Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Chruch in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previous article in this series: December 1, 2008, p. 110.
Eschatology is all about God’s covenant promises. Wrong views of God’s covenant will manifest themselves in wrong views of eschatology. Dispensational eschatology is based on an erroneous view of God’s covenant, and specifically of the covenant promises made to God’s people in the old dispensation.
As was pointed out last time, dispensationalists commonly refer to four covenants that they say are unconditional: The Abrahamic Covenant, the Palestinian Covenant¹, the Davidic Covenant, and the New Covenant. Dispensationalists view these to be four distinct covenants that contain unconditional promises to Abraham’s physical descendants. When making predictions about the near future, dispensationalists often refer to one or more of these covenants to prove their position. Thus, it would be good to go through these different covenant promises, considering how the dispensationalists interpret them and how the Scriptures themselves interpret them.
Beginning with the covenant with Abraham, let us consider first how dispensationalists define what God’s covenant is, and what they view to be the basis for this covenant. Then we will proceed to consider some of the main promises of that covenant, which they say will not be fulfilled until the coming millennial age.
The Essence of the Covenant
We start by considering what dispensationalists view God’s covenant to be. A leading dispensationalist defines God’s covenant as an agreement or pact between God and man. He goes on to say that God has made a number of these agreements, some of which, he says, are conditional and others unconditional. Thus he offers a twofold definition of God’s covenant:
A divine covenant is (1) a sovereign disposition of God, whereby he establishes an unconditional or declarative compact with man, obligating himself, in grace, by the untrammeled (sic) formula, “I WILL,” to bring to pass of himself definite blessings for the covenanted ones, or (2) a proposal of God, wherein he promises, in a conditional or mutual compact with man, by the contingent formula “IF YE WILL,” to grant special blessings to man provided he fulfills perfectly certain conditions, and to execute definite punishment in case of his failure.²
There are two kinds of covenants into which God entered with Israel: conditional and unconditional. In a conditional covenant that which was covenanted depends for its fulfillment upon the recipient of the covenant, not upon the one making the covenant. Certain obligations or conditions must be fulfilled by the receiver of the covenant before the giver of the covenant is obligated to fulfill that which was promised. It is a covenant with an “if” attached to it. The Mosaic covenant made by God with Israel is such a covenant. In an unconditional covenant that which was covenanted depends upon the one making the covenant alone for its fulfillment.³
He goes on to say that even the unconditional covenants have some conditional promises attached to them:
…an unconditional covenant, which binds the one making the covenant to a certain course of action, may have blessings attached to that covenant that are conditioned upon the response of the recipient of the covenant….4
So in their judgment there are two kinds of covenants—conditional covenants and unconditional covenants that may have some conditions attached to them—and both of them amount to a compact between God and man.
As we have often pointed out in the past, the covenant is not presented in Scripture as a compact or agreement, but as a relationship of friendship that God Himself has sovereignly established with His people in Christ. It is a covenant that involves God writing His Word in our heart, causing us to know Him, love Him, and commune with Him as our intimate Father and Friend (Jer. 31:31-34).
Furthermore, God’s covenant with His people in Christ is unconditional. It is true that many Scripture passages make known what man must do to enjoy the covenant blessings. Such statements, however, do not make God’s covenant conditional, but they do make known a number of important truths. First of all, they make known our calling in the covenant, and how we must live if we are going to experience and enjoy the blessings of that covenant. Even though there is no way that a child of God can fall out of the covenant, if he walks in sin for a time he will not enjoy the conscious experience of these covenant blessings.
Secondly, these statements make known that God’s covenant is particular. They show that the promises were not to all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but only to those who believed. That this does not amount to God’s covenant being conditional is evident from the fact that God Himself is the one who works in His covenant people both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). For example, even though God requires faith, this faith is not a condition, since it is a blessing that is purchased by Christ and that is efficaciously wrought in the elect by the power of Christ’s Spirit. Since faith is a gift from beginning to end, it makes no sense to refer to it as a condition.
The Basis for the Covenant with Abraham
Dispensationalists err not only with regard to the nature of God’s covenant, but also with regard to its basis. Although dispensationalists refer to God’s covenant with Abraham as unconditional, they claim that the basis for this covenant is found in Abraham’s obedience. As astounding as this is, it is what they literally teach:
Whether God would institute a covenant program with Abraham or not depended upon Abraham’s act of obedience in leaving the land. When once this act was accomplished, and Abraham did obey God, God instituted an irrevocable, unconditional program. This obedience, which became the basis of the institution of the program, is referred to in
Genesis 22:18 . . . .5
Whether there would be a covenant program with Abraham depended upon Abraham’s act of obedience. When once he obeyed, the covenant that was instituted depended, not upon Abraham’s continued obedience, but upon the promise of the One who instituted it. The fact of the covenant depended upon obedience; the kind of covenant inaugurated was totally unrelated to the continuing obedience of either Abraham or his seed.6
So according to a dispensationalist, first Abraham had to fulfill a condition, and only then did God institute His “irrevocable, unconditional program.”
