Covenant and Dispensational Theology


Covenant and Dispensational Theology

July 22nd, 1987 @ 7:30 PM

John 1:19

And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

John 1:19

7-22-87    7:30 p.m.


Now again you must listen with your mind as well as with your heart and soul; the message tonight Covenant and Dispensational Theology.  And as I said in announcing it, I am a confirmed dispensationalist.  So when you listen to the presentation it will be much, much emphatically emphasized that this is what I believe.  I am a dispensationalist.

For example, in John 1:17, in the prologue to his Gospel, the sainted apostle wrote, “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”  Now whether I was persuaded one way or the other, I would know that there is a difference between what was under Moses and what is under our Lord.  There are differences in the Bible.  There are differences in the way God deals with humanity and those differences are called dispensations.  How God will deal with a people in this age, and how He will deal with His people in another age, and how He will deal with His people in a coming age; those are dispensations.

Now we are going to look tonight at the church in covenant and dispensational theology.  First, covenant theology: covenant theology differs from dispensational theology in two great major matters concerning the church—number one, when the church began; and number two, what it is, the nature of the assembly of God’s people, the church.

First: the time the church began.  Covenant theology declares that the church began in Old Testament times.  Some covenant theologians believe that it began during the days of Adam.  For example, Dr. R. B. Kuiper, K-U-I-P-E-R, Kuiper, in The Glorious Body of Christ, page 22, writes that, “It may be asserted that Adam and Eve constituted the first Christian church.”  That is covenant theology.  There are other covenant theologians who avow that the church began when God established His covenant with Abraham.  A great covenant theologian is represented by Charles Hodge, who was a dynamic leader in the Presbyterian denomination in this last century, and was the most illustrious professor, I suppose, that Princeton University and Princeton Seminary ever produced.  He was a student there.  In his Systematic Theology, volume three, page 549, Charles Hodge says, and I quote, “The church under the new dispensation is identical with that under the old dispensation.”  Now let’s put “testament” and then it will be a little more meaningful:

The church in the New Testament is exactly like the church in the Old Testament; whether it’s the new dispensation or the old dispensation, the church is identical.  It is not a new church, but one and the same; whether back there in the Old Testament or now in the New Testament.  It is the same olive tree.  It is founded on the same covenant: the covenant made with Abraham.

Now Louis Berkhof, a Christian reformed theologian, a professor in the Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in his Systematic Theology, page 571, says, quote, “The church existed in the old dispensation as well as in the new, and was essentially the same in both.”  That is covenant theology: just the same all the way through, the church back there, the church today.

I’d like to make an aside here since I am a good Baptist.  It’s because of that covenant theology, that the church was back there in the Old Testament and the church here in the New Testament—it’s because of that covenant theology that they find a defense for sprinkling babies.  You say to anybody who reads the Bible, “How in the earth do you get it from the Bible that you sprinkle babies?  How do you do that?”  Well, a covenant theologian will say, “The church was there in the Old Testament and the church is here in the New Testament.  So in the Old Testament they circumcised the baby, and in the New Testament, why, we sprinkle the baby.”  Now to me that is stupid, that’s idiotic.  But to them, that’s good theology; that’s covenant theology.

Now we come to the covenant theologian regarding the nature of the church.  Now, remember the first avowal: the covenant theologian says that the church is the same all the way through, started back there in Adam and Eve and goes all the way through.  Now when he comes to speak of the nature of the church, the covenant theologian asserts that the church is the continuing community of God’s people throughout history: Israel and the church are the same.  Now that is the big theological foundational stone on which covenant theology rests: Israel of the Old Testament and the church of the New Testament are the same.

All saints of all periods of history are members of the church, whether they lived back there in the Old Testament or we living today.  Since saints will be on earth during the tribulation period, the church will be on earth during the tribulation.  That’s a part of covenant theology.  Then of course they believe there will be one general resurrection of dead saints at one time; not more than one resurrection of saints at different times.  Now that is a brief summary of covenant theology.  And I repeat, some of the great theological professors of the world are covenant theologians.

Now, the dispensational theological belief.  Remember those two things: the time the church began, when the church began, and the nature of the church.  We’ve looked at what the covenant theologian has said; we’re now going to see what the dispensational theologian says, which is what I believe.  First, concerning the time the church began: the church did not begin until the day of Pentecost in Acts [Acts 2].  The Lord organized it; it was all there complete, but it was like Adam: he was formed, but he did not have in him the breath of life [Genesis 2:7].  And the breath of life became a living soul in the church on the day of Pentecost [Acts 2:1-4].  So the church did not exist in the Old Testament.

