Now, I suppose I should address whether the Jews are a special case. And the great theologians differ. But I think we can lay a few principles down pretty clearly, even if we can’t answer every question with certainty.
First, Paul goes out of his way to specify that, after Pentecost, the Jews will be saved by faith in Jesus or not at all. That’s the point of his great missionary midrash on Deu 30 in Rom 10 —
(Rom 10:1-4 ESV) Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [the Jews] is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them [the Jews] witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God [how God is being faithful to his covenant promises], and seeking to establish their own [idea about how God should honor his covenant promises], they did not submit to God’s righteousness [God’s true covenant faithfulness that comes by faith in Jesus]. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
Paul begins with the premise that the Jews who lack faith in Jesus are damned. What else could “that they may be saved” (v. 1) be saying?
(Rom 10:5-8 ESV) For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them [referring to Lev 18:5]. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim) [paraphrasing Deu 30:12-14 in which Moses promises that forgiveness will be within the reach of the Israelites at the end of the Exile];
Paul thus concludes that Moses, in Deu 30, promised Israel an opportunity to find redemption after the time of Exile. This opportunity would not be beyond their reach. It would not be too hard.
(Rom 10:9-13 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [Isa 28:16 LXX] 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” [from Joel 2:32, quoted by Peter in Acts 2]
All that’s required is faith in Jesus and confession. But this is the same for both Jews and Gentiles (v. 12). God’s blessing promised the Jews is also open to the Gentiles — and is as within reach for one as for the other — except the Jews have the benefit of the prophets and other blessings of God (Rom 9:4-5), which should make it easier for them than for the Gentiles.
(Rom 10:14-17 ESV) How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
The Jews might have an excuse if they’d not been taught the gospel, if no preachers had been sent, if they’d not heard. After all, faith cannot come except by hearing, hearing by preaching, and preaching by the sending of missionaries — but missionaries were sent! Jesus sent missionaries to the Jews during his earthly ministry and then the apostles and others to the Jews afterwards.
(Rom 10:18-21 ESV) But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” 19 But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” 20 Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” 21 But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.”
But despite the missionaries, despite the preaching, despite God reaching out his hands to his beloved people, they have been “disobedient and contrary.” And so they are lost.
(Rom 11:1-8 ESV) I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4 But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
Paul is speaking in OT terms, where God’s relationship with Israel is with a nation. And he declares that only a remnant of the Jewish people remains saved by faith in Jesus.
“Has God rejected his people?” “People” translates laos, referring to a nation or ethnic group.
“By no means!” sets up a discussion in which Paul refers to God’s preservation of a remnant — not the entire nation but a faithful very few. Even this remnant is “by grace,” surely meaning, “by grace due to faith in Jesus.” After all, there were Jews among the churches. It’s just that most Jews were not.
(Rom 11:11-12 ESV) So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!
Paul asks whether the Jews stumbled so that they would “fall,” a Greek word sometimes used of damnation. “By no means!” doesn’t mean that they’re saved despite their unbelief, but that their damnation is not yet complete. They may still believe and be saved. They’ve not yet fallen beyond all hope.
Paul says that God brought in the Gentiles in hopes that this would make Israel jealous, causing them to come into the Kingdom by faith (referring back to Rom 10:19, which quotes Deu 32:21, which speaks of God making Israel “jealous with those who are no people”).
V. 12 speaks of the possible inclusion of all the Jews (“their full inclusion”) as a wonderful possibility.
Paul then spends a few verses addressing the Gentiles, warning them not to take pride over the Jews.
(Rom 11:20-21 ESV) 20 That is true. They [the Jews] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
Now, quite unambiguously, Paul declares the unbelieving Jews “broken off” the branch — the olive tree of the saved — in contrast to the faithful Gentiles who “stand fast through faith.”
(Rom 11:22-24 ESV) 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. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power 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 back into their own olive tree.
Paul is again quite clear. The Gentiles are saved — if they “continue in his kindness.” And while the Gentiles can yet fall, the Jews can yet be “grafted in.” And how can they be grafted in if they’ve not been already broken off? And God is anxious for the “natural branches” to be grafted back in.
(Rom 11:25-27 ESV) Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel [the Jews], until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. 26 And in this way all Israel [the Kingdom? or the Jews?] will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
Here’s the hard question. Paul’s language is beyond plain that the Jews who deny Jesus are damned. That’s not really a fair question for debate. Paul is agonizing over exactly that fact. But has he prophesied that they’ll eventually be saved despite their lack of faith? Or that they’ll come to faith? Or that the door will remain open for them to respond in faith?