Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read the series so far.
Despite the dispensationalists’ affirmation of the gospel as the means of salvation, their evangelistic method and their foundational theology, both, encourage a presumptive faith (which is no faith at all) that can lead people into a false assurance of salvation when they are not truly converted, not recognizing that Christ did not so quickly accept professions of faith (e.g., when even though “many believed in His name,” Jesus, on His part, “was not entrusting Himself to them.”—John 2:23b-24a).
It comes as news to many of us poor benighted dispensationalists that we have one “evangelistic method.” Reformed believers could be excused for giving someone a sideways look were they likewise accused. Similarly, it is a long stretch to throw “presumptive faith” at all of us because it is a symptom of our “foundational theology.” We believe our foundational theology is biblical (or should be). The Master’s Seminary faculty do not fit the description above. After being on a theological faculty at a dispensational seminary myself I can say truthfully that “easy-believism” was abhorred. Many dispensationalists hold the same position on faith as John Calvin; it is a receptacle put in the heart by God. As one African Christian memorably put it, “faith is the hand of the heart.” (in Godet’s Romans). Even those holding tenaciously to Covenant theology ought to take Paul’s advice in 2 Cor.13:5 now and again.
Despite the dispensationalists’ declaration that “genuine and wholesome spirituality is the goal of all Christian living” (Charles Ryrie), their theology actually encourages unrighteous living by teaching that Christians can simply declare Christ as Savior and then live any way they desire. Similarly, dispensationalism teaches that “God’s love can embrace sinful people unconditionally, with no binding requirements attached at all” (Zane Hodges), even though the Gospel teaches that Jesus “was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine’ ” (John 8:31) and that he declared “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27).
How easy life becomes when we can just tar everyone we don’t like with the same brush! “dispensationalists teach presumptive faith”, “dispensationalists are pessimillennialists”, “dispensationalists have a tendency to date-setting”, “dispensational theology encourages unrighteous living.” Of course, two can play at that game. How about these? “Covenant theologians are anti-Semitic,” or “Covenant theology leads to self-righteousness and arrogance.” Since we all know proud, sanctimonious Reformed Christians and can find anti-Semitic sentiments in the writings of some Covenant theologians is it right to infer that their theology makes them this way? It takes no time at all to descend into pettiness arguing like this.
My response to this objection will be from personal experience:
After I was saved in 1985 I attended a Reformed (5-point), amillennial (Baptist 1689) Calvinist church in England. As a young believer I was witness to power struggles, gossip, compromise, overweening pride, posturing and the rest of it. The Reformed pretensions of some (not all) of these Christians did not prevent them from acting worse than the unsaved friends I had previously hung around with (they just didn’t swear or get drunk). After about two years of this I told the pastor I was leaving. He told me I was young and ignorant and proud (all quite true) and we parted company. The next time I saw this man he was in a casket. He had asphyxiated alone while performing some perverted sexual act. At the funeral a well-known Calvinist preacher read Psalm 116:15 and told us not to judge. Believe me, I have witnessed plenty of “presumptive faith” from Reformed anti-dispensationalists.
Roll forward another four years and I was attending a similar “Grace Baptist” church. The pastor was a good man and an excellent preacher. His deacons were not of the same caliber. Superficial, petty, but proud to be deacons and proud of their right doctrine. A dear friend of mine (who had worked at the atom-smasher at CERN and had seen enough preening to last five lifetimes) would sometimes call me up to ask me if he was crazy because these men didn’t see the need either to speak to the lost or to live the truth.
I could go on, but my point is that one’s doctrine and one’s practice do not always coincide.
What is laughable about this thesis is that many of the Nicene Council are Preterists. This is not a sin in itself (except full preterism which is a heresy), but many people know that these people have a reputation for slandering brethren with whom they disagree. Another friend of mine was once featured on PlanetPreterist done up (via Photoshop) as a clown. His crime? He is a dispensationalist!
Very many dispensationalists do not agree with Zane Hodges’ “Free Grace” teaching. I certainly do not! But I can testify that he was very concerned with personal holiness. I heard him teach on it at least twice. But I digress. Scripture teaches that saving faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. But we are saved by grace, and we are kept saved by grace.
Despite the early versions of dispensationalism and the more popular contemporary variety of dispensationalism today teaching that “it is clear that the New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation” (L. S. Chafer and Zane Hodges), the Apostle Paul “solemnly testifies to both Jews and Greeks repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
More of the above. The Nicene Council should not speak as though all dispensationalists see things this way, nor should they imply that the views of Chafer or Hodges are a necessary outcome of dispensationalism. We agree that Chafer and Hodges were in grave error on this point. Yet we feel no compulsion to jump ship.
As I recall Sandemanianism, which taught that true faith was purely notional, without any emotion involved, was a doctrine that emerged from the Reformed camp in Scotland (ably refuted by the likes of Andrew Fuller). And was it not the High Calvinists in England who both advocated and lived out an antinomian lifestyle? (see, e.g., The Life of John Kershaw).
Contrary to dispensationalism’s tendency to distinguish receiving Christ as Savior and receiving him as Lord as two separate actions, so that saving faith involves “no spiritual commitment whatsoever” (Zane Hodges), the Bible presents both realities as aspects of the one act of saving faith; for the New Testament calls men to “the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26; James 2:14-20).
