Romans 11:17-24 – Can unbelieving ethnic Israelites still be saved? Can a believer stop believing?

This is part of a series of posts on Romans. Click here for the contents page.

Continuing on from the discussion of the three metaphors Paul uses to refer to the ethnic Israelites and the Gentiles, let’s consider the third metaphor:

“[17] Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, [18] do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.”

The ‘branches’ are the ethnic Israelites. Those that were broken off the olive tree are the unbelieving ethnic Israelites, while the believing ones have not been broken off. The ‘wild olive shoot’ that has been grafted in refers to the believing Gentiles. Paul uses the word ‘you’ because he is now addressing the believing Gentiles (see verse 13). In verse 24, Paul refers to the branches that were broken off as ‘the natural branches’. The Gentiles are not natural branches but have been grafted in to the olive tree. The olive tree therefore has two types of branches – natural branches (believing ethnic Israelites) and wild olive shoots (believing Gentiles). They both share the benefits of ‘the nourishing root of the olive tree’.

Those who are sharing in the root of the olive tree are those who are trusting in Christ – including both ethnic Israelites and Gentiles. The tree can therefore be seen as a metaphor of the spiritual family of all true believers – those who are Abraham’s true spiritual offspring (see Romans 4:11-12). These are the people who share in the faith of Abraham, throughout the ages. All believers benefit from the ‘nourishing root’, which represents Christ – the source of life for all believers. The metaphor is similar to that of John 15:1-11, where Jesus says ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers’ (verses 5-6).

Language such as the “vine” or the “olive tree” is used of Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus, as the ‘root of Jesse’ (Romans 15:12), is the ultimate fulfilment of this. Before the time of Jesus’ resurrection, most of the “branches” of this olive tree were ethnic Israelites, though there were some Gentile believers who shared in Abraham’s faith. Given this, as well as Jesus’ ethnic heritage and the promises made to Abraham, the olive tree could therefore be described as a Jewish (i.e. ethnic Israelite) tree. At the time of Paul’s writing, many Gentiles were becoming believers, and the believing ethnic Israelites in the olive tree were becoming outnumbered. There was a risk that the Gentiles could become arrogant, thinking that the time of the ethnic Israelites had come to an end, and that the Gentiles were now taking over. Paul’s message to the believing Gentiles, who have been grafted in to the olive tree, is that they shouldn’t be arrogant towards the natural branches of the tree, i.e. the believing ethnic Israelites. The Gentiles should remember that they have graciously been allowed to join a family that they don’t naturally belong to, so they shouldn’t be arrogant towards those who were there before them. Paul reminds the Gentiles that their presence in the spiritual people of God relies on Christ, who upholds his people. They are not in the olive tree by their own strength, and they must not stop relying on Christ for their presence in the olive tree, even as their numbers continue to increase.

In Romans 15:26-27, Paul explains a real-life example of the attitude that Gentile believers should have towards ethnic Israelite believers. Gentile believers from Macedonia and Achaia made a financial contribution to the struggling ethnic Israelite believers in Jerusalem. These Gentiles understood that ‘the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings’, and therefore felt that they owed their financial support to the ethnic Israelite believers.

Continuing with Romans 11, Paul has a warning for the Gentile believers:

“[19] Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but fear. [21] For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. [22] Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”

The believing Gentiles might arrogantly think of themselves as worth more than ethnic Israelites, as the grafting-in of these Gentiles happened as a consequence of the disbelieving actions of many ethnic Israelites. However, Paul reminds them that the reason many ethnic Israelites were “cut off” from the olive tree is that they did not believe. Correspondingly, the reason that these Gentiles are currently in the olive tree is that they do believe. Paul is again making it clear that the question of whether someone is in a right-standing with God is equivalent to the question of whether they are trusting in Christ. Faith is the only criterion as to whether or not someone is a member of the olive tree.

Paul says that, instead of becoming proud, it would be better for these Gentiles to fear. The reason for this is the fact that God did not refrain from breaking unbelieving ethnic Israelites off the tree. If God was willing to break some of his own ethnic people off due to unbelief, then he would surely have no hesitation in doing the same to those who are not his ethnic people.

The continual presence of the believing Gentiles in the olive tree depends on their continual trusting in Christ. If they stop trusting in Christ, they will be broken off the tree.

In thinking about what Paul might mean with this metaphor of the olive tree, we can distinguish between two different types of “falling away”:

  1. Someone who for a time appears to be a Christian, but actually isn’t, later “falls away” and is then clearly not a Christian. In this situation, they never really had faith to begin with and were never really a Christian.
  2. Someone who really is a Christian, with real faith, later falls away and no longer has this faith and is therefore no longer a Christian.

Paul’s language that the unbelieving ethnic Israelites were “broken off” the tree might imply that they once had faith and then no longer had it. However, this may be where the metaphor breaks down. It may be that they never had faith, but Paul speaks of them being “broken off” to fit with the metaphor of the tree having a Jewish heritage. Paul does not explicitly state whether or not they had faith beforehand. What we know for sure is that they do not have faith at Paul’s time of writing.

