Dispensationalism: A Step Up for the “Israel of God”

By Larry Pettegrew, ThD   

This is an excerpt from the book Forsaking Israel, edited by Larry Pettegrew and authored by members of the faculty at Shepherds Theological Seminary. It has been recently published by Kress Biblical Resources of The Woodlands, TX and is available at www.kressbiblical.com. The numbering of the citations and End Notes in this excerpt have been edited to conform to this version.

Dispensational premillennialism may not be as popular today as it was during the twentieth century. Indeed, one of the authors of this book has observed, tongue in cheek, that it sometimes seems as though we can no longer speak the word, “dispensationalism,” in polite company. Consequently, some young men and women, originally discipled in circles that are friendly to dispensational premillennialism, may have too quickly abandoned it in their ministry preparation.1 They may have been taught or read that dispensationalism, with its pretribulational premillennial eschatology, is only a populist movement, sustained primarily in popular prophecy novels, and thus not worthy of significant theological consideration. Or they may have been persuaded that biblical hermeneutics is complex, and the dispensational approach to hermeneutics is just too simplistic. Or perhaps they have become convinced that some form of supersessionism is a necessary accompaniment to embracing the doctrines of grace.

I think these are myths. I argue that dispensational premillennialism, when compared with other systems, consistently provides the best understanding of both the Old and New Testaments, and best honors the faithfulness of God to His promises to Israel. All of God’s promises to the nation of Israel have been or will be fulfilled. God has not forsaken Israel.

DISPENSATION AND DISPENSATIONALISM

The differences between dispensationalism and other systems are not found in the explanation of a dispensation. A “dispensation” is a translation of the Greek word, οἰκονομία, meaning a stewardship, or an administration (Luke 12:42; Eph 3:9). When we speak of the Reagan or Obama administrations, for example, we are identifying a stewardship that these men had when they were in the Oval Office. They were required to take responsibility for their office and were thus stewards, responsible to the American people.

Similarly, each Christian is a personal steward of God’s revelation. The apostle Paul considered himself a steward of the revelation that he had received from God about the church. He writes, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Cor 4:1-2, emphasis added; cf. Eph 3:2-3). In other Scriptures, an era is called a stewardship. Paul describes the church age as “the administration [οἰκονομία] of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” (Eph 3:9 NAU).

The name of the theological system, “dispensationalism,” apparently derives from the idea that adherents to this system understand that God’s plan for the human race is unfolded through a succession of administrations or stewardships. But no serious Bible student, dispensationalist or otherwise, doubts that there are successive dispensations in Scripture. One of the early proponents of covenant theology, Herman Witsius (d. 1708), for example, has a chapter in his two-volume set entitled “Of the different Economies or dispensations of the Covenant of Grace.”2 Witsius explains, “We shall exhibit, in this chapter, a short representation of these dispensations.” Witsius discusses two dispensations in this chapter, the Old Testament dispensation that begins after the fall, and the New Testament dispensation. In another place, Witsius speaks of a third “economy” in the Garden of Eden under which the covenant of works administered God’s affairs.3 In another section of his book, Witsius introduces his chapter on the covenant of grace with similar words: “Let us now more particularly take a view of the two Economies, or the different dispensations under which that covenant was administered.”4 In succeeding chapters he discusses the covenant of grace “under Noah,” “from Abraham to Moses,” “Of the Decalogue,” and “Of the Prophets.”

Covenantalists, dispensationalists, and premillennial supersessionists thus use the term “dispensation” with similar understandings. Sam Storm, a covenantalist arguing for amillennialism, states, “It must be noted, however, that the recognition of distinct epochs or periods in biblical history is not the primary characteristic of dispensationalism. All Christians recognize the presence in Scripture of developments within God’s redemptive purpose.”5

Dispensationalists such as John Feinberg have emphasized this point again and again. Feinberg writes,

The initial error is thinking that the word “dispensation” and talk of differing administrative orders only appears in dispensational thinking. Which covenant theologian thinks οἰκονομία is not a biblical word? Moreover, covenantalists often speak, for example, of differing dispensations of the covenant of grace. Since both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists use the term and concept of a dispensation, that alone is not distinctive to dispensationalism. It is no more distinctive to Dispensationalism than talk of covenants is distinctive to Covenant Theology. Dispensationalists talk about covenants all the time.6

Dispensationalists have always been aware of dispensations in Scripture, but so have other theological systems.

