Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“What Is Replacement Theology?”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

In general, if someone asks whether you are a this-ist or a that-ist, the best answer would be no answer at all.  The question often implies that the two alternatives are the only options and, further, mistakenly treats both as basically legitimate beliefs.  Ever since the Garden humans have loved naming things (Ge 2.19-20), and so of course there’s a name for all manner of nonsense cooked up by mankind over the millennia.  It’s extremely presumptuous of us to treat our own childish notions with the same level of honor as we give to God’s diverse creation, but we do it anyway.  Especially when it comes to religion, men have created unique labels for just about every interpretation and opinion that’s ever been held.  Our first goal should be to shun all of these “commandments of men” (Mt 15.9), and instead direct our efforts toward keeping God’s commandments; but in service of that goal, it is useful to examine some of these man-made labels, to see whether the ideas behind them, at least, come from God. 

One such label is Replacement Theology, formerly called Supersessionism.  This is a model of God’s purpose for the church today, and it asserts that the church has replaced—or superseded—the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people.  This has implications on the “everlasting covenant” he made with Abraham (Ge 17.7) and Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (Ge 17.19) and Jacob (1Ch 16.17).  If it was to be “everlasting,” how could it come to end, and Israel be replaced by a bunch of Gentiles?  Well, as the author of Hebrews points out, even the Old Testament prophets pointed toward such a change:

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,

when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel

and with the house of Judah…”

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8.7-13)

How could it be any clearer?  The old covenant is obsolete, and with it vanishes the special place of Israel in God’s plan.  And yet…well, it didn’t actually say that second part, did it?  In fact, God’s prediction through the prophet Jeremiah had said the new covenant would be “with with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”  So, does that mean that, contrary to the “replacement” theory, in fact the New Covenant through Christ was only intended for the Jews?  That’s certainly what the early Jewish Christians generally thought!  And who can blame them?  Jesus told the Apostles,

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  (Matthew 10.5-7)

He used the same language to describe his own mission when a Gentile woman asked for his help, telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15.24).  After the church was established,

those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11.19)

It took a literal act of God to change this habit among the Apostles (see Ac 10-11).  Even after some years of Gentiles receiving the word and becoming Christians, there were Jewish Christians preaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Ac 15.1).  This was, of course, incorrect.  Let’s consider just one of the many Scriptures that establish this point:

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” (Romans 4.16-17)

The so-called “Judaizers” (we love to assign names, remember?) believed that salvation is from the Jews.  And they weren’t exactly wrong, since Jesus said, “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4.22).  Where they lost the thread was in mistakenly concluding that it was about  keeping the Law of Moses.  That law served its purpose—namely, it “imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Ga 3.22).  Now, that old way is “obsolete.”

So, replacement theology is correct then, right?  Well, if the theory is summed up as, Jews out, Gentiles in, then no.  It’s wrong.

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. (Romans 11.1-2)

God keeps his promises, and he promised to give Israel a special role in his plans—one that should never be forgotten.  After all, Jesus is a Jew, and so were all of his Apostles and the first several thousand Christians.  But God’s plan, from the beginning, was to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ep 2.16).  It’s not that the Jews have been replaced by the church; rather, the whole purpose of the nation of Israel was to become the church, and then bring salvation to the Gentiles, through Christ.  This was always the plan.  God told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12.3).

Jeremy Nettles