However, Paul does give an explicit statement regarding the Gentiles currently in the tree. He says that they ‘stand by faith’, so it’s clear that he thinks they actually do have faith at the moment. We can therefore conclude that Paul isn’t considering the “type 1” version of “falling away” discussed above when he speaks about the Gentiles. He must be considering the “type 2” version, i.e. the possibility of those who do currently have faith later no longer having this faith. For someone in the “type 1” situation, the concern would be for them to begin in the faith that they have so far not had. For someone in the “type 2” situation, the concern is that they keep going with the faith they already have. Paul’s message to the Gentiles that they ‘continue in his kindness’ (verse 22) therefore shows that Paul has “type 2” falling away in mind.

Paul is therefore warning genuine believers against the possibility of them not continuing with their faith. Paul acknowledges the possibility that these Gentiles could reach the same situation as the current situation of the unbelieving ethnic Israelites – finding themselves outside of the olive tree.

For the Christian, salvation is ultimately a future reality (e.g. Romans 5:9). Those who are members of the olive tree of believers at the time of their death or when Christ returns (whichever is sooner) will be saved from God’s final judgement of sin. Christians look forward to this salvation. The question of whether it is possible for a believer to become an unbeliever (and therefore no longer have hope of future salvation) often gets tangled up with other issues and so is often not considered properly. Often, the question gets tied up with the different issue of whether there is a particular sin that a Christian could commit for which God would not be willing to forgive them. People who advocate the position that a believer can never become an unbeliever sometimes attack the view that it is possible for this to happen by saying that we couldn’t have confidence in our salvation as we would keep falling out of favour with God when we sin, and/or that we would be worrying about whether a really big sin would cut us off from God. However, it’s clear that the only factor that determines whether someone is in or out of the spiritual people of God is whether they are trusting in Christ. That means that anyone who is trusting in Christ can have confidence that they are in the olive tree. A Christian does not remain in the tree of believers by making sure they behave themselves sufficiently well to avoid being cut off, but by continuing to trust in Christ for their salvation.

As Christians, our confidence that we will remain in the tree of believers shouldn’t rest on the idea that it is impossible for a believer to stop believing. Instead, our confidence should rest solely on Christ, who will keep us safe as long as we keep trusting in him.

While Paul does clearly teach that it is possible for a believer to become an unbeliever in this passage, he does not state explicitly whether or not it will actually happen. Any debate on this issue should really be about whether it actually happens, rather than whether it is possible (something can be possible while not actually happening). Other passages must be considered to find a clear teaching that “falling away” actually happens, not just acknowledging its possibility. This would take us outside the scope of this series so we will stick with Romans!

In verse 22, Paul refers to the real possibility of Gentiles being cut off from the tree of believers. This will happen if they do not continue to trust in Christ for their salvation. God’s kindness to the believing Gentiles depends on them continuing to believe. Similarly, God’s severity toward the ethnic Israelites who have fallen due to their unbelief lasts only as long as they continue in unbelief:

“[23] And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. [24] For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree.”

Paul gives the great news that the hardened, non-elect (see discussion of verse 7) ethnic Israelites, who are currently not part of the olive tree, actually can become part of the tree of believers! As the only thing keeping them out of the tree is their unbelief, if this comes to an end they will be grafted into the tree. Paul acknowledges that God has the power to graft these unbelieving Israelites in again, and that it could actually happen. Paul says that if God can unnaturally graft a Gentile into the olive tree, then surely he can graft in a branch that naturally fits into it. That is actually an easier task. As God has been doing the more difficult task of grafting in Gentiles, we can trust that he will be able to do the easier task of grafting in ethnic Israelites. So any ethnic Israelite who trusts in Christ will be brought into the tree of believers, and any ethnic Israelite can actually believe thanks to the word of Christ coming to all of them (see discussion of Romans 10:14-21). Again, Paul is teaching that this is possible, without making an explicit statement regarding whether or not it will actually happen. Whether it will happen is conditional for each ethnic Israelite on whether they trust in Christ. In this case, Paul has given an example of an ethnic Israelite actually coming to faith in Christ – himself (see verse 1). We therefore know that it does actually happen to some ethnic Israelites, but sadly others do not do this (even though they could).

The possibility for unbelieving ethnic Israelites to be grafted into the olive tree shows that God has not rejected any ethnic Israelites, as Paul stated in verse 1. None of the ethnic Israelites has been rejected by God; any of them can still trust in Christ and be saved!

We’ll finish this post with a look at the beautiful structure Paul gives to this section. The symmetry helps to show that God treats ethnic Israelites and Gentiles fairly and in the same way, with the salvation of each depending only on the question of who believes:

Structure of Romans 11v17-24.PNG

In the next post, we will look at Romans 11:25-32.

This was first published at the Predestination Station, where comments can be made.

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10 thoughts on “Romans 11:17-24 – Can unbelieving ethnic Israelites still be saved? Can a believer stop believing?

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