Opinions on faith and life

Dispensationalism: Key to Understanding the Bible

2002-01-01

Introduction

Hermeneutics, the theory and methodology of scriptural interpretation, depends entirely upon a good understanding of the series of dispensations or ages by which God has revealed himself and his prophetic plan to mankind. This foundational understanding is crucial because it will prevent the Bible student from making great (and possibly heretical) errors on such teachings as salvation, security, Christian living, and worship. Many cults were born out of ignorance of this pivotal issue.

Dispensationalism, then, is the understanding that God’s methods of dealing with man have gone through a series of stages, two of which remain at this time. This is not to be confused with the heresy that God Himself could ever change, since the scriptures expressly say otherwise. This is also not to say that the requirement for salvation has ever changed, just the conditions and security of it.

It should be remembered that the various books of the Bible were not written in a vacuum, as if the words themselves had mystical properties that could only be properly interpreted by trained experts. These were written by God through ordinary people, to ordinary people, in specific situations, and with specific ideas in mind. Does anyone today write a letter and expect the reader to interpret the words any way they choose? People don’t (and shouldn’t be expected to) consider all the ways in which a sentence could be understood before they write! This was the great error of the Pharisees and scribes, an error that is becoming increasingly common today.

The Seven Dispensations

Although authors differ on the exact number and duration of the dispensations, I will use the C. I. Scofield model, which contains seven ages from the creation of Adam to the end of the Millennium. These ages are marked by a change with respect to sin and man’s responsibility, and can be seen as a series of tests of mankind by God. The seven dispensations are as follows:

 Character of dispensation (Scofield)   Consequence of dispensation (Fether) 
1. Innocence
2. Conscience
3. Authority
4. Promise
5. Law
6. Grace
7. Christ’s Rule
1. Death
2. Deluge
3. Dispersion
4. Desertion
5. Delay
6. Devastation
7. Defeat

Innocence

This dispensation begins with the creation of Adam and Eve as innocents. They had not yet disobeyed God and everything God created was very good. But man, a sentient being, had the capacity to either obey God or defy him. Some will say that God put the one restriction against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to tempt them, but the scriptures clearly say that God tempts no one. Man’s potential for sin came from his sentience, his free will. So in theory he could have sinned by disobeying any of God’s commands, which included managing the earth and multiplying. But man failed to obey God in everything, and at the moment of that first sin innocence was lost. Man could no longer enjoy direct communion with God, and physical death would be the fate of the first humans and all their offspring. Result of first test: failure.

Conscience

Man had now acquired a conscience, an inner moral code showing the difference between good and evil. There was as yet no formal government, so each individual did whatever he chose. But as time progressed, man regressed— to the point that the Bible says But the Lord saw that the wickedness of mankind had become great on the earth. Every inclination of the thoughts of their minds was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5) This brought on the Flood, which destroyed all but eight people, the only ones on the planet who found favor with God. Result of second test: failure.

Authority

After the Flood, God created the institution of Government. Its purpose was to slow down the spread of evil and punish it. God gave the State the right of capital punishment, a right which he did not give to the individual. Yet even then man found a way to corrupt this institution and use its corporate power to defy God again. The Tower of Babel was to be man’s triumph over God’s authority, so he scrambled their language into many pieces in judgment. Result of third test: failure.

Promise

People who can’t communicate can’t work or live together, so man was forced to carry out God’s command to spread out over all the earth. This resulted in the further speciation of ethnic groups globally. God then chose one man, Abram (later to be called Abraham), to establish a unique people group that would eventually produce the Messiah, the Savior. God made prophetic promises to Abram, some conditional and some not. But Abraham’s descendents, the people of Israel, showed a propensity for seeing God’s power and rejecting him anyway. Result of fourth test: failure.

Law

God allowed Israel to be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years before giving them a written Law to obey. No more were people left to be on their honor to obey God, no more would there be any excuses. They would now have specific written regulations to abide by. Predictably, though, Israel repeatedly strayed from God and suffered repeated judgments, until finally God had to drive them out of their land. Only after several centuries were they allowed to return, and then only in very small numbers, a mere remnant. It was to this remnant that Jesus came, only to be conspired against and crucified. Result of fifth test: failure.

Grace

Man has demonstrated his complete failure to obey God no matter what the circumstances. So Jesus came to do for us what we were unable to do for ourselves: be cleansed once and for all from sin, from separation from God. The Bible holds Law and Grace in opposition, meaning Grace is the absence of Law. Jesus took away the written code, which was against us, and nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14). This was the way out of our hopeless condition: to trust in Jesus’ ability to keep the Law, not our own ability. But even with this incredible demonstration of love and mercy from God, people still refuse to bow to him, to the point where now we can see the signs of impending global judgment once again.

Although some authors treat the seven-year Tribulation as a separate dispensation, it is really the culmination of the Age of Grace. After rejecting God’s own Son, there is no more sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 10:26). But the unique thing about the Age of Grace is that individual believers are personally and permanently indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit. Therefore, in order for God to judge the unbelieving world, he must first remove his Spirit, necessitating the removal of his people. At that point the prophetic timetable given to Daniel and John will finish its course, the last seven years of life without the direct rule of God on earth. Result of sixth test: failure.

Christ’s Rule

The last dispensation is known as The Millennium, meaning a thousand years. Mortal man is once again in direct communication with God, who rules the nations with a rod of iron, meaning there is no tolerance for rebellion. People will again live many centuries with only sinners dying at younger than 100 years of age. The judgment-mangled earth will be restored and repopulated, and there will at last be real peace. But at the end of it man is tested again, and again he fails. Rebellion in the midst of Eden brings us full circle through human history, and God must again destroy the wicked. Result of seventh test: failure.

Implications of Dispensationalism

Knowing all this, the Bible student can then avoid the misapplication of scripture. For example, the issue of Eternal Security hinges upon a proper understanding of the Age of Grace in which we now live. It is only the believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is guaranteed eternal life, due to the promise of God and the fact that we are new creations who belong to God and not to ourselves. Any commands to endure, if they are clearly on the issue of salvation and not service, are for those believers of other ages.

The Age of Grace, also called the Church Age, is referred to by Paul as a mystery that has only now been revealed (Ephesians 3:2). It is an interruption of the prophetic timetable given to Daniel, so if you treat this age as a kind of parenthesis in prophecy you will see a clear and continuous sequence. This effectively clears up a lot of other theories, such as Preterism, rejection of the pre-tribulation Rapture, or legalism for church-age believers.

if indeed you have heard of the stewardship [dispensation] of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that by revelation the divine secret was made known to me, as I wrote before briefly. When reading this, you will be able to understand my insight into this secret of Christ. Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus. I became a servant of this gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the exercise of his power. To me, less than the least of all the saints this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan— a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. (Eph 3:2-10)

In light of this, we should not try to mix teachings about this current age by going to the circumcision writings (the writings of the others, who were not given this revelation). Always remember where you are as you read the scriptures.

All scripture quotations are from the NET Bible.


Dispensations literally means house rules. The Greek word (see Eph. 3:2) is where we get our word economy and is sometimes rendered stewardship or administration.The Scofield reference is from this online article as of October 2004.Other articles on dispensationalism can be found at these links as of October 2004:

BibleLife
Bible.org (NET Bible)
BibleStudyManuals