Ligon Duncan on Covenant Theology vs. Dispensationalism

Ligon Duncan on Covenant Theology vs. Dispensationalism

Nancy Guthrie interviews Ligon Duncan on Covenant Theology


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Ligon Duncan: Covenant theology wants to look not only topically at the Bible, what does the Bible say about the covenants? But, historically, how does the history of redemption unfold in the Bible and what role the covenants play in that? So it’s a sense, it’s a blending of both systemic and biblical theology. And it grew out of Reformed theology.

Nancy Guthrie: Welcome to “Help Me Teach the Bible,” I’m Nancy Guthrie. “Help Me Teach the Bible,” is a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway, a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks. Learn more at It’s a great joy today to be at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. I’ve been to a lot of the other RTS campuses, haven’t been to Jackson, but I have now. And I’m getting to sit in the offices with Ligon Duncan who is Chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary. This is our second time to have a conversation for “Help Me Teach the Bible.” Ligon, thank you for being willing to give us more time to help us teach the Bible.

Ligon: Well, I’m really excited that you’re here. I’m glad you’re in Jackson. And I’m so glad that you’ve been able to see the original RTS campus, here in Jackson, Mississippi.

Nancy: I’m here at the headquarters.

Ligon: It’s true.

Nancy: So here you are, Ligon, and this is a city in which you’ve ministered for a long time. This is your home because, for so many years, you were pastor at First Presbyterian, Jackson. But I thought it was interesting, in your bio, that you were reared in the home of an eighth-generation Presbyterian ruler. Now that boggled my mind a little bit because, you know, I only came to the PCA and to Reformed theology 15, 20 years ago. And so, to me, there are so many things about the way I understand the Bible and even just the goal of the Christian life and what’s God’s doing in the world that are so deeply-ingrained in me that are not reformed, are not in covenantal. And we’re gonna talk today about Covenant theology. So when I think about that, I just think, “This is something that has been in your blood, and bones, and thinking, and beliefs your whole life.”

Ligon: For a long long time, that’s true. And stretching back into the family. Yeah, a Scottish Presbyterian named John Duncan left Aberdeen, Scotland, and came to what is now South Carolina before it was even a colony in the 17th century. And so, I’ve had Duncans in South Carolina back for eight or so generations. And all, on the Duncan and McDowell side of the family, a bunch of ruling elders in local churches stretching back for eight generations. So I have that heritage on one side. And then, my mother is a Southern Baptist from East Tennessee. So I probably can resonate with some of the things that you have encountered over the years as well. So…

Nancy: Well, we’re here today to talk about Covenant theology. And honestly, I mean, for all of the education I had in the Bible and being in the Christian world for a long time, I’m not sure I even heard that term very much. So maybe we should begin with just defining it. What are we talking about when we use the term Covenant theology? And perhaps, as part of that, you could answer the question, “Are Covenant theology and Reformed theology the same thing or there are some distinctions?”

Ligon: Good, really good. Let’s start off with what a covenant is. Because we use those for neighborhood covenants, you know, when you move into the neighborhood, you can’t do certain things to your house or your yard that aren’t in accord with what everybody else does in the neighborhood. And then, sometimes we’ll use the word, “Last will and testament,” to talk about legal documents and we’ll wonder how that relates to our Old and our New Testaments. Interestingly, both of those English words are related to the Greek and, way back, to the Hebrew words that are translated in our Bibles as covenants. The Greek word diatheke, which we translate into English, covenant. Most of the time, if not all the time, in the New Testament, is based on a Hebrew word berith, which is the word we use for covenant. Now what is one of those? Well, it is a special way that God confirms a promise. That word is used over 300 times in the Bible, close to 300 times in the Old Testament, over 30 times in the New Testament.

And when it is used, it is usually very important in the context in which it’s being used. So we could find words in the Bible that are used more frequently than that but very few words are used that frequently in the Bible that are as important as they are in the narrative. The first time that the word covenant is used in the Bible is Genesis 6, and it’s used all the way to The Book of Revelation. As you might guess, in The Book of Hebrews, which is so much about how our Old Testament and our New Testament relate or how the story of what God was doing through the Mosaic system came to fruition in Jesus Christ, uses the word more frequently than any other book in the New Testament. So the word covenant refers to a special way that God confirms a promise. And then, it also serves to talk about the relationship that we have with God because of that promise. So it gets used in both of those ways. It also gets used to describe covenant signs.

Now Palmer Robertson, who you and I both read, defines covenant as a bond in blood sovereignly administered. And all three of those things are actually pretty helpful, it’s a bond, it’s a relationship. A covenant establishes or confirms a special promissory relationship between God and his people. It’s a bond in blood in that it’s life and death. It is not a light relationship. You know, there are human relationships that we can get in and out of, a covenant is a life-and-death relationship. To violate the covenant is to court condemnation and death. And so, blood rituals are often associated with the covenant in order to emphasize this life-and-death relationship. When Adam rebelled, it resulted in death. God had already warned him of that in Genesis 2, “In the day that you eat of the fruit, of which I have told you do not eat, you shall surely die.” So it’s a serious relationship. And it’s sovereignly administered. We don’t enter into some sort of a bargaining negotiation process, “Okay God. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll do these things if you’ll do this for me,” God sets out all the terms for it.

