An oft made charge brought forth by our Dispensationalist brothers and sisters against those of us who hold to covenant theology is that we believe that the Church has replaced Israel and therefore we believe in something called “Replacement Theology”. This term is often bandied about in Dispensationalist publications, sermons, and the internet. This article will examine to what this term refers and whether this charge is accurate by examining the issue at hand. We have split the article into three parts because it is rather lengthy. This week we will be defining our terms and setting the groundwork for the next two articles. In the series of articles, we will be discussing, amongst other things, the definition of Israel and the Church, the Abrahamic Covenant and how it applies to the Church, and some exegesis of the related passages in the New Testament.
First let us look at what Dispensationalists mean when they say Replacement Theology. What most Dispensationalists mean is simply that its adherents believe that the Church has replaced or ‘superseded’ Israel (Replacement Theology is also called “supersessionism”). Dispensational theology holds that there is a sharp distinction between the nation of Israel in the Old Testament administration and the Church in the New Testament. We cannot quite use the term covenant here because the timing of the New Covenant and if it applies to the Church (and even how many New Covenants there are) is a sticky subject among Dispensationalists. This idea can be called “two peoples of God theory”: Dispensationalists hold that there are two distinct groups in redemptive history whom God deals with in very different ways.
These ideas, however, play out differently in the various flavours of Dispensationalism. ‘Classical Dispensationalists’ argue that the Church is in fact a gap in God’s redemptive plan for the nation of Israel while ‘Progressive Dispensationalists’ argue that the Church fulfills some of the promises of Israel including an already present kingdom (in a mostly spiritual way), but a further, complete fulfillment will follow with a physical, national Israel during the millennial period. There is, then, an already-but-not-yet idea present in Progressive Dispensationalism. This is why I think (along with many Classical Dispensationalists) that they have strayed far enough from the Dispensational system that they need to find a new label for themselves (but that is another article). What they both have in common, however, is that there are promises made to national Israel which cannot be fulfilled (at least finally) by the Church and thus, there must be a future restoration of Israel sometime in the future.
In Classical Dispensationalism, the nation of Israel was the “physical” people of God entitled to the physical manifestations of the Kingdom of God (continued during the Millennium since they rejected their Messiah at His first coming) and the Church is the “spiritual” people of God. Their views of the Church are summarized by Charles Ryrie:
(1) The Church is not fulfilling in any sense the promises to Israel. (2) The use of the word Church in the New Testament never includes unsaved Israelites. (3) The Church Age is not seen in God’s program for Israel. It is an intercalation. (4) The Church is a mystery in the sense that it was completely unrevealed in the Old Testament and now revealed in the New Testament. (5) The Church did not begin until the day of Pentecost and will be removed from this world at the rapture which precedes the Second Coming of Christ.
Notice how the Church has nothing to do with the Old Testament. It is a completely different redemptive program from Israel’s. God only begins to deal with Israel after the Church is raptured from the earth. Dispensationalists charge, therefore, that Replacement Theology rids Israel of any future in God’s redemptive plan in favour of the Church.
So, the question we will examine in this article is: did the Church replace Israel? Well, I will cut to the chase. No. We do not hold that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s redemptive plan. We have to be careful now, however, to carefully define what we mean by “Israel”, Church, replacement, etc. We need to examine the scriptures to find how the Bible defines Israel and whether it allows for the charge of Replacement Theology. One of the key things to consider, therefore, is that Covenant Theology actually believes that the “Church” (quhal in Hebrew translated as ekklesia in the Greek Septuagint and then used in New Testament) existed in the Old Testament. The word translated as Church literally means “assembly” or “called out ones”. Some English translations before the King James actually translated ekklesia as “congregation” or “assembly”. So, the “called out ones” are part of the universal Church in all ages (one might even say ‘dispensations’). Even though something special happened (discontinuity between covenants) at Sinai where God covenanted with a specific group of people, John Frame explains that
as a community of people worshipping God, the church goes back to the garden of Eden. After the fall, Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord, so then, too, there was the existence of a worshipping community. Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, had a son named Enosh. And Scripture tells us that “at that time [the time of Seth and Enosh] people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen. 4:26). So there has always been a community of people on the earth worshiping the true God.
