Distinguishing Between Israel and the Church

Distinguishing things that differ is essential in the interpretation of Scripture and failure to do so results in doctrinal and practical consequences. This is true in all of Scripture. Church history will show that those who were cavilier concerning subtle and important theological differences have brought great harm to the Church. The failure to distinguish between justification and sanctification damages the doctrine of grace. The failure to distinguish between law and grace muddies our understanding of salvation by grace through faith alone. So too, the failure to distinguish Israel from the Church will lead to grave consequences. Reluctance to distinguish Israel from the Church has caused some to return to barren liturgical ritual, the unbiblical separation of the clergy and the laity, and the use of military might to accomplish the will of God. Oliver Cromwell(1599-1658) serves as an illustration of the necessity of right thinking in this area. Oliver Cromwell was a soldier and Puritan statesman, and later as Lord Protector, ruled Great Britain with an iron fist. His army, called “Ironsides”, never lost a battle and was greatly feared. They fought like no other army since the days of King David in Israel. They would enter battle singing psalms of David and reciting the Westminister Confession. As a father Cromwell was gentle with his children, but on the battlefield he was a ruthless warrior. In August, 1649, Cromwell and 12,000 soldiers arrived in Ireland. During the next ten years of bloodshed, it is estimated that about a third of the population was either killed or died of starvation. The majority of Roman Catholics who owned land had it taken away from them, and they were removed to the barren province of Connacht. Catholic boys and girls were shipped to Barbados and sold to the planters as slaves. The land taken from the Catholics by Cromwell was given to the Protestant soldiers who had taken part in the campaign. Before the rebellion in 1641, Catholics owned 59% of the land in Ireland. By the time Cromwell left in 1650, the proportion had shrunk to 22%. Many have wondered how Cromwell, as a Christian, could be so devoted to Christ on one hand, and at the same time be so cruel, violent, and ruthless in battle.

Concerning this paradox Christian Historian J. H. Merle D’Aubigne writes:

“The great man shared in the error which the Papacy had held during the Middle ages, and which most of the Reformers entertained during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He did not make a sufficient distinction between the old and the new covenant, between the Old and New Testament. The terrible judgments inflicted by God’s command on the unbelieving nations in the times of the judges and kings of Israel, appeared to him not only to authorize but to necessitate, similar judgments. He thought that, like Moses and Joshua, he might slay Balaam with the sword. It may be that he did not follow this out explicitly; but it was with this prejudice and under this impulse that he usually acted. This was wrong. The Jewish theocracy existed no longer; and its rules of conduct had been abolished with it. The precepts which ought to direct the life of a Christian are contained in our Savior’s Sermon on the Mount and in other discourses, as well as in the writings of the Apostles.” (1) Oliver Cromwell acted as he did because he failed to see vital distinctions between Israel and the Church. He was the Church’s King David, vanquishing the kingdom of its enemies. He was England’s Joshua fighting the adversaries of God. There are enormous practical consequences at stake when we fail to distinguish the differences between Israel of old and the New Testament Church.

The Reformed View of Israel and the Church

There are Christians today who resist broad distinctions between Israel and the Church. Today, as with its Puritan forefathers, Reformed theology teaches that Israel and the Church are not to be distinguished. Rather Israel and the Church, the two peoples of God, are both an organic, unified body under the headship of Christ. According to this view, to separate them is to do great theological harm to the teaching of the covenants, the unity of the Church and Israel, and the importance of the law. Reformed theology argues that the term Israel does not represent a national people, but the spiritual people of God. Therefore, the members of the Church are considered to be New Israel. Spiritual Israel of the Old Testament has now entered a new phase of her history and lives on as the Church. The prophecies concerning the nation of Israel are, for the most part, now applied to the Church. How do Reformed teachers justify their position from the Scriptures? Reformed writers will indeed agree that there are some differences between Israel and the Church, but they would counter that there are many unifying links between these two peoples of God. Scriptures such as “But he is a Jew which is one inwardly” (Rom. 2:29); and “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6) are used as support of this position. Reformed writers teach that natural, national Israel has been set aside by God and does not receive the promises of God. However, believing Israel, the faithful remnant of the Old Testament, beginning with Abraham, was the initial phase of what would eventually be called the “Church”. It is spiritual, or true Israel, and not National Israel, that is to be identified with the Church.

