Who are the People of God?
A brief look at Dispensational and
by Kent Philpott
Christians generally hold one of two points of view regarding who are the people of God, and these views are in complete opposition to one another. The one view is that Israel, as the people of God, whether a nation or a distinct people group based on unknown criteria, is a permanent part of God’s plan. This doctrine is an integral aspect of Dispensational Theology, a theological system that is largely Arminian based.
The other view is that Israel, again either as a nation or a distinct people group based on unclear criteria, is replaced by the Church, the invisible Church,1 which is the plan of God from the beginning. Most, but not all, of those in the Reformed tradition adhere to Replacement Theology. My own position is primarily this, with the possibility of a place for Israel in the end of the age.
Though my rendition of things might not adequately present dispensational thought, which is quite nuanced and complicated, I will attempt to paint it with a broad brush stroke. I would reiterate that others than those holding to a Dispensational Theology also reject replacement theology, including some in the Reformed Tradition.
The initial concept of Dispensationalism is that Israel means the nation or people group descended genetically from Abraham and that it figures into God’s plan until the end of the age when the kingdom will be fully inaugurated. This is despite the presence of the Church. The visible or invisible Church does not replace Israel in the ultimate intentions of God. The Church and Israel are seen as two completely separate entities and are treated by God very differently from one another.
The promises made to the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – will be fulfilled literally and exactly, according to Dispensationalists. These promises are based on covenants or agreements that God made with the patriarchs, which will be fulfilled regardless of any other consideration. A prime example of these promises, in fact the original promise, is found in Genesis 12:1-3:
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. 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. 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.”
Whatever then happens to Israel during the course of its long history, and
completely independent of the establishment of the Church (see Matthew 16:13-20), God will deal with Israel apart from the Church.
Though there are variations held by Dispensationalists, the general scenario looks close to the following: There will be a rapture when believers are caught up into the air to be with Jesus. A seven year tribulation will follow, and many Jews will be converted, perhaps all of them. The temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt, Satan will unleash a new holocaust, the temple will be besieged by Gentile nations under the control of Satan, then Jesus’ Second Advent will occur, and the kingdom of God on earth will be established to last one thousand years. Following the thousand year reign on earth, the permanent kingdom of God in heaven will ensue. The main point is that Israel as a nation will be saved, saved in a way that is markedly different from our own age’s ordinary means of conversion that is dependent upon the proclamation of the Gospel.
A Reformed view or Replacement Theology
Many who embrace a Reformed Theology2 hold that the invisible Church replaces the nation of Israel as the people of God. The Church becomes the “Chosen People.” In addition, Israel is thought to no longer figure into any last day’s scenario as it does in Dispensationalism.
There are a number of passages that lend support to this argument. First, from the Old Testament, we find indication that the promises made to Abraham have in fact been fulfilled. After the conquest of Canaan through the leadership of Joshua, the land is divided up among the tribes of Israel. Then comes this concluding statement: “Thus the LORD gave to Israel all the land that he swore to give to their fathers” (Joshua 21:44). (also see Joshua 21:45) Joshua reiterates this as he is about to die:
“And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your
hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good
things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to
pass for you; not one of them has failed.” Joshua 23:14
Solomon actually ruled over an area, according to 1 Kings 4:20-21, that matched the area given by promise to the patriarchs earlier, prompting Solomon to declare: “Blessed be the LORD who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant” (1 Kings 8:56).
Then there are the statements found in the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem in 445 B.C., some thirteen years after Ezra did, and helped with the work of rebuilding the city. At a time when the Jews were assembled to confess their sin before God we find several verses that speak to the issue, which were part of a prayer:
“You found his [Abraham’s] heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous…And you gave them kingdoms and peoples and allotted to them every corner…You multiplied their children as the stars of heaven, and you brought them into the land that you had told their fathers to enter and possess. Nehemiah 9:8,22-23
The evidence indicates that God fulfilled His promises to Abraham and that nothing was left unfulfilled. And now to the New Testament.
In Romans 2:28-29, Paul points out that belonging to God depends not on circumcision, which is the sign of God’s covenant with His people Israel and is an outward and physical mark. Paul asserts that the new covenant with God is inward and spiritual. Thus, a Gentile who has trusted in Christ as Lord could be considered a “Jew.” The same point is made in Galatians 3:28-29:
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.
Again in Romans 9:6-8 we find the same concept:
But 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.”3 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.
Dispensationalism says the promises to Abraham have not been fulfilled but will be in the future while those holding to a Replacement Theology say the promises have been fulfilled. It appears as though the two points of view cannot be reconciled, logically anyway. However, there may be a middle course, all depending upon what Paul wrote in Romans chapter 11.
A compromise position?
First, I embrace the core tenet that the people of God are those whom He has chosen to salvation in Jesus Christ. Therefore, since the first advent of Christ, Israel as a nation, including all those who are Jews by genealogy, has not been the elect and called out people of God. Despite this, there has always been a remnant, those Jews who have been righteous in Christ according to the foreknowledge, predestination, and election work of God.
It is apparent, biblically speaking, that not all who were part of the nation of Israel actually belonged to the God of Israel. In the days of Elijah, for example, even when he thought he alone trusted in God, God told him He had seven thousand who honored Him4 (see 1 Kings 19). That there was a remnant, meaning there were those who were faithful to the LORD in the midst of the larger nation, indicates that in God’s eyes Israel is something other than the actual tribal or genetic descendents known as a nation.