It may even be true that the name, “dispensationalist” was originated by opponents of what became known as “dispensationalism.” Todd Mangum believes that 1936 is the first time that dispensationalists “accepted the label ‘dispensationalist’ for themselves. It appears that dispensationalists’ accepted the label only reluctantly, and largely in response to articles written against them by Northern Presbyterians.”7 “Dispensationalism,” therefore, is not the best name for this system that honors God’s promises to Israel. Dispensationalists didn’t choose it, it has only been an identification name for their views for less than one hundred years, and it implies to some people weird doctrines such as multiple ways of salvation. Some dispensationalists have proposed that we call this system “futuristic premillennialism,” and others have suggested “restorationism,” i.e., the system that believes in the restoration of a redeemed Israel to the center of God’s plan. Another possible good name is “biblical covenantalism,” because this system is not built on the foundation of dispensations, but on the major biblical covenants, specifically the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New.8 These biblical covenants form the backbone of what is usually called dispensationalism.

Dispensationalists have also tried to make other clarifying points about a dispensation, First, a dispensation is not essentially a period of time. A period of time is involved, but the point of a dispensation is that there is a distinguishable stewardship or administration. Second, the different dispensations in Scripture are not different ways of salvation. God’s provision of salvation has always been by grace through faith based on the finished work of Christ. A dispensation, rather, deals with different ways that God administers His rule in the world. Third, each dispensation does have unique features to it that are clearly revealed by God, but some principles carry over to later dispensations (capital punishment, for example). Fourth, there are different opinions among dispensationalists as to how many dispensations there are. It’s common to teach seven dispensations, but some dispensationalists have as few as four. One does not have to commit to a certain number of dispensations to be a dispensationalist.

EVANGELICAL

If we cannot identify dispensationalists by their distinctive use of the biblical word, “dispensation,” then who are dispensationalists? Dispensationalists generally are Bible-believing Christians who hold to the fundamentals of the faith, and often are described as evangelicals. Church historians in recent years have identified the essence of evangelicalism in four points:9

  1. The authority of Scripture.
  2. The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross.
  3. The need for personal conversion.
  4. The necessity, propriety, and urgency of evangelism.

 

These characteristics apply to dispensationalists and other evangelicals. Many of those Christians who have been a part of historic fundamentalism and prefer to call themselves “fundamentalists” are also dispensationalists. It has never been true, however, that all evangelicals were dispensationalists. As noted above, dispensationalism with its eschatological teachings of pretribulational premillennialism may have lost ground in recent years.

One of the more significant articles about evangelicalism pertinent to our study was published in Christian Life magazine in March of 1956, and was entitled “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?”10 The article identified eight ways in which evangelical theology was changing in the middle of the twentieth century: (1) A friendly attitude toward science; (2) A willingness to reexamine beliefs concerning the work of the Holy Spirit; (3) A more tolerant attitude toward varying views on eschatology; (4) A shift away from so-called extreme dispensationalism; (5) An increased emphasis on scholarship; (6) A more definite recognition of social responsibility; (7) A re-opening of the subject of biblical inspiration; (8) A growing willingness of evangelical theologians to converse with liberal theologians.

Concerning point three, the article states that “it used to be that most fundamentalists were premillennial and pre-tribulation…. But for the last ten years debate has been raging on these subjects.”11 Paul Woolley of Westminster Theological Seminary contributed, “The average evangelical Christian realizes that the exegesis (explanation) of the Scriptures on this point is not so simple that he can be cocksure about every detail. The result is that there is a more healthy open-mindedness about the details of the eschatological scheme.”12 In explaining point four, the author of the article declares, “Theologians are probably closer to agreeing on the fact that dispensationalism is facing a real test today than on any other statement. Warren Young’s comment, ‘The trend today is away from dispensationalism—away from the Scofield Notes—to a more historical approach,’ is echoed by many evangelical theologians.”13

These predictions about the possible demise of dispensationalism have not come true to the extent that these authors implied.14 Still, “evangelical theology is not monolithic,”15 and has become even more amorphous over-all since that article was written. Not all evangelicals are dispensationalists. Not all fundamentalists are dispensationalists. But many are. Significantly, there has never been nor ever will be a theologically liberal dispensationalist—nor, for that matter, a liberal pretribulational premillennialist. It is impossible because of dispensationalists’ intense devotion to the grammatical-historical interpretation of Scripture.

