Biblical Covenants from a Dispensational Viewpoint
by  Grover Gunn

Dispensationalists stress a strong dichotomy between the unconditional Abrahamic covenant, which was expanded into the Palestinian covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the new covenant, and the conditional Mosaic covenant. What do the dispensationalists mean when they label the Abrahamic covenant unconditional and the Mosaic covenant conditional? Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer explains it like this:

Whatever God declares He will do is always a binding covenant. If He in no way relates His proposed action to human responsibility, the covenant is unconditional. If He relates it to human responsibility or makes it to depend on cooperation on the part of any other being, the covenant is properly termed conditional.1

In relation to His earthly people, Israel, and their blessings God has made various covenants. Some of them are conditional and some unconditional, which terms suggest that in some covenants God has them to depend upon human faithfulness, while in others He merely declares what He will do wholly apart from the question of human worthiness or faithfulness.2

When any person becomes the beneficiary of God's unconditional, unalterable promise apart from any consideration of human merit, his obligation for righteous conduct becomes that of adorning, or walking worthy, of the position into which the covenant has brought him. If God has made a covenant declaring what He will do provided man does his part, it is conditional and the human element is not one of walking worthy of what God's sovereign grace provides, but rather of being worthy to the end that the promise may be executed at all. When the covenant is unconditional, God is limited in what He will do only by the knowledge-surpassing bounty of His infinite grace. 

When the covenant is conditional, God is restricted by what man is able or willing to do. As an efficacious appeal, the obligation to walk worthy, though in no way conditioning the sovereign purpose, secures more normal and spiritual response than all the meritorious systems combined. 

The human heart is far more responsive to the proposition couched in the words "I have blessed you, now be good," than it is to the proposition couched in the words, "Be good, and I will bless you." The element of human conduct thus appears in each form of the divine covenant but in such a manner that one is rendered unconditional and the other conditional.3

Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost has given the following explanation:
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. That which was promised is sovereignly given to the recipient of the covenant on the authority and integrity of the one making the covenant apart from the merit or response of the receiver. It is a covenant with no "if" attached to it whatsoever.

To safeguard thinking on this point, it should be observed that 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, which blessings grow out of the original covenant, but these conditioned blessings do not change the unconditional character of the covenant. 

The failure to observe that an unconditional covenant may have certain conditioned blessings attached to it has led many to the position that conditioned blessings necessitate a conditional covenant, thus perverting the essential nature of Israel's determinate covenants.4

It is difficult to analyze this dispensational dichotomy between conditional and unconditional covenants because it is difficult to understand. The conditional nature of the Mosaic covenant as described by dispensationalists makes the Mosaic covenant sound like a legalistic and meritorious system of salvation. Also, some of the dispensational descriptions of an unconditional covenant make the unconditional covenants sound like "cheap grace" licenses to sin. 

If the land promise were unconditional in the sense of involving no "ifs" or moral conditions of any sort, then why did God punish Israel's rebellion at Kadesh-Barnea by not allowing that generation to enter the promised land and why did God later in judgment expel Israel from the land in the Babylonian captivity? 

Because of Biblical considerations such as these, some dispensationalists qualify the position that an unconditional covenant contains absolutely no moral conditions by suggesting a dichotomy between the covenant and the blessings of the covenant, as evidenced by the above quotation from Dr. Pentecost. 

To give another example, Dr. John F. Walvoord in one place states that an unconditional covenant "is not conditional upon the obedience of individuals or nations for its fulfillment," and then in another place in the same book argues that unconditional covenants involve "human contingencies."5

Instead of seeing a rigid dichotomy between the unconditional, gracious and national Abrahamic covenant and the conditional, meritorious and individualistic Mosaic covenant, Reformed interpreters view the Mosaic covenant as a national expansion of the promises, moral stipulations and ceremonial law found in the Abrahamic covenant. 

Both covenants were by-grace covenants and both involved moral stipulations with blessings promised for obedience and neither, when properly interpreted, were legalistic or meritorious.

Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer argues that "A covenant which is unconditional cannot be conditional and a conditional covenant cannot be unconditional."6 I disagree. God's covenants are all unconditional in their meritorious base and conditional in their normal instrumental means of administration. The meritorious base of God's covenant is the substitutionary suffering and the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Christian is saved, not because of His own works, but because of the work of Christ in his place. 

The suffering of Christ satisfies God's wrath against the guilt of His people, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to their legal account before God. And Christians do nothing to earn or to deserve this saving work of Christ on their behalf; it is all of grace, totally undeserved, completely gratuitous.

That the Christian's personal holiness is not the meritorious basis for his salvation, however, does not mean that personal holiness is not a necessary part of the Christian life or that God does not administer covenant blessings in accordance with the Christian's personal obedience. God normally administers His gracious covenant through a required response of genuine faith. 

I say normally because God saves without such a response in exceptional cases such as the death of an elect infant. 

I say genuine faith because not all professed faith is genuine faith. Genuine saving faith is faith that progressively bears the fruit of holiness and good works (James 2:17; Ephesians 2:10; Hebrews 12:14). The saved then are, as a rule, those who do good before God (John 5:29; Romans 2:7; Ephesians 2:10) but the saved are not saved by means of or because of the good they do (Titus 3:5; Ephesians 2:8-9).

These conditional and unconditional aspects of the covenant are not antagonistic dichotomies for two reasons. 

First, though an obedient faith is necessary for salvation, it is not meritorious. The only meritorious work in salvation is the saving work of Christ on behalf of His covenant people. In this essential question of covenantal merit, God's covenant is purely unconditional. 

And secondly, an obedient faith is necessary for salvation except in exceptional cases such as the death of an infant, but Christ gives His chosen people the spiritual life and ability needed to meet this requirement. As a part of His saving work, Christ redemptively purchased for His people deliverance from their bondage to unbelief and the gift of regeneration through the work of the outpoured Holy Spirit. 

Every professed Christian has the God-given responsibility to work out his own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), but God works in His people's lives to enable them to will and to work according to His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). God unconditionally gives His chosen people the spiritual ability necessary to meet the conditions for receiving the blessings of the covenant.

In my estimation, the Calvinistic theology of rewards is the best explanation of how God's covenants can condition blessings upon moral stipulations and still be totally unconditional and all of grace. Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and the natural, non-regenerate man is totally unable to please God (Romans 8:8). 

The person, however, whom God unconditionally chooses to bless, He regenerates and sanctifies and enables to believe with a dynamic faith that will lead to holy living. God then rewards this obedient holiness with blessings and rewards. The faith that works is not a meritorious condition for blessing but is the instrument through which God brings blessing upon the saint in accordance with the divine principle, "to be carnally minded is death but to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). God's covenant blessings are but rewards upon the effects of His own grace.

When God unconditionally chose Abraham to receive blessings, God regenerated him and enabled him to believe and to obey so that God could bless him in accordance with holiness. God chose to actively, personally know Abraham in order that Abraham might raise His family in the way of righteousness and thereby receive covenant blessings (Genesis 18:19). God rewarded Abraham for his obedience (Genesis 22:15-18; 26:2-5) and yet Abraham's salvation was unconditional and all of grace.

In regard to the land promise, the covenant blessing of rest in the land was historically conditioned on covenant obedience (Deuteronomy 4:25-26; chapter 28). This explains the wilderness wanderings and the exile and the times of unrest and the geographic limitations on the land inheritance in the Old Testament history of Israel. The land promise, however, will have a perfect, final, full, and eternal fulfillment when the saints are glorified and freed from all sin. The new earth will be inherited both in holiness and unconditionally since glorification will be a by-grace gift from God to His people. 

End Notes 

1Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1936), page 73.
2Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), 7:97.
3Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism, pages 74-75.
4J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, page 68.
5John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pages 149, 177.
6Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensationalism, page 73.
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