Tuesday, June 4, 2019

One Covenant or Two?: Evaluating Supersessionism

Around the same time that I heard about Rick Wiles calling Ben Shapiro “an antichrist,” which I covered in a recent post, I was also reminded about the debate surrounding supersessionism. The two go together, so I felt it would be good to follow up here.

A Question of Covenants 

Supersessionism is the name for the idea that the covenant in Jesus Christ supersedes or replaces the one that existed with God’s people in the Old Testament. In some versions of it, this is extended to mean that Christians are the chosen people of God rather than the Jews. Wiles fits into that category. Jewish people, according to him, are uniquely evil for claiming they still have a connection to God’s promises. They lost everything when they conspired against the Messiah, and their very existence is an affront to the truth. Sadly, this view has been ascendant through most of the history of the church.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is what is known as dual-covenant theology. Among Christians, this is a relatively new belief and came about largely as a result of the Holocaust. It was too difficult to believe that Jews could be targeted for who they were and then that God would also not welcome them after suffering horrific and unjust deaths. Dual-covenant theology holds that this need not be the case. While Gentiles have a covenant with God through Christ, Jews are still in relationship with Him through the Mosaic law and its Talmudic interpretations, and through their heritage as the Children of Abraham. This view allows Christians to confirm the Lordship of Christ without condemning Jews for not embracing Him.

I must say that this concept has much more to commend it than the hatefulness of Rick Wiles and all other anti-Semites throughout history. It is compassionate and seeks to affirm Jewish identity. Sadly, speaking from a biblical perspective, it is not true. I’m being honest when I say I wish it was. But I am also being honest when I say it is a lie just as dangerous as hatred is.

The New Covenant

The problem is that, if you are going to affirm the words of Scripture, then you cannot argue two covenants are in effect. Or more accurately, that two covenants are in effect offering the same things. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary. It even starts in the Old Testament, with Jer. 31:31–34 as the ultimate example:

“Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt—my covenant that they broke even though I am their master”—the Lord’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration. “I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their iniquity and never again remember their sin.

But of course, it is the New Testament that makes this point explicitly. Heb. 8:7–13 quotes the preceding passage from Jeremiah in the midst of making the argument that the gospel has superseded the old covenant, ending with,

By saying “a new covenant,” [God] has declared that the first is obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old is about to pass away.

The Apostle Paul also explains this in his letters, saying in Rom. 1:16 that

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek.

There is no Jewish exclusion to remain under the old covenant now that the power of God has been revealed in Christ. As Jews, no one knew this better than Paul and the other apostles. He further reiterates the superiority of the new covenant in Gal. 3:19–4:5. According to these verses, the purpose of the Israelite law was not to save. It was to show the impossibility of establishing our righteousness before God, and to promise the coming of a Savior. That is true for Jew as much as for Gentile.

Then there are the words of Jesus Christ Himself. In Matt. 3:9, He said to a Jewish audience,

Don’t presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.

His meaning was that the old promises only take effect for those willing to live by their fulfillment, which is found in Him. And He furthers this idea in Matt. 26:26–28. This is the passage where He implements the ordinance of communion, serving as the symbol of His sacrificial death. And He created it from the very elements of the Passover, the highest festival in Judaism. This made it clear that His death was the consummation of everything the Passover represented, and served to complete and replace the old practice. That is why He says of the cup,

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Even the passage most often used in defense of dual-covenant theology is actually a statement of supersessionism. In Rom. 9–11, Paul goes to great lengths to show the importance of the Israelites. They are those through whom the promises of God came, they are those through whom Christ came, and they still have a place in the plan of God. But it is not automatic, and it is not through the old covenant. That is why he says in Rom. 9:6,

Now it is not as though the word of God has failed, because not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.

And in Rom. 10:3–4,

Since [the Jews] are ignorant of the righteousness of God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end [i.e., fulfillment] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

The descendants of Jacob are still the recipients of God’s blessing. But God’s blessing is found fully only in Christ. So, whether we like to hear it or not, “true” Israelites will only be those who accept Jesus as the Messiah. It is a precondition of eternal salvation. In fact, it is the only one.

Walking the Right Path

There’s no denying that comes across as harsh. It is easy enough to see how the Rick Wiles’s of the world have come to be throughout the centuries. They feel justified by these passages. They shouldn’t. Their supersessionism is a distortion of the truth because it leaves out the love God has always had for His people. They still have a special relationship with Him. Their very existence, in the face of all they have suffered through their history, is enough to prove that. The response to the new covenant should not be to rub their faces in it. It should be to invite them into it, just as we would anyone else.

That is why I have to bring it up, as much as it pains me. There are Jews and some Christians who say we should not evangelize to Jewish people. That is really the point of dual-covenant theology. At most, it is all right to spell out the distinctive features of our faith. But we should not offer them as an option. To do so is to assault the identity of Jewish people, at least according to these thinkers. Being a Christian means not being Jewish anymore. They do not want to believe God would ask that, and they are not willing to accept it.

That is where a part of the problem lies, though. I don’t think God asks that. The earliest Christians were Jewish, and they did not stop being Jewish because they accepted Jesus as the Son of God. They continued to celebrate many of their traditions. Those traditions took on a new form and lost their force, true enough. But Judaism was still a part of the fabric of who they were. It was not required of anyone, but it was also not forbidden of anyone so long as they remembered that fulfilling the old law could not save them.

So the charge that we are assaulting their identity should not be enough to stop us. We should celebrate their special relationship with God. We can encourage them to do so in a Christian way. But we also need to remind them that they have a higher identity, and that is what Christians are called to bear in mind. They are human. All of us are the children of Adam, whether we are the children of Israel or not. It is Adam’s children who need redemption, and that redemption only comes one way. Christ alone saves.

Everyone needs to hear that because everyone stands under the same condemnation. The universal problem has a universal solution. It also has particular implications. Each person is individually accountable to God. The group into which you are born does not matter. What others do to you does not matter. All that matters is how you respond to God’s offer of grace. The evil of others does not make you innocent of your own. It is the suffering of the Sinless One, the evil He endured for all of us, that makes us righteous before the Father. Nothing else can pay the price. It hurts to discuss this when considering Jewish people, but we have to remember that we are all part of this life. We all run the same risks. We all have the same needs.

If any Jewish people come this far, I appreciate you doing so. You heard me out. I cannot ask for more than that. I cannot demand anything. The difference I hope you can see between me and your enemies is that I do not hold you under a special condemnation, and I do not hate you. I say these things because I believe they are true for everyone, and because I know God loves you. He has loved you in a special way. I hope you will allow Him to bring that love to its completion. As it was for your ancestors, the choice to follow the Lord is yours today (Deut. 30:11–20; Ps. 95:7–11).

For Christian readers with Jewish friends, I know it is hardly any easier for you to hear this. But for whom is it easy? Are you more willing to see your agnostic acquaintances miss out on eternal life? Are you not bothered about the Muslim ones? Do you feel people raised in a cultural Christianity without ever making the decision to follow Christ are therefore on their own? I hope you are not so hateful as that. It is not loving to refuse to tell people the news that can save them. You are not sparing their feelings. You are condemning their souls. Each of us has a responsibility to share the gospel. You do not have to browbeat people with it, but you have to live it, and you have to speak it. Jewish people are not exempted from that. Praise God that they are not!

I do believe, then, that the gospel of Jesus Christ has superseded the Mosaic covenant. It cannot be denied. Scripture is far too clear for that, as any honest reading will admit. I cannot ignore the word of God. But that supersession is not an abandonment of one people. It is the glory of all. The divisions are broken down. “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Peace and unity are available now. We cannot make it our goal to hurt feelings. We cannot be ashamed of this message because of the risk of hurt feelings, either.

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  1. Well said. What I would like to know is, have you heard of a teaching that says that the two covenants are really one covenant. I t got raised the other day, much to my alarm. However, I have not been able to track down where it has come from. Geoff Stokes

    1. I can't say that I know the specific name for such a teaching, but, depending on what we are talking about, it is effectively what I believe. As I mentioned in the article by bringing up Gal. 3:19-4:5, the purpose of the Mosaic covenant was never to save. It was to show the necessity of salvation, which had to come from God. So it was actually pointing to the superiority of faith over works. The only thing that ever actually justified the saints was trusting in God to deliver them. In the era before Christ, that meant trusting that a Savior would come. After His resurrection, it means trusting in what He has accomplished. But it still revolves around Him either way. In that sense, there is one covenant, one basic place of rapprochement between man and God.

      I feel that is also the point Paul is making when he speaks of the "Israel of God" in Gal. 6:16. It is not so much about replacing all the Jews as it is about adding some of the Gentiles into the promises that the Lord has been making from the beginning. It has always all come down to Jesus.

      On the other hand, there was clearly a change that occurred with the coming of Christ. Religion was no longer a matter of ritual. Relationship with God became direct rather than being through seemingly endless layers of mediation. A replacement did happen, and one form of covenant was given up for another, better one. So it is sort of a matter of perspective.

      However, you might also be talking about Christians who see an obligation to keep the old covenant, which would be yet another issue. Groups in that category go by a few different names and those groups can have very different beliefs. Maybe you heard it discussed as Pronomian Christianity, or perhaps Hebrew Roots? Basically (and I mean very basically, this is the broadest overview possible), it is the belief that the laws of the Old Testament were never set aside. But in my opinion, that flies in the face of history, geography, culture, Scripture, and the resurrection itself. Christians better not be out there sacrificing lambs and goats! We can't keep the whole law, and there are some parts of it that were intentionally set aside by Jesus. So in that case, no, there would not be one ongoing covenant. Again, it just depends upon what we are talking about.