Summary: Written July 2015. A theological system is generally an organized explanation of Scripture created by man. Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism are two competing theological systems. Because human wisdom and scholarship are heavily depended on by man in the things he creates, organizes, and teaches, divine teaching by the Spirit of God is usually all but lost. This article points out some of the shortfalls of human reasoning in these two organized systems.
Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism have certain things in common. Covenants and dispensations are found in Scripture giving them both a measure of biblical legitimacy. Both have a decidedly earthly character; as a theological system both are about earthly things; both speak of earthly blessings from God. This would be all well and good if earthly things were all that mattered. If that were the case, then these systems might be fairly competent, depending on how closely each is kept to the truth of God. But for the believer/church that simply isn’t the case. Our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:17-21 (NKJV)
“Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern. For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.”
The true believer’s portion is heavenly and so, even while we walk on this earth now, our view or gaze is heavenward. Earth will never be the believer’s home. We can only be strangers and pilgrims here below. Therefore, our affections and cares cannot be for earthly things.
This general truth can be seen in many different ways and passages of New Testament scripture. For example, the above passage says we eagerly wait for our Savior from heaven. The reason is because Jesus promised He would return for us. Now is this return so that He may join us on the earth? Is it so He can admire all we have built up in the world? No, it is so He may fetch us and take us to the Father’s house, to where He had gone to prepare places for us – abodes, habitations, dwellings. He returns from the place where He has gone – the Father’s house. And this is no earthly dwelling.
John 14:1-3 (NKJV)
“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you, And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”
There are no earthly thoughts here. And I must try to make this clear – Jesus is not referring to when we leave this world individually through death. He speaks of the future time when He will gather up together all the dead and living in Christ, all that there is, the entire membership of the body of Christ, the true church, and do so at one specific point in time. Every member of the church will be changed – either by resurrection from the dead, or life swallowing up mortality for those living – regardless we all will be changed, all will be glorified, all believers will receive the end of their salvation, the glorifying of the body. This powerful event is known as the rapture of the church.
I Thess. 4:13-18
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
Certainly this shows that the believer’s/church’s destiny is in the heavens. The believer has a heavenly calling (Heb. 3:1). Although gathered on the earth by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven, the church is essentially a heavenly body. This is her character.
Now if any system denies the rapture of the church as being a legitimate doctrine, such a system would essentially be denying the calling of the believer/church.
Hebrews 3:1 (NKJV)
“Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus,”
We are called to the heavens; this is our destiny; it is where Jesus has prepared habitations for us. We are citizens, not of the earth, but of heaven. We are not of the world in the same way as Jesus is not of the world (John 17:14-16). Most theologians and teachers only see a spiritual reality in such passages. But that is a foolish and limiting assumption. Having received redemption of our spirit and soul, in Christ the believer has been given title to many future realities, of which presently we do not enjoy the fullness of its blessing.
The rapture is one obvious example of this understanding. We are saved in spirit and soul, having been given a new nature that is of God. But our bodies remain unredeemed. The believer, as long as he remains on this earth, struggles against the flesh, is persecuted by the world, and wrestles against Satan and his minions. But this all changes in the rapture of the church. In this event we receive the end of our salvation, the redemption of our bodies. When we are taken into the heavens, the rapture fulfilling our calling, sin in the flesh is gone, we are removed physically from this world, and we will no longer be wrestling with spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. So we agree with Jesus’ words – we are not of the world. While in the world we are to live separated from the world, and we sojourn as pilgrims and strangers. There is presently a great spiritual reality to this truth. But the rapture event will physically separate us from this world. This future event brings a certain physical reality to our Lord’s words and that position which we only now partially enjoy in title.
This reasoning is applicable to many biblical truths – the judgment of Satan, the judgment of this world, the authority given to Christ upon His resurrection, and the believer now sitting in heavenly places, are just to name a few. We enjoy many truths and redemptive realities to a certain extent spiritually, but wait patiently and with perseverance for their physical fulfillment.
Many theologians and teachers only see the spiritual side and the partial reality. They are blind or purposely deny the future physical fulfillment of the truths. Their systems of doctrine are blind to the greater realities and privileges of the true church. So they spiritualize so much scripture as completely fulfilled here and now on this earth and in this world, scripture which actually has a positive and intended future reality for the believer in the heavens. They cannot see the church’s heavenly calling, heavenly citizenship, sitting in heavenly places and blessed there with all spiritual blessings.
