There are three main theological camps on the issues of law, gospel, and the structuring of God’s redemptive relationship with humankind: dispensationalism, covenant theology, and new covenant theology. Many have written to us asking about the differences between these three views, and so before discussing John Piper’s perspective we will give an overview of each.
It can be hard to summarize dispensational theology as a whole because in recent years multiple forms of it have developed. In general, there are three main distinctives.
First, dispensationalism sees God as structuring His relationship with mankind through several stages of revelation which mark off different dispensations, or stewardship arrangements. Each dispensation is a “test” of mankind to be faithful to the particular revelation given at the time. Generally, seven dispensations are distinguished: innocence (before the fall), conscience (Adam to Noah), government (Noah to Babel), promise (Abraham to Moses), Law (Moses to Christ), grace (Pentecost to the rapture), and the millennium.
Second, dispensationalism holds to a literal interpretation of Scripture. This does not deny the existence of figures of speech and non-literal language in the Bible, but rather means that there is a literal meaning behind the figurative passages.
Third, as a result of this literal interpretation of Scripture, dispensationalism holds to a distinction between Israel (even believing Israel) and the church. On this view, the promises made to Israel in the OT were not intended as prophecies about what God would do spiritually for the church, but will literally be fulfilled by Israel itself (largely in the millennium). For example, the promise of the land is interpreted to mean that God will one day fully restore Israel to Palestine. In contrast, non-dispensationalists typically see the land promise as intended by God to prophesy, in shadowy Old-covenant-form, the greater reality that He would one day make the entire church, Jews and Gentiles, heirs of the whole renewed world (cf. Romans 4:13).
In many ways it is thus accurate to say that dispensationalism believes in “two peoples of God.” Although both Jews and Gentiles are saved by Christ through faith, believing Israel will be the recipient of additional “earthly” promises (such as prosperity in the specific land of Palestine, to be fully realized in the millennium) that do not apply to believing Gentiles, whose primary inheritance is thus “heavenly.”
Covenant theology believes that God has structured his relationship with humanity by covenants rather than dispensations. For example, in Scripture we explicitly read of various covenants functioning as the major stages in redemptive history, such as the covenant with Abraham, the giving of the law, the covenant with David, and the new covenant. These post-fall covenants are not new tests of man’s faithfulness to each new stage of revelation (as are the dispensations in dispensationalism), but are rather differing administrations of the single, overarching covenant of grace.
The covenant of grace is one of two fundamental covenants in covenant theology. It structures God’s post-fall relationship to mankind; pre-fall, God structured His relationship by the covenant of works. The covenant of grace is best understood in relation to the covenant of works.
The covenant of works, instituted in the Garden of Eden, was the promise that perfect obedience would be rewarded with eternal life. Adam was created sinless but with the capability of falling into sin. Had he remained faithful in the time of temptation in the Garden (the “probationary period”), he would have been made incapable of sinning and secured in an eternal and unbreakable right standing with God.
But Adam sinned and broke the covenant, and thereby subjected himself and all his descendants to the penalty for covenant-breaking, condemnation. God in His mercy therefore instituted the “covenant of grace,” which is the promise of redemption and eternal life to those who would believe in the (coming) redeemer. The requirement of perfect obedience for eternal life is not annulled by the covenant of grace, but is rather fulfilled by Christ on behalf of His people, since now that all are sinners no one can meet the condition of perfect obedience by his own performance. The covenant of grace, then, does not set aside the covenant of works but rather fulfills it.
As mentioned above, covenant theology emphasizes that there is only one covenant of grace, and that all of the various redemptive covenants that we read of in the Scripture are simply differing administrations of this one covenant. In support, it is pointed out that a covenant is in essence simply a sovereignly given promise (usually with stipulations), and since there is only one promise of salvation (namely, by grace through faith), it follows that there is therefore only one covenant of grace. All of the specific redemptive covenants we read of (the Abrahamic, Mosaic, etc.) are various and culminating expressions of the covenant of grace.
New Covenant Theology
New covenant theology typically does not hold to a covenant of works or one overarching covenant of grace (although they would still argue for only one way of salvation). The essential difference between New Covenant Theology (hereafter NCT) and Covenant Theology (CT), however, concerns the Mosaic Law. CT holds that the Mosaic Law can be divided into three groups of laws — those regulating the government of Israel (civil laws), ceremonial laws, and moral laws. The ceremonial law and civil law are no longer in force because the former was fulfilled in Christ and the latter only applied to Israel’s theocracy, which is now defunct. But the moral law continues.
NCT argues that one cannot divide the law up in that way, as though part of the Mosaic Law can be abrogated while the rest remains in force. The Mosaic Law is a unity, they say, and so if part of it is canceled, all of it must be canceled. On top of this, they say that the New Testament clearly teaches that the Mosaic Law as a whole is superseded in Christ. It is, in other words, no longer our direct and immediate source of guidance. The Mosaic Law, as a law, is no longer binding on the believer.
Does this mean that believers are not bound by any divine law? No, because the Mosaic Law has been replaced by the law of Christ. NCT makes a distinction between the eternal moral law of God and the code in which God expresses that law to us. The Mosaic Law is an expression of God’s eternal moral law as a particular code which also contains positive regulations pertinent to the code’s particular temporal purpose, and therefore the cancellation of the Mosaic Law does not mean that the eternal moral law is itself canceled. Rather, upon canceling the Mosaic Law, God gave us a different expression of his eternal moral law — namely, the Law of Christ, consisting in the moral instructions of Christ’s teaching and the New Testament. The key issue that NCT seeks to raise is: Where do we look to see the expression of God’s eternal moral law today — do we look to Moses, or to Christ? NCT says we look to Christ.
There are many similarities between the Law of Christ and Mosaic Law, but that does not change the fact that the Mosaic Law has been canceled and that, therefore, we are not to look to it for direct guidance but rather to the New Testament. For example, England and the US have many similar laws (for example, murder is illegal in both countries). Nonetheless, the English are not under the laws of America, but of England. If an English citizen murders in England, he is held accountable for breaking England’s law against murder, not America’s law against murder.
The benefit of NCT, its advocates argue, is that it solves the difficulty of trying to figure out which of the Mosaic laws apply to us today. On their understanding, since the Mosaic Law is no longer a direct and immediate source of guidance, we look to the Law of Christ for our direct guidance. Although the Mosaic Law is no longer a binding law code in the NT era, it still has the authority, not of law, but of prophetic witness. As such, it fills out and explains certain concepts in both the old and new covenant law.
John Piper’s position
John Piper has some things in common with each of these views, but does not classify himself within any of these three camps. He is probably the furthest away from dispensationalism, although he does agree with dispensationalism that there will be a millennium.
Many of his theological heroes have been covenant theologians (for example, many of the Puritans), and he does see some merit in the concept of a pre-fall covenant of works, but he has not taken a position on their specific conception of the covenant of grace.
In regards to his views on the Mosaic Law, he seems closer to new covenant theology than covenant theology, although once again it would not work to say that he precisely falls within that category.
On covenant theology:
O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Covenants
Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 7
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology
Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology
Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism
Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists
On new covenant theology:
Sound of Grace
What is New Covenant Theology?
Sola Gratia’s New Covenant Theology Page
John Reisenger, Abraham’s Four Seeds
Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense
On a biblical theology of the Mosaic Law:
Tom Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment
Frank Thielman, Paul & the Law
Wayne Strickland, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel