Archives For July 2011

I see other bloggers do it all the time.

I hear good things about it.

It’s time to find out for myself.

I’m taking a HIATUS!

I’m taking a break from blogging for one month (August!). There are several reason for this break, at the top of which is simply that I need a break. I also have several things going on in my personal life right now. We’ve moved recently and certain quarters of our place is still in shambles to some extent. I have the honour of performing a baby dedication soon and I’ll be preaching soon after that. Plus I’ll be celebrating my fourth anniversary with my wife August 4th and we’ll be on vacation all that week. Furthermore my job is kicking into overdrive and will continue to demand high levels of attention from me (that’s what happens in marketing retail, I’m working in overdrive now to make sure our Christmas season happens). And that’s just scratching the surface.

I hope in September you’ll return and engage again. I love the dialogue and have learned so much from you (my regular visitors) already this year. Here are some of the topics I have lined up to write on in the Fall:

Open Theism I’m going to write a series of posts from someone who sits on the fence but is beginning to lean toward the Open Theist side. Of particular interest is the hypothesis that Arminius himself may have been open to an open view of God.
Interview with Ken Steward In an email correspondence awhile back Kenneth Stewart agreed to answer a few questions I have about his book, Ten Myths About Calvinism. I’m going to hit him up and see if he’s still game.
More on Hell My view on hell has subtly shifted since Love Wins hit the market. I’m going to share with you what I have taken for granted and where I am today on the subject.
Inclusive/Exclusive I want to take some time to explore this subject and see if I can make any confident affirmations one way or the other.
History of Scripture I’ll share some of my history (and scars) with KJV Only advocates which launched me many years ago into a study of how we got the bible.
Making things Light I’m also going to attempt to lighten things up a bit as things on this blog can feel pretty heavy. Not sure how I’ll accomplish that yet, but I’m going to try and work out a plan.
Book Reviews You can also expect more book reviews.

Be blessed and don’t forget to stop by September one where hopefully we’ll see if a little rejuvenation can go a long way towards great articles and conversations.

Major props go out to Arica and her husband Josh for doing such a fantastic job of capturing the feel and look I was going for in a banner (above).

manifesto photography

When I contacted Arica I explained that I was looking for something that communicates “let’s engage”, “let’s talk”, “come journey with me”, “I’m on an adventure”. I wanted to lighten the ton a bit and make Covenant of Love a place that would be comfortable to visit.

She caught my vision, came up with the location concept and, as I already said, captured precisely what I was going for.

Join me in this coffee shop, hear what I have to say and tell me what you think. Let’s have a casual conversation of sometimes heavy stuff, sometimes dumb stuff, sometimes funny stuff and sometimes personal stuff.

Check out Arica’s site or facebook page

 P.S. Can anybody guess what the book under my bible is (hint: click on the picture in the coffee shop to get a closer look, it’s a book about my favourite figure in Church History)

Consider this post an addendum to the series I just completed.

In my last post I explained how in light of the meta-narrative of the scriptures, God’s purpose and plan of Israel was to be the people of God – Jews and Gentiles. Thus I hold to two distinct ways in which the phrase “Israel” is employed throughout Paul’s writings. For example, in Romans 9-11 I believe that Paul has both Israel’s in mind, a nation of Israel which has been hardened (11:25) for the sake of the Gentiles, the second being shorthand for “Israelites” as in, individual Jews (11:1) or as in Jews and Gentiles together (cf. Galatians 6:16). So naturally I understand “in this way all Israel will be saved” (11:26) as being a reference to Jews and Gentiles since the phrase “in this way” points to the phrase directly before it, “Until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in”. But then I come to the verses immediately after verse 26 and 27 and I read this phrase:

“As regards the gospel, they are enemies of God for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”

The “they” seems to point to the “Israel” of verse 26 who will all be saved, and seems to distinguish them from the Gentiles which – if this reading is correct – would throw an ugly monkey wrench into the hypothesis that “Israel” in vs. 26 is referring to Jews and Gentiles.

So naturally when I read verses 28 and 29 it sounds like it is speaking of a salvific privilege not based on the gospel, but based on election and on the irrevocable calling of God. But what if this reading is slightly off center? Close, but off center. What if verses 28-29 refer back to verse 25 rather than 26? When read together (vss. 25-32) it seems to me that the flow of the passage centers on the “Israel” of verse 25 that has been hardened with the continued question (which Paul is answering throughout Romans 11) being, “will any more Israelites be saved or has the church become a Gentile institute?”[1] If that is true than verse 26 partially answers that question by placing Gentiles within “Israel” (“this is how “Israel” will be saved, when all of the Gentiles have been grafted in”) rather than placing Gentiles into a separate category. This reminds the Gentiles that there is no salvation outside of Israel.