The Church is not a new people of God unknown in the Old Testament. It has existed from the beginning because God has had one purpose in his Covenant of Grace (Gen. 3:15) throughout redemptive history.
The New Testament Church and the New Covenant have fulfilled the promises made to Abraham and his Seed. The Church as the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) has fulfilled the promises made in the Old Covenant to the Old Testament Church. There was an invisible church in the Old Covenant that was made up of the truly saved by faith; the way Abraham was justified by faith (Rom. 4). There were others in Israel who were part of the covenant in a visible way but were not part of the invisible Church. The New Covenant is a better covenant because the promises are expanded and the truths therein are made explicit and visible. Covenant Theology does not hold that there is no future for national Israel. It holds that their future was always supposed to be in the New (and better) Covenant with Christ. The question is then: “how can the Church replace itself”? Something was superseded, but it was not one people of God with another. It is one covenant with God’s people with another covenant with God’s people. If the Church is simply the elect of God in all ages, then it cannot replace itself.
Before we expand on some of these ideas, then, we must define our terms and see how the writers of scripture, particularly in the New Testament, speak about and define “Israel”. If we do not do this at the outset, things can get confusing and both sides begin to talk past each other. The confusion comes, I would argue, because many Dispensationalists do not differentiate between the ways the apostles define and use the designation “Israel”. To Paul, for instance, Israel could at different times refer to ethnic Jews, the land of Israel, or the true people of God. Keith Mathison uses an example from Charles Ryrie to illustrate how some Dispensationalists can fall into equivocation. Ryrie, in his book Basic Theology, attempts to distinguish the Church and Israel by stating that
the church stands distinct from Israel and did not begin until the Day of Pentecost, and this did not exist in the Old Testament period … The distinction between Israel and the church is verified by several facts. (1) In the New Testament natural Israel and Gentiles are contrasted after the church was clearly established (Acts 3:12, 4:8, 10; 5:21, 31, 35; 21:19). (2) Natural Israel and the church are clearly distinguished, showing that the church is not Israel (I Cor. 10:32). The apostles’ distinction would be meaningless if Israel were the same as the church. (3) Galatians 6:16 provides no clear proof that the church is equated with Israel.
Hopefully you see the glaring problem with this citation. The insertion of the term ‘natural’ by Ryrie muddies the argument and actually robs it of any of its Dispensational distinctiveness. This is a common source of confusion between the two systems. Covenant Theology does not deny that ‘natural’ (national, ethnic, unbelieving Jews) Israel is different from Gentile nations or is distinct from the Church. This is not the crux of the disagreement. Keith Mathison puts it this way:
not one of Ryrie’s three proofs actually make his point. He needs to demonstrate the distinction between Israel and the church in the sense that dispensationalism understands those terms. It does no good to prove a distinction that is generally accepted but irrelevant to the question at hand… The real point of disagreement centers on the relationship between believers in the church age and believers in other ages. Dispensationalism teaches that they are two distinct bodies. According to dispensationalism, believers who died prior to Pentecost are not part of the body of Christ, the church. Reformed theology teaches that the believers of all ages are part of the one body of Christ. This is the heart of the debate between dispensationalists and nondispensationalists. Is there one body of believers or are there two?
We are not taking issue with the difference between “natural” Israel and the church. Covenant Theology affirms this difference. Ethnic/national Israel is no different than any other nation; it is either in covenant with God or it is not. When arguing about “Replacement Theology” one should be careful to point out who we are saying is ‘replaced’. The Church in the New Covenant has fulfilled the promises made to the people of God (true Israel) in the Old. The Church has not replaced the nation of Israel but “true Israel” has been expanded to include Gentiles who have been grafted into the one root (Romans 11). There are not two bodies of believers, but one Church; one true Israel.
