Dispensational Theology

Dispensational theology is a method of interpreting the Bible, looking specifically at how God interacts with man. It stands in contrast to covenant theology. While covenant theology recognizes that God works in the Bible under two covenants – the covenant of works and the covenant of grace – dispensational theology sees numerous different dispensations or eras in which God works differently.

While some dispensational thought has been around since the time of the early church, dispensational theology has not been formalized as a concept until recently. While John Edwards and John Darby both espoused dispensational ideas, C.I. Scofield did the most in popularizing the idea. Scofield’s “Scofield Reference Bible” did much to push dispensational theology into the mainstream. It has since been promoted by notable theologians such as J. Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, and John Walvoord, along with many others, particularly those associated with Dallas Theological Seminary.

Dispensationalism breaks the Bible into different eras based on how God and man interact, most importantly how God’s grace is extended to humanity in each era. Although the number of dispensations are not important as much as just the recognition of different eras, there are seven commonly accepted dispensations that Scofield originally presented.

1. Innocence
2. Conscience
3. Human government
4. Promise
5. Law
6. Church
7. Kingdom

In the article “Dispensations and Covenants” each dispensation will be discussed more in depth. They will be linked to various covenants in the Bible as well. For the discussion on dispensationalism, it is simply important to recognize that different dispensations exist.

In each dispensation, man had certain requirements which, if met, would cause God to extend His grace to him. Meeting these requirements would, in effect, allow a person to be saved. In the age of innocence all Adam needed was to not sin and he would not die. In the era of conscience, man needed to follow his conscience, do what was right, and present blood sacrifices. Later when the law was given, the sacrificial system was better spelled out as were the laws that man was to follow.

In each dispensation, man has the option to follow God and approach Him by the grace that God extends. And in each dispensation, man fails and has no right to approach God. Some may obey God’s commands but as a whole, humanity fails and the next dispensation is ushered in. Finally in the church era grace is extended through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Faith in Jesus is required in order to be saved from sin.

Some argue that in each dispensation a person is saved in a different manner but this is not so. In each dispensation, grace is extended by God to humanity is order that salvation may be attained. Individuals are then required to act in faith to whatever revelation God has given man at the time. Adam only had the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and failed. Abraham was asked to leave his land and acted in faith and it was credited to him as righteousness as we are told in Genesis 15:6 and Paul repeats numerous times in Romans 4. This faith was a saving faith. It worked in the same way for those under the Mosaic law who followed the sacrifices that God had commanded but did not understand that they pointed to Jesus. They simply responded in faith to what God had revealed to them at the time. In the church era, we’re called to have faith in Jesus and this is what saves us. We have the benefit of fulfilled prophecies that the patriarchs before us did not. In the end though, it still came down to faith, regardless whether that faith was in anticipation of Jesus the Messiah or looking back to Him as we do today.

Biblical interpretation in Dispensationalism

Dispensational theologians hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible. This is the approach taken by all conservative theologians but where they differ is in the area of prophecy. Covenant theologians and other nondispensationalists maintain that prophecy should not be interpreted literally because it was not written literally, often using figurative language.

Dispensationalists recognize the use of figurative language in the Bible however and interpret prophecy as figurative where it is obviously figurative but literal wherever they can. The support for a literal interpretation of prophecy is that prophecy has been fulfilled literally concerning Christ’s first coming. Dispensationalists believe that there is no reason that it should not be taken literally in reference to future prophecies concerning Christ’s second coming.

Dispensational theology and Israel

Because dispensational theology views prophecy as literal, the biggest difference between it and nondispensational theology concerns the nation of Israel. While covenant theology sees the promises concerning Israel to be passed on to the church, dispensational theology believes that God is not finished with Israel and thus prophecies to Israel will still be fulfilled in regard to Israel and not the church. Needless to say, Israel’s return as a nation in 1948 gives this view more credence than it had for centuries because most believed that the nation had been punished and God was through with it.

Because of the beliefs about Israel, dispensational theologians generally have a premillennial view of the Millennial Kingdom and believe in a pretribulation rapture.

Premillennialism and dispensational theology

Premillennialism holds that Jesus will return to earth at the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom and reign on earth. This is a fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in which David is told in 1 Samuel 7:16 that his “kingdom will endure before Me forever, and your throne will be established forever.” In order for this prophecy to be fulfilled literally, Jesus must return to earth and establish an earthly kingdom as is described in Revelation 20. Other views of the Millennial Kingdom spiritualize this view. Likewise, if God is done working with Israel, these promises of God must be spiritualized because they cannot be fulfilled literally in the church.

