(My Reluctant Departure from Dispensational Thinking)
When I recently told someone I was not a Dispensationalist it was immediately pointed out that I must believe in something called Replacement Theology. That was news to me. A few days later I heard a television preacher speak of this “heresy” called Replacement Theology, even going so far as to say that those who believe in such a thing are in danger of missing out on Eternity. Again this was news to me. So with Eternity at stake I thought it best to find out how much of a pickle I might be in by finding out what Replacement Theology was all about. It was not that I had not heard the term before, it is just that I had thought it was just another name for those who are adherents to Reformed or Covenant theology – theology rooted in the Protestant Reformation.
A bit of research revealed that “Replacement Theology” is the idea that the “Church” has replaced Israel and that God has no further use for the Israel of the Old Testament. Or put another way, the Church is now Israel. While perhaps there are those who believe such a thing, I cannot say that I have ever seen that in Reformed writings. What I have been exposed to in Reformed writings is the idea that the Church is now included in Israel as opposed to replacing it, something that the Dispensational system has a problem with.
It might be appropriate to review my personal history with Dispensationalism. For much of my Christian experience I was unknowingly Dispensational in my understanding. I thought Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” was just the way it was – the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Battle of Armageddon over in the Middle East and then the Millennium. Then about twenty-five years ago (I am old according to my grand-daughter) I read an actual theological book outlining the major tenants of Dispensationalism, putting a name to some of what I had believed all along. It was an exciting time because I thought I had come across the Holy Grail of bible interpretation! I lived with this “enlightened” understanding for some years before cracks in the system started to appear.
The biggest crack I was conflicted with in Dispensational thinking was the idea of two people of God being spoken of in the scriptures – Israel and the church – with Israel being destined for an earthly kingdom and the Church for a heavenly one. I was just not seeing this as I increasingly understood that everything we have and are as believers is found only in Christ. It also became apparent that Dispensationalism as a system of theology quickly falls apart if there are not two people of God.
While there are many ways to show from the Scriptures that there has always only been one people of God and that they exist only in Christ, Romans chapters 9 to 11 seems to be the clearest illustration of this. Here Paul speaks of how he understands the relationship between Israel and the church and to illustrate his understanding he uses the olive tree analogy:
“If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches. 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. 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.” (Rom 11:16-25 ESV)
The olive tree represents the one people of God. In chapter 9 of Romans Paul has explained that the Israel of God are not those who are of physical descent alone but only those who have faith also. Those of faith are the children of promise and the elect of God. They are the natural branches that remain on the olive tree whose root is Christ. The natural branches (Israel) that were broken off were broken off because of their unbelief. The wild branches (the Gentiles) grafted in were grafted in because of their faith. One faith for all and one olive tree. These chapters also indicate something very encouraging! Paul writes: “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” This is saying that there will yet be a harvest among the Jews.
In Galatians 3, when Paul writes that “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” he is not just referring to the Church because right after that he writes “and if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
While not necessarily proving anything, which is not the point of this writing anyway, there is a beautiful passage in Romans that really puts words to what the heart is saying:
“For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”” (Rom 10:11-13 ESV)
Does it really matter if we think of one people of God instead of two? Aside from the fact that Truth matters, how we understand the entirety of God’s message in the scriptures affects how we understand God and Jesus Christ, how we understand ourselves and others and how we see the world. The Jews originally missed King Jesus because they looked for a Messiah who would set up an earthly kingdom. They missed Him because He came to introduce a Kingdom not of this world and they missed it because their expectations were wrong even though their own Scriptures pointed to their fulfillment in Christ.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (Joh 5:39-40 ESV)
I wonder if Dispensationalists are unwittingly encouraging ethnic Israel to continue looking for an earthly kingdom, the very thing they were doing when they missed King Jesus the first time! They seem to have an incomplete understanding of who Jesus is and what He accomplished for His Father and for us.
The point of this writing is not to present an exhaustive critique of Dispensational thinking but rather to give a brief explanation of why I had to let it go.
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6 ESV)”
“For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” (2Co 1:20 ESV)