And so if that is the case than vss. 28-32 build on that answer. The “they” is a reference to the nation of Israel, but not in a way that looks back to vs. 26 and imagines an ingathering of the nation at the end times. It is rather a reference to the nation of Israel (vs. 25) – or rather, to all Israelites who hailed from their forefathers as a result of the election of Abraham – that the offer of salvation stands for them too. It is not an offer in the future, but an offer in the present (vs. 31b, “they also may now receive mercy”).

To paraphrase the entire section in my own words the main thrusts from verses 25-32 reads (and here is the paradigm shift I suggest, which makes better sense in my opinion with the whole of Romans):

“Hey you Gentiles don’t be conceited in thinking that from here on out only Gentiles will be saved. Keep in mind that a part of Israel has been hardened for your sake, (to hold off judgment) until the fullness of the Gentiles have been grafted into the vine (with believing Jews). (Keep in mind that together you two make up the Israel of God), and so this is how all Israel will be saved. Remember that when the Gospel came – that is, the Messiah – that they rejected Him (thus resulting in their hardening) and became enemies of God. But don’t forget that God still loves them and will continue to call them to salvation (throughout this present age even now) because of God’s election of their forefathers. Because of their rejection of the Messiah judgment has been postponed allowing time for you Gentiles to be shown mercy. For this same reason – the reason being that they corporately rejected the Messiah – they too, individually as they put aside the law and accept the Messiah in this present age even now, will receive mercy. For God has handed everyone over to the law (that is, that they are all disobedient because all have fallen short of the glory of God), so that He may have mercy on all (who accept the Messiah.)”

If this understanding of Romans 11 is correct than I see no more major objections (within myself) as to who Paul is referring to in Romans 11:26. Not everyone will be convinced by this series, I suspect that if I came at this passage from the other perspective I too would tend to resist this (or any) paradigm shift, and so with respect I simply agree to disagree with them. Some may be convinced; at least enough to entertain this paradigm shift, to tease it out and work out its implications and in time it may be that they may change their mind. In any case, we each grow at a different pace. For my own part, I have been extremely blessed by this study of Romans 11 and am appreciative of Mike Birds series where he brings this subject up, albeit from the other perspective.

[1] N.T. Wright believes that this is the primary question Paul takes up in Romans 11; vss. 1-11, “will any Jews be saved?” vss. 12-24, “will any more Jews be saved?” and vss. 28-32, “Paul sees a constant steady flow of Jews being saved now, in this present age.” I follow Wright in this interpretation. Romans 11 is a polemic against anti-Semitism.

When I first began to read the scriptures different from how I was used to, in what I would later discover to be “Covenantal” theology, one of the earliest books to have a major impact on my understanding of “Israel” in the scriptures was by a Jewish Christian named Steve Wohlberg whose book was titled End Time Delusions.[1]

It was there that I learned that “Israel” had two designations throughout the scriptures; a national designation referring to the ethnic-people group and a spiritual designation referring to people who were faithful to God and his covenant of love. Ideally both designations referred to the same group of people, unfortunately we discover early on in their history that this ideal was not to be met. There was the broader national people-group whom God continued to try and draw back to himself so that they would fulfill their mission of first actually being His people and second of being the light to the world. Then there were the remnant, a select group of individuals who remained faithful to God. We might refer to this dynamic as an “Israel within Israel” and although the phrase was not yet in use, it seems clear that the concept was very much present that “not all Israel were Israel”.

Eventually I would dive into the writings of N.T. Wright who brought “filler” to this basic outline of the Biblical narrative. Soon it made no sense to me to speak of the nation of Israel as having a salvific privilege solely based on their national-ethnic identity, not even in terms of their ethnic relation to Abraham.[2] Having this radical shift in how I read the scriptures resulted in many familiar texts taking on fresh meaning and sometimes without having engaged a particular text to any great extent, I would take them for granted as we all do when we read and assume a passage from our bias. Romans 11:26 was one of those texts I came to understand had to refer to all the people of God, because to interpret it as being a reference to the nation of Israel seemed to break with the meta-narrative of scripture. If I am correct in the story I believe the scriptures to be telling – and of course I think I am – than it would be a mistake to think that Paul is making a prophetic statement about a future ingathering of the nation of Israel.

This study I’ve engaged with has caused me to take a closer look at Romans 11:26 with surprising results. I am less dogmatic about the text to some extent, now understanding the force of the arguments in favor of reading it in terms of national Israel. In fact after reading many of the arguments put forth for that perspective I truly did wonder if maybe there was room here to reconsider my position. After all, how could so many – almost all the works I consulted – interpret this passage in terms of Israel the nation and still be wrong? But then when reconsidering the arguments from the other perspective I was taken aback by how strong they were. So strong in fact, that I feel compelled to remain true to my first understanding that Romans 11:26 is a reference to the people of God total, and not to any special ethnic people group. And yet, to recapitulate what I said in conclusion of my last post, there remain some exegetical questions to the contrary, so while believing as I do I also acknowledge that more study needs to be done.

