A while back, I received an email from a woman who was wondering about this thing called “replacement theology.” One sermon her pastor had preached led her to think that her church supported replacement theology, but she felt that she wholeheartedly did not agree with it. She had been a lifelong member of that church and had been active there, including employment. I wanted to give her a quality response. It dawned on me, she probably isn’t the only one wondering about this question.
What Is Replacement Theology? Replacement Theology is the idea that in the Old Testament, Israel was God’s chosen people. But now, the church has replaced the role of Israel and Israel is no longer God’s people.
In this blog, I am comparing the various views involving the current state of Israel and the church. I am answering the question, “Are the Jews still God’s people?” by first explaining replacement theology. Then comparing it to dispensationalism and covenant theology.
Definition and Viewpoints
By stating the definition and reasons for the different viewpoints, we can uncover what best fits with scriptural evidence. Each view has its own set of reasons that may at first sound liable. However, we must look deeper than just the surface to discover which theology is based most closely on scripture.
First, the term “replacement theology” isn’t exactly the right term. It isn’t precisely theologically accurate. It was meant as a pejorative term, leveled at non-dispensationalists by the proponents of dispensationalism. Rather than “replacement theology” I much prefer the term “covenant theology” or “expanded theology” (maybe). But I’ll use the phrase replacement theology here at first, just to avoid confusion.
In essence, replacement theology is the idea that God has a special relationship with the church. Anyone who is a Christian, who puts their faith in Christ, is a part of the church. Instead of the Israelites being God’s chosen people, replacement theology believes that the church now has the position, standing, and role that Israel once had. God now has His hand of grace on the church and a certain relationship with the church. Of course, Christians are all over the world, not just in one country.
Dispensationalists claim that the Jews are still God’s people. That the modern state of Israel has the right to claim the Old Testament promises. Most dispensationalists would say that if a Jewish person becomes a Christian, that individual could exist in both groups, the church and ethnic Israel. The opposite of that is what people call replacement theology, that we the church have now replaced Israel. Israel is no longer God’s people. God only has one covenant and it is with the Christians. dispensationalists have labeled that replacement theology.
There are some churches that say “no, we reject replacement theology.” They are dispensationalists. They believe that Israel was God’s chosen people in the Old Testament and that they still are today. Not all dispensationalists agree on every aspect of their theology, but the general consensus is that the Jews and Christians are Biblically distinct from each and treated uniquely from each other. According to this belief, Christians have a separate covenant and relationship with God than the Jews. This is a dispensational idea. Dispensationalism became a prominent theology in the late 19th century, and later became extremely popular in North America after World War I.
Dispensationalism states that the Israelites are still God’s chosen people and that He has a special relationship and covenant with them. This special covenant supposedly remains intact all the way through redemptive history, even if the Jews do not embrace the Messiah. Even though many of the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the blessings of the Old Testament covenants still remain with them, including the promise of the land of Israel, the physical land in the middle east known as the “Promised Land.”
The dispensationalists assert that God unconditionally blesses the modern people of Israel in a special way that is different than other countries and other ethnic peoples, because they are His chosen people. This view also asserts that God blesses any nation that supports the modern state of Israel. Therefore, many American Christians have been very active in politics, lobbying for the USA to ally with Israel, regardless of the circumstances or geopolitical climate.
Dispensationalists believe that Israel and the church are separate and distinct. They believe that replacing Israel with the church is wrong, hence where the word “replacement” came from.
The dispensationalists assert that God promised the nation of Israel many blessings but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in the nation was a believer. The blessings do not guarantee the Jews are saved. Dispensational theology asserts that the Jews are entitled to certain blessings, pursuant to the Old Testament prescriptions, but those blessings are only here on earth, in this life.
The dispensationalists do not claim that the promises and blessings bestowed upon Israel are salvific, meaning, those blessings do not guarantee eternal life. Salvation only comes through faith in Jesus, regardless of ethnic background. Dispensationalists do not believe that the Jews are saved by virtue of their ethnic background.
If you embrace dispensationalism, this means that you believe that a modern Jewish person could actually end up being in both covenants, if they were to choose to trust in Christ. These people are known as Messianic Jews. Under dispensational thought, the Messianic Jews would be a part of the Jewish covenant, by virtue of their ethnicity, and also in the Christian covenant, by virtue of their belief in Christ. The Jewish covenant would entitle them to certain blessings on earth. The Christian covenant guarantees that they will be rescued from eternal damnation.
