Saturday, November 03, 2007

On Dispensationalism

This afternoon I spent several hours studying dispensationalism. I feel sort of guilty for not having studied it before, because I have heard of it, and realized that I did not know exactly what it was. After my research, I conclude that I had some right ideas of what it was, and that some who ascribe to “dispensationalism” would say that there was nothing more to the theological system than what I already knew. They would be wrong.

I’ve decided not to call myself a dispensationalist because of the “extra” doctrines I did not know, but for which, I suspect, the theologians I respect have not respected the system. Some of the more basic tenets make sense to me, and have been part of my theology for ten years (which is saying something). For example, I believe that God’s plan for Israel is not yet finished, and that some Old Testament promises to Israel remain to be fulfilled. My interpretation of eschatology is literal and contains a pretribulational rapture and literal posttribulational millennium. Finally and least surely held is a fancy that God is glorifying Himself through history by proving through as many different dispensations imaginable that man cannot achieve righteousness or even a pleasant world on his own.

For some reason I have encountered many self-professed “Christians” who have very obscure theology. Fortunately God has given me a sure foundation, a logical brain, and a willingness to search things out. As a freshman, I researched free will and secular humanistic transcendentalism. (In other words, the popular beliefs described in That Hideous Strength by CS Lewis, and now promoted by atheists and left-wing activists who want to turn the world into machinery – remind you of the apocalyptic time represented in The Matrix?) Soon I was refuting Sabbath-legalism; defending the Trinity, working out a comprehensive eschatology, studying the applicability of Jewish dietary and feast laws, grasping security of salvation; refuting the Search for the Historical Jesus Peter Jennings special, head coverings, seeker-sensitive movements; investigating house churches, and understanding predestination/Calvinism. Most of these are responses to strangers. Honestly, a woman once began a conversation about the impending judgment of God at a thrift store! I have a file in my room of literature people have given me explaining their newly-discovered, minority-accepted doctrines. As a result, I am so grateful, I have a faith and theology that doesn’t get shaken much. God’s grace is in all of this. Without being forced into study by these confrontations, I wouldn’t have any of this knowledge.

I want to quote George MacDonald here because I was reading The Highlander’s Last Song late last night and just wanted to share the experience: “Ian was one of those blessed few who doubt many things by virtue of a larger faith – causing consternation among those of smaller faith who wrongly see such doubts as signs of unbelief.” I think my friends and family worry sometimes. Apparently the doctrines I consider are adopted into my theology about half of the time (if you include defending doctrines like the Trinity and eschatology). Let that reassure you if you will.

Originally I was going to ask my blog readers (may I hail those from Korea, Ghana, Australia, Canada, the United States, and any other countries I missed!) for their understanding on dispensationalism, but Google had a wealth of information that seemed clear and reliable, though varied. So now I’m going to share what I learned. In some cases I am dealing point by point with the arguments presented to me this morning.

What is dispensationalism? Here I have compiled the best explanations Google provided, and their links, so you can look up more information.

“Now, there are those who see seven dispensations. They see the dispensation of innocence, when God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden and God relating to man there in the garden in man's innocence. Then they see the second dispensation, (I forget what they call it), but it is from the time of Adam's sin unto the time of Noah, in which they see the third dispensation of the government of God which lasted until the time of the law, which they see the fourth dispensation of the law. And the fifth dispensation of Jesus here; the sixth dispensation, the dispensation of grace; the seventh dispensation, the millennial reign.” – Chuck Smith

“The method of salvation, justification by faith alone, never changes through the dispensations. The responsibilities God gives to man does change however.” - End

'Though it may not be spelled out so explicitly, the [Scofield] footnote to Matthew 5:2 in effect says that sinners during the millennium will be saved, not by the blood, merits, and grace of Christ, but by their obedience to the beatitudes, which are “pure law.” But this contradicts the universal proposition of Acts 4:12: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” The Scripture, quite the reverse of Dispensationalism, asserts that there is just one way of salvation. True enough, the divine plan in all its completeness, as Paul said in Ephesians 3:5, “was not made known unto the sons of men in other ages as it is now revealed to his apostles and prophets by the Spirit”; but Paul’s fuller doctrinal explanation is precisely the same covenant that was less fully revealed in Genesis 3:15— “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” ' – Arthur Pink

Other semi-dispensationalists (like me) are John MacArthur and Dr. Henry Morris.

In Ephesians 3:2, what is “dispensation”? Does it mean ‘house rules,’ like in Poker, so that Monday is deuces wild, Tuesday is threes are wild; and if you come with a three on Monday, you’ll be excluded from winning? (Application to spiritual things is that some Dispensationalists say that Israelites were saved by keeping the law before Christ, and that in the tribulation or millennium, that will be the standard again. I was told that if a post-rapture believer then sins, breaks the ten commandments, he is doomed forever.) The Greek here for “dispensation” is oikonomia – "management of a household, administration, stewardship." This stewardship was given to Paul. Ephesians 3:2 couples it with the prepositional phrase, “of grace,” and it was given to Paul to the Ephesians. (That’s as literal as I can make the Greek.)

