PMT 2016-039 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Paul was a postmillennialist. We can know this by process of deduction. We know he was not a dispensationalist, because the dispensational system is so complicated that it took 1830 years to develop. Plus he never presents a Rapture chart in any of his known epistles (though admittedly he could have included one in either of his two lost Corinthians epistles). And we know he was not an amillennialist because he did not have a Dutch name.
But what exegetical evidence do we have for Paul’s postmillennialism? Romans 11 is one of the key texts demonstrating Paul’s historical optimism.
Paul writes in Rom 11:10–26:
I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, / He will remove ungodliness from Jacob.
Here Paul is dealing particularly with the question of ethnic Jews in redemptive history’s new covenant phase. But the way he handles the matter leads him to assert global optimism regarding Christianity’s future — almost in passing as he simply assumes the gospel’s global conquest. Let us note the setting of his argument.
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In Romans 8 and 9 he vigorously asserts God’s absolute sovereignty. But this causes a question to arise: What about the Jews? If God is sovereign, how can we explain their rejecting Christ and falling away from God’s favor? Are they not “His people” (Rom 11:1, 2)? Were they not the adopted sons who possessed the promises of God (Rom 9:4)? Romans 9–11 answers that important question.
Paul is clearly dealing with ethnic Jews when he raises the question for he writes: “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1). He defines “His people” by referring to Israel’s ethnic tribes (Rom 11:1), by citing Elijah’s experience (Rom 11:2), and by distinguishing them from the Gentiles (Rom 11:11–13, 25).
As he engages the thorny issue, he asks two questions: Has God rejected his people (Rom 11:1)? And has Israel stumbled for the purpose of absolutely falling away (Rom 11:11)? In answering these questions in his context, he argues that God’s sovereignty does not fail because: (1) Even “at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom 11:5; cp. 2–6) and God himself sovereignly hardens the rest (Rom 11:7–10). (2) God will bring the Jews back into God’s favor in the future and on an equal footing with the saved Gentiles (Rom 11:11–26). Thus, the current presence of a remnant shows his rejection is not total and the future hope of their fullness shows that his rejection is not final.
The four basic millennial schools present distinctive approaches to Paul’s statement in Romans 11:25–26a: “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery, lest you be wise in your own estimation, that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in; and thus all Israel will be saved.”
The premillennialist and the dispensationalist see the statement that “all Israel will be saved” as promising a future national, geo-political restoration of Israel’s kingdom. Generally the amillennialist sees this as signifying that the Church fulfills Israel’s promises by becoming the true Israel. The postmillennialist sees here the promise of world conversion as finally including ethnic Israel herself.
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The postmillennial approach best fits the flow of Paul’s argument, however. In the second phase of his argument proving that God’s sovereignty does not fail, he explains that Israel did not stumble at Christ for the purpose that (Gk., hina) they might utterly and finally fall away (Rom 11:11). In introducing the problem he vigorously rejects any such prospect: “May it never be!” for “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Rom 11:1, 2). He also rejects this possibility immediately after posing the question: “May it never be!” (Rom 11:11). Rather God’s purpose in Israel’s current condition is to bring in Gentile salvation, with the final result that this will spark widespread Jewish conversions: “salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous” (Rom 11:11).
Paul then states: “Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!” (Rom 11:12). We must understand that since Israel’s loss is almost total (only a remnant remains, Rom 11:5), her “fulfillment [Gk., pleroma]” must be commensurate with her loss, which means it must be virtually total. Hence, postmillennialists believe in future, massive conversions among the Jews, not only due to our general theological expectations regarding worldwide salvation, but also due to this particular exegetical evidence.
Amillennialists dismiss this view for two contextual reasons: (1) This salvation of Israel is a “mystery” (Rom 11:25), which presents an unexpected resolution to the Jewish problem — that is, that the Church becomes Israel so that God fulfills Israel’s promises through her. (2) Paul uses the phrase kai houtos (“and thus”), which means “in this manner,” “in this way.” This phrase, so they argue, does not refer to temporal sequence tracing the falling away of the Jews, then the conversion of the Gentiles, followed finally by Israel’s salvation. Rather it refers to the unexpected manner by which God fulfills his promise: by making the Gentile Church the fulfillment of Israel’s hope.
Postmillennialism can answer both objections. First, in that Paul emphasizes ethnic Israel in his opening question (Rom 11:1–2) and in that he plays Gentiles over against Israel (Rom 11:11–13, 25), the “mystery” involved is the remarkable, unanticipated method God uses: he plays Israel off the Gentiles. This involves the salvific wave motion of Israel falling away from God’s favor, Gentiles coming in, then Israel being drawn back in.
Second, regarding “and thus”: though it is true that it often lacks sequential emphasis, this is not always the case. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:28 Paul writes: “But let a man examine himself, and so [same Greek phrase] let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Indeed, some major versions translate this usage temporally: “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup” (NIV). “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (NRSV). Temporal sequence seems clear in other texts, as well (Acts 17:33; 20:11; 1 Cor 14:25). This presents no problem to the postmillennial interpretation.
Consequently, in Romans 11 Paul speaks of Christianity’s future glory: the Jewish failure will eventually bring “riches for the world” (Rom 11:12), resulting in “the reconciling of the world” (Rom 11:15), leading to “the fulness of the Gentiles” (Rom 11:25). All three references point to massive, worldwide conversions. All three underscore the postmillennial hope.