To whom then, was the Abrahamic covenant made? Was not descent from Abraham what made a person part of the covenant with God? Dispensationalism would have us believe that physical descent from Abraham is what makes one a partaker of the promises made to Abraham and that because of this the nation of Israel must be restored in distinction from the Church. The Bible tells us, however, that ethnic descent from Abraham was not the defining part of the Abrahamic covenant. Peter Leithart rightly points out that
right from the beginning, the covenant embraced many who were not in any way related to Abraham by blood. All the male members of Abraham’s household were circumcised (Genesis 17:12-14), and in a household that included 318 men of fighting age (Genesis 14:14), this must have been a sizable number of men – far more than the blood descendants of Abraham, who at the time included only Ishmael! When Israel came from Egypt, they came out as a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38) that included thousands of converted Egyptians who did not want to hang around Egypt after it had been nearly destroyed by plagues. It was never the case that “the family identity of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” was the foundation of the faith of Israel. That is perhaps the modern Jewish view, but it is not the view of the Bible… in fact descent from Abraham was never the criterion of covenantal identity. Within the covenant, those who are not blood descendants of Abraham have always outnumbered those who are.
Leithart points out that at the moment when the covenant was made with Abraham his blood relatives were vastly outnumbered. Other than the examples which Leithart gives above, one need only to look at the genealogy of Jesus to find Tamar, Rahab, Ruth. Esther 8:17 tells us that “in every province and in every city, wherever the king's command and his edict reached, there was gladness and joy among the Jews, a feast and a holiday. And many from the peoples of the country declared themselves Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen on them.” Even in the Old Testament, then, Abrahamic descent was not a prerequisite to be part of either the nation of Israel or the true Israel of God.
In Galatians, Paul speaks of the parameters of this Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). Paul points out to the Galatian believers in chapter three that they are justified the same way as Abraham; that is, by faith (v. 5-6). He then points out that physical descent does not matter when discerning the people of God. Paul commands the believers to
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).
If you have faith in Christ, you are the offspring of Abraham. Paul goes on to explain that Christ took the curse of the law upon himself “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (3:14).
Paul goes on in 3:16-29 and drives home the point that the Abrahamic covenant is for the spiritual descendants of Abraham. He explains that
the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise (v. 16-18).
The Abrahamic covenant was made to Abraham and his offspring. Paul tells us that it does not say “offsprings”. Some versions use the word “seed”. There is only one seed to which the Abrahamic Covenant was promised. That singular seed is Christ. There are not two peoples of God. God does not have a separate plan for the nation of Israel and the Church. God always had the same plan for his Church. Those who are in Christ, Abraham’s offspring, are “heirs according to the promise” (v.29). This is what Paul means when he says that “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 no male and 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” (v. 27-29). The promises of Israel came to Abraham 430 years before Sinai and this is why he can tell the Galatians that the shadows of the Mosaic ceremonial law are not required to be part of the Church.
That is also what he means in Ephesians when he tells Gentiles to
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 (2:12-16).
Gentiles have been brought into the commonwealth of Israel and to the covenant of promise by the blood of Christ and his New Covenant. God has made two peoples into one people of God by grafting the Gentiles into the one vine or olive tree of Christ; the true Israel (Romans 11:17-24). Dispensationalism, on the other hand, “demands two groups and repairs Paul’s broken down barrier by making of the one new man, two.” The mystery of the Gospel Paul mentions is Ephesians chapter three is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6). The Church is not plan B in God’s plan of redemption. The Church is Israel. The Church is believing Jews and Gentiles being grafted into the body of Christ. Just the way Abraham was grafted into Christ by faith, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Father Abraham had many sons, and they are those who are in Christ.
The writers of the New Testament both applied the characteristics of and the promises to national Israel to the New Testament Church. Does this mean that the Church has replaced Israel? How do we reconcile this? The answer is that the writers of the New Testament were making sure to differentiate between ethnic Israelites and the remnant Israel; the Israel of God. They held that the Church was a continuation or fruition of Israel; not a replacement. They did not hold that there are two separate peoples of God which are dealt with differently in redemptive history. Ken Gentry succinctly sums this point up when he says that “the New Testament-era Church is not a distinct body of people for a time, but a newly organized fulfillment of the old body for all time.” Christians are designated:
1) Jews (Rom. 2:28-29)
2) the circumcision (Phil. 3:3)
3) “the children” and “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7, 29)
4) “the Jerusalem which is above” and the “children of the promise” (Gal. 3:7, 29)
5) “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16)
6) “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1)
7) “the diaspora” (1 Peter 1:1)
8) “the temple of God” (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Eph. 2:21)
9) “stones” being built into a “spiritual house” (new temple) (1 Peter 2:5-9)
10) “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9-10; cf. Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:6)
11) “a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:10; Titus 2:14; cf. Deut. 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4)
These Old Testament designations are applied to the Church in the New Testament not because there is a replacement of the Church over Israel but because the Church is the true body of believers in both the Old and New Testaments. The Church does not replace “Israel” because the ethnic makeup of the Church has changed in the New Testament. As noted above, the nation of Israel was never about a particular ethnicity. Though uncommon, any Gentile could have been circumcised and become a full Jew. It was about God setting apart a people for Himself until the coming of the promised Seed.