What is the ‘mystery’ in verse 4 of Ephesians 3? Keep reading until you get to verse 6. Also read Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:18-29. These verses explain that the mystery was God's inclusion of Gentiles into the one body of the redeemed. In English we think of "mystery" as a puzzle not yet put together, the secret of a magician’s trick, or the unsolved riddle of a mystery novel. In the Greek it meant something that used to be hidden but is now revealed. A pastor once explained that the word was originally used to describe the tactic of only revealing a military strategy/orders at the last minute, to keep it a secret as long as possible. Hebrews addresses perhaps a reason for the mystery: Hebrews 11:39-40, "And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect."

Ephesians 3:5 says the mystery is now revealed to “apostles and prophets.” Who are they? There is no indication the text means anything but what it says. “Apostles” generally referred to those left of the Twelve, but also included Paul and some other early believers. Apostleship and prophecy are both listed as spiritual gifts. Though the dispensationalist who spoke to me this morning said that “apostles and prophets” referred to the young pastors and missionaries (like Timothy) whom Paul was teaching via this letter, note that verse 5 says not that Paul was revealing the mystery to them, but that they mystery was revealed to “his” (God’s) holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.

The parable of the 10 virgins speaks to accepting salvation before Jesus returns unexpectedly. It is a parable, and does not address either losing salvation or ecclesiology. Nor is it particularly talking about the church. Get caught up in the story; find the moral of the story; and apply it to Christianity. Parables are not allegories.

Jesus was said to have taught on the conduct expected of Jews in the millennial kingdom (thus the emphasis on the “kingdom gospel,” as supposedly separate from “Paul’s” gospel of grace). Since Israel rejected Jesus as their Messiah, and they should have known better from the prophecies, dispensationalists would say the church (and grace with it) has been parenthetically inserted until God resumes His everlasting covenant and law with Israel. However, Colossians 1, Romans 9-11, and Ephesians (the passages submitted as evidence) rather speak of the Church as the one body in which the Jews and Gentiles are unified in reconciliation to God until in the last days God continues his plan specifically for Israel (see Revelation 7).

Ephesians 2:11-20, "Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;"

Ephesians 4:4-7, "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ."

1 Corinthians 12:13, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit."

Law was not the means of salvation even in the Mosaic “dispensation.” Being under the Law did not disqualify David from salvation when he committed adultery. He repented again, and was forgiven. Psalms 51:1-2, 17 - " Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin… The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."

Is grace taught by Jesus? Luke 7:42-43 records Jesus’ use of a derivative of the common word (charis) for grace. He also talked about grace without using the word: “And I give them eternal life…” or “He who hears my words and believes on Him who sent me has everlasting life.” John focuses on this. Eternal life was a gift. Jesus often pointed out that the “good works” and law-keeping that had become Judaism were insufficient for salvation. No man was perfectly good, but he tried to stack up his ideas of goodness against the perfect law of God, who also sees and judges the heart. Still living in the Law system so that He could fulfill it, Jesus consistently pointed out the inadequacy of the Law or of man to keep it.

Now that you understand that dispensationalists believe the Law will apply again during the Millennium or tribulation, let me try to explain their take on Hebrews. They (or the man to whom I spoke this morning) would say that Hebrews was written as a manual for life after the reinstatement of the Israel dispensation. It was written to the Jews, and so accordingly is separate from any instructions to the Church. From this they argue that Hebrews 6 does not teach that Christians today can lose their salvation (which would be inconsistent with the rest of the epistles), but that the Jews can.

I love Hebrews 6. My favorite part is where it exhorts Christians to move beyond the basics. To me this refutes the seeker-sensitive “conversion”-driven style of church. I need fed the meat of the word, not just milk. Several years ago my pastor taught on the second part of the chapter, the controversial part, which at first glance seems to have nothing to do with verses 1-3. But verse 4 begins, “For,” so obviously the author felt he supplying the reasoning behind those first verses as he continued. I remember that my pastor was arguing that here in Hebrews 6 there is evidence that the author makes an aside, discussing non-Christians who have been among the Church and witnessed God’s saving power, but never actually accepted the gospel for themselves. His Bible interpretation for this passage seemed forced into the mold of his preconceived theology; he was proof-texting much like he did when justifying female leadership in the church. So even though I believe no one once saved can lose their salvation (you did not earn your way in; you cannot earn your way out), I went searching for a more solid exposition of Hebrews 6.

What I found was a lot of controversy and stretched interpretations, and one explanation that made perfect sense to me. It was provided by Charles Spurgeon (a genius preacher, and eloquent!). PLEASE read the whole thing. I’m including the following two quotations just to summarize. Truly. His sermon transcript ties the entire passage together.

