Remnant: Who Is Israel?

Michael S. Horton
Sunday, September 2nd 2007
Sep/Oct 2006

Reacting against a perceived tendency to reduce Paul's teaching to answering the question, How can I be saved?, the trend today is to say that the real question that concerns Paul (as it did all first-century Jews) was, Who are the people of God? In other words, it's a question of ecclesiology (defining "Israel"), not soteriology (how one gets in). However, Paul's arguments in Romans 9 to 11 especially demonstrate that he is interested in both questions and that,in fact, neither can be successfully answered in isolation from the other. Thus far in Romans, Paul has emphasized that since all people, Jew and Gentile alike, are "in Adam," condemned by the law, under the sentence of death and divine wrath, the only way to be saved is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Who Is Israel?

The problem is that the covenant that the people made with God at Sinai was being allowed to determine the answer to these questions. How are we saved? By fulfilling the law. Who is Israel? Those who fulfill the law. Paul held this view before his conversion, as a Pharisee and persecutor of the church, but on the Damascus Road everything was turned upside down when he encountered a vision of the very "cursed" one according to the law ("cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree") triumphantly seated at the Father's right hand in glory. Now the questions receive different answers that are, in fact, perfectly consistent with the expectations of the prophets. How are we saved? We are saved in the same way that all of the saints in redemptive history were saved: by trusting in God's promised Messiah. Who are the people of God? The children of promise-those who share Abraham's faith. The heirs of the Sinai covenant (and thus of the earthly land) are those who are ethnic descendants of Abraham, circumcised in the flesh; the heirs of the Abrahamic covenant (fulfilled in the new covenant) are all people, Jew and Gentile, who are "in Christ" through faith alone, circumcised in heart.

Throughout his epistles, therefore, Paul labors the contrast between these "two covenants," represented by two mothers (Sarah the free woman versus Hagar the slave), two mountains (Zion and Sinai), and two Jerusalems (heavenly and earthly) (see especially Gal. 4). Pulling together his teaching across these epistles, we can offer a list of contrasts (see chart below).

Paul has been unveiling the free grace of God in the Abrahamic covenant to all those who are "in Christ": pre-destined, called, justified, glorified (8:30-31). He has stressed the un-conditional basis of this everlasting covenant. So now, especially for those who had confused the Abrahamic and Sinai covenants, the likely question is raised: So, Paul, is this election that you are talking about a new and different one from the election of Israel? Has God failed in his saving purposes for Israel, so that now he finds himself having to resort to "Plan B" (the church)?

To answer this question, the apostle does not invent a new theology of election. Rather, he shows that all along God has fulfilled his eternal electing purposes distinct from the election of Israel as a national theocracy designed to point all the nations to Christ. It was the Abrahamic covenant (made 430 years before the Sinai treaty) that promised blessing for the nations. It was Abraham's sons, Ishmael and Isaac, who illustrate the prerogative of God's sovereign grace in election. Although both were the fruit of his loins and outwardly members of the covenant of grace, circumcised in the flesh, God had already chosen Isaac and rejected Ishmael. "And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done anything good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him who calls), it was said to her, 'The older shall serve the younger.' As it is written, 'Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated'" (Rom. 9:10-13). God is not unjust in electing apart from any foreseen virtues. Since the elect are chosen out of a mass of perdition, God would only have foreseen sin and resistance in any case. The point could not be any clearer: "So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy" (v. 16).

If this is the way God has always worked, then election and grace cannot be assimilated to the Sinai covenant. God's eternal and unconditional election of individuals for salvation, hidden to us, cannot be confused with his conditional covenant with the nation of Israel. What remains unconditional in God's promises to Israel is his utterly one-sided oath to bring the blessing of salvation to all nations through Abraham's seed. The Sinai covenant, based on law, cannot annul the earlier Abrahamic covenant, based on promise (see Gal. 3:15-18).

So God is not unfaithful. His Word has not failed, even if we do not currently see the Jewish people embracing Christ en masse. The prophets con-sistently taught that Israel would be saved through a remnant, and that this Jewish remnant would also include a remnant from all the nations. Together, they would form "one flock with one shepherd," in a "covenant of peace" (Ezek. 34:11-31). The people resulting from this unconditional election would constitute the true Israel. Paul is simply announcing that this remnant theology of the prophets has been finally realized in the history of redemption.

