The Church and Israel
Who are God’s chosen people? Israel, the church, or both? What should we think about the nation of Israel today? Is a Jew who doesn’t believe in Jesus still in a saving, covenant relationship with God? Does God have a separate plan for Israel than he does for the church? Should promises made to Israel in the Old Testament be applied to the church today? What is “dispensationalism?” What is “covenantalism?”
Questions like these are attached to a controversial issue in theology regarding how Israel relates to the church. As we are studying the book of Ephesians one of the major themes we keep seeing is how God has torn down the dividing wall of hostility between those who are ethnically Jews and those who are ethnically Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) and how he has made them one in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:14-15).
But what does that mean exactly? In the following, I want to briefly examine the two most popular positions related to this issue and try to offer a third position on how we as Christians should understand the relationship between Israel and the church.
The Two Main Camps
There are two main theological positions when it comes to understanding the relationship of Israel to the church. On one end of the spectrum there is a position called “dispensationalism.” On the other end of the spectrum is a position called “covenantalism.” Now, these titles are really, really unhelpful because both groups agree that there are different eras of redemptive history (i.e. dispensations) and both groups agree that God makes covenants in the Bible. So what do these two terms really mean?
The main issue is this: When the Bible makes promises to Israel in the Old Testament, are those promises to be fulfilled in a literal, national, physical Israel (the dispensational position) or are they to be fulfilled in a “spiritual” Israel, i.e. the church (the covenantal position)?
Dispensationalism is a relatively new movement in theology. It wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century and arose out of the Brethren movement in England. It was promoted in the U.K. by a guy named John Nelson Darby and later spread to the U.S. where it was championed by Dwight Moody, C.I. Scofield, and Charles Ryrie. In fact, you may recognize names like Scofield and Ryrie due to the influence of their popular study Bibles.
Dispensationalism is a wide movement that has progressed in three “waves”: Classical Dispensationalism (John Nelson Darby, Lewis Sperry Chafer, C.I. Scofield, et. al), Revised Dispensationalism (John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, et. al.), and Progressive Dispensationalism (Craig Blasing, Darrell Bock, John Feinberg, Bruce Ware, et. al.). Today, dispensationalism is common among many Baptist churches, charismatic churches (Assemblies of God, etc.), and Bible churches as well as seminaries such as Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, and The Master’s Seminary.
Dispensationalism was originally so named because it focused on several “dispensations” or “ages” throughout the biblical storyline: Innocence (Eden), Conscience (the fall-the flood), Human Government (Noah-Babel), Promise (Abraham-Egypt), Law (Moses-John the Baptist), Grace (the church age), and Kingdom (the millennium).
The primary focus in dispensationalism is that there is a fundamental discontinuity between God’s Old Covenant people (Israel) and God’s New Covenant people (the church). In a sense, God has two covenant people. In the Old Testament, there were many promises made to Israel. If you were to ask a dispensationalist in whom these promises would be fulfilled they would say that these promises must be fulfilled in literal, national, physical Israel. Classic Dispensationalism even held that God’s “earthly” people (Israel) have an inheritance on earth and God’s “heavenly” people (the church) have an inheritance in heaven. Though this view slightly evolved in Revised and Progressive Dispensationalism, the strong division between Israel and the church remained.
Classic Dispensationalism held that the covenants (even Jeremiah 31!) referred to Israel. Progressive dispensationalists hold a more reasonable and moderate position in that some of the promises made to Israel (such as land) are still fulfilled in national Israel but others can be applied to the church.
Dispensationalism is marked by an Israel/church distinction, an ethnic way of interpreting the covenants, a pretribulational “rapture,” a premillennial kingdom prior to the eternal state, and credobaptism.
On the opposite side of the scale is what is called “Covenantal Theology” or “Federalism.” This view has its roots in the Reformation with guys such as John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and others. It was especially systematized after the Reformation by Herman Witsius and Johannes Cocceius. It is the view held by Presbyterians, Reformed, and even some Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and others. Many major Protestant seminaries are covenantal (Westminster Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and others).
Again, in the Old Testament, there are many promises made to Israel. If you were to ask a covenantal theologian in whom these promises would be fulfilled they would answer that these promises are fulfilled in the church—who is called the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16)—those who are the true seed of Abraham (Gal 3:17).
Those who hold to covenantalism see the biblical storyline and the individual covenants (such as those with Moses, David, etc.) as happening under three major covenantal structures known as the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Redemption was a covenant the trinity entered into to save mankind (pactum salutis) that was made prior to the creation of the world. Then, the Covenant of Works was the covenant given to Adam. If Adam obeyed, then salvation would come through his obedience; if Adam failed (as he did) then his disobedience would bring about death. This leads to the last covenant, the Covenant of Grace, which contains all of God’s dealings with mankind after the fall. The covenants that God makes with Abraham, Moses, David, etc. are all a part of God’s grace as he promises a Savior to bring about redemption.
The primary focus in covenantalism is that there is a fundamental continuity between God’s Old Testament people (Israel) and God’s New Testament people (the church). Christ has only one bride. There is a sense in which believers in the Old Testament are like an Old Testament church and that believers in the New Testament are like a New Testament Israel.
Covenantalism is marked by a conflation of Israel and the church, a spiritual way of interpreting the covenants, amillennialism (along with postmillennialism), and pedobaptism.
Is there a Better Option?
Though there are smart, godly men on each side of the debate, I don’t think either side is entirely correct. Each side is guilty of a few errors:
The dispensationalist fails to see:
- The continuity between the two testaments.
- The fact that the New Testament authors are fine with applying promises made originally to Israel to the church.
- How God has made “one man” in Christ (Eph 2:15).
However, the covenantal theologian fails to see:
- The discontinuity between the testaments.
- How there is not a one-to-one correlation between Israel in the church.
- That God’s people in the New Testament consist only of the elect (Jer. 31) and are not a mixed, ethnic body as in the Old Testament.
So, in case you are confused, the question we have been trying to answer is: Are the promises of God in the Old Testament to be fulfilled in Israel (Classical Dispensationalism), the Church (Covenantalism), or both (Progressive Dispensationalism)?
I think that the answer to this question is that the promises of God in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus! It is in Jesus that all the promises of God find their yes and amen (2 Cor 1:20). Jesus says all the promises of God are about him (Luke 24:27). Galatians says that the true promise made to Abraham’s descendants were actually made to Jesus (Gal 3:16).
Jesus is Israel personified – he is Israel as a man. Israel had 12 tribes; Jesus had 12 disciples. Israel went in the wilderness for 40 years; Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days. Israel had a temple; Jesus is the temple. Israel was to obey God’s law; Jesus actually obeyed it. Israel went across the Jordan; Jesus went across the Jordan at his baptism. We could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
By recognizing that Jesus is Israel personified one can see how God’s promises really are literally fulfilled in Israel (because Jesus is actually Jewish) and how they can also be applied to the church (which consists of those attached to Jesus).
God’s promises are not so much fulfilled in one people group or institution but rather in Jesus and everyone who is related to Jesus through faith, whether Jew or Gentile. This view is called Progressive Covenantalism, and it is much closer to the covenantal side of things. However, it recognizes that there are some differences in the New Covenant and that things such as infant baptism and unregenerate church membership mistake ethnic dimensions from the Old Covenant and ignore the fact that the church is to be made up only of those who have the Spirit.
May we give glory to God who has only one people, only one bride. May we give thanks to Christ who has fulfilled God’s promises to Israel and has extended salvation to all who would trust in him.