Archive for March, 2011


March 24, 2011


Go to Part 1 – A Look At Dispensationalism
Go to Part 2 – A Look At Covenant Theology

 A Weakened Church

I suppose this is a severely controversial statement that I’m about to make, but I cannot deny my conscience in this. 

I’m convinced that dispensationalism has weakened the Church. 

However, I ask the reader not to take that statement to an extreme, for it is a statement of degree, not an absolute.  For example, some of the people whom I believe to be among the greatest Christians of our era are dispensationalists; people like John MacArthur, Jerry Falwell, and Charles Stanley.  I do not advocate the proverbial throwing out of the baby with the bath water.  But do let us get to that bath water.

First of all, dispensationalism has weakened the Church by its inconsistent and disjointed hermeneutic, causing a latent uncertainty towards the Bible and shaking its adherent’s confidence. Now, I can hear the shouts of dispensationalists in my ear as I write this, because the most zealous Bible fundamentalists in the world are dispensationalists, and any accusation that they may have a weak position on the Bible would be totally perplexing to them.  However, I would point out that a strong attitude does not guarantee a strong position or doctrine.   

Inconsistency is really the hallmark of the dispensational approach to the Bible.  Its determined literalism is the root cause of this inconsistency.  A hermeneutic that presupposes that a given passage is to be taken literally unless one can be convinced otherwise, tends to have the opposite of its intended effect.  For example, when taken literally, certain passages can directly contradict other passages.  Well, if we are to take everything literally, by what means are we able to discern the truth when these apparent contradictions appear?  But when we let the scripture be what it is within a given genre and historical context, we can relax the tension between apparent contradictions because in fact those tensions don’t even exist in reality.

An example of dispensational inconsistence is given by Gentry:

“But when it supports their eschatological system, dispensationalists vigorously argue for literalism.  For instance, of Isaiah 9:7 the New Scofield Reference Bible explains:  “’The throne of David’ is an expression as definite, historically, as ‘the throne of the Caesars,’ and does not admit of spiritualizing.”  Yet dispensationalist Gordon H. Johnston writes: “God will fulfill His promises in the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 7:8-16) to establish the eternal Davidic dynasty over Israel through a single ideal Davidic King who will reign eternally (Ps. 89:20-37).”  But when we read this passage we discover it expressly mentions David himself, not a “Davidic King”: “I have found David My servant;/With My holy oil I have anointed him,/with whom My hand will be established;/My arm also will strengthen him” (Ps 89:20-21).”


Also, Gentry repeatedly notes that dispensationalists, in contradiction to their own rules of interpretation,  consistently interpret certain passages non-literally when the text gives no warrant for a metaphorical understanding whatsoever.  Such is the case in almost every mention of the term “this generation” in the Gospels, which dispensationalists immediately spiritualize to mean “a future generation” (see

So we see that the dispensationalists must constantly be unsure as to whether the passage he is reading is to be taken literally or not, whether the passage is “applicable” or not, and whether he has indeed taken the right side of the debate or not. 

Most embarrassing for dispensationalists is the glaring fact that their literalism is the same literalism that the first century Pharisees practiced.  It was the Jews’ literalistic approach to the Kingdom of God that was their downfall.  It was the Pharisees that believed that salvation was by their ethnic identity, an idea that Jesus flatly condemned (“not of blood”, John 3:12; “you are of your father the Devil, John 8:44).  Dispensationalism commits the grievous error of endorsing the doctrine of the Pharisees by insisting that God will someday save all of the Jews based on their blood-relation to Abraham.

Secondly, dispensationalism has weakened the Church by its portrayal of the Church as a sort of afterthought, a temporary companion while God awaits the return of His true love, Israel.  As will be discussed more at length in the next section, the idea that modern Israel is God’s People in every since of the Old Covenant has led many Christians to expend great effort and funds on the political objectives of modern Israel.  And many of those churches that do maintain a spiritual attitude toward Israel are guilty of over-emphasizing the conversion of Jews, which has steered energy and funds away from other areas of ministry that should have equal or greater value.  After all, the “Great Commission” was the Lord’s command to “teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

Also, dispensationalism’s propensity to advocate the local church at the expense of the universal or invisible church has led to unnecessary fractures and extreme separatism within the body of Christ.  In the local-church-only system, the biblical commandment to care for one another, being “members one of another” (Romans 12:5), applies only to those members of a particular church, and not necessarily to those of another church.  When that ethos is mixed into the fundamentalist movement, noble and courageous as it was, the result has often been an ugly form of separatism that demonizes any opposition to one’s particular view and discounts the faith and questions the orthodoxy, yea, even the salvation, of other Christians.  In the separatists retreat into the bunker, anti-intellectualism and doctrinal in-breeding can take place.  When one is eventually forced outside the bunker, one’s faith can be easily weakened, being unaccustomed to opposing viewpoints, unable to articulate one’s viewpoint in the face of opposition, and unable to function in an environment of diverse opinions.  Others simply stay in the bunker, never willing to take the risk of discovering that they may be wrong.


