Covenant Theology vs. Dispensationalism

by Dr. Robert L. Reymond

“The doctrine of the covenants is a peculiarly Reformed doctrine.” So writes Geerhardus Vos in his major article, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.” With the Reformation came a general return to the study of Scripture using grammatical/historical/biblical hermeneutics, and the Swiss Reformers in particular returned to the Bible’s root idea of the preeminence of God’s glory not only in creation but also in salvation. It was natural then that they would develop the biblical concept of the covenants as the instrumentalities whereby God determined to bring glory to himself by the salvation of the elect through the mediatorial work of his Son and the ministrations of his Spirit and Word. Covenant theology, then, emerged on Swiss soil, particularly in Geneva in Calvin’s thought and in Zürich in the writings of Ulrich Zwingli (1484–531), who as a result of his debates with the Anabaptists made the covenant the main argument for the Reformed understanding of infant baptism, and in the sermons of Johann Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575). In his Of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God, the first treatise in church history on the covenant as such, Bullinger argues that the entirety of Scripture must be viewed in light of the Abrahamic covenant in which God graciously offers to give himself to men and in turn requires that men “walk before him and be perfect.” Calvin makes extensive use of the covenant idea in his Institutes (see, e.g., II.ix–xi), but because he developed his Institutes along Trinitarian lines the covenant concept is not the architectonic or governing principle in that work.

The influence of the Geneva Reformer of French-speaking Switzerland and of the Zürich Reformers of German Switzerland was widespread and lasting. They influenced the Heidelberg theologians, Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583), both men having studied with Calvin in Geneva and both having spent time in Zürich as well. Olevianus later wrote The Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585), and Ursinus applied the covenant concept in his Larger Catechism (1612). Their ideas respectively of a precreation covenant between God the Father and God the Son for the salvation of men and of a pre-Fall covenant of law between God and Adam that promised life for perfect obedience and threatened death for disobedience resulted in the developed covenant theology of such men as Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) in the Netherlands.

The Swiss Reformers also influenced the development of covenant theology in England. Many preachers and scholars had fled to Geneva and Zürich during the reign of Queen Mary, and Calvin and Bullinger had maintained correspondence with them. Accordingly, Robert Rollock and Robert Howie in Scotland, Thomas Cartwright, John Preston, Thomas Blake, and John Ball in England, and James Ussher in Ireland all developed and wrote their theologies along covenantal lines. Bullinger’s Decades were also translated into English in 1577 and made the official theological guide for clergy who had not obtained a master’s degree. Influenced as they were by the labors of these men, the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith placed the concept of the covenant in the foreground of their confessional deliverances, giving creedal status to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. About the former the Confession states:

VII/ii. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

The tangible, concrete expression of the specifically redemptive aspects of God’s eternal decree (the pactum salutis or “covenant of redemption”) in creation history the Westminster divines speak of as the “covenant of grace.” Of this covenant the Westminster Confession of Faith says the following:

VII/iii: Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by [the first covenant], the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

Without using the following phrase in so many words, the Westminster Confession of Faith then clearly asserts “the unity of the covenant of grace and the oneness of the people of God in all ages”:

VII/v: This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament. (emphasis supplied)

VII/vi: Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations. (emphases supplied)

These descriptions of the covenant of grace expressly make the point that the covenant is one, the covenant after the cross simply being administered (to employ the terms to describe the two administrations as such which are used specifically to describe their respective sacraments) with “more simplicity,” “less outward glory,” and more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy to all nations. It also underscores the truth that the earlier administration’s “promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances” all pointed forward to Christ, and were sufficient and efficacious, through the Spirit’s operation, to “instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah.” The Westminster Confession of Faith makes this same point later, albeit in a more directly soteric setting and in different words, when it declares:

Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after His incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices, wherein He was revealed, and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world; being yesterday and today the same, and forever. (VIII/vi, emphasis supplied)

While the influence of the work of the Westminster Assembly was short-lived in England itself, being stifled by the restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, its Confession of Faith and Catechisms were adopted by the Church of Scotland and later by the Presbyterian churches in colonial America. Through these churches the covenant theology of the Assembly has since the 1640s had a growing influence over Protestant theology in general around the world, even in churches which have never formally adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as their own.

Over against the Westminster representation of the covenant of grace as being one in all ages, through the execution of which is created the one people of God—the church of Jesus Christ—comprising all the elect in all ages, stands the dispensational school’s interpretation of salvific history. Classic dispensational scholars uniformly define a dispensation as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” For example, Charles C. Ryrie defines a dispensation as “a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s program” for the world viewed as a household, during which “distinguishable economy” man is responsible “to the particular revelation given at the time.” Since these scholars differ widely among themselves over how many such dispensations there are (the Scofield Reference Bible finds seven: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and kingdom) and how the Scripture material is correspondingly to be divided between them, it is not possible to present here one dispensational scheme that would represent the opinion of every dispensationalist. But such a list is not necessary since, regardless of which particular scheme a given dispensational scholar may espouse, all would agree with the Doctrinal Statement of Dallas Theological Seminary, the leading dispensational seminary in the United States if not in the world, that

three of these dispensations or rules of life are the subject of extended revelation in the Scriptures, viz., the dispensation of the Mosaic law, the present dispensation of grace, and the future dispensation of the millennial kingdom.

Of these three dispensations, the Doctrinal Statement immediately affirms: “We believe that these are distinct and are not to be intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive.” And while the Doctrinal Statement affirms that “salvation in the divine reckoning is always ‘by grace through faith,’ and rests upon the basis of the shed blood of Christ,” it qualifies this affirmation by declaring

that it was historically impossible that [Old Testament saints] should have had as the conscious object of their faith the incarnate, crucified Son, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and that it is evident that they did not comprehend as we do that the sacrifices depicted the person and work of Christ [and] that they did not understand the redemptive significance of the prophecies and types concerning the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 1:10–12); therefore, we believe that their faith toward God was manifested in other ways as is shown by the long record in Hebrews 11:1–40 [which manifested faith was] counted unto them for righteousness.

