What are the differences between dispensationalism and covenant theology?
Both dispensational and covenant theology are of recent origin. Neither can honestly claim to nave been fully developed in the early church. Between the two, dispensational theology has greater roots in the early church, but that does not give it greater authority. Ultimately the Word of God is the real authority and not one’s developed theology. A great tragedy occurs on occasions when a person insists the theology he or she was taught is biblically correct and then depends on this theology for understanding scripture. To say, I am a Calvinist; I follow Luther; I am of Darbe; I follow my pastor is a serious error. To quote Calvin as your authority or to quote Luther as authoritative places them above scripture. When we come to the Word of God, we must always be willing to reevaluate what we believe when we find a verse or passage that might change what we were taught or believe. To do otherwise reveals a heart that does not have a passion to know the truth – God’s Word.
Covenant theology believes there are two covenants or promises of God: Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works refers to God’s arrangement with Adam before he sinned. Because Adam sinned, God then made another covenant with man – the Covenant of Grace by which the human race is able to be saved by grace because of Jesus Christ.
Most Covenant theologians believe the nation of Israel and the church share the same promises about salvation and the the future. They do not believe there is a difference between Israel and the church. They base this belief on a number of passages such as Galatians 3:29.
But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe . . . And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (NASB) Galatians 3:22, 29
They understand this passage to mean that Christians are offspring of Abraham – if we are in the body of Jesus, we are descendants of Abraham. So they believe the promises of both the Promised Land and salvation through Jesus as given to Abraham in Genesis 12 belong to all New Testament Christians. They do not see any difference between a physical or a spiritual descendant of Abraham.
. . . That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. (NASB) Romans 9:8
But Romans 9:8 says physical descendants of Abraham are not automatically children of God or Christians. Only those who are children by promise – faith in Jesus (see Gal. 3:22) – are descendants of Abraham. The word descendant has either a physical or spiritual meaning. Gentiles who become Christians are not physically Jews – physical descendants of Abraham – but spiritual descendants of Abraham. To say that the church inherits the promises to Israel blurs the physical and spiritual aspects of the promises given to Abraham.
The church is not Israel – did not exist in the Old Testament – for another reason. The church was a mystery not seen in the Old Testament.
. . . by revelation there was made known to me the mystery, as I wrote before in brief. And by referring to this, when you read you can understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (NASB) Ephesians 3:3-6
This passage tells us that Paul was given a revelation about something not known before – that Gentiles would be added to the body of Christ and become fellow partakers of the promise of the gospel. The church is made up of Jews and Christians (Gal. 3:28). The church did not exist before Pentecost. The church – the body of Jesus – contains both Gentiles and Jews, but this was not true in the Old Testament. The body of Christ is a new event in the New Testament. Men and women in the Old Testament who looked to the future and put their trust in Jesus are called saints (Eph. 2:19).
When we talk about the future, it is important to know that there are many varieties of Covenant theologians. Some are amillennial and others are dispensational. Some may be postmillennial. Both amillennialists and postmillennialists are now waiting for Jesus’ second coming. That is the next event in God’s plan for the future from their perspective. Since some Covenant Theologians are also dispensational, it is reasonable to believe the two views are not in opposition.
Dispensational theology sees God working out His purposes in unique ways in different periods of time. There are many varieties of dispensational theologians. Some believe that God worked with man in seven different ways over time. Others believe in only two dispensations – Law and Grace. How many dispensations exist is not important. What is important is one’s view of Israel and the church. Dispensationalists do not believe the church inherits the promises given to Israel. They do not believe the church existed in the Old Testament. They do believe that saints existed in the Old Testament by faith. They believe the church shares the promise of salvation – righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ.
Most dispensationalists believe the rapture is the next event in the Prophecy of the Future, that is, the tribulation, Jesus’ second coming, and then a literal, physical 1,000 year kingdom on earth. Those Covenant theologians who are also dispensational usually have a slightly different view of the church and Israel. This occurs because the church is raptured and does not go through the tribulation period, but Israel does. The church and Israel are not the same.
Covenant and dispensational theology are not completely in opposition. One can be a covenant dispensational theologian. The major differences is their view in how God works with men and women over time and the relationship between Israel and the church. Covenant theology believes the church started in the Old Testament when the promise of a savior was given to Abraham. One can be a dispensationalist who believes that anyone at any time who puts their faith in Jesus Christ is a saint, and believe that God has a different future for the physical nation of Israel and the church – the spiritual body of Jesus.