed, God showed his power in Pharaoh, and Pharaoh, famously, ended up being destroyed in the Red Sea — and death is pretty permanent, right?

However, looking at the letter of Romans as a whole, we see that God’s power is defined as a power of life (1:4; cf. 4:21) and a power for salvation (1:16) (which really means the same thing); and looking more broadly to Paul’s other letters, we see that God’s power is manifest through human weakness — that is, it looks like the resurrection of a crucified Messiah! — the epitome of military, political, physical, social (etc.) ‘weakness’ (see esp. 1 Cor 1–2; also 2 Cor 12). Thus, paradoxically, within Paul’s theology, the destruction wrought by death has a salvific function (cf. Rom 6:7, etc.), as it paves the way for God’s powerful resurrection. [4]

To expand a little more on Paul’s apocalyptic theology of ‘power’: God raises the oppressed and vanquishes the oppressors — but in Paul’s mind, all humans are primarily the oppressed of Sin and Death (only secondarily co-oppressors with Sin and Death), and God has vanquished Sin and Death through the death and resurrection of Christ, which leaves no human outside of the grasp of the Gift of life. As Paul arguably says elsewhere, “our” (and therefore God’s) “struggle is not against flesh and blood [such as Pharaoh!], but against the rulers … authorities … powers of this dark world and … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12 NIV).

Thus, while 9:23 shows that being a vessel of wrath is a means to an end, and that end is described as showing God’s power and wrath unto destruction, the conventional meaning of those terms is radically called into question by Paul’s Christology and apocalyptic theology elsewhere.

Moreover, Paul does not actually finish his sentence, leaving off at God’s present patience with these vessels (see quote DHB below)! All in all, 9:6–23 itself does not provide enough information to answer the question of whether vessels of mercy and wrath denote a permanent state of affairs — but 9:24 definitively does.

The Turning of the Tables

9:24 is the verse that messes everything up for the nodding-along Jewish teacher, and Paul has cleverly led him into this trap with his talk about God’s sovereign choice: at this crucial point in salvation history, [5] God has sovereignly “called” vessels of mercy from those who were previously vessels of wrath — Gentiles! He has shown mercy, not only to ‘natural’ vessels of mercy — Israelites (and few of them at that) — but also (and much more!) to ‘natural’ vessels of wrath — Gentiles! (including the Roman Christians of course).

What is more, God has sovereignly caused the majority of his own elect people, Israel, to stumble! “They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: ‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble…’” (9:32b–33). And: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day” (11:8; see v. 7–11). So, the majority of those who were previously vessels of mercy, Israelites, have now been made into vessels of wrath! Thus, at this historical point, God has turned the tables, seemingly at the cost of his elect people Israel. The fate of Israel seems to be hanging in the balance — but we now at least know that being a vessel of wrath or mercy is not necessarily permanent!

Romans 11 and God’s Ultimate Plan

In Romans 11, Paul returns to this specific issue: has God then rejected his own elect people (11:1), i.e., for good, permanently? Again, a resounding ‘no’. True, God has hardened the majority of Israel, making them ‘vessels of wrath’. But what follows is maybe the most important statement in all of Romans 9–11: “Did they stumble [or, did God make them stumble] so as to fall [beyond recovery]?” (11:11). And the answer is clear: “By no means!” God’s hardening of the majority of Israel is not unchangeable or definitive with regard to their eternal salvation; it has a temporary function in God’s plan, namely to “bring riches to the Gentiles”, that is, to bring about “the reconciliation of the world” (11:15). This then has its own function, namely to make Israel jealous and thus lead to their “full inclusion” (11:12), which will, in turn, bring even more riches to the Gentiles — nothing less than “life from the dead” (11:15).

This pattern of temporary wrathful rejection for the sake of more merciful riches, is confirmed by the helpful extended metaphor of the tree and the branches, which should really settle every question people have about election in Romans 9–11: Israelites are the ‘natural’ branches, and Gentiles the ‘unnatural branches’, on the tree of election. In former times, God seemingly ‘passed over’ the Gentiles, retrospectively only for the time being, to privilege Israel. [6] However, now with the arrival of Christ, God has “broken off” the majority of Israel so that the Gentiles might be grafted in (11:19). Radical talk!

