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Copyright © February 8, 2018
“[T]he term dispensation as it relates to Dispensational Theology could be defined as a particular way of God’s administering His rule over the world as He progressively works out His purpose of world history.”[i] Another way to define “dispensation” is “a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose.”[ii] “Dispensationalism views the world as a household run by God.”[iii]
There are important characteristics and considerations concerning dispensations. There are three characteristics of each dispensation necessary to make it distinct from all other dispensations. First, each dispensation is characterized by a unique ruling factor or combination of ruling factors. “Second, it must involve a particular responsibility for man.” “Third, it must be characterized by divine revelation which had not been given before.” Three secondary characteristics are that each dispensation applies a test to man to see whether or not man will perfectly obey God’s rule, each dispensation demonstrates the failure of man to obey the particular rule of God of that dispensation, and each dispensation involves divine judgment because of man’s failure.[iv]
Some important considerations are first, the different dispensations are different ways of God’s administering His rule over the world, not different ways of salvation. Since the fall, individuals have always been saved by grace through faith. The sacrifices of the Israelites in the Old Testament did not provide salvation. “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sin” (He. 10.4). The Israelite’s offering implied confession of sin and of its due desert, death; and God ‘covered’ [or ‘passed over,’ …] his sin, in anticipation of Christ’s sacrifice, which did, finally, ‘put away’ the sins ‘done aforetime in the forbearance of God.
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God: Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Ro. 3.23-25).
“And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” (He. 9.15).
Second, “[a] dispensation is a particular way of God’s administering His rule, but an age is a particular period of time”—hence a dispensation is not an age of history. Third, a dispensation may involve God’s administering His rule over all mankind or over only one segment of mankind. “Fourth, a dispensation may continue or discontinue some ruling factors of previous dispensations, but it will have at least one new ruling factor never introduced before.” “Fifth, each new dispensation requires new revelation.”[v]
Dispensations have characteristics. Primarily, dispensations are stewardships. All in a particular dispensational economy are stewards, although one man usually stands out. For example, Paul was used by God more than any other to reveal His grace. Nonetheless, all the apostles and every other believer are also stewards of God’s grace. All have a responsibility to respond to that grace. God will judge those who fail to do so.[vi]
Most theologians recognize seven dispensations: Innocence (Gen. 1.28); Conscience (Gen. 3.23); Human Government (Gen. 8.20); Promise (Gen. 12.1); Law (Ex. 19.8); Grace (John 1.17); Kingdom (Eph. 1.10).[vii]
In each dispensation, God used or uses a ruling factor to govern man. Man failed or will fail in every dispensation, even in the last dispensation in which Christ Himself will rule over a perfect government and exceptional conditions. Man’s failure in that dispensation will bring God’s judgment. Those who rebel outwardly during that time will be executed (See, Is. 11.3-4; 29.20-21; Je. 31.29-30), and “God will crush the huge revolt which will take place immediately after the seventh dispensation sending fire to destroy the human rebels and casting Satan into the lake of fire for everlasting torment (Rev. 20:9-10).”[viii]
Dispensational Theology recognizes distinctions of things which differ in history by asserting that distinctions are the result of God’s administering His rule in different ways at different periods of history. “There is no interpreter of the Bible who does not recognize the need for certain basic distinctions in the Scriptures.”[ix] The Covenant Theologian also makes rather important dispensational distinctions even though he views them as related to the unifying and underlying Covenant of Grace. For example, Louis Berkhof, after rejecting the usual dispensational scheme of Bible distinctions, enumerates his own scheme of dispensations or administrations—the Old Testament dispensation and the New Testament dispensation. “However, within the Old Testament dispensation Berkhof lists four subdivisions, which although he terms them ‘stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace,’ are distinguishable enough to be listed.’” Thus, he recognizes five dispensations—four in the Old Testament and the New Testament dispensation.[x]
[i] Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology (Bellmawr, New Jersey: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 1990), pp. 27-30; see also, Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), pp. 28-31.
[ii] Ryrie, p. 28.
[iii] Ibid., p. 29; see pp. 29-31 for definitions of “dispensation” by various scholars.
[iv] Showers, pp. 30-31; see also, Ryrie, pp. 33-35.
[v] Showers, pp. 31-32.
[vi] See Ryrie, pp. 56-57.
[vii] See Showers pp. 33-49 and Ryrie, pp. 45-57 (Showers and Ryrie call the Dispensation of Law the Dispensation of Mosaic Law and the Dispensation of Kingdom the Dispensation of the Millennium; Ryrie calls the Dispensation of Human Government the Dispensation of Civil Government.
[viii] Showers, pp. 33-49.
[ix] Ryrie, p. 16.
[x] Ibid., citing Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), pp. 293-301.