A Review of Dr. John MacArthur’s “Why Every Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist” Sermon
A Preface First: One of the reasons I am doing this review of Dr. MacArthur’s sermon Why Every Calvinist Should Be a Premillennialist is due to a good friend and sister in Christ who wished to challenge me on the subject of eschatology. We had met a short time ago, and she had questions about Calvinism (which I was happy to answer). Since such questions and a friendly conversation, she finds the Doctrines of Grace as glorious as they should be.
But while she was quick to accept the doctrines of grace once properly explained, she made it clear that eschatology was something she was not going to give up so easily. We have exchanged some dialogue (very friendly dialogue) over our differences on the subject, but have never truly gone into detail on it. I have been aware of this sermon for quite some time, as well as having been aware that Dr. MacArthur is a Calvinistic Dispensationalist. But I had made up my mind on the subject a long time ago, and did not feel the need to look any further into it.
However, I had given my friend a fair number of things to look into regarding other subjects she was earnestly desiring to know more about. Therefore, the very least I could do would be to acquiesce to her request that I listen to something on her behalf that I did not fully believe in. That is what I have done. Additionally I told her that I would either make a video commentary on the sermon, or I would write an article of it. As you can probably tell by now, I have elected to write my review of it.
The other reason I wanted to do this was to show that you can have a genuine disagreement with fellow Christians regarding eschatology while remaining in fellowship. Only particular forms of eschatology (such as radical forms of preterism or radical forms of futurism) should be met with high skepticism. Otherwise, we should all be able to discuss this subject with great delight, admiration and beneficial means towards one another. There is far too much dissent on this matter, far more than is called for. In regards to the nature of Christ, there should be very, very little room for disagreement, and yet we are unwilling to discuss that important subject for the sake of “division”. At the same time, eschatology should be a subject we can have liberal understandings about (provided we end with Christ returning one day) and yet we are willing to fight tooth and nail with one another over the minutest points. This should not be.
So it is my desire to demonstrate that I can have important disagreements all while not having any personal qualms with my fellow believers. On numerous occasions I have been accused of cherry-picking, been called a full preterist, and slandered in other areas that are uncalled for. It’s one thing to say that I am missing the point, but it’s another to accuse me of cherry-picking. When you do that, you are actually accusing me of intentionally deceiving people, and that is a serious accusation. It is not, nor has it been my intention to deceive anyone (what do I gain with you agreeing to my eschatological view?). Let’s not slander, my friends. We should be able to discuss this subject with such open arms and grace towards one another. Not everyone sees eschatology the same way you do, that is the simple fact of the matter. And if you cannot discuss this subject without becoming zealously and personally invested in it, you need to step away. That’s a sign of dogmatism, and unhealthy forms of fundamentalism that threatens fellowship. Iron should sharpen iron, not chip and destroy.
I feel utterly unfit and unqualified to attempt to critique Dr. MacArthur’s sermon, given his lifelong reputation I could never, ever match. I once walked into a Christian book store and found a huge book from MacArthur purely for the purpose of studying words and particular subjects found in Scripture. You find a key subject in the book, like imputation of righteousness, or the deity of Christ, much like you find words in a dictionary, and underneath the word was a plethora of biblical citations. It was a massive volume that overwhelmed me. Granted, Dr. MacArthur probably didn’t do that literally by himself, but nevertheless, that feat alone was truly impressive.
The point here is that this is not some young hotshot hoping to earn his day by knocking off a giant of the modern Christian faith. I have been raised to respect my elders, and never to talk back to your parents, even if they are in the wrong. Even with my own pastor, whom I disagree with on various subjects, my respect for him surpasses entirely my desire to be right, and I submit to the teaching of my church elders, including their premillennial eschatology, even though I do not hold to it.
My intention rather is to give an honest review of Dr. MacArthur’s sermon in respect to a dear sister, and to the body of Christ. Nowhere in my review here will I engage in ad hominem attacks, and nor is my intention to deceive anyone by misrepresentation. I may make some serious accusations even, but they are never intended to turn this subject into a bitter fighting match. I don’t normally discuss the issue of eschatology, and the reason mentioned above is one of those. Hopefully with this, I can help change that, and make eschatology a cool subject to debate in the church without threatening to anathematize each other.
My intent will have a single positive argument, in which I will attempt to present a model of interpretation that properly addresses the passages in question consistently with one form of exegesis that gives me all the essential Christian doctrines, and upon that demonstrate my position as the proper view, falsifying the opposing one. In addition to that, I will have a two-fold negative critique of Dr. MacArthur’s sermon. The first part of my negative critique will focus on showing his interpretive grid is inadequate and false. The second will be to show that his own negative critique of amillennialism is a straw man. If I can demonstrate this, I believe Dr. MacArthur’s position collapses completely.
On a final note, while I will take a stance against MacArthur (a stance I intend to explain in depth in this article), I wish to be upfront and honest that I do not have all the answers regarding eschatology and you will never see me pretend like I do. Hence I am not taking a dogmatic stance on this issue. In fact, I am not going to be arguing from a postmillennial nor an amillennial view. My approach may be more or less unique in this subject, and to that, I begin.
Before I actually engage the arguments, what I want to do is to establish from the outset my starting presuppositions. As Dr. Kim Riddlebarger has said (that name alone should give you a good idea where I’m coming from) in his lectures on eschatology, we have to establish our operating assumptions before we get into this subject. Unless we define our assumptions, we’re just going to shoot past each other. If I start critiquing Dr. MacArthur right away, I fear I will leave my own critics in a guessing game as to how my mind is functioning as we approach the subject, and hence may become confused as how to engage my arguments.