Now it turns out, where do we get Covenant theology? Or why don’t we talk about coming to theology? Well, it’s the recognition that that theme is so important, in the Bible, that Protestants, in the 16th Century Reformation, felt that our whole understanding of the Bible needed to be shaped by an understanding of these covenants. Covenant theology, I would argue that it’s the Bible’s way of explaining and deepening our understanding of several things. It’s the Bible’s way of explaining and deepening our understanding of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death. So in your Bible studies, because I’ve read them, you will emphasize rightly that Jesus’ death is a substitutionary atonement. It is a sacrifice offered by Christ of himself, in our place, in which he bears the penalty due to our sins and we receive the rewards that are due to him.

Now, many liberal theologians will criticize Christians and say, “See? You’ve got this ancient barbaric idea that God needs to be appeased through sacrifice. That’s a pagan idea, it’s a sub Christian idea. We need to re-understand the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death.” The Covenant theology comes along and says, “No, no, no, you need to read your Bible better. Because the way that sacrifice functions, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is radically different from the way that it functions in barbaric paganism.” In paganism indeed you are trying to appease an angry deity, or perhaps manipulate a pliable deity. You’re trying to use sacrifices to get what you want out of Him. In the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New, if you understand the covenants, God Himself supplies the sacrifice that we need. We’re not getting something out of God by sacrifice, God is giving something to us in sacrifice. The story of Abraham and Isaac at Mount Moriah is that story. Abraham does not supply the substitutionary sacrifice that he so desperately needs, God in His providence supplies it. Abraham acknowledges that, explicitly says, “Lord, you see, you see. You give, you provide.”

Nancy: The Lord who provides, he names the place.

Ligon: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So he understands, “God supplies what I need.” Understanding the covenants completely changes your understanding and appreciation of what it means that Jesus is our sacrifice. So Covenant theology helps you understand the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death. It also helps you understand how assurance works. You know, lots of wonderful Christians struggle with assurance, for lots of different reasons. One of the reasons that we struggle with assurance is that, frankly, sometimes we’re so aware of our own personal sin and failure, in the past and in the present, that we have this sneaking suspicion, “I’m not sure that there’s something that really can cover my sin.” And Covenant theology comes along and says, “Look at what God has done in order to assure you of His love to you and the security of your salvation.”

If your sense of security with Him is based on anything in you, you’re toast, you’re done for, because all of us know…you know, Thomas Boston used to say, “If men knew what was in my heart, I wouldn’t have four friends left in Scotland.” All of us know that. You know, we’re going through a phase right now, in America, where there have been all these disclosures about people, both religious and governmental, that, you know, you start thinking, “Boy, I wonder if my life, in my high-school and college years, was put on display before the watching world, what their estimation of my reputation would be.” Well, you know what? The Bible says that, on the last day, everything is going to be disclosed. So if I’m trusting in me, on that last day, I’m in big trouble. I wanna be standing in the line where we’re not trusting in me…we’re trusting in Jesus. And Covenant theology actually explains how that works.

It also shows how the whole Bible hangs together. Because the Bible story, it’s not a series of disconnected actions, and activities, and histories, and stories, it’s one continuous plan and purpose of God unfolding. And the Bible itself will structure that plan using the covenant. So when you get to the Psalms, they will often recount the story of David, for instance, by telling the story of God’s covenant purposes in history from Abraham to Moses to David. So they’ll use the covenants to structure the whole history of God’s people. The Book of Hebrews does the same thing. But even apart from The Book of Hebrews, when you open up the Gospels, you can’t get out of the first chapter of Luke without Luke telling you, in both Mary’s song and in Zacharias’ song, “Hey, this Jesus coming into the world thing, that’s the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and to Moses and to David.” And you start saying, “Oh, these are related?” Yes, they’re related. “How do I know that?” Well, God is fulfilling covenants that he’s made. So for all those reasons, Covenant theology is a big deal for helping you understand your Bible better.

Nancy: Well, that makes me think about someone who might say, “Oh, you’re just making this too complicated. I just wanna love Jesus and serve Jesus.” And I think, you know, how do you even know who Jesus is and why he came, and particularly why he died, if you are not immersed in the covenant? Because without the covenant, there’s just no way to understand.

Ligon: Well, and I’d like to point out that the place that Jesus talks most about the covenant, in his ministry, is in the upper room when he’s explaining his death to the disciples. That’s the place, in his ministry, where he refers to fulfilling the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant prophecies of Jeremiah. That’s where he talks about it. And I think the reason is he’s saying to his disciples, “What’s gonna happen to me tomorrow is gonna blow your minds. You’re gonna be incredibly discouraged. Partly, that’s because of your unbelief but part of it is you don’t fully understand what I’ve been trying to teach you for the last three years. So one more time, I’m gonna tell you, tomorrow, when I die, I will be fulfilling the promises of God in the Mosaic covenant and in the new covenant prophecies of Jeremiah.” And I still don’t think the disciples fully understood that but, after Jesus came back, and you see it at the end of The Gospel of Luke, both with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and with the Apostles when they’re gathered back in Jerusalem, Jesus specifically opens up his Hebrew Bible and he shows them how the Hebrew Bible pointed to the messiah dying and rising again. And all of that is in the framework of the covenants.

