Balancing Your Dispensations
Donald L. Norbie, Greeley, Colorado, USA [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In a letter to Christians, MILES J. STANFORD took exception to the thought that Matthew chapter 18 verse 20, ‘For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them’, might apply to the church today, He took a strong dispensational position which declared, ‘The Lord was then teaching non- Christian Jews, while the church was as yet unrevealed. The rightly-divided word precludes any possibility of going back to Matthew, or anywhere else in the word outside of the Pauline church epistles, to doctrinally establish anything concerning the heavenly body of Christ, the church’. In line with this thinking the original Scofield Bible 1909 states dogmatically of Matthew 5-7, ‘For these reasons the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the church’. This is classical dispensational thinking.
Today, many who are basically dispensational in their thinking have moderated their position and do accept the Lord’s teaching in the Gospels as authoritative for believers in this present age. The word ‘dispensation’ comes from the Latin and means a ‘management’. Theologically, WEBSTER defines it as ‘the ordering of events under divine authority’. Most Bible students do recognize there have been differences in the way God has ordered things from age to age.
All however are not agreed on just how to divide up these different eras but many see seven main periods. ERICH SAUER in his book From Eternity to Eternity begins with ‘Paradise’ or one might call it ‘Choice’. Man in the garden is given a choice of either obeying God or disobeying Him. This era ended in man’s failure and rejection from the garden. The second period he calls ‘Self-determination’ or it might better be called ‘Conscience’. Man has no special revelation, no specific prohibitions but was guided by conscience, which carries the imprint of God’s law, Rom. 2. 14-15. Again, the age ends with man’s utter moral failure and God’s fearful judgement of the flood.
The third age SAUER calls ‘Human Government’, a time when God authorizes man to govern and even to take human life to enforce law, Gen. 9. 5-6. To take life is the ultimate power of human government. Once again man fails and misuses his authority to glorify man in the building of the tower of Babel. God judges man and scatters him across the earth.
The fourth dispensation SAUER calls ‘Patriarchs’, or some would denominate it as ‘Promise’. It is the age beginning with God’s promises to Abram in Ur. Abraham is described as one who ‘did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God’, Rom 4. 20. As such he is a pattern for all believers who cling to God and to His promises. This age ended with Israel, the natural seed of Abraham, groaning in bondage in Egypt.
The fifth age is that of ‘Law’ and begins with Moses and terminates with Christ. During this age the Ten Commandments give the essence of what is expected of man. The Lord Jesus summed them up as ‘love for God and love for one’s fellowman’, Matt. 22. 37-40. There were also additional laws applying those basic concepts to life for the Jew, along with dietary regulations. Instructions for the building of the tabernacle and for the worship of God were also given.
Paul points out that the Law could not save but was a tutor to bring one to Christ, Gal. 3. 24. It was a standard that only condemned us because of our weakness, Rom. 8. 3. As such it should cause men to turn to Christ for salvation. The tabernacle worship was also a tutor in that it instructed men as to the way one must approach God. Blood must be shed for forgiveness. This era ended in the fearful rejection of the Messiah by the Jewish people, and in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and in the dispersion of the Jews.
‘Grace’ marks the sixth age. ‘For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’, John. 1. 17. This is not to deny that men in other ages knew God’s grace, but this is the full flowering of God’s grace. This is the answer to Job’s question, ‘How can man be just with God’, Job 9. 2 ASV. The cross is the full display of God’s love and of His grace. ‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins’, 1 John. 4. 10. The gospel now proclaims that love and grace displayed at the cross through which the sinner can be justified, i.e., made righteous before God. The message of the prophets was fragmentary and incomplete but now God ‘has in these last days spoken unto us by His Son’, Heb. 1. 2.
The seventh dispensation is the ‘Millennium’, the thousand-year reign of Christ upon this earth, Rev. 20. 4. He will return with His saints to set up His kingdom. Israel will be broken and repent after that fearful time of tribulation, Zech 12. 1-3. Christ predicts, ‘They will look on Me whom they pierced’, Zech. 12. 10. They will weep and mourn as they realize the tragedy of their unbelief. Paul anticipates that day with joy when God will ‘graft them in again’ to blessing as a nation, and ‘so all Israel will be saved’, Rom 11. 26. Had not Christ promised His apostles, ‘You who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’, Matt. 19. 28? Yes, Israel has a glorious future in the plan of God.
It is helpful to view the various dispensations not as isolated compartments in history but rather as the school of God with mankind passing through the various grades. There is progress in learning and one does not abandon what he has learned in previous grades as he advances. Choice, conscience, human government, promise and law are still with us, each with its lessons to teach. But grace is the pinnacle of God’s instruction leading us to our blessed Lord Jesus. One can go no further than Christ, ‘He who has the Son has life’, 1 John. 5. 12.
Covenant theology errs by denying that God has a future for Israel. Its adherents spiritualize all of Israel’s promises and apply them to the church. They go back too much to the Old Covenant for guidance. They baptize babies because boy babies were circumcised in Israel. They fail to appreciate that children were born into Israel but one must be born again by personal choice through God’s grace to enter the church. They also tend to want to create a theocracy in a nation. ‘Dominion theology’ is popular in some quarters today. There is no future millennium in their scheme of future events. To them it is the church that will bring the world under God’s dominion by its influence.
But some dispensationalists err in compartmentalizing God’s dealings too much. Some would say that people were saved in a different way in past ages. But surely scripture emphasizes that in every age repentance and faith were necessary. We dare not so divide up scripture that we ignore Christ’s teaching in the Gospels as irrelevant for believers today. There is also a unity to the family of faith. Hebrews 11 recounts with excitement the faith of believers beginning with Abel and continuing through the Old Testament. The writer concludes by saying that ‘they should not be made perfect apart from us’, Heb. 11. 40. Paul could say of Abraham that we are his children; ‘those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all’, Rom. 4. 16.
There is a great unity about the final state of things for, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying; and there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’, Rev. 21. 3-4.
‘Even so, come Lord Jesus!’
AUTHOR PROFILE: Donald Norbie is in fellowship with the assembly in Greeley, Colorado, and is a commended full-time worker. A regular contributor to Precious Seed and other assembly magazines his ministry is widely appeciated throughout N. America and the UK.