What are the differences between dispensationalism and covenantalism?

by Matt Slick

Dispensationalism is an approach to biblical interpretation which states that God uses different means of working with people (Israel and the Church) during different periods of history.  It is usually broken up into seven chronologically successive periods.  However, dispensational division of history varies among its adherents from three, four, seven, to eight dispensations. Seven is the most common.

In dispensationalism, Israel and the Church are seen largely as distinct and separate entities. It states that salvation has always been by faith, but it is manifested differently between Old and New Testaments (Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4; Rom. 4:1-5; John 3:16).  Dispensationalists accept God’s covenants as vital parts of dispensational activity, but the primary unit of division is the dispensation (i.e., period of time).

Dispensationalism emphasizes the fulfillment of Old Testament promises to Israel and seeks to interpret the Bible as literally as possible.

There are promises to Israel that are yet to be fulfilled Israel will be completely restored and be prominent in the world as it carries out God’s promises. The Church may replace Israel to some extent, but not fully The Church did not exist in O.T. times. Premillennial held by all dispensationalists Pre-tribulation rapture held by almost all dispensationalists

Covenant Theology

Covenant Theology is a system of biblical interpretation that is found primarily in Protestant denominations.  It views God's dealings with man in respect of covenants rather than dispensations (periods of time). It represents the whole of scripture as covenantal in structure and theme.  The Old Testament is the old covenant and the New Testament is the new covenant.  In Latin, the word for covenant is 'testamentum'. There are several views within Covenant Theology.  However, it is the view that the Trinity covenanted before the foundation of the world to save man.  The question is then how many covenants there are.  Some say there is one Covenant and others believe two and still others believe in more. The two covenant view holds that there is the covenant of works in the Old Testament made between God and Adam, and the Covenant of Grace between the Father and the Son where the Father promised to give the Son the elect and the Son must redeem them. Regardless of views on the number of covenants, the covenant(s) have been made before the world was made (Heb. 13:20). 

There are several covenants listed in the Bible.  Here are a few.

  1. The Adamic Covenant between God and Adam where Adam would have everlasting life based on obedience (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:15).
  2. The Noahic Covenant was between God and Noah were God promised to never destroy the earth again by water (Genesis 9:11).
  3. The Abrahamic Covenant was between God and Abraham were he would make Abraham a great nation and that all the nations will be blessed through him (Genesis 12:3; 17:5).
  4. The Mosaic Covenant was between God and the Israelites where God would be covenantally faithful to Israel as a holy nation (Exodus 19:6).
  5. The New Covenant is between Christ and the church where salvation would be obtained by faith (1 Cor. 11:25).


Dispensationalism Covenantalism
Church began at Pentecost Church began in Eden with Covering of Adam and Eve and is increasingly manifested in the Old Testament
The Church is a Mystery hinted at in the Old Testament The Church was spoken of in the O.T. as stated in (Acts 2:16-35; 3:22-25, 1 Pet. 1:10-12)
Purpose of God is to gather a people for himself Purpose of God is to glorify himself revealed in Christ
Israel is the heir to the promises made to Abraham about the seed being blessed True Israel (the church) is the heir to the promises made to Abraham (Gal. 3:16)
Participation in the Abrahamic Covenant is by “mainly” by biological descent Participation in the Abrahamic Covenant is by faith in Christ
Salvation is by faith in accordance to the revelation given in a particular dispensation Salvation is by faith in the Messiah:  looking forward to Christ in the O.T., looking back to Christ in the N.T.
The Holy Spirit did not indwell people in all dispensations, only during the dispensation of the Church age The Holy Spirit has indwelt the believers in all periods, but indwells Christians as an anointing which provides gifts to the church to carry out the commission that Israel has, so far, failed to do.
Christ will reign in the future 1000 year period which occurs after the rapture Christ is reigning now as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Believers were not ‘in Christ’ until the church age Believers are ‘in Christ’ in all ages





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.