[1] Steve Wohlberg, End Time Delusions, see Section 4: Israel Delusions, particularly p.141-171

[2] This realization brought life to many of Jesus and John’s statements throughout the Gospels (cf. Matt 3:9; Luke 3:8; John 8:44 et al.)

The arguments put forth in favor of interpreting “Israel” in Romans 11:26 as having a national ethnic fulfillment are quite compelling. What possible serious arguments could be mustered to the contrary? As I looked into these other arguments I discovered that there remains good reason to suppose that Paul had “all the people of God” in mind when he wrote Romans 11:26.

Here are what I believe to be the five most compelling reasons to interpret Romans 11:26 as meaning “all the people of God”.

Argument #1: “Until” and “And so” means “Up to” and “In this way”

The phrase “and so” (of verse 26) does not mean, “And then”. It is not a temporal designation. Rather it means, “And in this way”[1] or “and in this manner”. And the word “until” (in verse 25)

“brings matters “up to” a certain point or “until” a certain goal is reached. It does not itself determine the state of affairs after the termination.”[2]

So the passage should be understood as reading thus: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel,[3] until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way[4]all Israel will be saved”. A couple of points need to be observed here:

  1. A hardening has happened to “part” of Israel. When read as suggested above nothing in the text suggests that “part” of Israel will be unhardened.[5] Only that a hardening of part of Israel will remain “until” the end when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.[6]
  2. In what manner does “in this manner” refer? It refers to the full number of the Gentiles coming in. To paraphrase, “this is how all of Israel will be saved: when the full number of the Gentiles have been grafted into the vine we can speak of “all Israel” being completely saved.”[7]

Argument #2: A program of two Israel’s

It is not true that when Paul speaks of Israel in Romans 9-11 he has in mind specifically the nation of Israel as an ethnic people group consistently as R.C. Sproul and others have suggested.[8] In fact in response an observation made in the last post where I observed, “It seems unfathomable that Paul would change his use of “Israel” without warning in the span of only two verses”, N.T. Wright rebuttles,

“it is impermissible to argue that ‘Israel’ cannot change its referent within the space of two verses, so that ‘Israel’ in v.25 must mean the same as ‘Israel’ in v.26: Paul actually began the whole section (9.6) with just such a programmatic distinction of two ‘Israels’, and throughout the letter (e.g. 2:25-9) as well as elsewhere (e.g. Philippians 3:2-11) he has systematically transferred the privileges and attributes of ‘Israel’ to the Messiah and his people.”[9]

Argument #3: Be cautious with a lone passage

Craig Keener is being generous when he writes that “this is one of the few New Testament passages that [Paul] had occasion to address [the national restoration of Israel].[10] Paul had strong hopes for the salvation of his kin[11] and it seems to me that given the subject matter of Galatians-Romans, if Paul truly believed that in the end there would be a great ingathering of the nation of Israel, he had many occasions to make that claim. Yet this is the only verse in Paul’s writings where Paul supposedly says as much. Would not a wiser approach be to take everything else Paul has said on the subject of Israel and the Church and then apply it to this passage rather than to suppose that here alone Paul is saying something else, especially since the passage clearly reads that “the way” all Israel is saved is by the full inclusion of the Gentiles being grafted in? (See argument #1 above)

Argument #4: Paul assumes the covenant throughout

While it’s true that Paul only uses the word “covenant” twice in Romans (and amazingly only ten times total in all of his writings), Larry Helyer observes,

“This should not, however, lead to the inference that the idea of a new covenant community is of little or no importance to him. On the contrary, there are numerous indications that Paul’s theology assumes this concept as a fundamental substructure.”[12]

The covenants are so foundational to Paul’s thinking that when he uses terms like “blessing”, “cursing”, “Abraham”, “Seed”, “law”, “faith” and so on, he is explicitly working within a covenantal construct. James Dunn points out the Paul’s use of “covenant” in relation to Israel is not to speak of two covenants – one for Christians and one for the nation of Israel – but to affirm the one covenant given to “Israel” of which believers, “Jew first but also Gentile, [are] being given share in the covenant relationship of God with Israel”.[13]

Argument #5: “All” means “all”, not “most”

Every scholar I consulted who comes from a covenantal perspective and yet interprets Romans 11:26 to be a referent to national ethnic Israel have said that “all” does not mean all, but rather “all” means most.[14] In Romans 9:26 I don’t see any exegetical reason to think that “all” means “most” and good exegetical reason to suppose that “all” means all.