Of course, the majority of Christians today do not come from Jewish backgrounds, therefore they can only ever be in one of the covenants.
However, there is a significant segment of Christians that reject dispensationalism. These Christians heavily rely on the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 9 and Romans 11. He states that not all of Israel was actual Israel, meaning that there are some members of the Israelite nation that are not actually a part of God’s covenant people. Paul’s words seem to allude to the idea that to be a part of “Israel” is not to be Jewish, in the ethnic sense, but to believe in the God of the Bible, regardless of your ethnic background. These are the Christians that are often accused on saying that the church has “replaced” Israel. These Christians embrace a framework that is now known as covenant theology.
Covenant theology states that God has one covenant with His people and that His people are those who believe, no matter their ethnic background. Proponents of covenant theology generally reject the dispensational distinction between the Jews and the church. Covenant theology espouses that God has one people, and one covenant with those people. Dispensationalism asserts that there are two peoples of God, each with its own covenant, therefore multiple covenants.
As I read and study the Scripture, I see that God originally had a covenant with Adam and Eve. They broke that covenant and thus the fall of mankind occurred. The poisoning of humanity started there and it has continued all the way up until today. Humans had a friendship with God, but when we sinned we broke that friendship. Now, every human is judged on his or her own actions, or own works. This is what many proponents of covenant theology call the “covenant of works.” Every human is born into this covenant, whether they realize it or not.
Despite this, God demonstrated great grace. God promised a savior. In Genesis 3, God promises that there would be a descendant from Eve that would “crush the head of the serpent” (cf. Genesis 3:15). God kept His promise. God the Father eventually sent us His own Son, Jesus, to be the savior of the world.
But even before Jesus came to earth, God made it possible for people to be forgiven of their sin. God proposed a new covenant, that if we believe in God, and believe what He says, then He promised to save us. Just as God proposed to Abraham, believe me, trust me, I will declared you righteous (cf. Genesis 12; Romans 4).
By ourselves, in our own works, we are unrighteous and sinful. We are not in right relationship with God. But, if we believe in God, and put our faith in God, then He will forgive us of our sin. Believe in God, He will declare you righteous. He will invite you to have the right relationship with Him again. Proponents of covenant theology call this the “covenant of grace.”
God made this promise all throughout the Old Testament, even before the establishment of Israel. He had this covenant with Abraham, then with Issac, and then with Jacob. Then through Jacob, He establishes the nation of Israel. Jacob and his children and their descendants become the children of Israel—the Jewish nation. They become the conduit of bringing the Messiah into the world.
It started with the Jewish people as a nation but in the New Testament God has expanded the invitation. Originally, the invitation was only available to the Jews. During the era of the Old Testament, any non-Jewish person who wanted to come to God had to, essentially, first become a Jew. Converting to the religion of the Jews meant becoming a Jew, and following all the expectations set upon the Jews (ie: circumcision, dietary laws, ceremonial expectations, etc.).
However, through Christ the covenant of grace is now expanded. Anyone can come into the covenant through faith in Christ, just as Abraham and the patriarchs had entered into covenant with God. The apostle Paul mentions Abraham in his letter to the Romans, basically saying that we are saved the same way Abraham was saved, through faith, and that the result is the same as well, being declared righteous. Through faith in the Messiah we are declared righteous and invited to have friendship with God.
In the Old Testament, they looked forward towards the Messiah, trusting that God would fulfill His promise to send a savior. Today, we look back at what God has already done, having sent the Messiah, and we trust in him. The proponents of covenant theology assert that the entrance into the covenant in both the Old and New Testaments were the same, simply looking to the Messiah for salvation.
In laymen’s terms, the Old Testament covenant was only for the Jews of the Old Testament era (or those that would conform to the Jewish religion), but now the covenant has been radically renovated, and greatly expanded. It now includes the Gentiles, as the apostle Paul proposes, the Gentiles have now been grafted into the covenant (cf. Romans 11:11-31).
