There are three primary systems of theology by which Christians understand and explain the Scriptures, especially in regard to how the Old and New Testaments relate to each other. They are as follows:
Covenant Theology (CT)
New Covenant Theology (NCT)
Dispensational Theology (DT)
There are obvious points of agreement between CT and NCT. In regard to CT, I identify well with the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. In terms of how the New Testament fulfills the Old, my understanding is more in line with New Covenant Theology. Similar to NCT, I describe what I believe under the following name:
Christ-Fulfillment Theology (CFT)
I’ve given it this name (and the name of my website) because I believe it most accurately describes the New Testament teaching regarding the New Covenant. Below I outline the central components that describe CFT. It provides a good overview of what I believe.
Components of CFT
1. Christocentric – Central to CFT is the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is key to understanding the Scriptures. That’s obviously true of the New Testament (NT), but it’s equally true of the Old Testament (OT). When it comes to interpreting the OT, Dispensationalism does not have a Christocentric (Christ-centered) approach, but an OT Israel-centered approach that takes precedence over NT teaching. This is a backwards hermeneutical approach to understanding God’s Word that can only lead to an erroneous theology. A theology of truth begins with Christ Himself and the NT Scriptures that reveal Him. Truth begins and ends with Jesus.
2. There are two overarching covenants, Old Covenant (OC) and New Covenant (NC) (He 8:1-13) – The Mosaic Law (OC) of the OT is replaced by the law of Christ (NC) of the NT (Ga 6:2; 1 Cor 9:20-21; Ro 10:4). In 1 Cor 9:21, we see that Paul equates the “law of God” to the “law of Christ.” So I think better understood, in the NC, we are under the law of God in Christ (1 Cor 9:21). Christ fulfills the Law and the Prophets, which essentially has in view the whole OT system and manner in which God dealt with His people, and with mankind in general (Matt 5:17; Lu 16:16). Now instead of being under the Law of Moses or OC Law, we are now under the law of God in Christ. Old Testament Law has been abolished, and the law of Christ has been established.
Specific commandments of the OT have been abolished unless the NT teaches otherwise. We have to keep in mind that the OT Scriptures were written to and for the nation of Israel, while the NT Scriptures were written to and for Christians — both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. Without the revelation and guidance of the NT, it would be difficult to know how to apply the OT to our lives as NC believers.
In regard to moral character and behavior, inherent sin and the things that are inherently right and good, these are not governed by covenants. They’re unchangeable. All the things that are innately right and good in the eyes of God, are a reflection of Christ Himself. Thus these things are by nature an integral component within the law of God in Christ. Furthermore, as those who have the Holy Spirit living within us – and empowered by Him – the heart and mind and character of Christ is being developed within us.
Basic to understanding the law of Christ, is the new commandment that Jesus gave to His disciples in John 13:34. We’re to love one another as Christ loves us. However, no one can love apart from a love for God. Love for others flows out of a love for God. They’re inseparable. A love for God and a love for others with the love of Christ, is the basis for living the Christian life, for obeying the will of God as revealed in the NT Scriptures (Matt 22:36-40). It’s an obedience to God that flows out of love in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us. In the OC, obedience to God was a legalistic, outward form. In the NC, obedience to God is inward and flows out of a heart of love empowered by the Spirit of God as He conforms us to the likeness of Christ.
The law of God in Christ (1 Cor 9:21) should be understood as all the will of God that is revealed in the NT Scriptures. All the teachings of the NT Scriptures, all the instructions and commands, are contained in these Scriptures. Indeed, the whole NT is God’s will for us revealed in written form. These were written to Christians and for Christians. They were given to us to show us how to live the Christian life as followers of Christ. Jesus is our King, and we are His servants. We’re under His authority to walk in obedience to Him, to carry out His will — as revealed in the NT Scriptures. We’re saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ, but we live out our faith by way of obedience.
Therefore, antinomianism has no place in our lives as servants of Christ.
In regard to the four Gospels, we have to keep in mind that this was a time of transition from OC to NC. Thus some of what we see in those books pertained to Jews who were still under the OC. Therefore, we have to be careful what we apply to us as NC believers.
In regard to sanctification, it’s both positional and progressive. Positionally, we are completely sanctified in Christ. However, in the practical outworking of sanctification, we’re progressively growing. In other words, in daily living we are growing in Christlikeness and will continue to do so until we are in the presence of God. The positional and practical will then be one.
3. New Testament must interpret Old Testament – All truth is contained in Christ and His Church, for Jesus Himself said that He is “the truth” (Jn 14:6), and Paul said that the Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (CSB – 1 Ti 3:15). Therefore, an understanding of the OT can only come through a NT understanding of Christ and His Church. Furthermore, Jesus said that He came to fulfill the Law and the prophets. Therefore, understanding of the OT must begin with a proper understanding of Christ and the NT. That’s our starting point. It’s a hermeneutical mistake to try and understand the OT apart from a right understanding of the NT. It’s the light of the NT that reveals the truth of the OT. To bring an OT understanding to the NT will result in disastrous misinterpretation of both testaments. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t look for types and shadows and patterns of the OT, for it’s the NT that reveals and interprets them. All those things had Christ and His Church in view.
4. All are saved by grace through faith in Christ in both Old Testament and New Testament – In the OT people were saved by responding in faith to whatever light they were given about Christ, which involved types and shadows, and later on through prophecies such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, and the OT Scriptures in general. Christ and redemption through Him was revealed from the very beginning with Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel (Ge 3:14-15, 21; 4:1-7). Thus they were responsible to believe whatever light was revealed to them. The revealing of Christ the Redeemer was progressive, and people were responsible to believe whatever was revealed to them at their particular time in history within the plan of God. The OT Law was not a means of salvation. Those under the Law were still saved by faith. The purpose of the Law was to test the faith and faithfulness of His people. It was also for the purpose of revealing their (our) sinfulness and need for a Savior. It was our tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24-25). Keeping the OT Law was the outward evidence of inward faith — the same thing that’s taught in the NT. We follow Christ because we believe. Likewise, they obeyed the Law because they believed.
5. True Israel Is Christ Himself – Israel has its fulfillment and continuation in Christ (Gal 3:16. 28-29; Ro 2:28-29; Eph 2:11-22; Ro 9:6-8). Through Christ, Israel continues as a spiritual nation, which is the Church (1 Pe 2:4-10). The Church is New Israel in Christ. Indeed, Christ Himself is New Israel. This means that the OT covenant promises and prophecies regarding the nation of Israel are fulfilled in Him. In regard to the land promises, they too are fulfilled in Christ and the kingdom of His Church, which continues in the New Earth of the “New Heaven and the New Earth” which is the Eternal Kingdom (Rev 21:1-2; 2 Pe 3:13; He 11:10, 14-16; 12:22; 13:14).
Only Christ fulfilled the will of God. He alone fulfilled what Israel could not. Accordingly, only Christ has the right to bear the name Israel. He’s a nation of one (Gal 3:16). Believers are spiritual Jews in Him as spiritual offspring (Gal 3:26-29; 1 Pe 3:5; Ro 2:28-29; Ro 9:6-8). The nature of Israel changed with Christ’s fulfillment — from physical and earthly to spiritual. As the Church, we are a spiritual kingdom (Col 1:13).
6. Israel and Election – In regard to the doctrine of election, it’s both corporate and individual, and is patterned by national Israel. God chose the whole nation of Israel to be His people. Although God has always had but one redemptive elect people, He chose the whole nation of Israel to represent Him and through whom to carry out His will. Although OT Israel consisted of both believers and unbelievers, God Himself referred to them corporately as His people. It’s the choosing of the whole nation that provides the pattern for the NT election of His people, which is corporate. This corporate choosing of a people unto Himself, continues in Christ as the elect Church. However, the Church is composed of individual members. Therefore, the unconditional election of the Church must be the same for the members who make up the Church. Accordingly, the doctrine of election is to be understood as the unconditional election of both the corporate body of Christ and the individuals who comprise that body.
In regard to the fact that the election of OT Israel consisted of both believers and unbelievers, it reveals the imperfection of Israel and the insufficient nature of the OC. In the NC we see election perfected in Christ and His Church. The choosing of imperfect Israel served as a mere type and shadow of the choosing of that which is perfect, which is the Church in Christ — spiritual Israel in Him. Thus we see that Israel is perfected in Christ as both a nation and in its election (1 Peter 2:4-10).
You may read a more detailed discussion of this subject here.
7. The prophesied Messianic kingdom is fulfilled in the Church – Jesus is the Messiah that was to come and reign as King of Israel (2 Sa 7:12-17), and He does so now within His Church (Acts 2:29-36; He 1:3,8,13; 1 Cor 15:25; Col 1:13). The Church is the Kingdom of Christ. Thus the prophesied kingdom is not an earthly, physical kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom. When Jesus ascended, He sat down at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:32-36; He 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pe 3:22). From His throne in Heaven (and within the hearts of believers), Jesus reigns over His people. His kingdom will continue in the New Jerusalem of the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21:1-3), where He will co-reign with the Father.
8. The Church began on the day of Pentecost – Old Testament believers were not part of the Church until the Church was inaugurated. Believers under the OC were simply members of the elect people of God. Believers were baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-13,27) and indwelt by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. OT believers were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit in general. Those who were, it was only for temporary empowerment to do God’s will as He called them. The Church was prophesied in the OT and was always in view as the culmination of God’s redemptive plan. The Church was always in view as Israel’s fulfillment and continuation as a spiritual nation.
9. There’s a unity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant – Although two different covenants, they are one. The Abrahamic Covenant (Ge 12:2-3; 17:1-10) had true Israel in view, which is the Church in Christ. The Davidic Covenant (2 Sa 7:12-17) had the throne of Christ in view, from where He reigns over His kingdom, which is His Church.
10. Eschatology – Believers reign with Christ in His kingdom now and throughout the Church age (Col 1:13), for the Church is Christ’s Kingdom. The book of Revelation covers the whole Church age. At the end of the age, Christ will return to defeat His enemies, there will be a resurrection of the saved and unsaved where they will stand before Christ at the Great White Throne Judgment, followed by the Eternal Kingdom of the New Heaven and New Earth (after the present universe is destroyed).
There is no earthly, millennial kingdom. That is a premillennial interpretation of prophecy, a viewpoint shared mostly by dispensationalists who believe God still has a future plan for the nation of Israel that is separate from the Church.
Although my eschatological position is amillennial, partial preterism and postmillennialism is also in harmony with CFT.
11. Cessation of miracle (sign) gifts – The miracle gifts ceased with the completion of the NT Scriptures and the full establishment of the Church. The OT pattern of miracles were completed in Christ and His Apostles and in the foundation they laid for the Church. When the Apostolic period ended, so did the miracle gifts that accompanied the Apostles and their mission. While God still performs miracles today, the gifts themselves have ceased.
However, in places where Christianity is new and undeveloped, God may choose to employ any or all of the gifts in those areas. For example, in places around the world where Christianity is outlawed and Bibles are rare, God may choose to activate the miracle gifts as needed, because these types of situations are much like what we had in the early years of the Church where Christianity was being established and the NT Scriptures were being written.
Comparison of Theology
Below you will find a couple links that compare the differences between Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology. In brief, the major difference between Dispensationalism and the other two (also CFT), is that DT views Israel and the Church as completely separate from each other. DT teaches that God has a future plan for the nation of Israel that is completely distinct from the Church, and will be fulfilled once the Church has been raptured. It teaches that there will be a millennial kingdom on this present earth where Christ (or David) will rule as King, which includes a Jewish temple and a return to animal sacrifices (as a memorial).
The other two theological systems (also CFT) are basically in agreement that Israel has its fulfillment in Christ and His Church as a spiritual nation. They also agree that the Kingdom of Christ is now within the Church, and will see its ultimate fulfillment in the everlasting kingdom of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The reason for these differences is that DT brings an OT understanding of Israel to the NT. They interpret the NT according to their understanding of the OT — which is a backwards hermeneutic, since the NT fulfills the OT. Christ is central in both testaments, but revealed in the NT Scriptures.