In v.25, rather than saying that “Israel” has been blinded Paul uses the adjective that only “part” of Israel has been blinded. He does this because many Israelites are being saved – using himself as an example – he does not want to give his readers the impression that no Jews are being saved. Now if “most” of Israel will be saved in the end, shouldn’t we suppose that Paul would for the precise same reason specify that “most” of Israel will be saved? I think that you have to conclude either a) that every last Jew living at the end times will be saved or b) “all Israel” is a reference to all the people of God. It does not seem that c) – that “all” means “most” – is an exegetical option for the reason just given.[15]

Now the point is often made to back up the statement that “all” means “most” by citing first century Jewish literature where it was commonly held among the various Jewish sects that “Israel” is typically qualified to not include every single Jew. For example, the Qumran community believed that they were true “Israel” and in the rabbinic tradition someone was not true Israelite if they did not believe in the resurrection from the dead. But this argument actually works to my favor because in Paul we see that a true Israelite is qualified as someone who believed in Jesus the Messiah, i.e. the ecclesia made up of Jews and Gentiles, the “Israel of God”. It follows then that when Paul says that “all Israel will be saved” he has a qualified understanding of “Israel” in mind to mean “those who are in the Messiah”. In this way he thus say “all Israel will be saved” while holding to his conviction that “not all Israel are Israel” (Romans 9:6).

Conclusions: I’m honestly taken back by some of these arguments because they are stronger than I first supposed. Still there are other arguments in favor of the view that “all Israel” means national Israel which are lingering in the back of my mind, and other arguments still in favor of the view that “all Israel” means “all the people of God”. I’m going to have to let this one linger for a while as I weigh the arguments, and not be overly dogmatic about it one way or another, but in the next post I’m just going to conclude with a few thoughts about what I have learned through this study.

[1] See the ESV rendering, “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved”.

[2] O. Palmer Roberson, The Israel of God, p.179

[3] NRSV rendering: “upon part of Israel”

[4] ESV rendering: “and in this way”

[5] This is the very point that Roberson makes.

[6] If this rendering is correct than this is exactly opposite to what many people are saying about this passage today, for this passage explicitly states that not all Israel will be saved.

[7] Note, this is not replacement theology. When the full number of Gentiles are grafted into the vine, I assume that the vine includes believing Jews already. Since v.25 makes the point that only “part of Israel” has been hardened, the other part must be a part of the vine, and when the full number of Gentiles joins them we can then speak of “all Israel being saved”.

[8] R.C. Sproul: “If Paul is referring to spiritual Israel, he is departing from the way he uses the term Israel here and in the preceding three chapters. Ever since chapter 8 Paul has been talking about ethnic Israel.” See his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p.379. This is obviously not true, Romans 9:6.

[9] N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, p.250

[10] Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament, p.438

[11] In fact, Paul says as much in the very portion of Romans we are discussing (Romans 9:3). One wonders why Paul would be willing to “cut [himself] off from Christ” for the sake of a people he believes will be saved in the end anyways?

[12] Larry R. Helyer, The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology, p.394

[13] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, ©2005, p.444; unfortunately Dunn is mistaken in my mind when he writes, “the theme ‘covenant’ was not a central or major category within [Paul’s] own theologizing”. I don’t think Paul’s use of the word “covenant” should be determinative as to whether or not a covenant ‘theme’ is a central issue in Paul’s theologizing. When speaking of ‘themes’ one must look for elements within a subject – like ‘covenant’ – that is repeated thematically. Certainly covenantal themes are repeated thematically throughout Paul.

[14] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, p.193. Here Riddlebarger interprets “all” to mean “vast majority”, but still believes that it is a reference to the nation of Israel, though it might not apply to some within that nation.

[15] That doesn’t mean one cannot argue that “all” means “most”, only that when considering Paul’s parallel use of an adjective in v.25 it seems exegetically preferred to assume that if “all” meant “most” that Paul would have used an appropriate adjective here as well.

The more I look into Romans 11:26 the more I realize that I am like a fish swimming upstream. It is with a great deal of charity that Michael Bird writes, “several scholars try to take Rom 11:26… as referring to the consummated salvation of Jews and Gentiles.” citing only N.T. Wright, who happens to be one of my primary sources.[1] Furthermore, the arguments in favor of the view that Romans 11:26 is a reference to a great ingathering of Israel at the end times are very strong.

The following are five of what I believe to be the more compelling reasons to interpret “Israel” in Romans 11:26 as a reference to the nation.

Argument #1: Isn’t it obvious?

Michael Bird who just concluded a series very similar to this one waves off the view that Romans 11:26 could mean anything other than a reference to national Israel:

“It seems fairly clear from the wider context of Romans 9-11 (Rom 9:4, 6, 27, 31; 10:19, 21; 11:2, 11, 25), that Paul is looking ahead to the eschatological salvation of national Israel in the future.”

So just from reading the passage of Romans 9-11 it seems quite obvious that Paul believes in the national restoration of Israel in the future.