Therefore, I begin by establishing not so much amillennialism, nor postmillennialism, but rather Covenant Theology. I believe this conversation truly boils down to Covenant Theology vs Dispensational Theology–how you view the skeletal structure of the Scriptures. What is Covenant Theology? I feel inadequate to attempt an orthodox definition, and hence I will quote from the Reformation Study Bible:
“Covenant theology therefore serves as an organizing principle that shows how biblical history and theology form a coherent, systematic whole with the unified message from the garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. As such, it views God’s relationship between two parties to each other, and whether it is negotiated (as in marriage or business contracts) or unilaterally imposed (as in all of God’s covenants), mutual obligations are accepted and pledged by both parties… Typically, three principal covenants are identified: the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. The first is a covenant made between the members of the Godhead before time began; the second is a covenant made with Adam before the fall; and the third is a covenant made with those who receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation.”
What I really like and would like to focus upon briefly is Dr. Derek Thomas’s comment that covenant theology is “an organizing principle that shows how biblical history and theology form a coherent, systematic whole” all throughout Scripture. That is key. What is being claimed here is quite simply consistency. When we read Scripture, consistency is absolutely essential. As Dr. James White has said, inconsistency is a sign of a failed argument. We have to have a principle of interpretation that consistently addresses the whole of Scripture. If we must read, for example, the old testament in such a way that leaves no possibility for the New Testament to fulfill, that will be a problem. Both are different in their own ways, but both require a system of interpretation that does not separate them, nor confuse them.
The Abrahamic Covenant
We will now see how covenant theology gives us a consistent view of the Scriptures that provides to us the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. In the Abrahamic Covenant, which we find in Genesis 15:5-6, Yahweh promises Abraham a nation of offspring who will be related to him. In what way will be seen soon, but for now, we want to focus on the surface-level content of this promise of God to Abraham. The offspring is clearly seen to be Abraham’s seed, his children, and there shall be countless numbers of them. That’s the clear reference here.
Go into the New Testament, in Romans 4:3 and now with Christ, Paul sees the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. The righteousness that Abraham is being attributed to is the righteousness of Christ. Then in Genesis 17, God gives Abraham a new command, which is the covenant by circumcision. This was a sign of the covenant. In Genesis 17:4, again you see God say that Abraham will be the “father of a multitude of nations”. This is how the nation of Israel is established. Just as God made a covenant with man upon creation, and that first man is the representative of mankind and the covenant with mankind, so now Abraham is the representative of the covenant with Israel.
The child of promise for Abraham was Isaac, and Isaac being born, it would be the line of Isaac that would be blessed, as Yahweh had promised. In Galatians 3, Paul reinterprets Yahweh’s promise to Abraham of the blessed offspring as finding its fulfilled (as in, its completed) meaning in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:15).
The Mosaic Covenant
Then comes the Mosaic Covenant, made with Moses, which is the Law given to Israel as a command to obey (Exodus 34:28). After that, in Exodus 35, we have construction of the tabernacle, the making of the Ark of the Covenant, and the establishment of the ritual laws, the altar of incense, the altar of the burnt offering, all these commands for Israel to keep. It is the Law given to Israel as part of God’s covenant with them to remain in His blessing. This is where we get the whole idea of the atonement, sacrifice, and the priesthood (things which the author of the Hebrews “spiritualizes”). These all foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah who would perform all of these tasks perfectly. But of course, Israel is filled with sinners, unclean people, and mere humans who therefore not only have no power to truly satisfy the wrath of God for men, but neither have eternal life themselves to make such a payment forever. Why then does God give to fallen creatures something which He certainly knows none of them can truly fulfill?
Turn to the book of Hebrews chapter 10, and the author tells us the purpose of these things:
“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?” -Hebrews 10:1-2 ESV.
The point of the ceremonial and ritual laws was not to be themselves the end of our pursuit of righteousness, but were meant to point us to that end, which God was going to do in Jesus Christ. I also want to note from this passage that I am not sure how every dispensationalist sees how far the new temple in Jerusalem will be; whether there will be a return to the ritual laws and Day of Atonement and so I do not want to impugn to them all that belief. However, if such a view is held, Hebrews 10:1-2 refutes that idea strongly, as you see here, particularly in light of what Hebrews is arguing throughout, that Christ has finished the law once and for all, there are no sacrifices to return to. There is only looking to that one, which we remember in the Lord’s Supper now.
The Israel of God
The Old Testament is in many ways the search for that one promised prophet like Moses who would lead Israel to victory. How could any man truly do that, if that man dies, and that generation of Israelites die with him? Clearly our problem is not with physical properties, but with death itself. We need a greater fulfillment, which the patriarchs, as the author of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 11, were always looking for. That one servant of God who would be Israel’s champion. Who is that champion, then?
Go to Isaiah 42 and you see a picture of that perfect servant, who would perfectly fulfill the duties given in the Law. There’s no mistake that this servant is Christ. In Isaiah 43:3, the Servant of God is also called Israel.
In John 15, Jesus calls himself “the true Vine”. In the Old Testament, Israel is often described by illustration as a vine (Jeremiah 2:21, Exodus 15:17, Psalm 44:1-2, 80:8, Isaiah 5:2-5). Remember in Matthew 3:10 how John the Baptist is warning the Jewish leaders that “the axe is laid to the root”? The imagery is of trees being ready to be chopped down. The imagery describes Israel. Israel is God’s vineyard, and God has come and seen it is not bearing fruit, and so He is preparing to remove it. But is that saying God is ending His covenant with Israel? Not at all.
In Isaiah 11 is another prophecy of “The Stump of Jesse” which is obviously Jesus, who has the Spirit of Yahweh upon Him, and He will have a branch that bears fruit. So the trees of Israel of that day, bearing no fruit, are cut down, and thrown off. One yet remains, and it is the Stump, or Root of Jesse, who is Christ. Christ is the true vine, and hence what does that make Him? It makes Christ the true Israel. Right here, we have already a core issue with John MacArthur’s “Israel is Israel” presupposition. Because Israel is not always “Israel” in the national, ethnic sense.
Imputation of Righteousness
Having obtained that righteousness, He offers Himself as the lamb, the provision of Yahweh that Abraham spoke of in Genesis 22:8. Christ becomes the true Israel–the Servant of God, the one who would attain to righteousness that no one else could do. He is the Covenant Keeper, obtaining all the covenant blessings God made to Abraham and Moses in the Law.
