Is It Biblical?
Dispensationalism. What do you think? The simplest and most direct answer to the above question is, “Yes, of course it is.” I have been an adherent of classical dispensationalism (popularized by C. I. Scofield) for over half a century. But this understanding did not come about because of the schools where I was educated (they did not teach it), nor because of the churches I attended (some either were not dispensational, or did not emphasize it). The reason I am a dispensationalist is because I am convinced that is the way the Bible, and God’s program, are laid out for us. Dispensationalism describes an observable pattern in the workings of the Almighty through the ages.
Further, I have long argued that all orthodox Christians are dispensationalists, whether they realize it, or would willingly admit it, or not. The reason I say that will become clearer as I continue. But to make the point briefly, if we do not still offer animal sacrifices today, we have recognized an essential difference in the way God deals with human beings before and after Calvary. It is thus not so much a matter of who is a dispensationalist and who is not, but of what dispensations are recognized and how it affects our approach to the Word of God. There are a number of divine stewardships through history, which we shall deal with in a moment.
What is a dispensation?
The word translated “dispensation” several times in the epistles is the Greek word oikonomia (literally meaning house management). Sounding it out will show the word’s kinship with our English word “economy.” It has to do with a stewardship in domestic life, having to do with the management and oversight of household affairs. In theological terms, we can think of the world as the “household” God is managing. Through human history He has made various promises and provisions for mankind, and spelled out specific responsibilities related to them. These have not always been the same in every age, as indicated in the previous paragraph.
Dispensationalism, in biblical terms, involves a stewardship arrangement made with man by the Lord. Sometimes the stewardship is inaugurated with one man, or one nation, but aspects of it spill over and affect others. Sometimes there are elements of a particular arrangement that, once instituted, continue in effect after the dispensation has ended. Other aspects are confined mainly to one dispensation. To the Apostle Paul was committed a major part of the revelation concerning the present Age of Grace, “the dispensation [oikonomia] of the grace of God” (Eph. 3:2), but he speaks also of the future “dispensation of the fullness of the times” (Eph. 1:10), referring to the Millennial Kingdom.
Down through history, the outcome of each household arrangement, from God’s perspective, is a further demonstration of His righteousness and infinite wisdom, to His own honour and glory. All if history is thus tending to that end, the greater glory of God (Rom. 11:36). As far as man is concerned, the overall purpose of these changing arrangements is to test his willingness to live in submission to and faith in God. The result, sadly, in each case is a litany of failure, showing conclusively that we need God to be all that God intended us to be.
What are the dispensations?
As to how many dispensations students of the Scriptures have identified, the number varies anywhere from three or four to eight or more. Hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote an essay defining eight dispensations entitled, “The Harmony of All the Religions God Ever Prescribed to Men and All His Dispensations Toward Them.” (They went in for long titles back then!) Classical or traditional dispensationalism recognizes seven. But three of these are dealt with in much more of the Bible than the others. The three major dispensations are the Dispensation of Law, the Dispensation of Grace, and the Dispensation of the Kingdom (or Millennium). However, there are other milestones marking a major changes in the stewardships God has given to man.
For example, it is not difficult to see there was a signficant change after the fall. Pre-fall Eden was very different from the sin-cursed world into which Adam and Eve were driven. The requirements placed upon man were certainly different after Eden. Then, partly because much of early history is passed over with extreme brevity, the dispensations between the Fall and the giving of the Mosaic Law are sometimes debated. However, two history-altering events occurred during that period which would seem to identify a change of stewardship. One is the Noahic flood, the other is the call of Abraham.
God’s covenant with Noah after the flood introduced capital punishment to demonstrate the preciousness of human life and deter murderers. This is so significant it is seen by many as the divine institution of human government. Then, with God’s covenant with Abraham, His design for the nation of Israel was established. This too is a major turning point, since Israel was an new entity and it has continued to be at the fulcrum of world history ever since.
Here are the seven dispensations as recognized by most modern dispensationalists:
1) The Dispensation of Innocency (or Freedom) (from the creation of man to the fall, Gen. 1:26–3:24). Adam and Eve were not sinners in the beginning, but this was not because of a choice they made. When their lives began they had as yet no opportunity to choose right or wrong. Theirs was an unconfirmed holiness. To test their willingness to recognize His lordship and depend upon Him. God presented a simple test, the fruit of one tree, the tree of knowledge, was forbidden to them. As the Bible records, they failed the test, with devastating results.
2) The Dispensation of Conscience (from the fall through the Noahic flood, Gen. 4:1–8:19). Since man had taken it upon himself to live in independence of God (the significance of eating the forbidden fruit), He gave human beings the opportunity to live and make choices according to the direction of an inner voice, “their conscience also bearing witness...accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:15). The inadequacy of this inner rule–apart from its being empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit–is seen in the rampant wickedness which precipitated the flood. Another test had ended in failure.
3) The Dispensation of Human (or Civil) Government (from the flood to the call of Abraham, Gen. 8:20–11:32). This dispensation added an external control to the inner one. With the introduction of capital punishment (Gen. 9:5-6), power was placed in the hands of the community, or the state, to enforce God’s righteous standard. But instead, this authority was used in an attempt to rebel against the commands of God, and establish a community at Babel which totally ruled God out. God had said, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1), but the credo of Babel was, “Come let us build ourselves a city...lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). Human government, apart from a recognition of God’s supreme rule, will fail.
4) The Dispensation of Promise (or the Patriarchs) (from the call of Abraham to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, Gen. 12–Exod. 18). What if God Himself started a nation which would relate to Him in a special way? A nation endowed, as Israel was, with great blessings above all the nations of the earth, a nation whose future was assured by guarantees (covenants) given by God Himself ? Would that make a difference? No, the children of Israel carelessly abandoned their heritage. Joseph brought the family of Jacob down to Israel during a time of famine. Circumstances there allowed them to multiply into a nation of people, set apart by themselves in Goshen. This much was providential. However, while there, the Israelites adopted the idols of the Egyptians, and ceased the rite of circumcision which was the sign they were under God’s covenant of promise (cf. Lev. 17:7; Josh. 5:2-5, 9; 24:14; Ezek. 20:5-9). Failure again.
5) The Dispensation of Law (the Mosaic Covenant) (from the giving of the Law on Sinai to the death of Christ on the cross, Exod. 19:1–Matt. 27:56, and a similar point in the accounts of Mark, Luke and John). Here, in addition to the unconditional promises made to Israel in the previous dispensation, God adds a comprehensive set of directives for personal holiness, the governing of the community, and the religious observances of His people. Some 613 commands made up the Mosaic Covenant. The Law was given to Israel, and was in force from Mount Sinai to Mount Calvary (when its rule ended). As circumcision was the sign one was under the Abrahamic Covenant, the keeping of the Sabbath was the specific sign Israel was under the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 31:12-17).Did this rule of law succeed? No, it ended with the crucifixion of the Law-Giver Himself, the only One to ever keep the Law perfectly.
6) The Dispensation of Grace (also commonly called the Church Age) (from Pentecost in Acts Chapter 2 to Christ’s second coming, extending from the end of the Gospel record to Rev. 19:21). Certainly the grace of God has been evident all through history, but there can be little question it was expressed in a new and fuller way with the coming of Christ, and especially after the church was born in Acts (Jn. 1:16-17; Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-14). In the church, God has brought together a spiritual body whose composition leaps over national boundaries to include all. Ours is a heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20). Even the Jew has no special status before God in the body of Christ (Col. 3:11).
It is the responsibility of each individual to trust in Christ for salvation, and then continue to walk in the enabling of the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:25). Unique to this dispensation is the permanent indwelling of each individual believer by the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:17; Rom. 8:9). By this gracious provision we are able to internalize God’s righteous standard and live to please Him. But again the end will see failure. After the true church is raptured, the apostate religion of the Tribulation will involve a Christless “church” which worships the Antichrist and revels in satanic powers.