Many first-century sects saw themselves as this remnant (especially the Essenes); others regarded themselves and their party as a remnant that will purify the whole nation in preparation for Messiah (the Pharisees). Yet across the spectrum, the pattern is the renewal of the Sinaitic covenant. By contrast, with Hebrews 1:1-2, as Delbert Hillers describes, "Early Christians, even those of Jewish descent, did not look on themselves either as an unbroken continuation of the old Israel or as a group attempting to return to an ancient pattern of faith, like the Essenes. Instead, they stood over against the days 'of old' as men living in the 'last days.'" Part of this "newness," says Hebrews 1, is that the new covenant coalesces around a person-a Son, a "better covenant," one "enacted on better promises." Commenting on Jeremiah's prophecy, the writer says, "In speaking of a new covenant, he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (8:13; cf. 9:11-23).

The Sinai covenant can become obsolete because it was a conditional treaty, intended by God to serve an important but temporary purpose of pointing forward to Christ. Once Christ (the reality) has come, the law covenant of Sinai (the shadows) becomes obsolete. If we don't understand this covenantal background, we will either conclude that God has in fact reneged on his promises to Israel or we will build a whole theology around a future restoration of an earthly holy land, with a Davidic king, temple, priest, and sacrifices other than Christ (as in at least old-style dispensationalism).

Thus, the contrast between the Sinai covenant of law and the Abrahamic New Covenant of promise is drawn not merely by the Protestant reformers, nor even merely by Paul, but by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and his apostles. By justifying the wicked by faith apart from works of the law (how we are saved: soteriology), God will be able finally to realize the promise made to Abraham and heralded by the prophets (Isa. 9; 49; 60; 66; Jer. 4:2; Ezek. 39), that in him and his Seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed (who will be saved: ecclesiology).

Has God Failed?

If all of this is granted, of course, the question is raised for us as it was for the apostles as to whether God has simply set aside one covenant for another, one people for another, and if so, whether any of God's promises can be trusted. Far from a mere point of theological speculation, this is a heart-wrenching personal issue. The argument begins with Paul's willingness to be "cut off" for the sake of his "kindred according to the flesh" (9:2). Far from dismissing the Jewish people as having been replaced by what will be increasingly a Gentile church, Paul reinforces the original connection: "They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen" (vv. 4-5).

Far from identifying the Hebrew scriptures exclusively with law, in opposition to gospel, Paul recognizes that both law and gospel, command and promise, are part of Israel's heritage (notice the plural "covenants" in 9:4). Thus, Israel is the people of God and the place where God has always held intercourse with the world, supremely in the arrival of the Messiah.

Yet, adopting the remnant theology already present in the Old Testament, Paul reminds his readers,

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham's children are his true descendants, but "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you" [Gen. 21:12]. This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. (vv. 6-8)

"Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel," according to Paul, is a thesis that goes all the way back to the patriarchal period itself: the promise was made to Abraham and Sarah (not Hagar), so from the beginning election was not determined simply by ancestry, since according to law Ishmael would have been heir. (In fact, the law explicitly upheld the right of the firstborn even if the offspring was of "the disliked" wife rather than the "loved" wife [Deut. 21:15-17].)

The point is that election and the promise are God's to give, not the patriarchs'. Here, God is the father who bestows his inheritance to whomever he chooses. Hardly lost on readers to this day is the question Paul anticipates:

What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion" [Exod. 33:19]. So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth" [Exod. 9:16]. So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. (vv. 14-18)

The apostle anticipates our perennial question whenever God's electing grace is discussed: "You will say to me then, 'Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'," offering anything but a rationally satisfying reply calculated to suspend our speculations: "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?" (vv. 19-20), especially when we consider that according to strict justice, God could have determined to leave all people under sin. Unconditional election proclaims God's unfathomable mercy.