That is why I prefer the term “expanded” theology, because the covenant of grace that was established in the Old Testament has now been expanded to include the Gentiles. It is no longer just for the Jews, but now for all peoples everywhere. The particular expectations of the Mosaic law have been been rendered obsolete (cf. Hebrews 8), and now entering into the covenant is predicated, not upon ethnic background, not on personal works, and not on religious ceremonies, but solely upon belief in the person of Christ.
As the apostle Paul boldly declares: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9 CSB).
Why It Matters
I think it’s easy to see that this greatly impacts and informs our politics and our approach to American-Israeli relations. Theology influences our political ideaology.
More importantly, the “covenant theology vs. dispensationalism” debate greatly impacts how we read the Old Testament. The Old Testament is packed with promises and themes. For whom are these promises? Who has right to lay claim to the Old Testament provisions? What lessons from the Old Testament apply to Christians? How do the themes of the Old Testament apply to us believers today?
The dispensationalists would contend that most of the Old Testament is really just for the Jews, and that Christians don’t have nearly as much of a right to bank on such guarantees. The founder of the dispensational movement, John Nelson Darby, once said that this church age is nothing more than a “parenthesis” in God’s story. To be fair, not all dispensationalists agree with Darby on this claim, however, generally speaking, dispensationalists lean much more towards saying that the Old Testament promises are still for the Jews. Many dispensationalists assert that many of the Old Testament promises and prophecies are mostly pointing towards a future Jewish kingdom on earth. The proponents of covenant theology would contend that we Christians, believers in Jesus Christ, are the heirs of most of the Old Testament promises and prophecies and provisions, regardless of our ethnic background.
Whether or not you embrace dispensationalism will also greatly impact your eschatology (theology of the “end times”). Your understanding of “Israel” will eventually greatly impact how you interpret chunks of the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Revelation, which have major ramifications on which eschatological framework will make the most sense to us. Your eschatology also has the potential to greatly impact your opinions about sociology, geopolitics, and missiology (theology and philosophy of how to do missions).
Ultimately, whatever you do with dispensationalism (and “replacement theology”) has significant impact on how you view the world.
I personally believe in covenant theology. My understanding is that the term “replacement theology” does not adequately describe the themes we see in Scripture. Those that disagree with covenant theology would assert that people like me are claiming that the church has “replaced” Israel, but I would actually contend that the church is the expansion of Israel, the fullness of Israel, not a replacement for Israel.
I would argue that the Gentiles have now been given access to enter into the true Israel, the “spiritual Israel” of God. In Genesis, God promised various blessings and provisions to Abraham and his offspring. However, not every person who is biologically descended from Abraham has the actual privilege of claiming these promises. As Jesus Himself stated, those who believe in the Messiah are the ones who are considered the children of Abraham (cf. John 8:34-41). They are the heirs of the Abrahamic promises.
The point is this, there is no replacement theology. God established His covenant with His people. It started before the nation of Israel. Then it was extended to Abraham. From him, the nation of Israel has formed. Finally, it has expanded to all the people of the world. God’s people are the ones who believe in Him. There is one group who all are grafted in: the descendants of Abraham, the Jews, and the Gentiles. We all now have commonwealth status (cf. Ephesians 3).
Paul states that there is no difference between Jew or Gentile. Now, it is one group, one covenant, one church, and one group of Christians, Jews, and Gentiles. Anyone who believes in Jesus and puts their faith in Him is declared righteous. Anyone who does not believe in God remains unrighteous because of their sin, judged by their own works.
With all that said, because the people of God are not one ethnic nation, not Israel, its the church, the church doesn’t own any rights to the land. Whenever we say things like, the people of Israel have the rights of the land, that is holding to a dispensational view. In my opinion, it is contrary to what I see in Galatians, Romans, Ephesians, and the Gospel of John. This is contrary to the message of the New Testament. There is no distinction between a Jew and a Gentile. God has one people.
Whenever we say, “these are God’s people” we are incorrect because the Israelites are not God’s people. Christians are God’s people. If the Israelites believe in Jesus then they become part of the group. Just because you are born Jewish doesn’t mean you have special privilege or blessing. I do not believe that someone who is born Jewish has an automatic spiritual blessing. No one inherits spiritual blessings. Spiritual blessings, forgiveness, and God’s favor only come by humbling yourself and trusting in Christ alone for salvation.