This helpful diagram adapted from Keith Mathison’s book shows how the Church’s ethnic makeup has changed over redemptive history:
Notice how the Church and True Israel are the same body. In the Old Testament there was a visible national Israel but not every one of them were saved and part of the true Israel (Church). If you read the Old Testament you will quickly find out that the number of true Israel fluctuated throughout Israel’s history (as we saw with Elijah’s time above). At the exile God even declared that the descendants of Abraham became “not my people” (Hos. 1:8-9). During the Old Covenant only a small number of Gentiles were saved and could have become proselytes (ethnic Jews), or like Nebuchadnezzar, could have been a Gentile God-fearer. At the Day of Pentecost most believers in Christ were still ethnically Jewish (though a smaller number as most of Israel had rejected their Messiah). Gradually in the first century, especially after Paul’s ministry opens the Church to the Gentiles, the majority of true Israel becomes ethnically Gentile. The fact remains, however, as we will see in our discussion of Romans 11, that ethnic Jews will continue to be grafted back into true Israel as they put their faith in Christ.
The New Covenant is a disputed topic among Dispensationalists. Many hold that there are multiple New Covenants, one with Israel to be inaugurated in the future and another with the Church. Some of the old guard hold that the Church is in no way fulfilling the New Covenant and that it still awaits its inauguration when Israel is restored. The New Testament writers, however, applied the promises to Israel of the New Covenant to the Church. First, we have to remember that the land promises were already fulfilled typologically in the Old Testament. Joshua 24:43-45 says
thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers. And they took possession of it, and they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their fathers. Not one of all their enemies had withstood them, for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass.
The Land was given to Israel by Yahweh just as He had promised. They eventually gave up the land and went into exile because they broke covenant through their continual unfaithfulness.
Jesus teaches that the land promises of national Israel are expanded to include the entire earth. In Matthew 5:5 Jesus teaches that the “meek” shall inherit the earth. There is no mention of the prerequisite of being a descendant of Abraham to gain this inheritance. The Abrahamic land promises were always expected to be universalized. Like Adam and Eve were charged with expanding the Garden, so Israel would eventually expand the reign of God to the ends of the earth (Psalm 2:8, 72:17; Isa. 27:2-6, 54:2-3; Dan. 2:34-35, 44-45; Amos 9:11-12, 12:29, 18:14). The New Testament applies this expansion to Christ and His Church (Matt. 5:5; Romans 4:13, Heb. 11:8-16; Rev. 21:1-22:5). In Ephesians 1:13-14, Paul uses the Old Testament language of Israel’s land inheritance and applies it to the Church. He then applies the land promise of the fifth commandment to a largely Gentile congregation. The Old Covenant shadow that was the earthly Jerusalem is replaced by the heavenly “Jerusalem above” which is the “mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). Every time the Christian church gathers for worship in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:21-24) “they join with the host of the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ (Heb. 12:22). O Palmer Robertson has a warning for any in this age of fulfillment who would promote a
retrogression to the limited forms of the old covenant… Reality must not give way to shadow. By claiming the old covenant form of the promise of the land, the Jews of today may be forfeiting its greater new covenant fulfillment. Rather than playing the role of Jacob as heir apparent to the redemptive promises made to Abraham their father, they could be assuming the role of Esau by selling their birthright for a fleshly pot of porridge (Gen. 25:29-34; cf. Heb. 12:16).