How then does this benefit us? Again, Christ is the atonement, He is the Lamb of God. He therefore dies in the place of someone, and who is that? Isaiah 53:1-6 tells us, He atones for God’s people, i.e., Israel. See the language, “By His stripes we are healed”. Atonement, propitiation is taking place. One is taking another’s punishment, and not only this, but that one’s suffering is bringing the other healing. A transaction is what is being described.
Go back to Romans 4:3-8 and see that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the one who bears faith, and what kind of faith? The same faith as Abraham. That is to say, the one who is a child of Abraham by promise–by faith (Romans 4:16-17, Galatians 3:6).
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” -2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV.
This is what we call the doctrine of imputation–Christ’s righteousness, His blessings He obtained are transferred to the sinner, the sinner’s curse is to Him on the cross, and now the sinner is credited with Christ’s covenant blessings. That sinner now is seen by God as righteous on account of Christ. That sinner is now a covenant keeper by imputation, that is to say, they are now brought into the covenant of God that He made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and Moses through Christ, who fulfilled it on their behalf.
God has promised to redeem them through the covenants fulfilled in Jesus Christ, making the true Israel the elect of God, which are Jews and Gentiles. The church then is not replacing Israel, it is fulfilling Israel through Christ.
On a brief mention, the Davidic Covenant is relevant here as well. I didn’t focus too much on it because I don’t want this to be too long (as it already is). The simple point here I want to make that no one disputes (therefore it bears little need to establish) that Jesus is the Son of David, descending the line of David, fulfilling God’s covenant with him to establish his line on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7). So Christ is King as well, and King of who? Israel, of course.
By Covenant, By Promise: Fulfillment
This is what Covenant Theology is all about. Throughout the Scriptures, covenantal language permeates the pages. You will notice how often, in the Old Testament, God or the prophets speak about a group of people in the name of Isaac, or Jacob, or even Abraham. This is covenant language. This is invocation of the covenant God made with Abraham’s seed. Look at Galatians 3:10-15 and see how Paul is appealing to the covenant. The one who does not trust in Christ is now obligated to obtain righteous standing with God through the law (the Mosaic Covenant), which condemns them instantly. It’s hopeless. Then in verse 15, Paul argues that no one adds to a covenant already made and complete (that is, fulfilled and held). Christ fulfills all things given to Abraham and Moses, and the one who is righteous before God is the one who believes that the Christ has done them.
The book of Hebrews is an overflow, pouring with covenantal language, and we want to finish this by showing an important, key element of Covenant Theology, and that is a small but absolutely essential word called: fulfillment. This is important because dispensationalists commonly accuse covenantal systems of replacement theology (a rather serious heresy, by the way, and hence a serious charge), arguing that we hold that God cuts off Israel and goes with “plan B” the church. But what is happening, of course, is not replacement, but fulfillment. You see the argument made by the author of Hebrews for fulfillment (Hebrews 7:24-28, 8:5-13, 9:11-15, 10:8-12). And having been fulfilled, something greater comes from the old (Hebrews 8:13).
Look for example in Matthew 2:15, where Matthew quotes from Hosea 11:1 about God drawing Israel, His beloved Son out of Egypt, who himself is recalling how Yahweh brought Israel out of the land of Egypt in the Exodus. That is to say, we have at least two levels of fulfillment going on here. The first is God literally bringing Israel, the nation, out of Egypt in the Exodus, but this fulfillment finds a greater one in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who again is called the Israel of God by implication in Matthew 2:15. This pattern is all over the Scriptures, and just as in the Matthew 2 case (that is, with the interpretive principle that the New Testament interprets the old) once fulfilled in Christ, there is nothing left to be answered. There is no say anywhere of something else needing to be done.
The New Testament itself, as we have shown in Romans and Galatians (which are only small parts of the New Testament demonstrating fulfillment), demonstrates fulfillment by way of covenant. The whole purpose of the covenants, as Hebrews says, was to foreshadow the coming Messiah, who would fulfill those covenant promises and laws and in doing so, reign in the new covenant (Hebrews 8:13).
There is hence no category anywhere in Scripture–anywhere–where God has said there is going to be a plan for national Israel and a plan for Gentiles, nor a return to the old covenant ways. In fact, Paul himself declares this in Galatians 3:28 when he says that there is neither Jew nor Greek; we are all one in Christ Jesus. If you follow Paul’s argument throughout Galatians 3, as we briefly visited, you see that Paul is speaking in a covenant system, in the way I just explained. Both Jew and Greek are one in Christ. The simple fact is that the Old Testament gives us the blueprint of redemption. The New Testament gives us that redemption in Jesus Christ, who fulfills and finishes it all, leaving no category, nor language anywhere in the New Testament of going back. In fact, one of the arguments of the author of the Hebrews in chapter 3-4 is that looking back to the old covenant ways is death. They were not to be the real thing, but to point you to the real thing, the greater fulfillment which was in Christ Jesus.
That is the essence of Covenant Theology, and that is what I firmly believe is being demonstrated as clearly as the Trinity is in Scripture. It is the system of Covenant Theology that I am operating on when I approach this subject. That is a strange approach, you may ask. What does Covenant Theology have to do with this? Everything. You see, you cannot simply have different approaches depending on your subject. You can’t look at Christ as fulfilling the Davidic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant and then come to eschatology and put that aside, or declare that any portion of the Abrahamic covenant (the land promise, for example) is still to be fulfilled when New Testament revelation does not give us any such language. Using different forms of hermenutics is a violation of proper biblical interpretation. It was not reformed tradition that made me abandon premillennial/dispensationalism, it was the need to be consistent.