“In order to make them persevere, if possible, he shows them that if they do not, they must, most certainly be lost; for there is no other salvation but that which God has already bestowed on them, and if that does not keep them, carry them forward, and present them spotless before God, there cannot be any other. For it is impossible, he says, if ye be once enlightened, and then fall away, that ye should ever be renewed again unto repentance…

“Well, there never has been a case of it yet, and therefore I cannot describe it from observation; but I will tell you what I suppose it is. To fall away, would be for the Holy Spirit entirely to go out of a man—for his grace entirely to cease; not to lie dormant, but to cease to be—for God, who has begun a good work, to leave off doing it entirely—to take his hand completely and entirely away, and say, "There, man! I have half saved thee; now I will damn thee." That is what falling away is.” – CH Spurgeon

Compare to the logic-based argument Paul used in 1 Corinthians 15, where he was not saying that Jesus did not rise, but for the sake of argument posed a “what if”: "But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."

My conclusion is that God always works for His glory. God does have a special plan to use Israel in the world just as He has a special plan to use you and me, except that He published His plan for Israel in His eternal Word. Man is never able to save himself. God has always saved men only by His unfaltering grace! His grace cannot let a man fall from His hand, so there is no loss of salvation.

To God be all glory.


Lisa of Longbourn said...

I posted this comment on my blog in response to another comment. Use the URL to see her comment.

Paul said, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” - 2 Timothy 3:16-17 He does not say that Scripture is only good for learning, but that all of it is for doctrine and to equip us for good works. There is something very dangerous about ignoring a large part of the Bible. Certainly it is easier to dismiss any part hard to understand or practice.

God never in the Bible says that we should disregard certain apostles or Scriptures. Rather, all of the apostles were commissioned: “Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” - Matthew 28:16-20

Nor was Paul called exclusively to the Gentiles: “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law;” - 1 Corinthians 9:20 and

“That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises;” - Romans 9:2-4 and

“And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.” - Acts 13:5 and

“And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath. Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you…” - Acts 13:42-46 and

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews: And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures,” - Acts 17:1-2 and

“And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.” - Acts 18:4

In other words, thanks for reading, but I want kindly to offer the Scriptures that show the other side. I want everyone who reads this blog to read and understand the whole Bible comprehensively.

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

kschaub said...

Hey Lisa, how are you?

I'm at work still, so this will be brief. I struggle to grab all of either dispensationalism or covenant theology. For one, both are over-arching, huge theological systems with variations, semi(s), etc. Second, for better or worse, for sake of having a neatly cut system, it seems to me that both make too much or too little or some things in Scripture or ignore certain things altogether.

So for eschatology . . . I think that Revelation is difficult to study and obscure at times for a reason. But, above all, I believe in the emminence of the return of Christ. We've been living in the last days since his ascension, and have no reason to believe that we shouldn't anticipate Christ's sudden return in the same way the New Testament church awaited it.

However, I have a difficult time grabbing onto any teaching of the rapture of the Church. I think that biblical arguments for it tend to come from obscure passages of Scripture, but there are a few compelling arguments. One, if God's wrath against the sins of his children (the church) was exhausted on Christ at the cross, why would direct judgments (described in Revelation) be poured out on both the elect and the reprobate?

Still, there are some compelling reasons to think that Christ's return will be post-tribulational (still premilennial eschatology) . . . I think the biggest reason is the suffering of the church for the glory of God. It seems that the awe-some judgements described in Revelation will not lead to repentance for most, but rather be a further indictment on the rebellion of sinners, who will continue to harden their hearts despite the clear warning of doom to come. But even more, what about the church (if they're still there) continues to endure or even die, but remain steadfast in faith (martyrs). Those voices will also play a role in those judgments.

So, in my young days (still now), I lean toward a post-tribulational return of Christ to gather his church. But yes too, I'm not comfortable saying that my conclusions are concrete in foundation and will not change as I grow in knowing God through Scripture.

To the larger systems, however, I think that dispensationalism has a lot more problems than Covenant theology--though I admit I'm not going to dive right into that without reservation. For one, dispensationalism really did introduce some new ideas to theology that most of church history wouldn't understand . . . though I do admit that little was actually innovative, I still have trouble jumping into a system formulated in the 19th century.

About Israel . . . I think that is answered best by Paul's discourse in Rom. 9-11. It is my prayer they'll be re-grafted in through faith in Christ, their justification . . .

What does that make me . . . I'd be comfortable somewhere in between MacArthur and Piper, but not so comfortable that, at 25 years old, I'm going to through out a Titanic anchor and rest their all my life without contemplating the seas around me.


Lisa of Longbourn said...

Kevin said, "indictment on the rebellion of sinners." I think that line of thought is semi-dispensationalist. I tend to believe that each "dispensation" is its own indictment against sinners, but that God's grace is available as the only saving power (looking forward to or back at Jesus' sacrifice on the cross) throughout the ages.

I think that Wayne Grudem is a covenant theologian, but when I read his section on dispensationalism in Systematic Theology, I hardly agreed with anything he said about any sides of the question. So now I guess I have to study covenant theology.

I'm starting to see why a lot of people don't name themselves "Calvinist" or Covenant or Dispensationalist: Isn't it so much easier to say I believe the Bible; ask me if you have a specific question?
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn
PS: I'm doing fine, preparing for Awana tonight.