Pretribulationism and dispensational theology

Belief in a pretrib rapture is not a requirement for belief in dispensational theology but follows in the same line of thinking as dispensationalism. The first and perhaps most important evidence for this is the fact that the church does not appear in the book of Revelation after chapter 3. The tribulation that falls upon the earth is never mentioned to strike the church, but Israel is a part of it. If the church is spiritual Israel, then we will endure the tribulation. If the two are separate, there is an argument from silence that the church is raptured because the church is not mentioned.

The second reason that dispensational theology and pretribulationism go together is that because of the promises to Israel that are yet to be fulfilled the church must be removed from the picture. This allows God to focus on calling Israel to repentance in preparation for the Millennial Kingdom. Romans 11 tells us that all Israel will be saved and this is the period in which God causes it to happen. The tribulation will cause Israel to open its eyes and realize that they have missed Jesus.

Covenant Theology

Covenant theology interprets the Bible through the lenses of two covenants, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Some covenant theologians see a third covenant, the covenant of redemption, but this falls under the umbrella of the covenant of grace. Covenant theology does not disregard individual covenants in the Bible such as the Davidic covenant but see them as part of a broader part of God’s plan.

In the covenant of works, there was a covenant between God and Adam; Adam would obey God and God would provide eternal life. Disobedience would bring death however. This is made clear in Genesis 2:16-17, “And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

When God’s command was broken, sin and death entered into the world. Adam had sinned as the representative of man and thus all people were born into sin. Man continued to sin individually as well, however, emphasizing the need for salvation from sin.

The covenant of grace is between God and the elect, those who have been or will be saved. Grace is not extended to those who do not accept and enter into the covenant. This is different from the covenant of works because Adam began under this covenant and chose to break it. The covenant of grace is a covenant that man enters into but not all enter. The covenant of grace offers eternal life to all with the condition that they have faith in Jesus Christ.

Because sin and death had entered the world, God had to extend grace to humanity. Grace is found in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Even though this does not occur until the New Testament, the Old Testament is still under the covenant of grace because the people looked forward to Jesus from the moment that God instilled the covenant in Genesis 3:15. There, Eve is promised that her seed would crush the head of the serpent.

The covenant of redemption is a covenant between God the Father and Jesus. Its importance is not so much that it be recognized as a third covenant under covenant theology but simply the fact that the covenant of grace is made possible because of the work of Jesus.

The covenant of redemption states that there was an agreement in eternity past that Jesus would provide redemption for fallen man. This is based off of passages such as Ephesians 1:3-14. The covenant of grace is placed into effect because Jesus came to earth as the “Second Adam” and lived a sinless life but paid the penalty of death that all sinners deserve.

Covenant Theology in the Old and New Testaments

The covenant of works failed the moment that sin entered into the world and the need for the covenant of grace arose. The covenant of grace goes into effect directly after the fall with the first prophecy concerning the coming of Jesus in Genesis 3:15. All of the Old Testament is spent looking forward to Jesus.

Anyone who follows the commands of God and takes part of the sacrifices that God requires does so in anticipation of the death of Jesus and the redemption found in the cross. Therefore Old Testament believers are saved in the same manner in which New Testament believers are saved. Salvation is through Jesus Christ, Old Testament believers are simply looking forward while New Testament believers look back upon the work that has already taken place.

Covenant Theology and Israel

Some reject covenant theology because of its view of God’s treatment of Israel. In short, the promises that God made to Israel were unconditional in that they would be fulfilled by God. However, they are spiritualized in that the promises are passed along to the church – spiritual Israel. Because Israel rejected Jesus, they do not get to enjoy in the promises that are made to Israel but the church will still see these promises fulfilled to them.

The thinking behind extending the promises of Israel to the church goes as follows. The covenant of grace was extended to the elect. In the beginning this was Israel whom God chose as a people for Himself. The promises that were made to Israel were not made to a nation or a people group, but to the elect who were a part of the covenant of grace. When Israel rejected Jesus and stopped placing their faith in the Messiah who they previously had looked forward to, they were no longer a part of the covenant. The church, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles alike, inherited the promises of God by virtue of the fact that they were now the participants of the covenant of grace. Nationality never had anything to do with Israel’s covenant aside from the fact that previously the nation of Israel had been a part of the covenant of grace.

Prophecy and Covenant Theology

Because of covenant theology’s view of Israel, this effects one’s interpretation of the Millennial Kingdom. Premillennialism holds that Jesus will literally reign on David’s throne for 1,000 years. This can’t literally happen if the promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church. For this reason, covenant theologians are amillennial or postmillennial in their view of the Millennial Kingdom.