Nancy: And it’s clear that at least Peter was listening right there because we get Acts 2 and Acts 4…

Ligon: He really does.

Nancy: …that he has put that together clearly. All right. So you’ve told us about Covenant theology, so let’s go back to that original question I asked. So can you distinguish between Covenant theology and Reformed theology? Because I think many people would just assume those are the same things. Are they?

Ligon: Yeah, I would say yes in the sense that Reformed theology, in its fullness, is Covenant theology. But I would also say Covenant theology is a blending of what scholars call both biblical theology and systematic theology. And sometimes, when people think of Reformed theology, they’re thinking, mostly, of systematic theology. Covenant theology involves both biblical theology and systematic theology, define those terms. A lot of times when you and I would say, “Biblical theology,” sometimes we mean, well, theology that is biblical, theology that’s faithful to the Bible. But the technical meaning of that term, in theological studies, is, the study of the Bible from the standpoint of the unfolding of God’s plan of redemption. So what you’re really looking at, when you do Biblical theology, is the history of redemption. You’re looking at the history of God’s redeeming purposes and plans and actions in the history of the Bible as the Bible unfolds. So when you’re doing Biblical theology, you’re studying across the pages of the Bible, especially historically and chronologically, and you’re looking at themes. I mean, you do this all the time in your Bible studies. You ask people, “Think about this book in the context of the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation,” that’s Biblical theology. Systematic theology is topical. It’s asking the question, “What does the whole Bible say about X?”

Nancy: Sin? Judgment?

Ligon: Yeah, you know, what does the Bible say about sin, judgment, angels, etc.? So you’re not really operating historically there, although you need to take into account of how the Bible unfolds historically, you’re trying to give a quick faithful summarization of a particular theme. You need both of those to have good theology. A lot of times when people hear Reformed theology, they hear doctrine of salvation, you know, they hear predestination, or they hear election, or they hear the theology of grace. Or they hear the theology of grace, the person and work of Christ, all of those things are true. Covenant theology wants to look not only topically at the Bible, what does the Bible say about the covenants, but historically, how does the history of redemption unfold in the Bible and what role do the covenants play in that. So it’s a sense, it’s a blending of both systematic and Biblical theology. And it grew out of Reformed theology. Covenant theology is definitely born out of Reformed theology and connected to it but I think can probably be distinguished from it in that it’s a blending of both Biblical and systematic theology. It’s dependent upon a robust high view of God, a high view of grace, a high view of sin, a high view of Scripture, a high view of God’s purposes in redemptive history, a recognition that God has one plan. All of that is part of Reformed theology. It’s focusing on bringing together both the insights of systematic theology and Biblical theology for the sake of Bible study.

Nancy: I remember, years ago, when I was just trying to begin to understand some of these things, and I went to our mutual friend, David Wilson, and I said, “Okay. I wanna talk about covenants and I wanna try to understand this a little more.” And I remember one of his first questions to me he wanted to know what I believed in terms of how many covenants there were. And I was like, “I don’t know. Okay?” And so, tell us, you know, why would he have asked me that question? And how would you answer it?

Ligon: Yeah. Well, it’s a question that can legitimately be answered in different ways, depending on what you’re asking. So if you’re asking that question from the standpoint of systematic theology, a lot of times, people are asking, “Do you believe that there is just a covenant of grace in the Bible or is there a covenant of works and a covenant of grace?” So is there just a covenant of grace, in the Bible, that stretches from, say, Noah to Christ? Or is there a covenant of works with Adam in the garden, and then, there’s a covenant of grace after the fall of man in Genesis 3? So sometimes people are asking, “Do you have a bi-covenantal view of how the Bible unfolds? Is there a covenant of works and covenant of grace?” There are people, that like to view themselves as Reformed that deny that there’s a covenant of works. So sometimes that’s the question.

Sometimes the question is, “Okay. So in addition to a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, do you believe that there was an eternal agreement between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that sometimes is called the covenant of redemption? Or sometimes it’s simply called the decree of God from before the foundation of the world? And how does that relate to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace?” So is there one covenant that covers the whole Bible? Are there two covenants that cover the history recorded in the Scripture? Or are there three covenants, one that is pre-temporal, and then, two that work out in time? Sometimes, that’s the question.

Other times, people are saying, “Well, do you think that there was a covenant with Adam, and then a covenant with Noah, and then a covenant with Abraham, and then a covenant with Moses, and then a covenant with David, and then a new covenant? So would there be, in the history that’s recorded in Scripture, would there be six eras or manifestations of God’s covenants?” All of those covenants David, Moses, Abraham, Noah, the covenant with Adam established in grace, in Genesis 3, are actually tied together. You can actually see language used in each of them to indicate that they’re not separate unrelated things, they’re all part of an unfolding plan. And then, you get to the prophets and the prophecies of Jeremiah 31 about the new covenant, but also, the prophecies of Ezekiel about the covenant of peace and the covenant of salt, and the prophecies of Isaiah about the everlasting covenant. All of those are pointing to the fulfillment of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. So maybe David was asking you, “Do you see all of that?” and was wanting to then respond to you based on how much of that you already had seen in your Bible studies.

