Why I Am NOT a Dispensationalist, part 3
In my last blog, I outlined why a dispensational hermeneutic is in error. In this article, I will show that the dispensationalist view of Israel and the church (point 2-3, 6) as two separate peoples of God is also in error. As stated before I will be using Christ’s Prophetic Plans as my primary, but not only, source for dispensational arguments as it is a popular and easily accessible text written by the faculty of The Master’s Seminary and edited by John MacArthur.
Before we get too far I want to remind you, once again, that there are a number of different flavours of dispensationalism, and each one might say things a bit differently than I have outlined below. This is why I am stating my primary dispensational source and any others I use along the way. My intention in this series of blogs is to get to the heart of dispensationalism in such a way that is generally fair and reflective of my dispensational brothers and sisters in Christ.
The following three points of dispensationalism are the heart of dispensational theology and are part of the foundation of their understanding of the second coming of Christ and the millennium. Let me outline this perspective from Christ’s Prophetic Plans.
(2) National Israel is not a type of the church. In other words, God makes promises to national Israel as national Israel, and to the church as the church, and therefore he is obligated to fulfil his promises to both groups independent of each other. The church does not take Israel’s place in the promises of God, they are a distinct group separate from Israel.
(3) Israel and the church are distinct, thus the church cannot be identified in any way as the new or true Israel. God has two groups of people he calls his own, and two groups of people to which he has made promises, Israel and the church, and never the twain shall meet. This is the reason why the church must be raptured prior to the tribulation. They must be removed so God can fulfil his word to national Israel.
(6) The church as the “seed of Abraham” (cf. Galatians 3:7) does not cancel God’s promises to the believing Jewish “seed of Abraham.” God can refer to the church or to Gentiles as such, and to the Jews as such, and not mean the same thing. Once again, God has multiple ‘seeds’, both Jews and Gentiles, that are not the same ‘seeds’. God has a distinct relationship and has made distinct promises, to the Jews, that the Gentiles are not able to share.
Summary: “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct... a man who fails to distinguish Israel and the church will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions.” (Ryrie)
Let’s break this down with the help of Ligon Duncan for the next three paragraphs. (cf. https://www.the-highway.com/dispensationalism_Duncan.html)
For the dispensationalist, Israel always means the literal physical descendants of Jacob, ethnic Israel. This means that all Old Testament prophecies about Israel are for literal Israel, national Israel, not for the church. This has implications for how we understand the church. Since it is a mystery in the Old Testament, dispensationalists believe that the church is a parenthesis in God’s program for the ages, a different covenant community. It is a temporary thing in the flow of history. This gives you a clue as to why a pre-tribulation rapture is so important for consistent dispensationalism because you have to get rid of Gentile believers, the church, in the program of God before you can get on with the work that God is doing with literal physical earthly Israel.
In short, dispensationalists see Israel and the church as separate people of God and understands that God has separate covenantal relationships with each of them. They are both individually saved on account of Christ’s work, but all other corporate redemptive dealings are separate. This, however, contradicts the teaching of Scripture which we will briefly outline below.
For the covenant theologian, which is what I consider myself, “Israel” may mean the literal physical descendants of Jacob, or it may mean spiritual Israel which may be a subset of literal physical Israel, or it may actually be larger than the subset of literal physical Israel. It could refer to Gentiles as well. Thus some Old Testament prophecies pertain to literal Israel, and some pertain to spiritual Israel. The Bible as a whole, the redemptive-historical witness of ALL of Scripture, will help you to figure out which one is which. While the church was indeed a mystery in the Old Testament it must be recognized that in many places in those books it is indicated that Gentiles will participate in the blessings promised to Israel in the distant future. (Riddlebarger, 132) This is a strong indication that God only has one people - all those who believe in Christ by faith - regardless of ethnicity. Surely Kim Riddlebarger is correct,
… it is quite wrong-headed to interpret a distinction made in the Scriptures between the church and Israel -- as J. Dwight Pentecost and Lewis Sperry Chafer argue -- as a foundational point of agreement with one of the pillars of the dispensational hermeneutic, that God has two mutually exclusive purposes for national Israel and the Gentile church. Although the church and Israel occupy different roles and stages in redemptive history, that does not constitute an argument for distinct redemptive plans for each group. In fact, the evidence shows that the opposite is the case. In Christ, God takes the two peoples and makes them one. (Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, 134; italics mine)
Let me demonstrate this conclusion by exploring four ways this is demonstrated in Scripture. I will be using as my sources -- Cornelis Venema’s article “Evaluating Premillennialism”; The Bible and the Future by Anthony Hoekema; and A Case for Amillennialism by Kim Riddlebarger.
First, Galatians 6:15-16 suggests that Israel and the church are one and the same group. It reads, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” (ESV) The dispensationalist suggests that in this verse Paul is referring to elect Jews as the “Israel of God”, thereby separating them from the church. But is this true? I would suggest it is not for two reasons. First, this interpretation would exclude the believing Jews from the “all who walk by this rule” which obviously refers to all believers, including believing Jews and Gentiles together. Second, in light of this difficulty, I think the NIV has it correct when they translate the Greek word kai as “even” instead of “and.” This would make verse 16 to read “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, even upon the Israel of God” which is a better translation given the context. This means that Paul is equating the church with the “Israel of God”; they are one and the same thing.
