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).