Jesus establishes the New Covenant, promised to Israel, with His disciples at the Last Supper (Matt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:6-13; cf. Jer. 31:31). The book of Hebrews is full of passages which show that the Church is fulfilling the New Covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:6-13; 9:15; 10:14-18, 29; 12:22-24). Hebrews 8:6-13 quotes Jeremiah 31 and tells us that Jesus is the mediator of a new and better covenant (v. 6-7). Again, the New Testament writers did not stop applying these promises to Israel and replace it with the Church. The promises always applied to the true Israel. National Israel fulfilled them in a typological form, and they are realized and expanded through the Seed of Abraham, Christ, in the New Testament. Keith Mathison makes it clear that
the promises made to literal, physical Israelites were fulfilled by a literal, physical Israelite, Jesus the Messiah. He is the Seed of Abraham. What Dispensationalism fails to grasp is that though union with Christ, all who are His by faith have become members of His body. Therefore, all who are in Him by faith, whether Old Testament believers or New Testament believers, are coheirs of the promises and the covenants… though dispensationalists deny that the church can fulfill or is fulfilling promises made to the nation of Israel, Scripture teaches that Christians are coheirs of the promises made to Abraham and partakers of the new covenant. How is this possible? The answer is Jesus Christ. In Him all of God’s promises find their true fulfillment (2 Cor. 1:20). And the church, through union with Him, shares in these promises.
Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. He was the Messiah who came to be the true Israel and all those who are in Him share in those promises.
The New Testament Church inherits the promises of national Israel because they are a continuation of the true Israel. The Bible also uses adoption imagery to explain this process (Romans 8:14-17; Gal. 4:1-5). The Church is adopted by God in the New Covenant because it is accepted in Christ. G.K. Beale explains that
likewise, the church inherits the promises made to Israel because it has been “adopted” by God, and its members are legally “adopted sons” and represented by Jesus Christ, the true Israel. Any ethnic Israelites who believe in Jesus are also considered to be true Israel and part of the church, though it is not their bloodline that makes this so but rather their faith in Christ.
The New Testament reveals that it was never about Abrahamic blood but Abraham’s faith in the promise, and it being counted to him as righteousness. John Frame summarizes this point this way:
The Old Testament belongs to the Christian church. Jesus is the theme of the OT (Luke 24:13-35). OT saints such as Abraham are examples of the same faith that the NT speaks of (Rom. 4; Heb. 11), and they stand as witnesses to the life of faith. It is even the case that OT prophecies about Israel are fulfilled in the church. In Joel 2:28-32, the prophet says that God will pour out his spirit on Israel. In Acts 2:17-21, Peter says that God has fulfilled this prophecy by sending his Spirit to bring the first large number of converts into the Christian church. Similarly, compare Amos 9:11-12 with Acts 15:16-17, and Jeremiah 31:31-34 with Hebrews 8:8-12. Here and elsewhere, Scripture applies OT promises to the NT church.
The promises the national Israel are not done away with. They have been transformed and expanded in the New Covenant. The Old Covenant was not replaced; it was fulfilled (Matt. 5:17). There is of course discontinuity between the covenants, but it is the discontinuity which makes the New Covenant a better covenant. When Jews trust in Christ they will be brought back into true Israel and begin to receive the blessings of this better covenant.
We have to make the distinction, therefore, between national and true Israel. We make this distinction because the writers of the Bible make this distinction. In Romans 9 Paul talks about God’s sovereign choice in the election and the cutting off national Israel. To national Israel belonged “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (v. 4b-5a). They had all the advantages of the covenant. Yet when the Messiah came, they rejected Him, because they stumbled over the stumbling stone and did pursue God in faith (v.32). “But”, Paul explains, “it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (v.6-8). Here Paul makes the key distinction. He distinguishes between two “Israels”. He says that those who are descended from ‘Israel’ (Abraham, Isaac, and Israel’s ethnic descendants) are not necessarily part of ‘Israel’ (the elect people of God). This second Israel is the chosen of God; the elect in all ages; the body of Christ; the Church. Paul, then, tells those ‘natural’ Israelites who thought that the grounding of their acceptance by God was their ethnicity, traditions, or even their covenant that if they do not put their faith in Christ (“the promise”), they are not part of the ‘Israel of God’ (Gal. 6).
In chapter 11 Paul goes on to discuss whether or not national Israel’s rejection of the Messiah means that Jews will be cut off from the New Covenant. He says in verses 1-7:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God's reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.