If I am going to be consistent in believing that Christ is the fulfillment of the covenants God made in the Old Testament, then that has to tell me how to read the Old Testament, how to understand the prophetic imagery as not having specifically to do with the nation of Israel, but having to do with God’s ultimate plan of redemption for Jew and Greek. This is my operating principle by which I see this subject. Utilizing the same form of exegesis and hermenutics, I come to the essential doctrines of Christianity, which I just described above: imputed righteousness, propitiation, justification by faith alone. One form of exegesis brought me there, and that same one is going to tell me how to understand the eschaton (the last days). With that, we proceed to John MacArthur’s sermon.
The Literal Meaning
I don’t want this to be a commentary, so I am only going to focus on key parts of the sermon. The first thing I want to focus on is Dr. MacArthur’s hermenutic, or his interpretive grid he is using. As I said in the introduction, if I can show that his primary method of interpretation is not self-sufficient and/or consistent, it is false. I laid mine down above, and with that hermenutic, I got the essential, core doctrines of the Christian faith. Now Dr. MacArthur is going to briefly mention his own, and its important to do, as well as to examine to see if it actually is a sufficient grid to utilize when we come to the Scriptures. If we find that it is not able to answer the big questions, then that’s a red flag. If we find that Dr. MacArthur and dispensationalists have to essentially say that when it comes to eschatology, you have to use this hermenutic, but in the Trinity and other core doctrines, you don’t, that’s a red flag.
Dr. MacArthur makes a presuppositional claim that “the plain meaning is always preferred”. I completely agree. No one disputes that at all. But what Dr. MacArthur means (at least when it comes to eschatology) is the literal interpretation of the text. Kim Riddlebarger, among many, have rightly criticized this hermenutic, and I am certain my premill friends know about this criticism. The literal interpretation is not a valid interpretation, because there are in fact clear areas of Scripture where the author is not intending to mean a literal, plain interpretation. When it comes to historic moments of Scripture, absolutely. But when it comes to prophecy, when it comes to omens, and more poetic texts, obviously the literal interpretation is not going to work. Otherwise when you come to the dragons in Revelation, does that not mean you should be looking for a literal dragon coming out of the ocean with multiple heads? Of course not. Popular dispensational writers like to say that John, in Revelation when he sees locusts is really using locusts as a description of helicopters. How is it that after championing a literal interpretation of the text do they suddenly change the literal meaning to something else?
Dr. R.C. Sproul in a lecture titled “How to Study the Bible” jokingly remarked in a debate he observed with a futurist who argued that in a particular section of the Bible, giant locusts were prophesied and that that was referring to attack helicopters. Dr. Sproul replied, “No, if you want to interpret the Bible literally in the way you’re talking about literal, what you have to look for are not Apache attack helicopters, but giant locusts.”
I think you can see the point I am making here. What I want to emphasize right now is that while the plain meaning is preferred, when it comes to prophetic imagery, the plain meaning simply isn’t always going to work. The Root of Jesse, for instance in Isaiah 11, we see as Christ. A literal interpretation is going to make that very hard to see. The reality of the matter is that the plain meaning only goes so far, until you have to recognize that it doesn’t always work, and so you must therefore use clear passages to interpret the not-so-clear, and what principle is this? It’s the analogia fidei (The rule of faith; Scripture interprets Scripture). Hence, by a reductio ad absurdum (to reduce to absurdity), the concept of a literal interpretation collapses on itself as it is forced to default to a standard Christian principle of interpretation that, when followed through, would at best validate covenant theology, and at worst, invalidate a dispensational theology.
He goes on to say that “only when the context of a passage gives compelling reason to assume that the language is somehow symbolic or spiritual do we ever look for anything other than the obvious meaning”. Once again, I completely agree. The problem is that means that covenant theology is valid, because that is exactly what we do, that is exactly what I just did. Over and over and over again, Old Testament prophecies that the dispensationalist is going to limit to having only to do with national Israel are in fact reinterpreted in the New Testament by the Apostles in the Incarnation.
After this, Dr. MacArthur shifts to discuss where amillennialism gets its arguments from, and he focuses on the argument, from Scripture, that Jesus foretells in a parable in Luke 20 the cutting off of Israel and the grafting in of the Gentiles, which is shown in Acts as the apostles move their evangelistic focus to the Gentiles. Dr. MacArthur does not dispute this, and he is right not to. It is a clear reading of Scripture.
However, after this, Dr. MacArthur asks a rhetorical question, which is: Is the cutting off of Israel for the Gentiles a permanent cutting off? I think we all know his answer to that question. However, Dr. MacArthur misrepresents when he says that the covenant views answer “yes” to that question. If what Dr. MacArthur means is that God has completely abandoned ethnic Israel, then he would be incorrect. However, if what he meant is that God, in the Incarnation of Christ, has made a new covenant by which God is saving all kinds of men, including ethnic Israel, then absolutely, but the old covenant ways are finished.
This is going to need its own focused section, because Romans 11 is, I think, the strongest argument the premillennialist has. It is a rather compelling position, and I want to make sure I focus on this because if I were not to, it would be extremely dishonest of me and towards my premillennial brothers and sisters. I cannot claim to be a cogent defender of covenant theology if I don’t deal with the most significant difficulties of my view. At the same time, I must also remember not to violate my own principles, as well as an awareness of the other standard rules of biblical interpretation.
Dr. MacArthur makes his case from Romans 11:26 that all of Israel will be saved, and Paul then quotes Isaiah 59:20 to make his point. Now I am going to be honest, as I had said I would be, this is a passage that I struggle with in many ways. It’s difficult for me to make clear sense out of Paul, not in that Paul was not making sense, but in that my own mind struggles (likely due to my own personal presuppositions). At one moment, things begin to make sense, and then Paul goes into another section and it begins to shake what I was coming to from before. I admit that this is not one that is so clear for me to understand.
However, that does not mean this is the be-all, end-all of the discussion. I would still consider this to be less primary and more secondary, and perhaps tertiary to the real issue. I would like to provide a way in which to understand Romans 11:26 that makes sense.
If you go back to Romans 8:18, Paul is concluding the salvation of all the elect of God. He’s made his case, that all have sinned, salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ, imputation takes place, we obtain His righteousness, He takes on all our sins, past present and future, and now in Romans 8, there is nothing left but glory for God’s people. If you are a Calvinist (as Dr. MacArthur is), there is really only one way to read Romans 9. If you are not a Calvinist, you’re going to turn Romans 9 into a book with different chapters in and of itself. Romans 9 is Paul answering the objection that if God has really done this for “His people”, who the objector is assuming are the Jews, then why do the Jews reject the Messiah? Paul spends Romans 9 answering this question.
He begins Romans 9 talking about how it is a tragedy that the Jews, the people of the old covenant, reject the Messiah they have been waiting for. Then in verse 6 is when things get very interesting. It is here that Paul takes on the objection with the claim that “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel”. That is absolutely key to understanding the rest of Romans 9. It is the children of the promise who are the true offspring of Abraham (verse 8). Notice verse 6-8, how the covenant names of Abraham and Isaac are invoked. Covenant language once again.
Go back to Romans 4:16 and Paul declares that the true offspring of Abraham are those who have his faith. Paul also says this in Galatians 3:29 that “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”. Romans 9 is all about telling us who God’s people truly are, where their faith truly rested. The ones who are offspring of Abraham by faith (i.e., by the promise of redemption, because that is what Paul is talking about in Romans, not land promises) are the true Israel of God. Notice please, this is not replacement theology; this is fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Jesus Christ and hence, the dispensing of that gift to God’s people, the elect, the Israel of God.
However, just because I took us back to Romans 9 does not negate Dr. MacArthur’s point. Paul does go back to talking about national Israel, but only in order to tell us that His promise was not to save every single genealogical descendant. Paul here is really explaining how the Gentiles are being grafted into God’s covenant. Dr. MacArthur is right, God does not go back on His promises. To do so would be treason on His part. So how then does God save Gentiles (whom He did not make the old covenants in Israel with)? A different way? That cannot be the case. It is by way of covenant, by being grafted in through Jesus Christ, which Paul is explaining in Romans 10:17-24.
So we then return to Romans 11:26 with a better context and we can say that all of Israel will therefore be saved. It is rather clear that in Romans 11:25, Paul is talking about ethnic Israel, but in verse 26, while one can say this is ethnic Israel, it doesn’t necessarily mean so. Paul says “in this way” all Israel will be saved. He’s concluding an argument, and what is that? Everything I was just explaining. All of God’s people will be saved, both Jew and Gentile, in Christ, the true Israel of God. How will they be saved? What have I been saying through this whole section of Romans 9-11? Who God’s people truly are, and how they are saved, which is in Christ–ethnic Israel will be saved, but in Christ, not in the old covenant ways.
The citation Paul quotes in Isaiah 59:20 is a key text, but go into the book of Hebrews chapter 8 and in particular verse 12, and you see the author cites a very similar passage as Paul in Romans 11:27, and the author makes the case that Christ has made a new covenant with God that results in God “remembering their sins no more”, exactly the same language in Romans 11:27. Given what we have already said about this being in a new covenant context in Christ’s work, we must understand that Paul is quoting Isaiah 59:20 to show the fulfillment of this, which has already happened, not that it will happen some time two-thousand-plus years into the future (something Paul never mentions anywhere in Romans 11).
Point being that every instance, including Romans 11:27 in the New Testament where this scriptural citation is referenced is always in the context of fulfillment and new covenant consummation. Going back to Hebrews 8:12, in this new covenant, the old is rendered obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), which means that when cross-referenced with Romans 11:27, the most probable way to interpret this is to say that God is going to save Jews in the new covenant, as has been with all people who believe in God through Christ (Romans 4, Hebrews 11).
Whatever may be the case, I can certainly tell you what is not found in Romans 11, any indication of a pretribulation context. Nowhere do you find in this essential passage of, in particular, dispensational theology, anything regarding a tribulation period, a rapture of Christians or anything that would suggest a premillennial model of the end. Yes, verse 25 alludes to an end, but that does not at all refute an amill or postmill model. Both views believe there will be an “end of the age” as we believe the Jewish old covenant age ended in 70AD. The ending of the church age, we believe, will come when a large number of national Israelites come to Christ in salvation.
This doesn’t do much against the covenantal views of eschatology, and one of the primary errors Dr. MacArthur commits is that he inappropriately defines the covenantal views in the beginning by saying God has turned His back on Israel completely. Missing the actual position means that wherever else you aim your guns will also miss the target, and it tends to miss badly.
Zechariah 8: God’s Redemption of Zion
I don’t think there needs to be a whole lot done in this section Dr. MacArthur moves on to. How you interpret this passage is based on your presuppositions. Are you going to presuppose that the literal interpretation will overshadow the analogia fidei? Or are you going to use the analogia fidei itself? If the former, then of course you see this fulfilled in a premillennial way, somewhere off into the future. You have to. Since you’re presupposing the position, you don’t allow new data to change that presupposition, and instead, you fit data into it, and so when you don’t see these grand fulfillment motifs happening literally, you push the events off into the future. When you have “Israel means Israel” as your overriding presupposition, you have to come to Romans 11:26-27 and see it has not been realized, which I think is a real shame.
Don’t we as Christians believe that in Christ God has “remembered our sins no more”? The consequence is that you can’t find this having any sort of fulfillment in the New Testament. I’m not disputing that, by the way, only to say that I think you have to pick which you will do. In other words, you can’t consistently argue that Romans 11:27 is only about Jews and use such a text in an evangelistic context for anyone but a Jew. Either Romans 11:27 is for believers (and therefore the church fulfills Israel) or for Jews. Pick one.
Having said that, if you look at Zechariah 8, in light of all that I have just discussed in the way of covenant theology, fulfillment and the analogia fidei, does this do anything to harm the covenantal view? Of course not. What about the clear imagery, you may ask? What about it? The premillennialist themselves grant that the plain meaning isn’t necessarily the most viable perspective. That grants a possibility to see this in a Christological way. If you go to, for example Revelation 21:1-2, John foresees the New Heaven and New Earth where the heavenly Jerusalem comes down.
