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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
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).