However, Paul assures us: “God is able to graft [Israel] in again” (11:23) — and he will, as Paul makes clear in the final passage of chapter 11 cited at the beginning of this article. Romans 11 has already featured some universalistic language — Israel’s “full inclusion”, and “the reconciliation of the world” — but now it gets inescapable: God’s purpose with hardening most Israelites is to save “the fullness of the Gentiles” and in this way (i.e. by making them jealous) save “all of Israel” (11:25–26). This sovereign plan of God’s election, which could seem arbitrary and whimsical, is shown to be actually controlled by one principle: God’s desire to show mercy to all — in other words, God’s inclusive, unconditional love for all humans.

Finally, Paul rehearses his argument once again, just to make sure we get it:

30 Just as you [Gentiles] who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of [Israel’s] disobedience, 31 so [Israel] too has now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. 32 For God has bound everyone over to disobedience [cf. Gal 3:22] so that he may have mercy on them all.

This was God’s paradoxical plan: rejecting all to show mercy to all. And why does God want to show mercy to all? Because all humans are created by him, exist through him, and are destined for him (11:36). But why did this need to go through these phases of rejection? Only here, after having reached his universalistic conclusions (!), does Paul excuse himself for reasons of divine mystery (11:33–34) (and not because of the supposed mysteriousness of God’s preterition of the reprobate).

Thus, Paul has moved, as Wright correctly noted (but insufficiently developed) [7], in Psalmist-like manner from lament (9:1–3), by means of prayer (10:1–2) to exultant praise (11:33–36).


1. Exegetical

Any exegetical objections by I+A against this reading of Romans 11 (and 9) often revolve around chapter 10, which seems to attest to a conditional understanding of faith and soteriology — only if Israelites (and pagans) believe, will they be saved (cf. 10:9–10). This notion is then inserted into Paul’s references to the reconciliation of “the world”, the “fullness” of Israel, the “fullness” of the Gentiles, “all” of Israel, and “them all”, so that those terms now mean ‘all who choose to fulfil the condition of faith and thus appropriate salvation’. Moreover, this same conditional construct seems to be implied in 11:19–23.

However, Paul’s notion of the ‘remnant’ and the ‘majority’ speak against this. The very Israelite majority which is now hardened will be joined to the believing remnant. Paul does not change the referents of ‘they’, ‘their’, etc. within the same sentence:

11:12 Now if their stumbling [i.e., of the unbelieving Israelite majority] means riches for the world and if their loss means riches for gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion [of the same unbelieving Israelite majority] mean!

The same goes for 11:28–29:

As regards the gospel they [the unbelieving Israelite majority] are enemies for your sake, but as regards election they [the same unbelieving Israelite majority] are beloved for the sake of their ancestors, for the gifts and the calling of God [to them] are irrevocable. (Etc.)

This will constitute “all” of Israel: remnant + majority. As so often, I+A end up sacrificing Paul’s rhetorical and argumentative coherence (and thus skills) for the sake of harmonizing his texts with their imposed soteriological theory. Besides my previous article on “Romans 3 and the Faith of Christ”, ‘faith’ in Romans 10 does deserve a closer look, especially in the context of Romans as a whole, and thus it will be treated in a separate article. Then we can also reconsider the references to ‘faith’ in 11:19–23.

Lastly, why does Paul only expect to save “some of them” (11:14)? Presumably, looking at his own assemblies, which at most comprised around forty to fifty people, [8] Paul expected that a lot more Gentiles would need to be incorporated — indeed, all of them — in order for this ‘salvific jealousy dynamic’ to be fully effective. Paul was just preaching Christ where he had not been named yet (15:20), but surely he hoped others would build on his foundation (cf. 1 Cor 3:10)! In other words, through Paul’s ministry to the pagans, only “some of them” Israelites would become jealous and be saved, but through the combined force of all evangelistic ministries to the pagans, all Israel would become jealous and be saved.

2. Theological

On the theological front, I+A will generally resort either to Calvinist unconditional double predestination or Arminian conditional predestination, both of which are refuted in my article on election (see below).