Second, the church is repeatedly referred to in the New Testament by expressions that show that they are the same people of God along with Israel. The clearest example is 1 Peter 2:9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” These words and phrases that are the exclusive right of Israel in the Old Testament are now directly applied to the church. Hoekema’s conclusions are correct, “No longer is Israel by itself “a people for God’s possession” – these words must be now applied to the entire New Testament church. Is it not now abundantly clear... that the New Testament church is now the true Israel, in whom and through whom the promises made to Old Testament Israel are being fulfilled?” (198) I would answer a resounding ‘yes!’
Third, in Galatians 3:28-29 Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, when you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Paul’s point is simple, all those who are in Christ are unified under the promise of God’s covenant with Abraham. As Riddlebarger says, “From the beginning of redemptive history, the true children of Abraham, whether Jews or Gentiles, will be heirs of God’s promise if they belong to Jesus Christ, the true seed of Abraham.” (85) Paul is explicit about this very fact in Ephesians 2:11-22 (ESV).
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Last, Romans 11. This passage is often applied by dispensationalists as teaching a separate future period of blessedness for Israel. Hoekema responds to this argument better than I could,
“...there are clear indications in Romans 11 that God’s purpose with Israel is never to be separated from his purpose with believing Gentiles. In verses 17-24 Paul describes the salvation of Israelites in terms of their being re-grafted into their own olive tree. The salvation of Gentiles, however, is described in this passage under the figure of their being grafted into the same olive tree into which Jews are being grafted. The community of God's believing people, therefore, is here pictured not in terms of two olive trees, one for Jews and one for Gentiles, but in terms of one olive tree into which both Jews and Gentiles are being grafted. This being the case, how can Paul be here teaching us that God still has a separate purpose for the Jews and a separate future for Israel?” (200)
To suggest, then, that God has two separate purposes for the church and Israel “goes contrary to God’s purpose. It is like putting the scaffolding back up after the building has been finished. It is like turning the clock of history back to Old Testament times. It is imposing Old Testament separate-ness upon the New Testament, and ignoring the progress of revelation.” (Hoekema, 201) Some of you may be thinking -- but what do we do with the phrase “and so all Israel will be saved?” (v 26) I will speak to this verse in particular in my next blog.
Further evidence could be offered as well. The terms which are used in Scripture to refer to Israel and the church (Hebrew - qahal; Greek - ekklesia used in the Septuagint to refer to the Israelite community and in the New Testament to refer to the church) indicates continuity. (Hoekema, 215) The term ‘temple,’ which Riddlebarger notes pointed forward to the priestly work of Christ in the Old Testament, was fulfilled by Christ who is the true temple and was applied in the New Testament to the church. (135) Most significantly, Old Testament prophecies regarding the land, the temple, and the Davidic throne were fulfilled in Jesus. (Riddlebarger, ch 7) Put all of this together and we realize that “much of the dispensational case for a future earthly millennium simply evaporates.” (83)
This brief survey calls into question the dispensationalist claim that Israel and the church are separate people of God in the plans of God. The church is NOT a parenthesis in God’s redemptive plan. “Israel’s hope for the future is exactly the same as that of believing Gentiles: salvation and ultimate glorification through faith in Christ” (Hoekema, 201) As Riddlebarger concludes, “The Bible everywhere supports the idea of the organic unity of the people of God, despite the fact that these people are citizens of national Israel in the Old Testament and members of Christ’s church in the New.” (134) On account of this unity of the people of God Paul can say “And God placed all things under his [Christ’s] feet and appointed him to be the head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
Let me answer a criticism that may come, and often does, on account of what I have just articulated. I am not advocating Replacement theology. Dispensationalists have accused covenant theologians of suggesting that the New Testament church replaces Israel in God’s redemptive program. But this is not the case. Aside from question begging, this accusation does not fully understand the Reformed position, as R. Scott Clark clearly identifies, “Reformed covenant theology does not juxtapose Israel and the church. For Reformed theology, the church has always been the Israel of God and the Israel of God has always been the church.” (https://heidelblog.net/2013/08/covenant-theology-is-not-replacement-theology/)
Sam Storms offers a helpful illustration,
The butterfly doesn’t replace the caterpillar. The butterfly IS the caterpillar in a more developed and consummate form. The butterfly is what God intended the caterpillar to become. Likewise, the church doesn’t replace Israel. The church IS Israel as God always intended it to be.
Put simply, God has always only had ONE people - true believers who have faith in the work of Christ either promised (Old Testament believers) or fulfilled (New Testament believers).
The implications of understanding Israel and the church in this manner are paradigm-shattering for those who have been raised breathing dispensational air. It means that, “The future of Israel is not to be seen in terms of a political kingdom in Palestine... but in terms of everlasting blessedness shared with all the people of God on a glorified new earth.” (Hoekema, 201)
We will explore this paradigm shift and its implication in greater deal in a later blog. But our next blog will deal with how to properly understand the place of Israel in God’s eschatological program.
Soli Deo Gloria