The following is an excerpt from an article outlining very well the differences between Reformed, Covenant, and Dispensational Theology. I highly recommend that you read it. I wrote this piece back in 2018, but due to its import in the eschatological debate I am reposting.
I will begin by stating that I was raised and schooled in Dispensational Theology. You can read my background in my testimony. So, I’ll leave it at that for the purpose of this post. But, I want to inform the reader of the fact that Dispensational Theology often does not follow its own rule of literal interpretation or taking the scriptures literal; I quote its definition: “…Interpreting passages normally and plainly, while recognizing figures of speech, but without spiritualizing them and while paying attention to the details which are recorded therein.” This definition of literal interpretation, I have taken from Dr. Tony Garland, as well as what follows in the next paragraph. But before we look further at what Tony further states, let me just say that I believe that the New Covenant in Christ is God’s promise to redeem and unite “all” His people in order to bring about all of His promises to mankind from Adam right down to the present. That fact has brought about one new man “in Christ” as Paul puts it in Ephesians. But this promise of His coming goes all the way back to Genesis and mankind’s fall. It fulfills Paul’s explanation in 1 Cor 15:21, regarding the need for all of mankind from the time of his creation to be placed “in Christ” in order to make the first resurrection. But how will that happen?
So now I want to examine a piece of what Tony Garland believes concerning all theories except his own Dispensational beliefs. And I do this to shed light on what I have just stated.
“The concept of the ‘body of Christ’ being a mystery unique to the New Testament, having been formed in the Book of Acts and excluding all believers prior to the giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is denied [by the covenant Theologian] (Mat 16:18; 18:17; John 7:39; 14:16; Acts 1:5; 11:15; 15:14; 1Cor. 12:13; Eph 2:15; 3:5-6; Col. 1:26-27). [I would add that it is denied by others as well, but back to Tony] The Church is seen to have begun with Abram (Abraham) or even as far back as Adam and Eve. Thus, the uniqueness of the Church as the body of Christ ministering in His absence consisting only of those baptized by the Spirit is unappreciated and the doctrine of a separate rapture of the bride of Christ is predictably rejected and even ridiculed as unscriptural (1Cor. 15:51-52; 1Th. 4:17). (Many, although not all, Pentecostal congregations embrace Covenant Theology since they also fail to fully appreciate the context of events on the Day of Pentecost associated with the historical coming of the Spirit.)” emphasis added.
[I have dealt with Tony’s objections in many of the foundational articles, as being an advocate of “one new man”.]. The quotes from Tony are Taken from, Bible Prophecy Blog, the article:
Covenant, Reformed, and Dispensational Theology – What Do They Mean? By Dr. Tony Garland
The underlined emphasis in the above statement is mine, and this section is what we will be examining. We will be looking at the scriptures said to be misunderstood or ignored which he used to support the exclusion of “all believers prior to Pentecost” as stated by him.
One thing that I fully agree with Dispensationalist concerning, is the need for the clarity that literal interpretation brings. Our understanding if it is to be correct stems from taking literal scriptures dealing with a topic and rightly comparing and assimilating the message given across the pages of scripture. So let us delve into the scriptures he uses here in order to draw his own conclusions, which are in keeping with Dispensational teaching, and we shall see if this understanding holds up when other scripture is included to assist in their understanding.
There are several scriptures listed in order to prove that “all believers prior to the giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost” are excluded from the church. In the first we see Simon Peter answer to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon [k]Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 I also say to you that you are [l]Peter, and upon this [m]rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Matthew 16:16-18 NASB
Peter’s understanding of the Christ, the anointed Messiah coming for Israel was seen in his answer. I must further recognize here that there is a futuristic aspect given, by Jesus to the idea of “the church” at the time that when Jesus makes this statement. This time is before the actual establishment of the New Covenant which up to this time has always been future for Israel, and thus for this body “the church”, which at the time it was used represented God’s people. It will be constituted in the new Covenant of Christs blood (a covenant promised to Israel).
Then we consider the next verse listed by Tony:
15 “If your brother sins[k], go and [l]show him his fault [m]in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as [o]a Gentile and [p]a tax collector. Matthew 18:15,17 NASB
This teaching of Jesus allows one to see that Jesus sees an existing church even before the Church is further set apart in Christ, by His blood of the New Covenant, which is yet to be fully established. Still Jesus speaks to its already existence and not as an unknown to the disciples or Israel. They had knowledge of what constituted the church body right then as Jesus taught them. It was as proven in the Septuagint even then made up of all of God’s people. The concept translated “Church” was known in the Old Testament Scriptures.
But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:39 NASB
So it is true that this promise of the indwelling Spirit that institutes the New Covenant is at that time still future, just as the promise of the establishment of the New Covenant made to Israel in the O.T. was still future. The mystery which comes later, is that Gentiles are to be included with God’s chosen people (Eph 2). Then we consider:
16 I will ask the Father, and He will give you another [b]Helper, that He may be with you forever; 17 that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. John 14:16-17 NASB
This is a restatement of the promise which was just for God’s people; a promise that the world cannot receive, because why? We know that at one time we were of the world if we consider Ephesians chapter 2, so how did we get untangled from the world? Only one way by coming to and being placed “in Christ”, who is Israel’s promised Messiah. You must be born again. Remember this because “in Christ” is the only way to salvation for all of God’s people, even Israel.
