How does Reformed theology view the future of Israel compared to dispensationalism?

Derek Thomas & Stephen Nichols
2 Min Read

THOMAS: Covenant theology addresses this very issue because it says that there is only one covenant of grace, which operates in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, the fulfillment in terms of the coming of Jesus is still anticipatory. From the ascension and Pentecost onwards, the fulfillment is in the reality of Christ the Messiah who has come.

Reformed theology has differed as to whether there is a future for ethnic Israel. John Calvin seemed to be on the side that there is not. He believed that Israel is the church, the church is Israel, and there is no special prophecy of a worldwide conversion of Jews. But John Murray, In his commentary on Romans 11:26, “And all Israel shall be saved,” saw that verse in terms of a future, large-scale conversion of ethnic Jews. I do not think Murray had any ideas that this conversion involved the nation of Israel or Palestine or the significance of 1948. However, the mission to the Jews, which included nineteenth-century pastor Robert Murray M'Cheyne, was very much founded on the view that “all Israel shall be saved” was a reference to ethnic Jews.

NICHOLS: There are three issues here, and we already talked about one: eschatology and the eschatological timeframe. The second is that there are two peoples of God, which ends up being two ways of salvation. This interpretation bifurcates the Testaments so that there is a sharp distinction between Israel and the church rather than an understanding of the one people of God. The third issue is just reading the Bible. Herein lies the fundamental problem with dispensationalism. It says that the parts that matter are the Epistles and that the parts we pick and choose from are the Gospels and the Old Testament. I think this is the real Achilles’ heel here. We can get hung up on the eschatological calendars and the differences, but we need to see that a dispensational theology and hermeneutic is not a healthy way to read the Bible.

THOMAS: When I did a course on eschatology at seminary under a postmillenialist, we had to study Charles Ryrie’s book on dispensationalism, which was all the rage. There are various kinds of dispensationalism, and some are way more complicated than others.

For me, Jesus’ words at Caesarea Philippi are absolutely foundational, that there is only one plan, and it is called “church.” It is not as though the disciples came to Jesus and said, “But Rabbi, it has been Israel for thousands of years. What is this new thing called ‘church?’” Jesus had not been preaching about “church” but “kingdom.” However, they instinctively understood what He said when He used the word “ekklesia.” I think they immediately associated it as something that sounded like the synagogue and, therefore, they could embed that directly back into the Old Testament because they were Jews. So, to me, Jesus’ words at Caesarea Philippi in Matthew 16 were the death knell of the bifurcation of the Testaments.

This is a transcript of Derek Thomas’ and Stephen Nichols’ answers given during our Blessed in Christ: Detroit 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email or message us on Facebook or Twitter.