Why I Am Not Reformed: Israel & The Church

The previous article explained that there are two broad frameworks generally in use among evangelical believers when attempting to interpret the Bible in a cohesive manner. While I distaste labels, I stated I hold to Dispensational, as opposed to Reformed (or Covenant), theology. This article presents my first reason.

A New Israel?

While I appreciate that students of the Word in the Reformed tradition are taking the Bible seriously, I am concerned by their common tendency to confuse the terms “Israel” and the “Church.” It has long been the heritage of Reformed Theologians to identify the people of God of this present era as the “new” or “spiritual” or “true” Israel. John Calvin clearly taught that the Church has inherited many of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament. To varying degrees, contemporary Reformed teachers have maintained this line of teaching. “A Gentile who fulfills the requirements of the law will be counted as a true Jew – a true member of God’s chosen people, Israel.”[1] “The true Israel becomes the church of Christ and the church of Christ emerges as the true Israel.”[2] Or this increasingly common idea: “Israel is Jesus of Nazareth,” and the promises to Abraham and Israel are all fulfilled in Christ – Gentiles’ place in Christ means that Israel’s future is their future.[3] While it is true that there is a correspondence between Israel and Christ (cf. Hos 11:1 and Mat 2:15), “the purpose of Jesus’ connection to Israel is not to transcend the significance of national Israel, but to restore Israel to be everything God intended for it …. Typology concerning Jesus and Israel maintains Israel’s national significance.”[4] As evidence, consider Isaiah 49:1-6: Christ is spoken of as “my servant, Israel” (v3), but the nation, Israel, is not set aside – the servant restores the nation in vv5-6.

The Church is Not Israel

The purpose of this series is to simply present reasons, not detailed exposition. But let me be clear – the Church is distinct from Israel. The inward Jew of Romans 2:28-29 is not a saved Gentile; it is a Jew who has believed the gospel. Likewise, the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16) refers to ethnic Israelites who have believed the gospel. It is true that Peter uses terms (e.g., chosen race, priesthood, a holy nation, God’s people) that were used in the Old Testament for Israel (1Pe 2:9-10). But applying those terms to the Church today does not change their original significance to Israel. In other words, while the term “people of God” now includes Gentiles in the Church, the term “Israel” does not.

The key passage for assessing the relationship between Israel and the Church is Romans 9-11. These chapters are challenging to interpret. But I am convinced from an exegetical standpoint that in Romans 9-11, as in the rest of the Bible, “Israel” always refers to ethnic Israelites. It is sometimes narrower than the nation at large, but it never refers to Gentiles of the Church.[5] For example, Romans 9:6 presents an Israel within Israel – that is, believers within an unbelieving nation. But those believers are ethnic Israelites (like the “remnant” of 11:5). The olive tree of Romans 11:16-24 (a place of blessing that spans dispensations through a link with Abraham) is not the same teaching as the new man of Ephesians 2 (the Church of this dispensation). And Israel’s “fullness” (Rom 11:12) is more than just a lot of Jews trusting Christ for salvation – it is the restoration of the nation to a place of political leadership among the nations in the kingdom age (Isa 27:6).

How We Read the Bible

Admittedly, there is not an apparent massive, immediately practical impact upon my life in believing there is a distinction between Israel and the Church. It will matter one day, though. While Dispensationalism doesn’t rise and fall on the issue of a pre-tribulation rapture, it is difficult to substantiate that belief without seeing Israel and the Church as distinct. The framework we espouse impacts how we read the Bible. Our conviction concerning God’s faithfulness to His people today is tied to His commitment to keep His promises to the nation of Israel.

An accusation lodged against Dispensationalists is that we are giving the Old Testament precedence over the New Testament in our Bible interpretation. On the contrary, we are simply taking care to not allow the meaning of Old Testament passages to be overridden by the further revelation of the New Testament. Enhanced and supplemented, yes, but not overridden. Israel’s Scriptures taught them to look forward to an earthly kingdom in which their nation is the head – “When someone comes along and says all the promises of the kingdom to Israel are fulfilled in the Church, the burden of proof is not on me, it’s on them.”[6] And it is a burden of proof that the New Testament does not enable them to meet.

Dispensational teaching has, at times, missed out on some of the continuity between the two Testaments.[7] But we are overcoming that while maintaining an interpretation that stays true to the original sense of Old Testament prophecy. One of the reasons, then, that I am not Reformed is that Scripture, in both the Old and the New Testaments,[8] maintains a distinction between Israel and the Church, and a restored place for Israel as a nation that Reformed theology does not observe.

 

[1] John Piper, on Romans 2:25-29, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/who-is-a-true-jew-part-1

[2] Piper, on Ephesians 2:11-22, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/israel-and-us-reconciled-in-one-body

[3] Russell Moore, https://www.russellmoore.com/2009/01/09/is-there-a-future-for-israel/

[4] Michael J. Vlach, Response to Benjamin J. Merkle in Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11, ed. Jared Compton and Andrew Naselli (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2018), 212. See also Michael Vlach’s Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths. It is a very helpful book.

[5] Some Reformed teachers do acknowledge that “Israel” is exclusively ethnic in Romans 9-11. E.g., Fred G. Zaspel & James M. Hamilton Jr. in Three Views on Israel and the Church. They also hold that the “Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 refers to ethnic Israelites.

[6] John MacArthur, In an answer to the question, “What is Dispensationalism”, (The Theology Forum, YouTube).

[7] Reformed theology sometimes misses the discontinuity. E.g., Kevin DeYoung embraces infant baptism, partly due to seeing the symbol of OT circumcision as pointing forward to another symbol, NT baptism. But OT circumcision symbolizes NT conversion, not baptism. See Tom Bentley on Colossians 2:11-12 in What the Bible Teaches: Colossians, pp.346-348.

[8] E.g., Isaiah 2:2-4 and Matthew 19:28.