Annotated Comparison of Three Systems: New Covenant Theology, Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism

Published: 5 September 2022

Many years ago, Donald Hochner, minister of a deaf Reformed Preterist church in California, wrote a very interesting comparison outline of three well-known systems of biblical interpretation (or "theological frameworks") entitled: "A Comparison of Three Systems: Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, and New Covenant Theology", where he explored some key differences between the three systems on several important points. It was in fact my own introduction to New Covenant Theology, and I found it to be such a useful exploration of the topic, that I felt compelled to annotate the points of comparison for my own reference. The below article is an adapted and refined version of my original writeup.

Hochner's article contains the following note by G. Richard Gaudreau:

"A Comparison of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology" was mostly written by Curt Daniel in "History and Theology of Calvinism." The New Covenant Theology items were mostly written by G. Richard Gaudreau. This short work was edited by Donald Hochner who had the idea for publishing this comparison, and did most of the work in assembling the data in an ordered form; so the credit for this brief comparison rightfully belongs to him.

The text sourced from the original article will be presented mostly verbatim, with the exception of a few minor spelling and typographical corrections. Hochner's inline comments are included in the quoted text, and are preceded by an asterisk (*).

I will be resorting to the same abbreviations as the original article, with (DISP) for Dispensationalism, (CT) for Covenant Theology, and (NCT) for New Covenant Theology. As the names imply, CT and NCT are quite similar, and this article will focus mainly on the areas where these two differ, with the hopes that a future article might explore further aspects of comparison.

As I read through the original article that first time, I found myself agreeing most with the NCT position, as did Hochner himself. Therefore, any instance where I disagree with the NCT position will be pointed out, but otherwise it can be assumed that my position is closest to the NCT position as stated in the comparison.

While preparing this article, I also ran into another adaptation and expansion on the original comparison which adds Progressive Dispensationalism (using the abbreviation "PD"), entitled "Theological Systems Compared" which might be of interest to the same audience as this article.

An annotated Comparison of Three Systems: Dispensationalism (DISP), Covenant Theology (CT), and New Covenant Theology (NCT)

The people of God

  • [DISP] God has 2 peoples with 2 separate destinies: Israel (earthly) and the Church (heavenly).
  • [CT] God always had only one people, the Church gradually developed through the ages, in accordance with a Covenant worked out in eternity past between the "Three Persons of the Godhead."
  • [NCT] In OT, believers are called simply "the elect of Israel", not the Church. NCT doesn't recognize a Church in the OT, such as in the NT. In Matt 16:18, Jesus said that He will build His Church. There is but one people of God of whom natural Israel was the typical foreshadowing. So, the Church is the "New Israel."

In Hosea 2:23, God promises to make a new nation for himself, from a people that were not His people before. Jeremiah 3:8 talks about God "divorcing" His wife (the nations of Israel and Judah), and Jeremiah 31:31-32 expands on the idea, presenting God's promise of a new pact, as the old one had been broken. The believers we find in the Old Testament fall under what we generically call the Old Pact, which is usually used to refer to the Mosaic Pact, but is also used in a broad sense to collectively refer to several pacts, such as the Adamic Pact, the Abrahamic Pact, and the Noahic/Noahide Pact. Christians (New Testament believers), on the other hand, are under the New Pact, which Jesus tells us in Mark 14:24 is in His blood. In Galatians 3:28, the Apostle Paul says that in Christ there is "neither Jew nor gentile", so there is only ever one "people of God", but the pact they were under as people of God in the past varied (this will be discussed further in the section Were Old Testament believers "in Christ"? below). In contrast to some of the other Old Testament covenants which were conditional, like the Mosaic Pact, the New Pact in Jesus' blood is unconditional and eternal. All believers, all members of God's people, enter the universal assembly of believers through this New Covenant, and no other means (John 14:6).

It is important to note that the English word "pact" is interchangeable with the word "covenant", which are translations of the same Greek word that Jesus uses in Mark 14:24. It is this same Greek word that is used to give the New Testament its name in Greek, with the same thing happening in Hebrew. In English we call the second half of the Bible the New "Testament", based on an old usage of the word "testament" to mean "covenant" (the King James Version uses the word "testament" in many such places), and should not be confused with the modern usage of the word "testament" to mean "attestation" or "text that is left behind". Thus, we can think of the New Testament as "the collection of writings used to chronicle the establishment of the New Pact in Jesus' blood".

The founding of God's Church

  • [DISP] The Church was born at Pentecost.
  • [CT] The Church* began in the OT (Acts 7:38) and reached fulfillment in the NT.
  • * There is an unfortunate tendency to translate the word "ecclesia" with the word church, when it can very well be translated "assembly", which would make more sense in the OT version of it. Since Jesus said that He would build His church, then it stands to reason that it wasn't yet built. Remember that Christ is the Head of the body, which is the church (assembly). No similar teaching exists in the OT.
  • [NCT] Same as Dispensationalism.

We can conclude that the Church was born at Pentecost based on two main arguments.