Reformed author Keith Mathison explains,

“We must first note that if “Israel” is defined as natural, national, or unbelieving Israel, then obviously “Israel” is not the church… If, however, we define “Israel” as true Israel or Old Testament believers, we discover a different relationship. There is an organic, living relationship between Old Testament believers and New Testament believers. They are one body joined together under one head, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (2)

An Examination of the Reformed View

Is it, indeed, true that Scripture considers only believing Israel to be true Israel? Does Scripture teach that only believing Israel is the true possessor of the covenant promises? Is this true Israel of the Old Testament the beginning of what is now the New Testament Church? Let us examine this Reformed view in light of the Word of God. All sincere students of Scripture will admit that there are similarities between Israel and the Church. But at the same time, they will also agree that there are great differences. The careful study of Scripture reveals that God has a plan for Israel, and this plan involves both the believing and unbelieving parts of the nation. Yes, God has always had a remnant of believers in Israel throughout history, but it must also be said that He has not cast away the unbelieving in Israel. How does Scripture define the composition of what is called Israel? Notice what Peter states while preaching to the Jews near Solomon’s porch in Jerusalem in Acts chapter three. “I know that ye through ignorance did it…Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, ‘And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed’” (Acts 3:17,25). Peter’s begins by saying you—the unbelieving Jewish people— although through ignorance, are responsible for the death of Christ. He then turns to the subject of who are the possessors of the promises of the covenant. Who are the “seed” through which all the nations would be blessed? Peter unequivocally states that it is those who crucified Christ, the unbelieving Israel, who are possessors of the covenant, who are “Israel”. This leads us to another consideration: who among the Jewish people are “elect Israel”, national Israel or believing Israel? Paul writes and explains to the Romans that it is unbelieving Israel, the “enemies of the gospel” who are elect. Paul writes, “As concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sakes; but as touching the election, they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Rom.11:28-29). God has not cast off the unbelieving in Israel. They are an integral part God’s divine plan for Israel. So it again is both the believing and unbelieving who are considered elect Israel. Finally, to whom does the term “Israel” apply? Is it the unbelieving Israel, national Israel, or “New Israel” — the Church? Paul answers this very question in Romans nine: “My brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises,...” (Rom. 9:3-5). In these verses Paul answers two questions: firstly, who is Israel, and secondly to whom belong the promises of God? Although the book of Romans was written many years after the formation of the church, yet Paul states that the adoption, the covenants, the promise still are the possession of Israel. Paul uses the present tense throughout this verse to first define an “Israelite”, and later to show who possesses the promises of God. He writes, “Who are Israelites….adoption, service to God… whose are the fathers…”. If the promises of God to Israel are now applied to the Church, one would expect that after 60 years New Testament writers would clearly set forth this fact in the Word of God. It seems, however, that the promises to Israel still apply to Israel and the definiton of “Israel” has not changed. Let none misunderstand. Scripture does not teach that literal, national Israel comes into rich blessing from God simply because they are Jews. Jesus said to the Jews, “Think not to say within yourselves we have Abraham to our father: For I say unto you God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham”...”If you were Abraham’s children you would do the works of Abraham” (Matt. 3:9, John 8:39). God has never given His promises to Israel merely because they were Israelites after the flesh. The fulfillment of the promises of God in the coming Kingdom are only for those who, through faith, have come to Christ. When and how will this take place? National Israel and believing Israel will both enter into the millennial promises of God at the appearing of Christ, when in the words of Paul, “So all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, there shall come a Deliverer and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11:26).

German theologian Erich Sauer explains,

Through the conversion of the Jews at the appearing of Messiah, the faith of the little remnant extends to the whole body. The literal Israel has thus become spiritual Israel. Abraham’s descendants according to the flesh have by conversion and regeneration become true sons of the patriarch, and thus at the same time, Israel according to the spirit (Gal.3:9). Thenceforth, the national is identical with the spiritual. The remnant has become the whole people, and the saved national people are at the same time both literal descendants of Abraham and also his spiritual seed. (3)

This is God’s divine program for Israel. As it was set forth in prophecy so will it be fulfilled in history. This plan is distinct from His program with the Church. Both programs find an important place in biblical history. May we never confuse Israel’s program with that of the Church, but instead lift our hearts in praise to God for them both.

Endnotes
(1) J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, The Protector: A Vindication, (New York, NY : Robert Carter, 1947), p. 106-107
(2) Keith Mathison, Dispensationalism : Wrongly Dividing the People of God, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1995), p. 38, 39
(3) Erich Sauer, Eternity to Eternity, (Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1979,)p. 160-161