For example, Earl, Dr. Earl Radmacher, who’s been here in our church, he writes in What the Church is All About, page 201, quote, “The church did not come into functional existence, a living reality, until the day of Pentecost.”  Now, although the church was an essential part of God’s plan for humanity, which He determined in the eternity past, God did not put that part of His plan into effect until ten days after His Son ascended from earth to heaven [Acts 1:9-10, 2:1-4].  The church was in the mind of God from the beginning of eternity; but God did not bring it into functional existence until the day of Pentecost.

Now, some things about that.  One: the church is not formed apart from the baptism with the Spirit; and Spirit baptism did not begin until the day of Pentecost.  For example:

  • First Corinthians 12:13 says all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, are placed into the body of Christ through Spirit baptism; thus the necessity of Spirit baptism for the formation of the church.  It is the Spirit and the baptism of the Spirit that forms the church.
  • In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist avowed that he was not baptizing people with the Spirit in his time.
  • And in Acts 1:4-5, Jesus commanded His believers to remain in Jerusalem until they received the baptism John had preached about.
  • And in Acts 2, that Spirit baptism was poured out upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost [Matthew 3:11; Acts 2:1-4].  Therefore and thus the church did not begin historically until the day of Pentecost.

John 7, the Gospel of John7:37-38: Jesus promised that the believers would possess rivers of living water.  And now that’s the word that the Lord said.  Now John the apostle explains in that passage Jesus’ statement this way: now I quote from the apostle, from John: “But this spoke our Lord of the Spirit, whom they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Spirit was not yet given; because Jesus was not yet glorified” [John 7:39].  John is saying that the Spirit would come in a new distinctive sense after Jesus was glorified, through His death [John 19:16-30], resurrection [John 20:1-16], and ascension [Acts 1:9-10].

Now, that the church began, that it was born, that it became a living soul on the day of Pentecost, is seen in Paul’s teaching concerning, quote, “the mystery,” something which God kept completely hidden from man in ages past, and something which man could never have discovered by his own natural endowments, and something which God had to reveal to man.  Now there’s a good deal about that mustērion in Romans, in 1 Corinthians, in Ephesians, in Colossians.  Now I’m going to read a passage from Ephesians 3, Ephesians chapter 3.  Now hear verses 2 to 6:

If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you:

How that by revelation God made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,

Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)

Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;

Namely, that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the gospel.

[Ephesians 3:2-6]

Now 9 through 11:

God has sent me to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world had been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:

To the intent that now unto the angels in heaven—

he calls them “principalities and powers”—

in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom, the mystery of God.

[Ephesians 3:9-10]

The mystery is this—now remember what a mystery is: it is a secret that God kept in His heart until He revealed it to man; it is something man by his natural thinking could never find, he could never discover, it is something God had to reveal—now the mystery is, there will come a time when believing Jews and Gentiles will be united together as equals in one body, namely, the church.  This new thing, the church, known by God from eternity past [Ephesians 3:11], but kept secret in His heart, He kept from man; but it is now revealed to His apostles and the New Testament prophets [Ephesians 3:5].  In Ephesians 3:8, 10, “Even the angels did not know this mystery, this new thing, until it was revealed to the apostles.”

All right, the conclusions of this study.  First: since God kept the knowledge concerning the church hidden from man until He revealed it to New Testament apostles and prophets [Ephesians 3:5], then men knew nothing about the church until it was revealed in New Testament times.  It was a secret that God kept in His heart all through those ages past [Ephesians 3:5-10]; and man did not know it, knew nothing about it, until God revealed it to these who preached to us from the New Testament days [Ephesians 3:5].  Number two: therefore, the church did not exist before New Testament times [Ephesians 3:10].  Number three: since God did not reveal the knowledge concerning the church until New Testament times [Ephesians 3:5-10], then the Old Testament contains no revelation about the church.  The Old Testament reveals that the Gentiles would experience a great plan of salvation in the future.  For example, Isaiah speaks about that, such as Isaiah 60:1-3, when the Gentiles are going to be saved.  But there is no revelation concerning the church—and salvation and the church are not the same.

An example of that would be a ticket to a football game out here in Texas Stadium.  The ticket allows you into the stadium; but the ticket is not the stadium.  They are two different things.  So salvation is one thing, and the church is an altogether different thing.  And in the Old Testament it is revealed that the Gentiles are to be saved; but it is not revealed about any such institution as the church.  This revelation of the formation of the church was not given to the world or to the angels in heaven until it was revealed to the New Testament apostles and prophets [Ephesians 3:2-6, 9-11].  There is no such thing as anything in the Old Testament concerning the church, period.