It is no wonder then these theologians and teachers devise systems that only concentrate on earthly blessings and earthly things. This is all they are willing to see and understand. Covenant theology has committed these errors to a far greater extent than the dispensationalists. Still both systems are earthly in their overall character, just one to a greater extent than the other. As I mentioned above, both systems attempt to explain earthly blessings and earthly things. What I find in their misguided efforts is an inordinate emphasis on the earthly calling of the Jews, to the neglect of the heavenly calling of the church – this is the dispensationalist. Covenant theology is partly replacement theology – the church replaces Israel and usurps her earthly calling and blessings. This theology does away with Israel and makes everything about the church to have an earthly character. And I must add, this type of misguidance has lead both groups into a certain blindness to present spiritual failure and ruin in Christendom as a corporate body before God. This is a great existing evil that remains, for the most part, unacknowledged by our leaders.
I understand that the dispensationalist generally admits that in their system all dispensations end in failure, including the present one. The exception to this is the millennium, the dispensation of the fullness of the times. It will not fail, but will be sustained by the power of God through the physical presence of the glorified Son of Man on the earth. But they generally admit the present dispensation will follow the same course as all their previous dispensations. They believe it has to eventually fail, but are blind to its present course of failure.
Let’s spend a little time on the general thought of dispensational failure, and how it seems to be applied by the dispensationalist to the present dispensation. For illustration let us consider the dispensation previous to the present one. They want to call it the dispensation of the Mosaic law. However, I refer to it as the Jewish dispensation. Why? Because it involved more than the law. This dispensation also included God Himself taking on human flesh and coming to Israel in goodness and mercy (John 1:17). However, the final result was their hatred of Him and His rejection by them (John 15:22-25).
The Jewish dispensation certainly did fail concerning the law, and this was physically demonstrated by the first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple under the Babylonians. The idolatry and rebellion of both Israel and Judah brought on these consequences. But the Jewish dispensation ultimately and finally fails when the Jews crucified and killed their own Messiah. God brings in the Romans to destroy Jerusalem and the temple a second time. Although these two judgments on Israel were a result of their failure in responsibility concerning two distinct biblical institutions, the Roman destruction was the definite physical end to their dispensation. God had tested and proved Israel by two different ways during the one dispensation – this is a good reason why the dispensationalists should seriously consider renaming that particular dispensation. But more to my point and what must be understood – the Jewish dispensation failed because of the idolatry and apostasy of Israel, not because of the evil world around them.
Seeing that it was Israel’s failure which led to the ruin and end of their dispensation, what might we reason will be the cause of the failure of this present dispensation? Are we going to blame it on the ever ripening evil growing in the world? For certain the world, when looked at from most every angle, is increasing in its violence and rebellion against God. Its secularism and humanistic philosophies has positioned the world in marked independence and defiance of God. Even to the point of denying that there is a God, the world places man in God’s rightful place. He believes himself as having all the answers, and that he is the solution to all the world’s problems. We see this amplified secularism as the evil character of the world and two beasts (Rev. 13) during the tribulation that ends the age. God will bring physical judgment upon this world. But can we blame the world as the cause of the failure of the present dispensation?
First things first. The church cannot properly be considered a dispensation. The true church is a heavenly body and there is no real counting of time in heaven or with heavenly things. Dispensations are about God’s dealings in His ways on the earth. The only connection the church has with the earth is that this is where she is being gathered. We should not label the present time as the dispensation of the church. Also a dispensation should not be titled grace. In a similar way that Mosaic law was an insufficient title to the previous dispensation, so grace doesn’t adequately describe the present one. Besides, grace is descriptive of the work of God (Eph. 2:8-10, I Cor. 15:10). God’s workmanship cannot fail and is eternal. If grace is going to be our title for the present dispensation, then we shouldn’t be discussing its failure and end.