Sorry to sound the same note, but the drafters of these 95 Theses do have a penchant for the fallacy of composition (wherein what is true of the part must be true of the whole). Romans 1:3 refers to “Jesus Christ our Lord” in the sense that we are His bond-servants (v.1) and He is our Master. Since true repentance requires we know that our former thinking about God was wrong and presupposes we now know who it is we have been thinking wrongly about, I agree with this thesis as it applies to certain dispensationalists.
Despite dispensationalism’s affirmation of “genuine and wholesome spirituality” (Charles Ryrie), it actually encourages antinomianism by denying the role of God’s law as the God-ordained standard of righteousness, deeming God’s law (including the Ten Commandments) to be only for the Jews in another dispensation. Dispensationalists reject the Ten Commandments because “the law was never given to Gentiles and is expressly done away for the Christian” (Charles Ryrie)—even though the New Testament teaches that all men “are under the Law” so “that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God” (Rom 3:19).
There is more than one dispensational approach to sanctification. The relation of Law and Gospel is not just an issue for dispensationalists. Conservative Lutherans are dogmatic about the fact that the Christian is not under the Law, since this would confound Grace (e.g. C.F.W. Walther, The True Relationship Between Law and Gospel). Likewise, some recent Reformed writers like Douglas Moo and Thomas Schreiner adopt views that are similar to that of many traditional dispensationalists. The thesis is too broad, but we’ll work with it.
Here we again encounter the fallacy of equivocation. The trouble here is with the word “antinomianism,” which can refer to a belief that the Christian is not under the law (i.e. any of the Ten Commandments) in any sense of the word. Or it can refer to those who believe the Christian is not under the law as an external rule of faith (this is my position). Then there are those, like the Puritan Tobias Crisp, whose heightened views of the believer’s union with the Savior forced him to stress sanctifying grace in opposition to any external conformity to standards not wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Finally, there were those Hyper-Calvinists of 19th Century England who pushed Crisp’s ideas to the teaching of license.
To cite some remarks written recently to a real antinomian: We are commanded to “love,” and the commandments are all summed up in love (Matt. 22:37-40, quoting the Law of Moses. Cf. Gal. 5:14). One may say “faith works by love” (Gal. 5:6), but that is the whole point. As faith works by love we have to obey this commandment (which originates in the Law of Moses) in order to have sanctifying faith!
We know Who the standard is (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:14), and we know that the commandments, correctly understood, point to His moral perfection. Therefore, we may use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8), as Paul does, to “adjust” our conduct accordingly. However, to use it as a rule of faith is to deny the explicit teaching of the NT (e.g. Rom. 6:14; 7:4; 8:2f.; 10:4; Gal. 2:16, 19; 3:1-3, 11-12; 2 Cor.3:10-11; etc.)
We are “in-lawed to Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21), not to the external forms of OT law. If we are by faith walking in the Spirit, then the law is fulfilled in us. This is hardly an ignoble “antinomianism.”
Despite dispensationalism’s teaching regarding two kinds of Christians, one spiritual and one fleshly (resulting in a “great mass of carnal Christians,” Charles Ryrie), the Scripture makes no such class distinction, noting that Christians “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you,” so that “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Rom 8:9).
As we’ve reached Thesis 95 I rather thought we’d be going out with a bang. By now dispensationalism ought to look like its gone ten rounds with Rocky Marciano.
We readily sympathize with those who object to the notion of the carnal Christian based upon our being in Christ not Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor.15:22), and due to the fact that every believer is de facto spiritual in Romans 8. But we cannot sweep 1 Cor. 3:1-3 under the rug. F.F. Bruce said that spiritual men can in some sense be called “men of the flesh,” sarkinoi (1 & 2 Corinthians [NCB], 42). Bruce writes: “They had not yet begun to produce the fruit of the Spirit…but continued to indulge in some at least of the ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:20).” He explains that the reference here is not to man’s fallen nature, but to our sinful propensities. This is what Paul means by Christians being “carnal” in the context.
John Owen’s, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded would not find many objectors from amongst dispensationalists. Perhaps I should add the fact that many dispensationalists have adopted a form of Keswickian sanctification (which I reject), but that teaching does stresses holiness. Therefore, I submit that much of this discussion is an example of Christians talking past each other.
And finally: “Dispensationalism has thrown down the gauntlet: and it is high time that Covenant theologians take up the challenge and respond Biblically”(Dr. Robert L. Reymond, author, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith).
If you are in agreement with the 95 Thesis you will read that statement with all the seriousness of heart-attack. If you are a dispensationalist you will read the statement with a wry smile and a furrowed brow. How to respond? Irony perhaps?
“Amen! Our Covenant theology brothers have taken stick from a welter of books and blogs from dispensationalists for quite long enough! Just tap in ‘dispensationalism’ into Monergism’s search engine, or Google ‘against dispensationalism’ and see how restrained these people have been! All the while taking it on the chin from dispensationalists who are always pinging away at Covenant Theology writing books against it and misrepresenting it…”
“Between them, folks like Palmer Robertson, Kenneth Gentry, Keith Mathison, Kim Riddlebarger, the late John Gerstner and others have spawned a minor industry of anti-dispensationalist polemic. This is a horse they will never tire of flogging. I know of no comparable dispensationalist industry directed against Covenant theology. Reymond’s rallying cry above is not an isolated case. Somehow these brethren believe they are the ones being ‘got at.’ I remind you (gentle reader) that I am responding to 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism. What is their problem? They remind me of those evolutionists like Eugenie Scott who are paranoid about creationists and ID advocates.”
But I’ve said enough. It only remains for me next time to post some reflections and move on to other things.