Thus according to classic dispensational teaching, while Old Testament saints (including Moses, David, Isaiah, and all the other great prophets) were saved by grace through faith, they were not saved through a conscious faith in a suffering Christ, since (1) “it was historically impossible that they should have had as the conscious object of their faith the incarnate, crucified Son, the Lamb of God,” (2) “they did not comprehend … that the sacrifices depicted the person and work of Christ,” and (3) “they did not understand the redemptive significance of the prophecies and types concerning the sufferings of Christ.”

The Doctrinal Statement does not clearly explain why these three things were historically impossible for Old Testament saints, but the New Scofield Reference Bible (1967), as did the original Scofield Reference Bible before it (1917), provides us with the standard dispensational explanation when it comments on Jesus’ proclamation in Matthew 4:17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”:

The Bible expression “at hand” is never a positive affirmation that the person or thing said to be at hand will immediately appear, but only that no known or predicted event must intervene. When Christ appeared to the Jewish people, the next thing, in the order of revelation as it then stood, should have been the setting up of the Davidic kingdom. In the knowledge of God, not yet disclosed, lay the rejection of the kingdom and the King, the long period of the mystery-form of the kingdom, the world-wide preaching of the cross, and the out-calling of the Church. But this was as yet locked up in the secret counsels of God (Mt. 13:11, 17; Eph. 3:3–12).

The Dallas Seminary Doctrinal Statement makes essentially the same point in only somewhat different language when it states: “in fulfillment of prophecy [see Scofield’s phrase above, “in the order of revelation as it then stood”] [the eternal Son of God] came first to Israel as her Messiah-King, and … being rejected of that nation, He, according to the eternal counsels of God [see Scofield’s phrase, “locked up in the secret counsels of God”], gave His life as a ransom for all” (emphases supplied).

Of course, if no one before the time of Jesus’ public ministry knew about the rejection of the Messiah, this present age, the worldwide proclamation of the cross, or the outcalling of the church, because God had disclosed none of these things to men before that time, then the faith of the Old Testament saint could not have been directed toward the person and work of the suffering Christ as its saving object. But this has not been the historic confession of the church, which has not hesitated to sing:

In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

It is difficult to conceive of two evangelical perspectives on Old Testament faith differing more radically. The covenantal perspective stresses the unity and continuity of redemptive history; the dispensational perspective stresses the discontinuity of redemptive history. The former insists that Old Testament saints were saved through conscious faith in the future, anticipated sacrificial work of the promised Messiah in their behalf. The latter insists, since Old Testament saints did not know about his future sacrificial work because God had not revealed it to them, that they were saved through a general “faith toward God … manifested in other ways.” In these regards these two theological systems are mutually exclusive. One may be pardoned if he were to conclude then that these two views advocate different Old Testament plans of salvation, the former insisting upon the necessity of faith in the person and sacrificial work of the coming Messiah for salvation, the latter insisting upon the necessity of a faith in God for salvation that was actually devoid of any conscious awareness that “without the shedding of [Messiah’s] blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). But this means, since dispensational scholars happily affirm that the New Testament saint believes unto salvation with a faith which has precisely Messiah’s death work as its saving object, that, from the perspective of the saints before and the saints after the cross, there are at least two different plans of salvation in Scripture.

I say “at least two different plans of salvation” because dispensational scholars actually insist that Old Testament saving faith in God was manifested in “different ways,” depending on the dispensation, and to prove the point they refer to the “long record in Hebrews 11:1–40.” And they insist that the clearest examples of two different “ways of faith” in the Old Testament record itself by which God related himself to men is, first, the “dispensation of promise,” lived out under the terms of the Abrahamic covenant, which dispensation came to an end when Abraham’s descendants “rashly accepted the law” at Sinai and “exchanged grace for law,” and, second, the immediately following “dispensation of law” during which God’s “point of testing” the nation of Israel with respect to the issue of their “faith in him” was (1) “legal obedience as the condition of salvation” and (2) a future hope that looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, not as a suffering Savior, but as a conquering Davidic king. According to dispensational teaching, the Messiah as a suffering Savior could not have been a proper object of faith for Israel, just as he as Israel’s King “could be no proper object of faith to the Gentiles.” In other words, the Mosaic age was a time period during which God expressly excluded faith in the Messiah’s death as “a proper object of faith”! Accordingly, dispensational scholars teach that the saved of the Mosaic age (Israel “under law”) are the earthly people of God bound for one blessed destiny, while the saved of this age (the church “under grace”) are the heavenly people of God bound for another blessed destiny. As Ryrie forthrightly affirms in the same article referred to above, dispensationalists

distinguish God’s program for Israel from his program for the church. Thus the church did not begin in the OT but on the day of Pentecost, and the church is not presently fulfilling promises made to Israel in the OT that have not yet been fulfilled.

Two distinct ages with two distinct contents of faith, and as a result two distinct peoples of God with two distinct destinies, with these two ages and two peoples never to be “intermingled or confused, as they are chronologically successive,” lest one fall into the error of “Galatianism” (the intermingling of law and grace, works and faith, which Paul vehemently condemned in his letter to the Galatian churches)—this is the dispensational understanding of the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church.

It should be plain from this summary of its interpretation of the Mosaic period and the relationship between that period and this present age that the dispensational school self-consciously repudiates the unity of the covenant of grace and the oneness of the people of God in all ages.

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links