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.
Contrary to dispensationalism’s claim that Christ sincerely offered “the covenanted kingdom to Israel” as a political reality in literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (J. D. Pentecost), the Gospels tell us that when his Jewish followers were “intending to come and take Him by force, to make Him king” that he “withdrew” from them (John 6:15), and that he stated that “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36).
Response: This charge is easily answered. The Jews who would make Him king by force in John 6 did not have the right idea of who Jesus was or of the purpose of His mission. This is made clear by reading the rest of the chapter, where Jesus ends up with only His original twelve followers. Therefore, the kingdom we read being offered to the Jews by the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-2) and Jesus (Matt. 4:17) was sincerely offered on the condition of repentance and faith. This repentance was not forthcoming from the nation at large, but the offer was there nonetheless.
But our brothers seem to have forgotten their own theology here. Surely these men believe in the “well-meant offer of the gospel” to all people (unless they belong to the PRC), even though not everyone who is offered salvation in the Crucified One will accept it? If it is not duplicitous of God to offer a non-elect person the gospel, why is it thought strange when the kingdom is offered to those whom He knows will refuse it?
In order for an individual to be brought into the sphere of the new covenant “in Christ,” it is necessary for him to believe in Christ (I do not tarry here to deal with the oddities of some Reformed ecclesiologies). One can tell the gospel over and over to an unregenerate soul, but unless God opens his heart he will not believe it—however well intentioned the evangelist may be. In the same way, the kingdom was offered to national Israel but they rejected it at the first coming (see Rom. 11:13-29). This will not be the case at the second coming (e.g. Zech. 12:10-13:1). What will be the difference? Clearly God will open the hearts of His people Israel (see e.g., Deut. 4:29-31, 30:1-10; Ezek. 36:22-37:28; Zeph. 3:9-20) so that they will believe and be saved and changed, thus making them able to fulfill the conditions of blessing within their covenants. The quotation of John 18:36 pertains to “the present evil world” as Paul calls it, and does not abrogate or spiritualize the literal promises God made to the Patriarchs and the Prophets.
Despite the dispensationalists’ belief that Christ sincerely offered a political kingdom to Israel while he was on earth (J. D. Pentecost), Israel could not have accepted the offer, since God sent Christ to die for sin (John 12:27); and His death was prophesied so clearly that those who missed the point are called “foolish” (Luke 24:25-27). Christ frequently informed His hearers that He came to die, as when He said that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28;) and Scripture clearly teaches that His death was by the decree of God (Acts 2:23) before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8). Thus, dispensationalism’s claim about this offer implicitly involves God in duplicity and Christ in deception.
Response: I have already addressed some of these charges in the previous answer. It is true that “Israel could not have accepted the offer, since God sent Christ to die for sin,” but this does not excuse those to whom the offer of the kingdom was made. According to Romans 1:18-27 and 3:1-3, the Jews had more than enough revelation to respond to the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus and His disciples. Thus, this question cannot be understood without considering the whole issue of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. That these Jews rejected the message of John and Jesus was their fault, not God’s.
Hypothetically one might ask “what if all the Jews had repented and been born again prior to Christ’s death? How could Jesus have been condemned by His own people (cf. Jn. 1:11, Mk. 10:33, 1 Thess. 2:14-15)? How then would Acts 2:23 be fulfilled? It is true that Christ would still have needed to die for men’s sins, but this produces only an apparent paradox of the relationship between divine calling and human culpability described above. Nobody can accept the offer today, even when Christ has died and been raised again, unless God works in him to bring him to salvation. But whether Christ has come or not, the responsibility for a faith-response to God’s revelation is always ours.
All this is hypothetical, but it is not contradictory. The fact remains the Jews did first have the kingdom preached to them (Matt. 10:5-7) before Christ died for their sins.
Contrary to the dispensationalists’ belief that Christ “withdrew the offer of the kingdom” and postponed it until He returns (J. D. Pentecost), Christ tells Israel, “I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt 21:43) and “I say to you, that many shall come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:11-12).
Response: What an interesting phenomenon it is to see when non-dispensationalists decide to take the Bible literally! The rule seems to be: “If it is against the nation of Israel, it is literal. If it promises that nation blessing, it is symbolic.”
Examining the context of these two passages will help us. Matthew 21:23 tells us to whom Jesus is speaking. It is “the chief priests and the elders of the people,” (read v.45) not the whole nation. (In passing, it is curious to note how men like John Gill escape the implications of Matthew 23:37 by arguing that Jerusalem refers to the Jewish leaders only. One can do anything using such hermeneutics.)
Matthew 8:11-12 does have in view the people in general, but any reader of Matthew who is not bent on using the text to damn the Jews will read on and see that the Lord was not through with Israel (Matt. 9:35-38, 10:5-7, 23:39). It is hardly stretching credulity to believe that “the sons of the kingdom” does not include every Israelite in inter-advent history. And if that is so—and who would deny it?—then using Matthew 8 this way proves too much. Is it too much to suggest that these brethren study Romans 11:11-12, 15 and 20-25 without viewing it through some supposed covenant of grace?
Despite dispensationalism’s commitment to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, their doctrine legally justifies the crucifixion by declaring that he really did offer a political kingdom that would compete with Rome and made him guilty of revolting against Rome, even though Christ specifically informed Pilate that his type of kingship simply was “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37), leading this Roman-appointed procurator to declare “I find no guilt in Him” (John 18:38).
Response: First, a brief consideration of passages like John 1:3, 10; Colossians 1:15-17 and Hebrews 1:2-3 will bring this objection into perspective. This world is rightfully Christ’s, to do with as He wills.
Second, Christ’s kingdom is the one spoken of in Daniel 2:34 and 44-45. It doesn’t “compete” with any other kingdom!
Third, since obeying Christ’s command in Matthew 28:18-20 involves many of His followers in breaking the laws of their countries, one might suppose the Nicene Council would apply their logic to evangelism and missions. After all, isn’t Christ the one who commands us to obey Him rather than the law of the land if that law runs contrary to His will?
Why would anyone think this was a serious objection to dispensationalism?
In responding to these Theses so far I am more and more impressed with the fact that these objectors are determined to see nothing in Scripture but their own precommitments. This is the only explanation I can think of for the weakness of such criticisms of dispensationalism. I am not against solid criticism. We all need it, and “Classic” Dispensationalists are not good at self-criticism—hence development of their system. But some of the theses remind me of certain atheist objections to Christianity or evolutionist objections to creationism. They are fueled by antipathy rather than sound reasoning.