For centuries it appeared as if the promises to Israel had to be spiritualized because Israel was no longer a nation. It appeared as though God had punished Israel and He was done with them. In 1948 when Israel became a nation again, it became possible for the prophecies about Israel to be literally fulfilled once again. This does not prove that the prophecies must be taken literally, it simply opens the door for them to be literally fulfilled when before that appeared impossible.

Signs of the Covenant

Israel was given circumcision as a sign of the covenant between them and God. All males were to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth and all converts to Judaism were to be circumcised. Once Israel rejected Jesus, a new sign of the covenant of grace was needed. Baptism was used by the church as a sign of the covenant of grace. Baptism was then used in place of circumcision as a sign of the covenant to distinguish Christianity from Judaism.

It should be noted that there is little scriptural evidence of infant baptism. A few passages in the New Testament reference households being baptized but never imply that babies are baptized. Instead this most likely refers to the fact that the entire household became saved and chose to be baptized together.

Infant baptism is therefore something that is deduced from scripture rather than a direct command. It takes the place of circumcision in order to differentiate the two religions. Much like circumcision did not save a child – they must choose to follow God’s commands and offer the appropriate sacrifices – so should infant baptism not be thought of as an act that causes salvation. A child must make the decision on their own to place their faith in Jesus.

Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

How Did Jesus Baptize?

Baptism is one of the most divisive theological issues in the church today. Some churches practice infant baptism while many only use “believer’s baptism.” Many will only baptize by immersion while some will sprinkle or pour as an act of baptism. These are all good questions in regard to what the Bible teaches and are discussed elsewhere on this site.

The issue that has been bothering me lately is the question of whether baptism is necessary for salvation. It is not up for debate as to whether baptism is a command. We are told to baptize and to be baptized. The deeper question is whether this is necessary for salvation or any other command such as do not lie. Lying is forgivable and will not keep a person from heaven. If a person does not follow the command to be baptized, will it keep them from heaven?

Repentance and baptism are tied together on the day of Pentecost. When Peter preached, the people responded by asking what they should do. Peter tells them that they should repent and be baptized. Jesus tells the disciples about belief and baptism in Mark 16:15-16 in a passage that is similar to the Great Commission of Matthew 28.

“He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Those who hold that baptism is necessary will note that it says “and” as in both belief and baptism are necessary for salvation. In the second part of the sentence baptism is dropped however. Those who do not believe will be condemned. Nowhere in scripture does it say those who are not baptized will be condemned.

Perhaps an even greater question than the necessity of baptism is the nature of baptism that takes place. Pentecostals and charismatics contend that a spiritual baptism as evidenced by the speaking in tongues is necessary for salvation. This is a conclusion that is drawn however. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that speaking in tongues is required for salvation or that those who do not speak in tongues will be condemned.
But this does bring up a good point. Should baptism be understood as spiritual or physical with water? Those who say it is necessary for salvation contend that the physical is required. However, it is worthy of note that Jesus never baptized anyone with water. John the Baptist tells us about Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:16.

“John answered them all, ‘I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’”

This would lead us to believe that Jesus’ baptism is not one of water at all. If Jesus required water baptism for salvation He most likely would have practiced it within His own ministry. While it could be argued that baptism is a picture of Jesus’ death and resurrection and wouldn’t have been valid until after Jesus’ ministry, this is a false argument because John the Baptist practiced water baptism.

The baptism of Jesus is the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is a baptism that takes place immediately upon belief in the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Peter Unlocks the Kingdom

In Matthew 16:15-20 Peter and Jesus have this exchange:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

In Acts 1:8 the disciples are told, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This divides the world into three areas that must be “unlocked” by Peter.

On Pentecost Peter opens the kingdom to Jerusalem as he preaches. In Acts 8, the disciples are scattered after the death of Stephen. Philip goes to Samaria and preaches there. People believe and are baptized but do not receive the Holy Spirit. It is because Peter has not unlocked the kingdom for them yet. When Peter arrives and prays for them, they receive the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 10, the kingdom is opened to “the ends of the earth” as Peter visits a gentile, Cornelius. As Peter is preaching to them, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. After they believe and receive the Holy Spirit, Peter asks, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” It is apparent that Peter considered water baptism important but his reason for doing so was because he had witnessed that they had received the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is an outward symbol for spiritual baptism.

Peter must explain to the other disciples why he went to the Gentiles in Acts 11. In verses 15-17 he explains, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?”

It is evident that the baptism of Jesus is a spiritual baptism and not one of water. Water baptism is still an important part of the Christian life however as it is a testimony for others. It is a symbol of the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit which we have.

Baptism should not be a divisive issue for us. Paul addressed the division that baptism caused in the Corinthian church by saying he was glad he had not baptized many of them. Paul’s mission should be our mission as he summarizes it in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”