Paul uses the example of Elijah to remind us of the “remnant principle”. This refers to the fact that God will always save a faithful remnant from among his covenant people. This is true, as with the case of Elijah, even through widespread unfaithfulness and apostasy. Elijah the prophet was in fact speaking against Israel because of their wickedness. God tells Elijah, however, that God has kept a remnant of faithful believers in Israel who still kept the Covenant (v. 4-5). Paul, then, applie this principle to the New Covenant. His point is to compare Elijah’s time and show how there is again a remnant in the midst of unfaithful Israel, chosen by grace, which would obtain the blessings of the New Covenant by grace. Notice that, just as in Elijah’s day, the rest of Israel was hardened and would be judged for their unfaithfulness.
The following section, Romans 11:11-36, is probably the most disputed passage between the two systems. This is also a difficult passage to interpret. This passage talks about how the gentiles are grafted into the one olive tree of Israel. Paul explains in verses 11-12 the reason why God has allowed the falling away of the Jewish people was so that “salvation would come to the gentiles” and that the Jews would then become “jealous” (v. 11) and some would be saved (v.14). Paul then uses the olive tree metaphor to warn the gentiles to continue in Christ. Read Paul’s analogy carefully:
but if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree (Romans 11:17-24).
The olive tree represents the people of God; Israel. Notice how the branches representing unbelieving Jews have been broken off for their unbelief (v. 19) and the believing gentiles have been grafted in.
This passage is reminiscent of Christ in Matthew 21:43. At this point in his ministry Jesus is being challenged by the representatives of the nation of Israel: the chief priests and the elders of the people (v. 23). Jesus tells two parables about how the nation of Israel will be judged for their unbelief and rejection of the Messiah. The culmination of the passage comes when Jesus tells these men that “therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone [the cornerstone of Christ] will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him (v. 43-44). Jesus tells Israel, through its representatives, that the kingdom of God of the Old Covenant would be taken away from them and given to another people. Israel would then be judged by the ‘cornerstone’ for their continued unbelief. The final judgement occurred when Jerusalem and its temple are destroyed in 70 AD (cf. Matt. 24).
Paul, then, explains this judgement upon his fellow ethnic Jews in Romans 11. The unbelievers will be broken off and another people grafted in to enjoy the benefits of the kingdom and covenant. Notice, however, that gentiles are also capable of being “cut off” (v. 22) if they are proud over their position and do not trust in Christ alone through faith. But that is not all Paul tells the gentiles. He also explains that ethnic Jews can also be grafted back into the true olive tree. The branches cut off can be restored if they trust in Christ (v. 23-24). Unbelieving Israel can be brought back into the Israel of God.
Verses 25 and 26 of Romans 11 are, to many, the crux of the debate. Here Paul says:
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.
Many bible scholars have interpreted this text in different ways. The usual Dispensational interpretation posits that Paul is talking about how the nation of Israel will be restored to their covenantal position after the tribulation during the earthly, millennial reign of Christ. Dispensationalists, take the word “until” to be a temporal phrase. The “fullness of the gentiles”, then, happens when the church age is complete and the seven-year tribulation begins. The “partial hardening of Israel” is then removed and God will again save the nation of Israel spiritually and physically at his second coming.
In his book The Israel of God, O. Palmer Robertson gives a fairly persuasive response to the Dispensational view. Robertson puts Romans 11:25-26 into its proper context of election and reprobation which Paul begins in Romans 9. He says that
The hardening refers not merely to hard-heartedness on the part of Israelites, but instead to the very mystery of election… Since hardening has always been part of God’s work of salvation, one should pause before asserting too quickly that it will cease. It ought to be noted that Romans 11:25 does not actually make this assertion. The text does not say, “Hardening shall cease in Israel.” Certainly the text is not declaring that the overarching principle of God’s election of some and hardening of others will someday have no application in Israel. Instead, the text affirms a continuation of hardening within Israel throughout the present age. God’s decrees of election and reprobation continue to work themselves out in history. As a sovereign distinction was made between the twins Jacob and Esau, so throughout the present age hardening will continue.
Robertson warns us to not make Paul say one thing about reprobation in hardening in one part of this section and another in this section when speaking about ethnic Israel.
