09. The Danger of Covenant Theology

Those in the Reformed tradition generally embrace Covenant theology.  This system of theology evolved after the Reformation.  It explains all relationships between God and man from the beginning to the end of time under the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Grace, and (sometimes) the Covenant of Redemp­tion.23  Reformed/Covenant theologians teach that Old Testament Israelites and New Testament believers are one people and that the Church is but a continuation and successor of Israel.  The CHURCH is usually understood as including the saints of all the ages.  They teach that the Church, as the successor of Israel, has now absorbed and appropriated Old Testament prophecies and promises.  According to their thinking, the promises which God made to Israel are now being fulfilled by the Church or they have been forfeited because of Israel’s unbelief (but see Jeremiah 31:31-37).  This system of theology is directly opposed to dispensa­tionalism which makes a clear and Biblical distinction between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the Church (Acts 15:13-18; Rom. 11:25-26).

The following accurate and helpful statement has been formulated by the men of the New England Bible Conference and is entitled “A Clarification Regarding Dispensa­tionalism.”

When God’s Word, the Bible, is taken in a consistent, literal manner it will result in dispensationalism.  Dispensa­tionalism is the result of a consistently literal, normal interpretation.

A dispensation is a unique stage in the outworking of God’s program in time, whereby some or all of mankind are to have a believing response, being responsible to be good stewards of the particular revelation which God has given (Eph. 3:2,9; Col. 1:25; Exodus 34:27,28; Gal. 3:10-12; 1 Tim. 1:4; Eph. 1:10; etc.).

We believe that in order to be “rightly dividing the Word of truth” it is essential to distinguish things that differ and to recognize certain basic Biblical distinctions, such as the difference between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the Church (Acts 15:14-17; Rom. 11:25-27), the separation of 1000 years between the two resurrections (Rev. 20:4-6), the difference between the various judgments which occur at various times (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 25:31-46; Rev. 20:11-15), the difference between law and grace (John 1:17; Rom. 6:14-15; Rom. 7:1-6) and the difference between Christ’s present session at the right hand of the Father as the Church’s great high Priest and Christ’s future session on the restored Davidic throne as Israel’s millennial King (Heb. 1:3; 10:12-13; Acts 15:16; Luke 1:32).

We believe the Church is a distinct body of believers which was not present on earth during the Old Testament period and which was not the subject of Old Testament prophecy (Eph. 3:1-9; Col. 1:25-27).  In accord with God’s program and timetable, the Church is on earth between the two advents of Christ with the beginning of the Church taking place after Daniel’s 69th week (on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2) and with the completion of the Church’s ministry on earth taking place at the rapture before the commencement of Daniel’s 70th week (Dan. 9:24-27).  During this interval of time God is visiting the nations to call out a people for His Name (Acts 15:14-16; Eph. 3:1-11; Rom. 11:25). Indeed, the Church is God’s called-out assembly.

We believe God will literally fulfill His covenant and kingdom promises to the nation of Israel just as the prophets foretold (Gen. 12:2-3; 15:18-21; Deut. 30:3-10; 2 Sam. 7:4-17; Jer. 31:31-37; 33:15-26). We believe that the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12,15, 17), the Palestinian Covenant (Deut. 30), the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7) and the New Covenant (Jer. 31) were made unconditionally to national Israel and that the thousand-year kingdom will include the literal fulfillment of these covenant promises to ethnic Israel (Jer. 31:31-37; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:25-28; 40-48; Rom. 11:23-32).  The church is not the “new Israel” or the “spiritual Israel,” but rather “one new man” created of two groups, saved Jews and saved Gentiles (Eph. 2:15; 1 Cor. 10:32). The terms “Israel,” “Israelite,” and “Jew,” are used in the New Testament to refer to national ethnic Israel. The term “Israel” is used of the nation or the people as a whole or the believing remnant within. It is not used of the Church in general or of Gentile believers in particular. Saved Gentiles of this present age are spiritual sons of Abraham who is the father of all who believe (Rom. 4:12,16; Gal. 3:7,26,29), whether Jews or Gentiles; but believing Gentiles are not Israelites [that is, they are not the sons of Jacob].  The Israelites are carefully defined by Paul in Rom. 9:4-5.

