PART ONE: The important features of Dispensationalism.
The first step we will take in this book is to properly define what a Bible dispensation really looks like. This is a critical understanding. Without a correct definition given to us by the Spirit of God, our reasoning will be undisciplined and we will be tempted to create unnecessary divisions of time from human history. This will only serve to falsify the system we are attempting to prove and explain. Dispensations are far more than periods of time one may delineate. All Bible dispensations have essential characteristics. If we learn to correctly list these features, then we will have the tools to easily see and identify the dispensations of Scripture.
Chapter One – What is a Bible Dispensation?
A dispensation is a period of time in which God has given responsibility to a particular corporate group of people on the earth. This group is specifically chosen by God to represent Him, testifying of His glory. God looks for obedience to His will in this representation. Dispensations may not be precise as to their beginning or ending time, and usually will have a period of transition when one ends and another begins. But the central feature of all dispensations is the principle of human responsibility (duty) looked at by God. The Creator expects obedience of the creature to His will.
Every dispensation begins with a distinctive manifestation of the glory of God, His sovereign work and grace displayed. A corporate body chosen by God is given responsibility to care for the work and to testify of it before the world. However, mankind’s fallen nature always is the cause of decline from the practical faith associated with the original display of divine glory, which eventually results in the corruption, ruin, and apostasy of the corporate group. The dispensation continues by the mercy and long-suffering of God. Eventually the corruption of the group ripens to its full, and God brings in judgment. However, the judgment of God will always be preceded by testimony, that they who have ears to hear may escape the judgment. This judgment from God brings an end to the dispensation.
This was the course or pattern of the Jewish dispensation, which ended with the rejection of Jesus Christ as Messiah by the Jews and the eventual destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The Christian dispensation, that which we are presently in, hasn’t fared any better. It follows the same course of failure as the Jewish dispensation. It only continues in the mercy and long-suffering of God (II Pet. 3:8–9).
Consequently, dispensations fail due to human responsibility, and this, usually at the outset of the dispensation. The dispensation carries on in the patience and mercy of God, until His long-suffering is exhausted, and the evil has been filled up. All dispensations end by judgment from God for the evil. Every dispensation ends in failure and judgment from God, every single one except the last dispensation, which will be held up and sustained by the power of God in the perfect and glorified Son of Man physically present on the earth.
It is important to realize that a Bible dispensation is more than a simple period of time to which someone may attach a label or name. In the history of the teaching of dispensationalism (from the early 1800s to present day), this has been one of the problems with the system. Many times, the name given to a dispensation has little to do with the key general elements listed above. Often the labeling will miss the mark, so to speak, of the peculiar character of that dispensation. Often the names are misleading. Take, for example, labeling the present dispensation as the “dispensation of grace.” One might be misled to think that God has never shown grace at any other time. Also “grace” is exclusively God’s work, and fails to be descriptive of man’s responsibility (works), which happens to be a key principle determining the results and outcome of any dispensation. Another example of a misleading label is “the dispensation of the church” or the phrase “church age” when used to refer to the current dispensation. This fails in correctly identifying the corporate body that actually has responsibility before God in the present dispensation.
It is critical to remember that one of the most important characterizations of any Bible dispensation is the responsibility given by God to a certain corporate group for His testimony on the earth during that period. The key association of dispensations is with the principle of human/creature responsibility. Let’s give a definition to this principle.
Responsibility attaches itself to every creature that can be conscious of a relationship with God, the Creator. Whenever there is awareness of this relationship, there is obligation in it to God. The Creator expects the creature to obey His will, and therefore looks for the production of this fruit (obedience).
Obviously, this principle applies only to angels and mankind – these groups are the parts of God’s creation that are “conscious” of having such a relationship. God is the Creator; everything else is His creation. Angels and humans are aware of the existence of the Creator, and therefore aware of being in the Creator/creature relationship with Him.
It is the existence of the relationship which generates responsibility. This is true with all legitimate relationships found in creation. For example, the husband has responsibility to his wife and a wife to her husband. The marriage relationship doesn’t exist between the two until after the wedding event. Once married, the husband has the duty to act properly and lovingly as the husband of his wife, and vice versa. The same is true with parents and children. The relationship doesn’t exist until after the child is born; then fathers and mothers have the responsibility to act as parents toward the child. Children have the responsibility to obey their parents. As the Creator, God has a relationship with all creation. However, only angels and humans are conscious of this relationship, giving them a particular responsibility before God in His creation. And because God is infinitely above (transcendent) everything in His creation, responsibility must take the form of obedience by the creature to the will of the Creator. This is their duty or work; this is the biblical principle of responsibility.
Scripture speaks of the fall of mankind in Adam, and then goes on to speak of man’s works. It is scriptural to state that if God judges any human concerning his or her works, the outcome is nothing but condemnation (Rev. 20:12–13, Rom. 5:18). We should realize that an individual’s works are their responsibility. God views mankind’s works as the sins they are guilty of, for they do them in their own will, apart from following the will of God (Rom. 4:1–8). Unless God intervenes in sovereign grace on behalf of the individual, he will be judged by his works, and the result will be condemnation and wrath.