Nancy: Let’s go back to covenant of works, covenant of grace. Explain what those things are for you. Especially the covenant of works because, I think, that’s perhaps the one that is most unfamiliar to us.

Ligon: It’s good. And it raises suspicions in the minds of Protestants because Protestants are, our mindset is work’s bad, grace good, work’s bad. But the first thing I want to tell everybody about this is the covenant of works establishes the grace of the covenant of grace. You really can’t understand grace until you understand the covenant of works. So the covenant of works is not the enemy of grace, it is actually the friend of grace in that it helps us understand why grace is so wonderful. Now the covenant of works itself, it’s a state of blessing. I like to point people to the fact that, if you look at Genesis 1:26-28, the very first words that Adam and Eve hear from God are words of blessing, “And God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.'” So, interestingly, the first word that humans ever hear from God is explicitly called a blessing, by Moses, in Genesis. But it is in the form of a command. “God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.'” Fascinating. So blessing is connected directly with obedience. They are to rule and have dominion. They are to rest on the Sabbath day. There are these various commands that are given and those commands are spoken of as if they are blessings. That’s why we call it a covenant of works, they are given obligations to fulfill.

And the other thing about the covenant of works is there is no provision made for their disobedience. You know, He doesn’t say in the covenant of works, “Now, if you fail to fulfill your obligation, no problem. I got that covered.” He says…and the test of that covenant is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and He says, “Every other tree you can have, but not this one. If you take of this tree, the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” And again, He doesn’t say, “Now, if you do it, no problem. I’ve got that covered.”

So there are obligations in that covenant. And there is no provision for blessing in case of demerit. There are blessings, there are obligations, but there is no provision if we mess up. And of course, what Adam and Eve do? They mess up. They go directly against that provision. And because you’ve seen that picture of blessing and obligation but no provision for forgiveness in case of disobedience, when you see God forgive, in the covenant of grace, it’s extraordinary. In the covenant of grace, God provides blessing despite disobedience. And you see that really in the beginning, even in Genesis 3, when the curses are being meted out.

Even in the punishment for Adam and Eve’s rebellion, you see the signs of God’s grace immediately. First of all, they’re not wiped off the planet immediately. Interestingly, if you look at the at the word to the serpent, the word to the woman, and the word to Adam, only the serpent is directly cursed. The woman, the word curse is never used with her, all that will be said is, “Now,” you know, “as you fulfill that responsibility to be fruitful and multiply, you will experience pain in childbirth.” So as she fulfills her covenantal responsibilities, being fruitful and multiply, now it’s gonna be accompanied by pain and sorrow. With Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you,” but to the serpent, “cursed are you.” So even in God’s punishments, there’s this…God doesn’t go as far as He could have gone.

Nancy: They’re gonna be impacted by the curse but they’re not cursed. In fact, there’s this incredible grace, “I’m gonna put enmity between you and the serpent.” Grace right there. Right? You’re gonna be at enmity with the serpent so that you can be at peace with God through Christ.

Ligon: And then, what you also start seeing is all of those original promises and blessings He starts reiterating in different ways to them. They’re still going to be, in His image, ruling, being fruitful and multiplying, enjoying the rest of His day. So God continues those blessings despite disobedience. And so the covenant of works and the covenant of grace actually what they do is they show you, first of all, that God’s grace to us, in the covenant of grace, it is a gift, it is not something that we can say, “We’re entitled to this.” Because we’ve lost all entitlement by our rebellion. Because not only did Adam and Eve sin, all of us in Adam and Eve sin. They’re our first representatives and their sin impacts all of us. We fell in them. So none of us come into this world now in a situation where we can say, “God, you…” in fact, Adam and Eve couldn’t have said, “God, you owe us this.” All what He gave to them was blessing. But what’s different about us and Adam and Eve is they first came into the world. We come into this world as sinners in rebellion with God. And so, if God is going to deal with us, it’s gonna be on the basis of forgiving grace. And the covenant of works and the covenant of grace actually helps you feel the difference between those two things.

Nancy: It helps us understand Christ as well. Does it not? Because you can’t say you don’t believe in a covenant of works even now, because you and I are going to be saved not because of our work but because of the work of another.

Ligon: He is the second Adam who comes and obeys everything that God commands, and then, pays the penalty for our violation of what God has commanded in our place. So that as Adam’s sin is imputed to us, those who trust in Christ, our sin is imputed to Christ, but his righteousness is imputed to us. So there’s this amazing triple transaction. Adam sinned to us, our sin to Christ, Christ’s righteousness to us, and all of that is based on understanding the covenant of works and Jesus’ fulfillment of it for us.