In Zechariah 8:22-23, why can this not be seen plainly as the Gentiles coming to Christ? Remember, covenant theology is not saying that God has removed the old covenant from Israel. Rather, what we are saying is that Christ holds the covenant in fulfillment, and gives that fulfillment to the elect, which includes Gentiles (see my exposition of Romans 11 above, and my section on Covenant Theology). This is how “many nations” will come to Zion, a heavenly Zion. Dr. MacArthur is right, this is a glorious, beautiful picture of the consummation of the kingdom on earth. We don’t dispute that. The only contention at this point is if this is the premillennial/dispensationalist millennial age, and I contend it is not, and I do not believe that you can get any idea of those models. I do not think you can meaningfully connect this with Revelation 20 unless you presuppose premillennialism before you come to the text (circular reasoning fallacy).
Reading Zechariah 8 all depends on presuppositions, and if we are going to meaningfully talk about it, we need to go after our primary operating assumptions first. Nevertheless, I would argue that while a premillennial view can be seen here, you do not get any idea from here that this glorious kingdom picture ends in this chapter after a thousand years.
Is Israel Israel?
He moves on to talk about Galatians 6:16 as one of amillennialism’s proof-texts for their view, and I am rather surprised because I certainly never used this before. But, the real problem here is that Dr. MacArthur, especially in light of his overriding presupposition “Israel is Israel”, I have to say in all due respect, flounders significantly right here in really engaging in a twisting of the Scriptures. A standard biblical method of interpretation is violated because of faulty presuppositions, and that principle is simply context.
Nothing in the context suggests Paul is talking about the Jews here, except the Judiasers (Galatians 6:12-14), especially in any kind of premillennial, or even remotely eschatological way. Verse 16 Paul speaks of the Israel of God being blessed, so somewhere in between verse 14 and 16 Paul goes from talking about bad Jews to talking about blessed Jews. Of course, you’re not going to find that at all. The Israel of God are the people of God. I have to say, this is where you really see the faulty presuppositions of Dr. MacArthur really show their grave weakness. Again, I love Dr. MacArthur, but this right here is an elementary mistake and it is surprising to see him easily trip over it. Human traditions are overriding the text in a big way here.
He goes to quote Romans 9:6 and again with the presupposition “Israel is Israel” Dr. MacArthur once again shreds the clear context of what Romans 9 is all about, and this is very surprising coming from a Calvinist. It breaks up the entire flow of Paul’s argument from Romans 1 to 8. If you want to see how I explain Romans 9 as a covenantal Calvinist, go back to my exposition of Romans 11:26 above. What I wish to say here, and it must be said: if Dr. MacArthur is going to say that Romans 9:6 is about national Israel, then he has to explain why the rest of Romans 9 isn’t, because verse 6 is key to understanding what Paul is talking about. If you don’t get that right, and move on to Romans 9–as a Calvinist–to describing God’s sovereign election in salvation, you are left saying that God is saving according to His own wishes, and Jews by the way are Jews. That verse sticks out like a sore thumb and has no bearing whatsoever with the rest of Romans 9. Once more, the presuppositional errors are astounding.
The alternative, in an attempt to have a consistent interpretation of Romans 9 from verse 6 is to say that Romans 9 is speaking only about ethnic Israel, describing which Jews are going to be saved and which are not, as well as how they are saved. But doing that means that once again, Jews are saved in a completely different way than Gentiles are, and at that point, you can’t be a Calvinist anymore, because while Romans 9 is discussing unconditional election, it’s only related to Jews. You then have to say (again, if you’re being consistent) that God saves Jews in a different way than He does Gentiles. But this consistency only goes so far, since you also have to explain away verse 25-26 which are clearly talking about Gentiles being called into salvation by God’s electing grace.
I realize I am making this complicated, and I am trying not to. The point here is that when you have improper presuppositions overriding your approach to the New Testament, you are going to make a mess of the text. The simple point here once again is consistency. If you are going to start with the presupposition that Israel can only mean national Israel, then you can’t really be a Calvinist when you come to Romans 9. You have to simultaneously say that God saves whom He wills (Jew and Gentile) and at the same time that Romans 9 is only about Jews in light of verse 6. You have to pick one, because the two simply can’t go together.
Is Premillennialism Consistent With Calvinism?
I wish to get to the big question, and while Dr. MacArthur didn’t emphasize this point, despite it being the title of his sermon, this really is the big question. Is it truly proper to be premillennial to be a Calvinist? A few times, and particularly towards the end, Dr. MacArthur makes the case that if you are going to believe that God truly saves, and He never takes back His promises, then you have to believe that God will also save national Israel. The question I want to ask is, is that actually what Calvinism is?
I would introduce another reductio ad absurdum argument and ask (simply for clarity), is Calvinism the theology that God saves, and since God saves, He never fails in His saving? The answer is ‘yes’. God always saves all of His people, yes? Again, the answer should be ‘yes’. If yes, and then you believe that God will save Israel in John MacArthur’s sense, then that means every single Jew that has ever lived will be saved, because they are “God’s people” after all.
But of course, that is not true; no one will in their right mind ever argue that every Jew to live has been saved. The conclusion we are therefore left with is what? They were never God’s true people. They were not given the promise (Romans 9:6), which means that God will not, in fact, save all of Israel. But doesn’t Romans 11 say He does? It does. How do we make sense of that? If Israel in the sense Paul uses it in Romans 11:25 is only ethnic Israel, we have a problem. But, if Paul did not mean ethnic, national Israel, but rather Israel is the spiritual Israel–the elect–then that fits perfectly, which is exactly what Calvinism is teaching. Calvinism is teaching that God saves all of His people, all by Himself, for His glory, and here again, I have to say I am somewhat a loss for words that Dr. MacArthur–a Calvinist–actually misunderstands what Calvinism is. The only thing that can cause such a strong and respectable minister to make such a mistake is traditions forcing one to make inconsistent argumentation as he does in his sermon.