7) The Dispensation of the Kingdom (or the Millennium) (from the return of Christ to the earth through the thousand years of His reign, Rev. 20:1-6, plus an enormous amount of Scripture in the Old Testament books of prophecy which describes many details of the earthly messianic kingdom, e.g. Isa. 2:1-4; 11:1-10; 35:1-10). During this period the curse upon creation will be removed, resulting in unparalleled productivity, and the strong personal rule of Christ will bring peace among the peoples of the earth. Also, since Eden the devil has been active deceiving and corrupting, but with the inauguration of the Kingdom he will be bound and unable to carry out his evil work (Rev. 20:2-3).
Though only believers will be found on earth when Christ’s reign begins, they will still be in mortal bodies, and the population of the earth will increase over the years. Each individual born will need to trust in Christ and be regenerated by the Spirit of God. Some will not. They will conform to the rule of Christ outwardly, but when an opportunity to rebel comes at the end of the thousand years, they will do so and be swiftly destroyed (Rev. 20:7-9). Thus even with the ideal conditions of the Kingdom Age man, apart from divine enablement, will fail to glorify God.
What are the major implications?
It seems to me it is helpful to see this overall design and pattern in the flow of biblical (and later) history. As Augustine put it, “Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures harmonize.” It does not resolve all the questions we may have about God’s dealings with man, but it clarifies things considerably. And it does three things which are essential in a proper interpretation and application of the Scriptures.
1) It keeps God’s plan for Israel and the church distinct. No end of confusion results when we fail to do this. God has a plan for His earthly people Israel, and He has a plan for His heavenly people the body of Christ. Those who force one upon the other end up “spiritualizing” or allegorizing the biblical text, rather than accepting it at face value.
When the future rebuilding of Jerusalem is prophesied, including details about “the Tower of Hananel...the Corner Gate... [and] the Horse Gate” we cannot turn that into a description of world missions and the proclamation of the gospel by the early church without doing violence to the clear meaning of the text (Jer. 31:38-40). Yet that is what some do, in an attempt to find the church in the Old Testament. Israel is not the church, and the church is not Israel.
It has been suggested that dispensationalists want to do away with, or ignore, the Old Testament on this basis. No. (Actually, over the years, I have preached and taught more from the Old Testament than the New.) “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable” (II Tim. 3:16). All Scripture provides a revelation of God, and insight into the nature of man. All Scripture is instructive, either by providing examples or illustrations of God’s dealings with man, or by demonstrating basic life principles which are the same in any age (Rom. 15:4; I Cor. 10:11). However, that is not to say that the precise responsibilities God gave to Adam, Noah or Moses are applicable to us today. Otherwise, as noted earlier, we would still be offering animal sacrifices.
And it is possible to use incidents in the Old Testament as pictures and analogies of what happens in the Christian life without denying the historical reality and dispensational position of the former. Note how beautifully Charles Spurgeon does this by drawing a parallel between Pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41:4) and his own spiritual experience:
“Pharaoh’s dream has too often been my waking experience. My days of sloth have ruinously destroyed all that I have achieved in times of zealous industry; my seasons of coldness have frozen all the genial glow of my periods of fervency and enthusiasm; and my fits of worldliness have thrown me back from my advances in the divine life. I had need to beware of lean prayers, lean praises, lean duties, and lean experiences, for these will eat up the fat of my comfort and peace....When the caterpillars of indifference, the cankerworms of worldliness and the palmerworms of self indulgence lay may heart completely desolate...all my former fruitfulness and growth in grace avails me nothing whatever.” (Morning and Evening, July 3 a.m.)
2) Recognizing the dispensational distinctives in God’s program allows for a consistent hermeneutic. The literal interpretation of the Scriptures has been a cornerstone of orthodox Christianity down through the centuries. Taking the words of Scripture in their plain, normal sense, avoids the pitfalls of speculation, grounding interpretation in accepted rules of language. This dispensationalism is able to do.
3) Dispensationalism recognizes the underlying purpose of God in the world from the beginning of human history to the end–the manifestation of His own glory. This is the unifying goal of all that God has done from Eden onward (Ps. 104:31; Matt. 5:16; Jn. 15:8; Rom. 11:36; 15:5-6; I Cor. 6:19-20; 10:31; Eph. 1:6 ,12, 14; 3:21; Phil. 4:20; I Tim. 1:17; II Tim. 4:18; I Pet. 4:11; II Pet. 3:18; Jude 1:25; Rev. 1:6; 5:13; 7:12).
What about the plan of salvation?
Those who have criticized dispensationalism have often done so because they believe dispensationalists are teaching there are different ways of salvation from one dispensation to another. Over the years, dispensational literature has not always repudiated this notion clearly or emphatically enough. There has only ever been one way of salvation. There is absolutely no way any human being can save himself by his own works and effort. It is always by grace through faith, in any age (Eph. 2:8-9). And it involves something called imputed righteousness. In short, God’s plan was to transfer our sin to Christ’s account (the account which was paid at the cross), and to transfer His righteousness to our account (II Cor. 5:21).
If we cannot make ourselves righteous, the only answer is imputed righteousness, perfect righteousness credited to our account by a gracious God. And that heavenly accounting is received by faith. So universal is this arrangement that Paul was able to use Abraham, living in the Dispensation of Promise, to illustrate the principle for Christians in the Dispensation of Grace (Rom. 4:1-5; cf. Gen. 15:6). Further, the passage in Romans makes it clear that faith is not some kind of meritorious work. The two are antithetical. Salvation is for “him who does not work but believes on Him,” simply a trusting in God and His gracious promise, and accepting the work already done by God.
God’s plan required an adequate payment for human sin. If sin is to be paid for in such a way that sinners can be forgiven and saved eternally, it required the death of an innocent substitute . That Substitute was ultimately Christ, God’s Lamb, who took upon Himself our debt of sin and died upon the cross (Jn. 1:29; Jn. 3:16; I Pet. 3:18). But that final sacrifice, and the principle of substitution was pictured and foreshadowed in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, back to Abraham’s time and long before. Even the clothing of our first sinning parents in coats of animal skin required the death of an innocent substitute (Gen. 3:21).
But having noted the unifying principles behind the work of salvation, we also need to understand that God’s revelation was progressive, given a little at a time. In terms of eternal salvation, it was simply not possible for those in the Old Testament to trust in the shed blood of Christ. For one thing, Jesus had not yet died. For another, they knew little of what was to come. No one back then is told, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
For this reason, it is not really accurate to refer to the saints before the cross as “Christians”– Christ-ones, or as members of Christ’s body, the church. By faith, today, we are “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). And “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (II Cor. 5:17). But it has only been possible to be placed into Christ by the Holy Spirit since His death, resurrection and ascension. Only Church Age saints can rightly be called Christians. It is better to refer to those before the cross simply as believers, or as saints (God’s set-apart ones).
The Old Testament saints were saved just as we are to the extent that they put their faith in God, and trusted in the gracious promises of God. But the content of those promises was somewhat different back then. And though God’s forgiveness was real and immediate, sin could only be dealt with in a final sense at Calvary. What came before anticipated that, and God accepted it until the full answer could be provided in Christ. Even so, saints before the cross experienced real forgiveness, through faith. When the offerer placed his hand upon a sacrificial animal, he was identifying himself with it. He was recognizing it as a substitute for himself (cf. Lev. 1:4) and God acknowledged that.
Later, “God set forth [Christ Jesus] as a propitiation [to fully satisfy His justice] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness [by punishing sin, in Christ], because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” (Rom. 3:25). Before Calvary, God “passed over” sin, accepting the temporary means of “covering” it, through the shed blood of the sacrifice. The sacrifices pointed forward to the cross, God’s final answer, and the only way of salvation (Jn. 14:6). Yet we know that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). It needed a Man to die for sinful men--and only a perfect Man could do it (or he would need to die for his own sins). That is why Christ had to come.
Where can I find out more?
It is not possible, in a brief article, to deal with the details of this large subject, or to answer all the questions that may arise. However, we are not lacking excellent resources for a deeper study. The notes in the Scofield Study Bible explain the characteristics of the dispensations in far greater detail than I have been able to do here. Other than that, there are two books that provide clear and carefully considered teaching on dispensationalism. They are: Dispensationalism (Revised and Expanded Edition), by Charles Caldwell Ryrie, and There Really Is a Difference! (A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology), by Renald Showers. I highly recommend these books as a valuable addition to any Christian’s library.