Argument #2: Collective apostasy requires collective recovery

Romans 11:11-12 speaks of Israel’s collective stumbling so that salvation may come to Gentiles. Verse 12 concludes with the statement, “how much more will their full inclusion mean!” It only makes sense that if a collective stumbling is in view then a collective recover of verse 26 must also be in view.[2]

Argument #3: Paul begins to us the word “covenant” in 9-11

James Dunn points out that the word “covenant” is not found anywhere in Romans 1-8, but appears (only twice) in Romans 9-11 in connection with “Israel”, and both times in reference to O.T. prophecies regarding their restoration.[3]

Argument #4: Romans 9-11 consistently uses “Israel” in the national sense

In Romans 11:25 Paul speaks of a hardening that has “in part happened to Israel” (NKJV)[4]. This is an obvious reference to “Israel” the nation. It seems unfathomable that Paul would change his use of “Israel” without warning in the span of only two verses. Furthermore, R. C. Sproul makes the point that when Paul uses the term “Israel” in this portion of Romans, that he consistently had the nation in mind.[5]

Argument #5: The O.T. promises Israel’s restoration

The Old Testament promises the restoration of Israel as a whole (Deut 4:25-31; 30:1-6) at which point God would usher in the age to come (e.g., Hosea 14:1-7; Joel 2:12-3:2). Paul seems to have shared this presupposition[6] and assumes it here in Romans 11:26.

Conclusion: As I consider the weight of some of these arguments I feel their force and understand why someone who otherwise holds to a covenantal approach to the scriptures might still see a future ingathering of the national ethnic people of Israel. It is important to observe that almost none of the scholars I have consulted take “all Israel” to mean “every last individual Israelite”,[7] neither have many of them commented on the mechanism of Israel’s salvation,[8] though they unanimously seem to agree that there is only one covenant, not two.

While these arguments are persuasive, they do not say all there is to say on the question of Israel in Romans 11:26. Some highly esteemed scholars have taken this passage to mean “all the people of God”. Next we’ll look at some of their main arguments before offering my concluding thoughts.

[1] Another that comes to mind is O Palmer Robertson.

[2] This is Geerhardus Vos’ argument in The Pauline Eschatology p.89: “the recovery from this must bear the same collective interpretation.”

[3] James D.G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul, ©2005, p.443-444

[4] NRSV: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel”

[5] R.C. Sproul notes, “If Paul is referring to spiritual Israel, he is departing from the way he uses the term Israel here and in the preceding three chapters. Ever since chapter 8 Paul has been talking about ethnic Israel.” See his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p.379.

[6] See Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament, p.437-438. Though he also notes: ‘although this is one of the few New Testament passages that had occasion to address it” and points out that “Jewish teachers commonly said that “all Israel will be saved,” but then went on to list which Israelites would not be saved.”

[7] “In the rabbinic teaching at m.Sanh. 10:1, “All Israel will have a share in the world to come,’ but exceptions then are listed, such as the person who denies ‘the resurrection of the dead’”. John Ruemann in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Whole Bible, p.1277.

[8] Ibid., Ruemann offers several different scholarly interpretations to that question.

  • Jeff Cook offers a stimulating “response” to Chan and Sprinkles new book, Erasing Hell.
  • While on the subject of Love Wins and Erasing Hell and God Wins (Mark Gailli’s book) my friend Craig provides many current discussion links and gives his thoughts on Erasing Hell (which are generally in line with my own here):

There aren’t many books on the topic of Hell, and most of those that do exist are pretty bad. So, Chan’s book stands out as a well stated and succinct defense. The bibliography and footnotes are quite good, as well.

Yes, the book has a Calvinistic approach. Yes, I have… ehem! issues with this topic. Yes, I am interested in any and all rebuttal. However, the authors should be commended for making such a solid contribution to the public debate on these issues

  • Michael Bird has written a six-part series on “The Church and Israel” (part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). It was his second post that inspired me to begin my own study more narrowly on Romans 11:26 and to explore the question: “does ‘Israel’ refer to the nation or the ‘whole people of God’?” (so far Part 1 and 2 with more to come.)

“Ever since the Christian religion was in the world, there have been many in every age and nation who were almost persuaded to be Christians. From my own experience, I know that it avails nothing before God to go only this far….

The first thing implied in being almost a Christian is simple heathen honesty.”

Wesley goes on to define what he calls “heathen honesty” as someone who knows that lying is wrong, they know the difference between justice and injustice, and they basically adhere to the Ten Commands. They also love other people and serve other people and go out of their way to help other people. These are “good people”.

“The second thing implied in being almost a Christian is having a form of godliness. This is the godliness which is prescribed in the gospel of Christ – having the outside of a real Christian.”

He goes on to describe this person as knowing Christian stuff and doing Christian things; not taking the Lord’s name in vain, not swearing, letting his “yes be yes” and his “no be no”, going to church, et cetera. He avoids gossip and backbiting and he “avoids all conversation which is not edifying and which grieves the Holy Spirit”. He goes on to describe the “almost Christian” as being in every way identical to the “altogether Christian” even to the point of awakening “those who are asleep spiritually. He attempts to lead those who are seeking God into an understanding of Jesus. His purpose is to get sinners to accept the forgiveness that is in Jesus.”

