Dispensational Distinctives


(© 2015 Dispensational Publishing House, Inc. Used by permission.)

Dispensational theology rests upon a premise that is widely acknowledged, even by non-dispensationalists—namely, that God deals with people in different ways at different times in history.

There are many instances in Scripture that could be used to illustrate this point. Perhaps one of the clearest is found in Matthew 16. Here the Apostle Peter, having just been blessed by Christ for his magnificent testimony of faith in which he proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of God (Matt. 16:13-20), immediately receives Christ’s admonishment for his disastrous efforts to reprove the Lord Jesus after His first major proclamation of His coming death and resurrection.

“Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23) was Christ’s startling rejoinder to Peter at that moment.

The purpose here is not to examine the meaning of this phrase or some of the other difficult statements in the surrounding context. Rather, it is to make this essential point: one can clearly infer that Peter—the one Christ described as “blessed” and the one who had received revelation from the Father (Matt. 16:17)—was a saved man in this passage. The apostle, however, did not understand anything about Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection—and did not believe that they were possible even when he was told.

Since the time of Christ’s death and resurrection, no one can be saved without holding to this basic knowledge, which is at the core of the gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3, 4). Peter, however, was saved without it at this point in history—as were a multitude of Old Testaments saints before him. Thus, it is clear that God has adjusted the application of His plan for people—who relate to Him as stewards to a heavenly Master—at various points in history, even in an area as fundamental as the content that must be believed in order for a person to be saved by grace.

The Bible calls each different stage in God’s unfolding plan for the world a “dispensation” in Ephesians 1:10 and 3:2. Those who emphasize the distinctiveness of these dispensations and believe that the Bible can best be understood by correctly identifying their significance are called “dispensationalists.”

Dispensationalists see history as the outworking of God’s plan, which involves separate programs for both Israel and the church. The distinction between these two people groups stands out as the most important such difference in the Bible.

God’s goal for history is to glorify Himself. Ultimately, He will do so by establishing the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as the king of Israel on the throne of David, where He will rule the world for 1,000 years (see Isa. 9:7; Rev. 20:1-6). Israel will finally be regathered to take her prophesied place as “the chief of the nations” of the world during this time (Jer. 31:7; see also Deut. 28:13; Ezek. 5:5). The church will also be exalted to a place of regal authority during the reign of Christ (see 1 Cor. 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:12). This millennial kingdom is explained in minute detail in a myriad of Scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments.

The fact that God’s dealings with people—not His essence or character (see Heb. 13:8)—differ according to His dispensational plan is so clear that even non-dispensational theologians speak, to some extent or other, in these terms, although they distinguish their handling of this issue from that of dispensationalists.

Take, for instance, Louis Berkhof, who is widely recognized as a leading Reformed theologian. He writes of “distinguishing just two dispensations or administrations, namely, that of the Old, and that of the New Testament.”1

While denying the meaning intended in this article, Berkhof nonetheless uses the Biblical term “dispensation,” showing that all must wrestle with how to interpret the distinct circumstances that are apparent throughout history as the Bible presents it.

Non-dispensationalists, however, minimize the importance of such distinctions. “Israel was the Church of the Old Testament and in its spiritual essence constitutes a unity with the Church of the New Testament,” Berkhof writes.2

By contrast, dispensationalists see these distinctions as being of far greater importance. Theologian Renald Showers states: “The different dispensations are different ways of God’s administering His rule over the world.”3

What importance do these distinctions hold for the student of Scripture? A dispensation, from the human vantage point, is the basis of the means by which believers are to live at any given time.

Theologian Myron Houghton expands on this point, writing: “The essence of Dispensationalism is that Israel and the Church, as well as God’s program for each, are clearly and consistently distinguished. The revelation concerning God’s program for each are not ways of salvation but ways of managing one’s life.”4

Thus, dispensationalists believe that the obvious distinctions that exist in Scripture—especially the differences between Israel and the church—must be understood, not only in order to grasp God’s plan for history, but also to know His will for the sanctification of believers in a given dispensation.

The New Testament epistles make it clear that the key for the sanctification of believers in this age is that they “are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14; see also John 1:17; Tit. 2:11-14). This is a drastic shift from the system under which Old Testament Israel operated, demonstrating clearly that the church is a completely separate entity (1 Cor. 10:32).

Thus it is vital for the Christian to have a basic grasp of the importance of dispensational distinctions.

Many books that a layman can easily digest develop this topic to a much greater degree. Among the most important are There Really is a Difference! by Showers, Law & Grace by Houghton5 and Law and Grace by Alva J. McClain.6

My own thinking on these issues has been molded by many great Bible teachers—not the least of which is my mentor and long-time co-laborer Dr. John Whitcomb.

Of course, we hope to provide an abundance of resources at Dispensational Publishing House that will have that same type of influence upon many, many people for years to come.


1 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology [4th revised and enlarged edition] (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941), p. 293.

2 Ibid., p. 409

3 Renald Showers, There Really is a Difference! (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc., 1990), p. 31.

4 Myron J. Houghton, “Law and Gospel in the Dispensational Tradition,” Article included in Systematic Theology IV class notes, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary, Ankeny, Iowa, Spring 1996 Semester. (Here is a multi-media slide featuring this quotation.)

5 Myron J. Houghton, Law & Grace (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Books, 2011).

6 Alva J. McClain, Law and Grace (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1954).


Peter’s situation, as well as the Galatians,’ shows that it is possible to believe what you have of gospel and then later become confused. What’s certain is that no one was ever saved any way but by grace through faith.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul, thank you for this. I had the privilege of sitting under Renald Showers while a student at Moody Bible Institute — I took him for all the classes for which he was available — my all time favorite prof. I had him for Pastoral Epistles, I & 2 Corinthians (though we never made it to 2 Corinthians!), and Galatians and Prison Epistles.

Regarding salvation in the OT or even during the era of Jesus’ teaching, I think things are fuzzier than we would like them to be. Salvation by faith was always the norm, but what was the content of faith? Would it be that God would somehow provide atonement for the repentant? There certainly was an awareness that Messiah would come, but I don’t think the nature of the atonement was really understood — although prophesied clearly by Isaiah. And what was understood clearly before Isaiah? Perhaps the content of Job was the best and clearest understanding (Job 19:25-27a, ESV)

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

"The Midrash Detective"

Yes, I think “than we would would like…” says it well. They are not fuzzier than they should be, but part of me wants everything to be tidy, crystal clear, and easy to summarize into short, memorable “teaching nuggets.”

But there is more work to it. I believe there was a good more of the same faith-content than might be seem to be the case. Paul says Abraham heard “the gospel.” Parts of his argument here are a bit hard to follow but there are startlingly clear—and fascinating statements here (the quote is ESV):

Ga 3:7–16 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. 15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

One of many passages I would so love to sit and have a chat with the apostle about! What exactly do you mean by “the gospel” here, given how you normally use the word, Paul?

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

It’s get even stickier than that. The writer of Hebrews said this about the Israelites in the wilderness, referring to Ps 95:

“Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it,” (Hebrews 4:1-2).

It makes you wonder what the specific content of saving faith was. Of course, the idea of progressive revelation is critical here.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

I’m sure this view is in the commentaries, but I’m not up on the pros and cons. Perhaps “gospel” in these cases should be taken in it’s more general sense of “good news.” But it seems more like “good news that is to be believed and accounted for righteousness.” Or a bit further, “good news of God promising to act graciously and redemptively that is to be believed and accounted for righteousness.”

It’s easier to establish the minimum of what they must have been taught than to establish the maximum of what they knew and understood.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.