Now, that the church did not exist in Old Testament times is further seen in the fact that the church could not exist until after the death of Christ.  In Ephesians 2:13-16—and we’ll not take time to read it—in Ephesians 2:13-16, it is the death of Christ that has broken down the wall of partition that divides Jew and Gentile, and has placed both in one body by the cross.  There are several things to be noted in that.  One: the Jew and Gentile are now in one body, the church, as equals, because of the effect, the result, the efficacy of the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross [Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:22].  Until Jesus died on the cross [Matthew 27:32-50; John 19:16-30], they were two different: a Jew over here and a Gentile over there.  But in Christ that partitioning wall is broken down, and a Jew and a Gentile are equals in the church, the new body [Ephesians 2:11-16].

Number two: since the one body, the church, was formed as a result of Jesus’ death [Ephesians 1:22-23], then the church was formed not in Old Testament times, but as a result of Jesus’ death in New Testament times.

And number three: since Paul in Ephesians 2:15 described the union of Jew and Gentile as “one new man,” then this union of Jew and Gentile forms a new body, different from anything that was seen or known before [Ephesians 2:16].  It is not a continuation of something already in existence.  It is a new thing, Paul says, a new thing, that a Jew and Gentile should belong to the same body, the church.

Number four: in Acts 20:28, Paul stated that the church was, quote, “purchased with Christ’s own blood”; that is, Christ acquired the church through His death.  So until the death of Christ there was no such institution as a church.  The church came into being because of the blood of Jesus, the cross of our Lord that broke down that partition between Jew and Gentile, and made them all one in what is called the church [Ephesians 2:14-16].

Now we’re speaking of the dispensational theological presentation of the church, the nature of the church in dispensational theology.  One: the church is made up of a distinctive group of saints who live in one particular period of history, namely those saints baptized with the Holy Spirit [Matthew 3:11], brought together, made into one body with Christ, whether you are Jew, whether you are a Gentile [Galatians 3:28].  That is a new distinctive group of saints.

Number two: Israel and the church are not the same.  God deals with Israel in a certain way; and will deal with Israel a certain way.  And God deals with the church in another way.  That is the whole sum and substance of Romans chapter 9, 10, and 11.  I just wish we had hours to look at these things [Romans 9, 10, 11].

Number three: there is something distinctive about the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the church saints between the day of Pentecost and the rapture of the church, the era in which you and I live.  There is something different, there is something distinctive, there is something separate and apart in the age in which God has cast your life and mine.  We live in the era and in the day and in the dispensation of the Holy Spirit of God.  And it is the Spirit that has brought us together, put us together in this church.  That’s what Jesus was talking about in [John 14:16-17], the coming of the Spirit.  That’s what Jesus was referring to in Acts 1:4-5.  That’s what Acts 2 is all about: the outpouring of the Spirit of God upon His people [Acts 2:1-47].  And so Paul, in Acts 19:2, asked those disciples that he found in Ephesus, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”  You can’t be made a part of the church of God apart from Spirit baptism.  It is the Spirit of God that adds you to the body of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:13].  How in the earth could a legislature do that?  How could a judge do that?  How could a court do that?  How could a corporation do that?  How could a bank do that?  How could anybody do that?  The Holy  Spirit of God has to add you to the body of Christ.  God has to do it.

And when Paul met these so-called disciples in Ephesus, in the nineteenth chapter of Acts, he immediately sensed there’s something wrong with them.  So he asked them, “When you believed, when you said you believed, did you receive the Holy Spirit?”  And they said, “Why, we have not even heard of whether there is any such thing as the Holy Spirit” [Acts 19:2].  So it immediately became plain that they had no knowledge of the true church of God at all.

Throughout history there are distinctions between saints.  There are Old Testament saints, there are church saints—that’s our day—there are tribulation saints, saints in that day, there are millennial saints.  You have a good example of that in John the Baptist.  Jesus said about John the Baptist, “There has never been a man born of woman who was greater than John the Baptist.”  Yet He said, “He that is the least in the kingdom of God,” in this dispensation, “is greater than he” [Matthew 11:11].  How in the earth could it be that the humblest of us in this church could be greater than the greatest man born of woman?  Well, He is talking about the marvelous privilege that we have.