Replacement Theology and the Circular Reasoning of Premillennialism
I know my title here for this section is harsh, but once again, I want my premillennial brothers and sisters to read this not so much as an attack, but as a crucial form of constructive criticism. Again, my intention here is not to throw mud, but to show where there are genuine errors in thinking that needs to be fixed. I’m not asking you here to see a circular reasoning fallacy and therefore become amill or postmill. I’m asking that you realize a straw man, and how circular reasoning causes that straw man so that you can therefore correct it.
Dr. MacArthur starts to talk about the origins of amillennialism, and as one can expect, he is going to accuse it of replacement theology and even go so far as to say that the original amillennialists were anti-Semites. Now I do not believe for a single second that Dr. MacArthur actually believes the vast majority of amillennialists are anti-Semitic. However, it still needs to be said that this is a misrepresentation of what amillennialism is saying. I don’t think it’s really worth repeating over and over that it is not replacement theology, it is fulfillment. If indeed we were saying that God saw Israel’s disobedience and tossed them aside, took the promises from them (in effect, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and so on) and gave them to the Gentiles, that would be replacement theology.
I don’t know much about the Roman Catholic views of eschatology, so I cannot defend nor acquit them here, although I have heard a Roman Catholic priest once, during a mass, make an argument for replacement theology. I consider that to be a very serious heresy and unacceptable for Christian practice. But the point to be made here, and this is why I emphasized in the beginning the word fulfillment, dispensationalists, I have seen, are simply unwilling to allow that little word to fly in this discussion. Why is that? I think it’s because if it does, then the covenant view suddenly starts to make sense. That can’t be allowed, so the categorical establishment is simply denied. It’s not argued of, not debated of, simply denied, and I think that’s very uncharitable from my dispensational friends. Not all of them do this, of course, but to the ones that do, I do think that’s an unfair criticism.
How is this related to circular reasoning? I’ve hinted at it a few times already. Circular reasoning (the petitio principi fallacy) occurs when someone assumes the thing to prove before they prove it. Or, when they impose presuppositions of their own view onto another view that does not share those presuppositions and falsify said view in that way. It is a faulty use of argumentation that ultimately ends, once more, in arguing from an assumption that has not been proven true yet.
When, for instance, I critique the dispensational hermenutic, I am not doing so by imposing covenant theology principles onto it and then demand dispensational theology answer for it. That would be circular argumentation in the negative sense. What I do is attempt to show how the system, under its own principles, comes undone, which is what I have attempted to do here.
The primary reason this replacement accusation is circular reasoning is because the dispensationalist is assuming the “Israel is Israel” hermenutic Dr. MacArthur promotes in the sermon. Therefore, if you are going to assume a literal meaning as being the only meaning of Israel, then how else are you going to understand anyone talking about the church being the fulfillment of Israel? As replacement, literally. That is to say, you are assuming dispensational principles onto non-dispensational principles and calling them false on that basis.
Take for example a discussion with a Unitarian on the Trinity. The Unitarian’s primary accusation is that the Trinity is a belief in three gods. I like how John Calvin expresses the circularity of argument of the Unitarians when he says, “They falsely and calumniously ascribe to us the fiction of their own brain,” (I’m not ascribing that insult to my dispensationalist friends, by the way). Why would a Unitarian be unable to see how we can believe God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because they reject the necessary categories that would make it work, which is the difference between being and person. If the categories we use to show how the Trinity is logical and biblical are allowed, then of course the Trinity works. But when you’ve decided from the outset that it can’t be, then you’re going to run in circles, attacking straw men due to your foundational errors.
But if you don’t use the Israel means Israel hermenutic, if you don’t use the literal interpretation as the dispensationalist does, then of course you’re not going to have that problem. It all fits perfectly. But you see, once again, many of our dispensational friends (not all of them, of course) simply are not willing to let the word “fulfillment” show them how this works, because at the end of the day, a tradition is being defended, not what Scripture is teaching as a whole.
Because if they were to allow fulfillment to fly, then whenever they quote Scripture that says that God will redeem Israel, I would easily be able to say, “Amen! And that promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ and His church.” I think the well-experienced dispensationalist knows that, and so to combat that, they cannot let the fulfillment motif work in this subject. So it is presuppositionally denied, and replaced (no pun intended) with replacement theology. As I said, that is unfair, and I truly believe traditions are being defended by my premillennial/dispensational friends, because it’s not about allowing Scripture to speak, it’s about allowing dispensationalism to tell them how to read the Bible.
One for Israel and One for Gentiles?
Of course, if we were not talking eschatology, and rather the simple faith of Christianity, we all praise fulfillment together. My dispensationalist friends, I have seen over and over again, talk of Christ fulfilling the law, as they rightly should. But I do not see how you can say that, and then when we talk eschatology, no longer allow that to tell you how to view the eschaton, and the reason, I truly believe, is because it is a tradition that was taught, not Scripture.
A response may come in the form of, “We do love fulfillment, and Christ did fulfill the law, but…” I’m sorry, but you can talk about fulfillment all you want, as soon as the “but” or any form of it comes in, that means that there was something left unfulfilled. Did Christ, then, fulfill the law to graft in the Gentile age? That is a possible answer. But you have to understand that you are now forced to argue the gospel in a very different way. You’re forced (again, if you are being consistent) to assert that the current gospel is for Gentiles and then God goes back to Israel some time in the future, and that the preaching in Paul’s letters was meant primarily for Gentiles.
It’s no doubt that the evangelistic focus turns towards the Gentiles, but nevertheless, that is a serious misunderstanding of what Paul was seeking to do. The tension between Jew and Greek was running high all throughout Paul’s ministry, and even after Paul. He was constantly dealing with Judiasers who wanted Christians to become Jews to be true Christians. It is this that Paul is responding to in Galatians in particular, which we are going to focus on. And he does not do this by saying God has a plan for Jews and for Gentiles. What does Paul do?
“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” -Galatians 3:26-29 ESV.
