GOD’S ONE PURPOSE OF SALVATION FOR HIS PEOPLE
The basic reason dispensationalism wrongly speaks of the church as a “parenthesis” in history or of the “postponement” of the kingdom, is that it fails to see that God has one purpose of salvation for His people in the old and new covenants. Contrary to the dispensationalist view, the people of God, the Israel of God of the old covenant, is one people in direct continuity with the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, of the new covenant. Israel and the church are different ways of referring to the one people of God. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: Israel is the church, and the church is Israel. This can be illustrated in various ways from the New Testament.
In1 Peter 2:9, the apostle Peter gives a summary statement regarding the New Testament church. Writing tu the scattered believers and churches throughout Asia Minor, Peter defines the new covenant church in terms that are drawn from the old covenant descriptions of the people of Israel. He writes:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.5
What is so remarkable about this description of the church is that it identifies the church with the exact terminology used in the Old Testament to describe the people of Israel with whom the Lord covenanted. The only legitimate reading of this language is one that takes it “literally” to mean that the new covenant church is altogether one with the old covenant church. The Lord does not have two peculiar peoples, two holy nations, two royal priesthoods, two chosen races — He has only one, the church of Jesus Christ.
Similarly, in Romans 9–11, the apostle Paul discloses God’s purposes of redemption in the salvation of the Gentiles and subsequently of “all Israel” (Rom. 11:25) in a way that makes it unmistakably clear that the people of God are one, not two.6 Dispensationalists try to argue that the salvation of “all Israel” mentioned in Romans 11:25 refers to the future national conversion of Israel and her restoration to the land of Palestine. This salvation will occur in the context of God’s resumed dealings with His earthly people, Israel. The great problem with this reading of the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 9–11 is that the argument depends upon the most intimate inter-relationship between elect Israel and the elect Gentiles in God’s purposes of redemption.
The main thrust of the argument in these chapters is that the unbelief of many of the people of Israel has been, in the purpose of God, the occasion for the conversion of the “fullness of the Gentiles.” This conversion of the “fullness of the Gentiles,” however, will in turn under God’s blessing, provoke Israel to jealousy and lead to the salvation of “all Israel.” There is nothing in any of this regarding the restoration of the nation of Israel, as a racial entity, to the land of Palestine. Nor is there anything about the establishment of an earthly form of the Davidic kingdom. To the contrary, the salvation of all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile alike, is described in terms of their belonging to the one olive tree, the church of Jesus Christ. All who are saved are saved through faith in Jesus Christ and are incorporated into the one fellowship of His church. This passage militates, therefore, in the strongest possible terms against the idea of the existence of two separate olive trees or of two separate purposes of salvation (a present one for the Gentiles, a future one for the Jews).
I have already noted that, in the account of the growth of the church in the book of Acts, the earliest members of the church were drawn predominantly, though by no means exclusively, from among the Jewish people. Indeed, there was even some considerable resistance initially to the incorporation of Gentile believers into the one fellowship of the church. It is especially striking, then, to read the account of the apostle Paul’s preaching at the synagogue (note well!) in Antioch. In his preaching, the apostle Paul announces that the “holy and sure blessings of David” are being fulfilled through the proclamation of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. In this sermon, the apostle declares that Jesus is the promised Davidic King and Savior through whom the promised blessings to the fathers are now being realized in the community of those who believe. No more clear identification of God’s purposes with Israel through David and His Son and His purposes with the church through Jesus Christ could be imagined. The words of this sermon speak for themselves:
And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, “Thou art My Son; today I have begotten Thee.” And as for the fact that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David” (vv.32–34).7
In these respects, as well as those previously mentioned, it is apparent that God’s purpose of redemption in history focuses upon the gathering of one people, all of whom are the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Gal. 3:28–29), the “father of all believers.” The Lord has one people, not two. Indeed, it is His purpose to join this people together in the most perfect unity (Eph. 2, 4), not to leave them forever separated from each other into Israel and the church.
CONCLUSION: WHO BELONGS TO THE “ISRAEL OF GOD”?
Admittedly, each one of the preceding points could be enlarged upon in order to complete the argument against the dispensationalist view of a separation between Israel and the church. These points have only been offered in the form of a kind of summary of the primary biblical considerations that militate against the dispensationalist view.
However, I have deliberately reserved to this point, consideration of a text, Galatians 6:15–16, which constitutes by itself a sufficient refutation of the dispensationalist position. With our consideration of this text, we will conclude this part of our evaluation of dispensationalism.
