July 30, 2017
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 17:00 in the audio file.
Or, What is a Dispensationalist? (Part 1)
Maybe you’ve heard it said before that the Millennium is one-thousand years of peace that Christians like to fight about. There are certainly other doctrines that provoke fierce debates among believers. Arminians and Calvinists have been arguing since before the foundation of the world, at least in the eternal counsels of the Trinity. But eschatology has been a ground for conflict for at least a few centuries, and will probably continue to be so, until it’s all over.
Eschatology is the doctrine of the eschatos = the end things. It is the study of what will happen in the “last days,” or it starts with determining when the last days were, or are, or will be. The study of the end times is a study involving prophecy and it is especially difficult, compared to other biblical doctrines, because everyone agrees that at least some things have yet to take place. Eschatological hindsight is 20/20, and many have more hind than sight.
Eschatology and confusion go together like water and electricity; water will conduct the energy but it’s hard to control. The genre of apocalypse is full of jolting imagery and it shocks the imagination. It also taxes the exegetical effort. One of the more important charges Paul gave Timothy was to:
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15).
There is one word for “rightly handling” in Greek, orthotomounta. You can hear “ortho” at the beginning, the word for “straight.” It referred to cutting a path in a straight direction, perhaps cutting a linear piece of leather for a tent, a practice with which Paul was familiar. The NAS translates it as “accurately handling,” which is also okay. Back in the KJV it has “rightly dividing,” and this is especially interesting for a couple reasons.
First is that Dispensationalists, a category for those who believe certain things about the end times, are usually the ones who most maintain that they are the straight cutters. I agree, for reasons that will be stated later. It is why I’ve emphasized the irony over the past few weeks of those who claim to be the best Bible-readers missing other key parts of the Bible. Dispensationalists, though, can get a little scissor happy. They parse the prophets with a razor’s edge and cut their Kuyperian throat in the process. This is no good, though I’d maintain this is a failure to carry the reading principles all the way through, not a failure of the reading principles from the beginning. A Kuyperian can’t be a Darwinian, a Deist, or a Dualist, but he can (we’d say should) be a Dispensationalist.
The second reason why “rightly dividing” is an interesting phrase is because one of the largest flame-books against Dispensationalism is called Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth by John Gerstner. He argues not only against the Dispensational reading, he makes up straw men and torches them.
Even in the context of 2 Timothy, Paul is urging Timothy to study the Word because of quarreling about words “which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (verse 14). There is “irreverent babble” that leads people “into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene” (verse 16), “upsetting the faith of some” (verse 17). Paul was not thinking about “last things.” And this is not to say that anyone who disagrees over eschatology is necessarily behaving in such an ungodly way, but there certainly are too many discussions that uglify the doctrine rather than adorn it.
Why not just avoid the subject altogether? We should be concerned with eschatology because we should be concerned with God’s promises, those fulfilled and those yet to be fulfilled. He is the God of promise and we are His people. We should be concerned with eschatology because God has revealed things about the end. He gives us His Word for us to understand. And we should be concerned about eschatology because it is a catalyst for our current behavior. What we believe will happen affects what we we believe we’re working for.
I think that we are ready for this. We believe in the sovereignty of God. We’ve practiced reading and interpreting the Old Testament. We have also practiced repentance and learning how to be kind to those with whom we disagree.
For our purposes there are two sides of a spectrum for us to consider: Dispensational theology and Covenant theology. One side sees greater continuity and overlap between the Old Testament and New Testament, the other side acknowledges some key distinctions. Perhaps the groups are similar to Republicans and Democrats, those who have a certain approach to reading the Constitution and laws. Dispensationalists and Covenantalists are less like the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. There are extreme edges on both sides, and there are, as expected with a spectrum, parts in the middle. I’m not sure that there is an exact middle; besides, fence straddling is bound to tear a theologians pants.
Both ways, at least in terms of their labels, of defining the Bible’s teaching are new-ish in the theology of church history. Covenantalists love to point out that Dispensationalism was a system first designated in the 19th century. “How could it be any good? It’s too young! What about the previous 18 centuries?” But what they often don’t say is that Covenantalism as a system of end-times explanation was made popular only in the 17th century. Don’t let anyone tell you that Paul was a Covenantalist, let alone Augustine or Calvin.