Christian Zionism

I am compelled by the possibility of being labeled as anti-Semitic to provide a strong disclaimer.  My interest in this treatise is strictly spiritual, not political, and the status of modern Israel concerns me only insofar as it affects the Christian world.  I have no qualms with the right of Israel to exist; I support it as a rational solution to certain political and societal problems caused by the lack of a Jewish homeland during the Diaspora of nearly two millennia. 

But many dispensationalists have adopted an irrational political view of modern Israel in which all of Israel’s political objectives are unquestionably supported, even to the point of supporting Jewish expansion to ancient borders.  This is Christian Zionism.  Dispensationalism is the theological rationale for Christian Zionism, and all dispensationalists are at least latent Christian Zionists, with many being overtly Zionist.  Some take it so far as to propose that if the United States were to ever go to war against Israel, Christians should defect to Israel’s side.  I offer no proof text of this, as it is not the official public position of any dispensational group, but I know this to be true by my own experience as a dispensationalist. 

Taking the dispensational view of Israel to its radical logical conclusion, Pastor John Hagee, a popular television evangelist, declares:

“Everyone else, whether Buddhist or Baha’i, needs to believe in Jesus.  But not Jews. Jews already have a covenant with God that has never been replaced by Christianity”. (The Other Gospel of John Hagee,, 2009)


So Hagee’s ministry unquestionably supports Israel politically, but does not support evangelism to the Jews based on his theory that Jews do not need Christ to be saved. 

Believing that modern Israel is the center of all prophecy, dispensationalists place great emphasis on the establishment of the modern state in 1948 as a prophetic fulfillment.  For example, Gary Demar notes that in Tim LaHaye’s first edition of The Beginning of the End, which was published in 1972, LaHaye says, “Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the four-part sign of verse 7 [in Matt. 24], or the people who saw the First World War.”  But in LaHaye’s 1991 edition of the same book, he says, “Carefully putting all this together, we now recognize this strategic generation. It is the generation that ‘sees’ the events of 1948 (Response to Critic,, 2010) .  The events of 1948 are so important to his theology that LaHaye was willing to edit his comments, subjecting himself to valid criticism for his change.  People that make prophetic declarations based on the news of the day are frequently given a pass on their failed prophecies.  Although most dispensationalists do not participate in this kind of pop-prophecy, they do theologically support it whether they intend to or not by their insistence that the events surrounding modern Israel are “signs of times”, and that the end must be near.


What does dispensational theology and its offspring Christian Zionism say about our attitude toward our Christian brethren, the Palestinian Christians?  Has the evangelical church become blind to their plight?  Have we, in our zeal to support Israel, made the mistake of demonizing all Palestinians, even the Christians?  Does their displacement have any place in our conversations?  Why are our churches sending money and people to relocate Jews to a disputed land and not sending help to Palestinian churches to aid them not only in their own economic plight but in their efforts to preach the Gospel in the land?  When is the last time we heard about a missionary going to Israel to witness to the Arabs?

Again, my concern is not political, but spiritual.  After all, what does it say to the world of nations, whom we are commanded to win to Christ, when we allow ourselves to be drawn into political conflicts and with a confused theology declare that God is not on their side?  How can we claim to be sending missionaries just to preach the Gospel?  How can we overcome the suspicions of hostile governments that frequently accuse Christian missionaries of having a political agenda?

All of these questions provide a sober critique and represent significant obstacles that the Church must face, and it is my estimation that dispensational theology does much to build the obstacles, rather than providing means to overcome them.

In contrast, Covenant Theology provides the greatest motive to the Church in its efforts to win the Jews to Christ.  We see the urgency in that Christ is the only way to God in any dispensation, and that the Church is the only earthly hope for Israel and the Jews, being “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and according to Romans 11:30, “through your mercy [The Gentile Believers] they [The Jews] also may obtain mercy” (Romans 11:31).  Through Covenant Theology we also see that the Jews are not to turn back to Moses as their hope; they must turn to Christ and forsake the Old Covenant Temple in which God no longer dwells.  They must put their trust in Christ, not in land.  They must follow the faith of Abraham and our fathers, who “desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).  Christ is the Jews’ Land, their Temple, their Sacrifice, their Hope.  Let us return to preaching of the Gospel to every creature, in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the world.



March 9, 2011

Part 2:  A look at Covenant Theology

Go to Part 1:  A look at Dispensationalism
Go to Part 3:  Implications

What is Covenant Theology?

Covenant Theology is the historic theology of the Church.  Certain basic tenets of it can be seen in the Church Fathers; however, it is difficult to recognize it as a crystallized body of teaching until Augustine at the earliest, and without doubt it was an important feature of the theology of the Protestant Reformers, especially Calvin.

