Heirs of Promise
Heirs of Promise focuses on the church as the fulfillment of prophecies made to God's covenant people--Israel. Unlike other books dealing with covenant theology, Sears focuses mainly on the Apostle Paul's arguments in Romans. If you have purchased the Kindle version, you are in for a treat as all Scripture passages referenced are reprinted for easy one-touch look-up and return. All References are likewise linked, but this is the first book of biblical study that I had found the biblical passages so easily accessible, even when cited multiple times. The book would get five stars just for that-- this is how electronic book reading should be. (Note, all of the reprinted material means that over half of the book content are References.) Disclaimer: I received an advance copy for review from the publisher with the understanding that I would publish a review. The review and ratings are my own opinion and are no way influenced by the publisher.
Sears begins every section with an introduction to the argument he will lay out, develops the argument, then neatly summarizes in conclusion. That makes it read a bit more like a thesis, but also helps the reader not miss the main points; it makes for easy highlighting and there are no tangents or rabbit trails. I made numerous highlights, and I have tried to string together key points that stuck out to me below. To gain greater insight into covenant theology, I read Michael Horton's acclaimed An Introducing Covenant Theology afterward. Sears' book is zoomed in specifically on Paul, whereas most works on the subject argue for the system as a whole and do not exegete specific texts, and that is what differentiates Heirs of Promise. If you want broader background on the Noahic/Abrahamic/Davidic covenant, the Sinaitic covenant, the historical suzerainty covenants that Sinai is so similar to, and how covenant theology has developed since the Reformation, then read a work like Horton's first.
The basic argument of the book is that Paul sees the church as the "new Israel," meaning not that the Church has replaced Israel, but rather that it inherits Israel's promises. Loc. 200:
"By calling the Church the new Israel I do not mean the replacement of Israel, but rather the continuation of Israel reconstituted in Christ. Understood this way, Christ is presented as God’s true Son/Israel, through whom all of God’s purposes for Israel and creation are realized. Consequently, through faith in Christ, the Church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, becomes God’s new covenant people and heirs of all of his saving promises."
(Horton phrases this as the church being "Israel's fruition," which I think is a better description, Horton and Sears both note others have used similar phrases.) Sears relies heavily on commentaries by Beale, Moo, and Schreiner; if there is a weakness it may be in not consulting more historical works on the topic, and Romans, particularly from the early Reformers and the Puritans.
The author begins with a critique of some of the disparate views of dispensationalists, illustrating that there is diversity among dispensationalist thought as well as among covenantalists, though covenantalists come across to me as more unified. Sears is using a biblical-theological approach (Loc. 187):
"biblical theology is exegetically driven, sensitive to the historical, literary, and theological features of the diverse corpora of Scripture, while at the same time conscious of the interrelationship between these documents as a unified whole. Second, biblical theology is concerned with redemptive history, following the development of theological themes and motifs along the biblical timeline. This redemptive historical timeline finds its culmination in the Messiah. Finally, as the first two features are employed, the Bible is understood on its own terms, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture."
Covenant theology is, to my mind, inseparable from biblical theology, the overarching story of the Bible is a continuous one as God's purpose for Creation is being fulfilled in Christ and His chosen people. The covenant motif runs from creation to the Church. Christ is the "true Israel" who fulfilled both the Sinaitic Law and all the promises of the Old Testament. Only those who believe in Christ are children of Abraham and heirs to his promise (Galatians 3:7-8) and are the "new Israel," the Church. Sears appears to be addressing mostly dispensationalists who believe Messianic Jews are somehow first-class citizens in the Kingdom, or those of the more universalist persuasion that national Israel today is blessed and protected even though its people reject Jesus as the Messiah. He endeavors to show that believing Christians and Jews are on "equal footing." Key to this is proving that "Paul’s gospel is a fulfillment of the promised deliverance from exile and a new creation spoken by the prophets," (loc. 217). The Old Testament promises made throughout the Old Testament to a restored Israel are fulfilled in the Church, not the nation of Israel today, because of the Church's relationship to Christ, the true Israel.
