A Dispensation - The system by which anything is administered. In Christian terms, looking back, it refers to a period in history whereby God dealt with man in a specific way. (Conscience, Law, Grace)
Dispensationalism - A system of theology that sees God working with man in different ways during different ages.
Dispensationalism is distinguished by three key principles.
1 - A clear distinction between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the Church.
2 - A consistent and regular use of a literal principle of interpretation
3 - The understanding of the purpose of God as His own glory rather than the salvation of mankind.
What about the Dispensations?
Dispensationalism is not in the definition or recognition of a specific number of dispensations. Most theologians recognize that God works differently through the Law than Grace. That is not to say that salvation was attained in a different manner, but that the responsibilities given to man by God were different during the period of the giving of the Law up to the cross, just as they were different for Adam and Eve. The Jews were to show their true faith by doing what God had commanded, even though they couldn’t keep the moral Law. That’s what the sacrifices were for. When the apostle Paul said that as to the Law he was blameless, he didn’t mean that he never sinned, but that he obeyed God by following the guidelines of the Law when he did sin, and animal sacrifices were offered for his sin. Salvation came not by keeping the law, but by seeing it’s true purpose in exposing sin, and turning to God for salvation. The Jews weren’t saved based on how well they kept the law, as that would be salvation by works.
Dispensationalists will define (7) recognizable dispensations.
Innocence - Adam
**Conscience ** - After man sinned, up to the flood
Government - After the flood, man allowed to eat meat, death penalty instituted
Promise - Abraham up to Moses and the giving of the Law
**Law ** - Moses to the cross
**Grace ** - The cross to the Millennial Kingdom
Millennial Kingdom - A 1000 year reign of Christ on earth centered in Jerusalem
The point from the dispensationalists view is that God is working with man in a progressive way. At each stage man has failed to be obedient to the responsibilities set forth by God. (administration, dispensation) The method of salvation, justification by faith alone, never changes through the time periods. The responsibilities God gives to man does change. The Jews were to be obedient to the Law if they wished God’s blessing of Land. If they were disobedient, they would be scattered. However, God promises to always bring them back to the land promised to Abraham in the Abrahamic Covenant. After the cross, believers no longer need the Law, which pointed to Christ as the one that would take the burden of sin. We are under a new Law, the Law of Grace. We have more revelation about God, and are no longer required to keep ceremonial laws given to the Jews.
Remember that making a distinction between these time periods is not what makes someone dispensational. Recognizing the progressive nature, and seeing the church as part of Plan A and not Plan B is what makes someone dispensational. Dispensationalists see a clear distinction between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the church. God is not finished with Israel. The church didn’t take Israel’s place. They have been set aside temporarily, but in the end times will be brought back to the promised land, cleansed, and given a new heart. (Gen 12, Deut 30, 2 Sam 7, Jer 31)
So what is the key to Dispensationalism?
Using the literal method of intepreting the biblical covenants and prophecy leads to a specific set of core beliefs about God’s kingdom program, and what the future will hold. This is applied by the recognition of a distinction between Israel and the Church, and a promised future earthly reign of Christ on the throne of David. (The Davidic Kingdom.) This leads a person to some very specific conclusions about the end times.
- Israel must be regathered to their land as promised by the covenants. (If intepreted literally)
- Daniel’s seventieth week specifically refers to the purging of the nation Israel, and not the Church.
- Some of the warnings in Matthew 24 are directed at the Jews, and not the Church.
- A Pretribulation rapture (Israel is seen in Daniel as the key player during the tribulation) (God removes the elect when he brings judgment on the world. i.e. Noah, John 14)
- Premillennialism - A literal 1000 year Millennial Kingdom, where Christ returns before the Millennium starts. Revelation 20 doesn’t give us a reason to interpret the 1000 years as symbolic. Also, dispensationalists see the promised literal reign of Christ in the OT.