The first is that in Matthew 16:18, Jesus told Peter that He would be building His Church "upon this rock" (the "rock" being the declaration of faith that Peter had uttered, proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God -- alternatively, the Apostle Paul tells us that Christ Himself is the Rock, in 1 Corinthians 10:4), which tells us that the Church had not yet been "built" or formally established as such. We can therefore safely conclude that the Church did not yet exist (as Hochner mentions above), and certainly not in the Old Testament.

The second argument is that it is on the Day of Pentecost that Jesus' promise of the "counselor" (or "Paraclete") is fulfilled. The details of this will be discussed further in the section "The indwelling of the Holy Spirit", but as it pertains to this section, the promise was of a radical change in the way the Holy Spirit operated within God's people, as contrasted to what we read in the Old Testament. It was the promise of a permanent presence of the Holy Spirit among the people of God, but not just "among" His people, within them -- within each individual believer. As we will discuss below, this is what we call the "indwelling" of the Holy Spirit.

Those who hold that the Church was born at Pentecost would also affirm that "the Church" means "all New Testament believers", and that the word "Christian" is used exclusively to refer to New Testament believers. In contrast, affirming that "the Church" means "all believers throughout time" usually also demands the corollary position that the word "Christian" can be applied to all believers throughout time.

As Hochner bemoans, the word "church", which is the English translation for the Koine Greek word "ecclesia" in the New Testament, can also be correctly translated "assembly", or "gathering", which can lead to some confusion depending on use. On the other hand, the term "saints" is the broader term to refer to all of God's elect who have been redeemed, whether they are Old Testament believers or New Testament believers. The English word "saint" comes from "sanctus", the Latin word for "holy", which itself means "set apart". In the Biblical context this refers to being "set apart for God".

Though the Bible affirms the salvation of Old Testament believers, and that together with New Testament believers they make up the "assembly" of God's people who are redeemed and will be present in Heaven for all eternity, the differentiation between Old Testament saint and "Christian" is not just a useful distinction, but an important one to make. As Romans 8:9 defines for us, a Christian is someone who has the Spirit of Christ in them, but as we have mentioned, this specifically means the permanent indwelling of the Spirit of Christ, something that only begins to occur on the day of Pentecost.

Blurring the line and referring to Old Testament saints as "Christians" carries some doctrinal risk that we must be aware of, and this raises what ends up being one of the more important distinctions between NCT and CT. The CT position leads its proponents to affirm doctrinally problematic statements like saying that King David was a Christian. The danger in this can best be illustrated by the fact that though Scripture states in 1 Samuel 13:14 that King David was "a man after God's own heart", it also tells us that he was a liar, an adulterer, and a murderer. And while his subsequent repentance is undeniable, it must be observed that God said this about David and anointed him king before any of these grievous sins were committed.

Affirming that David was a Christian would demand by the same token that you allow for other Christians -- who have been washed by the Blood of the Lamb, supernaturally converted from goats to sheep, given a new heart and a new Spirit, and indwellt and sealed by the Holy Spirit of God -- to potentially behave as sinfully as King David did.

This is not to say that people who hold this position justify, accept, or excuse those sins in David, or in any other sense, but it does lead them to hold the unavoidable position that you can be both a Christian and a lying, adultering, murderer -- which of course Paul and John and the other New Testament writers so emphatically said was impossible (see Galatians 5:19-21, and Revelation 21:8).

One common way I have seen those who hold this position get around its problematic implications is through a redefinition of terms. Specifically, they appeal to where Jesus taught in Matthew 5 that "if you look at a woman with lust in your heart, you are guilty of adultery" to conclude that having an impure thought (as contrasted to having the "desire") is sufficient to justify being labelled an "adulterer". Of course, in that sense, it becomes quite easy to call almost any other Christian an adulterer, regardless of the condition of their heart, or whether they are revolted by the thought of sinning against their Holy God. So, where Jesus was teaching about the condition of the heart, and how it is our evil desires and the inclinations of our heart that condemn us --whether or not they have produced outward actions yet--, those who hold the above position seem to be missing that aspect of the lesson, reducing the gravity of David's actions in order to equate them to inadvertent actions that are not reflective of the desires of our heart. If you hate adultery, you will not desire to commit it, and it is the desire to commit adultery that we call "lust". A Christian cannot desire to commit adultery. So, while the epistles of the New Testament leave it abundantly clear that the Christian is not instantly perfect in their walk with Christ at the moment of salvation, we need to also understand that the process of sanctification is only possible if God has changed our heart to hate sin. Yes, Christians will have a lifelong struggle against sin and the inclinations of the sinful nature, but we will never desire to sin.

If King David was a Christian, then it must mean one of two things: either a Christian can behave like David did, or the meaning of the word "Christian" has changed since David's time. But neither of these can be argued from Scripture. We have already seen why the first option must be rejected, and the second can be trivially rejected given that the first occurrence of the word "Christian" is in the book of Acts, in the New Testament, long after Christ's resurrection, and 1,000 years after David's time.

Therefore, the most sound position to take is that no, King David was not a Christian, though he most definitely is an Old Testament saint, one of God's elect, redeemed by Christ, and saved by the Grace of God alone.

