Paul wrote Galatians to turn the churches in Galatia back to the true gospel after they had been deceived by Judaizers, Jewish “Christians” who required Gentiles to adopt practices and customs from the Mosaic Law, especially circumcision, in order to be granted full inclusion in the church. Paul repudiates this false gospel and, in Galatians 6:11–18, concludes his letter by contrasting those who “desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh” (6:13) with his apostolic boasting in the cross alone (6:14): “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (6:15–16). This last phrase, “the Israel of God,” has proven controverisal.
View 1: The Jewish People as a Whole
The first view is that “the Israel of God” refers to the Jewish people as a whole. In this view, ethnic Israel is still the people of God in some sense, regardless of their response to Christ, and Paul is asking for God’s mercy to be extended to them. Paul recognizes that “a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25), and he is here wishing them mercy because he knows that “in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26). F. F. Bruce comments,
For all his demoting of the law and the customs, Paul held good hope of the ultimate blessing of Israel. They were not all keeping in line with ‘this rule’ yet, but the fact that some Israelites were doing so was in his eyes a pledge that this remnant would increase until, with the ingathering of the full tale (πλήρωμα) of Gentiles, ‘all Israel will be saved’. The invocation of blessing on the Israel of God has probably an eschatological perspective. (Bruce, 275)
View 2: Jewish Christians
The second view is that “the Israel of God” refers to Jewish Christians, ethnic Jews who have received Christ. In this view, Paul is pronouncing a blessing upon those within national Israel who have faith in the Messiah. He is not further explaining the identity of “all who walk by this rule,” but he is zooming in on those within the church who are ethnic Jews.
The first two views are united in affirming an ethnic dimension to Paul’s words and resist identifying the church (which includes Gentile believers) as Israel.
View 3: Jews and Gentiles in Christ (the Church)
The third view is that “the Israel of God” is the church, Jews and Gentiles in Christ. Paul has been adamant throughout the letter that it is “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (3:7), and this includes Gentile believers (3:8). In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek … And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (3:28–29). Christians, not ethnic Jews, have the heavenly Jerusalem for their mother (4:26) and “like Isaac, are children of promise” (4:28). As Paul later writes in Romans 2:28–29, “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” When Paul goes to summarize his letter in Galatians 6:11–16, he has a vanishingly thin line to cross to identify the church (Jews and Gentiles in Christ) as “the Israel of God” (6:16).
Grant Osbourne concludes, “the message of the book definitely points toward ‘the Israel of God’ being the church as the true Israel” (339). Paul has a strong polemical thrust in Galatians: he is rebuking Jews who boast in their ethnicity and define the boundaries of God’s people by the law and circumcision instead of faith in Christ. “It is hard to conceive, after all that Paul has written against the works of the law, that he would be pronouncing a blessing on the Jewish people” (Osbourne, 339). And while it is possible that Paul wishes mercy on “all Israel,” ethnic Israel on the whole, in anticipation that they will be saved by entering the church through Christ, the message of Galatians supports the view that the church is the Israel of God. Longenecker concludes,
All of the views that take “the Israel of God” to refer to Jews and not Gentiles … fail to take seriously enough the context of the Galatian letter itself. For in a letter where Paul is concerned to treat as indifferent the distinctions that separate Jewish and Gentile Christians and to argue for the equality of Gentile believers with Jewish believers it is difficult to see him at the very end of the letter pronouncing a benediction (or benedictions) that would serve to separate groups within the churches.
“The Israel of God” thus refers to the same group as “all who walk by this rule.” The NIV assumes this view: “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God” (cf. RSV). Wesley likewise comments, “Peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel, that is, the Church, of God – Which consists of all those, and those only, of every nation and kindred, who walk by this rule.” Luther (despite other troubling views on ethnic Jews) gets this right:
Here the apostle is offering a contrast with the false apostles and Jews, who gloried in their ancestry and boasted that they were the people of God, that they had the law, and so on. In effect Paul is saying, “The Israel of God are those who, along with faithful Abraham, believe the promises of God offered in Christ, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, and not only those who are physically descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (499)
Calvin agrees, “There are two classes who bear this name, a pretended Israel, which appears to be so in the sight of men, — and the Israel of God. …he gives the appellation of the Israel of God to those whom he formerly denominated the children of Abraham by faith, (Galatians 3:29,) and thus includes all believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, who were united into one church.”
This is not “replacement theology,” a pejorative term frequently slapped onto any identification of the church with Israel. Rather, it recognizes “a continuity between the older Israel and the church in that the church is a community of both Jews and Gentiles” (Bruce, 274). The Jewish people are reconstituted in Christ to include Gentiles, branches who are grafted into the tree of Israel where disobedient Jews were broken off (Rom. 11:17). In Christ, Gentiles are no longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). We are the Israel of God.