Dispensationalism, as a way of viewing God’s dealings with mankind, is for some, a theological “crazy uncle.” The stereotype of excited explanations of end-times events has become an eye-roll inducing meme. Things like the “Left Behind” series have not helped, but they do serve as an example of misconceptions surrounding dispensational views. I want to discuss a few of these and suggest that elements of what constitute dispensationalism are present in more theological systems than one may think.
“It’s all about eschatology”
This may be the prime feature people think about when they hear the word “dispensational.” It’s all about the prophetic calendar and what the outworking of end time prophecy will be. But I think this is a decidedly secondary and derivative feature of understanding what’s going on with dispensationalism. What happens in the prophetic calendar is not unimportant, but it is not a foundational point of dispensationalism. Rather, it is the outcome of a hermeneutic that says when the Bible speaks of Israel, it refers to the seed of Jacob, and to Jacob’s seed, sure and certain promises were made that will be fulfilled. Conditions for such a fulfillment have not prevailed and therefore we can see these promises still await that fulfillment. The hermeneutic of seeing the language of the Old Testament as literal is the foundation of the eschatological outcome that dispensationalists generally hold. I say generally because there is diversity of opinion on the details. Such a hermeneutic in no way dismisses figurative language, nor does it ignore idioms, metaphor, or other literary devices. It recognizes such devices where they are used, but it does not resort to allegory when that is not necessary. The record of promises God did fulfill to his people Israel gives us warrant to believe those yet unfulfilled will have a similar realization. But most eschatology is an outgrowth of one’s hermeneutic. To say that dispensationalism begins with eschatology and then retrofits its hermeneutic to conform to it, is not a representation of what dispensationalism holds.
Salvation history is demonstrable
One way to look at what dispensationalists claim is to say that salvation history is a feature we see throughout Scripture. Said differently, progressive revelation means that what prevailed at one point no longer prevails, and there are new things which were not there in the past. The fact that the Scriptures speak of an Old Covenant and a New Covenant is the most obvious example of this. The New Covenant means that the Old no longer prevails. There are all sorts of things that come with that covenantal change. Under the Old Covenant, Israel was required to obey the law given at Sinai. But Paul makes it plain in a number of places that this is not the case with the New Covenant believer. (It is facile and false to say that this means we are free to sin.) To say, however, that an obligation to the Decalogue—along with the punishments for law-breakers (Sabbath violations, for example) is something only Judaizers of our day would assert.
This salvation history means that God dealt with his people in one way in the past, he is dealing with his people differently in this age, and that there is a coming age where different conditions will prevail. That is a brief summation of the progress of salvation history and is a kind of précis of a foundational truth dispensationalists affirm. There are a host of views on how God will work out what remains of salvation history, but that again brings us to eschatology. I contend that subscribing to a chart that has the ages spelled out in exact detail is not a salient feature of what it means to see the truths of dispensationalism. If you recognize progressive revelation, you’re affirming part of what dispensationalism holds.
Israel and the Church are not the same
As mentioned earlier, when the Scriptures use the word “Israel” it means the seed of Jacob. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is it otherwise. It is thus an ethnic, physical entity. Within that entity, there was also spiritual Israel, but it was a subset, never was it the case that Gentiles who feared the God of Israel became Israelites. They were strangers who sojourned among them. Among Israelites, there were those who knew and trusted the Lord, but there were also those who perished through their unbelief.
When we come to the New Testament, we find God doing a new thing, building his church. The church was an unrevealed mystery, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. Gentile blessing was certainly no mystery—for it was announced to Abraham in Genesis 12. But that Jew and Gentile would be part of one body where ethnicity was decidedly not a factor, such was unknown in the Old Testament. Paul says that God created of the two one new man. In other words, believing Gentiles were not made Israelites, something new was happening. This new man was a mystery, unrevealed until God unveiled it at a given point in salvation history. Nor does it mean we can’t recognize applications the New Testament makes from Israel’s history to believers now. It does, however, mean that those applications do not exhaust the promises God made to Jacob’s seed and we have good reason to expect a future fulfillment of them as God promised long ago.
An Israelite might have the Spirit come upon him (as Jephthah or Samson) but he was not indwelt and sealed with the Spirit, as Paul says we are. The Israelite had a promise of blessing, but was not seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, blessed with every spiritual blessing in those heavenly places. To be a member of the body of Christ is indeed different than being part of the nation of Israel. This is but to scratch the surface of the many differences. If you recognize the distinct privileges we now have in this age of grace, you are affirming part of what dispensationalism holds.
These differences in salvation history, developments, really, demonstrate that it is good to recognize God dealing with mankind now in a way that he previously did not. This does not mean salvation has not always been by grace, through faith. It has been and remains so. It means that it is important to think through the implications of what those differences are. In many cases they can’t even be termed implications, for they are explicit. It’s been popular in politics to say, “elections have consequences.” To paraphrase that here, “salvation history has consequences.” In a certain way, dispensationalism is simply recognizing and reckoning on those consequences.