God's purpose in history

  • [DISP] God's main purpose in history is national physical Israel.
  • [CT] God's main purpose* in history is Christ and secondarily the Church.
  • * God's main purpose is His own glory, Christ included because He is the glory of God, and then the church.
  • [NCT] Same as Covenant Theology with one exception. NCT sees the saints of the OT as being added to the church after it's built. But NCT says that the Bible doesn't call the OT saints "the church".

This is a very important point that gets lost in man-centered theological systems. We need to firmly understand that we are not God's main purpose. His main purpose is His own glory, and we are just incredibly blessed and privileged to play a part in it. As Isaiah 43:7 tells us, we are created for His glory.

If the CT position were rephrased: "God's main purpose in history is Christ and secondarily His elect", there would be no contention between CT and NCT.

The Eternal Covenant of Redemption

  • [DISP] There was no eternal Covenant of Redemption within the Trinity, to effect election.
  • * We think some of the old Dispensationalists did believe in a Covenant of Redemption within the Trinity, but we are not sure and I don't know about the new modified Dispensationalists.
  • [CT] The eternal Covenant of Redemption was within the Trinity to effect election.
  • [NCT] Same as Dispensationalism but there was an eternal Decree or Purpose of Redemption within the Trinity to effect election.

In all eternity before creation, there was never any disagreement between the members of the Trinity, who always have been of one mind and purpose. A covenant is a formal agreement of terms between parties. God, who does not change, has no need to make a formal agreement with either Christ or the Holy Spirit on anything. A decree, on the other hand, is a sovereign declaration that something will occur in a specified way, unaffected by any factors. Being of one mind and purpose, issuing a decree is beyond sufficient for God, since there is no risk whatsoever of opposition or disagreement, and there is no need for establishing or negotiating terms in any regard. Even the analogy of making a pact with oneself falls short, since we fallible humans do fail and change our minds. God does not.

God's election of His people "before the foundation of the world", as Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4, is the eternal decree of Redemption.

If I had to guess, I would think most people who hold the CT position are thinking of "decree" when they use the term "covenant" to express their position on this point.

The Covenant of Works

  • [DISP] Most believe there was no Covenant of Works with Adam in the Garden of Eden.
  • [CT] God made a conditional Covenant of Works with Adam as representative for all his posterity.
  • [NCT] Same as Dispensationalism. But agree with CT on Adam as representative for all his posterity.

I have to disagree with the NCT position here, and agree with CT that God made a conditional covenant of works with Adam. Hosea 6:7 says that Ephraim and Judah had "like Adam" transgressed the covenant. This can only be true if there was a covenant in place, and the covenant was conditional. God expressly told Adam that he would surely die if he ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The obvious implication being that Adam would have no reason to die otherwise, since death is a result of the fall, of Adam's sin. We know that when Adam did eat of the fruit, he didn't immediately "die" -- as referring to his physical death. But what did occur was his spiritual death. And it is this state of spiritual death that is passed on to all of us via our sinful nature that we inherit from Adam. So, while Adam did eventually physically die, this was delayed because of God's sacrifice for him and Eve -- the animal sacrifice from which God took the skin to make clothes to cover them, a sacrifice that serves also as a moving analogy and foreshadow of the sacrifice that would be required to "cover" their sin a few thousand years later in Christ.

This was, without a doubt, a covenant. God established the terms, including what was granted to Adam as the second party of the covenant (all that was in the Garden), what was expected of Adam (to not eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), and the consequences for not meeting those expectations (death). Though we might call it a "covenant of works", Adam's fall was inevitable. The fall was instituted by God, and part of His sovereign plan. God was not "caught by surprize" by Adam's fall -- He knew it would happen. God's law has always existed to show us we cannot meet God's standard of perfection, and that therefore we desperately need His grace. The purpose of the fall, and the creation of man, was for God to demonstrate His grace to undeserving beings. The purpose of man's fall, of God allowing sin to exist, was for Him to be able to express His unconditional love (which He had always had, even before creation and the fall). Given that God is perfect, His love for Himself cannot be called "unconditional" -- God deserves to be loved. So, though His love for His Son is perfect and infinite, we cannot call it "unconditional" because God cannot fail, God cannot sin. Man, however, could... and did. We must be explicit in stating that it wasn't that God "wanted" us to fail, but that in our failure --which He knew would happen-- we would require grace and mercy, undeserved favor.

Scripture teaches us in 1 John 4:10 and 19, and Romans 5:8 that God loved us first, while we were sinners, hated enemies of God (see also Psalm 5:5 and Psalm 11:5). God's plan for the fall was to show unconditional love for hated enemies. God created us to manifest His Glory by showing His unconditional undeserved love toward us, His hated enemies.

Therefore, in a very real sense there needed to be some form of covenant for Adam to breach and find himself in need of grace.

I will also point out that the statement that Adam was a "representative for all his posterity" makes me uneasy given how it is applied in other theological positions I do not agree with. However, if used exclusively to say that when Adam sinned he caused human nature itself to be corrupted by sin --a nature all human beings (except Christ) inherit--, and that outside of God's grace this fallen nature is inescapable, then I wouldn't have an issue with that statement.

To be perfectly clear: we are born sinners, and that's why we sin, and our sin causes separation between us and our Holy Creator, and it is our sin that causes us to need a Savior to redeem us from our sin.

