By the end of the discourse which is the capstone to the whole doctrinal lesson that is the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul has effectively re-defined Israel and explains how people of Jewish heritage fit within it. They are not 'the tree' but branches that have been removed. To remain a part of God's people, they must embrace the New Covenant. And in fact, that in one sense that was always the case.
But for the moment there's a single critical verse that needs to be considered. It's the key to the passage and opens the door to concepts and ideas that afford us a greater understanding of the whole of Scripture.
The verse is Romans 9.6, and in the latter part of that verse Paul says, "For they are not all Israel who are of Israel."
Are there two Israel's or one? When all is said and done, when Christ returns there will be but one true people of God, the elect (both Jew and Gentile) chosen by God before the foundation of the world and saved by grace through faith. Today in the era of the New Covenant there is but one Spirit-formed flock based on the person and work of the Shepherd, Jesus Christ. This flock is identified by Paul in Ephesians as the Commonwealth of Israel of which the Gentile believers are now a part. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, the inheritor of the promises, the bride, the holy nation, the Kingdom of God on Earth. This body which transcends the ages will survive the Eschaton and exist eternally. Why? Because already it is not 'of' this world.
There is but one Israel, but that's always been the case when we look at 'Israel' from the perspective of those who are elect, predestined, chosen, those who are God's from all eternity, from before the foundation of the world.
This truth though offensive to many (as both Christ in John 6 and Paul in Romans 9 acknowledge) is nevertheless glorious and wonderfully true. It is a high mystery and beyond our comprehension. It is a doctrine of wonder and praise and a great comfort to us. In this doctrine we learn of the power and majesty of God and His rule over the universe. And we rightly tremble.
But in terms of history, God gives the covenant a visible form with signs and seals attached. A seal of course is a mark by which something is signified as owned, as identified.
How do these visible signs represent the invisible or eternal realities? Paul seems to suggest by saying that not all Israel are Israel that somehow people (in this case the Old Testament Jews) can be part of the covenant but not really and truly part of the covenant. How does this work, and what does it mean for the visible signs of the covenant in the time in which we live?
In Genesis 17 we read of God's covenant with Abraham wherein he promises that Abraham will be the father of many nations and that He will establish an everlasting covenant with him and his descendants. The promise of this covenant was given an outward token, a sign, the seal of circumcision as it is called in Romans 4.
This sign was indeed the symbol of the covenant, the symbol of Abraham's salvation. The cutting of the skin with the requisite words attached to the act, set apart Abraham and his people as belonging to God, the God who had said "I will be your God and you will be my people."
Outwardly speaking in time and space this was the way or means by which God's people were signified and separated from the world. Those who claimed to belong to God and yet were not separated by the signs of the covenant which included the sacrifice and later the whole of the Mosaic Law and its various codes and requirements, had no legitimate claim.
Apart from the covenant there was no salvation... Jesus said as much to the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not merely a national label or mark of identification. Covenant membership signifies salvation.
But of course it's not that simple. Merely participating in and partaking of the outward forms was no guarantee of salvation. God could raise up stones and make them into children of Abraham.
There are already warnings of this in the Pentateuch. We read in Deuteronomy 10.16 that mere outward circumcision isn't enough. The 'foreskin', the part cut-away signifying the sinful nature is told to be cut away from... the heart? The outward sign isn't enough. What really matters is the heart. And yet does this mean the outward sign of circumcision is therefore rendered meaningless? Does it simply not matter?
We think of the outward signs of sacrifice, the shedding of blood and the killing of animals upon a stone altar. The sacrifices were required by the law to confess and atone for sin. It would be disobedient to neglect them and to remain in good standing, to remain in the covenant it was expected that God's people would perform these sacrifices through the priesthood God had established.
In 1 Samuel 15 Saul does not follow the Lord's command regarding the destruction of the Amalekites. Disobeying God, Saul kept the 'good' things for himself and the people and when confronted by Samuel insists the many beasts were kept to offer as sacrifice, as worship to the Lord.
Saul's sin of disobedience is pretty obvious but Samuel says something that has implications beyond this incident. He says, "to obey is better than sacrifice."
These words signify that the heart, the motive is actually of greater importance than the mere outward sign. Does this mean that the outward sign is really not that important?
Hosea 6.6 says something even more striking. "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings."
God doesn't desire sacrifice? To know God is of far greater importance than the outward forms? Does Hosea mean to suggest that the sacrifices actually don't matter?
David says the same thing in the famous passage of Psalm 51. As he cries out because of his sin with Bathsheba he says in vv. 16-17, "For you do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit..."
Once again does this mean that God in fact didn't care about the actual physical sacrifices?
So are the signs to be reckoned meaningless?
There are many theological schools of thought that basically take this position. They may not express it in quite that way, but what they're suggesting is that the heart is what really matters, what we might call the invisible things. The visible signs and symbols that we use in space and time cannot actually mean anything nor have any effect on the invisible or eternal world. Just because someone goes through the outward ceremonies it in no way guarantees the reality depicted in the symbol, the washing away of sin, communion etc... are in fact at work in the person's heart.
These few passages we've looked at seem to give that view a great deal of validity. In light of these passages how can we believe for a moment that the signs tell us much of anything about whether or not a person is truly saved?
Perhaps that's the wrong question. Despite the wonder of these truths, we're in fact quite unable to tell if someone is 'truly' saved. We are given signs that identify God's people as part of His Kingdom and Covenant. Beyond that it is by their fruits that we will know them, but even that is not always a sure sign. If they do not bear fruit then they demonstrate that they are not alive, not in a state of repentance and the transformed mind. If the Word is being faithfully preached and administered such people will leave, change, or revolt.
If they fail to repent then they must be eventually put out of the Church.