It is an over-arching view of the Bible, providing a unifying thread and a consistent message throughout the entire Bible, from front to back.  This unifying thread is, as its name implies, the several covenants found throughout scripture.  

A covenant is, in simple terms, an agreement between parties.  It can be either a mutual agreement or an imposed agreement.  It is modeled after the suzerainty covenants of the ancient Middle East in which a stronger nation, perhaps a conquering nation, enters into agreement or covenant with a weaker nation to provide protection and certain other benefits in exchange for vassal loyalty and whatever benefits of economic goods and services may be provided.  Failure to meet the condition(s) of the covenants guarantees certain negative consequences.  So we see the end of all the covenants as either blessing or cursings.

It is important to keep in mind that in Covenant Theology, all the covenants are seen as conditional covenants (Hafemann, God of Promise, 2001, 58-60).  There are systems of theology among the evangelical family that espouse the existence of unconditional covenants, but these donot represent the Reformed Protestant tradition.  There are even variations on this issue even within the Reformed Protestant family, and so we will speak charitably as possible.

We can see a biblical proof of the conditionality of the covenants by a short study on John 3:18-21:

He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (19) And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (20) For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (21) But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.


Dispensationalists are quick to note that condemnation comes through the Law, but salvation come by grace, so they might be apt to jump right to verse 20 to emphasize John’s use of “deeds” to place condemnation squarely in the covenant of Law.  However, this conclusion requires a leap-frog over the foremost cause of condemnation highlight by the passage – “because he has not believed”.  Now one should ask, by what covenant is a man condemned  through unbelief?  Please note that the scripture says that the condemnation was in place, “already”.  How can a man be condemned already due to unbelief in a savior in whom he has not even heard, and in particular a pre-cross and a pre-resurrection Christ, by which all men would be drawn?  This passage makes sense only if Covenant Theology is applied – if we understand that from the very onset of grace in the protoevangelium the condition of its blessings was faith in a coming Savior, now on earth and proclaimed as Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  Those not meeting the faith-condition of the Covenant of Grace in fact fail of the grace of God, and are condemned.

Before I go on to list and describe the various covenants, I should point out that Covenant Theologians do not deny the existence of dispensations, and likewise, dispensationalists do not deny the existence of covenants.  As far as the Protestant Church’s historic position on dispensations, it has historically viewed time as being divided into two dispensations, obviously parallel to the Bible testaments, designated the Old Testament and the New Testament.  In addition to recognizing the existence of these two dispensations, it is also recognized that a difference exists between the dispensations in the “economies”, or ways in which God relates to the world and mankind.  However, in the Covenantal scheme, the differences between the dispensations are in degree, not substance.

Another preface I should make to my presentation of the covenants is to reveal where my preferred version of the covenants stands among the theological world.  It seems that most Reformed theologians equate the Covenant of Redemption with the Covenant of Grace.  In a slightly different vain, my own view is somewhat similar to those of John Owen (Covenant of Redemption,, 2009), combined with those of R.B.C Howell (The Covenants,, 2009).  Owen separates the Covenant of Redemption from the Covenant of Grace and sets it first in logical order, as I do; and Howell views the Covenant of Redemption as an agreement involving all three members of the Trinity, as I do.

The covenants in order are:  1) The Covenant of Redemption; 2) The Covenant of Works; 3) The Covenant of Grace; 4) The Noahic Covenant; 5) the Abrahamic Covenant; 6) the Mosaic Covenant; 7) The Davidic Covenant, 8 ) The New Covenant. 


The Covenant of Redemption

The Covenant of Redemption is the covenant made between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, made in eternity, in which the Father elected to save a portion of mankind, the Son would meet the conditions, and the Spirit would apply them to the elect (see 1 Peter 1:2).  This covenant answers to the overall purpose of creation – the glorification of God through the redemption of a grateful race (see Ephesians, Chapters 1 and 2). 


The Covenant of Works

The Covenant of Works was made after the creation of man, between Adam and God, in which Adam would have everlasting life dependent upon the condition of Adam’s obedience to God’s command to abstain from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It was the single prohibition in the Garden of Eden, and yet Adam chose to disobey it (Genesis Chapter 2 and 3).  This one condition was Adam’s “work” that was required for the covenant blessings, hence the name “Covenant of Works”.  As mankind’s natural father and representative, Adam’s failure was also our failure.  Reaping the cursing of the covenant failure, it condemned the whole human race, identifying it as a disobedient body (see 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Romans 5:14). 

The Covenant of Grace

The Covenant of Grace is the covenant that is initiated in Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity between thee [Satan] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.