Bonus Quote

This is David Bentley Hart’s take on the unfinished conditional of 9:23:

“So, “then, what if” (εἰ δέ, ei de) God should show his power by preserving vessels suitable only for wrath, keeping them solely for destruction, in order to provide an instructive counterpoint to the riches of the glory he lavishes on vessels prepared for mercy, whom he has called from among the Jews and the gentiles alike (9:22–24)? It is a terrible possibility, admittedly, and horrifying to contemplate, but perhaps that is simply how things are: The elect alone are to be saved, and the rest left reprobate, solely as a display of divine might; God’s faithfulness is his own affair. Well then, so far, so Augustinian. But then also, again, so purely conditional: that “what if …?” must be strictly observed. For, as it happens, rather than offering a solution to the quandary in which he finds himself, Paul is simply restating that quandary in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair. He does not stop there, however, because he knows that this cannot be the correct answer. It is so obviously preposterous, in fact, that a wholly different solution must be sought, one that makes sense and that will not require the surrender either of Paul’s reason or of his confidence in God’s righteousness. Hence, contrary to his own warnings, Paul does indeed continue to question God’s justice; and he spends the next two chapters unambiguously rejecting the provisional answer (the “vessels of wrath” hypothesis) altogether, so as to reach a completely different — and far more glorious — conclusion. And, again, his reasoning is based entirely upon the language of election in Jewish scripture.” (That All Shall Be Saved, “Third Meditation: What Is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image,” section 1)

This “completely different … conclusion” is that God “has bound everyone in disobedience so as to show mercy to everyone (11:32): all are vessels of wrath precisely so that all may be made vessels of mercy’’ (idem).


[1] For this rendering of ekpeptōken as part of the larger agōn discourse in Rom 9–10, see Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans 2013), 19.4.

[2] See John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Eerdmans 2015), 17.1., ‘The Crisis of Israel’, citing Donaldson (“Riches for Gentiles”, 89): “while in 9:1–11:10 the thrust of the argument is that the present situation is in no way inconsistent with God’s promises to Israel, the argument from 11:11 proceeds on the assumption that the present situation has to be overcome if God is to be proved faithful.”

[3] Again, see Campbell, Deliverance, 19.4.

[4] This raises two scandalous possibilities, though one more so than the other: Israel might function in a Messiah-like — that is, cruciform — role, in bearing temporary ‘death’ for the sake of the ‘life’ of others (and ultimately itself included). (as noted by N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God [Fortress Press 2013], 1207–8). But, more distantly, we can also detect cruciform contours in the death of Pharaoh, which was ultimately ‘for the sake of’ Israel receiving God’s mercy! This gives us hope that even Pharaoh can be raised from the dead (cf. 4:17).

[5] It must be clearly noted that salvation history can only be understood from this ‘crucial’ point, that is, the cross, as the turning point of the ages; see J. Louis Martyn, “Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages”, ch. 6 in Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Bloomsbury 2005); Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love (Eerdmans 2020), ch. 28, “Beyond Supersessionism”. Thus, while Paul started his salvation-historical argument rhetorically with Abraham (etc.), he started it theologically or methodologically with Christ.

[6] It is popular to say (see esp. Wright) that the underlying purpose of Israel’s election was to make the Gentiles jealous of Israel, who would then function as an Isaianic ‘light to the nations’. However, Paul does not actually say this; cf. his satirical use of this motif in 2:17–24. Moreover, the prophetic texts on which this is based (esp. Isaiah) are not so hopeful about the nations as is often thought, as I will argue in my article on Phil 2 (which cites Isa 45) in this series.

[7] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1256.

[8] See Bruce W. Longenecker (ed.), The New Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (Cambridge University Press 2020), 57.

Further reading:

  • For scholarly treatments of Romans 9–11, see esp. Campbell and Barclay; also Wright (all referenced above).
  • For universalistic readings of Romans 9–11 like mine, see esp. Andrew R. Rillera, “Paul’s Philonic Opponent: Unveiling the One Who Calls Himself a Jew in Romans 2:17,” and references there (it will be open access from September 13 on); David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, “Third Meditation: What Is a Person? A Reflection on the Divine Image,” section 1 (quoted above); and the treatments in Parry and Talbott.
  • Also, look forward to the forthcoming commentaries by Beverly Roberts Gaventa (in the New Testament Library series), Susan Eastman (in the Interpretation Commentary series), and none other than Douglas Campbell (in the Commentaries for Christian Formation series). Last but not least, one could always of course consult Barth’s bomb of a Romans commentary, especially the 2nd edition.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God