5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized [f]with the Holy Spirit [g]not many days from now.” Acts 1:5 NASB
The Holy Spirit was given At Pentecost, but there is a scripture not listed that we must incorporate and assimilate into our understanding.
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB). This verse is just as true as these others which Tony has mentioned which we have looked at here, and we must consider how it is that man who lived before Christ’s first coming can be found “in Christ”, or in what was for them a future promised Messiah, and this fulfillment must be accomplished before His Second Coming; because this is what this passage teaches. Does the scripture tell us the answer to this problem? We will get to it, but for now let’s continue with Tony’s verses.
And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. Acts 11:15 NASB
Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. Acts 15:14 NASB
I personally like the Word translation of this last verse:
Acts 15:14 Simon has explained how God first showed his concern by taking from non-Jewish people those who would honor his name. (GOD’S WORD)
In these scriptures we see that not only Jews but Gentiles are being added to this church body, of New Covenant believers, but this still does not answer how those, before Christ came into that body, and thus how they will be found in Him at His Second Coming. But here we see that Gentiles are included in this Promise of salvation.
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:13 NASB
So here just as taught in Ephesians we are again taught that there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile now that the New Covenant has been established. Tony then referred us to Ephesians where we hear:
by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, Ephesians 2:15 NASB
which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit; to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, Ephesians 3:5-6 NASB
that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Colossians 1:26-27 NASB
“Christ in you” is the key to every man’s hope. Both Jew and Gentile. So according to Tony these scriptures are to make the point that no one before Christ has access to this body, but again Paul says: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22 NASB). And he is talking in the context of that passage of every man who ever lived, because Adam was the source of mans death and Christ the source of his life.
This is not speaking to a body which excludes Israel, but to all of God’s people. His one body, which He is making new, through the New Covenant in His blood and giving them a new heart, with His resident Holy Spirit. So do these verses of Tony’s go far enough to allow us to understand this supposed separation or is something missing here from the Dispensational teaching that effects our understanding?
What we have already read should allow us to see that Gentiles have been added to a body already existing which heretofore was Jewish. If we consider Romans Chapter 11, the Olive tree, we again see this picture. Unbelief is cut out of the body and belief remains and enters. Only belief is allowed. So now how did Jesus add All men prior to This New Covenant to it?
Jesus had told the thief next to Him on the cross, “today thou shalt be with me in Paradise”. In Ephesians 4, scripture tells us that Jesus entered the belly of the earth and then led captivity captive. Paradise itself, at that time was in the belly of the earth. Jesus and the thief went there. So where is paradise after the ascension of Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant one new man. Where is it even today?
And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 2 Corinthians 12:3-4 NASB
Paul here let’s us know that sometime after Christ, he Paul was caught up to paradise. Paul did not go into the belly of the earth, and when we die neither do we.
Peter tells us that: “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. 1 Peter 4:6 NASB
These dead will live in the Spirit. They are not yet alive bodily.
Jesus had also stated: “25 Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. John 5:25 NASB
So it would seem that the information which is missing from the Dispensational view of the church is necessary in order to have the saints of Israel past present and future included in this new covenant church which God established in Christ or in Israel’s Messiah for both them and for us. Because without being in Christ they could never be resurrected. For me this information was a game changer as it was revealed to me years ago from scripture. As I began to see these things when studying the Bible, I truly didn’t know what to do with the concept. But as I continued my study over the years I found my place as a resident in the commonwealth of Israel one with the saints, as Paul describes it. The Church is the new covenant of God’s people past present and future who will possess the promises of God made to them through past covenants and promises. It is one, it cannot be divided, no matter how hard men try. The new covenant is promised to Israel, and we are also it’s recipients.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ ( by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places “in Christ”(my emphasis) Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. remember that you were at that time [before the New Covenant] separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. Ephesians 2:4-7,12-16 NASB
This is why I love the literal scripture. These verses tell the story exactly as it is, but because of the confusion brought about because of the infighting between Dispensational and Reformed Theology it took me years to see that it was there all the time. Paul says:
to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 3:6,4:4-6 NASB
I might also add that Paul also states that there is only one gospel. The “all” in this passage does not exclude His own to whom He had promised this covenant. It literally means what it says.
We are one body, Jew and Gentile in Christ, throughout the age of mankind. Those without Christ have no hope. We are one with the saints of old; recipients of a new Covenant. No longer on the outside looking in, but one new man even as Paul tells us.
This concept of who makes up the church has major implications for how we see all teachings in scripture. Yet it is what the scripture teaches us.
There will be two resurrections; one of the righteous, and one of the unrighteous. Our Righteousness in this body is only found in Christ.