Nancy: Well, there’s so much more I’d like to talk about the covenants. I’d like to talk about how they help us understand sacraments like baptism. And I hope we need to talk some more about Jeremiah and his announcement of this new covenant and what it means when Jesus says, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” But I think I wanna make a little bit of a turn here, Ligon, because, you know, the goal of my podcast is to help teachers who are teaching the Bible. And I think that a situation many teachers are in, and I guess the reason I think this is because it’s one I’m often in and other people I talk to I know are often in, and that is that maybe we’re beginning to present some of these truths, that you’re talking about from Covenant theology, but oftentimes, we’re gonna have people in our audience who are thoroughly immersed, initiated, they probably have never heard the term Covenant theology. And they’ve probably never heard the term Dispensational theology. But because so much of American evangelicalism, and especially, I would say, American evangelical media, meaning books, television, radio has been so dominated by a very different theological approach to the Bible, that being dispensational theology, a lot of people’s just basic presuppositions about the Bible have been shaped by dispensational theology. And so, so many of us who teach the Bible, and maybe we have embraced Covenant theology, but we find ourselves constantly butting up against…these are the people we know they’re gonna raise their hands when we say some things, and we’re a little bit terrified that we’re going to be able to address the things that they are bringing up. So you’ve defined Covenant theology, help us contrast that to dispensational theology. And then, perhaps, we’ll move on to talking about some of the implications, where this is gonna arise when we’re teaching…

Ligon: One thing I would say is I was impacted myself by dispensational theology. When I’m a teenager in the 1970s, dispensationalists were the best popularizer…

Nancy: “A Thief in the Night.”

Ligon: “A Thief in the Night.”

Nancy: How many times did you see that movie?

Ligon: Absolutely.

Nancy: Okay, me too.

Ligon: You know, sang “Wish we’d all been ready,” scared to death about the rapture, read Hal Lindsey’s “Late, Great Planet Earth.”

Nancy: Oh, I can remember that book in my parents’ house. Right? And going to the movies, then they’ve made a movie about it.

Ligon: Oh, absolutely. So, you know, if you’re listening to Nancy and you’ve been impacted by that, I know where you’re coming from. And if you’re teaching people who’ve been impacted by that, I know exactly where they’re coming from. In fact, because of that, when I went to seminary and studied under O. Palmer Robertson, I went into his class the first day a little suspicious about what he was gonna try and do. And that took him about five minutes to rock my world. But I had imbibed all that kind of thinking. And in our day, it’s more maybe the “Left Behind” movies that have popularized dispensationalism. Interestingly, I was just at Dallas seminary which is, you know, typically it’s viewed as sort of the Mecca of dispensationalism. They’re not nearly as dispensational as they used to be 50 years ago. And we even asked them, the leadership of RTS said, “Hey, describe your dispensationalism for us,” and it was really interesting to hear how muted it was in comparison to way dispensationalism would’ve been taught 50 years ago.

But here a couple of things to bear in mind. Dispensationalism, the fundamental principle of dispensationalism is this, the promises of God to Israel, in the Old Testament are to Israel, not to the church. And in old-style dispensationalism, it was argued that the church is never mentioned in the Old Testament, only Israel is talked about. The New Testament alone, old-style dispensationalism says, which speaks about the church, “The church is for the Gentiles. It’s for the era between the comings of Christ. The church is totally separate from the promises of God that had been made to Israel in the Old Testament. All of those promises will be fulfilled to Israel as an ethno-political entity,” that is both as a religious-ethnic entity and as a political entity. So, “David will reign on the throne in Jerusalem on the Earth for 1,000 years,” that’s what the Old Testament stalking about. Dispensationalism’s sort of arch principal is when the Old Testament talks about promises of God to Israel, that’s what it’s talking about. It’s not talking about Jesus, it’s not talking about the church, it’s not talking about Christians, it’s talking about Israel.

And Covenant theologians say…and by the way, when Covenant theologians say, “Those promises to Israel have been fulfilled to both believing Jews and Gentiles in Christ,” our dispensational friends will say, “That’s replacement theology.” So what they mean by that is, “You’re replacing promises that have been made to Israel with promises that are made to the church. And so, the church is replacing Israel.” And I would say, in response to that, no, it’s not replacement theology. It’s fulfillment theology and it is engrafting theology. It’s not replacement, it’s not, “First God was working with Israel, now he’s working with the church,” is that these promises that have been fulfilled in Jews and Gentiles, in the church, fulfill these promises that were made to Israel. And the church isn’t a replacement for this, the church is engrafted into God’s one people. God has one plan, one people. And it’s not two plans, two people.

In older dispensationalism, the idea was, “God made these promises to Israel. Jesus came into the world to offer the kingdom to Israel. Israel rejected him and the kingdom. When that happened, God had to move to a plan B. Plan B was for the gospel to go to the Gentiles until the time of the rapture. Then the Gentile church would be raptured out of the world, and then, God’s plans with Israel would be reinstituted.” That’s why pre-tribulation rapture is so important to our dispensational friends because you’ve gotta get the Gentile church out of the world so that His prophetic purposes with Israel will continue.