He also points out that the word “until” has been misinterpreted by those who hold to a future restoration of ethnic Israel. Instead of meaning that the hardening of Israel will last “until” a certain point of time (the “fullness of the gentiles), Robertson shows that
the phrase rendered “until” (achris hou) is essentially terminative… The phrase brings matters “up to” a certain point or “until” a certain goal is reached. It does not itself determine the state of affairs after the termination. The subsequent circumstances can be learned only from the context.
In other words, the word “until” does not imply a new state of things after the “time of the gentiles” but a state of things (partial hardening of Israel) until the end of time. Robertson gives many other examples of passages which use this phrase in the same terminative way (Acts 22:4; Hebrews 4:12; 1 Corinthians 11:26; Matthew 24:38; 1 Corinthians 15:25). He states that
in the same manner [as the passages listed above], Romans 11:25 speaks of eschatological termination. Throughout the present age, until the final return of Christ, hardening will continue among part of Israel. Too often “until” has been understood as marking the beginning of a new state of things with regard to Israel. It has hardly been considered that “until” more naturally should be interpreted as reaching an eschatological termination point. The phrase implies not a new beginning after a termination, but the continuation of a circumstance until the end of time.
The word “until”, then, does not mean that the partial hardening of Israel will stop at some later point in history. It simply means that the reprobation that Paul has been describing in the last couple of chapters will continue until the end of time.
So, what about verse 26? How do we reconcile the fact that Paul says that all Israel will be saved? I believe that there are multiple valid interpretations of this text. To make an interpretation valid, however, it must fit into the context of the passage. As we pointed out earlier, the Apostle Paul had pointed out that the gentiles had been grafted into the olive tree of Israel. Any interpretation of verse 26 must fit with Paul’s explanation that saved Jews would be grafted back into the root, joining saved gentiles in the Israel of God. Any Dispensationalist who holds that this verse proves that God will one day restore Israel as a nation under the New Covenant (or under a second New Covenant), and/or that this involves all of Israel to be saved because of their ethnicity are not reading Paul in context. The church here is not replaced by Israel. Saved Jews are actually grafted back into the church; the body of Christ. There is only one way of salvation, one New Covenant, and one people of God.
In light of verses 11-24, there are two main views about the identity of the “all Israel” to be saved in verse 26. Many interpreters hold that it refers to all elect Jews who will come to Christ. Robertson’s view, however, is that “all Israel” “consists not of all elect Jews, but of all the elect of God, whether of Jewish or Gentile origin.” This is in keeping with the fact that Paul has already explained earlier in the chapter that the full number of the elect Gentiles are actually brought into Israel, been grafted into Christ, and “have become ‘Israelites’”. He notes that
it is in this context that “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 reaches its final definition. According to Paul, “Hardness has happened to part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in [to Israel], and in this manner all Israel shall be saved.” The full number that are the product of God’s electing grace, coming from both the Jewish and the Gentile communities, will constitute the final Israel of God. “All Israel”, then, consists of the entire body of God’s elect from among both Jews and Gentiles.”
Whether you take the passage to mean all believing Jews, or all believers in the Israel of God, you must take these two difficult verses in their broader context. All Israel will be saved. But to what does “all Israel” refer? I agree with O. Palmer Robertson that we should allow the Apostle Paul define that.
While Robertson’s exegesis is quite persuasive and representative of many non-Dispensational interpreters, we must remember that the postmillennial system leaves room for the salvation of national Israel. Earlier we noted that Covenant Theology does not dispute the difference between national Israel and the Church. The nation of Israel is no different than any other nation. Postmillennialism holds that all the nations of the world will one day be put under subjection to King Jesus (Psalm 110; 1 Corinthians 15:25) through the Great Commission (“make disciples of all nations”: Matthew 28:18-20). Under Postmillennialism this means that the nation of Israel is another nation that one day bow the knee to their King. In the older Puritan Postmillennialism, many held that the salvation of Israel would be the event when the millennial proper (“golden age”) would be ushered onto the earth.
Jonathan Edwards, for example, took the view that national Israel was going to be restored to the land. In his book Work of Redemption, he remarked that
Jewish infidelity shall be overthrown. However obstinate they have been now for above seventeen hundred years in their rejection of Christ, and however rare have been the instances of individual conversions, ever since the destruction of Jerusalem… yet, when this day comes, the thick vail that blinds their eyes shall be removed… and divine grace shall melt and renew their hard hearts… and then shall the house of Israel be saved… they shall flow together to the blessed Jesus, penitently, humbly, and joyfully owning him as their glorious King and only Saviour, and shall with all their hearts, as with one heart and voice, declare his praises unto other nations… Nothing is more certainty foretold than this national conversion of the Jews in Rom. Xi.
But, lest one get the idea that Edwards holds national Israel can separate from the Church he remarks that “they [national Israel] shall then be gathered into one fold together with the Gentiles; and so also shall the remains of the ten tribes, wherever they be”. Like other Puritans, Edwards believed that the Great Commission would eventually prevail by the power of the Spirit and that Jews would be finally provoked to jealously at the fullness of the Gentiles. They would then repent and be grafted back into the Church.
Israel’s salvation could simply mean, therefore that a massive majority of Jews will believe in Christ sometime in the future. Of course, this does not mean that they are brought in to Christ any other way than any other nation. Even if you hold that Romans 11:25-26 deals with some sort of restoration for the nation Israel you do not have to be a Dispensationalist. Many older Postmillennialists held to a form of restoration for national Israel. Whatever interpretation you follow, however, you must deal with the context of the passage. Paul speaks of Israel being grafted back into the one olive tree. Ethnic Israel, whether the promises of a restored nationhood in the Old Testament still apply to them or not, are to join the saved gentiles in the New Covenant. There is one people of God. The restoration of the nation of Israel does not mean that the Rapture is imminent or that God is getting ready to deal with ethnic Israel once again in any other covenantal way. It means that there is another nation to disciple and put under the feet of King Jesus.
The Church did not replace Israel. The term “Replacement Theology” only holds any water in a Dispensational pot. In other words, for this to be an accurate designation, Dispensationalists have to apply their own system’s presuppositions onto the other side. The problem is that covenant theologians do not hold that the Church is “another people of God separate from Israel”. They do not hold that the Church only began at Pentecost, or that the New Covenant is only applicable to ethnic Jews as this article has attempted to demonstrate from the scriptures. And on top of all this, postmillennialists do not hold that God is necessarily done with national Israel. So, there was no replacement made. Fulfillment, yes. Replacement? Only if it means replacing the unsaved with the saved; the old with the new; the shadows with the reality; the unfaithful branches with the faithful. There is only one olive tree after all. Yes, the gardener removed the unfaithful branches and grafts in others as they believe. But he grafted them into the same root He has always and will always grow from garden to restoration.
 Charles C. Ryrie, The Basis of the Premillennial Faith (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers Inc., 1953), 136. Available online at http://bartimaeus.us/pub_dom/premille.html.  Some even charge that this theology has caused and will result in more antisemitism (as if anti-Semites are just looking for an opportunity to apply Augustine, Calvin, and Bavinck). One example is Renald E. Showers, The Coming Apocalypse: A Study of Replacement Theology vs. God's Faithfulness in the End-Times (Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 2009).  John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2013), 1017.  The Westminster Confession chapter 19 calls Israel in the Old Testament “the Church under age”.  Keith Mathison, Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1995), 22.  Ibid., 23.  Peter J. Leithart, A House for my Name: A Survey of the Old Testament (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2000), 23.  Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Draper: Apologetics Group Media, 2009), 169.  Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., House Divided: The Break-up of Dispensational Theology (Tyler: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), 169.  Ibid., 168-170.  Adapted from Mathison, Dispensationalism, 39-41.  On this topic see G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 750-772.  Ibid., 762.  Robertson, The Israel of God, 28.  Ibid., 17.  Ibid.  Ibid., 31.  Mathison, Dispensationalism, 28-29.  Ibid., 29.  Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 748.  Frame, Systematic Theology, 1019.  O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2000).  Ibid., 178.  Ibid., 179.  Ibid., 179-180.  Ibid., 180.  Ibid., 187.  Ibid., 188.  Ibid., 188.  See Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope: A Study in Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, (1971) 2009).  Jonathan Edwards, “A History of the Work of Redemption” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards Vol.1 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, (1974) 1998), 607.  Ibid.