“But the almost Christian cannot be accused of having only the form and not the content of religion. He is serious about his worship. He pays attention to the services… The almost Christian also sets apart times for daily and family prayer and maintains a piety – seriousness of behavior….

The almost Christian has one more quality. He has sincerity. By sincerity, I mean a real inward principle of religion. It is from the inward principle that all of his actions come.”

When John Wesley describes the character of an “almost Christian” what he is really doing is describing his younger self. He writes,

“Is it possible that anyone living could go so far as this, and be only almost a Christian?… my answer is that I know from personal experience… that it is possible to go this far yet be but almost a Christian. I went this far for many years.”

So what is the difference between an “almost Christian” and an “altogether Christian” in Wesley’s mind?

  • Loving God Passionately: in describing this person John is describing someone who is ostentatiously loving towards God in every possible way.
  • Loving Others Wholeheartedly: in describing this person John is describing someone who loves “every person in the world“.
  • Has “Foundation-Faith”: This person must have faith in “Jesus as the Christ”.
  • Faith-Producing Repentance: This faith is not some “devilish faith”, that is, believing in Jesus as the devil and his demons believe. Rather this faith is a faith that produces repentance.
  • Right and True Faith: Faith is not just believing the Scriptures and the “historical doctrines” (to use Wesley’s language), but true faith is sure trust and confidence in God, in the “merits” of Christ, in forgiven sins and in reconciliation with God.

A summary of John’s sermon titled “The Almost Christian”.


Anti-Semitism has a long and ugly history within Christianity. It is a terrible and repulsive thing to hate any people-group for any reason. It may be an overstatement to say that the Apostolic church fought against anti-Semitic tendencies within its ranks,[1] but it certainly seems clear that a certain amount of tribalism soon developed between the Jews and the Gentiles, especially in Rome.

Before we go on in our study of Romans 11:26, it is important to lay some preliminary ground work:

1. It is crazy – in my opinion – to suggest that God has abandoned Israel, for that would amount to God abandoning the apostle Paul: “I say then, has God cast away His people [Israel]? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite” (Romans 11:1). This is an important point to make because many suppose that Covenantal theology amounts to Replacement theology.[2] We need to be able to affirm with the scriptures that there is now no difference between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28) without supposing that this somehow amounts to a disparity toward the Jewish people.

2. Paul, a Jew, is writing to a predominantly gentile church which had recently received an influx of returning Jewish Christians from exile.[3] Tensions were high. The program for the book of Romans is set in Romans 1:16-17, with particular emphasis on the phrase “for the Jew first and also for the Gentile” and “righteousness of God… from faith to faith”. The question the book of Romans seeks to address (in my opinion) is the question, “how can God be faithful to his covenant promise to Abraham if he has abandoned Abraham’s children, Israel?” In other words, God’s righteousness seems to be on trial, to which the answer Paul points to is that a true Israelite is one who has the faith of Abraham.[4] So right away the program has been set to see two concepts of “Israel”; one of ethnic decent, and one of faith (which, it is imperative to note, may just as well include a Jew as much as a gentile.)

3. One of the striking features I see throughout the New Testament, especially in the gospels, is a judgment and call to repentance of Israel for what has been termed their “meta-sin”: national or ethnic zeal, supposing that by being a descendent of Abraham they were automatically “the people of God”.[5] The result is that Israel looked inward and consequentially they failed in their mission and purpose of existence, which was to be a light to the world.[6] (In many ways this problem persisted within the early Church.[7])

To summarize: on the right is the erroneous idea that “Israel” has been replaced by the “Church”. To the left is the erroneous idea that “Israel” holds a place of distinct privilege apart from gentiles, a privilege that is based on their nationalistic ethnocentric standing. And in the center stands Paul, wrestling – especially throughout Romans and Galatians – to counteract the lopsidedness of each. To suggest that “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 is a reference to all the people of God, Jew and gentile alike, no more hints at a hatred toward Jews as it would a hatred toward gentiles. The ground is even at the foot of the cross (which also happens to be the only way to a resurrected body).

To speak anachronistically, on the right is supersessionism, on the left is some form of dispensationalism. In the center is Paul’s covenant theology.

Next I’ll offer the exegetical arguments put forth in favour of interpreting “Israel” in Romans 11:26 as being a reference to the national ethnic people-group, after which I’ll look at the counter-arguments and then offer some concluding thoughts.

[1] Anti-Semitism is defined as a “hatred” toward the Jewish people, and I don’t think it can be shown that in the first century gentile Christians hated Jews. A century or two down the road anti-Semitism clearly became a black spot in our history.

[2] See for example “Israel and the Church: The Origins and Effects of Replacement Theology” by Ronald Diprose. Sadly, Diprose makes the categorical mistake of equating Replacement Theology with Covenantal Theology, and this led to John MacArthur’s embarrassing lecture titled, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is an Premillennialist”, by which MacArthur means Dispensationalist.

[3] See James Dunn’s introduction to his commentary on the book of Romans.

[4] See Romans 4

[5] Cf. Matthew 3:9-10, Luke 16:24, John 8:39-47, Galatians 3:29 et al.

[6] For a full discussion of this see N.T. Wright, JVP p.417-19, 449-50, “Jesus’ teaching… was aimed precisely at telling Israel to repent of – her militaristic nationalism… [the Messiah’s destiny was to affirm] the destiny of Israel as the bringer of light to the world, not as one who would crush the world with military zeal.” P.50

[7] Timothy Gombis in July’s edition of Christianity Today, p.48

Christians have long debated the nature of “Israel” in Biblical and historical theology. Those who interpret the scriptures through the lens of the covenants often take “Israel” to denote the spiritual people of God[1] whereas those who interpret the scriptures through the lens of dispensations often take “Israel” to mean the physical descendents of Abraham making up a national, ethnic people-group.[2]

Amidst the debate sooner or later Romans 11:26 is brought up and many covenantalists who insist on maintaining no distinction between “Israel” and “the church” everywhere else, will abandon this basic covenantal tenant by affirming a core dispensational belief that in the end “all Israel [i.e. national, ethnic Israel] will be saved”. Three examples should suffice.

Geerhardus Vos, who near as I can tell is a Covenantal Premillennialist,[3] writes,

“[a study of Romans 11:11-12] leave[s] no doubt that the general, national apostasy of Israel is referred to, and consequently the recovery from this must bear the same collective interpretation [for Romans 11:26].”[4]

Amillennialist Kim Riddlebarger writes,

“Once the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, God will bring the vast majority of ethnic Jews to faith in Christ. And this is the harbinger of the end of the age.”[5]

And finally Keith Mathison, a Postmillennialist, writes:

“By bringing salvation to the Gentiles, God will stir the hearts of Israel and they will one day recognize their Messiah.”[6]

These three examples, each from one of the three branches of Covenantal Theology, should suffice to make my point. That these theologians who insist on one people of God – contra Dispensationalism – turn from a covenantal reading of scripture at its very core in their interpretation of Romans 11:26. The whole covenantal narrative of scripture and the redemptive story depends upon the philosophical interpretation of “Israel” as being a reference to the spiritual people of God and of there only being one people, not two. While two “Israel’s” are conceived of in the New Testament,[7] the point of the distinction is to emphasize that God shows no ethnocentric favoritism. The covenantal meta-narrative depends on this distinction, and here’s why.

The story of the scriptures, of Creation-Fall-Redemption, is a story of a God who has chosen to make things right through covenants. He has chosen Abraham and established an unconditional covenant with him (Gen 15) in which God in essence says, “if what I promise does not come to pass, may what happened to these slaughtered animals happen to me”. But only two chapters’ later (Gen 17) conditions[8] are added to the covenant so that while God will unconditionally keep his promise to Abraham and his descendents the question becomes, who are Abrahams descendents? And as Paul would later put it, “not all Israel are Israel” (Rom 9); because Abraham’s descendents prove to be unfaithful and end up exiled from the presence of God (cf. Adam’s exile from the garden). What is God to do? He must find a “true Israelite indeed” whom he can keep his unconditional promise with. This is the principle of representation:[9] enters the Messiah. The Messiah is the true Israelite whose mission embodies the role of Israel[10] so that through his faithfulness God fulfills his part of the covenant.[11] The question again becomes, who is “in” Israel or who are the children of Abraham? The answer is: those who are of faith and are in the Messiah. (Michael Bird has recently summarized this narrative superbly in part 3 of his recent series “Church and Israel”; unfortunately, in part 2 of the series he concludes with this statement: “[Paul] still looks forward to the salvation of national Israel in the eschatological future (Rom 11:26).” How he reconciles his interpretation of this verse with the meta-narrative he outlines – which is in agreement with N.T. Wright in “Climax of the Covenant” – I do not know.)

So then to come to Romans 11:26 and all of a sudden suppose that Paul retracts everything else he has said about Israel not only throughout Romans but also in Galatians, Thessalonians and elsewhere, and suddenly begins to speak – and apparently only here and nowhere else – of a privileged people as a result of their special ethnic standing, despite the narrative the Apostle just outlined throughout the rest of Romans leading up to (perhaps climaxing with) Romans 11:26, seems irretrievably inconsistent to me.

So for the next few posts we’ll explore Romans 11:26 by presenting the exegetical arguments put forth for interpreting “Israel” in terms of an unprecedented ingathering of the national, ethnic people-group at the end times. We’ll then offer the exegetical counter-arguments put forth for interpreting “Israel” in terms of all the people of God, both Jews and Gentiles. Then I’ll offer some concluding remarks.

[1] O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, p.33 ff

[2] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p.46

[3] That is, he holds to historic premillennialism, not dispensational premillennialism. There’s a world of difference.

[4] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, p.89

[5] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism, p.193. Here Riddlebarger interprets “all” to mean “vast majority”, but still believes that it is a reference to the nation of Israel, though it might not apply to some within that nation.

[6] Keither A. Mathison, Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of hope, p.129

[7] Example, “Not all Israel are Israel”, “Israelite after the flesh” et cetera.

[8] Circumcision which was to be done “in faith” (see Deuteronomy)

[9] Isaiah 41-53

[10] See in particular the Gospel of Matthew

[11] Romans 5, Philippians 2

Having completed the book today’s thoughts will focus predominantly on chapter 6. For some thoughts on chapters 5 and 7 see my forthcoming final analysis of Erasing Hell.

You’ll recall from the promo video for this book that the apex of Chan’s worldview seems to be rooted in the whole “my ways are not your ways” argument. That God does things that we don’t understand because God is infinite and we are not. God knows things we do not. God is in control. We may not always like it. We may get frustrated with God for not filling us in on the details. But after studying all that God has revealed to us in his Word, we need to eventually come to a place where we can accept his revealed Word and trust that he is faithful.

This seems to be the main appeal Chan is making in chapter 6; and of course a good chunk of the chapter is rooted in an exposition of Romans 9:20-23. One thing I appreciated about his approach to this chapter was his emphasis on the “if” of “What if God…” in the start of vv. 22, he writes: Continue Reading…

N.T. Wright on contemporary worship music.

“I think now it is easier to write worship songs which are basically like teenage love songs, and there’s lots of worship songs which are about me and Jesus falling in love. And that’s fine, but as I’ve often said to teenagers, the point of falling in love is it’s like striking a match, which is a very exciting thing to do, in order then to light a candle with it. A candle is not as initially exciting as a match, but actually it’s a very beautiful thing, and if you look after it it’ll last a whole lot longer. And so what I want to see is Christians trying to develop must styles that grow out of and have the energy of exciting contemporary music but always looking for something which will sustain, which will last.”

Kevin DeYoung on Make Every Effort.

“As gospel Christians, we are not afraid of striving, fighting, and working. These are good Bible words. The gospel that frees us from self-justification also frees us for obedience. In fact, 1 Corinthians 6 and Galatians 5 and 1 John and Revelation 21 and a dozen other passages make clear that when we have no obedience to show for our gospel profession, our conduct shows we have not understood the gospel.”

Kurt Willems explains why he does not celebrate independence day.

SOCIAL MEDIA, NOT A FAB (Social Media has overtaken porn as the #1 activity on the web.

“Social Media isn’t a fad, it’s a fundamental shift in how we communicate.”

On January 27, 1767 John Wesley wrote:

Some thoughts occurred to my mind this morning concerning Christian perfection, and the manner and time of receiving it, which I believe may be useful to set down.

1. By perfection I mean the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions.

I do not include an impossibility of falling from it, either in part or in whole. Therefore, I retract several expressions in our Hymns, which partly express, partly imply, such an impossibility.

And I do not contend for the term sinless, though I do not object against it.

2. As to the manner. I believe this perfection is always wrought in the soul by a simple act of faith; consequently, in an instant. But I believe a gradual work, both preceding and following that instant.

3. As to the time. I believe this instant generally is the instant of death, the moment before the soul leaves the body. But I believe it may be ten, twenty, or forty years before.

I believe it is usually many years after justification; but that it may be within five years or five months after it, I know no conclusive argument to the contrary.

If it must be many years after justification, I would be glad to know how many. Pretium quotus arroget annus?[1]

And how many days or months, or even years, can any one allow to be between perfection and death? How far from justification must it be; and how near to death?

London, January 27, 1767[2]

John believed that it was possible to fall – even completely – from Christian perfection. He is agnostic regarding the concept of “sinless”. He believes that Christian perfection happens by faith “instantly” (the operative word) yet still affirms the lifelong process of sanctification. And he believes that it typically happens the moment before one dies, but may happen much early in a persons life, though always after they are justified.

[1] “How many years give sanction to our lives?”

[2] In a small tract titled “Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection” and added as an addendum to his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”, final addition of 1777.


In summary of chapter three, Chan and Sprinkle compare the gospel records of what Jesus had to say about hell with his Jewish contemporaries which they looked at in chapter two. What they discovered is that Jesus was in fundamental agreement with them:

  1. Hell is a place of punishment after judgement
  2. Hell is described with imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
  3. Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.

That last point is the most interesting. Which was it? Did Jesus affirm annihilation with many of his contemporaries, or never-ending punishment with most of his other contemporaries? Chan writes,

“The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty” (pg. 86).

Continue Reading…