Covenant theologians say, “No no no, that’s not the relationship at all.” First of all, we pointed out, Israel was never ethnically-pure from the beginning. If you look at Genesis 17, “Circumcision is to be applied not only to Abraham and his physical children, but even to Gentiles who dwell in his tents.” When you get in you get to Esther 8, at the end of the Old Testament…remember the story, “Haman’s plot has been foiled.”? You know, “Mordecai has counseled with Esther and said, ‘Esther, okay, I think this is the only way that we’re spared. You’ve gotta go risk your life if the Jewish people, here in exile, are gonna be saved.'” And so, bravely, Esther goes in, risks her life, reveals the plot of Haman to the king. Haman ends up, you know, being hung, not Mordecai and the Jews. And then, because the laws of the Medes and the Persians can’t be changed, he can’t change this open season that has been declared on the Jews through Haman’s wicked plot. But what he can say is, “Okay, if you attack the Jews, the Jews can attack you right back and they can take everything from you.” And then, you read in Esther 8, “And when this decree went out in all of the land, there was great fear on the part of the people’s relating to Jews. But there was great rejoicing amongst the Jews.” And then it says, “And many became Jews.” What do you mean, “Became a Jew.”? Well, that’s how, if you take the God of Israel, no matter what your ethnicity is, you’re a Jew. Paul talks about this in Romans 2.

Nancy: I mean it’s been that way all the way through the Old Testament. You mentioned, in Genesis, I mean when they become a nation, when they come out of Egypt, we know there are many people joining themselves, they’re the rabble at the edges a little bit. But yeah, right, they’re joining themselves. And then, as you trace the story, there are…what is it? The Gibeonites, you know, who throw in their lot with Israel. And they become a part of the people of God.

Ligon: So the idea of ethnic purity, it isn’t even there in the Old Testament.

Nancy: Wouldn’t you even have to look at, like, Ruth and Rahab who probably had come join to the people of God.

Ligon: Absolutely. Highly, highly prominent in the genealogies in the New Testament. You know, and just think of it, a Davidic grandmother, I mean, you know, on David, all the consummation of God’s promises to Abraham and Moses are going to come in…but he’s got this, you know, Moabite bloodline in him which is just a picture… By the way, in the original Abrahamic promise of Genesis 12, 1-3, “In you, all the families of the Earth will be blessed.” So Abraham’s covenant, the father of Israel, has in view men and women and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. And he’s becoming a blessing to them.

So you’ve got that in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul says, “Here’s what God is doing. God is bringing…He’s broken down the wall of division between Jew and Gentile in Christ,” that’s what Ephesians 2 is all about. “And he’s made the two into one in Christ.” So it’s not that God’s former purposes with Israel have been replaced and forgotten, they have been fulfilled and expanded in the new covenant. And so, actually all the hopes of the prophets…I mean think of it, it’s the prophets who say, “The Earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” And Paul just says, “Yes, this is exactly how it happens so that Jews and Gentiles are made one in Christ Jesus.” So, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for Jews, and salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone for Gentiles. “And when they’re saved, they’re all brought into one body.” So somebody says, “Oh, you believe in replacement theology.” No, no, we believe in fulfillment theology, promise and fulfillment, and we believe that the church has been engrafted into the one people of God that God has been building from the very beginning. It’s all of a scene. God’s doing one thing, not two different things.

Nancy: So when someone, say, might accuse you of replacement theology, I mean, in some ways, I think we should understand it’s kind of a derogatory term and it’s a term that misrepresents what we’re really saying. Wouldn’t you say?

Ligon: Correct.

Nancy: So if someone comes to you and they say, “Well, you know, you’re teaching replacement theology,” do you go about trying to explain the things you’ve just explained? Or how do you respond when you’re teaching and someone says…

Ligon: What I’ve just said gives you an outline of how you can do this biblically. And here’s…let me compliment, many of our dispensational friends are good students of the Bible who care what the Bible says. And so, I think we wanna respect them with a good biblical argument. Here’s the other thing you need to know. Dispensationalism itself is a 19th century invention. It did not exist for 1800 years of church history. And only in the 19th century, some of the teachings of a Plymouth Brethren pastor, in England, named John Nelson Darby, some teachings of, interestingly, a Presbyterian layman named C. I. Scofield from St. Louis, Missouri, were amalgamated into what we call dispensationalism. The term dispensationalism is a 20th-century term, though dispensationalism has been dominant as an interpretive system for about 80-90 years in evangelism. It is of very recent vintage. Nobody, in the history of Christianity, taught the secret rapture of the church until about 1875. Nobody. And that doctrine is absolutely essential for dispensationalism.

So I think if somebody really wanted to engage with me and we had enough rapport in relationship that we could talk through these things and they would know that I loved and esteemed them and cared about them, even if they disagreed with me, I’d wanna do both a little bit of Bible work with them, just let’s work through some text of Bible verses, and then, like do a little historical work. Because, you know, I assumed, as a young man, “Well, this must be what all Christians have always believed this.”

Nancy: I thought if you really are serious about the Bible and you believe the Bible, then you believe Dispensational theology. That’s totally what I always thought.

Ligon: And I did not realize, boy, this is really of recent vintage. Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Congregationalists used to all agree with the outline that I gave you with Biblical theology, not with dispensationalism. But dispensationalism grew up in a time where liberalism was dominating the American scene. Thankfully, I mean praise God for dispensationalists who believed in inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, the physical return of Christ, thank God for people who believed in those things. And so, consequently, they really didn’t have very good Bible conversation partners amongst theological liberalism because theological liberalism didn’t care what the Bible said.

You know, so what happened was they sort of won the market share and forgot what the Protestant Church had been teaching for 400 years and what the whole church had believed for 1,800 years. And so, part of our challenge today is just to remind people…when we talk about Covenant theology, this is very, very old. My doctoral dissertation was on the covenant idea in pre-Nicene theology. So I looked prior to the Council of Nicaea, in 8325, and asked the question, “Hey, did they think covenant was a significant theological category for understanding the Bible?” And lo and behold, surprise, surprise, the earliest post-Biblical Christian commentators on Scripture all see the importance of the covenants in the unfolding plan of salvation revealed in the Bible. And the Reformers knew that, the Reformers read those early church theologians. And so, the importance of covenant has been something that Christianity has known for a long, long time and we just kind of lost that emphasis somewhere in the 20th century. I really do think it’s been recovered. If you look at the story of dispensationalism from about the 1960s to today, modern-day dispensationalism has gotten closer and closer to Covenant theology. They’ve actually modified a lot of their old core beliefs coming closer and closer to Covenant theology.

Nancy: So I suppose that means, for us as teachers, then, if we know people are coming from a dispensational mindset, maybe we have to do a little spade work to figure out where they are on that ever-evolving continuum? Because they might not hold to everything we assume or even know what some of those original tenants were.

Ligon: Yeah, absolutely right. And it’s, you know…to give you one example of this, you know, I told you, the core idea of dispensationalism was that the Old Testament never talks about the church. And C. I. Scofield, who wrote “The Scofield Reference Bible,” which was the classic dispensational one-volume Bible Commentary, said the most important passage in all the Bible for dispensationalism is…and by the way, be careful when you say what your most important Bible passage is, is Amos 9. Now what he says is, “Amos 9 is about the restoration of the temple and the restoration of the Davidic Kingship.” But Amos 9 is quoted in the New Testament. It’s quoted by James, at the General Assembly, in Acts 15, and James explicitly says, “Amos 9 means that the Gentiles are going to come into the people of God,” which is exactly what Covenant theology says about the relationship between Israel and the church and exactly what dispensationalists say that the Old Testament never ever does.

Nancy: Well, maybe this is a good time to ask you what you think your central passage of the Bible is, to interpret the Bible. Now, be careful, as you said.

Ligon: Yeah, exactly.

Nancy: You know, okay, here’s what I’d like to do though. I know, for me, one place this has erupted, I’ve gotten letters from people who’ve been working through my Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament series, but especially when they get to the chapter on Joshua, and I’m talking about the land and the division of the land. And I am suggesting that this is…you know, this is the promised land and this is a shadow form of the land being given…our actual inheritance in a greater promised land, and that this land is going to, as you described earlier, you know, “The glory of the Lord covering the Earth as the waters covered the sea,” that this new creation land that we are going to inherit is gonna cover the whole Earth. But a dispensationalist wants to go, “Now, wait a minute. Okay, here are the exact boundary lines that we’re reading about in the book of Joshua and we had read about back there to Abraham. He was promised that Israel would have this land and these are the boundary lines and, therefore, that is the basis for so many evangelicals today.” And we saw it, especially recently, it was a big part of the news. Right? When the embassy was moved to Jerusalem and so many American evangelicals…the reason they supported this, you know, didn’t have to do so much with some political foundational beliefs about what’s going on with modern states, but they saw this as a Biblical issue. Right? So why did they see that? And just talk to us about how we interact with someone in a group that we might be teaching and they want to say, “Okay, all of these land promises, these are for the nation of Israel today. And so, you better support Israel.”

Ligon: Yeah. There are several key passages that I would want to work through with people. One would be Genesis 1, Genesis 12, Genesis 15, Genesis 17, Jeremiah 31, Romans 4, really important on this point. Okay? In Romans 4, it’s somewhere between 11 and 13, you can check in your Bible real quick, God says that, by faith, Abraham was heir of the, in Greek, kosmos. Not a dusty patch of land on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, but the entire world, which fits with Genesis 1. Adam and Eve are not told to rule just over the garden, they’re told to rule over the whole Earth.

Nancy: They’re gonna expand the boundaries of that. Yes.

Ligon: Absolutely. They’re to rule over everything. And so, we have to ask, so is it God’s design in Redemption to do something less than He did in Creation? If Adam and Eve are to rule the whole kit and kaboodle, is that going to be then constrained to just the the Solomonic borders of the Kingdom of Israel? And even in the Abrahamic promise, Abraham is given the promise of the land. When Abraham dies, how much of the land does he own? He owns his burial plot with Sarah. That in and of itself points to the fact that the land of Canaan is not the final plan. Abraham, who’s promised the land, dies owning his burial plot. And the author of Hebrews will tell you that he died in faith because he was looking for a city which had foundations whose architect and builder was God. He knew it was much bigger than just this burial plot or even all of the land of Canaan.

