Thursday, October 15, 2015

All About Jesus: Dispensationalism vs. Covenantalism

The fact that the Covenant Promises have never been completely or permanently fulfilled for Israel is acknowledged by most Bible-believers today. However, some differ greatly about what that fact implies. This difference weighs heavily upon how huge portions of Scripture are interpreted.


Dispensationalists believe that the Covenant Promises remain to be fulfilled for the Jews. Someday God will keep all the promises he made to the nation of Israel. The Jewish people will once again be gathered together and given the Promised Land as their own uncontested national territory. Jerusalem will finally be at peace.

Since this has not yet happened for Israel, all those Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel have not been fulfilled, which means that huge chunks of Scripture contain prophecies that must be fulfilled in the future. This explains why more extreme forms of Dispensationalism are bizarrely fascinated with end times prophecy--talk of blood moons, bloody rivers, locust-like helicopters, and equating characters in Revelation with modern nations. They draw detailed maps and charts, sell books, and excite gullible people into an almost cultic paranoia about international events. Some even go so far as to claim they can predict when specific end time events will occur. Thankfully, most Dispensationalists are not this extreme, but I write this to suggest that you the reader would do well to be able to identify them when you see them.


On the other hand, Covenantalists believe that the reason the promises were not fulfilled in Israel was that they were not ultimately intended for Israel alone. They were intended for Jesus Christ and all who are united with Jesus Christ, whether they be Jews and Gentiles. According to Covenant theology, Israel served its earthly purpose of being a shadow or earthly copy of all those who would become God’s children through Jesus Christ. The New Testament reveals that the New Covenant children of Abraham include not only believing Jews but believing Gentiles. This means that being a “child of Abraham” is a matter of spiritual descent (or even better--adoption) instead of physical descent.

This inclusion of the Gentiles in the chosen family of God is referred to in many places in the New Testament as one of the great “mysteries” of the Old Testament. To say that this was a mystery is not to say that it could not be known by those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, but rather that it was not spelled out as clearly as it one day would be when the time was right. The Old Testament contains many hints that the children of Abraham would one day comprise far more than just the Jewish people. For instance, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations and that he would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth, and he enfolded several non-Jews into the lineage of David and Jesus. These “mystery” hints are everywhere in the Old Testament. When you know they are there, they begin to stand out as you read the Scriptures with freshly opened eyes. There are even places where he calls pagan nations his people. Unfortunately, this is still a mystery to some people who study the New Testament.

Covenantalists see overwhelming evidence in the New Testament that it was God’s plan from the beginning to fulfill his promises to Israel in and through Jesus Christ. They do not believe that any Covenant Promises remain to be fulfilled outside of Christ, which means there are no king, land, or people-promises left for physical Israel in any physical way. If physical Israel is ever to have any hope of particating in the Covenant Promises, they must believe in Christ and be grafted back into the people of God. Fortunately for the Jewish people, Paul hints that God will have mercy upon some future generation of Israel and will bring them to faith in Jesus Christ. Then and only then will they participate in the Kingdom promised to Abraham and all his descendants.

The Root Difference

The root difference between these two interpretations is that Dispensationalism believes Israelites are the people of God in a way that New Testament believers are not. Therefore Covenant Promises made specifically to them have yet to be fulfilled. Covenantalism believes that Old Testament saints are united in Christ together with New Testament saints to form one body in Christ. This body is the inheritor, through Christ, of all the blessings, promises, and benefits first promised to Abraham. Covenantalism looks to Christ as the fulfillment of all the Covenant Promises: He is the King of the Kingdom, all his saints are the people of the Kingdom, and the world he conquers is the Land of the Kingdom. In this Kingdom God will dwell, and its citizens will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. On the other hand, Dispensationalism looks for a future kingdom set up in the land of Palestine specifically for the Jewish people.

Effect on Interpretation

This difference changes the way huge portions of Scripture are interpreted. The Old Testament is filled with a multitude of prophetic references to the future restoration of Israel as the result of God’s Covenant faithfulness to his chosen people. Whereas Dispensationalists see this as the Jews someday getting what is rightfully theirs, Covenantalists see this as Jesus Christ getting what is rightfully his.

So, on the one hand, you have huge portions of Scripture pointing to but yet to be fulfilled for Israel; on the other hand, huge portions of Scripture pointing to and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

On the one hand, all about Israel; on the other, all about Jesus.


  1. Dispensationalists would also say that New Testament believers are the people of God in a way that Israelites are not (e.g., the marriage supper of the lamb is for the church, not Israel).
    Your last statement strikes me as a bit of a slur. You could just have easily framed the distinction as “all about Israel” vs “all about the people of God”. Are you suggesting that dispensationalists minimize the importance or centrality of Jesus’ work?

    1. Thanks for reading and writing David. You're right that the conclusion is rhetorically edgy. No I am not suggesting that they minimize the centrality or importance of Christ's work. I am suggesting that in the dispensationalist hermeneutic huge portions of Scripture are all about Israel rather than being all about Christ. Therefore my statement is quite literal in spite of its rhetorical sharpness.

  2. Even with your explanation, I’m not sure that I follow your point. I would admit that with the dispensational hermeneutic, huge portions of scripture *are* all about Israel. But this is still by God’s plan and to God’s glory – not for any inherent good that Israel has. The alternative theological position as I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong) interprets most of these scriptures by spiritualizing them and applying them more broadly (i.e., to all the people of God and not Israel specifically). Why is it then that you propose Israel vs Jesus and not Israel vs all of God’s people as the best shorthand to describe the differences?
    As an example, consider Ezekiel 36:24-28 - "For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God."Ezekiel 36:24-28
    How would you interpret and apply this passage? Who is the “you”, and what is the “land”? How does CT see Jesus in this passage in a way that DT does not?

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  4. Hm. My platform does not allow me to edit comments. So I deleted my comment and made a couple grammatical changes here: As a rhetorical statement, intended to create a reaction, it has evidently served its purpose (at least for some, whether they like it or not) of making the reader see that Covenantalists see a profound starkness of contrast in interpretation. I understand that you do not appreciate that I would phrase it that way. As for its literalness, you have admitted all and only what I am implying with it.

    I agree that some Dispensationalists see the restoration of physical Israel to the promised land as somehow the work of Jesus Christ. And I would agree that some Dispensationalists see the work of Christ as accomplishing much more for other-than-Israel than just that. That is a "saving grace" of the position, to pun a phrase. But inasmuch as a Covenantalist sees the former as absolutely incorrect, then whatever time is spent interpreting Jesus' work that way is wasted time and does not do the work of Christ justice. And given that huge portions of Scripture are devoted to this restoration, then the interpretation grossly misdirects the interpretation of the work of Christ to a false fulfillment. It is no small thing, and merits a rhetorical starkness of contrast. It could be said other ways. I appreciate that you like your way of stating it, and I do understand what you are saying. I see its suitable parallelism. But my goal is to highlight contrast, not parallels. I would prefer to have it front and center that the Covenantalists do not believe there is equal ultimacy in these interpretations. One tries to display the fullness of the work of Christ as laid out in Scripture. The other additionally spends a lot of time on how that work of Christ apparently restores Israel to a small, underwhelming spit of land in the middle east. There I go again.

    As for the interpretation of Ezekiel, I admit that it is been so long that I have a difficult time seeing such passages Dispensationally. Do you have enough understanding of CT to be able to express the answer to your own question as I might give it?

  5. “But inasmuch as a Covenantalist sees the former as absolutely incorrect, then whatever time is spent interpreting Jesus' work that way is wasted time and does not do the work of Christ justice.” That is a statement that I can understand, and can generally agree with, at least up until the last phrase. (And even with the last phrase I’m starting to see your point.) Of course on the flip side of the coin, as a dispensationalist I could say that whatever time is spent interpreting prophecy in this (CT) way is wasted time as it misses its intended mark and offers little application for today and the future. In a way these are almost natural corollaries of the positions.

    My question to you about Ezekiel was sincere. I honestly don’t know how you as a CT would approach such as passage. If I were to guess, I would say that either 1) you would say that it points to already fulfilled prophecy, when Judah returned from Babylonian captivity, or 2) spiritualizing the ideas, that “you” is believers from all times, both before and after Christ; that “the land” represents spiritual blessings through Christ; that “dwelling in the land” represents embracing and living out those benefits; that “cleansing from idols” represents salvation from the idols of the heart that we all have.

    But I would still like to hear that in your own words, if you have the time. When you come across this passage, how do you interpret and apply it?

    1. It is another expression of God's New Covenant. It's where we get our heart of stone/flesh language that even dispensationalists apply to conversion. A classic, anciently-recognized passage referring to regeneration. See Jer 31 for an OT Parallel. How would you interpret Jeremiah 31? Like the author of Hebrews I would assume. More when I have time.

  6. Kevin Bauder's latest essay (In the Nick of Time - Oct 23, 2015) gives a very succinct summary of the dispensational position, and even references the Ezekiel passage. Makes me wonder how CT deals with passages such as Rom 11:25-33.

    1. My initial post references Romans 11 specifically: "Fortunately for the Jewish people, Paul hints that God will have mercy upon some future generation of Israel and will bring them to faith in Jesus Christ. Then and only then will they participate in the Kingdom promised to Abraham and all his descendants." I will also repost something I wrote several years ago on my old blog that addresses more. Look for it shortly.