It is interesting to see how the dispensational view of the covenant with Abraham is related to dispensationalists’ view of salvation. They maintain that just as the covenant with Abraham is based on one act of obedience that Abraham performed, so also a person’s salvation is based on that person’s one act of consciously believing in or “accepting” Christ. Once the person has committed that one act, then God is bound to save him unconditionally on the basis of what that person has done. The following quotation makes an explicit reference to the parallel between the dispensational view of God’s covenant and what is a common dispensational view of salvation:
As given in the Scriptures, the Abrahamic Covenant is hinged upon only one condition. This is given in
“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee.” The original covenant was based upon Abraham’s obedience in leaving his homeland and going to the land of promise. No further revelation is given him until he was obedient to this command after the death of his father. Upon entering Canaan, the Lord immediately gave Abraham the promise of ultimate possession of the land,
and subsequently enlarged and reiterated the original promises.
The one condition having been met, no further conditions are laid upon Abraham; the covenant having been solemnly established is now dependent upon divine veracity for its fulfillment. A parallel can be found in the doctrine of eternal security for the believer in the present dispensation. Having once accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, the believer is assured a complete salvation and eternal bliss in heaven on a gracious principle quite independent of attaining a degree of faithfulness or obedience during this life. The original condition having been met, the promise continues without further conditions.7
Because God’s covenant promise is a promise of salvation, it is not surprising to see that a man’s wrong view of God’s covenant would find a parallel in his wrong view of salvation.
The opposite is also true. If one has a correct view of God’s covenant, that view will be in perfect harmony with the truth of salvation by grace alone. A covenant that is truly unconditional will involve no condition that man has to fulfill to get into it or to remain within it. It will be a covenant based not even partly on anything a sinful man has done. The blessings of God’s unconditional and everlasting covenant come to His people solely on the basis of what Christ has done. To teach anything else is to deny the fundamental truth that salvation, from beginning to end, is entirely a gift of God’s sovereign and irresistible grace.
A Sense in Which Israel Has Already Received the Land
Dispensationalists frequently assert that God’s covenant with Abraham was about more than the blessings of salvation. In their mind, much of what was promised concerned earthly things, and it is especially these promises about earthly things that they say have not yet been fulfilled.
God did indeed give to Israel many earthly things, but those earthly things were given to them to picture the heavenly realities that God was promising to give His elect people in Christ. But this promise concerning the pictures has already been fulfilled. Take, for example, the promise concerning the land of Canaan—a land that was given to be a picture of the heavenly promised land. God says this promise concerning the picture has already been fulfilled. This truth is emphasized when Scripture says that God has already given Israel not just part of the land, but all of the land that He sware to give unto them:
And the Lord gave unto Israel all the land which he sware to give unto their fathers; and they possessed it, and dwelt therein. And the Lord gave them rest round about, according to all that he sware unto their fathers: and there stood not a man of all their enemies before them; the Lord delivered all their enemies into their hand. There failed not ought of any good thing which the Lord had spoken unto the house of Israel; all came to pass,
In fact, the promise concerning all the good things God spoke concerning Israel are said to have been fulfilled:
And, behold, this day I am going the way of all the earth: and ye know in all your hearts and in all your souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things which the Lord your God spake concerning you; all are come to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof,
Thus the promise concerning the pictures has been fulfilled already.
We know, of course, that Israel’s taking the promised land was not the complete fulfillment of God’s covenant promise. This promise is being fulfilled today when God’s people are being brought into God’s heavenly rest. And the ultimate fulfillment of this promise is still future, when Christ returns on the last day and brings His people into the new heaven and the new earth. Yet the earthly picture of the fulfillment of this promise has already taken place. There is not going to be another one.
That is part of the significance of the fact that God says His promise concerning the land of Canaan has already been fulfilled. It indicates that there will be no more earthly pictures of the fulfillment of this promise. There is a fulfillment that is taking place now, and there is an ultimate fulfillment that is still future, but an earthly picture of the fulfillment of this promise will not happen again.
The same thing is said in Scripture about God’s covenant promise that David’s son will complete the construction of the house of God. King Solomon declared this after the temple was built:
And the Lord said unto David my father, Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart. Nevertheless thou shalt not build the house; but thy son that shall come forth out of thy loins, he shall build the house unto my name. And the Lord hath performed his word that he spake, and I am risen up in the room of David my father, and sit on the throne of Israel, as the Lord promised, and have built an house for the name of the Lord God of Israel,
So God through Solomon has declared that the promise concerning this earthly event has already been fulfilled.
We know that Solomon’s building the temple was a picture of Christ’s building of the church. The promise to David is being fulfilled right now as King Jesus builds His church while sitting enthroned in heaven. And we know there is an ultimate fulfillment that is still future, when the entire house of God will be complete. But the earthly picture of the fulfillment of this promise has already taken place. God says the promise in that sense has already been fulfilled. There will not be another similar event. Nor is there a need for one.
Next time, Lord willing, we will get into more of the specifics of how the dispensationalists say that God’s promises to Abraham are going to be fulfilled in the millennium. Then we will take a look at how Scripture itself interprets these promises. Such passages not only prepare us to refute the dispensationalists, but also teach us about the wonderful and glorious covenant that God has made with us in our Lord Jesus Christ.
¹ By the Palestinian Covenant they mean God’s promise to gather the Israelites that have been scattered, and to bring them to the promised land (Deut. 30:1-10).
² J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, 67—68. Pentecost here is actually quoting the definition of Charles Fred Lincoln. The emphasis is his.
³ Pentecost, 68.
4 Pentecost, 68.
5 Pentecost, 74.
6 Pentecost, 75. The emphasis is his.
7 John F. Walvoord, “Millennial Series: Part 13: The Abrahamic Covenant and Premillennialism,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 109 (January, 1952): 37—38.