So, embedded within Israel's national election (unconditional in its origin yet conditional in its maintenance) is the election of particular Israelites to inherit the promises made to Abraham and his Seed, who are by God's gracious decision, "objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles." Again, Paul is not inventing a novel doctrine of election but drawing on the remnant theology of the prophets:

As indeed he says in Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people,' and her who was not beloved I will call 'beloved'" [Hos. 2:23]. "And in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' there they shall be called children of the living God" [Hos. 1:10]. And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved; for the Lord will execute his sentence on the earth quickly and decisively" [Isa. 28:22]. (Rom. 9:23-28)

Paul then turns to the contemporary situation: Israel's unbelief as a nation: "What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works" (vv. 30-32). Regardless of whether it is dismissed as a caricature of the Jewish position, Paul's point itself seems clear enough: God has chosen his people according to his mercy and not their decision or effort, incorporating into the people of God a remnant of both Jews and Gentiles; consequently, the righteousness (justification) and bestowal of the inheritance comes not through ancestry or through our own personal fulfillment of the law's requirements, but through faith in Christ. It is also difficult to see how "works" here could be limited to circumcision and dietary laws, since Israel had in fact fulfilled these: that is why even the Jerusalem church struggled with admitting Gentiles without making them first conform to the Jewish identity markers.

Chapter 10 presses this argument further with its sharp contrast between "the righteousness by faith" and the "righteousness by works." The nation of Israel remains in exile for having violated the terms of the Sinai treaty: Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Apostle would have agreed with each other on this point. The difference is over what to do about it, and with great zeal yet ignorance of the righteousness that comes by promise through faith apart from works, the nation is seeking a renewal of the covenant of law instead of embracing the earlier covenant of promise and its fulfillment in Christ (vv. 1-4). Because this salvation (unlike the national renewal) is based on God's descent rather than our ascent, and is delivered by the preaching of the gospel rather than attained by human striving, the universal scope of the Abrahamic promise is now being realized (vv. 12-13). God finds us; we do not find God (v. 20). "But of Israel he says, 'All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people'" (v. 21).

This, however, is not the last word and the chapter break is well-chosen. Romans 11 begins by bringing us back to the question that began the argument in chapter 9: "I ask, then, has God rejected his people?" The answer is decisive: "By no means! 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" (11:1-2). Like the remnant in Elijah's day, Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians are evidence that God is still faithful to Israel (vv. 2b-4). "So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace" (vv. 5-6).

In other words, the confusion of the promise covenant (Abraham), which concerns the election and salvation of individuals, and the law covenant (Sinai), which concerns the nation itself, is behind the assumption that God's word (promise) has failed. While the nation was preserved in the land only as long as it kept its oath made at Sinai, individuals-whether Jew or Gentile, can only reach the true and heavenly land of rest by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Sinai cannot cancel, absorb, or qualify the earlier Abrahamic covenant.

Has God Rejected Ethnic Israel?

Paul rounds out his argument in Romans by applying the double action of God in election and the hardening he described earlier (9:11-18) to the present state of Israel, yielding a remnant despite a more general rejection (11:7-10). But then he asks: "[H]ave they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!" (v. 11). The rhetorical structure indicates a parallel with the first verse of this chapter: "I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!" Whatever conclusions can be drawn about Paul's teaching on the current redemptive-historical status of Israel, a simple supercessionism or "replacement" theology is unsupported. The New Testament church does not replace Israel, says Paul.

Reformed interpretation of Scripture has traditionally insisted, especially in opposition to what it has regarded as an Anabaptist (and dispensationalist) disjunction between old and new covenants, the continuity of a single covenant of grace, even to the point of referring to the new covenant church as an extension of the old covenant church. This accords with the language of kahal ("assembly," "congregation"), which the Greek version of the Old Testament translates synagoge or ekklesia, which is then carried over into the New Testament designation for the people of God. Israel is the recipient of the laws and promises, the covenants of Sinai and Abraham, and whatever happens to extend the family is in fact an expansion rather than replacement of Israel. It is through the earthly, physical, ethnic Israel of God that the covenant of grace has unfolded throughout history and now reaches outward to the nations. Yet, Paul adds, it even circles back to include a massive ingathering of ethnic Jews at the end of the age.

