Like a lot of American evangelicals, the faith I was taught as a teen-aged convert was a sort of Dispensationalism. There were no charts that I recall but I did learn that Jews are God’s earthly people and that the church is God’s spiritual people. I also learned that we are in “the church age,” which is a sort of parenthesis, until after the secret rapture, after the tribulation, and the reinstitution of the temple and the sacrificial system.
When I encountered Reformed theology and the Reformed Church one of the first questions I asked my first Reformed teacher, Warren Embree, was, “What about Israel?” To which he replied, “the dividing wall has been broken down.” Again I asked, “But what about Israel?” Again he replied, “The dividing wall has been broken down.” A third time I asked, “Yes, but what about Israel?” and a third time he replied, “The dividing wall has been broken down.” Quite rightly Warren refused to accept the premise of my question. That premise was that there are two peoples of God, an earthly people (ethnic Jews) and a spiritual people (Christians). To be honest, it was never entirely clear to me whether a non-Messianic Jew really needed to believe in Jesus to be saved. It seemed that it might be possible that one is saved by virtue of being ethnically Jewish. I am not necessarily attributing that view to Dispensational theologians but reflecting on popular Dispensationalism as it was mediated to me in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, as what some Dispensationalists taught about the salvation under the Mosaic covenant, there has long been some question among Reformed folk. E.g., in 1944 the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS) published a Report on Dispensationalism which said, in part:
It is the unanimous opinion of your Committee that Dispensationalism is out of accord with the system of the doctrines set forth in the Confession of Faith, not primarily or simply in the field of eschatology, but because it attacks the very heart of the theology of our Church. Dispensationalism rejects the doctrine that God has, since the Fall, but one plan of salvation for all mankind. and affirms that God has been through the ages administering various and diverse plans of salvation for various groups…
Certainly the some of the Dispensationalists were ambiguous about how people were saved before the New Covenant. The point of being a Dispensationalist is to highlight the diversity in the administration of salvation prior to the New Covenant. The Reformed Churches and theologians, particularly the American Presbyterians, who have had to face this question more squarely than the Dutch and German Reformed Churches, have always affirmed unambiguously that for all the variety in the history of salvation, what we call the multiple administrations of the covenant of grace, there is one covenant of grace, one Savior, one way of salvation. There is essentially one people of God.
Believers under the Old Testament, i.e., meaning in every epoch of redemptive history prior to the New Covenant, were all looking forward to Jesus’ coming. They were all trusting Jesus, who was revealed to them under types and shadows (Col 2:17; Heb 8 [all]). Types and shadows were revelations of future realities that we veiled or obscured. Another way to put it is to say that Christ was received by grace alone, through faith alone, in, with, and under types and shadows in the time of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the exile.
The Lynchpin: The Dividing Wall
Perhaps the central issue between the historic Christian Church, going back as far as the Epistle of Barnabas (c. AD 120), Justin Martyr (c. AD 150), and Irenaeus, the Pastor (Episkopos) of Lyon (c. AD 170) and most forms of Dispensationalism is the latter’s doctrine of two peoples, earthly and spiritual.
For me the key passage that helped me to see the error of the “two peoples” approach to Christianity was Ephesians 2:14 where Paul says, “For he is our peace, who has made the two one, and having removed, in his flesh, the wall of partition, the enmity.” It was to this passage that my friend Warren was referring when he said, “the dividing wall has been removed.” What “dividing wall”? Paul refers to a wall that separates two rooms. Who is separated from whom?
Go back to v. 11. There Paul is addressing the problem of Jewish-Gentile relations in the church. The crisis facing the early church, which was predominantly Jewish, was this: Since the institution of circumcision, to begin with, and then with the imposition of the Old Covenant (the Mosaic covenant) at Sinai, the Gentiles (non-Jews) were made religiously and legally unclean. Thus, by the time of the New Covenant, there had been “enmity” between Jew and Gentile, in some sense, since the time of Abraham, before the institution of the Old Covenant and formally since the time of Moses. For 1500 years (since Moses), Jews had one stance toward Gentiles and now, with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that, for Christians, had all changed.
The Two Made One
It was confusing. Even the Apostle Peter was briefly caught up in the controversy when he sided with the Judaizers by not eating with Gentile Christians (Gal 2:11–14). He repented after Paul confronted him about it but this was such a major problem that the church held its first ever Synod or Council in Jerusalem. There the church, including Peter, agreed that the ceremonial laws of Moses are no longer binding on Christians and the council issued a few binding decisions: 1) that Christians abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols; 2) that Christians abstain from blood; and 3) that they abstain from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29). Of course the moral law (love God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself, in force since creation, re-stated at Sinai, and affirmed by Jesus) was still in force.
These tensions are in the background to Ephesians 2:11–14. Paul reminds the Gentile Christians in the congregation (in Asia Minor) that, under the Mosaic law, they were the “uncircumcision” and therefore unclean. The Jews were “the circumcision.” One was formerly cut out, literally, and the other cut in to the visible people of God. The Gentiles were, Paul says, “separated from Christ” [NB: the Gentiles were alienated from Christ because Christ was being received sola gratia, sola fide, under the types and shadows], “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel” and “strangers to the covenants of promise.” In short: they were “without hope and without God in the world.”
“But now,” Paul says in one of his glorious reversals, “in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who were once far off have been brought near.” In Colossians 2:11–12 he says that Christians, Jewish and Gentile alike, have been “circumcised” with a “handless” circumcision. Gentile Christians have been included in the people of God. This is a theology of expansion, not replacement. How have the Gentile Christians been brought near and included into the covenants of promise”? “By the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13). He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
Christ is “our peace.” He has made Jewish and Gentile Christians one by breaking down, in his flesh, the enmity, the wall of partition, between Jew and Gentile. How? By abolishing the temporary ceremonial and civil laws that God had imposed under Moses (v. 15). To what end? That he might “create in himself one new man, in place of the two” (ESV) and thus “making peace” (v. 15). By his death, Christ reconciled Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian into one body, through the cross, “thereby killing the enmity” (v. 16).
The great sin of Dispensationalism is that it rebuilds what Christ tore down in his own body, on the cross: the wall of enmity and division between Jewish Christian and Gentile. This is clearly seen in the notion of a future rebuilt temple and a re-institution of memorial sacrifices. No, Christ died “once for all” (Heb 10:10 inter alia).
In truth there was always only one people. Abraham was a Gentile when he came to faith (Rom 4 [all]). He continued to believe when he was circumcised and became a Jew. So, as Paul says (Rom 4:11), he is the father of all Christians, both Jew and Gentile. The separation between Jew and Gentile was always intended to be temporary. Circumcision (Col 2:11–12) pointed to Christ. The Mosaic system pointed to Christ, in whom “all the promises are yes and amen” (2 Cor 1:20).
The New Covenant is a return to form. All who believe in Jesus are Abraham’s children. The Mosaic system, which was a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9), was temporary but the Abrahamic covenant, renewed in the New Covenant (Gal 3 [all]) is “permanent” (2 Cor 3:11).
Gentile Christians are not second-class Christians. No one for whom Christ died, who is united to Christ, is a second-class Christian. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians are one people and shall remain so into eternity by grace and decree of our Savior, whose righteousness covers the sins and makes legally righteous all of his people from “every tribe, tongue, people, and nation” (Rev 5:9).