No two words have seemingly been more contradictory within evangelicalism than “reformed” and “dispensational”. Most recently, Dr. R.C. Sproul revised his book Grace Unknown under the new title What Is Reformed Theology? In it, he has entitled one chapter, “Nicknamed Covenant Theology”. I think that the problem is right there. Reformed theology is deemed synonymous with covenant theology. If that is true, “dispensational” and “reformed” cannot coincide. I want to pose a challenge to that premise, however, with the intent to show that it is possible to be dispensational and reformed.
Reformed theology typically refers to the doctrines of grace, or Calvinism. Calvinism is a soteriological system built upon the absolute sovereignty of God to fulfill with certainty the purpose of God for the glory of God. Calvinism shows that because of the total depravity of mankind, God takes the initiative by electing some whom He will save by the definite work of Christ on the cross and the effectual work of His grace. As a result, those who have received God’s favor will be saved for eternity. This way of salvation brings total glory to God.
Covenant theology, however, is not a soteriological system, but a framework of biblical theology. Biblical theology seeks to find unity within the Scriptures. Covenant theology sees Scripture through the lens of two covenants, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. With these two covenants, covenant theology unifies the Scriptures under the progressive work of redemption. The Bible becomes the story of God’s redeeming for Himself a special people (covenant theology either holds to a replacement theology, where the church replaces Israel, or a view that unifies Israel and the church as one entity). For a more detailed summary, see Dr. J. Ligon Duncan’s explanation
Dispensationalism is also a framework of biblical theology. It sees God’s rule established and broken in Gen. 1-3. In Gen. 3:15, God promises a seed who will conquer the evil one and, by implication, restore deliver the earth from the curse. All of Scripture, then, is an outworking of God’s plan to re-establish His rule over and through mankind (cf. Elliott Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: an Introduction). While His purposes remain the same, the way He administers His purposes change over the progress of revelation. The Scriptures anticipate a day when God’s purposes will be fulfilled in His restored rule on earth over and through His Son and those whom He has redeemed.
Without making a judgment on covenant theology, I just want to show that a dispensationalist can be reformed. Dispensationalism must acknowledge the total sovereignty of God in order for the system to make any sense. Dispensationalism acknowledges God’s purpose to save, and, if He is sovereign to re-establish His rule, He can also be sovereign in saving whom He wills. And seeing that He is sovereign over history and over the salvation of souls gives Him all the glory.