The Covenant of Grace

  • [DISP] Most believe there was no Covenant of Grace concerning Adam.
  • [CT] God made a Covenant of Grace with Christ and His people, including Adam.
  • [NCT] Does not believe in a "Covenant of Grace", as the term is not found anywhere in Scripture. NCT believes that only when the Bible stipulates that a Covenant has been "cut" between God and man, is there a Biblical reason for believing that one has been made. This is not to say that God isn't gracious to man in "cutting" a covenant with him; but that the term itself is never found in Scriptures, and thus should not be used, especially when describing the Mosaic Covenant, which was a law covenant.

Once again, I agree with the CT position on this point. Saying that because the Bible never uses the term "Covenant of Grace" to describe the pact that Jesus made in His blood, that therefore it is not a covenant is really odd. Paul speaks at length, especially in Romans 6 and 7, about Christians no longer being under the Law, but under Grace, and as we have already seen, Christ Himself said He was ushering in a New Pact, in His blood. If we are under grace, and have been brought into a New Pact, I don't see the problem in calling this covenant a "Covenant of Grace". The Bible never uses the word "Trinity" either, and we universally accept it and the doctrine it describes. The promise of a Redeemer for Adam's race is presented to us in the same text that tells us about the fall. So, while it is true that the Covenant of Grace becomes valid only until the death of Christ on the Cross, the promise of the covenant is presented at the moment of the fall, and is a covenant that applies to all who are Redeemed by the blood of Christ, in which we believe Adam is included.

Israel's acceptance of the Covenant at Mount Sinai

  • [DISP] Israel was rash to accept the Covenant at Mt. Sinai.
  • [CT] Israel was right to accept the Covenant at Mt. Sinai.
  • [NCT] NCT say that Israel was so frightened* that they would have accepted anything.
  • * I don't know if I would agree with that, and this may be a caricature on my part, as I'm not 100% sure about this. (DH)

Before reading Hochner's article, I had never heard of nor considered the idea that Israel could have known they might have another option, or even thought to negotiate any part of the covenant they were receiving, let alone the idea of rejecting it entirely.

Though we do see people in the Old Testament, giants of the faith like Jacob and Moses, contending with God --so the possibility is not excluded--, when the nation of Israel saw that the covenant was one of works, especially in hearing all 613 precepts, they should have known it was inevitable that they would break it. The text tells us that they were fearful, of course, but also that they rejoiced in hearing the law that God was giving them.

It is fair to conclude that due to their fear they would have "accepted anything", but the DISP-CT distinction is on whether it was right for them to accept it. We know that Abraham and Moses negotiated arrangements with God, something that even as a believer I find shocking... yet amazingly comforting: that the Creator and Supreme Ruler of the Universe would condescend to the level of us petty, sinful humans, and treat us with such unimaginable love that He would grant us the right to negotiate with Him the terms of something of such great importance.

Was Israel right or rash to accept the terms of the Covenant at Mt. Sinai? I think this can be answered by asking another question: "Could Israel have gotten a better covenant than what they received at Mt. Sinai?" The answer is yes and no. Yes, because we now have an infinitely better covenant, the Covenant of Grace, in Christ's blood. No, because the terms of the covenant with Israel could have been as simple as: "Do not eat of the fruit of that one tree in that vast garden I am giving you" and they still would have broken the terms of the covenant. The purpose of the law contained in the Covenant was to illustrate, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we cannot meet God's standard and we need to fall upon His grace and His grace alone. Had Israel understood that that day, they would have done so. But they, and we, needed the Covenant cut on that day, to have no doubt as to our fallen condition and desperate need of grace... our desperate need of a Savior.

The divisions of God's program in history

  • [DISP] God's program in history is mainly through separate dispensations.
  • [CT] God's program is history is mainly through related covenants, but all those covenants were derived from the eternal covenant that the Trinity made in eternity.
  • [NCT] God's program in history is through related covenants, but culminating in the new covenant that eliminates the others because they were all realized in Christ.

Once again, as we saw in the section "The Eternal Covenant of Redemption", an important distinction between CT and NCT is drawn by the NCT's favoring of the notion of God issuing a "decree" in contrast to CT's "eternal covenant within the Trinity".

And yes, the covenant in Christ's blood is the culmination of all... tetelestai!

If this is your first venture into the study of theological frameworks, you will notice that the belief that God has been dealing with humanity through different "dispensations" is where Dispensationalism gets its name. Formally defining the term, enumerating the dispensations, and exploring the variants of Dispensationalism is beyond the scope of this article, but in a general sense, a dispensation is "a distinctive arrangement or period in history that forms the framework through which God relates to mankind" [cf: wikipedia:Dispensation_(period)]. Although the grouping of Biblical history into "dispensations" can be convenient to study those periods and the events that occur in them, this can force a rigidity of theological understanding of the overarching work of God throughout history, and can end up distracting to such a level as to lead to theological misunderstanding and even error. So the convenience is not worth it, especially when we have a completely appropriate concept of "ages" that we can use to do the same thing without the potential for error. It is Augustine of Hippo that is thought to be the first to use "ages" as a division of history in this way. The prime example is the idea of the "Church Age", but it is important to note that not all "ages" have the term "age" in the name, such as the "age" called the "Millennial Kingdom" (which some theologians believe to be equivalent to the "Church Age").