Then what does describe it? The question is what is the proper biblical label for the present dispensation, and what form or shape does it take? I believe Jesus clearly answered these questions. He said the present dispensation was a mixture of different works – that of God, that of man, and that of the devil. And He said that a body would take shape and grow on the earth – a crop in the field of the world. But He indicated that the mixture of good and bad had practically spoiled the crop, and nothing could be done by His servants about it. He forbids them to try to separate the crop. The separation would be the work of His angels at the end of the age. Until that time the spoiled crop remains as it is. You may read His description of the present dispensation in Matt. 13:24-30 and the interpretation in Matt. 13:37-43. The title He gives to the dispensation is “the kingdom of heaven.” And He said there were mysteries associated with its development (Matt. 13:11).
The paramount question that every dispensationalist needs to answer is what is this new planting in the field? For any clarity of understanding of our Lord’s teachings you must be able to properly identify what is the spoiled crop in the field? In other words, what is this corporate body that has been newly formed in the world, and will grow there undisturbed until the end of this age? To my amazement most dispensationalists are in confusion concerning this simple question. They have been bamboozled by their own scholarship. In their attempts to correctly identifying this body they are fearful of breaking away from the historical evangelical interpretations that preceded them.
The spoiled crop in the field is Christendom in the world. The kingdom of heaven is the label Jesus uses to depict the Christian dispensation. This is what Jesus is describing – Christendom on the earth and in the world progressing to the end of the age (Matt. 13:24-30, 37-43). It is not Israel – the Jews have been set aside by God and made desolate, their dispensation having ended. Israel can hardly be described as a crop growing up in a field. And I must add, the Lord’s descriptions of the kingdom of heaven are not in any way descriptive of a Messianic kingdom for Israel. Many or most dispensationalists have put blinders on – they follow Alva McClain’s book, The Greatness of the Kingdom, and have narrowed their vision of the kingdom of God to only include Old Testament scripture. If you do this, all you will see is a Messianic kingdom for Israel, and will be restricting yourself to forcing your closed view on all New Testament teaching.
This is a great problem for Evangelical Dispensational Protestantism. Their common errors in gaining a proper understanding of Matthew thirteen (13), or in understanding the overall character of Matthew’s gospel, has led to many gross errors of understanding of other New Testament passages. The character of these errors may all be expressed as an unhealthy leaning away from Christianity and leaning towards Judaism. Instead of understanding that God addresses Christendom as the critical corporate body existing in “the kingdom of heaven” in this present age, they wrongly but willfully substitute Israel or a Messianic kingdom into the equation. It truly becomes a subtle form of judaizing the Christian faith. The replacement theology of covenant theologians, we must admit, is a serious judaizing of Christianity through the sheer amount of Jewish scripture they have to spiritualize and apply to the church. Yet the dispensationalists are guilty of judaizing as well, only in a different way under a more subtle form.
How does the present dispensation come to failure and end? Well, it isn’t Israel’s fault this time. The Jews were guilty for the failure and ending of their dispensation, which was the previous one. Then should we blame the world as the cause of the failure of the present one? That would be foolish. But as dispensationalists, if we recognized Christendom as the spoiled crop in the field, then all is solved. Men were sleeping. The enemy came in and planted tares. The new crop in the field is spoiled. The new and present dispensation is doomed to failure because of the corruption and ruin of Christendom. She had the candlestick; she was to be the light on the hill that all could see; she was given responsibility for the testimony of the glory of Christ. But He is ready to remove her candlestick and spew her out of His mouth. Just as Israel was the cause of the failure of their dispensation, Christendom is the cause of the failure of its own.
Such a difficult truth to admit! Where will we find any Christian leaders who understand and acknowledge this sad spiritual reality? The Romanists won’t acknowledge it; neither will the mainline denominations. The covenant theologians will not either; they have replaced Israel with the church. And the evangelical dispensationalists? They are concentrating on a restored Israel in a Messianic kingdom. To them the kingdom of heaven only means a heavenly character associated with an earthly kingdom. Nobody will be willing to admit the testimony of God found in New Testament scripture – the present form of the kingdom of God, the real and proper name of the present dispensation, the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, and the corruption and ruin of Christendom. This last, by the way, is the true cause of the failure of the present dispensation.
The dispensationalist will tell us that the kingdom of God has been suspended for the time. He will say that it doesn’t exist today and that the believer isn’t in it as yet. Now I have to say that that is some strange reasoning when you consider many passages of scripture:
Col. 1:12-14 (NKJV)
“…giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.”
