When the great Protestant Reformation took place, many truths that had long been lost were recovered, particularly regarding salvation and justification by grace through faith. Along with these great truths, the Reformers developed a systematic theology of the Bible. This systematic view is often called Reformed Theology. Essential to Reformed Theology is Replacement Theology, the main alternative to Dispensationalism. The other is Covenant Theology, which is also at odds with Dispensationalism.

A systematic theology is a system for interpreting the Bible. It is a way of taking all the many passages and statements of the Scripture and fitting them into an overall idea of how the Bible works and how it should be read and understood. Some don’t like the idea of having a systematic theology, thinking that it limits your ability to interpret Scripture. I believe it is a good thing to have a systematic way of going about interpretation of the Word. If we do not have a systematic way of studying the Scriptures, we will end up “flying by the seat of our pants,” and that is not a good way to find the truth.

Once the Protestant Reformation had been well-established, most men stopped searching for the truth. Protestants accepted what the Reformers had believed and taught as the New Truth, and turned it into a new dogma. It was not until several hundred years later, among a group called the Brethren, that further investigations of the Word brought to light more truths that had previously been undiscovered by the Reformers. These truths are called Dispensational Theology. I believe that these are advanced from Reformed Theology, and that they present a more accurate way of interpreting the Bible. In this lesson, we will examine these two theologies, and ways of looking at the Bible.

I suppose that I was unaware of the fact that Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are at odds until I heard it from a professing covenant theologian. I had seen covenant churches, of course, and had even attended them a time or two, but I had no real idea of what covenant theology was. That is, until I met a gentleman who put down dispensationalism in favor of covenant theology. He was telling me that he had been recently studying dispensationalism, and had concluded that it was wrong. He was a covenant theologian, he told me, and didn’t believe that God divided all of His work into “dispensations.” Since I am a dispensationalist, I was understandably unimpressed by his statement, but I was curious as to what he thought a dispensation was, as he had seemed to indicate that he thought it was merely a period of time. So I asked him what he thought a dispensation is? He did not reply, so I gathered that he did not think that my question was relevant. He was obviously very consumed with his own ideas.

Having been in the dispensational movement for so long, I was slightly amused to hear it put off so glibly. However, this incident was enough to bring covenant theology prominently into my mind, and I have had opportunity to consider it many times since. I have run into many believers who are followers of it since that time, and so I have had the opportunity to discuss it with them as well. Thus, I think it would be good if I set forth in message form why I am a dispensationalist, and why I believe that covenant theology is incorrect.

A friend who was discussing dispensational theology with his roommate, who was a covenant theologian, was surprised when his roommate told him that he thought that the new covenant IS the gospel! I will admit that this is rather surprising to me as well, although I suppose that it shouldn’t be. I know I have run into plenty of believers before who have made their “pet beliefs,” if you will, to coincide or be tangled up in some way with their salvation. And so it should not surprise me if some covenant theologians say that their covenant theology IS the gospel. But I think it would be wise here if I said that I do NOT believe that dispensational theology IS the gospel, or in any way is linked to anyone’s salvation. Some in the dispensational movement have made it out to be the “litmus test” as to whether one is a believer qualified for the greatest blessings of God, but I do not believe this, and never have. All believers come to God on the basis of Christ’s blood shed on the cross, not through belief in some theological system. And belief in such a system does not in any way qualify one as a “superior” believer. However, the TRUTH is of great importance, and it is for the purpose of discovering the TRUTH that I have chosen to take up this issue.

Also I want to make it plain that this message is not meant as a bashing of those who believe in covenant theology, reformed theology, or replacement theology.  These are dominant theologies in our day, and I know many dear believers who hold to a theological system that is based on these things.  It is my purpose, not to “bash” such believers, but rather to reveal what I believe is the truth concerning the difference between these two ways of looking at the Bible.

WHAT IS A COVENANT?

The first thing we must always do in studying the Scripture is to define our terms. What does the terminology we are using mean? Thus, I will start off by revealing what a covenant means in my mind, and what I think it means to covenant theologians. If I am incorrect then in my assessment of what covenant theologians think a covenant is, then they can tell me so and I will reconsider my opinion.

I believe a covenant to be like a modern day contract. In other words, it is an agreement between two people or groups of people. In the case of God’s covenants, of course, these agreements are between God and His people or a group of His people.

When we study the Bible, moreover, we learn that there are certain criteria for God-given covenants. They must be ratified by blood, for instance. Always in the Bible blood is associated with the covenants. Moreover, there are always stipulations as to what one or both of the parties must do per the agreement. For example, in the covenant of promise to Abraham, God had certain things that He had to fulfill under the terms of the covenant. Some of these He has fulfilled, and some of them He has not yet fulfilled. However, we can be certain that God does not break covenants, and He will fulfill these in the future. In some covenants, such as the Old Covenant, both parties have to fulfill stipulations. We know that in the case of the Old Covenant, Israel had to fulfill certain things in order for God to fulfill His end of the bargain. Since Israel broke their side of the covenant not more than 40 days after it had been ratified, this covenant was broken, and the promises God had given could never be fulfilled under its terms.  We also know that people can be brought under the bond of a covenant, as God speaks of bringing His people under the bond of a covenant in Ezekiel 20:37, “I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant.”

WHAT IS A DISPENSATION?

Now I will set forth what I believe a dispensation to be. Dispensation is an English word, but we are interested in it because it is often used in the Bible to translate the Greek word oikonomia. This word comes from two words in Greek, oikos which means “house,” and nomos which means “rule” or “law.” Thus, a dispensation is the way one rules his house, if we proceed merely from the meaning of the compound parts of the word. However, the meaning of this word expanded to include far more than the rule of just a single household, as we know from Romans 16:23, where Erastus is called the oikonomos or “house-ruler” of a city.

I believe that a dispensation is basically a method in which one person deals with another, the one dealing being in authority over the one being dealt with. Thus, any time God deals with His people in any way (whether it be as a ruler or otherwise,) He is doing so by means of a dispensation. I do not believe that dispensations are periods of time. God could be dealing at the same time with Abraham in one way and the priest Melchizidek in another. His dealings with these two men were happening at the same period of time, but they were two different dispensations. So you see that literally thousands of dispensations could be happening at once as God deals with various different ones of His people. Today, God deals with all people using the same basic rules and policies. These rules define His current dispensation.

THE BASIC PREMISE OF COVENANT THEOLOGY

I will now set forth what I have gathered is the basic premise of covenant theology. This will again allow any covenant theologians who are reading this message to correct me if I am representing them wrongly. I have gathered that the basic premise of covenant theology is that God ALWAYS deals with His people on a covenant basis. That is, that God’s salvation, whenever it is offered, is always offered on the basis of a covenant relationship. God’s saving work with Abraham, for example, was on the basis of the covenant of promise. God’s saving work for the nation of Israel, then, was on the basis of them keeping the commandments of the Old Covenant. God’s saving work toward the church today, the covenant theologian will then assert, is on the basis of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood.

THE BASIC PREMISE OF DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGY

Now let us turn to the basic premise of dispensational theology.  The basic premise of dispensational theology is that, as you trace out God’s dealings with His various people over time, it is always important to discover on what basis He was dealing with His people at that particular time, that is, what was the dispensation that was governing His actions toward men at that period in time?  Once the character of this dispensation is discovered, the question is then asked “How does His dispensation to us today relate to the dispensation under which He was acting at the time this passage was written, or about which it was written?” This then becomes an important basis for how we interpret and relate to God’s actions at any point in the Scriptures.

THE BASIC DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COVENANT AND DISPENSATIONAL THEOLOGY: REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY

At this point in the argument, some of my readers may now be wondering what is the big deal about the difference between these two points. Why does the truth of one or the other of these make such a big difference, they may ask? The answer to this is how Reformed, covenant theologians and dispensational theologians view God’s relationship to Israel. When covenant and dispensational theologians come to the statements made about the new covenant, it becomes apparent to both that the statements made about the new covenant indicate that it is to be made with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

Hebrews 8:8. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—

Jeremiah 31:31. “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—

This becomes a significant problem to the covenant theologian.  Because he believes that he MUST be under a covenant in order to have any sort of relationship at all with God, and because there is no other covenant listed in the New Testament that he could possibly claim to be under, he therefore MUST be under the New Covenant.  However, he knows very well that he and many of his fellow covenant theologians are NOT Jewish.  Therefore, what can he do with the statement that the New Covenant was to be made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah?  The answer is that he must somehow make himself to be “the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” The way he does this is by using replacement theology, and setting forth the theory that the believer of today is the spiritual “house of Israel and house of Judah.”  That is, the covenant theologian believes that he, in some sort of mystical, other-worldly sense, is Israel, even though he clearly is not Israel in the flesh.  To support this idea he uses passages such as Philippians 3:3, which states, “For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.

The dispensationalist, on the other hand, has quite a different reaction when he comes to the statement that the new covenant is “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”  Because he believes that God is constantly dealing with different groups of people under different sets of rules in different circumstances, and because he knows that he is not a member of either the house of Israel or the house of Judah since he is not a Jew in the flesh, and because he has not assumed that God must always deal with His people upon a covenant basis, he therefore comes to the conclusion that the New Covenant must not be for him, and must not be the basis upon which he has come to God for salvation. He then turns to the Scriptures to find some sort of basis other than a covenant by which God has opened the gates of salvation for him. From this, he concludes that our salvation is not on the basis of a covenant at all, but on the basis of a relationship between a sinner and a Savior.

A QUESTION RAISED BY THE BASIC PREMISE OF COVENANT THEOLOGY

Often, theologies are formulated to solve problems found in the Scripture that otherwise would seem to be insoluble. This is true of both replacement and dispensational theologies. However, these theologies also usually raise other questions that are often ignored by those who hold with the theology. This is true of both dispensationalism and replacement theology.

At first glance it may seem to be a great blessing and a good thing that God has rejected Israel and transferred all of their blessing to us, “Spiritual Israel,” as those who hold with replacement theology teach. However, if we would take this argument to its logical conclusion, we are met with a difficult problem. If God’s people rejecting and disappointing Him may be the grounds for Him to negate their promises and transfer them and His blessings to someone else, then how can we say that our blessings are safe and secure?  If God in the past set aside Israel for her corporate failure and rejection of His Messiah, then how can we be certain that He may not do the same thing to the body of believers of today if we likewise reject Him? In other words, if there could be a Spiritual Israel, then why not a Spiritual Christian Church? If the great and marvelous promises God made to Israel may be taken away from them and given to another, then why may not our promises be taken away as well?

A few might naively say, “Oh, God would never do that to us!” But the fact is that if He would do it once, then there is nothing stopping Him from doing it again. How then can we imagine that any of the promises that we hold unto and have received from Him will actually be good when it comes time for us to try to redeem them? Consider that many Israelites had died and weren’t even on the scene when the Israel that was alive at the time of Christ rejected Him. If they lost out on their promises due to the actions of their progeny, then the same thing could happen to us, couldn’t it?

A QUESTION RAISED BY THE BASIC PREMISE OF DISPENSATIONALISM

Dispensationalists are all quick to point to the obvious references to Israel in the gospel records of Christ’s earthly ministry and to claim that these indicate that His advent and ministry were focused on the Israelites.  Thus His teachings while on earth were geared toward them, and not toward the believer of today.  However, if one would really examine the Bible, one would find that the references to Israel do not stop with Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension to Heaven. The references to Israel and their prominence in God’s plans continue into the book of Acts.  Not only that, but we find references to Israel as being prominently in mind in such important theological books as Hebrews, James, Romans, I Corinthians, and Galatians.  If the dispensationalist is to be consistent, then, in his claim that references to Israel indicate a difference in dispensation from the one in which we live, and that such references indicate that a passage in Scripture was not written directly to believers of today, then he will have to admit that not only the gospels must then be taken as having been written to Israel, but also many…indeed, most…of the books of the New Testament must be put in the same category. This most dispensationalists are not willing to do, claiming that the gospels record Christ’s offer of Himself to Israel, and that after His rejection and death on the cross the focus shifted entirely to Gentiles. This causes them to ignore the same sorts of passages in the later books of the Bible that the replacement theologian ignores in the gospels. If dispensational principles are to be applied to Scripture, then they must be applied to all Scripture, not just those Scriptures to which we wish to apply them. Therefore, the only way the dispensationalist can be consistent is to admit that most of the books of the New Testament were originally written to Israel and not to the believer of today.

THE QUESTION RAISED AGAINST REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY SOLIDIFIED

Suppose a man fell in love and married a woman named Susan. At his wedding ceremony, he solemnly swore before God and humanity that he would love Susan and remain faithful to her for the rest of his life.  However, in the course of time, this man became dissatisfied with the wife whom he had chosen, and one day he came home and announced to Susan that he was leaving her and marrying another woman named Mary.  As you can imagine Susan was greatly distressed, and asked him how he could break the solemn vow that he had made to her to stay with her forever? Had he not pledged her his eternal love? How then could he love another instead?

The man was not fazed by Susan’s accusation. He replied that he fully intended to keep his promise, and love and cherish Susan for the rest of her life. However, he had found her to be less than he had hoped for, and therefore he was going to love and cherish a new woman, a different Susan, instead. By loving and cherishing Mary, he claimed, he would be keeping in full the promise that he had formerly made to her, Susan.

Susan, of course, was incredulous, and asked him how he could actually believe that loving and cherishing this other woman could fulfill the promise that he had made to her, Susan. After all, this woman was not the woman to whom he had made the promise, and moreover her name was Mary, not Susan. The husband was not affected by his wife’s incredulity. “You don’t understand,” he told her. “You are just Susan because your parents named you Susan. There is nothing special about someone whose parents named her Susan…you are just Susan according to the flesh. This new woman, Mary, however, may not have been named Susan at birth, but now I have called her Susan myself. She is not Susan by natural means, but she is Susan because I have called her Susan. Therefore, she is now Spiritual Susan, and this makes her much better than Susan after the flesh. For me to keep my original promises made to Susan to this new, Spiritual Susan is a much better thing than my keeping the promises to you, the natural Susan, ever would have been.”