The means of Salvation throughout history

  • [DISP] Most teach that men in the OT were saved by faith in a revelation peculiar to their Dispensation, but this did not include their faith in the Messiah as their sin-bearer.
  • [CT] All men who have ever been saved have been saved by faith in Christ as their sin-bearer, which has been progressively revealed in every age.
  • [NCT] Same as CT, although *some* would say that in the OT many would not have known about the sin-bearing part, just that they were sinners that needed the grace of God to be forgiven, and that they waited for the promise of God for He would crush the head of the serpent.

I fall into the "some" category of the NCT position here. Most of the saints of the Old Testament did not explicitly mention a Messianic belief, but there was the common dependence upon the grace of God for their salvation and redemption. We can easily conclude their salvation was therefore by grace and through faith, just like New Testament believers are. They had faith that God would deliver them, though they did not necessarily know how God would deliver them, especially if God had not completely revealed how it would be done. This is confirmed for us in the New Testament where even the disciples were seemingly unaware that the Messiah would have to die a sacrificial death. We do not affirm that their lack of understanding of that truth, despite having Christ in person to teach them (not to mention the availability of the teachings of the book of Isaiah), would prevent them from being saved by the work of Christ on that Cross.

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit

  • [DISP] The Holy Spirit indwells only believers in the Dispensation of Grace, not OT and not after the "Secret Rapture."
  • [CT] The Holy Spirit has indwelt believers in all ages, especially in the present NT era, and will not be withdrawn.
  • [NCT] They believe that the indwelling wasn't the same as in the Church time. In John 13:16-18, Jesus said that He would send the comforter that He may "abide" (live) with them forever. If the Holy Spirit was already "abiding" with them, as with the Church after Pentecost, then that promise means nothing.

(Hochner's citation of John 13:16-18 must be a typo, and most likely should be John 14:16-18 instead.)

In the section "The founding of God's Church", we saw that before the day of Pentecost, the way the Holy Spirit operated on Earth in believers had important distinctions to the way He operates now.

In the Old Testament, we see examples of the Holy Spirit entering individuals on certain occasions, but we can also observe that this state was not permanent. We learn this from verses like 1 Samuel 16:14, where we are told that the Holy Spirit "departed" from Saul, or Judges 14:6 where Samson was able to perform great feats of strength when the Holy Spirit "came powerfully upon him".

That is in marked contrast with New Testament verses like Ephesians 1:13 and Ephesians 4:30 where the Apostle Paul describes the presence of the Holy Spirit in a believer as the "seal" of the Holy Spirit, or Romans 8:9-11 where Paul makes reference to the Holy Spirit who "dwells" in them. So Jesus' promise in John 14:16-18, John 16:7, and John 16:13 of the coming of the Paraclete was in fact a promise of a permanent presence of the Holy Spirit within each individual believer, as a seal from God until the Day of Redemption. It is this permanent presence within the believer that we call the "indwelling" of the Holy Spirit.

To give us an idea of the scope of permanence of that seal, we can ask, as the angel in Revelation 5:2 asks, "Who is worthy of breaking the seals?" or, more explicitly, "Who can break open the seal of the Holy Spirit?" The answer, of course, is: only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

This also serves as another solid argument in support of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which states that salvation cannot be lost once it is granted by God. No man can break the seal of the Holy Spirit.

Were Old Testament believers "in Christ"?

  • [DISP] OT believers were not 'in Christ,' nor part of the Body or Bride of Christ.
  • [CT] Believers in all ages are all 'in Christ' and part of the Body and Bride of Christ.
  • [NCT] Same as CT, but realized in the NT.

I'm not sure if it is just awkward phrasing for the Dispensationalist position (note the use of past tense as opposed to the present tense in the CT position), but the fact that it is set out as a point of contrast between the frameworks leads me to believe it is not, and that the common Dispensationalist position holds that Old Testament believers do not "currently" also form part of the Bride of Christ. In researching some details for this article, I found that Ligon Duncan (of Ligonier Ministries) also agrees in interpreting the point that way (see the paragraph labeled "Twenty-third") and goes further to say that they hold that OT believers are not "in Christ". I can't fathom this being a universally held position among Dispensationalists though.

I, of course, would find it really problematic to say that Old Testament saints are not currently a part of the Body or Bride of Christ, since what this does is to create a hierarchy of believers, a stratification of different "levels" of redeemed people of God. Scripture, however, is clear that in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, and saying that some members of God's redeemed people are at a different "level", regardless of how we go about determining how one lands on that given level, is highly problematic and breeds elitism, which leads to boasting. The Apostle Paul made it very clear in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is by grace so that "no one may boast". I cannot picture God creating a system of salvation where "no one may boast", only to have a subsystem within it where we could potentially boast about something other than Christ.