This is known by theologians as the “protoevangelium, the first promise of the Gospel” (Postmillenialsim,  2009).  The agreement is between “her seed” (Christ) and God.   Christ accomplishes the crushing of Satan (the serpent), and those “in Christ” share in the covenant blessings, while those that remain“in Adam” through disobedience and unfaithfullness continue in Adam’s failure and covenant cursings.  While all the persons and conditions of this covenant are not spelled out specifically in the protoevangelium, we find them progressively revealed in subsequent scripture.  As the Westminster Confession puts it:

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, [Galatians 3:21; Romans 8:3; Romans 3:20-21;  Isaiah 42:6] commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, [Mark 16:15-16; John 3:16; Mark 16:15; Romans 10:6; Romans 10:9; Galatians 3:11] and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.[Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 6:44-45] (Westminster Confession 2003, Ch VII, Para 2, pg. 42)


So the condition of this covenant is the defeat of Satan, which was accomplished by Christ, and by extension those who have faith in Jesus Christ reap the blessings of the covenant:  eternal life and those things that accompany God’s approval.  Those that reject Christ reap the cursing of the covenant:  eternal death and those things that accompany God’s wrath.  All other covenants mentioned from this point forward are out-workings of this central covenant, being expressions in one form or another of the gracious purposes of God in saving His elect for His eternal purposes, and man’s blessing or cursing in relation to these covenants is conditioned on faith in Christ.  However, there are specific conditions given in each covenant which serves as signs of the covenant, which are incidental to the salvific condition of faith; for example, Abraham’s requirement to be circumcised, which adds nothing to his salvation, but stands as a test of obedience and a sign of the covenant, and is a specific condition of the covenant. 

It is crucial to understanding Covenant Theology and to the Christian Faith itself that the single condition that man must meet to be in proper relationship with God is faith in Christ, and all other righteousness-based and ceremonial conditions are satisfied by Christ himself.  We, as his elect sheep and brethren, regenerated believers and followers of Christ, reap the blessing of the covenants through faith in Him alone.  This is the very heart of the Christian faith and the Gospel.


The Noahic Covenant

Now moving on to the other covenants, the Noahic Covenant is the covenant made between God and Noah in which God promises to refrain from ever destroying the earth with water.  This covenant is built on the covenant of grace, as we see in Genesis 6:8 that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”.  The specific condition of this covenant is that Noah and his descendants must “replenish” the earth and not take the life of others, with the blessings being the continuation of seed and harvest time, and the cursing being capital justice for murder (see Genesis chapters 6-9).


The Abrahamic Covenant

The Abrahamic Covenant is the covenant made between God and Abraham in which God promises to make Abraham “the father of many nations”, and to give the land of the Canaanites to his “seed” forever (Genesis 12:7).  The word “seed” in this place is very important, and sadly many translations of the Bible uses the word “posterity”, which may seem synonymous at first, but not when it is seen the light of Paul’s discourse on the word “seed” in Galatians 3:16, as the word seed can carry both a singular and plural meaning, and theologically it’s understood that Abraham’s seed was his human posterity, which in turn was typical or representative of the seed, which was Christ himself.  The issue of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and the land in particular, will be dealt with at length later in this treatise.  One specific condition of this covenant was circumcision, which was the sign of the covenant to be passed on to Abraham’s descendants, and was the key issue with which Paul was tasked to deal with in the churches of Galatia.  Paul’s instructions make it clear that in the New Covenant, circumcision is still a condition, but it is circumcision of the heart that is the key condition, not circumcision of the flesh (Romans 2:28-29). 


The Mosaic Covenant

The Mosaic Covenant is that covenant given by God to the people of Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of commandments or laws in which God’s standards of moral behavior are set forth as well as ceremonial requirements and laws concerning civil order.  These laws are known collectively as The Law of Moses.  The Ten Commandments are a summary of the moral law, describing how man is to behave toward God, toward his fellow man, and toward himself.  While man is cannot be saved from God’s wrath by keeping the law (because he cannot keep it in perfection, which is God’s standard), nevertheless the moral law remains a behavioral/ethical standard by which man is to live.  The ceremonial laws were fulfilled in finality by Christ and are therefore done away with in the New Covenant.  The civil laws may serve as points of reference for a Godly society, but the great majority of Bible scholars agree that the civil laws were tied to the nation of Israel and we have no direct application of them into the New Covenant.

The specific condition of the Mosaic Covenant is obedience, with the specific blessing being “life”, and the cursing being “death”.   This seems to contradict what I’ve said about the Mosaic Covenant being an outworking of the Covenant of Grace.  This can be very confusing, but I will attempt to clarify it in the simplest terms I can.

Even Israel under the Law of Moses was required to have faith to reap the blessing of the covenant, as we can quickly see from Hebrews 3:19, which speaking of Israel’s failure to enter the Promised Land says, “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief”.  Despite the popular notion that the Law stands in opposition to grace, the fact that the Law was given “to bring us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24) shows that the Law ultimately has a graceful salvific purpose.

I believe we can understand this better when we keep in mind that before Israel was ever given the Law of Moses, they had already been God’s chosen people, their fathers being called out from among the heathen peoples and given a destiny of blessings.  God, having elected a people for His name’s sake, now regulates their earthly life, instructing them as to how they may please Him.