CONSISTENT GRAMMATICAL-HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION

The aim of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation is to discover the meaning of a passage of Scripture as the original author would have intended and as the original hearers would have understood the message. Finding this meaning may not always be the end of interpretation, but it should always be the most important first step.16

Scripture is not mysterious, so it is usually not difficult to understand a passage of Scripture. “Historical” in “grammatical-historical interpretation” means that the student of God’s Word will understand Scripture better if he understands the historical, social, and cultural contexts of the biblical writers. “Grammatical” interpretation means studying the sentences word by word, knowing what the main clause in the sentence is, and observing how the verbs, nouns, and adjectives fit into the sentence structure. It also includes an investigation of the immediately preceding and immediately following contexts.

Of course, the interpreter should also keep in mind the genre of the literature where a text is found: poetry (Psalms), prophecy (Isaiah, Revelation), a letter (Romans), history (Genesis), or a narrative (Acts). Acknowledging the genre of a passage of Scripture, however, does not blur the effort of trying to understand what the original author meant. Given the quality of our English translations in our era, plus some wonderful commentaries written by Bible-believing scholars, all Christians can potentially understand by serious study what a passage of Scripture means.

Trustworthiness of the Old Testament Prophets

The Old Testament Prophets are at the center of disagreements over consistent grammatical-historical interpretation. All evangelicals believe in the grammatical-historical method of interpretation of Scripture to some extent. Otherwise, they would not be evangelicals. But dispensationalists are more consistent in this matter, especially regarding Old Testament prophecy. Dispensationalists believe and teach that an Old Testament prophecy must not be stripped of its original meaning. If an Old Testament prophet prophesied the grandeur of a future kingdom here on earth, led by King Jesus, and centered in Jerusalem, dispensationalists believe that this is what is going to happen. For example, what did Isaiah mean when he prophesied the following?

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isa 2:1-4).

Dispensational premillennialists believe that this is exactly what is going to happen. The interpreter of the Bible, say dispensationalists, must treat with integrity an Old Testament passage in its own context. And since the Old Testament includes sixteen prophetic books, this is no minor issue. Similar prophecies about a future earthly kingdom before the eternal kingdom are also revealed in the historical and poetic sections of the Old Testament.

THE CHURCH A DISTINCT ORGANISM

In addition to their devotion to consistent grammatical-historical interpretation, dispensationalists believe that the church is not just an updated Israel, as covenant theologians teach, nor does the church replace Israel permanently. In some ways, both Old Covenant and New Covenant believers are similar. For example, both are saved by grace through faith based on the substitutionary death of Christ. Nevertheless, we learn in Scripture: (1) the church was a mystery in the Old Testament and is thus a distinctive organism that began at Pentecost (Acts 2); and (2) the term “Israel” always refers to the covenant nation in biblical history, during the church age, and in predictive prophecy.

The Church a Mystery in the Old Testament

It is theologically incorrect to speak of the “Old Testament church” or “the church in the Old Testament,” as non-dispensationalists often do. The New Testament states explicitly in Ephesians 2-3 that the church was something new, unknown in the past. Beginning in verse eleven of chapter two, the Apostle Paul details the horrifying predicament confronting the Gentiles under the Old Covenant by summarizing five privileges that the people of Israel had which the Gentiles did not:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:11-12).

According to Paul, (1) the Gentiles were without the messianic hope (“separated from Christ”); (2) they were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel; (3) they were excluded from the covenants of promise;17 (4) they had no hope for salvation; (5) they were alienated from the God of Israel (“without God in the world”).

Then Paul reveals the solution to this horrifying predicament for the Gentiles: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13). The door to salvation was opened to them through Spirit baptism into union with Christ (cf. Gal 3:27) on the basis of the shed blood of Christ. The result is that Jews and Gentiles are together on equal footing in the church as one: one new man, one body, one Spirit (2:14-18).

Oneness and newness are the chief characteristics of this new organism. Though formerly strangers to the plan of God, saved Gentiles are now fellow citizens with the saved Jews in the household of God and fellow members of the body of Christ, and fellow partakers of the promised Messianic salvation with its attendant blessings of the New Covenant ministries of the Holy Spirit (2:19-22).