Through the death of Christ (His blood) we have redemption from God. This has definitively placed the believer in the kingdom of God (John 3:3-8). This present form is not something that we see with our eyes or perceive with our senses (Luke 17:20-21) – such a kingdom, one of physical outward form, one coming with “observation”, is what the Jews require. Their religion (Judaism) is a walk by sight and physical senses. However, Christianity is the opposite of this – it is a walk by faith (the evidence of things not seen). All the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are about “things not seen” with the naked eye, but only perceived and understood by the eye of faith of the spiritual believer (Matt. 13:11).
Luke 16:16 (NKJV)
“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.”
Either true Christians are in the kingdom of God today, or Jesus is guilty of misspeaking (error). But this is exactly the mistake the dispensationalist is making when he says we are not in the kingdom of God as yet, and that it has been postponed. It is obvious to everyone that the Messianic kingdom for Israel has been postponed – this you can determine with your physical sight. Yet it should be obvious to faith that there is an existing and different form of the kingdom of God today, or else they wouldn’t have been pressing into it. This form of the kingdom is a matter of faith and things unseen, which I admit is not according to Judaism or Jewish character (I Cor. 1:22). But it is according to Christianity and the proper character of the true believer (II Cor. 5:7). So why can’t the dispensationalist see this? As I said before, they are so focused on Old Testament scripture that they will only admit to the potential of a Messianic kingdom as the only form the kingdom of God may take. For the dispensationalist this is a most subtle error, nevertheless it has its judaizing effects.
There is a more serious defect that needs to be addressed here specifically for the evangelical dispensational theologian, one that is hinted at in the above paragraph. It is not just the tunnel-vision focus on a future Messianic kingdom for a restored Israel. More, it is finding the reason for their default to their tunnel-vision. There is a greater underlying problem – their unwillingness or inability to see the unseen things by the eye of faith (II Cor. 4:18). Therefore the only form of the kingdom of God they are willing to acknowledge is one they can see with their physical eyes. And if they cannot by sight see this outward form in the world, then for their doctrine the kingdom of God has been postponed, and it does not exist today. They cannot see it with their eyes, so they teach that the believer isn’t in the kingdom as yet. They are espousing a walk by sight, or better said, espousing teaching dependent on sight, and as a consequence their doctrine on the present dispensation and the kingdom of God is guilty of this sever limitation and defect (at its core this is also judaizing, as the results readily show). Everything must be outwardly observable and earthly in its character, or it is dismissed. The kingdom of heaven or heavenly things are not comprehended. They have become blinded to the things of faith and mystery.
John 3:10-12 (NKJV)
“Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
What Jesus says here, I believe, gets to the heart of the matter. Earthly things should have been well understood by a teacher of Israel – the Jews are God’s earthly calling, and earthly things are Jewish things, Old Testament things related to Judaism, and an earthly kingdom observable in this world. A teacher of Israel should have easily understood such things. Yet Jesus says they do not comprehend even the things meant for them and referring to them. If an exalted teacher of Israel doesn’t grasp earthly things, then it is safe to say the nation didn’t either.
But what I find to be the overwhelming trend in Evangelical Protestantism, whether it is covenant theology or dispensationalism, is the tunnel-vision concentration on earthly things in order to explain them. This is all well and good, and may have a certain place, but it is not the understanding or explanation of heavenly things. Earthly things have no real relationship to Christianity; such things are not meant for the believer, nor do they refer to him. And we do not explain “the kingdom of heaven” (the Christian dispensation) by what we see with our eyes or by using earthly things! Every mystery of the Christian dispensation can only be preceived and understood by the eye of faith of the true believer. The Jews are God’s earthly calling – this will be fulfilled by a restored Israel growing and prospering in their land under their Messiah. The Christian is God’s heavenly calling – this will be fulfilled by the rapture of the church. It is as simple as that.
But how much easier it is to teach only things you can see with your eyes or perceive with your senses? It is far more comforting to walk by sight – the Jews do so; actually the entire unbelieving world does so; the shame is that most of Christianity does as well. And if our best theologians only aspire to teachings based on walking by sight, well, now you see the root of the problem. If you ask Christians to believe in what they cannot see with their eyes, then both you and they have to by faith see the things that are unseen. This is the opposite of Judaism, but the complete essence of true Christianity (John 20:29, Heb. 11:1). We must be able to see the unseen with the eye of faith (II Cor. 4:18).