Now let us look at it.  In the third chapter of John, John says about the Lord Jesus, “See Him, look at Him, think of the privilege of being a disciple of the Lord Jesus.  I am His friend.  And I just point to Him.  I just preach the way about Him.  I just point the way to Him.”  He calls himself “the friend of the bridegroom,” not the bride, he’s not the bride; the friend of the bridegroom rejoices in the bridegroom’s voice [John 3:28-29].

Now let me apply that to what the Book of the Revelation says.  At the marriage supper of the Lamb, Jesus is there with His bride [Revelation 19:7-9].  That’s you.  That’s the church.  These are the saints of God of our glorious dispensation; added to the Lord by the Spirit.  Jesus said if the Spirit does not draw you, you do not come [John 6:44].  It’s the Spirit of God that draws you; all of God’s people up there, the bride, who in this dispensation have come into the knowledge of Jesus and have been saved and have been baptized by the Spirit [1 Corinthians 12:13].

Now is that all that are there?  Who else is there?  The friends of the Bridegroom [Luke 5:34].  They are invited to the feast.  They are invited to the nuptial party.  They are invited to the celebration.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Malachi, John the Baptist, all of the friends will be there; but they’re not the bride.  Who is the bride of Christ?  The church of Jesus Christ.  “He loved the church, and gave Himself for it” [Ephesians 5:25].  It’s hard for me to realize that I am in a greater and more glorious position in the presence of the Lord my Savior, I have a greater place of privilege and glory and esteem than Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and David, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah.  They are friends of the Bridegroom [Revelation 19:9]; but we are the bride [Ephesians 5:25].  Now that is dispensational theology.

There will be more than one resurrection of dead saints, at different times of history.  There will not be just one general resurrection of saints.  For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, there is a resurrection of these who have fallen asleep in Jesus, when the rapture comes, when Jesus comes.  All of those that have fallen asleep in Jesus, they’re going to be raised; they’re going to be raised.  All right, here’s another one: after the tribulation and before the millennium there is going to be the resurrection of those who have fallen asleep in Jesus during the tribulation.  That’s in Matthew 25:31-46.

I’ve got to quit.  It’s a marvelous thing to study God’s Word.  And the great reason for it is found in the marvelous encouragement that God has to bestow upon us.  Oh, what privileges we have, we who live in this day!  As John said, the friend of the Bridegroom rejoices [John 3:28-29].  And as Jesus said about John, we who are the least are greater than he [Matthew 11:11].  What a privilege to belong to our Lord and to His dear church, and to be a member of the bride of Christ [Ephesians 5:25].

Now sweet people, we don’t have a choir to lead us, but we’re going to sing us a song.  Do you know what song?  Are you going to lead it?  What is it?  What is it?  We’re going to sing 178, 178.  And while we sing that song, I’ll be standing right here.  And somebody tonight who’d love to be a part of the bride of Christ, and belong to Jesus, love Him, serve Him, pray to Him, follow Him, somebody tonight to give his whole life to the Lord Jesus, you come and stand by me [Romans 10:9-10].  A family to come into the church, somebody you to answer God’s call in His heart, as the Spirit shall lead, call, come, while we stand and while we sing.


Dr. W.
A. Criswell

John 1:19


I.          Covenant theology

A.  The time the church

1.  Church
began in Old Testament times

B.  The nature of the

1.  The
continuing community of God’s people throughout history

a. Israel and the
church are the same

II.         Dispensational theology

A.  The time the church

      1.  The day of
Pentecost in Acts

Church is not formed apart from baptism with the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:4-5, Acts 2)

John said Spirit would come in a new distinctive way (John 7:37-38)

2.  The
teaching of Paul concerning “the mystery” of the church (Romans 16:25, 1 Corinthians 2:7-8, Ephesians 3:2-6, 8-11, Colossians

3.  Conclusions

Men knew nothing of the church until it was revealed in New Testament times;
therefore the church did not exist before then

The Old Testament contains no revelation about the church

Church could not exist until after death of Christ (Ephesians
2:13-16, Acts 20:28)

B.  The nature of the

1.  Consists
of a distinctive group of saints who live in one particular period of history

2.  Israel
and the church are not the same (Romans 9, 10,

3.  Distinctive
relationship between Holy Spirit and church saints (John
14:16-17, Acts 1:4-5, 2, 19:2)

Distinctions between saints throughout history (Matthew
11:11, John 3:29, 6:44, Revelation 19:4-7, Ephesians 5:25)

There will be more than one resurrection of dead saints (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:31-46, Revelation 20:11-15)