Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2008, p. 61.
Central to dispensationalism is the dispensationalists’ view of unfulfilled prophecy. They insist that many of God’s covenant promises made to Israel in the old dispensation have yet to be fulfilled. These promises, the dispensationalists argue, will not be fulfilled unless Christ returns to earth, sits on David’s throne, and reigns in Palestine over Israel for many years prior to the final judgment. In their view, if God’s covenant promises are literally true—and dispensationalists insist that they are—then such a carnal reign of Christ must become a reality before the final judgment can take place.
Thus dispensational eschatology is inseparably related to the dispensational view of God’s covenant. Indeed, one’s view on eschatology is always related to one’s view of God’s covenant. When God established His covenant with certain people, He made promises to them, and these covenant promises are what eschatology is all about. In other words, eschatology really amounts to a study of God’s covenant promises concerning things that must shortly come to pass. This means that different views on these covenant promises will amount to different views on eschatology. So if we are going to get at the heart of dispensationalism we need to consider the dispensational view of God’s covenant.
According to dispensationalists, some of God’s covenants are conditional and others are unconditional. We are going to focus our attention first on the ones they say are unconditional. The reason for this is that the future carnal millennium of which dispensationalists speak is something they say God promised unconditionally to the physical descendants of Jacob.
It is interesting to note that dispensationalists do in fact maintain that God’s covenant promise concerning the inheritance of the land and the reign of David’s Son is unconditional, but they give a wrong explanation of what these promises mean, how they are fulfilled, and to whom they are given. So, on the one hand, they do speak against the conditional covenant view held by many who claim to be Reformed, and they frequently point out that God made promises to Abraham and his seed without mentioning any condition that would have to be fulfilled. But the alternative they recommend is carnal, and is not in harmony with the explanation of God’s covenant promises that is given to us by the Scriptures themselves.
Thus it is good for us to consider the dispensational view of God’s covenant, and what the Scriptures say over against it. It is good not only so that we may be better prepared to witness to those who have fallen into this error, but also so that we may grow in our own understanding of and love for the comforting truth that God’s covenant with His people in Christ is gracious and unconditional.
The Four Unconditional Covenants
Dispensationalists frequently speak of four unconditional covenants, with unconditional promises, that they say have yet to be fulfilled. They claim the covenants that are unconditional—or that at least have an unconditional aspect to them—are the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with David, the new covenant mentioned in Jeremiah 31, and what they call the Palestinian covenant. All these covenants, they say, are made with the same group of people—the physical descendants of Jacob¹—and some of the unconditional promises are found in more than one of the covenants. Yet they like to make references to these as distinct covenants, and they cite them frequently to prove their central eschatological positions concerning what is in the future for the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The following table lists the unconditional promises that dispensationalists maintain go with these four covenants. According to dispensationalists, many of these promises are “unfulfilled,” and will not be fulfilled until the coming millennial age.
Abrahamic Covenant: The physical descendants of Abraham will permanently exist as a nation. This nation will be great and innumerable. This nation will inherit the land of Canaan as a permanent possession.
Palestinian Covenant: This nation will be plucked off the land because of unfaithfulness. They will return from their worldwide dispersion and again possess the land. They will be converted as a nation. They will see the judgment on their enemies. They will receive all the material blessings promised to them.
Davidic Covenant: Israel will receive all the promised land up to the boundaries promised to David. David’s Son will return to earth to reign over David’s earthly kingdom. The Messiah will reign on David’s throne, and he will reign forever.
New Covenant: Israel will receive a new heart and be converted as a nation. Their sins will be forgiven, and they will be filled with the Spirit.
After listing these four “covenants,” dispensationalist Arnold Fruchtenbaum makes the following summary statement:
Simply put, since the above-mentioned covenants are all eternal and unconditional, and since they contain promises not fulfilled heretofore, they require a future fulfillment, and in the program of God they could only be fulfilled in the Millennium.²
Such a statement makes clear that, to set forth and refute dispensational eschatology, it is of central importance that we consider the dispensational view of these covenants.