A careful reader might bring to mind the biblical example of saints receiving "crowns" as reward, and that this could easily be regarded as a violation of that principle. However, I really like Voddie Baucham's observation in his sermon series on the book of Revelation, where he states that the saints lay down their crowns at the feet of the Lamb. So even our well-deserved rewards are laid at the feet of Christ, and all boasting is removed. Beautiful.

The clarification in NCT that believers before Christ have their status of being "in Christ" fulfilled in the New Testament, specifically in the death of Christ on the Cross, is quite important, and serves to once again point to the finished work of Christ on the Cross as the reason for our salvation and redemption. God is not bound by time, He is eternal, and this attribute of God means that there is no obstacle for Him to retroactively apply the death of "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" to all of God's people who lived and died before Him.

Current status of Old Testament Law

  • [DISP] The OT Law has been abolished. For the Church, but not Israel, who will be under that Law when the Church is taken away, and God returns to His original people... Physical Israel.
  • [CT] The Law has 3 uses: to restrain sin in society, to lead to Christ, and to instruct Christians in godliness. The ceremonial laws have been abolished; the civil laws have been abolished except for their general equity; the moral laws continue.
  • [NCT] Same as Dispensationalism, without believing that physical Israel has a future. NCT says that only the laws of the NT apply to the Christian. The OT Law is there to instruct us in the way God dealt with His people in the OT. Christ is affirmed as being "The New Law-Giver", as opposed to Moses who was "The Old Law-Giver".

In Romans 9:6 the apostle Paul says "For they are not all Israel who are of Israel", a distinction that we now make through the use of the terms "physical Israel" and "spiritual Israel". "Physical Israel" refers to the ethnic group of people we call "Jews" today, the descendants of Jacob. "Spiritual Israel", on the other hand, refers to the assembly of all believers, as made up of the present day Church and all the saints who have ever lived, which, as discussed above, includes believers since the days of Adam. The Dispensationalist position as stated above seems to be ignoring the dual purpose of physical Israel. The first and main purpose was to be the lineage into which the Messiah --the One who would redeem people of all nations-- would be born. We see this affirmed in John 4:22, for example, when Christ told the Samaritan woman that "salvation is from the Jews". The second purpose was to bear witness to the will, promises, character, and might of their God, the creator of the Universe, especially as He protects and preserves a small, insignificant nation in spite of relentless persecution throughout history. In the fulfillment of this purpose we see the delivery of God's Word to humanity in the form of Scripture, which included the manifestation of God's holiness in the Law, and the prophecies of the coming Messiah.

The CT position as stated above raises another problem I have with that framework in general. Though it certainly can be useful to group the law of God into "ceremonial", "civil", and "moral" laws, for example as we study common themes and doctrinal elements present in the law, we must not forget that these groupings are extra-biblical and man-made. It should go without saying that basing a major theological stance on an extra-biblical partitioning of the law is very problematic. The law was delivered as a whole, with only two distinctions: the 10 Commandments, and the rest of the 613 precepts -- but these distinctions do not result in any functional differences. Furthermore, the law operates as a whole, and James 2:10 tells us that when you "stumble" on one point of the law you are guilty of breaking the whole of the law, thus affirming that there is no partitioning of the law given to Moses.

Of note, Rabbinical Judaism divides the law into two categories, for which they use the Hebrew words "mishpatim" and "chukkim". However, according to the sources I could find [eg: What is a Hok?], they distinguish between the two by whether a given precept has a "rationale we perceive" (for a mishpat), or if its "reasons are not evident" (for a chuk). Interestingly, many of these chukkim would be classified as being part of the so-called ceremonial laws, and from a Christian perspective, we now know many (if not most) of these laws served either as direct lessons on a spiritual truth or as veiled prophecies, especially in messianic foreshadowing. A great example of this is the requirement that a sacrifice offered to God had to be without blemish -- just as Christ, the perfect sacrifice, was without sin or blemish.

Christ fulfilled the law, and Paul tells us in Romans 6:14 that once we are redeemed by Christ we are no longer under the law, we are under grace. This means that no part of the law given to Moses continues in validity for the believer, contrary to what the CT position states, and this would remain true even if we granted the existence of a separate "moral law". Though a secondary and important result of the law was indeed to mark an observable differentiation between the Israelites and the neighboring gentile nations, the main purpose of the law was to manifest God's perfect holiness and man's inability to reach that standard. As Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians, the law is our "schoolmaster", it teaches us of our need for a Savior and it brings us "into" Christ. The law is there to make us realize our fallenness, our sinfulness, and how desperately in need of grace we are to enter the presence of the holy, perfect Creator God. It is of such importance to Paul that he becomes greatly agitated when discussing the Galatians' desire to return to the law, going so far as to call them "foolish" for even contemplating the idea.

Whether the law has been abolished for physical Israel is not relevant. As long as your sin is not paid for in full, whether you are under the law of Moses or not makes no difference, just as it didn't make a difference that the law had not been put in place yet for all those who died before Moses walked down Mount Sinai with the 10 Commandments. All have sinned, all are in need of grace, all are in need of a Savior.