Paul appeals to the gospel to reconcile Jews and Gentiles. If you believe God has a particular redemptive plan for Israel and one for Gentiles, then you have to turn this entire letter on its head. Notice how Paul references the law (verse 17-18, 23, 24). Which law is this? It’s the Mosaic law (verse 17). So Paul is appealing to the Jewish laws of the covenant. Now, either that is for Jews, or for Gentiles. Pick one. Or, you let all of Paul speak and realize he is talking to Christians–which are Jews and Gentiles. So how are Jews justified? By Christ through faith. How are Gentiles justified? By Christ through faith. Both groups held to the standard of God’s law, judged by the law, and redeemed by Christ who has done it on their behalf. Abraham’s offspring that God promised with a nation did not find its fulfillment in Old Testament Israel, it finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and hence His church (Romans 4:13, 9:6, Galatians 3:29).
Now here is the big point. Where here does Paul talk about God going back to deal with national Israel? I would think this would be a big, important place for Paul to make that distinction–if Paul was a dispensationalist, or a premillennialist after all. Where does he do it? Where does Paul say anywhere in Galatians that God is doing this for the present age, until the fullness of the Gentiles come in, and then will go back and finish with national Israel?
Remember, Paul is dealing with Judiasers, who believe that God saves men through the old covenant system. Why doesn’t Paul anywhere say they have misunderstood how God is going to do this, that He will eventually get around to going back to such times? Paul never does that. He pronounces a curse upon those men in Galatians 1:6-9, and that’s what he is rebuking in Galatians. These are what Paul calls the “circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12). That is, these are men who believe we must go back to Jewish practices to be Christians, i.e., Judisasers.
Perhaps that was just for Jews, not Gentiles you might say. Paul never argues that Jews have to do that anymore, since Christ is the completion of all the law. And once again, if Paul was making a premillennial/dispensational case, that would mean that somewhere, somewhere in Galatians it was essential for him to explain a doctrine of eschatology in some way similar to what is claimed of in Romans 11. There is none. What does that mean? It means that Paul’s theology has as its implication that the old covenant is fulfilled, held and put away in Jesus Christ, and any man who will be saved is to believe that He has done it.
Conclusion: History, Traditions and Scripture
I know that many might say to me, “Chase, you just have this view where you can shape shift and mold your eschatology or theology according to whatever you need to make it fit onto the Bible”. I would respond by saying that I wasn’t aware that was a bad thing. Aren’t we supposed to be changing and shifting our views in light of what Scripture is telling us? If I have a tradition, a presupposition that the Bible is telling me is incorrect, shouldn’t I abandon that tradition? Does it need to be tweaked? But when you see someone violate standard methods of interpretation, that is the clear sign of human traditions being read onto the text, and that’s my primary issue with my dispensational friends. It’s not a personal gripe or anything.
This is why we must be so careful, so cautious as to know the difference between our biases and presuppositions and what Scripture is teaching. I’m not saying I am immune to this at all. I just as much must be aware of my presuppositions, and be willing to change them according to biblical testimony. But when you cannot tell the difference between a human tradition and Scripture, that tradition becomes the lens, and Scripture is subjected to that lens. Biblical principles are made to accommodate that tradition, and the only way to test whether or not you are adhering to a tradition foreign to the text of Scripture is to test it for consistency. Can I use this same hermenutic to get the doctrine of Christ? of the Trinity? Of atonement, justification by faith alone, imputed righteousness? If you cannot get these with that same hermenutic, that’s the big red flag that your position is false.
That is why I do not hold to dispensational premillennialism in any way. There are many other reasons, however. Despite this being a very lengthy article, and I apologize for it, nevertheless, this only touches on the surface. I only quoted Revelation once in the article. That’s what many call the dispensationalists playground. I don’t typically use that terminology, because it may sound somewhat unkind. But the point is that Revelation is a huge hangout spot for dispensationalists mainly because of how they view Revelation.
The reason I didn’t discuss Revelation is because once again, unless we have our foundations set forth, we’ll run in circles around each other. It’s not a question so much of when does Revelation occur, but rather, how are you going to start reading Revelation? What’s your starting point? I interpret Revelation in a completely different way than my dispensationalist friends because of my hermenutic as well as historical factors, one of which being that I believe Revelation was written before 70AD. If that’s true, then that has to have a very poignant effect on how you read Revelation. Was John writing to Christians about how the Jewish age was going to end, using heavy symbolism as a code to protect those from persecution during that time? Many make a compelling case that John is borrowing Old Testament prophetic language and imagery, particularly in Daniel, to describe what his visions were. Any average pagan would not have a clue what was being read if they found it. But a Hellenistic Jew, however, would know exactly how to interpret it.
And these are things I honestly don’t think we in the 21st century ever consider. We are so far removed from that time period, and so we come to this text with little to no training in historical contexts and cultural contexts that we have to make these about us in the future to make them relevant to us. I remember as a dispensationalist trying to “decode” Revelation, and I remember watching dispensational thinkers talk in Revelation about how it was prophesying the end of the whole world.
But as I began to study more and more into history, into the things of that time, I suddenly realized there was a lot that I was never taught, that never crossed my mind, and which would dramatically change how I had to read these books. I could continue on with this, but as I said, this was only touching on the surface of this subject and why I reject premillennialism/dispensationalism and find Dr. MacArthur’s sermon, though interesting, an important example of how even the most sound exegete can allow traditions to cloud thinking and change terms and definitions even, particularly of Calvinism, to fit things together.
I have already made this review long enough. That is enough to have to apologize for. Now my only hope is that I do not have to apologize for misrepresentation, and for harshness. It was not my desire to demonstrate either characteristics, and if I have, I would genuinely ask my brothers and sisters on the other side of this issue to meaningfully show me where I went wrong here so that I may correct it. As I said, this was not intended to attack my dispensational friends, but to, in a brotherly, loving way, disagree but disagree strongly with their perspective on this point, and to show why I do. To the glory of God alone, Soli Deo Gloria! God bless!