The early church was focused on identifying the canon of Scripture—and not being martyred—then on the person of Christ and an understanding of the Trinity. By the time of the Reformation the gospel itself was in the dark and the Reformers shined Scriptural light back on justification by faith alone. Only then, and still a hundred years or more afterward, was there concentrated effort to organize and define the “last things.”
All the TEC elders are Pre-tribulational, Pre-millennial, Reformed and still reforming Dispensationalists. What does that mean? And what does that effect? And how do we understand what will happen in the future? We are trying to read the word of truth right, to rightly divide it. The goal is to define what a Dispensationalist is over the next few weeks and then get to why a Kuyperian Dispensationalist is the best yet (even if there is only one out there).
There are a couple blatant errors about Dispensational theology cast into the wind like dandelion seeds. They won’t actually sprout, but they do stick onto things and can be hard to get off.
It is untrue that a Dispensationalist believes in two ways of salvation. When working through the relationship between the Old and New Testament, between the Law and Gospel, there are questions about the relationship between them. But a Dispensationalist does not believe that someone before Jesus was saved in any other way than by faith in God. Old Testament saints looked forward by faith to the coming Messiah. After Christ’s coming we look back by faith. But salvation is, and always has been, by faith alone. There was one note in the Scofield Study Bible (1909) that some misread, uncharitably, that was revised in the next edition to make it clear.
It is untrue that a Dispensationalist believes in grace without obedience. In other words, Dispensationalists are not antinomian, that is, those who don’t believe that Christians should obey God’s law or submit to Jesus as Lord. It is true that a couple Dispensationalists taught that, for example, the Sermon on the Mount is only meant to apply to the Kingdom of God and therefore has no application for believers today. The same sort of group might say that the Old Testament law has no application for New Testament believers. But this is hyperdispensationalism, this is overcutting, not cutting straight. It is not what we mean at all.
Not everything is rosy in the Dispensational camp. I would not put the fact that Dispensationalism is only 150 years old into the unpleasant truths category, but it is a truth, and some try to make it seem really unpleasant.
It is truly unpleasant to consider who some of the groups are that claim allegiance to Dispensationalism. Not only among Baptists, but there are multiple Pentecostal and Charismatic groups that refer to themselves as such, and even a variety of cults. But “a distinction needs to be made between what certain dispensationalists believe and what is inherent to the system” (Vlach, 48). We are perhaps most famous, these days, for the Left Behind series. Ha. But as John MacArthur observed, Covies have a different sort of fiction about what happened AD 70.
It is also truly unpleasant that there are hyper-dispensationalists. Every group has soup to nuts, and Dispies have their fair share of nuts. I mentioned some of them before as those who claim that some parts of the Bible aren’t for us in any way.
It is also truly unpleasant that mosts Dispies are just unpleasant to be around. Some of their end-times charts are nice, but not all of them are nice. They tend to be divisive, both in terms of exegesis and fellowship. They make too big a deal about their understanding, and sometimes look silly. It definitely makes them look red-in-the-face fussy.
Perhaps the worst part, as far as I’m concerned, about most Dispensationalists is that they are dualists. This is what I’ve been attacking for the last couple weeks in this series, and it’s why we think the Kuyperian adjective is such a needed corrective. For those who claim to be reading the Bible well, they need to keep reading it. For making good points about God’s plan for Israel, past and future, they miss God’s revelation about our present responsibilities, both Jews and Gentiles.
Taking a step back, dualism may be prevalent among Dispies but it is not in tune with the teaching. Dualism is actually more consistent with the roots of Covenant Theology, since Covies must take the physical promises given to the nation of Israel in the OT and see a spiritual fulfillment in the church. Dispies, who take all the physical and temporal promises as legit, should at root be not dualists. Historically both groups have been inconsistent. It’s another example of how everyone can be wrong about something.
I recognize that I have not really defined what a Dispensationalist is yet. That’s fine. Now is the time.
As far as we’re concerned, a Dispensationalist does not necessarily believe in seven dispensations, that is divisions, of how God interacts with man. It doesn’t require believing in three or four instead of seven or eight; the number is not the most important piece. Most people would agree, Covenantalists included, that things were different before and after Adam’s fall, that things were different before and after God gave the Law to Israel, that things were different before and after Christ’s coming and death and resurrection, and that things are different now than they will be in the future, whether or not you expect the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth or you expect to go directly into the eternal state. There are, then, different dispensations or ways of ordering history. All believers should be little “d” dispensationalists at least.