Furthermore, the union of believing Jews and Gentiles in a new body was a mystery in the Old Testament (3:3).18 The word, “mystery,” does not mean mysterious, or mystical, or confusing. “Mystery” simply means “secret.” The church was a secret in the Old Testament. The content of this secret is actually a definition of the church. As Paul explains, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). Thus, the church, as defined by Paul, is Jew and Gentile together in one body on equal footing.19 It was a secret, Paul adds, because it was not previously revealed (3:5).20 But the secret is no longer secret because it has now been revealed by the Spirit. And the Spirit revealed the secret to the world through the apostles and New Testament prophets (cf. Col 1:25-27).

If the church was not revealed in the Old Testament, then there is no such thing as an Old Testament church. Whatever happened on the Day of Pentecost when the New Testament church was formed is not just an absorption or update of an “Old Testament church.” Yes, both are saved by grace through faith. Soteriologically, there is one people of God. But the church is a distinct organism different from the nation of Israel that was formed on the Day of Pentecost. Both the church and Israel continue to be important in God’s plan for the future.

The Church Is Not “New Israel”

Not only is it theologically incorrect to speak of the “Old Testament church,” it is also incorrect to say that the church is the “new Israel.” There is no biblical evidence for this terminology. Paul Benware explains,

The term “Israel” is used a total of seventy-three times in the New Testament, and in each case it refers to ethnic Israel. Out of these seventy-three occurrences only three are used by covenant theology to prove that Israel equals the church, which could hardly be seen as overwhelming evidence for an Israel-equals-church idea. Interestingly covenant theologians are not in agreement in two out of these three references. Some see two of them (Rom 9:6 and 11:26) as referring to ethnic Israel.21

The main verse in which non-dispensationalists think they find the church specifically identified as the “new Israel” is Galatians 6:16. The phrase “the new Israel” is not in Galatians 6:16 and never appears in Scripture. But in this passage, Paul uses the phrase “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). Non-dispensationalists claim that Paul is saying that “the Israel of God” is a name for the church and that the church updates and replaces Israel and thus becomes the “new Israel.” This verse, according to some covenant theologians, is “the chief witness in the New Testament in declaring that the universal church of Christ is the Israel of God, the seed of Abraham, the heir to Israel’s covenant promise (see Gal 3:29; 6:16).”22 The better interpretation, however, is that the “Israel of God” is not a name for the church but refers to godly Jews in the churches of Galatia.

The verse appears near the end of Galatians where Paul is sending his final admonitions to the churches of Galatia. Much of this letter is a warning about the Judaizers, and Paul reasserts his warning as he is about to finish:

12 It is those [Judaizers] who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you [Gentile Christians] to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.

13 For even those who are circumcised [Judaizers] do not themselves keep the law, but they [Judaizers] desire to have you [Gentile Christians] circumcised that they [Judaizers] may boast in your [Godly Gentiles’] flesh.

14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

16 And as for all who walk by this rule [Godly Gentiles], peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God [Godly Jews] (Gal 6:12-16).23

Non-dispensational theologians support their view that the church is “the new Israel” by focusing on the conjunction translated here “and.” They claim that the Greek word (καὶ) sometimes means “even,” and should be translated this way in verse 16. Paul would therefore be equating believing Gentiles with the “Israel of God.” Thus “Israel of God” is another name for the church, they say. But reliance on a secondary use of a conjunction for such an important theological point is not compelling.24

More important for understanding correctly the “Israel of God” is the immediately preceding context. All agree that Paul is specifically addressing the Gentile believers who have not been circumcised (12-13). He speaks to them in the second person plural (“you”). Both covenant theologians and dispensationalists also agree that the “them” in verse 16 is also referring to the Gentile Christians who commit to the truth that circumcision is not a part of salvation.

Then Paul blesses (“peace and mercy”) the two groups within the Galatian churches who will not be overwhelmed by the arguments of the Judaizers: (1) Gentile Christians (“them”) and (2) godly Jews (“the Israel of God”).25 Paul is not stating that the church should now be known as “the Israel of God” or as “new Israel.”26 He is referencing believing Jews in the Galatian churches who reject the Judaizers. These godly Jews are the “Israel of God.”

We should also remember the seventy-two other uses of the word, “Israel,” that always refer to ethnic Israel. And it would certainly be unusual if, in the concluding admonitions to his letter, he dropped this new “bombshell” on the Galatians churches that they were now the “new Israel,”  the “Israel of God.” The truth of the matter is that the terms “Israel” and “the Israel of God” are never used in the New Testament as synonyms for the church. Thus, there is no such thing as the “Old Testament church,” and the church is not “new Israel.”27

This book is now available through Kress Biblical Resources (use the coupon code “sts” and receive a 40% off discount on all Kress products through the end of July).