This pattern is no different than the New Covenant pattern, for those that have received the blessing of the New Birth through the Gospel are not left without instructions from God as to how to please him in our earthly lives.  In fact, the New Testament is FULL OF COMMANDMENTS!  We are not saved by works, but unto works.  Paul’s message to the Ephesians might have just as easily been God’s preamble to the Law:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)


They were chosen and called by grace, but instructed in law, both them and us.

So how do we please God?  Let us look at some Bible verses:  It is evident that “they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8); “You are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you… Now if any man has not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Romans 8:9); “you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, you do so more and more…For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus…For this is the will of God, your Sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3).

So the formula is simple:  to please God, we must be 1) saved (i.e., in the Spirit); and 2) obedient.  Those who are called into God’s family by His grace have the privilege of pleasing Him through obedience to His commands.  Those who have not entered into a relationship with God through grace can only be condemned by the law’s requirements since they cannot meet its standards.


The Davidic Covenant

The next covenant to be discussed is the Davidic Covenant, which is the one in which David and his seed are promised monarchial establishment forever and a throne to all generations.  The fulfillment of this promise was in the person of Christ, the son of David, and King of Israel forever.  The conditional nature of this covenant is readily seen in that there was no legitimate King is Israel after Jechoniah due to King Manasseh’s sins, leading to the Babylonian captivity and the dissolution of the Kingdom.  Jesus reclaimed the throne through His obedience, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.  Those today who meet the covenant condition of faith in Christ claim Him as their King as well as Savior, and are citizens of His everlasting Kingdom.


The New Covenant

The last of the covenants is the New Covenant.  It is that covenant in which God promises to give His people a new heart and to gather them together into one body.  It is found in Jeremiah 31:31-34:

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:  Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.


The writer of Hebrews explains the meaning of this covenant to us in Hebrews chapters 8 and 9.  After giving us a verbatim quote of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in chapter eight, he goes on to tell us in chapter 9 verse 1, “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.”  This shows us that the focus of this covenant is on the “ordinances” of the old covenant, and how they are replaced in the new.  Hence, the difference between the old and new covenant is not in substance, but in administration.  In other words, the sacrifices of the old covenant are not replaced with non-sacrifice in the new, but rather the temporal animal sacrifices of the old are replaced with the eternal messianic sacrifice of the new.  Essentially, in the old covenant God’s wrath was temporarily mollified by the blood of bulls and goats, but in the new covenant God’s wrath is forever satisfied by the blood of Christ (see Hebrews 9:12).  Hence, God will “remember their sins no more”.

The Holy Spirit applies the benefits of the new Covenant by writing the law in the hearts, and teaching each person affected to “know the Lord”.  This phenomenon is called “the new birth”, or being “born again”. 

This covenant was made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”, but in God’s mercy, the “door of faith” was opened to the Gentile peoples, and they were grafted in and became God’s people along with the believing Jews.  This new body, initially purely Jewish, then a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, and now is still mixed but includes very few believing Jews, is God’s Israel of the New Covenant, the Church.  It is not an annihilation of Israel, but a redefinition, an expansion, a reorganization, if you will.


The Covenantal View of the Bible

Like dispensationalists, most covenant theologians accept the Bible as the Word of God – infallible, and literally true.  However, they are more likely to allow the context and genre of a biblical passage determine how it should be interpreted, as opposed to the flat literalism of a typical dispensationalist.

Dispensational polemists often accuse the covenantalist of “allegorizing” or “spiritualizing” scripture, implying that the covenantalist is only one step from being a “liberal”, denying the literal truth of the whole of scripture.

But nothing could be a greater misrepresentation.  The covenantal view IS the view of the Church Fathers, through Augustine, and seeing its crystallization in the Reformers and the Reformed confessions.  And it does see the Bible as literally true, and allegorizes nothing that is not allegorical.  However, it does take in to account that some scripture is poetic, or apocalyptic, or visionary, or some other symbolic genre that is not to be taken literally, which is basic to any proper hermeneutic applied to any form of literature.

The key feature of Covenant Theology’s view of scripture is its over-arching theme of redemption and grace which unifies its message and provides a near-seamless flow from beginning to end.    

Whereas a dispensationalist might ask, “Does the Old Testament apply to us today?”; the covenantalist would ask, “How does the Old Testament apply to us today?”  In Covenant Theology, there is no scripture that is irrelevant to Jews or Gentiles or Church people.  It is God’s revelation of Himself to man, to all of mankind, with a single epical message, that message being that a redeeming and rescuing savior is given to a weak and failing people, who through faith may be saved from their failings – who may have eternal life with God through his gracious provision in Christ.  

Also important in the covenantal system is the application of two crucial rules of interpretation:  1) The New Testament interprets the Old Testament, and 2) Christ is the ultimate subject of all scriptures.  The New Testament repeatedly quotes Old Testament scriptures and then applies them to Christ or the New Covenant administration.  This is so common in the New Testament that providing an example would be pointless, but for those that need a proof text, I would just recommend that in opening to the first page of the New Testament, one would not read five minutes before finding Matthews favorite phrase, “as it is written”, followed by his application of the prophecy to Christ and His works. 