How then does Israel figure into God’s plan, and what will be its role, if any, in the last days? In my opinion, Paul answers the question in Romans chapter eleven.
The English Standard Version of the Bible presents the heading for Romans 11 as “The Remnant of Israel,” thus describing in general the content or subject of that eleventh chapter according to the ESV editors. Paul asks in verse one, “Has God rejected his people?” His answer is, “By no means!” Paul then refers to his own conversion and goes on to speak of Elijah and the remnant in that day, as I noted above. The majority of Israel rejected the Messiah when He arrived the first time, which opened the door of faith for the inclusion of the Gentile peoples. But there was something more to come. Paul explained, “I want you to understand 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” (Romans 11:25-26).
A “partial hardening” meant that only some Jews refused to believe. All through the Christian era Jewish people have become believers in their Messiah. And such will be the case until the complete number of elect Gentiles have been called and justified.
Some who hold to a Replacement Theology interpret Romans 11:25-26 to mean that the Israel of “all Israel will be saved” merely means that when all the Gentiles elected are called into salvation and all who belong to God are safe in Christ, then all of the people of God – spiritual Israel – are saved, then the end of history and the second advent of Jesus occurs. There is yet lingering a question, because it is possible that the “Israel” of Romans 11:26 is the nation itself, the unbelieving nation.
If the Israel of Romans 11:26 is referencing the nation of Israel, however defined, then there will come a time, though when that occurs is not directly stated, when all the Gentiles who have been foreknown, predestined, and elected will have been called into the Body of Christ, the Church. Then something incredible and mysterious happens: “All Israel will be saved.”
Once again, it does seem that Paul has the people of the nation Israel in mind here, but since he does not define Israel in the immediately surrounding verses, it is useless to speculate too much about it. But however Israel is defined here, it is distinguished from Gentiles. It may be a remnant only or something else.
Does this saving portend a last great Pentecost? Will there be a great awakening poured out on Israel? Could there be a final calling to the remnant of the seed of Abraham? From my perspective I see this as a possibility. Paul yearned for his people the Jews to trust in their Messiah, and it is my desire as well that there would be a great outpouring of salvation to more Jewish people before the great Day of Judgment.
What about Jewish evangelism?
Do those in the Reformed tradition ignore mission and evangelism to Jewish people? A second question might be: Is it necessary to have a dispensational point of view to reach out to Jews with the Gospel?
The answer to both questions is, “NO.”
My favorite Bible verse is now and always has been Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Jesus’ ministry was to His own people first and foremost. Paul, the appointed apostle to the Gentiles, made it common practice to proclaim Jesus as Messiah to the Jew first. This is the biblical pattern – to the Jew first; and at no time in the history of the Church has this changed, nor will it, nor should it.
During the course of over four decades of ministry I have made it a point to proclaim Jesus as the Hope of Israel. Constantly and consistently I have joined my church in supporting Jewish outreach in a number of different ways. Though many expected my attitude to change, after moving to a reforming theological paradigm, my sense of mission and evangelism has not changed in any way. I was surprised to keep hearing it said that Calvinistic types were soft on evangelism and especially so in regard to Jews – a rather mystifying, not to mention false, accusation.
It is not necessary to hold to a dispensational theology to be actively engaged in Jewish evangelism, as is so often thought. In fact, it might well be asked instead, why would those who hold to a dispensational theology evangelize Jewish people, if they believe “all Israel will be saved” anyway? And I ask, Why would someone in the reforming tradition ignore evangelism of any kind to any group, since the whole point is that God calls us to Himself through the preaching of the Gospel?
What is abundantly clear to me is that I am a preacher of the Gospel, and I have never met a holder of Reformed doctrine who saw it any other way. Of course, one hears people say, “Well, since you Calvinists believe all questions of heaven and hell have been decided, then there is no real point to preaching Christ.” Perhaps there is a historical reason to say this, but I have definitely not found it to be true in practice.5 In fact, I have found people who are in the reformed tradition and who hold to all the doctrines of election to be very much evangelistically minded and actively practicing it.
Faith comes from hearing the message of Jesus Christ preached, according to Paul as found in Romans 10:17. This goes for both Jews and Gentiles. Isn’t this a more solid ground for outreach to Jewish people than to think, as many Dispensationalists do, that Jews will be saved during a thousand year millennium by merely being Jewish, a supposed salvation apart from personal faith in Christ?
1 The Invisible Church is known only to God and is composed of those who have been joined to it by the sovereign work of God in electing salvation. The visible Church is the human institution and is much broader and larger than the actual Church. “Many are called, but few are chosen” may be one way of looking at it.
4 The prophets of Israel frequently referred to a remnant, or a smaller portion of the nation, who were accounted as righteous. (See, as only a few examples, Isaiah 1:9,10:20, 11:11, 37:32; Jeremiah 6:9, 31:7, 23; Joel 2:32; Micah 2:12,7:18, among many others.) This is not dissimilar to the difference between the visible church and the invisible Church.
5 What is termed “hyper-Calvinism” describes a position of double predestination: God elects both to heaven and to hell. Many Calvinists see election as being a rescue of those who, due to their sinful rebellion, are condemned already. This position is still around, I suppose, but is largely discredited among contemporary Calvinists. Charles H. Spurgeon battled hyper-Calvinists in his day, and one of the most helpful books I have ever read is Iain Murray’s Spurgeon versus the Hyper-Calvinists, published by Banner of Truth Trust.
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