AN INFORMAL CRITIQUE OF DISPENSATIONALISM, CONTINUED
(D = Dispensationalism, Ds = Dispensationalists)
I believe that D makes an unwarranted sharp distinction between Israel and the church. I have already indicated that Ephesians makes a powerful statement regarding the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. See Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:6. Ds accept this unity in the church during the present church age. However, they believe that, after the removal of the church by Pretrib Rapture, God will begin to deal with Israel as a nation in preparation for the Millennium, at which time the promises of the Old Testament will be fulfilled.
Note, first of all that the unity of Gentile and Jew in the church is understood in Ephesians to be a unity ALSO IN THE COMMONWEALTH OF ISRAEL. So, Paul does not depict the Jews who come into the church to separate from the main body of Israel as they come into unity with the Gentiles in the church. Instead, Paul depicts the Gentiles’ coming into the commonwealth of Israel as they come into the church. See Ephesians 2:11ff: “Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’…remember that at that time you were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise...But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ...that he might create in himself one new man...So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members in the household of God…” Notice that the address is to the Gentiles and the announcement is that they have joined up with the Jews. What is not said, but implied, is that the true commonwealth of Israel consists now of the Jews who have believed in Jesus. Into that commonwealth the Gentile believers were incorporated.
Now, we should look at Romans 9-11. This lengthy passage is concerned with the Jews--or, better, Israelites. (The term “Jew” came from the word “Judahite,” one of the 12 tribes. Paul is concerned with “Israel,” the entire nation.)
Paul’s concern for Israel: Paul reveals his heartfelt concern for the nation of Israel. He goes so far as to want to be cut off from Christ if it would bring Israel into belief in Christ. He reminds his readers how unique the nation of Israel is: they have 2000 years of history with God. They have been God’s adopted sons, have seen glorious things, including the glory that filled the Tabernacle and the Temple. God has made covenants with them. And, of course, Jesus himself was born an Israelite.
But Paul then goes against the grain of the glorious past. Just because one is born to Abraham does not make one a true child of Abraham. For the Old Testament again and again has demonstrated that the privilege of birth and status mean nothing to God. He cites especially Isaac compared to Ishmael and Jacob compared to Esau. He is citing these examples to prepare the reader for what is to come.
Discourse on Election: In 9:14-29, Paul takes an excursion into the subject of divine election. His purpose is to explain that God’s will is sovereign with regard to those who experience His grace. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to deal with this in detail. He is pointing toward the historical fact that Israel lost its special place and those who have faith in Christ, whether they originated from Israel or from the Gentiles, would be the “chosen people.”
The Error of Israel: The outcome of this development is that “Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works.” (Romans 9:30-32a) Israel had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (Romans 10:2b)
The Way of Salvation--Received by the Gentiles and Not Israel: Paul then goes back over some ABC’s of the faith in Romans 10:5ff. The high point is a sort of a “John 3:16”: “[Because], if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10) Although this way is straightforward and available to all, it turns out that the Gentiles are the ones who have received salvation by faith. (Romans 10:20) Sadly, Israel has missed this way, so that God states: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:21)
The Present Situation of Israel: Paul, in his day, considered that, although Israel as a nation had missed the way of salvation, there still was a believing remnant (11:1-6). These “elect” had a place with God, but “the rest were hardened” (11:7).
The Gentiles and Israel: Paul maintains that this “trespass” of Israel has brought about the salvation of the Gentiles. (11:11) Paul’s ministry was to the Gentiles, and he hoped that through this ministry Israel would become jealous and yearn for the salvation that the Gentiles were experiencing. (11:13-14) He held out hope for Israel and used two analogies to express his conviction that Israel yet had hope. First, the example of “first-fruits.” Generally, “first-fruits” referred to the early part of a harvest, for example, of grain. The first sheaves that were harvested were given as an offering to God as a representation of the whole harvest, which, ultimately, belonged to God. In this case, he refers to a lump of dough: if part of the lump is dedicated to God, then the whole lump is holy. In the same way, if the root of a tree is holy, then so are the branches (11:16). He is setting up the reader for what follows.
The Analogy of the Olive Tree: He has established a principle: If the root of a tree is holy, then the whole tree is holy. He does not specify what this tree is, but the entire context points to the People of God. Most likely, he has in mind Abraham as the root of the tree. However, in a deeper way, Christ Himself is the root. We can point to Jesus describing Himself as the “vine” in John 15. We can also point to Jesus’ declaration: “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58b)
Now, Paul focuses on the tree--which he identifies as an olive tree. And he is focusing on the Gentile portion of his readership: What if some branches were broken off and you--who were wild branches--were grafted in? His point, I believe, is this: Gentiles, you need to get the big picture. You are Johnny-come-latelies. You have, by God’s grace, been given a place among the people of God. So, understand that it is the root that supports you, not the other way around. The branches were broken off to make room for you because of their unbelief. Israel lost out, as Paul has already explained, because they would not believe in Jesus, but, rather, sought a place with God through works-righteousness. (11:17-20a)
Therefore, Paul warns against spiritual pride. God can discard Gentiles who become lifted up in pride and lose sight of saving faith. (11:20b-21) Paul pushes on to stress the possibilities of reversal of situations: the Gentiles can be cut off and Israel can begin to believe and be grafted back into the tree. (11:22-23) He also reminds the Gentiles that they are part of the tree “contrary to nature.” That is, the usual direction of grafting is to graft a domestic branch into a wild tree, but they were wild branches grafted into a domestic tree. So, the domestic branches (Israel) can be grafted back in. (11:24)
The Future Salvation of Israel: Finally, Paul comes to the climax of this excursus on Israel. He unveils a mystery. “Mystery,” in the New Testament, refers to a truth that has been undisclosed until it is unveiled by God’s spokesperson--in this case, Paul. This mystery is three-fold, as follows. (11:25-26)
- The “partial hardening” of Israel
- The “fullness” of the Gentiles
- The salvation of all Israel
The partial hardening of Israel has been described in the material that I have been covering in chapters 9-11. It is “partial” in the sense that there are Israelites who were saved in Paul’s day and have been throughout history. But, the overwhelming majority have rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ. The fullness of the Gentiles indicates that, in the present age--from Pentecost to the Second Coming, God is reaping a great harvest among the Gentiles. There will come a point when that harvest will be complete. It will not go on forever. Now, whether this means that some exact number of Gentiles will be saved or that the harvest will continue over a specified time-frame is not apparent to me. I do lean toward the latter. In other words, the harvest will continue among the Gentiles until the Second Coming. At that point, a new work will take place. This is the third part of the mystery: the salvation of all Israel. The overwhelming majority of Israelites will turn to Christ as their Messiah, Lord, and Savior. This will take place close to or at the Second Coming. Some believe this is predicted by Zechariah 12:10 and Revelation 1:7. In addition, Romans 11:26-27 is a quotation from Isaiah 59:20-21 and Jeremiah 31:33. (Thanks to study notes on Romans 11:25 in ESVSB.) This is the grafting of the domestic branches back into the tree.
Significance With Regards to D: I believe that this teaching from Romans 9-11 confirms and expands the teaching found in Ephesians 2. In both places we find ONE PEOPLE OF GOD. It is certainly true that God dealt mostly with Israel as the people of God in the Old Testament era. We could make a long list of differences between the Old Testament era and the New Testament era. However, it is important to step back and see a bigger picture.
In Genesis 12:1-3, we read: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country] and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” So, the call of Abraham was to greatness in order to be a blessing, and that blessing was to be worldwide. These words of chapter 12 are the opening of a new emphasis in Genesis. Until these verses, the general outlook has been world-wide: The first man and woman in the world, the sons of Adam and Eve, the lines of Cain and Seth as they populated the world, the universal sinfulness, Noah and his family saved in order to repopulate the earth, the intervention of God to abort the building of the Tower of Babel, the descendents of the various first families from Noah, winding up with Shem’s descendents and, finally, with Terah and his sons, including Abraham. In these various genealogies, there are indications of nations and peoples throughout the earth (at least from a Middle Eastern perspective). So, though specific individuals are mentioned, the world-wide perspective is maintained.
With Abraham, the focus is narrowed to an individual. The history that is related in the rest of the Old Testament is one long history of the people descended from Abraham through Isaac, Jacob (Israel), and the 12 sons of Jacob. But this story is more than a history lesson. It is the story of God’s grace working in individual lives as well as in the life of the nation. And that grace was directed toward one purpose: the salvation of the world. So the pattern is: blessed to be a blessing. God--for no apparent reason--chose Abraham to bless in order to bless the world. The ultimate blessing is nothing short of Paradise Regained.
In that story, we have a bloodline--genealogies that trace lineages. But many might miss something else: a bloodline of faith. Hebrews 11 gives a bare outline of that lineage. We call them the heroes of the faith, but they also were recipients of promises and recipients who responded with faith. We also find negative examples. In I Corinthians 10:1-4, Paul relates how the Israelites of the Exodus shared a common set of experiences--under the cloud, passed through the sea, spiritual food and drink. And yet, in verse 5, he says “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” We could go through the entire history of Israel and make the case that some were people of faith and some were not. There was a “bloodline of faith.” This is my term for the reality that not all Israelites were acceptable to God.
The prophets had a message that we might describe as twofold:
- God has requirements for every person. These include certain behaviors embracing justice and mercy. But also implied was the call to believe in and trust God.
- To violate those requirements puts one in jeopardy of judgment. We tend to focus on that judgment that would come upon the nation. The captivities of the northern and then the southern kingdom were expressions of that judgment. But, in addition, the individual cannot escape God’s judgment.
The point is this: People were not in right standing with God simply because they were of the bloodline of Abraham. John the Baptist made this very clear: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Luke 3:7b-8)
So, the family of Abraham is a family of faith. The children of Israel were blessed by having the word of God as well as the great demonstrations of God’s mercy and power throughout their history. In that atmosphere, many believed and were part of that bloodline of faith. We today, if we believe the gospel, also are in that bloodline of faith and are part of the family of Abraham. Paul puts it this way: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:7-9) And further on, he says: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:27-29)
Now, Ds would sort of agree with what has just been said, but they believe it only applies to the church age. Once the Pretrib Rapture takes place and God begins to deal with Israel as a nation, then the “rules have changed” (my terminology). All of these principles will be set aside when the Millennium comes. Although salvation by faith will still apply, Israel will be the focus.
At the root of this is a heartfelt conviction that the promises and predictions that were made concerning the “Theocratic Kingdom” (the Kingdom of David) must be literally fulfilled during the Millennium. This means that God’s “Kingdom Program” must be the focus and the church is sort of a bystander.
For me to dismantle this idea is a huge challenge that is beyond the scope of this post. (It may be beyond my own ability.) I do believe that there are some errors of understanding regarding the Old Testament promises, covenants, and predictions that the Ds have made. To delve into them is a daunting task that I must forego for the immediate future.
My purpose in these posts regarding D is to just point in the direction of my thinking. I realize it has been “a long way around the barn” to meet that purpose. I do hope that it has been somewhat helpful. Thanks to all my faithful readers!
(Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.)
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