God has not rejected Israel as a corporate body-even if the covenant of law (Sinai) can no longer be a basis for its future hope. Rather, in the mystery of God's redemptive-historical purposes, the "stumbling" of Israel is an occasion for the mission to the Gentiles at the present time. Yet it is a stumbling short of falling, "and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (vv. 11-12). Notice the future tense! In other words, the story is not finished when we hear about there being "at the present time a remnant chosen by grace" (v. 5). During the period of the Gentile mission, God is making the Jews jealous in order to "save some of them" (v. 14), but also with a further intention: "For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches are also holy" (vv. 15-16). The tree of Israel is not dead. Even now its boughs are heavy with fruit-bearing branches and even if some natural branches have been broken off for a time to make room for wild grafts, God will fill his tree again with natural branches as well.

It would appear that the "last days" really do bring about the end of exile expected by Second Temple Judaism: not only the resurrection of the dead, with Christ as the first fruits, but the resurrection of Israel as a people. N. T. Wright's insight that the eschatology of exile-and-return is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ as the True Israel is therefore true, but only part of the story. As the rest of Paul's argument in verses 17 to 24 seems to indicate, there is one tree of life, and it is Israel's menorah. Natural branches may be broken off and replaced with "a wild olive shoot…grafted into their place," but such shoots cannot boast, since "it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you" (vv. 17-18). The natural branches were not broken off simply in order to make room, "but because of their unbelief," and "you stand only through faith. So we do not become proud, but stand in awe" (v. 20). Again, the point is that faith defines everything: If natural branches were broken off because of unbelief, wild shoots will certainly be as well (v. 21). Paul seems even to regard the regrafting of natural branches as somehow more fitting and appropriate than the grafting of the wild branches, since it is, after all, Israel's menorah that is the tree itself (vv. 23-24).

The hardening of Israel at the present is not only partial but is also temporary, "until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved" (v. 25). The disobedience of the Gentiles led to the opportunity for God to show Israel mercy, and now the tables are turned-for the moment (vv. 28-31). Then follows the crucial summary: "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all" (v. 32). No wonder, then, that all that is left to say is in the form of doxology rather than speculation:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" [Isa. 40:13] "Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?" [Job 35:7] For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (vv. 33-36)

Especially given the history of Christian practice toward the Jews, our interpretation of such New Testament arguments is a crucial, as it is sensitive, matter. While Luther's earlier position sharply criticized the treatment of the Jews by the medieval church, his disappointment with their failure to embrace the gospel recovered in the Reformation engendered a deep hostility. The Jews were ranked alongside Moslems and the Church of Rome as enemies of the gospel. Calvin, on the other hand, was more favorable to Jews at least in part because of his more positive treatment of the Old Testament, Moses, and the law. "Yet, despite the great obstinacy with which they continue to wage war against the gospel," writes Calvin, "we must not despise them, while we consider that, for the sake of the promise, God's blessing still rests among them" (4.16.15). Further, as David Holwerda demonstrates, "Calvin continued to hold to a future conversion of Jewish Israel."

God's election of a people as a gift to his Son was made "before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4), "before the twins [Jacob and Esau] had done anything good or bad, so that God's purpose in election would stand, not because of works, but by his call" (Rom. 9:11). The plan that is now unfolding in history was "predestined before all ages," as are the individuals who are included in that communion (Acts 4:28; Rom. 9:23; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 1:4-11; 3:11; 1 Pet. 1:2) and this plan cannot be thwarted by the vicissitudes of history. It is not merely the church that is chosen collectively, but the individuals who comprise that church (2 Thess. 2:13; Matt. 24:22; Rom. 8:33; Rom. 11:7; 1 Tim. 5:21; Titus 1:1), and their election is not conditioned on anything in them, even foreseen faith and repentance (John 15:16; Acts 13:48; Rom. 9:16; Titus 3:5), since even these are gifts rather than conditions of election (Eph. 2:5-10).