END NOTES

1 I don’t want to overstate this problem. I know that the reverse is also sometimes true, that those reared in nondispensational circles sometimes later come to accept dispensational premillennialism.

2 Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (London: R. Baynes, 1822; original Latin version, 1677 repr., Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk, Christian Foundation, 1990), I.III.III:317-24.

3 Ibid., I.I.II:54.

4 Ibid., II.IV.I:108.

5 Sam Storm, Kingdom Come, The Amillennial Alternative (Geanies, Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2013), 50.

6 John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. by John S. Feinberg (Westchester, IL.: Crossway Books, 1988), 169. See also Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 41; and Michael Vlach, “What Dispensationalism Is Not?” in Christ’s Prophetic Plan, edited by John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 52.

7 R. Todd Mangum, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift: The Fissuring of American Evangelical Theology from 1936 to 1944 (Bletchley: Paternoster Press, 2007), 6. Mangum is specifically discussing dispensationalists in the southern Presbyterian Church. See also Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” Bibliotheca Sacra 93 (October-December, 1936):390-449.

8 Dr. Reluctant, Paul Martin Henebury, may have coined the term, “biblical covenantalism.” See his blog, “Dr. Reluctant.”

9 See, for example, David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, vol. 3, A History of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 23-40.

10 “Is Evangelical Theology Changing?” Christian Life, March 1956, 16-19. The article was written by the Christian Life staff and featured the views of faculty members from Fuller Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, Asbury College, Denver Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, and Baylor University. The key interviews were from well-known evangelicals at that time including Vernon Grounds, E. J. Carnell, Lloyd Kalland, Stanley Horton, Carl F. H. Henry, Bernard Ramm, Wilbur Smith, and Paul Woolley.

11 Ibid., 18.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Some of the other points made in this article anticipated weaknesses entering the evangelical movement rather than strengths.

15 Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” 310.

16 Since many books have been written to discuss and debate the issues in hermeneutics, the following discussion is only an overview of the way many dispensationalists think about interpreting Scripture.

17 Note the plural. This is the perfect place to use the singular if the covenant of grace were the issue. But the covenants of promise are the biblical covenants such as the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New.

18 See further Carl Hoch, “The Significance of the SYN-Compounds,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (June, 1982), 175-83. To be clear, Paul’s point is not that the church is an afterthought of secondary importance to God. We who are believers in the church age were chosen in Christ “before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4).

19 The word “church” is a translation of a common Greek word that essentially means “assembly.” A few times in the New Testament the word “church” does not refer to the New Testament church made up Jew and Gentile together on equal footing. In a non-technical sense, the word just means “assembly.” See Acts 7:38; 19:32-41. In the latter passage, the Greek word refers to an unruly mob, and then to a lawful assembly.

20 Some non-dispensationalists argue that the church was revealed in the Old Testament, just not as clearly revealed as it was in the New Testament, basing their argument on the “as.” The parallel passage in Colossians 1:26, however, proves this view incorrect. Here the word “as” is not found. So the Ephesian passage should not be interpreted, “not so clearly as.” The church, as Jew and Gentile together in one body on equal footing, was not revealed at all in the Old Testament.

21 Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 87.

22 LaRondelle, Israel of God in Prophecy, 110-11.

23 Pronoun identification is mine.

24 Some editions of the New International Version, unfortunately in my opinion, give the same impression by replacing the “and” with a dash.

25 Also the joint themes of Israel and “mercy” throughout Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 adds evidence to the proper interpretation of mercy and Israel here in Galatians 6:16. See further Cilliers Breytenbach, “‘Charis’ and ‘eleos’ in Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” The Letter to the Romans (ed. U. Schnelle: BETL, 226; Louvain: Walpole, MA: Peeters, 2009), 266.

26 See chapter two for an analysis for when the phrase “New Israel” first shows up in the church fathers.

27 For further discussion on Galatian 6:16, see S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Paul and the ‘Israel of God’: An Exegetical and Eschatological Case-Study,” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 181-96). Johnson lists several commentaries that hold to one of these two views, 183-87.

BIO
Dr. Larry Pettegrew is the Dean / Provost, Emeritus of Shepherds Theological Seminary and the Research Professor of Theology. He is a graduate of Bob Jones University, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of The New Covenant Ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the editor of Forsaking Israel. Over the last fifty-two years, he has taught at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, The Master’s Seminary, and Shepherds Theological Seminary.