Continuing with another rejoinder to Sam Waldron’s book, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.
Sam’s book is his critique of John MacArthur’s 2007 Shepherd’s Conference message, Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist. In his message, John made the case that when the NT writers employed the term Israel, they meant the Jewish people as a distinct, ethnic group apart from the NT church. Never did the NT writers use the term Israel interchangeably with the term “church,” so that the NT church is now identified as a “New Israel” that has fulfilled the OT promises of a restored Israel.Sam spends a good portion of his written rebuttal explaining why John is mistaken about his view on Israel. Rather than understanding the word Israel strictly as a description of a literal, ethnic group distinct from the church, Sam believes there is ample biblical evidence to believe the word Israel, in specific contexts, yields a spiritual interpretation that clearly indicates a description of the NT church as a “new Israel.”
Two specific NT passages Sam believes justifies his re-definition of the term Israel are Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6. I interacted with Galatians 6:16 in my last rejoinder, I will deal with Romans 9:6 with this one.
Romans 9:6 states, But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect, for they are not all Israel who are Israel.
Sam takes Paul’s use of Israel here to mean Christ believing Jews who are truly Jews by faith. By implication, that means those Christ believing gentiles are, by their faith, also true Jews and thus the true Israel.
Now, before offering my remarks in response to Sam’s arguments, it may be helpful to have a brief summary of these three chapters. One of the better outlines is Harold Hoehner’s chapter, Israel in Romans 9-11, found in the book Israel: The Land and The People, p. 145-168.
Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 is important to grasp. Hoehner writes,
Up to this point, Paul has argued cogently that one has a right standing before God by simply trusting God’s work in Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary. As God’s covenant nation, why has Israel rejected God’s messiah … while many gentiles accepted this messiah … ? [Israel: The Land and the People, p. 146]
These three chapters explain this dilemma. Romans 9:1-29 considers the reason for Israel’s rejection of Christ. That is due to God’s electing purposes. In Romans 9:30-10:21, Paul explains why Israel is still culpable for their rejection of Christ. And then finally, in Romans 11:1-32, Paul explains why Israel’s rejection is not complete nor final and points out that their rejection is in God’s purposes for the salvation of the gentiles, but they will be saved when the fullness of the gentiles comes in.
Coming back to Sam’s rebuttal.
When John gave his message he stated that in scripture all the references to Israel do not mean anything else but ethnic Israel. The term is never used as another way of describing the NT church. He then mentions Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6 as the two passages amillennialists like Sam appeal to in order to try and convince us that the word “Israel” can be re-interpreted to identify the NT church. Sam is obviously of the persuasion that the term “Israel” in Romans 9:6 is spiritual code word for the NT church comprised of both believing Jews and gentiles. He argues his conviction along four points: the immediate context, the near context, the further context in Romans, and the wider context in the NT.
Under his first point, the immediate context, Sam concludes after considering Romans 9:1-8, 11-13, that God’s children are not merely born of the flesh, an ethnic identification by birth, but are born of the spirit, a spiritual identification by faith. That is because, as Paul notes, not all of Abraham’s children were his seed. Hence, gentiles being born of the spirit are by implication included in God’s Israel.
With the near context, Sam points out how in Romans 9:23-26, Paul quotes from Hosea in which the OT prophet proclaimed there will one day be a people who were never called God’s people who will be called His people. Paul’s application of this prophecy is obviously toward the gentiles who are now, on account of their faith in Christ, considered God’s people. Sam objects to the idea that there are two peoples of God: a Jewish people of God and a gentile people of God. There has only been one people of God and in the OT that “people” were called Israel.
Sam then argues for the further context in Romans 2:25-29 where Paul had earlier explained how there was no one, neither Jews nor gentiles, who could do anything to earn righteousness with God. Paul writes that it does not matter if a person is circumcised, a Jew outwardly as it were. What matters is the conformity to the law of God. Hence, those who obey the law whether circumcised or uncircumcised are truly Jews and that would include gentiles.
Then finally, Sam expands his argument out to entail the wider context of the NT and cites Galatians 4:26-29 which reads similarly to Romans 9:7 where Paul speaks of Abraham’s true children by faith. He then boldly proclaims how John’s view of Israel is explicitly refuted because Paul’s use of the title “children of promise” include both Jews and gentiles.
With that summary in mind, let me back up and offer a response to his argumentation.
First off, I believe it is rather plain that Sam is interpreting Romans 9:6 with a set of theological presuppositions already in place. As much as Sam mentions exegesis in his study, I don’t really see genuine exegesis taking place here. What I see is a Reformed Baptist who adheres to covenant theology reading his theology into the text. Sam may think his four main points of the immediate context, near context, wider context, etc. is exegesis, but it truly isn’t.
What has to be established by Sam, or anyone who may hold to his particular view of Israel and the church, is whether or not there is exegetical and grammatical warrant to conclude Paul’s use of Israel in Romans 9:6 is to be understood as being synonymous with the NT church. The question under scrutiny is whether or not the grammatical and exegetical data exists which provides the necessary information for the reader of Romans 9-11 to believe Paul is using OT Israel interchangeably with the NT church. I personally don’t believe an honest reader of the text could confidently conclude what Sam does about Roman 9:6, 7.
