Comparing Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology
The following represents traditional views, and is based on the study of Richard P. Belcher, "A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology" 1986
1. AN OVERVIEW
A. An Overview of COVENANT Theology:
Covenant theology centers on one overall covenant known as the covenant of grace. Some have called it the covenant of redemption. This is defined by many as an eternal covenant among the members of the Godhead including the following elements:
(1) the Father chose a people to be His own;
(2) The Son was designated, with his agreement, to the pay the penalty of their sin;
(3) the Holy Spirit was designated, with His agreement, to apply the work of the Son to this chosen people.
This covenant of grace is being worked out in history on earth through subordinate covenants, beginning with the covenant of works and culminating in the new covenant, which fulfills and completes God's work of grace to man on earth. These covenants include the Adamic covenant, Noahic covenant, Abrahamic covenant, Mosaic covenant, Davidic covenant, and New covenant.
Covenant theology does not see each covenant as separate
and distinct. Instead, each covenant builds on the previous ones, including
aspects of the previous ones, including aspects of the previous covenants
and culminating in the new covenant.
B. An Overview of DISPENSATIONAL Theology:
Dispensational theology looks on the world and history of mankind as a household over which God is superintending the outworking of His will. This outworking of His purpose and will can be seen be noting the various periods or stages of different economies whereby God deals with His work and mankind in particular. These various stages or economies are called dispensations. Their number may include seven: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom.
2. GOD'S PEOPLE
A. God's People in Covenant Theology:
God has one people, represented by the saints in
the OT and the saints of the NT era.
B. God's People in Dispensational Theology:
God has two peoples—Israel and the church. Israel is an earthly people, and the church is a heavenly people.
3. GOD'S PLAN
A. God's Plan for His People in Covenant Theology:
God has one people—the church—for whom He has one plan,
in all ages since Adam: to call out this people into one body, in both the
Old and New Testament ages.
B. God's Plan for His People Dispensational Theology:
God has two separate peoples—Israel and the church—and also has two separate plans for these two distinct peoples.
He plans an earthly kingdom for Israel. This kingdom has been postponed until Christ's coming in power since Israel rejected it at Christ's first coming.
During the church age God is calling out a heavenly people.
Dispensationalists disagree over whether the two peoples will remain distinct in the eternal state.
4. GOD'S PLAN OF SALVATION
A. God's Plan of Salvation in Covenant Theology:
God has one plan of salvation for all his people since
the time of Adam. The plan is one of grace, being an outworking of the
eternal covenant of grace, and comes through faith in Jesus Christ.
B. God's Plan of Salvation in Dispensational Theology:
God has only one plan of salvation, though this has often been misunderstood because of inexactness in some dispensational writings. Some have wrongly taught or understood that OT believers were saved by works and sacrifices. However, most have believed that salvation has always been by grace through faith, but that the content of faith may vary until the full revelation of God in Christ.
5. ETERNAL DESTINY
A. Eternal Destiny for God's People in Covenant Theology:
God has but one place for His people, since He has but
one people, one plan for His people, and one plan of salvation. His people
will be in His presence for eternity.
B. Eternal Destiny for God's People in Dispensational Theology:
There is disagreement among dispensationalists regarding the future states of Israel and the church. Many believe that the church will sit with Christ on His throne in the New Jerusalem during the Millennium as He rules over the nations, while Israel will be the head of the nations of the earth.
6. THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH
A. The Birth of the Church in Covenant Theology:
The church existed prior to the NT era, including all the
redeemed since Adam. Pentecost was not the beginning of the church, but
rather the empowering of the NT manifestation of God's people.
B. The Birth of the Church in Dispensational Theology:
The church was born on the Day of Pentecost and did not exist in history until that time. The church, the body of Christ, is not found in the Old Testament, and saints are not part of the body of Christ.
7. THE PURPOSE OF CHRIST'S FIRST
A. The Purpose of Christ's First Coming in Covenant Theology:
Christ came to die for our sins and to establish the New Israel, the NT manifestation of the church. This continuation of God's plan placed the church under a new manifestation of the same covenant of grace. The kingdom that Jesus offered was the present, spiritual, and invisible kingdom.
Some covenantalists (especially postmillennialists) also
see a physical aspect to the kingdom.
B. The Purpose of Christ's First Coming in Dispensational Theology:
Christ came to establish the messianic kingdom. Some dispensationalists believe that this was to be an earthly kingdom in fulfillment of the OT promises to Israel. If the Jews had accepted Jesus' offer, this earthly kingdom would have been established immediately.
Other dispensationalists believe that Christ did establish the kingdom in some form, in which the church participates, but the earthly kingdom awaits the second coming of Christ to the earth. Christ always intended the cross before the crown.
8. THE FULFILLMENT OF THE NEW
A. The Fulfillment of the New Covenant in Covenant Theology:
The promises of the new covenant are mentioned in
Jeremiah 31:31-34: "Behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I
will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of
Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I
took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant
which they broke, although I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. "But
this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those
days," declares the LORD, "I will put My law within them and on their heart
I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. "They
will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother,
saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they will all know Me, from the least of them
to the greatest of them," declares the LORD, "for I will forgive their
iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." These promises are
fulfilled in the NT.
B. The Fulfillment of the New Covenant in Dispensational Theology:
Dispensationalists differ over whether only Israel is to participate in the new covenant, at a later time, or whether both the church and Israel participate jointly. Some dispensationalists believe there is one new covenant with two applications: one for Israel and one for the church. Others believe that there are two new covenants: one for Israel and another for the church.
9. THE MILLENNIUM
A. How the Millennium is Viewed in Covenant Theology:
Historically, covenant theology has been either
amillennial, believing the kingdom to be present and spiritual; or
postmillennial, believing the kingdom is being established on earth with
Christ's coming as the culmination. In recent years some covenant
theologians have been premillennial, believing that there will be a future
manifestation of God's kingdom on earth (Historic Premillennialism).
However, God's dealings with Israel will be in connection with the church.
Postmillennialists believe that the church is bringing the kingdom now, with
Israel ultimately to be made a part of the church.
B. How The Millennium is Viewed in Dispensational Theology:
All dispensationalists are premillennialists, though not necessarily pretribulationalists. Premillennialists of this type believe that God will again turn to the nation of Israel, apart from His work with the church, and that there will be a 1,000-year period of Christ's reign on David's throne in accordance with and in fulfillment of the prophecies of the OT.
10. THE SECOND COMING
A. How the Second Coming is Viewed in Covenant Theology:
Christ's coming will be to bring final judgment and the
eternal state. Those who are premillennial, assert that a millennial period
will precede the judgment and eternal state. Postmillennialists believe that
the kingdom is being established by the work of God's people on the earth
until the time when Christ will bring it to completion at His coming.
B. How the Second Coming is Viewed in Dispensational Theology:
Most dispensationalists believe the Rapture will occur first, then a tribulation period followed by the Second Coming of Christ with the saints and a 1,000-year reign of Christ, after which there will be a judgment and the eternal state.