While Israel as a nation was elected as a trustee or guardian of God's purposes for the world, the election and redemption of "men and women from every tribe, kindred, tongue, people and nation…to be a kingdom of priests to our God" (Rev. 5:9) transcends all ethnic identities. In God's eternal election, the barrier between Jew and Gentile established in history does not exist, and when the Son appeared in whom these are chosen, that dividing wall was dismantled within history itself. Yet until the fullness of the Jews is added to the fullness of the Gentiles, the tree of Israel remains incomplete. A remnant of Jews and Gentiles will be gathered in Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, because they have been chosen by God from eternity to constitute a new humanity, "to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6).

Therefore, just as the covenants of Sinai and Zion must be carefully distinguished, the election of the "Jerusalem that is below" must be seen as distinct from the election of that "Jerusalem that is above." Each has its own significant vocation in the economy of redemption. It is worthwhile once again to listen to Jewish theologians and exegetes in order to compare and contrast their understanding of the differences with Christian views of election. According to Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod, God's election of Israel would be arrogant if it were the self-election of the people. "As it is," however, "it is a sign of God's absolute sovereignty which is not bound by human conceptions of fairness." After citing examples (Luke 3:8, Rom. 9:6-8, the latter harking back to Hosea 1:10), Wyschogrod notes,

The attitude of the New Testament is quite clear. Jews labor under the illusion that they have some sort of advantage in being descended from Abraham. In so thinking, they are thoroughly mistaken. Being descended from Abraham is no advantage whatsoever. God is able to declare anyone a child of Abraham ("God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham"). And Paul confirms this by pointing out that not all of Abraham's children were of Israel. Isaac was of Israel but Esau was not. So being a physical descendant of Abraham does not make one a child of promise. By quoting the verses from Hosea, Paul says that God can take a people who is not chosen and make it chosen. God is not bound by genealogical considerations… This is presumably the church which is not a natural family characterized by descent from a common ancestor but an association of persons from many peoples united by a common faith.

Although he rejects it, Wyschogrod understands the New Testament better, at least on this point, than many Christian interpreters.

As Israel's exile testified, God had not reneged on his promise; Israel had reneged on hers. This point is as clear in the prophets as it is in Paul. God would still fulfill the purposes of his eternal election, however, and the Abrahamic promise envisioned this as the blessing that would come to all peoples through the Seed of Abraham and Sarah. As with Eden, there is no way back to Sinai, but this is actually good news, since no one could be saved according to the righteousness of the law. The only way to be saved, and therefore, to belong to the true Israel of God, is to be "in Christ." At Mount Sinai, Israel responded to the conditional terms as one person: "All this we will do!", yet broke their covenant oath. At Mount Calvary, the True Israel, who had fulfilled the terms throughout his life, cried out, "It is finished!"

At the Synod of Jerusalem, this christocentric interpretation of election and redefinition of Israel in line with the prophetic texts was officially adopted and it was Peter who gave such eloquent testimony to this interpretation that Gentile believers, no less than Jews, are justified by grace through faith without any distinction (Acts 15:8-11). Circumcision counts for nothing: everything turns on faith in Christ, announced by the gospel (Rom. 2:17-29).

The attitude we must have toward ethnic Jews is that of Paul the Jewish apostle to the Gentiles, who would have willingly born Israel's "anathema" in her place (Rom. 10:1-3). At the same time, we must remember that this anathema is not over Jews as Jews, but over all of humanity apart from Christ. If we really follow through with the Pauline logic (maintained elsewhere in the New Testament, as it was seminally in the prophets), there is no more guarantee that a particular visible church that bears the name Christian will not fail to have its candlestick removed should it live by any principle other than faith in Christ. It is therefore not ultimately a question of whether one is a Jew or a Christian in terms of outward organization, but of whether one is "inwardly circumcised"-that is, buried and raised with Christ. Nothing that exists apart from him-even that which calls itself Christian, can live, and nothing that is in him can die. Jesus is not only the federal head and mediator of the covenant; he is in his very person "a covenant to the people" (Isa. 42:6).

1 [ Back ] In this article, Dr. Horton has quoted from David E. Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 3, 6, 255; and Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham's Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, ed. R. Kendall Soulen (Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 26, 48-49.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Sunday, September 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology