Is the church spiritual Israel?

Is there a dichotomy between the church and Israel in the New Testament? Are there two sets of promises in the Bible one delivered to Israel and the other given to the church? If so, do the promises directed originally to the remnant relate solely to Israel, or can they have meaning for the church as well?

Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

The doctrine of the church is of decisive importance in dispensationalism.

According to C. C. Ryrie, the church is "distinct from Israel and not a new spiritual Israel." 1 God has two different purposes and programs for Israel and the church "within His overall plan." Ryrie goes on to declare: "The Church is not fulfilling in any sense the promises to Israel. . . . The Church age is not seen in God's program for Israel. It is an intercalation." 2 The New Testament does not "enmesh them [God's promises to Israel] into the Church." 3 "And all this," Ryrie claims, "is built on an inductive study of the use of two words [Israel and church], not a scheme superimposed on the Bible." 4 His conclusion is: "Use of the words Israel and Church shows clearly that in the New Testament national Israel continues with her own promises and the Church is never equated with a so-called 'new Israel' but is carefully and continually distinguished as a separate work of God in this age." 5

Can these assertions be substantiated from the New Testament, using the grammatical-historical method of exegesis, as dispensationalism claims? What are the rules of such exegesis?

The role of the context

A basic principle of exegesis that is sometimes ignored in doctrinal constructions is the determining role of the context—allowing each text or term to receive its particular meaning from its own immediate context. The interpreter always faces the danger of superimposing the meaning of a term in one historical context upon the same term in another, different historical context of Holy Scripture. It is plain that when two texts seemingly contradict each other at face value, each needs to be understood from its own historical and literary context (for example, see Rom. 3:28 and James 2:24).

Thus, the meaning of the term Israel as used in Paul's letter to the Romans must be determined by the context of Romans, and his use of the same term in his letter to the Galatians must be understood by the context in Galatians. These historical contexts differ considerably and may not be ignored of denied for the sake of constructing doctrinal uniformity. That would be a forced, dogmatic exegesis, which is no longer open to the nuances of the Biblical contexts.

"Israel" in the context of Romans

It seems clear that in Romans 9:11 Paul is distinctly concerned with his kinsmen, the Jewish people, and that he indeed distinguishes between Israel (whether ethnic Israel outside the church or believing Jews) on the one hand and believing Gentiles within the church at Rome on the other. But why? Did he distinguish between Israel and the Gentiles on the principle that God has two kinds of people with two different eschatological promises and destinies? The internal evidence points to the contrary.

For example, Paul warns the two factions within the church at Rome (Jews and Gentiles) not to boast against each other about some alleged superiority or prerogative (see Rom. 11:18, 25; 12:3).6 Paul's differentiation of ethnic origins within the Christian faith-community did not lead him to distinguish between two different covenant promises for Israel and Gentiles. The very opposite is the case.

The apostle's burden is to recapture the original purpose of Israel's election on behalf of all nations—to be a blessing to all the families of the world by sharing with them the saving light of Israel's covenants and of her worship of the one and only Creator-Redeemer (see Isa. 42:1-10; 49:6).

Against the background of this plan of God, Paul reports the surprising fact that "Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith [in Messiah Jesus]; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it" (Rom. 9:30, 31). 7 To the apostle, the decisive test for standing in the proper covenant relation with God is to exercise faith in Christ as the Messiah of Israel (see verse 33). Such faith assures the covenant blessings. The Gentiles have no other covenant with God than God's covenant with Israel.

Paul's symbolic portrayal in Romans 11 of an engrafting of wild olive branches (Gentiles) into the one and only family tree (the Israel of God) vividly proclaims the basic unity and continuity of God's covenants with the patriarchs (the root) and Israel (the trunk) on the one hand and with the church of Christ on the other. Through faith in Christ, Gentiles are incorporated in the olive tree, the people of God, and share in the root of Abraham (see verse 18). The conclusion is not that God preferred them to Jews (see verse 19),  but as Paul says elsewhere to the Gentile Christians, "You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household" (Eph. 2:19).

The lesson of the parable of the one cultivated olive tree in Romans 11 is that the church of Christ lives from the root and the trunk of Old Testament Israel. Paul's specific point, however, is to reveal a divine "mystery" concerning natural Israel: "Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number [pleroma] of the Gentiles has come in. And so [houtos, in this way] all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:25, 26).

There seems to be almost unanimous agreement among commentators that Paul speaks here about ethnic Israel, and her way of salvation in an unbreakable connection with the salvation of the Gentiles. The apostle even presents an interaction between the salvation of "all Israel," or the "fullness" [pleroma] of Israel (verse 12) and the final and full ingathering of all Gentiles to Christ. His point is not one of an order of dispensations but the spiritual response to Christ of many (if not the majority) of Jews, a response that grows out of sincere envy to the clear manifestation of God's mercy in Christ to the Gentiles. "Just as you [Gentile Christians] who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience [Jewish rejection of Christ], so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may receive mercy as a result of God's mercy to you. For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (verses 30-32).

One can observe here a striking undulation of God's salvation: "God grants no mercy to Israel without the gentiles, but neither does he do so to the gentiles without Israel." 8

Enraptured by this amazing vision of God's faithfulness to His covenant promise in spite of Israel's faithlessness—God's call to Israel is "irrevocable" (verse 29)—Paul opens up a surprising perspective of the "mystery" of God's saving purpose for the human race as a whole: divine mercy flowed from Israel to the Gentiles in order that "all Israel" would be aroused to long for the same mercy the Gentiles have received. Israel has not fallen "beyond recovery. Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious" (verse 11).

The apostle reveals a strange interdependence between the full inflow of Gentiles into salvation (through the gos pel preaching) and the accepting of Christ by "all Israel." This very "interdependence" Paul calls a "mystery," even God's intention to bring natural Israel back to Himself and to the cultivated "olive tree" of election by grace by means of the (largely Gentile) church of Christ (faith is aroused through "envy"). It is of decisive importance to grasp this "mystery" because only in this interdependence of Israel and the church can the gospel of salvation—justification by grace through faith—be maintained. Herman Ridderbos enlarges upon this very point. He says, regarding Romans 11: "There is no question of another conversion than that which results from the preaching of the gospel in history (cf. chaps. 10:14ff-; 11:11, 14, 22) and from the activity presently coming to them from the believing Gentile world (chap. 11::31)." 9

How does dispensationalism connect this Pauline hope for ethnic Israel with the gospel preaching of the cross of Christ when its axiom states that "the glory of God is to be realized not only in salvation but also in the Jewish people"? 10 How will Israel be saved according to dispensational theology? Bruce Corley in his article "The Jews, the Future, and God (Romans 9-11)" presses this question further by asking: "Are we to wait for an apocalyptic miracle to happen seven years after the 'fulness of the Gentiles' has been raptured out of the world? Will the Jews come by preferential treatment or through justification by faith? The former option cuts the heart out of the Pauline gospel." 11

Indeed, in Romans 11:26 ("so") Paul emphasizes that "all Israel" will be saved in precisely the same way as all the Gentiles: by faith in Christ alone, by the confession from the heart that Jesus is the risen Lord of Israel (see chap. 10:9-13). He states explicitly God's irrevocable condition for Israel's salvation: "If they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again" (chap. 11:23). National Israel had largely come to claim God's covenant promises by trusting in her relation to father Abraham and therefore to expect God's eschatological blessings as an unconditional guarantee (see Matt. 3:7-9; John 8:33, 34).

Against this attitude of boasting in Israel's ethnic advantage (see Rom. 2:25- 29), the apostle declares: "For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (chap. 10:12, 13; cf. chap. 3:22- 24). Thus Paul removes every difference between Jew and Gentile before God.

Paul's cutting edge against natural Israel is to reveal that her attitude of self-righteousness, of making claims before God while rejecting the Messiah Himself and the gospel of Yahweh (see chap. 9:31- 10:4), is the very cause of her fall and rejection. But this does not mean that God has rejected His people Israel (see chap. 11:11, 15)!

Application of remnant theology

The apostle appeals to the well-known "remnant" promises of Israel's prophets to maintain his thesis that God's covenant promises have not failed,' although natural Israel, as a nation, did fail to accept the kingship of Messiah Jesus. "It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel" (chap. 9:6).

Thus, Paul continues the Old Testament distinction of a spiritual Israel within national Israel. The prophets called this spiritual Israel "the remnant," and it was to be the bearer of God's covenant promises. In the faithful remnant, Israel continued always as the people of God. God provided the remnant by His sovereign grace and thus showed that in every judgment on natural Israel He did not reject those of His people who trusted and obeyed Him. God's covenant promises can never be used as claims against Him outside of a living faith-obedience relationship to the Lord. The promise and faith belong inseparably together, as Paul states, "The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace" (chap. 4:16). Dispensationalism accepts this truth for the individual Israelite only, but not for national Israel. Ryrie comments on Romans 9:6 (with its distinction of Israel within Israel): "In the Romans passage Paul is reminding his readers that being an Israelite by natural birth does not assure one of the life and favor promised the believing Israelite who approached God by faith." 12

He concludes that in Paul's view a natural Israelite has no right to claim God's covenant promise of "life and favor" that God has assured in both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. Why not? Because faith and trust in the Lord and His Messiah are God's condition—not the basis—for receiving His blessings! However, this condition is safeguarded and maintained in Israel's remnant, chosen by God's sovereign will. Anders Nygren explains: "A 'remnant' is not just a group of separate individuals, taken out of a people doomed to overthrow; it is itself the chosen people, it is Israel in nuce, ... In the 'remnant' Israel lives on as the people of God. . . . God's free and sovereign grace decides who shall belong to the 'remnant.' . . . But according to God's election, the 'remnant' had been brought to faith in Christ. It comes before God with no claims; it knows it is wholly dependent on God's grace. Therefore, as the spiritual Israel, it now receives the fulfillment of the promise." 13

Paul does not operate with dispensationalism's distinction between individual and national Israel, in which the individual has only conditional promises and the nation has only unconditional promises within the same covenant. Paul continues the Hebrew prophets' theology of the faithful remnant. "Only the remnant will be saved" (chap. 9:27; citing Isa. 10:21- 23, where Israel's remnant returns "to the Mighty God").

Paul's message is that God is faithful to His word because He has again graciously provided a believing remnant of Israel through the creative power of His promise: "So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace" (Rom. 11:5).

The legitimate heirs of the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenants are not the unbelieving natural descendants of Abraham ("Israel after the flesh" [1 Cor. 10:18, K.J.V.]), but exclusively a spiritual Israel, the children of God. "In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring" (Rom. 9:8).

Just as Isaac was born not by the power of man but by the creative power of the gracious promise of God (see Gen. 18:10, 14), so the believing remnant of Israel, as the true people of God in Paul's time, had been brought into existence by the creative word of the preaching of Christ Jesus (see Rom. 10:17). The covenant blessings as a whole are promised, therefore, only to the Christ-believing Israel within the ethnic Israel. After all, if Israel's "root" (chap. 11:16) stands for Abraham, who believed in God when he was a Gentile and was justified before he was circumcised, then there is no ethnic ground or preference for membership in the people of God or remnant of Israel as Paul under stood it. 14 The name "Christians" (Acts 11:26) simply means "the Messianic people." .

The Israel "of the promise," the new community of faith in Christ, or the church, is not restricted to believing Jews. Paul states in Romans 9:24 that God called "us," the church of Christ (Messiah), "not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles." He supports this conclusion with an appeal to Hosea 2:23 and 1:10 (see Rom. 9:25, 26), where God made promises of acceptance to the ten apostate tribes of Israel who had virtually become like their heathen captors in the Assyrian exile. Thus Paul explicitly applies the eschatological fulfillment of Hosea's restoration promises for Israel to the church of Christ as a whole, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles.

We conclude that in Romans Paul relates the church and Israel in an unbreakable interrelationship. On the one hand, the church of Christ now occupies the place of unbelieving Israel (the lopped-off branches) and is therefore endowed with Israel's covenant blessings and responsibilities. On the other hand, because God's original redemptive intentions with Israel are irrevocable, the church is called to arouse natural Israel to envy God's mercy to the Gentiles.



1 C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Evanston, III: Moody Press, 1973), p. 154.

2 ————, The Basis of the Premillenniai Faith (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1954), p. 136.

3 ————, Dispensationalism Today, p. 96.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., p. 140.

6 W. D. Davies, "Paul and the People of Israel," New Testament Studies 24 (1978), 4-39, states, "We have already suggested that in Romans ix-xi Paul faced an emerging hostile attitude among Gentile Christians toward Jewish Christians and jews; that is, he faced anti-Judaism. This attitude he rejected."—Page 29.

7 All Bible texts, unless otherwise specified, are from The H.oly Bible: New International Version. Copyright © 1978 by the New York International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

8 H. N. Ridderbos, Paul An Outline of His Theology (GrandRapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 360.

9 Ibid., p. 358.

10 Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 104; cf. p. 155. (Italics supplied.)

11 B. Corley, in Southwestern Journal of Theology, 19:1 (1976), 42-56; quotation is from p. 51, note 44; cf. also G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 539; Ridderbos, op. tit., section 58.

12 Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, p. 138.

13 A. Nygren, Commentary on Romans (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), pp. 393, 394.

14 Miles Bourke, A Study of the Metaphor of the Olive Tree in Romans XI (Dissertation of the Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1947), pp. 80-111. Quoted by W. D. Davies (see note 6).

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Hans K. LaRondelle, Th.D., is professor of theology, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

September 1981

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Homosexuality: a Biblical perspective

Contemporary culture is forcing Christians to reconsider their historic theological understandings of homosexuality. At the editors' request, the author examines whether Scripture or human experience shall have the normative role.

Quality control for sermons

The busy pastor needs a simple way to evaluate his sermons. These six pointed questions, if applied, will guarantee at least the basic qualifications for a good sermon.

Caesorea Maritima: Herod's city

For more than a decade Loma Linda University has cosponsored the excavation of Caesarea, uncovering remains of a large Christian and Roman community. Here's a report by a member of the excavation team.

Shepherdess: File me under miscellaneous

If nothing is filed before something, then would order come before chaos? Or would it be the other way around? The life of this minister's wife may be unpredictable, but at least it's not boring!

Recommended Reading

These books approach human sexuality and homosexuality from the viewpoint of clinicians, counselors, and theologians. All are in print and will provide the reader with a broad basis for understanding.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All