We believe that in every dispensation God’s distinctive programs are outworked for His great Name’s sake and that in every dispensation persons have always been saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8; Gen. 15:6; Heb. 11:4-7; Rom. 4:1-8).  We believe that the glory of God is the determining principle and overall purpose for God’s dealings with men in every age and that in every dispensation God is manifesting Himself to men and to angels so that all might redound to the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:6,12,14; 3:21; Rom. 11:33-36; 16:27; Isa. 43:7; 1 Tim. 1:17).

The prophecy found in Daniel 9:24-27 is a key to understanding the parenthetical nature of this present age.  Israel’s history from the rebuilding of Jerusalem to the second coming of Messiah is incorporated in the 70-Week prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27.  We know that Messiah was cut off (referring to His violent death) after the 69th week, and we know from the book of Revelation and other Scripture passages that the 70th week is yet future and represents the final seven years before the Messiah returns to the earth.  Between the 69th and 70th weeks is a “gap” of nearly 2000 years, during which time God has been building His Church (Matthew 16:18) and “visiting the nations to take out of them a people for His Name” (Acts 15:14).

It is highly significant that this 70-Week prophecy of Daniel, while detailing the history of God’s people—“seventy weeks are determined upon thy people” (Dan. 9:24)—has nothing to say about a period of history which is now known to consist of nearly two millennia.  When this remarkable “gap” or “parenthesis” is integrated with Daniel’s great chronological prophecy, the interpreter is forced to distinguish two histories:  1) the stated history of Israel (490 years); 2) the unstated, parenthetical history of the Church (already nearly 2000 years).  God has a distinct history or program for Israel as well as a distinct history or program for His Church.  The two programs harmonize perfectly but do not interfere one with the other, nor do they overlap in time.  The Church age in its entirety falls in the period of time after the conclusion of the 69th week and before the beginning of the 70th week.

 

Vital Distinctions Between Israel and the Church

Dispensationalists are distinguished from non-Dispensationalists in that they recognize clear Biblical distinctions between Israel and the Church. The following distinctions, illustrated in chart form, are based on the clear teachings of the Scriptures when interpreted in their plain, normal, literal sense. For example, non-Dispensationalists are horrified at the thought that animal sacrifices will be observed in the future Messianic kingdom, but this is what the Old Testament prophets predicted. [For further study, see The Millennial Temple of Ezekiel 40-48 by Dr. John Whitcomb, available from the Middletown Bible Church.]   In the following chart the term “Church” refers to the true Church made up of born again believers, and does not include mere professing Christians who do not have the life of God (1 John 5:12).

 

A Comparison and Contrast 

Between Israel and the Church

Israel The Church
Israel is a nation chosen by God and sustained by covenant promises (Deut. 7:6-9).  Not all individuals in this chosen nation are saved (Rom. 9:6; 11:28). The Church is a called out assembly of believers who have been baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).  Every member of the body of Christ is saved, though there are multitudes of professing Christians who may not be saved (2 Tim. 2:19).
Israel traces its origin to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Jacob being the father of the twelve tribes). The Church traces its origin to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) when believers were first placed into the body of Christ.
In God’s program for Israel, His witnesses comprised a nation (Isaiah 43:10). In God’s program for the Church, His witnesses are among all nations (Acts 1:8).
God’s program for Israel centered in Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37) and will again center in Jerusalem during the Tribulation (Matt. 24:15-20) and during the Millennium (Isa. 2:1-5). God’s program for His Church began in Jerusalem and extended to the uttermost parts of the earth (Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8).  The Church is identified with the risen Christ, not with any earthly city.
The hope and expectancy of Israel was earthly, centering in the establishment of the Kingdom of the Messiah foretold by the prophets (Jer. 23:5-8; Isa. 2:1-5; 11:1-16). The hope and expectancy of the Church is heavenly, centering in the glorious appearing of Christ to take His people to heaven (John 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21; Col. 3:1-4; 1 Thess. 4:13-18).
God’s purpose and program for Israel was revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures. God’s purpose and program for the Church was not revealed in the Old Testament, but was revealed by the New Testament apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5).
Israel’s history which is in view in Daniel 9:24 (the 70 weeks or 490 years) involved animal sacrifices. The last 7 of the 490 years involves the future Tribulation which will also involve animal sacrifices during the first three and a half years (Dan. 9:27). Israel’s millennial worship will also involve animal sacrifices (Ezek.  43:27). The Church’s history does not involve animal sacrifices.  Messiah’s sacrifice is commemorated by means of the Lord’s Table.
Israel’s history which is in view in Daniel 9:24 (the 490 years including also the Tribulation) involves a temple in Jerusalem. The same will be true in the Millennium (Ezek. chapters 40-48). During most of the Church age there is no Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  In this age God manifests His glory in His believers, both individually and collectively, designating them as His temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19-20; Eph. 2:21-22).  This is accomplished by the indwelling ministry of God the Holy Spirit.
Israel’s history which is in view in Daniel 9:24 (the 490 years) involves a priesthood limited to the sons of Aaron, and excluding most Israelites. The same applies to the Millennium when Zadokian priests (also sons of Aaron) will serve in the temple (Ezek. 40:46; 43:19; 44:15). During the Church age every true believer is a priest and able to offer spiritual sacrifices to the Lord (Heb. 13:15; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 1:6).