The Covenantal View of the Church

Covenant theologians are careful to define the Church in its two aspects: the invisible, and the visible.  Again, we’ll turn to the Westminster Confession:

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (emphasis mine) (Westminster Confession 2003, Ch XXV, 106-107)

Baptists are careful to make a further distinction as to the visible church, that it consists of particular bodies, as stated in the 1689 Baptist Confession:

In the exercise of the authority which has been entrusted to Him, the Lord Jesus calls to Himself from out of the world, through the ministry of His Word, by His Spirit, those who are given to Him by His Father, so that they may walk before Him in all the ways of obedience which He prescribes to them in His Word. Those who are thus called, He commands to walk together in particular societies or churches, for their mutual edification, and for the due performance of that public worship, which He requires of them in the world. (1689 Baptist Confession,, n.d.)


So we see that in the covenantal view, the invisible Church began with Adam, and most covenant theologians agree that the calling of Abraham was the beginning of the visible Church.  Note that in Genesis 12:1, Abraham was commanded to “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:”, which is in keeping with the New Testament Greek word for “church”,  κκλησα (ekklesia), which is defined as “a called out assembly” (see Thayer’s definition available at  Abraham was called out from among his own people, and he and his descendants were gathered into a covenanted body.  

Dispensationalists deny the existence of an invisible church whatsoever.  To the dispensationalists, only the local church, a particular gathering of people in the name of Christ, and only those gatherings taking place during the Age of Grace, is in fact that body called “church”.  They make no distinction between the church and a church.  Many insist that anywhere “church” is mentioned in the Bible, it refers to a local gathering of believers only, even if the modifier “the” is used to describe the church. (What, No Church?,, 2009).

Acts 7:38 is problematic for dispensationalists in that it speaks of the Israelites in the exodus as “the church in the wilderness”.  Of course, the dispensationalist simply waives this off by taking the generic definition of “ekklesia” in this verse, the definition might indicate that they were simply gathered together, as any other rabble might be gathered.  But the context clearly shows that Israel, wondering in the wilderness, fits every New Testament definition of “church”, especially in light of the fact that they were gathered in name of Christ.  The dispensationalist will protest that the name of Christ does not appear in the Genesis text, but the book of Hebrews points out that Moses chose to “suffer affliction with the people of God…Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt”, showing a parallel between “the people of God” and “Christ”.

This exposes a crucial error in the dispensational scheme.  In their efforts to over-differentiate the Old Testament from the New Testament, they leave Christ out of the Old Testament by leaving the Church out of it.  It is the New Testament itself that shows us that Christ can be seen throughout the Old Testament, and Old Testament saints trusted in Christ, who had yet to come. 

Only the covenantal definition of the Church offers a complete, rational, logical, and cohesive ecclesiology.  It is both visible and invisible, beginning with Adam, and never ending, with Christ as its Head, with members that are elect of God, washed by the blood of Christ, and unified in the Spirit.  


The Covenantal View of Israel


One way of understanding the covenantal view of Israel, especially as it relates to the Church, can be expressed in this succinct saying (author unknown):

Israel is the Church of the Old Testament, and the Church is the Israel of the New Testament.


The fact that the Church existed in the form of Israel was dealt with in the discourse on Moses and the people in the wilderness in the previous section. 

However, Covenant Theology recognized many of the differences between the old and new dispensations, and between the Jewish and Gentile believers where difference exist.  There is a particular people, blood-relation of Abraham, dwelling in a particular land (Palestine), stewards of God’s revelation, the earthly family of Christ, with a special place in God’s historical play.  How that history plays out is a matter over which covenantal theologians are not fully agreed upon.

One view is that the geographic, Abrahamic, covenant nation of God, commonly referred to as Israel, has been altogether rejected by God and will never return to a place of blessedness with God, being eternally cast off due to their rejection of Christ.  In this system, believing Jews represent a small remnant that, like Gentile believers, reap the blessings of Christ as individual believers.  But Israel as a nation has utterly fallen into perdition, never to be recovered.

The other view is that geographic, Abrahamic, covenant nation of God, commonly referred to as Israel, will in some future time experience a sweeping nation-wide revival in which they will turn to Christ wholesale.  Different eschatologies see this happening in different ways.  But the important difference between the dispensational and covenantal views of this expected phenomenon is that the dispensationalists sees the Jews returning to an Old Covenant, Mosaic system of worship, to include a rebuilt temple with animal sacrifices.  In contrast, the covenantal view of this event sees Israel in-mass receiving Christ in the evangelical sense, under the Gospel, taking the sign of Baptism and eating the Lord’s Supper in communion with the Gentile saints as members of the New Testament Church.   


March 7, 2011

Part 1 – A look at Dispensationalism

Go to Part 2 – A Look at Covenant Theology
Go to Part 3 – Implications


What is Dispensationalism?

You’ve probably been exposed to dispensationalism whether you realize it or not, whether you know what it is or not, and whether you can pronounce it or not.  Dispensationalism is the theology behind the record-breaking Left Behind series of books and movies.  The Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ books have sold over forty million copies (Demar, Left Behind, 2009, Forward), and no doubt millions more have seen the movie based on the series.  If that were not enough, most television preachers and a plethora of popular ministries postulate, exposit, explain, declare, and otherwise generally promote the system.  The average member of any fundamental or evangelical church can expound its basic tenets, especially the tenet that declares that the blood descendants of Abraham are “God’s chosen people”, and that modern Israel has a God-given right to claim the land of Palestine for its own, even to the ancient boundaries described in the Old Testament.  It is “normative within American evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic and independent churches, and pervasive among Para-church institutions, Christian TV and radio stations and mission agencies” (Sizer, Christian Zionism, 2005, 106-107).

The main theme of Left Behind is the idea that Christians will suddenly be “raptured” (i.e., caught up) out of the world into the air and be taken to heaven to escape a period of horror on earth known as the “Great Tribulation”.  The rapture is a key feature of dispensationalism’s eschatology, but this treatise is not about eschatology in particular, but is more about hermeneutics, ecclesiology, and Israel.  So let’s define dispensationalism in its basic framework and proceed from there. 

As its name implies, at the heart of dispensationalism is the concept of dispensations or “stewardships” which divide history into time periods in which God relates to man in different ways.

Richard Belcher defines it this way:

Dispensational theology looks on the world and the history of mankind as a household over which God is superintending the outworking of His purpose and will.  This outworking of His purpose and will can be seen by noting the various periods or stages of different economies whereby God deals with His work and mankind in particular……..The word “dispensation” is from the Greek work oikonomia which means stewardship, administration, oversight, or the management of others affairs or property. (A Comparison, 1986, page 8 ).

The dispensations are typically divided into seven periods of time or ages.  These ages are designated as Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and Kingdom.  Each dispensation is characterized by a distinctive idea of God’s revelation, a specific test of obedience in relation to that divine revelation, a failure of man under that economy to the divine revelation, a judgment of God for the failure, and the beginning of a new dispensation. 

Innocence is the age before the fall of Adam and Eve in which they lived in innocence until Adam’s sin and ejection from the Garden; Conscience is the age from Adam’s fall to Noah’s flood in which man lives by his awakened conscience and is responsible to God to live according to all known good; Human Government is the age from the flood to the call of Abraham in which man was to obey the government of man over man; Promise is the age from the call of Abraham to the giving of the law at Mount Sinai in which man was to live according to the gracious promises given to Abraham and the nation which would sprout from him (man’s failure in this case is alleged to be Israel’s acceptance of God’s offer of life under the Law); Law is the age from Mount Sinai to Israel’s rejection of Christ in which Israel was to live according to God’s (Moses’) Law; Grace is the age from the rejection of Christ to the future rapture in which God’s people, Israel, are temporarily set aside as punishment (though they retain the title of “God’s people”) while God calls another people out of the Gentile world called the Church, who in turn eventually apostatize into judgment, and are taken out of the world through the rapture; Kingdom is the age from the rapture to the end of time in which the Jews will be purified by a seven-year tribulation followed by a thousand years in which Christ will rule on the earth in the office of King of Israel.  The eternal state follows the Kingdom. (Seven Dispensations,, 2009)    

            I will note at this point that, as with any other system of theology, agreement among the adherents is not absolute.  Many dispensationalists disagree on the number and order of dispensations.  More importantly, there is marked dissention as to how the dispensations are to be understood.  For example, while they all agree that we live today in the “age of grace”, they are split on whether, or to what extent, grace was given to people who lived in the past ages or who will live in future ages.  Some propose that salvation was under the law during the Dispensation of Law, while other propose that salvation was by grace just as it is today, even though their understanding of God was strictly through the Law. 

I personally find many things about the “seven dispensations” inconsistent and self-contradictory, and worthy of a severe critique.  However, I have chosen to not include these issues within the scope of this work.  I have chosen rather to focus on the three most important areas of doctrine that dispensationalism affects:  the Bible, the Church, and Israel.