Then you get Paul saying, “Abraham’s the heir of the world.” And you realize, boy, this land-promise business, it goes all the way back to Eden, it goes all the way back to, “This is my father’s world.” Not, “My father’s land on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Empire.” It’s, the the whole world, is my father’s. And His plan is to reclaim what Satan has stolen and more.” When Jesus sets up the institutional form of His kingdom, it’s not a nation-state, it’s the church, which is multi-ethnic and multi-national, and trans-ethnic and trans-national. And by the way, if you’re going to bring in people from men and women, boys and girls from every tribe, young people in the nation, a far more efficient structure for doing it than a nation state. So why would you think that that is Plan B and the nation state is plan A? It makes no sense whatsoever. The direction you go in the unfolding of the Bible is expansion, not contraction. So that’s how I would kinda tackle that, Nancy.

Nancy: Yeah, that’s really helpful. I’m just thinking about how the New Testament begins. If we wonder, “Do I need to invest myself in understanding Covenant theology?” I would just say, read the first verse of the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament which says, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham.” And there we have it right there. And if we don’t understand these in a deep and rich way, the covenant that was made with Abraham and the covenant that was made with David, then we hardly know how to start right there in the New Testament.

Ligon: Absolutely. And you look at the Gospel-writer’s summation of the initial preaching of Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So, you know, right out of the blocks, right out of his mouth, he’s saying, “It’s time to repent,” just like the prophets have been saying, “because the kingdom that you thought had failed, that you thought that God had not been…the kingdom is at hand because the king is here.” And so, absolutely. go to the early chapters of John, go to Mark, go to Luke, go to Matthew and watch how the very opening pages of the New Testament will pick up on that great theme and see it fulfilled in Jesus.

Nancy: And then, at the very end of the New Testament, how does Jesus identify himself? “I am the root and the offspring of David.” He describes who He is in terms of this covenant made with David.

Ligon: Amen.

Nancy: Well, there would be so much more to talk about. I do commend to our listeners, I love it that Reformed Theological Seminary, the RTS, makes available online on iTunes U so many fabulous RTS classes.

Ligon: And the RTS mobile app, which you can download for free and access over 40 courses, absolutely free.

Nancy: If this idea of Covenant theology is new to you, I heartily commend to you that you get the RTS app, or go to iTunes U, and listen through Ligon Duncan’s class called “Covenant Theology.” And if you’re like me, you’re going to find, “Okay, I’m gonna have to listen to that lecture again because there were some things in there I don’t completely grasp.” And I really want to understand these things because these things are so foundational to our understanding of the Bible and, more significantly, our understanding of who Christ is and why he came, and is there anything more significant that we want to get right when we teach the Bible and we’re opening up the word and we’re presenting Christ to people and we’re actually calling them to take hold of Christ and what he has done and who he is? And because of that, we wanna understand him rightly, and we wanna teach him rightly. And Covenant theology helps us to do that. Well, I think, Ligon, we can’t just end by talking about this. I think we have to sing about it.

Ligon: Absolutely, just like we did last time.

Nancy: Just like we did last time. And if you don’t know what we’re talking about, listen to the episode I did before on the Book of Numbers with Ligon. So let’s just sing, shall we, a little bit about this covenant.

Ligon: And you picked the perfect hymn, Nancy, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” Sometimes people will identify it as, “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand,” but it’s got great covenant lyrics in it. So you wanna take a chance?

Nancy: Yes, I do.

Ligon: Here we go.

Together: My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand.
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ, the solid rock, I stand.
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

Nancy: Amen, thank you.

Ligon: Thanks, Nancy.

Nancy: You’ve been listening to “Help Me Teach the Bible,” with Nancy Guthrie, a production of The Gospel Coalition sponsored by Crossway. Crossway is a not-for-profit publisher of the ESV Bible, Christian books and tracks, including “Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World,” by Thomas R. Schreiner in the “Short Studies in Biblical Theology” series. Learn more about Crossway’s gospel-centered resources at

I love to talk to Ligon Duncan about pretty much anything, but it was especially enjoyable to talk to him about one of his many areas of expertise—covenant theology. As he mentions in our conversation, he has taught a covenant theology course at Reformed Theological Seminary 30-something times. The audio for this course is available via iTunes and is well worth listening through—especially if, like me, you did not grow up understanding how covenant provides a framework for understanding the whole of the Bible.

I asked Duncan to contrast covenant theology with the foundational tenets of dispensational theology. Because so much modern evangelical Christian media presuppose dispensationalism, many of us—and those we are teaching—have been inundated with dispensationalism without necessarily knowing it. In this part of our conversation, Duncan articulates responses to those who call covenant theology “replacement theology,” and addresses the belief that God has a plan for the nation of Israel that is separate from the church.

You can listen to our conversation here.