As for the shortcomings of covenant theology, these have been well documented by dispensationalists. Their doctrines of replacement theology are simply intolerable – this requires a spiritualization (a certain way of interpretation) of a vast amount of scripture in order to give the church Israel’s true place. But their issues and errors are not limited to just this. They have a system of three important covenants, two of which are made up without scriptural support, the other greatly misunderstood. There is no evidence that God made a covenant with Himself before time began. As far as Adam being given a covenant of works, this just isn’t the case. With Adam in innocence, it was a simple matter of his obedience to one command. And there was no promise of life to be earned by Adam doing works. All there was in the way of promise was in the negative, the promise of death – in the day you eat of the fruit you will surely die.
I’m not saying there wasn’t an understanding between Adam and his Creator. There certainly was, and you can call this an agreement or covenant if you want. But usually covenants have the promise of something good. Adam was placed in a creation that was very good already. He absolutely lacked nothing of the good. Everything he was surrounded with was good. He had life and was living, and would have gone on living if not for his disobedience. As created by God there was nothing in Adam that was sin or could lead to mortality and death. God couldn’t create him as such. Impossible. Therefore, Adam would have gone on living. You can say there was a covenant if you want, but there was no promise of life connected with it. A promise of life to Adam in innocence would have been unnecessary, and God doesn’t do unnecessary things. The promise of life only has meaning when there is mortality already in the creature. This wasn’t the case with Adam when he was given the command.
However, the law of Moses given to Israel was a covenant of works. Its founding principle had the promise of life attached to it – do this and live. But allow me to point out the differences between this and Adam. All of Israel were already sinners. They all were already mortal and subject to death. So the promise of life was needed by man in his fallen state, therefore the continuance of life would be the result of doing the works. But the proven outcome of God giving the law to Israel was the utter depravity of man. No one in Israel could keep the law. Therefore we have Paul’s conclusion: There never has been a law given that could give life, not as man is in his fallen state (Gal. 3:21). God could give life as a gift; it was impossible for any law to give it as a reward or payment.
In covenant theology their third covenant of prominence is the new covenant. In scripture this is a future covenant made with the two houses of Judah and Israel, bringing them back together as one nation. But when we consider covenant theology’s replacement ideas, then this new covenant becomes the subject of great spiritualization. This only can lead to confusion and obscurity. The new covenant replaces Israel’s first covenant. This is a matter of common sense. But if you no longer recognize Israel in its place in scripture, and give that place to the church, then the actual wording of this covenant becomes problematic. A grand spiritualization is all that is left to the covenant theologian to rescue the day.
In Romans nine (9) Paul speaks of Israel, his kinsmen according to the flesh. He says, “…who are Israelites, to whom pertain…the covenants.” (Rom. 9:4) Very few teachers or theologians take this truth seriously. The covenants pertain to Israel. In general all the covenants God has made are agreements, in one form or the other, by which God will physically bless the earth. Israel is God’s earthly calling, and the physical blessing of the earth will come through them. So speaking again of Israel, Paul goes on to say later in Romans:
Romans 11:12 (NKJV)
“Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness!”
Covenant theology has more issues than just these. The acceptance of the doctrine of “the active obedience” of Christ producing a legal righteousness for the believer, and calling this the righteousness of God, is another major error in properly understanding scripture which seems to be spreading among them. Oh sad day it is, and sad results. This is a false redemption which can only result in a false gospel. And it is another means or way of judaizing the Christian faith. Oh that men could see this evil leaven and its results.
Enough said about covenant theology. For the record I am a dispensationalist. But I believe there are only three dispensations of any prominence in Scripture – the Jewish dispensation, the Christian dispensation (a.k.a. the kingdom of heaven in mystery), and the millennium (a.k.a. the dispensation of the fullness of times). The book of Genesis serves to give us all the biblical principles and institutions which explain the ways of God with man in those three most prominent dispensations. I also believe in a pre-tribulation rapture of the church – this is the only proper conclusion when one fully understands the position and privilege of the church in Christ. I am a Christian Zionist, if by that we mean we believe in the future restoration of Israel in their Promised Land during the millennium. I believe God will be faithful to every promise He has made to Israel’s forefathers.