The Dispensational View of the Bible

            The Bible is the Word of God.  It is infallible, completely reliable as to all prophecies and propositions.  Both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists find general agreement in this.  But beyond this basic doctrine of the Bible, dispensationalists have a distinct reputation for an over-emphasis on literal interpretation.  Sizer quotes Charles Ryrie and Dwight Pentecost, in turn:

(Ryrie) “Dispensationalism is a result of consistent application of the basic hermeneutical principle of literal, normal, or plain interpretation. (Pentecost) two established rules of interpretation are as follows:  1) ‘When scripture makes common sense use no other sense’; 2) ‘Prophecy…must be interpreted literally…” (Christian Zionism, 2005, p. 121)

            In addition to flat literalism, dispensationalism features an absolute futurist understanding of nearly all prophecies.  This ultra-literal-futurist hermeneutic is described by Sizer as:

  “a novel hermeneutic in which …the prophetic parts of Scripture are seen as pre-written history; and eschatology fulfilled in the interpreter’s generation … Although the traditional Protestant or covenantal hermeneutic values literalism also, this differs in that traditionally the literal is understood by the historical setting and cultural, grammatical, and theological contexts (emphasis mine) (Christian Zionism, 2005, p. 108).


   Another important feature of dispensationalism’s treatment of the Bible is its emphasis on differences between dispensations, making the Bible a series of changes and minimizing its continuity.  One of their favorites Bible verses to support this theory is II Timothy 2:15:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.


            The word dividing is given as the “proof” of their method.  This is taken as a directive to divide the Bible into various epochs, administrations, economies, and divine about-faces that make it a cacophonous collection of unrelated directives in which no person can be sure he or she is obeying and believing the section which applies to them and their time.

            An accurate exegesis of the text will show that the Greek word ρθοτομω (orthotomeō) , translated “divided”, literally means to “cut straight”, not just “cut”; it also means to “direct aright; to set forth truthfully, without perversion or distortion” (Perschbacher, Greek Lexicon, 1990, pg. 296) .  Obviously, it is the duty of the teacher of God’s Word to cut it straight, not adding to it or taking away from it so that it become the teacher’s own opinion of a matter, but that it is clearly presented as God’s commandments.  The passage has nothing to do with splitting the Bible into disjointed sections and determining whether a particular section “applies” or not.


The Dispensational View of the Church

 One of the implications of the dispensational hermeneutic is the effects on one’s understanding of the Church, which represents a radical departure from traditional Protestantism, and in my opinion, is the most egregious error of dispensationalism (to be discussed at more length in the last chapter).

The dispensational view of the Church is that the Church is an anomaly, a historical parenthesis (Darrell Bock, Dispensationalism, 1992, p. 360).  By extension, this makes the Church a sort of “plan B” or an afterthought of God.  The dispensational theory is that after the church age, God will resume relations with His covenant people, His truly elect and beloved, the natural descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel.  Therefore, the Church is sort of a consolation prize in light of Israel’s rejection of Christ, and its members are immigrants into God’s Kingdom.  Dispensaionalists cliam that the covenants are not with the Church, including even the New Covenant described in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8, although some of them do allow that the New Covenant is “applied” to the Church, but even in that scheme national Israel remains as its true participants.  There is wide uncertainty among dispensationalists as to the meaning of the New Covenant, leading to conferences being convocated for the sole purpose of defining the New Covenant.  Unfortunately these conferences have yet to render a satisfactory definition of the New Covenant to the dispensational world (Churches,, 2009).

Since dispensationalism views the Church as another people of God, apart and radically distinct from Israel in terms of purpose, administration, and destinies, by extension it proclaims that there are two concurrent Peoples of God:  Israel, and the Church (Pitchford, The People of God, 2006, p. 1). 

 The Dispensational View of Israel

 As was stated in the previous section, dispensationalism views the Church and Israel and distinct bodies with different destinies.  Israel is seen as that body of people related by blood to the patriarch Abraham whom shall inherit the blessings and promises found throughout the Old Testament epic, especially those found in the Abrahamic/Mosaic prophetic discourses.  They retain their place as “God’s people” even during the current age of grace and the Gentile Church.  In essence, they alone are truly God’s chosen people, and in the future “millennium” God will once again bring them to their rightful place of favor in His sight, simultaneously reducing the “Gentile” Church to a servile citizenry in the Kingdom.  Let the words of a leading dispensational theologian explain it in his own words:

The Gentiles will be Israel’s servants during that age …The nations which usurped authority over Israel in past ages find that downtrodden people exalted and themselves in subjection in their kingdom.  The Gentiles that are in the millennium will have experienced conversion prior to admission.” (Things to Come, 1958, pg. 507)

In addition to patriarchal kinship requirements, dispensationalists further define Israel as both the people and the land to which those people are eternally tied.  According to Lewis Sperry Chafer, a prominent dispensational systematic theologian, “Israel is an eternal nation, heir to an eternal land, with an eternal kingdom, on which David rules from an eternal throne, so that, in eternity, ‘never the twain, Israel and church, shall meet’ (Sizer, Christian Zionism, 2005, p. 138). 

By extension, dispensationalists view the Jewish citizens of modern Israel, established in 1948 by an act of the United Nations, as the posterity of the ancient Jews, and see in them and the re-birth of the nation itself as a confirmation of their views.  This has spawned a strong Zionist movement among Evangelical Christians, a phenomenon about which I will have more to say later.


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