Although we are very familiar with the covenant promises to Abraham and to David, and with the “new covenant” in Jeremiah 31, the “Palestinian Covenant” of which dispensationalists speak needs to be explained a bit. They claim that a reference to this covenant as a distinct covenant is found inDeuteronomy 30:1-10:
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon thee, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before thee, and thou shalt call them to mind among all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath driven thee, And shalt return unto the Lord thy God, and shalt obey his voice according to all that I command thee this day, thou and thy children, with all thine heart, and with all thy soul; That then the Lord thy God will turn thy cap tivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the nations, whither the Lord thy God hath scattered thee. If any of thine be driven out unto the outmost parts of heaven, from thence will the Lord thy God gather thee, and from thence will he fetch thee: And the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and he will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers.
And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. And the Lord thy God will put all these curses upon thine enemies, and on them that hate thee, which persecuted thee. And thou shalt return and obey the voice of the Lord, and do all his commandments which I command thee this day. And the Lord thy God will make thee plenteous in every work of thine hand, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy land, for good: for the Lord will again rejoice over thee for good, as he rejoiced over thy fathers: If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which are written in this book of the law, and if thou turn unto the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.
This passage, and other similar ones, are cited as proof that God has promised the physical descendants of Abraham that He will gather them out of the nations to which He has scattered them, and that He will once again give them the land of Palestine. This promise, dispensationalists maintain, amounts to a distinct covenant, and they commonly refer to it as the Palestinian Covenant.³
Scripture’s Explanation of How These Promises Are Literally Fulfilled
The only way properly to understand the covenant promises made to God’s people in the old dispensation is to consider how Scripture itself interprets these promises. This should be obvious, yet it is precisely at this point that the dispensationalists make a fundamental error.
In the judgment of the dispensationalist, these promises really do not need to be interpreted. Anyone with common sense will be able to understand what they mean. All he has to do is accept the “literal” meaning of these promises, and his understanding of them will be correct. Such is the way the typical dispensationalist thinks on the matter.
But the problem is that the dispensational view of a “literal” interpretation of these promises and Scripture’s view of a literal interpretation of these promises is not the same. This is a very important point. Carnal man is not allowed to determine what constitutes a literal interpretation of prophecy. This determination is made by God Himself.
This brings up the question as to what is meant byliteral. The term literal is opposed to the termsfigurative or metaphorical. But what is especially important with regard to eschatology is the use of the term when referring to events. The term literal means true to fact, not exaggerated, actual or factual. So to say that an event is literally going to take place is to say that it is actually going to happen. In other words, to interpret a prophetic statement literally is to take it to be not an exaggeration, but a statement of actual fact.
An event happening literally, therefore, is not opposed to its happening spiritually. Something that happens spiritually does actually happen. Whereas, if something happens merely figuratively, then it does not actually happen.
Take, for example, Christ’s promise that He would return to His disciples soon after His ascension:
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you,
This promise was fulfilled when Christ poured out His Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. Christ really did come to His disciples when He came to them in His Spirit. Even though He came spiritually, this is something that literally did happen. Christ’s promise was not an exaggeration. He was speaking of something that was actually going to take place, and did.
This same idea is important for an understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Believers really do partake of Christ when they, by faith, partake of the elements. They do not partake of Christ physically, but they do partake of Him spiritually, in their souls, by means of faith. A spiritual partaking is an actual partaking. To say that we partake of Christ is not an exaggeration; it is a statement of actual fact. Even though it happens in our soul, and not in our body, it is still something that really does take place.
So when considering God’s covenant promises, we must look to Scripture to explain to us how these promises are actually fulfilled. We must turn to Scripture not only to find the covenant promises, but also to find the correct interpretation of these promises. This we will begin to do, Lord willing, next time, beginning with the covenant promises to Abraham.
¹ Although they grant that Gentile believers in the church partake of some of the blessings of these covenants, they insist that many of the promises are only for Jacob’s physical descendants.
² Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 557.
³ Some prefer to call this the Palestinic covenant rather than the Palestinian covenant. Perhaps this has something to do with the view modern-day Israelis have of the Palestinians who dwell in ‘their’ land.