In Galatians 6:15–16, a text that comes toward the end of the epistle to the Galatians and that draws upon many of the emphases previously set forth in the epistle, the apostle Paul makes this solemn and sweeping declaration:
In the context of the argument of Galatians, it is clear that the apostle Paul is emphatically rejecting the idea that what commends anyone to God is his obedience to the law, particularly the law prescribing circumcision as a sign of the covenant. He is opposing the false gospel of the Judaizers who were teaching that, in order for a person to be acceptable to God, to be justified or found innocent before Him, they had to submit to the requirements of the law, specifically the stipulations regarding circumcision. Against this false gospel, the apostle places the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, a gospel that is equally valid for Jew and Gentile alike. Consequently, he sums up his argument in the epistle in the formulation, “neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
Having stated this governing principle, however, the apostle Paul goes on to pronounce a kind of benediction upon “those who will follow this rule:” “peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” The language he uses in this benediction is striking. The blessing of God rests upon those and those only who follow this specific s rule or canon.Conversely, those who do not follow or acknowledge this rule or canon may not expect to receive God’s peace and mercy. But, for our purpose, what is even more striking is the apostle’s identification of the church, comprised of Jew and Gentile alike, as the “Israel of God.” The Israel of God in this text refers to the church as it honors this rule or canon, making no distinction so far as justification before God is concerned, upon the basis of considerations such as circumcision or uncircumcision. Or, to put the matter rather bluntly, the apostle Paul is here setting forth a canon or rule for the whole people of God, the church consisting of Jews and Gentiles, that fundamentally opposes anything like the dispensationalist separation between Israel as an earthly people and the church as a heavenly people. Such a separation makes the matter of circumcision and uncircumcision a fundamental principle of distinction between those who are of Israel and those who are not.
Now, it is possible to argue that, when the apostle speaks in this text of “peace and mercy upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (emphasis mine), he is actually distinguishing the Gentile church (the reference of the words, “upon them”) and the Jewish believing community (the reference of the words, “and upon the Israel of God”). This has in fact been proposed by dispensationalist authors.9 However, the problem with this suggestion should be clear: it excludes believing Jews from “all who will follow this rule,” an exclusion which would be contradictory and self-defeating. Were the word “and” here to have this sense of “and also,” as dispensationalists maintain, the apostle Paul would be pronouncing a benediction not only upon those who follow this rule, but also upon others, believing Jews, who mayor may not follow it! The apostle would thus be denying the very rule or canon that he has asserted previously. Believing Jews would be exempt from this rule or canon, thus rendering it null and void as a rule for faith and practice among all the people of God. For this and other reasons, the New International Version translates these verses as follows: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God” (emphasis mine). Here the NIV is following a long tradition of interpreters, including Calvin, who rightly take the connector, “and,” as equivalent to “even” or “that is.”10
The sense of this text, accordingly, is that the apostle extends peace and mercy to those who follow this rule or canon, that in the church of Jesus Christ circumcision and uncircumcision count for nothing so far as our standing with God is concerned. He pronounces this benediction “to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.” Thus, he answers the question, who belongs to the “Israel of God” by declaring emphatically that the Israel of God is comprised of all believers, Jews and Gentiles, who subscribe to and live by the principle that what alone counts before God is a “new creation.”
In short, no more emphatic word could be spoken, least of all by someone more qualified to do so than an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, that in the church no distinctions are permitted any longer to be made along the lines of Jew and Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised. This should not surprise us, coming as it does from the same apostle who reminded the church in Ephesus that Christ “Himself is our peace, who made both Jew and Gentile] one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). By the standard of this apostolic teaching and rule, dispensationalism can be said to be in serious error.
5. In those two verses alone, the apostle explicitly refers to the following Old Testament passages: Isa. 43:20ff.; Ex. 19:6; Hos. 1:10; 2:23.
6. For a more complete treatment of this passage, I would refer my readers to an earlier article in this series: “The ‘Signs of the Times’: Preaching the Gospel to the Nations(III), ‘And So All Israel Shall be Saved’,” The Outlook 45/4 (April) 1995, pp. 19–23.
7. It is interesting to note how matter-of-factly the oneness of the people of God is expressed by our Lord in His answer to this question, Jesus not only stresses the need to “strive to enter,” but concludes with the confident declaration that “they will come from east and west, and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God.” This description of the growth of the kingdom uses the imagery of a banquet hall and table, in which a great throng gathers, of Jew (Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God,” v. 28) and Gentile (“from east and west, and from north and south”), all of whom are reclining at the same table in the same kingdom. This kind of natural identification of the one people of God is typical of the biblical teaching regarding the unity of God’s purpose of redemption. Dispensationalism cannot do justice to this identification and unity.
8. Literally, the word used here for “rule” is the Greek word for “canon.” It has the sense of a binding and absolutely authoritative rule or principle of faith and practice.
9. E.g. John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, OH: Dunham, 1958), p. 170.
10. This is one of the instances in which the NASV, the version I have been customarily using, may be liable to misunderstanding, since it simply translates the connector (kai in the Greek) with “and.” The context makes it crystal clear, however, that this connector has here the sense of “even” or “that is.” This sense is one of the normal senses of this connector in the Greek language. It should also be noted that the NIV is not alone in making clear the sense of the connector here. This is also true, for example, in the Revised Standard Version, the Jerusalem Bible and the New English Bible. Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.