In this series we have learned how it is always dangerous to replace Israel.
Replacing Israel occurs when one interprets the word Israel in the text of Scripture to mean the church or all believers—understanding them to be the new Israel or the spiritual Israel. It is taking the concept of Israel (the people, the nation, or the land) in a non-literal sense.
We are concluding this series with a practical case study, showing how these issues worked out in the life, ministry, and influence of one of the greatest Reformers in the history of the church.
That man, who ultimately stumbled over his attempt to relate biblically to the Jewish people, was, of course, Dr. Martin Luther.
On October 31, we will remember and celebrate the 504th anniversary of the Reformation, which Luther began by posting the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, protesting the abuses of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s brave stand for salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, on the basis of Scripture alone, all for the glory of God alone, brought spiritual freedom to masses of people, and ultimately began the transformation of Western civilization.
Luther was a man of great courage and conviction—and he boldly challenged the greatest worldly powers of his day, willing to stand on the Word of God alone even when facing the threat of death.
Yet, like the other Reformers (as considered in the previous installment), Luther failed to reform his conception of biblical truth to the point of restoring Israel to its rightful place within Christian theology.
Amazingly, in 1523, Luther dared to confront the prevailing attitudes in the church and culture of his day on this very issue. He wrote a remarkable treatise that attracts little attention in our time, called That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew. Here is an excerpt:
I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs. They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn. If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them.1
Luther went on to state:
When we are inclined to boast of our position we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood, the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are …. And although the gospel has been proclaimed to all the world, yet He committed the Holy Scriptures, that is, the law and the prophets, to no nation except the Jews ….2
Twenty years later, however, an aged Luther expressed a wildly different sentiment. In 1543, he wrote an awful, infamous book called On the Jews and Their Lies. Unfortunately, that book is remembered, and has been widely referenced. Luther’s words are almost too horrible to repeat, yet the lessons we can learn from them must not be forgotten. Here is a portion from one of its most oft-quoted sections:
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy …. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians ….
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.3
Erwin Lutzer reminds us of the tragic consequences of these words:
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler commended Luther as a great reformer ….
Needless to say, Luther’s comments are despicable and anti-Christian and must be strongly denounced ….4
If he had had “ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15), Luther could have accepted correction on these matters regarding the Jewish people from a loyal follower, Andreas Osiander, who had attended the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 and the Diet of Augsburg in 1530.5 Osiander countered the offensive and disgusting slanders that Luther had begun to accept regarding the Jewish people, especially “in Luther’s last days, when the irritability of age and disease took over.”6
But, throughout his lengthy ministry, Luther was completely confident in replacing Israel theologically by employing a spiritual or allegorical interpretation of the term Israel.7 Indeed, I doubt he ever seriously considered the possibility that God would still have a place for the literal people, nation, and land of Israel in the prophetic future. On this issue, his senses were never alerted to the literal truths of prophetic Scripture related to the immense importance of Israel. With regard to eschatology, he reformed very little of the Augustinian view passed down through the centuries by the traditions of the Roman Catholic system.8
Michael Vlach states:
In his later years, Luther held to a strong punitive replacement theology in which he believed the Jewish people were permanently punished and rejected by God for their unbelief in Jesus.9
Larry Pettegrew agrees, summarizing: “The Reformation Lutherans were militant supersessionists.”10
In the end, the errors of Replacement Theology had dulled Luther’s conscience with regard to the imperative of understanding and transmitting “the gospel … for the Jew first” (Romans 1:16).
Luther is not alone in bearing blame. Vlach writes, “Replacement theology has been the soil from which anti-Semitism grows and flourishes.”11
Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson wrote: “While the world’s hatred toward Israel manifests itself in many different ways, ultimately, it all has its origins in the work of Satan.”12
Indeed, it is a serious thing to falsely identify the church in place of Israel. Christ Himself references this type of misinterpretation, with significant warnings attached, in His words to the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9, respectively.
If God had ever chosen to replace Israel, this would bring no comfort to the Christian. Rather, as we watch Him keep His covenant promises with the people of Israel from its biblical past, through its strategic present, all the way to the end of its prophetic future —even undeserving as the Jewish people (like all of us) may be—we, too, can rest assured:
Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).
God still has a future for Israel! But we miss the point—and some of the greatest leaders in the history of the church have indeed missed it—when we replace Israel.
May God help us to fully understand the biblical importance of Israel.
1 Martin Luther; “Martin Luther, ‘That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew’ (1523) – excerpts;” Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations; 21 December 2008; https://ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/primary-texts-from-the-history-of-th… Internet; accessed 4 October 2021.
3 Martin Luther; “Martin Luther, ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ (1543) – Parts 11–13;” Part 11; Martin H. Bertram, translator, Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971); Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations; 21 December 2008; https://ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/primary-texts-from-the-history-of-th… Internet; accessed 4 October 2021.
4 Erwin W. Lutzer, Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), p. 116.
5 Responding to the infamous blood libel, which Luther had apparently come to accept, Osiander wrote a work titled “Whether It be True and Credible That the Jews Secretly Strangulate Christian Children and Make Use of Their Blood.” Christopher Probst writes, “In 1529, Andreas Osiander authored a tract, published anonymously in 1540, that systematically and forcefully refuted the charge of Jewish ritual murder of Christian children.” Christopher Probst; “Martin Luther and ‘The Jews’: A Reappraisal;” The Theologian; http://theologian.org.uk/churchhistory/lutherandthejews.html#_ftnref20; Internet; accessed
4 October 2021. James White stated: “Osiander was one of the early reformers of this time period who was thoroughly opposed to this attitude, and taught that, as Christians, we should be seeking to love and evangelize the Jews, reason with them from the Scriptures, that their persons should be protected….” James White; “59 – Zwickau Prophets and Luther’s Sacralism;” Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church; 6 May 2018; https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=56181316177; Internet; accessed 5 October 2021. Larsen states: “The apex of Lutheran eschatology in this time frame probably is seen in Andreas Osiander (1448-1552) …..” David L. Larsen, The Company of Hope: A History of Bible Prophecy in the Church (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2004), p. 113. Osiander’s son Lucas (1534-1604) became a Lutheran pastor and Bible commentator.
6 Lutzer, p. 116.
7 As Moulton and Marsh state: “Thus, for Luther, both Christ and the church had forever fulfilled any promises given to national Israel viz., prophecies that solely promised blessings.” Brian Moulton and Cory M. Marsh, “How Dispensational Thought Corrects Luther’s View of Israel,” in Forged from Reformation: How Dispensational Thought Advances the Reformed Legacy, eds. Christopher Cone and James I. Fazio (El Cajon, CA: Southern California Seminary Press, 2017), p. 207.
8 Horner writes: “The fact that Martin Luther was a devoted Augustinian monk should help us appreciate the antecedents of his blatant anti-Judaic tirades that climaxed his momentous life.” Barry E. Horner, Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2007), p. 26. Larsen states, “The Augustinian misinterpretation nearly blotted out the idea of a Messianic Kingdom and the restoration of the Jews.” David L. Larsen, Jews, Gentiles & the Church: A New Perspective on History and Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Publishers, 1995), p. 124
9 Michael J. Vlach, “What Should We Think About Replacement Theology?,” in What Should We Think About Israel?, ed. J. Randall Price (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2019), p.189.
10 Larry D. Pettegrew, “Israel and the Dark Side of the Reformation,’” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, ed. Larry D. Pettegrew (The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2020), p. 76.
11 Vlach, p. 190.
12 Tim LaHaye and Ed Hindson, Target Israel: Caught in the Crosshairs of the End Times (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2015), p. 100.
Paul J. Scharf (M.A., M.Div., Faith Baptist Theological Seminary) is a church ministries representative for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, serving in the midwest. He also assists Whitcomb Ministries and writes for “Answers” Magazine and Regular Baptist Press. For more information on his ministry, visit foi.org/scharf or email email@example.com.