What would we expect this woman to say to such an argument? Would we not expect her to laugh at such a ridiculous twisting of logic? Who would believe such a far-fetched story? Few would be so foolish. Indeed, the only person we might expect to swallow such a ridiculous lie might be Mary, the Spiritual Susan herself, who benefits from it. We have all heard of (or perhaps met) the naïve young woman who thinks that a man who would leave his wife and family for her must really, really love her to do such a drastic thing. We all know as well that such a foolish young woman is likely to learn the truth when the man who loves her enough to leave his wife and family for her finds a new and still younger woman whom he loves enough to leave his second family for. This is all too common in life.

But can we really believe that God acts in the same way as an adulterous husband?  Has He really negated all the solemn and binding promises He made to Israel to take up with us, His “Spiritual Susan”?  Consider for a moment the promise made by God to His People Israel in Jeremiah 31:35-37.

“Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and the stars for a light by night, Who disturbs the sea, and its waves roar (the LORD of hosts is His name): ‘If those ordinances depart from before Me, says the LORD, then the seed of Israel shall also cease from being a nation before Me forever.’ Thus says the LORD: ‘If the heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, I will also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD.”

Can we possibly read such language and still believe that God could be unfaithful to such a promise? I have met replacement and covenant theologians who seem to think that it is a great and wonderful thing that God rejected Israel and gave all their promises to us today. I wonder if such people really understand what they are saying…what they are making God out to be, and what they are making us out to be as well. Are we nothing more than the younger woman for whom God left His first love? Or are there enough blessings and promises of God for Him to bless Israel and us as well?

THE QUESTION RAISED AGAINST DISPENSATIONALISM ACKNOWLEDGED

There is indeed no way that we can consistently apply dispensational principles and still insist that only the gospels were written to Israel, and all the books after that were written to the church. The references to Israel in the book of Acts and the epistles written during that time are innumerable, and cannot be ignored. Consistency demands us to acknowledge them, and we do. Indeed, I will be the first to admit that there is very little of the Bible that was ever written directly to me as a Gentile believer living today in the dispensation of grace. Most of the books of the New Testament have Israel prominently in mind, and thus their statements must be handled with care if we attempt to apply them to ourselves directly.

The difficulty most dispensationalists run into in refusing to accept this is negated by accepting Acts 28 (or “ultra” or “hyper”) dispensationalism. This method of dispensational interpretation leaves Israel at the center stage of the Bible until the statement of Paul made in Acts 28:28, which says, “Therefore be it known unto you that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it!” This statement closed the Acts period and ushered in the present time period where Grace reigns supreme and all believers of all nationalities can come to God on an equal footing with Israel. However, even this change did not totally erase Israel from the picture, and we still find references to them in the books written after Acts 28:28. So we must understand that NO book in the Bible is beyond the scope of dispensational principles, and ALL must be read with a careful eye for context and dispensation.

CLOSING ARGUMENTS

Though covenant theology may seem attractive on the surface because of its promise of providing many blessings for the believer of today through the appropriation of the New Covenant, yet when we examine it closely we find that it makes God to be no better than an adulterous husband and our blessings and promises on a foundation that is far from secure. If God has set aside Israel in favor of a new people, then we have no guarantee that He will not do the same thing to us. If we have no assurance that when God says “Israel” He means “Israel,” then we can likewise have no assurance that when He says to us “I will bless you” he means us and not someone else who will strike His fancy in the future. This flaw undermines both the character of God and the reliability of the Bible.

Though standard dispensationalism is fraught with inconsistency, this difficulty is removed by accepting the more accelerated form of dispensationalism known as Acts 28 “ultra” dispensationalism. This form of dispensationalism holds true to the literal interpretation of Scripture, insisting that every reference to “Israel” means “Israel” and not something else, and thus leaves both the integrity of God and the Scriptures intact. It may not give us justification for appropriating all the Israelite blessings that the replacement theologians claim for themselves, but it does leave us with the assurance that the promises God HAS made to us will without a doubt be accomplished.

Thus ends my study on the subject of dispensationalism vs. covenant theology. I pray this will help you to see the differences between the two, the problems with both, the solution provided by Acts 28 dispensationalism, and the insurmountable problems raised by replacement theology. If any feel that I have represented one or the other of these views unfairly, I would be happy to answer any questions that may be raised on the subject. Again, I do not feel that this is a topic essential to salvation or the determination of who is a “superior believer.” However, I do believe that this is an argument essential to the apprehension of the TRUTH, and I pray that these writings may help others in their endeavors to achieve that goal.

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