“Dispensationalism” should not be a trigger word.
Over the past several decades, the rise of the “New Calvinism” has greatly influenced evangelicalism. As part of that, many have taken a different attitude toward dispensationalism, and its relevance for theology. For those who may be unfamiliar, dispensationalism refers to a way of viewing the Scriptures that sees God acting in different ways at different times throughout history. To be clear, it does not state that God changes, nor that the way of salvation has ever been anything other than by grace through faith. It sees God administering the world in different ways, putting mankind under different tests and conditions. Many have found it helpful, others dismiss it as dangerous. There’s been an undeniable shift in how people think of dispensationalism. Among many, it’s the theological grid of a bygone era, the way our parents and grandparents viewed the Scriptures, frequently with the aid of the Scofield Reference Bible. But we now have a better grasp of the storyline of the Bible and have thus outgrown dispensationalism as a useful way of understanding God’s Word.
I suggest it’s not as simple as this, and that there are a few ways people should think of this concept – even if they are uncomfortable with the word “dispensationalism” itself.
1. Everyone recognizes different eras in God’s dealing with humanity.
You need not be a purist when it comes to a way of understanding God’s Book to see this truth. Everyone recognizes at least 3 eras in God’s plan: The Past, Present, and Future. That is, God dealt with mankind in the past in way that differs from now. We usually refer to this as the old covenant, and that this covenant is no longer in effect. We are instead in the new covenant, (the present.) God has set forth different terms as part of the new covenant. It’s undeniable that the old and new are fundamentally different from one another.
Similarly, there is a future state. God has promised that he will judge the world visibly and that his saints will rule with the Lord Jesus. This, too, means that things will be very different than what now prevails in this age of grace. It should be uncontroversial that there are at least 3 eras. Call them dispensations, administrations, or ages of salvation history, but the concept is the same. They differ from one another. Recognizing this is just putting our Bibles together in sensible fashion.
2. This is much more of a package deal than people acknowledge.
It’s often the case that people think of various eras as only having to do with eschatology, of coming up with a chronology for the end times. Whether one asserts a pretributional return of Jesus, or whether it’s post-tribulational, or that there will be a literal 1000 year kingdom on the earth–these are the usual items we lump together under the heading of “dispensationalism.” But there are two other important things that enter into this. The first is the church. Are the physical descendants of Jacob-Isreal-included in the body of Christ? Note, the question is not are believing Israelites among the redeemed, but are they included in the church, the bride of Christ? To be a part of the body of Christ means not only being forgiven of the guilt of sin, but being raised with Jesus, and seated with him in the heavenly places, as Paul delineates in Colossians 3. Further, believers now have the Holy Spirit as the seal of our inheritance, living within us. That arrived at a point in salvation history. Jacob’s descendants did not have this.
Secondly, how we understand the relationship between law and grace is also part of the package. The law belongs to a previous era, as Paul notes in 2 Cor 3. He says we have died to the law, and now serve God in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. Here, too, are differences between then and now. If we don’t clearly distinguish between past and present, we mix into the present what belongs to the past, indeed, what God has told us is inappropriate to the present.
Our understanding of God’s ordering of salvation history need not be called “dispensational” to comprehend and appreciate the differences that he has put in place. Everyone recognizes the past, present, and future of God’s dealings with mankind. Acknowledging that is a help in understanding what he is doing now.