The key things we believe are not-negotiable for a capital “D” Dispensationalist are as follows.
This is why Dispensationalism is a Bible-reading project. This is not to say that Covenantalists do not read their Bible. It is to say that there are different directions to read the Bible, and we think we should start at the beginning, in Genesis, not start from the back and work toward the front. The title for the message is “Straight to the End.” We believe in starting in the front and reading the story until the finish.
It is a principle of Covenantal Theology to give priority to the New Testament over the Old. Is this a good thing? It depends on what we mean by “priority.” The New Testament surely explains things that were unknown in the Old. Isaiah did not know the name of the suffering servant, Matthew does. The angels longed to look into the person and timing of the Christ, and Peter was able to tell his readers straight out.
The New Testament may, with progressive revelation, shine light on Old Testament passages, offer commentary, or add additional implications or referents, but the New Testament never overrides the original intent of the Old Testament writers. (Vlach, Dispensationalism, 18-19)
When the NT is given priority over the OT in such a way as to “spiritualize” promises about offspring and land, going all the way back through David and to Abraham, we get close to accusing God of deceiving His people. Mystery exposed at a later time is one thing. Promises with small print not provided until centuries later is another.
John MacArthur is an interesting example, and he’s probably the Dispensationalist I’m most familiar with. I would put him in the Evangelical Epistolary club, a club that I believe needs to get out more. But he loves the New Testament and has clearly made it the focus of his teaching. Yet even though he gives the NT priority for sake of teaching he doesn’t think that the NT has priority over the OT for sake of interpretation.
Much more needs to be said about this and the third point in the coming weeks, applying the reading principles mentioned in the first point. But one of the things that defines a Dispensationalist is that he is careful to preserve whatever revealed distinctions there are in Scripture, including distinctions between God’s chosen peoples, namely, the nation of Israel and the Church filled with Jews and Gentiles.
Recognizing where there is overlap and where there is difference is key for sake of understanding progressive revelation, it is key for sake of interpreting the book of Acts, it is key for interpreting our work on earth now, and it is key for our hope in what God has purposed to do.
This is a more specific application of the previous point, but one that defines a Dispensationalist. There are some, interestingly enough more these days, Covenantal teachers who have backed off of replacement theology, backed off of there being no distinctions whatever between the church and Israel. They would concede that Romans 11:25 says that “all Israel will be saved,” and so they make room for that, which is good, because it says it in the verse.
But a Dispensationalist is not only waiting for a generation of Jews to be saved, he is waiting for the fulfillment of Jesus reigning from the throne of David in Jerusalem, over the nations, as they submit to Him and bring Him their tribute. We believe this will happen before the new heavens and the new earth on the timeline of the end things.
I cannot recommend too highly a sixty-page book titled, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths by Michael Vlach. It is not overly technical, and my only complaint is that it is too short (which may make it more desirable for others). I would be eager for Vlach to say even more, which he does in other works. It is a great explanation of Dispensationalism and, whether you consider yourself one or not, it is a helpful affirmation, or at least a helpful corrective to some common, easy errors taught about the doctrine.
An accurate definition of Dispyness doesn’t require reforming Dispy doctrine, though the teaching does require reforming Dispy praxis. Fearful, fussy, fighty Dispies are no fun at eschatology parties.
The plan is, over the next couple weeks, to look at the New Covenant directly in order to understand how it relates to the original hearers as well as to all those who believe in Christ and eat and drink it at the Lord’s Supper.
Then we must consider Romans 9-11, not just some of the individual verses within the chapters, but why those chapters were necessary at all and why they are where they are in the epistle. It would be easy to go from the end of Romans 8 to the beginning of Romans 12 without anything in between. The intervening chapters demand a Dispensational approach or else our hope in the gospel is embarrassed.
Then once we’ve examined those two big pieces, and potentially answered other objections along the way, we’ll look at why the fruit of Kuyperian discipleship is the key to unlock the Dispensational door.
We are trying to cut it straight, and read straight to the end. We are very optimistic about how it’s going to turn out.
When it comes to the end times, we need to pay attention, be patient, and also get ready. The Lord might come at any time, and we need to wait well. Keep sowing seed and looking for the Lord of the harvest. It is not inconsistent to anticipate His imminent return by investing for His sake. He is coming any moment, and He wants us to work in all the moments in between. Strengthen (στηρίξατε) your hearts.
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7-8, ESV)