 

Whereas Israel had a priesthood, the Church is a priesthood.

Israel’s history which is in view in Daniel 9:24 (the 490 years) will terminate with the coming of the Messiah to the earth to establish His Kingdom reign. The Church’s history will end at the Rapture of the Church when the fullness of the Gentiles comes in (1 Thess. 4:13-18; Rom. 11:25).
During Israel’s history (the 490 years of Daniel 9:24 which also includes the Tribulation) the ethnic makeup of the world is bipartite: Jews and Gentiles.  This division of all people into Jews and Gentiles will also apply to those in the Millennial Kingdom in natural bodies. During the Church age from Pentecost to the Rapture the ethnic makeup of the world is tripartite:  Jews, Gentiles, and the Church of God (1 Cor. 10:32), the Church being composed of saved Jews and Gentiles united together in one Body (Eph. 2:15; 3:6).
During Israel’s history, from Sinai to the Millennial Kingdom (excluding the Church age), Israel’s role in the world will be characterized by PRIORITY [that is, they will have a leading role as God’s chosen people]—see Deut. 4:6-8; Isa. 43:10; Matt. 10:5-6; Zech. 8:23. During the Church age, Israel’s role in the world will be characterized by EQUALITY—Jew and Gentiles united together in one body to bear testimony to a risen Christ (Col. 3:11; Gal. 3:28).
Male Jews were circumcised as a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.  Believing Jews were circumcised in the heart (Jer. 4:4). Believers of this age enjoy an internal circumcision not made with hands (Col. 2:11; Phil. 3:3).  Physical circumcision is not required.
Israel was under the law of Moses as a rule of life. The Church is under the “new creature” rule (Gal. 6:15-16).  See our study: What is the Believer’s Rule of Life?
Unbelieving Jews were physical children of Abraham and spiritual children of the devil (John 8:37-44). Every believer in Christ (every true member of the Church, whether Jew or Gentile) is a child of Abraham and a child of God (Rom. 4:11-12; Gal. 3:26-29).  This statement does not mean that Church age believers are Israelites.
Israel was to observe the Sabbath Day (Exodus 20:8).  Sabbath observance will also take place in the Tribulation (Matt. 24:20) and in the Millennium (Ezek. 46:1,3). The Church is to be diligent and make every effort to enter into God’s rest (Heb. 4:9-11). This is a daily duty.
Membership into the Jewish nation was by birth or by becoming a proselyte (a convert to Judaism). Membership into the Church is by the new birth accomplished by the baptizing ministry of God (1 Cor. 12:13).
Believing Jews who died prior to Pentecost, believing Jews during the tribulation, and believing Jews during the Kingdom reign of Christ are not members of the body of Christ. Believing Jews and Gentiles from Pentecost to the Rapture are members of the body of Christ.
Israel’s place of worship centered in Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10; John 4:20) and this will also be true in the Tribulation (Dan. 9:27) and in the Millennium (Isa. 2:1-5). The Church’s place of worship is “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name” (Matt. 18:20; John 4:21-24).  Christ is in the midst of His Churches (Rev. 1:13, 20).
Israel is likened to the wife of Jehovah, often an unfaithful wife (Hosea). The Church is the beloved Bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-8), and although at times unfaithful, will one day be presented blameless and spotless (Eph. 5:27).

 

 

            For further study pertaining to Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, see our set of notes entitled Dispen­sations (128 pages, $2.50).  Recommended books:  It Really Makes a Difference (Renald Showers) and Dispensa­tionalism (Charles Ryrie).

     23 In contrast to this, dispensationalists emphasize the covenants that are mentioned in the Bible, such as the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant and the New Covenant.