Are Sam’s four observations exegetically sustainable?
He first appeals to the immediate context of Romans 9:1-13 where Paul argues that not all of Abraham’s descendants received the promises given to him by God to make Abraham and his progeny a great nation. In other words, he had physical offspring who did not participate in the covenant God initiated with Abraham in Genesis 15. Paul names two examples, Ishmael, who was Abraham’s son by Hagar, and Esau, who was Abraham’s grandson by Isaac, and who did not receive the covenant promise God made with Abraham to make his name great on the earth. That is because of God’s electing grace in sovereignly choosing whom He will bless.
The reader will note that nothing Paul writes even suggests we can re-interpret the word Israel to now mean the NT church. Interestingly, Sam even concedes that point, yet attempts to defend his position in light of no evidence. He writes,
It must, therefore, be acknowledged that it is not Paul’s main point here to prove that Gentiles are now included in God’s Israel. … Paul’s main point is not that Gentile Christians are part of God’s Israel, but rather that there is a remnant among ethnic Israelites in which God’s promise is fulfilled. Yet, this is not quite the same as proving that the inclusion of Gentile Christians in God’s Israel is not implied. Even though something may not be the main point of a given statement, it may still be implied. [MMM, p. 51 (emphasis his)]
The word implied in that last sentence causes me to think “reading into the text.” Sam claims his implication is justified because the concept of God’s electing grace of Isaac and Jacob at least opens up the idea that gentiles elected by grace are included in the Israel of God, and the mighty promises of God brings forth the true seed of Abraham by a new birth. Though it certainly is true God’s election and supernatural grace begets salvation with a remnant of Israel and the gentiles, it is quite a stretch to now say we can re-read the word Israel as being equated with the NT church.
Sam then moves to the near context of Romans 9:23-26 where Paul quotes Hosea the prophet who proclaimed how God will one day call those people who were not His people “my people.” The prophecy speaks of the gentiles who will be brought to salvation and into a relationship with God. Sam concludes Hosea’s prophecy strongly suggests that because gentiles are now said to be the people of God, the title is another way of saying the Israel of God [MMM, 53].
He disparages John’s view as fallacious. That view being, Paul is simply saying on account of Christ’s work, the gentiles share in the blessings of the covenant with Israel without becoming a part of Israel. The problem with Sam’s dogmatic pronouncement against John’s “dispensationalism” as being fallacious is that he doesn’t really explain why John is wrong for holding the position he does. He just declares John is wrong for allegedly thinking there is a gentile people of God and an Jewish people of God, and that John’s view divides God’s people into camps. Again, I see his take on Paul’s use of Hosea’s prophecy as reading his theology into the text, for nothing in Hosea’s prophecy, or Paul’s citation of it, suggests I can redefine the term Israel in 9:6 as being the “new Israel,” the NT church.
With his last two points, the further context in Romans and the wider context of the NT, Sam draws us to Romans 2:25-29 and Galatians 4:26-29. In those two passages, Paul argues similarly as he did in Romans 9:6,7.
In Romans 2:25-29 he speaks of true Jews who have been more than just physically circumcised, but circumcised in heart, teaching that a true Jew is one who is one inwardly, rather than just physically. That of course means, according to Sam, if a gentile is circumcised of heart that makes him a true Jew also. With Galatians 4:26-29, he notes how Paul describes the Galatian Christians as being like Isaac, children of promise. That means they are, as gentiles, part of the true Israel born according to spirit. Sam proclaims those two passages serve to strengthen his assertion that Israel in Romans 9:6 can be used to describe the church.
In response, let me just mention the highly unusual appeal to passages way outside the context of the passage under discussion. When arguing for other important doctrines, like the doctrines of Grace, Reformed Baptists like Sam tend to jump on their opponents when they run from the plain teaching of a particular text and go to a verse or two outside the context of the passage being debated, perhaps in a far away, non-related epistle, so they can find support for their particular interpretation of that original passage. I sort of see Sam doing that here.
But be that as it may, I don’t think anyone is disputing Paul’s use of OT titles to describe the gentiles relationship with God by the work of Christ. Moreover, all would certainly agree Jews and gentiles are unified together in one body we call the church. However, it is a bit over reaching to claim Paul’s usage of those descriptions are meant to erase all the distinctions that distinguish the uniqueness of God’s people.
There is a salvific, spiritual unity that all of God’s people, both male and female, masters and slaves, and Jews and gentiles share; yet at the same time men are still men, women are women, masters are masters, slaves are slaves, and I would say Jews are still Jews and gentiles, gentiles. A person’s ethnicity no more supplies a salvific advantage as his or her sex or station in life. But, there is still a diversity in the unity of God’s people as one body of Christ, and that is something Sam seems to want to over look.
As much as he want to think he has offered a solid refutation of John’s initial assertion that no where in the NT do the writers of scripture mean anything other than Israel when they speak of Israel, I am unimpressed and remain unconvinced of his view. Nothing he has offered is compelling for the defense of his position, and in point of fact, what has been presented presupposes a lot of theological baggage a person has to bring to the book of Romans in order to agree with him.