While Sears sees the Sinaitic covenant as temporary, he notes the fulfillment of various aspects of Exodus 20 by the Church. Israel was called to be a "nation of priests" through whom God would bless and judge other nations, just as God promised that Abraham's offspring would bless every family on earth (Genesis 12). "Paul sees the new exodus, the new covenant, and the Abrahamic covenant as fulfilled in the Church. If such is the case, it is difficult not to see the Church as the new Israel in Christ" (loc. 662).
What about national Israel, and what about the land--Palestine-- promised to Abraham and inhabited by ethnic Jews today? Some of Paul's writing is eschatological, but covenentalists and dispensationalist differ on their interpretation, particularly in Romans 11. Romans 11 tells us that one day ethnic Israel will be grafted back onto the tree of Israel that gentiles have been grafted onto by a gracious God through Jesus (Rom. 11:24). There are ethnic Messianic Jews who now are part of the tree, and Paul forsees a further ingathering of Jews into the "new Israel" of the Church. However, "dispensationalists still want more from Romans 11 than merely salvation for national Israel. Some advocate that Romans 11 teaches not only a future salvation for the nation of Israel, but also a future restoration" (loc. 1687).
"Paul’s allusion to Jeremiah 31:33–34 does not necessitate a national restoration for Israel. Paul is simply saying that Israel will not be left out of the new covenant. Further, we must not forget that the new covenant includes the Gentiles as well; otherwise, we undermine Paul’s emphasis on the Gentiles being grafted into the one people of God (11:17–24)" (loc. 1699). "Paul likely sees the land promise to be expanded from Palestine to “the world'" (loc. 1704).
Prophecies like Ezekiel 36:33-36 should not be applied to the re-establishment of national Israel in 1945, as many American evangelicals seem wont to do, but rather should be seen as being fulfilled by the Church. Loc. 847-849: "(T)he new creation was promised to Israel (Isa 65:17; 66:22), but Paul sees this promise belonging to the Church, the new Israel...Paul has argued this reality—namely that 'Christians … [are] to be the actual beginning fulfillment of the prophesied spiritual resurrection of Israel that was to transpire in the latter days at the time of their restoration from exile' (citing G.K. Beale).”
Location 1341, 1439:
"Although Paul will later argue that there is still a future salvation for the nation of Israel, because God foreknew them (Romans 11:2), this salvation will not be experienced outside of the new covenant community of the Church...this Israel is not national Israel, for unbelieving Jews are excluded. Rather, this is 'the spiritual Israel within Israel that, according to Romans 9, has always been in existence and, according to 11:16, grows from the seed of God’s promises to the patriarchs' (Moo). This olive tree, which consists of both believing Jews and Gentiles, is the Church, a continuation of spiritual Israel expressed under the new covenant. Consequently, it is appropriate then to identify this new covenant people as the new Israel."
So, Sears writes that there is a future salvation for the nation of Israel which does not contradict Paul's conception of the Church as the new Israel.
Loc. 1525: "we may find it more helpful to consider the Church to be the new Israel while at the same time holding to a future for ethnic Israel." Loc. 1624: "Paul says the plērōma of Israel (11:12b) will not occur until the plērōma (“fullness”) of the Gentiles has been consummated (11:25b). Once all the elect from among the Gentiles believe, it is at this time “all Israel will be saved” (11:26a). Consequently, the “all” (pas) of 11:26a must correspond with the “full inclusion” (plērōma) of 11:12b. Otherwise, Paul’s argument would be anticlimactic" (loc. 1611, citing Cranfield).
Sears sums up his argument thus (loc. 1752): "Although one could object that Paul never explicitly calls the Church the 'new Israel,' we shouldn’t reject this theological designation. To identify the Church as the new Israel is merely to grant it a term that encompasses the truth that the Church is God’s new covenant people and heirs of all his saving promises. The Church is not the replacement of Israel, but the continuation of Israel reconstituted in Christ."
This book is an excellent addition to any study of covenant theology or of Romans. I give it five stars out of five. Buy the Kindle version and enjoy the experience.