But even then it is quite possible if not likely that there will be imposters in our midst.
Theologies that rest on the subjective and identify subjective experience and testimony with eschatological salvation fall into a trap of presumption. In addition whether they mean to or not they relegate sanctification to an optional status as apostasy is eliminated from the theological lexicon. If the person had 'the experience' then they are saved and since there's no way to judge that, you can never question whether or not they are truly regenerate.
Sadly some have sought to remedy this problem through the creation of legalistic structures and frameworks which in the end is equally destructive.
With the subjective understanding of salvation, perseverance and endurance are stripped of meaning and the outward signs and seals become 'first steps of obedience' or optional means by which the individual proclaims their decision experience... rather than a proclamation by God regarding your status and His salvation at work within you.
The many verses that speak of the outward signs in language reminiscent of salvation cannot be understood in light of such a system.
When we understand the nature of the outward visible administration of the covenant we can begin to understand the meaning and function of the holy rites of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. We can understand how visibly they are indeed the very tokens of salvation and when understood in faith these significations of the Gospel work in our hearts and strengthen our faith. The Supper becomes true spiritual food, true bread of heaven that enables us to look to Christ seated in the heavens (1 Cor 11.26) and to persevere to the end.
Our faith is not in the tokens but in what they signify.
We cannot tell who is elect and who is not. We're not meant to. That doctrine is not meant to govern our visible and temporal ecclesiology. It's a comfort to God's people concerning His power, love and the gracious nature of salvation. It reflects the true eschatological nature of the Covenant.
The Church is outwardly governed by means of the Covenant but the Covenant in space and time. It is a visible and thus imperfect, temporary and incomplete administration of God's Covenant in This Age between the ages. It is the means God has provided for the exiles and like the Old Covenant it reflects the eternal reality, the True Covenant as it were. But this administration is not one of shadows waiting to be fulfilled, but one of earnest, down-payment, one of foretaste and anticipation.
Visibly speaking the True Church is where the Word is and among the congregations and individuals who most closely conform to the Apostolic teaching. To be affiliated with the Word community is to be proclaimed one of God's children and it is sufficient for This Age. But that affiliation is itself not enough. It must be accompanied by a living, growing and enduring faith but one that ultimately only God alone can discern.
What does this do to the doctrine of assurance? The Biblical doctrine is not the presumption found in much of Protestantism nor is it the angst and terror that governs so much of Wesleyanism and Roman Catholicism. It is a blessed hope, a solid assurance that produces an enduring faith that never fails to work out salvation in fear and trembling, that never fails to make one's calling and election sure, one that continually rests in Christ praying for grace, one that eagerly awaits the great homecoming.
But in terms of the visible administration of the Covenant, the Church of Jesus Christ, we only have the tokens God has given. Baptism is a sign of initiation, union with Christ, the passing from death to life, and the washing away of sins. It is the mark of becoming a Christian and being set apart unto God. It is the normative means by which a person is identified as a Christian.
The fact that there are so many false professors, false baptisms and confusion on the matter must not detract from what the Scriptures teach. Satan sows confusion and has had great success in this matter to the point that some bodies have dispensed with the ordinances altogether.
The Lord's Supper signifies the ongoing fellowship of the believer in the Body of Christ, the participation in the community and their living and blessed hope concerning the return of Christ who is even now sitting as our Risen Lord at the right-hand of the Father. Covenantally speaking it the bread of heaven, the means God has provided enabling us to feed on Christ and derive our spiritual sustenance from Him. This is true because the Supper is simply the Word with a visible symbol attached.
These symbols of Baptism and the Supper are precious because they represent the rare visible faith-tokens or tangibles given to us in this New Covenant age. We are but dust and sinful flesh, our faith is weak and God grants us a kind of accommodating mercy in these symbols. But it is also appropriate that in this Age of the Spirit they are minimal.
These powerful symbols are also judgment on those who partake of them falsely and they are proclamations of the coming judgment on the world. They are judgment on us too, but Christ pays the price and thus they are very poignant pictures of the gospel itself.
The world might understand that better if we more faithfully proclaimed the ordinances/sacraments for what they were. They are pictures of the Gospel and remember the 'good news' is the fact that we are delivered from sin and its consequences. The consequences of sin are the coming wrath and judgment. There's no 'good news' without the ominous expectation of judgment.
Baptism signifies a passage through the waters, the sea, the realm of death from which the Beast arises and his minions are vanquished. We must pass through the realm of death in order to leave this world and pass into the promised land.
The Supper being the body of Christ proclaims that the world must answer for his death, they must account for the salvation offered and rejected, they must account for the price God has provided to remedy the curse. His resurrection and ascension proclaim God's vindication of His mission and showing His death till He come, the Supper proclaims that He will come again.
Christ is the Tree of Life that we are grafted into. The Supper is a foretaste of the Heavenly Fruit as it were, the salvation that is in Christ. Those who reject Christ will be banished from the True Garden, the Heavenly Eden, and denied the Tree of Life they will experience never-ending death and destructive vengeance forever exiled to the realm of fiery death.
The New Testament expects and assumes that believers are part of local congregations who exercise the ordinances and proclaim these truths. By faith the Spirit utilizes these outwards signs to stir our hearts and strengthen us. They are 'blessings' for edification and 'curses' when they are treated as common, indifferent or of no consequence.
There is a wonderful dynamic present in Scripture where on the one hand the outward manifestations of the Covenant are seemingly of no consequence and yet on the other hand they are essential components to God's operations in the fallen world that point to the Age to Come.
The answer is not to find a compromise but to embrace both teachings, both extremes as it were and to hold these truths simultaneously understanding that we the redeemed though we are citizens of heaven, who live in both ages at once and neither the temporal or eschatological aspects of doctrinal truth can be ignored or softened.