An objection can be raised by those worried that a repeal of the law might lead to antinomianism and libertinism, but that objection is decisively addressed by the doctrine of regeneration. God promised through the prophet Ezekiel that He would give His redeemed a new heart and a new Spirit. In Old Testament writing, the heart is used as an allegorical reference to our desires, and Paul tells us in Philippians 2:13 that it is God who gives us not just the desire but the ability to act according to His will. A redeemed individual is no longer under the law, but he will not continue to live as he once did, because now, the Holy Spirit who dwells in him will continue the work of sanctification, through desire and ability. And though there is no longer a law for the believer to break, Ephesians 4:30 tells us that we are still able to "grieve the Holy Spirit" when we act contrary to the convictions He is placing upon our heart.

Paradoxically, once saved, an individual will behave more uprightly, despite not being under an explicit law, than those who are under the law. And just as Christ said, we will know them by their fruit.

The statement in the NCT position which calls Christ the "new law giver" is again just a doctrinal conclusion people have come to, specifically as a result of comparing passages such as Matthew chapters 5 through 7, where Christ goes up to the mountain and proclaims a list of directives to His disciples, to Exodus 19 and 20, where Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to receive the law of God which he then proclaims to Israel. But "new law giver" is not a term or expression that can be found in the Bible, and importantly, James 4:12 says that "There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy", which we of course do not believe is a reference to Moses. So, though Moses "delivered" the law, the law giver was, and always has been God, and as revealed in the New Testament, we now know more precisely that the law giver and judge is Christ, the Son of God.

Continuity of Old Testament Law

  • [DISP] OT laws are no longer in effect unless repeated in the NT.
  • [CT] OT laws are still in effect unless abrogated in the NT.
  • [NCT] Same as Dispensationalism.

I find this to be the most important distinction between CT and NCT. In CT, the position on the Mosaic Law is: "all applies unless otherwise stated in the New Testament" while NCT says "nothing applies unless explicitly stated in the New Testament".

As discussed above, Jeremiah 31:31 promises a New Pact to replace the Old, which had been broken. The promise was not that the Old Pact would be modified or edited, but rather that a new pact would be "cut". As such, there is no reason to hold to a continuing validity of the Old Pact or especially the laws contained therein. As important as it is to study them to better know our Creator, the laws themselves no longer apply to us. With the New Pact, there is of course great reiteration of many of the same principles and precepts contained in the Old Pact, but the New Pact is a covenant of grace, and not a covenant of laws or works.

It is of vital importance to note that Scripture gives us identifying behavioral marks of someone under the New Pact, specifically in verses like Revelation 21:8 that tell us, for example, that "idolaters, liars, murderers and thieves" all "shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire". Since an individual who has been redeemed by Christ cannot end up in the lake of fire, then by the same token that individual, though no longer under the law, cannot by any means be an idolater, liar, murderer, or thief.

The Millennium and the Kingdom of God

  • [DISP] Teaches that the Millennium is the Kingdom of God. They are always Premil, usually Pre-tribulation.
  • [CT] The Church is the Kingdom of God. They are usually Amil or Postmil; although a few are Premil or Preterist.
  • [NCT] Same as CT, but the Church is an NT creation.

This is part of the much larger topic of the Millennium, but in quick summary: "Premil" is short for "premillennialism" which is the position that believes that Jesus will physically return to Earth and establish a literal thousand year kingdom, after which a massive war takes place, which culminates in God's final judgment of humanity. "Postmil" ("postmillenialism") believes that Jesus' second coming will occur after the literal thousand year kingdom. "Amil" ("amillenialism") believes that the concept of the thousand year kingdom is figurative and not literal, and that we are currently living in the Millennium, which is the same as the "church age", and is not limited to being a literal thousand years in duration.

There is a fourth, though much rarer, position called "preterism". As the name implies ("preterite", for example, is the grammatical term used for events completed in the past), preterists believe in a form of amillenialism, but affirm that Jesus already returned in the year 70 AD, the year of the destruction of the Second Temple. Donald Hochner, the author of the comparison upon which this annotated version is based, is himself a preterist.

The topic of the Millennium is quite complex, with doctrinal sources in multiple books of the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments, in texts that are often replete with symbols, and chronology that is not easy to follow. As such, it is much debated, and you will find well-respected, solid theologians falling into all 3 of the main camps of Premil, Amil, and (less commonly) Postmil. As of the publishing of this article I have not found sufficiently compelling arguments to take a firm position, but I would land somewhere between Premil and Amil, with a post-Tribulation rapture, based on my understanding of Matthew 24. But I must emphatically say that it is a cause of great dismay for me to see Christians so often be so sharply divided over this issue, especially given its serious complexities. It does, however, serve as yet one more continuous reminder for us that we are not perfect, and cannot escape our need of a Savior.

In Mark 1:15, in what is the first direct quote of Jesus' words in Mark's account of the Gospel, Jesus commands His listeners to "repent and believe in the Gospel" announcing that "the Kingdom of God is at hand". From the parallel account in Matthew 3:2 we see that the term "Kingdom of God" is equivalent to the term "Kingdom of Heaven", and in John 18:36, Jesus taught that His Kingdom "is not of this world" -- the Kingdom of God is not a political kingdom. Saying that the Kingdom was "at hand" meant that its arrival was imminent, but also, of course, that it had not yet been established.

Ushering in and establishing the Kingdom of God was a principal purpose of Christ's ministry, and in Luke 11:20, Jesus points to the miracles He had been performing as signs that "surely the kingdom of God has come upon you". A strong argument can be made to say that the Church is the Kingdom of God, especially since a kingdom, in a general sense, is nothing more than "where the king is king". So if God is king over a group of individuals, then those individuals are a part of God's Kingdom. Though indeed God is supreme over all of Creation, Christ frames the Kingdom of God as a special category within God's dominion, teaching in John 3:3 that to see it "you must be born again", and in John 3:5 that to enter it "you must be born of the Spirit".

More precisely, God's Kingdom is made up of those individuals who have submitted to His kingly rule, all those who serve Him as king, which, as we saw above, requires a supernatural intervention by God. That supernatural intervention is what we call "regeneration", and is what Jesus was talking about when He taught the necessity of being born again, being born of the Spirit.

The "Kingdom of God" was not a new concept that Christ was introducing, and we see it mentioned in the Old Testament in the book of Daniel, where Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar's dream to deliver God's prophecy of several coming kings and their kingdoms. In Daniel 2:44, Daniel states that in the days of those kings "the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed", and in Daniel 4:3 (or Daniel 3:33 in the Jewish numbering) he further affirms that "His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom". The use of the present tense in Daniel 4:3, in contraposition to the future tense in Daniel 2:44, also brings to mind the attribute of God expressed in Revelation 1:8 which says that the Lord is "the one who is and is to come".

If the Kingdom of God was something promised in the Old Testament, but only arriving with the ministry of Christ, this raises the question of whether Old Testament saints can be counted as members of the Kingdom of God. This problem is quickly resolved if we think of the Church as being the Kingdom of God, as has been explained, and especially in light of what was discussed in the section Were Old Testament believers "in Christ"?. We can think of Old Testament saints as having been in a period of "waiting" for the fulfillment of the promises and the "arrival" of the Kingdom of God, after which, though they had physically perished before its arrival, they were immediately ushered into it no differently than any other believer would be.

A moving allegorical illustration of the Church being the Kingdom of God occurs if we take the crucifixion of Christ as His coronation and formal establishment of His Kingdom. With Christ's death on the cross, He makes the full payment for the sins of His people, and with it redeems and purchases a people for Himself, for His Kingdom. In God's providence and plan, Christ is even crowned with a crown of thorns and a sign hung for all to see which read: "Jesus Christ, King of the Jews". Though these were all meant as a mockery of Christ by His executioners, it divinely cements for us the idea that this was the establishment of His Kingdom. Christ the King of kings had been crowned, and the Kingdom of God had now arrived.

Infant Baptism

  • [DISP] Most do not embrace infant baptism. Usually believer's baptism is the norm, although those Dispensationalists that are Presbyterian are paedobaptists.
  • [CT] Most embrace infant baptism, but the Baptists among them don't.
  • [NCT] Does not embrace infant baptism, only believer's baptism.

All New Testament instances of someone being baptized were of individuals who were believers. There is no recorded instance of babies or infants being baptized, and baptism is presented as a step of obedience after salvation (as seen in Acts 2:41 for example), and a public declaration of a private, spiritual occurrence. Since baptism is undeniably a work, and salvation is by grace alone, then baptism cannot be a prerequisite for salvation, and must therefore be a fruit of salvation. This is confirmed by Jesus' words on the cross to the thief in Luke 23:43, where He said to him that "on that day" he would be with Him in Paradise, yet, the thief had no chance to be baptized before death. However, refusal to be baptized after proclaiming to be saved is a sign of active rebellion against God, and is in fact a sign of a lack of regeneration, and therefore of not being saved at all.

Final Thoughts

As far as I have understood it, the theological frameworks each view Scripture from their own unique --yet simple-- single interpretative concept.

  • For Dispensationalism it seems to be: "God deals with man throughout time in different dispensations, but physical Israel will always be a separate, distinct special people to God".
  • For Covenant Theology it seems to be: "God deals with man through a series of different, sometimes overlapping, covenants".
  • For New Covenant Theology it seems to be: "God deals with man through two main covenants, one of works (delivered as multiple separate covenants) which man breached, and the New Covenant in Jesus' blood, the Covenant of Grace, which cannot be breached, that came into effect at a particular moment in human history".

These frameworks then serve as lenses through which other theological concepts become interpreted, unfortunately at the cost of understanding certain otherwise clear passages, which is what then results in disagreements between the different camps.

This should serve as a reminder for us to let go of certain ideas we might hold dear, and be more flexible to let Scripture be what forms our theology, without the disruptive burden of an interpretative model. Especially given that, in extreme cases, false interpretative models lead to heresy and the rise of cults. We must therefore humbly approach Scripture with fear and trembling and seek to derive the meaning from the text, and as much as possible avoid forcing a meaning into the text. Let the text speak.

This article was an arduous, time consuming effort, and I hope that it has been for the Glory of God, and of great blessing to you. I welcome your feedback and if there are any errors above that need to be corrected, please feel free to let me know.

Soli Deo Gloria.