are crucial for understanding the story of the Bible
God's redemptive plan:
the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant,
The Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant
The New Covenant
Because the Scriptures are
God’s special revelation of Himself to us,
the treasures we find
through its study
benefit our lives for eternity.
But in man’s study of Scripture,
differences in interpretation arise,
to different theological suppositions.
Covenant and Dispensational
striking example of this,
differing in exactly how the canon of Scripture fits together,
especially the relationship between the
Old and New Testaments.
This topic is vast, with many books written
in explanation of both theologies. This article will consider the
highlights of each.
What Is Covenant Theology?
Let’s define the word “covenant.” According to Ligonier.com contributor Mark Jones, “Scholars have defined covenant—translated from the Hebrew berith and the Greek diathēke—in various ways, and the context in which the word is used in Scripture will also inform our understanding of its meaning.
At its most basic level,
a covenant is an oath-bound relationship between two or more parties.
Thus, human covenants
(for example, marriage)
this general definition.
In divine covenants,
establishes the relationship
with His creatures.
There are other nuances,
but a divine covenant given after
the Fall is, fundamentally,
one in which God binds Himself by
His own oath to keep His promises.”
The covenants which display the ordered account of the
covenant of grace include:
(Genesis 3: God promises triumph over the serpent through Adam and Eve’s offspring)
Noahic (Genesis 6:18: God promises preservation)
(Genesis 12:1-3: God promised Abraham He would make him a great nation and bless him, with a confirmation in Genesis 15)
(Genesis 15, Exodus 19:4-6, Exodus 20:2: Abraham’s descendants had been emancipated and are expected to follow God’s commands)
(2 Samuel 7; 1 Chronicles 17: God will construct a house for David and promises a royal successor of Abraham through David).
These covenants (not to mention the new covenant) propel man’s history as ordered by God. Inherent in all is Jesus Christ; everything leads to Him.
The whole of the Bible is therefore Christocentric, bringing unity and continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
Because of this, Scripture affirms Israel and the church are
now one in essence in Christ.
Covenant Theology, which became significant during the
Reformation and preceded dispensational theology
by a few centuries,
is also recognized as Reformed Theology.
The Westminster Confession of Faith defines covenant theology,
Adam and Christ
as the two “covenant heads”
God and man.
A covenant head is the one who represents the group under which a covenant falls. Underneath that umbrella lie three covenants.
1. The redemption covenant between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before time began. This redemption covenant (or a divine counsel) includes the Trinity and states that the Father chose a people in the Son, Who is their redemptive Mediator through His perfect manifestation in the flesh, submission, death, resurrection, and ascent. The Holy Spirit’s role was to equip the Son and employ Jesus’ finished work to the elect.
2. A works covenant (also termed the covenant of creation) in which
God placed Adam as the federal head of humankind.
3. The covenant of grace with God’s elect in Christ. This third covenant is ordered through a series of covenants throughout the time between
Adam and Jesus Christ.
After the Fall of the
covenant of works that God gave to Adam,
God’s redemptive plan
for humanity in
This covenant of grace
promised a Savior
Jesus Christ fulfills
obedience and atoning
work on the cross.
In His covenant with Adam,
God promised life to Adam
as long as he
displayed perfect obedience to Him.
The consequence was death
Since Adam represented the entire human race before God,
when he broke the covenant,
his guilt was legislated to his children
This covenant is important regarding the
doctrine of sin and
a person is unified
(i.e., the second Adam).
Jesus was perfectly satisfactory to
its way through
Old and New Testaments.
“Law and gospel
are commands distinguished from promises.
Through the Law, God kills--
extinguishing all hope of
being justified by
one’s own will and effort--
and through the
God makes alive,
justifies, and sanctifies.”
God established the covenants, and He metes out
manifests His grace through them.
What Is Dispensational Theology?
What is a dispensation according to dispensational theology?
A biblical dispensation is a distinct system or period during
His redemptive will.
Dispensationalism postulates that each era in history holds a specific redemptive dispensation from God.
While acknowledging their importance,
dispensationalists do not believe God’s covenants
provide the structure
Subsets exist under the dispensational label, but for our purpose,
we will look at classic dispensationalism, which says there are
seven distinct dispensations:
Human Government, Promise, Mosaic,
Grace, and Kingdom/millennium.
These dispensations underscore their tenet that
God’s redemptive plan changes over time and is
not governed exclusively by His covenants.
The crucial feature of dispensationalism is the
distinction between Israel and the church.
They also hold conjectures concerning:
- The development of revelation
(how God reveals His redemptive plan)
(types exist, but the nation of Israel is not a type replaced by the church)
- How the New Testament uses the Old Testament
(they believe the New Testament’s interpretation of the
Old does not change the original intent)
- The understanding of promises to Israel and prophecies
regarding her land and place in God’s future economy.
What Is the Difference Between Dispensational and Covenant Theology?
We will focus on the main differences between these two fascinating
Eschatology: Most adherents to covenant theology are either amillennial or postmillennial in their eschatological (end times) suppositions. Amillennialism posits that there is no literal, visible one-thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. Postmillennialism presents a belief Christ will return once the world changes to the point of being significantly Christian.
Dispensationalists, instead, mostly hold to a premillennial view of eschatology. They believe Christ will rapture His church out of the world, after which a seven-year tribulation will ensue. Following that “time of Jacob’s distress” (Jeremiah 30:7), Jesus will usher in a literal 1,000-year reign on earth along with His saints.
Israel and the Church: Romans 11 is a seminal passage that affirms Christians and believing Jews are grafted together in Christ, no longer separate but equally part of Christ’s kingdom.
Covenant theologians believe in the unity of all believers with
no national separation.
Dispensationalists believe God will restore Israel as a nation and re-institute the sacrificial system. They consider the grafting in “replacement theology.”
The Millennium: As previously stated, those who adhere
to covenant theology lean toward either amillennialism or postmillennialism.
Dispensationalists tend to hold to a premillennial view.
Covenant theologians hold the church is the recipient of
promises made to
The church does, however, include those Jews who have surrendered to
Dispensationalists commonly believe in a
of Old Testament prophecies
Can We Reconcile
Covenantal and Dispensational
The difference between
covenantal and dispensational theology
raises some questions worth pondering.
Does not dispensational theology’s reinstitution of the sacrificial system negate
Christ’s once-for-all atoning work on the cross for the elect?
How does a dispensational view account for Romans 11,
which says we are all one in Christ?
In John 17:20-21, Jesus says to the Father,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those
who will believe in Me through their word,
that they may all be one, just as
You, Father, are in Me, and I in you,
that they also may be in Us,
so that the world may believe that
You have sent Me.”
(Also see Galatians 3:28-29 and Galatians 6:15-16.)
Where is unity found by separating peoples
(as in Israel and the church being separate)?
“Progressive seeks to
nature of God’s revelation
Covenantalism emphasizes that God’s plan unfolds through the covenants
and that all-of the covenants find their fulfillment, telos, in Jesus Christ…
the covenants are not necessarily the
center of biblical theology
unifying theme of Scripture,
but they do form the ‘backbone’ of
Scripture’s meta narrative or storyline.”
How Do We Handle These Differences?
look at these different theologies,
we must remember something whatever view we hold:
the imperative belief
Christ and His atoning work.
As the Apostle Paul said,
“For I decided to know nothing among you except
Jesus Christ and Him crucified”
(1 Corinthians 2:2)
Neither Covenant nor Dispensational Theology has any
bearing on our salvation;
they are simply two different ways to
at the unity of Scripture.