Now switch your thinking from individual responsibility to that of a corporate group. Dispensations involve large groups attempting to make good their corporate responsibility before God. If the overwhelming majority of people in these groups are fallen men, what might we suspect the corporate responsibility will look like? How difficult will it be for these corporate groups, as a whole, to obey the will of God? Dispensations never should refer to the individual responsibility of one man, but rather to the responsibility of a group God has chosen.151
151 [This is the reason why, in my opinion, it is foolish to make a dispensation out of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc. Dispensations should not be characterized by God’s dealings with one person]
The word dispensation is defined as a time of stewardship. This shows the intimate connection that any dispensation should have with the principle of responsibility. Every stewardship is a duty of care in one’s actions, usually representing someone in a higher position. Every stewardship involves responsibilities. Every Bible dispensation is characterized by the responsibility for the witness/testimony of God and His glory. Because the period of time is delineated this way, it makes sense that we should name the dispensation based on one of its main characteristics (i.e. by referencing the particular corporate group).
Dispensations reference the ways of God with men during certain periods of time – His ways for His physical blessings on the earth in this present world. This statement has a few more defining characteristics which should be associated with any Bible dispensation. As you already know, dispensations are associated with a corporate group. It makes no sense to speak of dispensations when God is dealing with only one individual. The teachers of the dispensational system struggle to form dispensations around God’s dealings with Noah and Abraham. Certainly, these men are involved with important biblical principles being established as vital parts of God’s revelation. Certainly, both individuals are notable figures in the biblical history of mankind. However, to form two distinct dispensations around them is a bit arbitrary. Dispensations are God’s ways with a group, not an individual. We must highlight the impression of responsibility being given to a corporate group of men.
Also, dispensations show the purpose of God in His ways for blessing of the earth and world. They are about physical, earthly blessings, and therefore have the distinct character of being earthly; they are about earthly things. Dispensations are never about heavenly objects or blessings. There is never a time period or the counting of time associated with heavenly things – they are simply eternal. Therefore, a dispensation should never center on heavenly blessings or a heavenly body/group. I know this may sound like a strange way to describe these things, and may take some time to get familiar with, but still, it is very accurate and biblically sound to describe the character of dispensations as earthly. (In this way, dispensations are similar to Bible covenants – they both are about earthly things and blessings)
Dispensations are God’s ways in dealing with this present world. Peter tells us concerning the time of Noah,
by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which now exist are kept in store by the same word, reserved for fire until the day of judgment. (2 Pet. 3:6–7)
The Spirit of God considers the time before Noah as a different world altogether. Dispensations should be about this present world, not the previous one. Besides, from Adam to Noah, God wasn’t actively bringing blessing into the earth. He was allowing mankind to build the world, which He then had to destroy with a flood because of the accumulated evil. During that time God only had an infrequent witness (Abel, Enoch, Noah, etc.).
If we shouldn’t be forming dispensations in the period of man’s history from Adam to Moses, what do we do with the book of Genesis?
Genesis – in this first book of the Bible we have the principles of God entering His revelation. In the garden with Adam we have the principle of creature responsibility being tested, God looking for the fruit of obedience from him. With the flood destroying the world we have God’s direct judgment of evil, and therefore thoughts of God’s sovereignty and government. But it is with Noah after the flood that human responsibility is mixed in with the principle of God’s government of the earth. The sword is placed in mankind’s hands to curb the growth of evil, in order to not have the need for God to soon repeat His judgment (Gen. 9:6). There are other things developing as well. God divided the earth and mankind in the first creation into nations, and the principle of government is active with many rulers and kings among the Gentiles, the pharaohs and Egypt being most prominent. With Abraham, we see the principles of God’s calling, election, sovereign grace, and covenant. In Genesis, we have all the biblical principles entering in, which will characterize the dispensations that follow. It is by these principles we may comprehend God’s various ways with His chosen people (the corporate groups particular to each dispensation).
The pattern or general course of a biblical dispensation looks like this.
- every dispensation begins with a sovereign work of God’s power
- then responsibility is given to a chosen corporate group for the testimony and care of the original work
- then there is success or failure by man in his responsibility
- if failure, then decline from the original position set up by God
- the dispensation then continues only by the long-suffering and mercy of God in saving some
- when the growing evil and corruption of the corporate body has exhausted the patience of God, He then brings in judgment to end the dispensation.
- before ending the dispensation in judgment, God will always have a testimony for the purpose of separating and gathering a believing remnant – “those who have ears to hear” – keeping this group out of the judgment.
There is one more characteristic needed to be discussed. To this point in the chapter we have mostly spoken of the defining characteristics of individual dispensations and their general course or pattern. But a dispensational system, as a whole, will itself have a particular defining characteristic (other than being a theological system simply based on divisions of time). A genuine system of dispensations will be founded on either one of the following two biblical principles.
- God’s corporate calling: This is the system we present in the majority of this book. Apart from individual calling, there are only two corporate callings found in Scripture – that of Israel and the church. This leads to just three dispensations in a proper system as we will see in the following chapters.
- God’s government of the earth: This system is slightly different from the one based on corporate calling, but is equally easy to see from Scripture. It also has just three dispensations in which God recognizes two distinct groups associated with His government of the earth – Jews and Gentiles. As a system, it is less elaborate or involved than one based on calling. Therefore, its explanation of Scripture is less comprehensive and satisfying (this system is discussed in the last chapter of this book).
The importance of this point cannot be over-emphasized. Proper dispensationalism will be a theological system where the entirety of that system is based on just one biblical principle. The two principles mentioned above are the only ones that can be seen in Scripture associated with corporate bodies/groups that God chose. (This critical characteristic is missing from most revised and contemporary dispensational systems.)