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JUNE 29, 2014

My talk tonight is entitled A Friendly Critique of Dispensationalism.

I call the critique friendly because every Dispensationalist I know of is an Orthodox Evangelical Christian, affirming the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the inerrancy of the Bible, and justification by faith alone. My disagreement with them, therefore, is a family argument, not a nuclear war.

But if the critique is a friendly one, it is very much a critique. I believe Dispensationalism is a serious error that hinders our understanding of the Bible, distorts our theology, colors our politics, and divides the People Jesus Christ died to unite. If it is not a heresy, neither is it a trifling mistake.


The key word in the title, of course, is also the longest one: Dispensationalism. What is it? There are two versions of it: Progressive and Traditional.

The former is taught by Dallas Seminary scholars Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, and by Dr. Robert Saucy of Talbot Seminary. While I don't fully agree with these men, I thank the Lord for their brave work. They don't go far enough, but they're moving in the right direction.

Their scholarship, however, has not trickled down to the pulpit or the pew. When I speak of Dispensationalism, therefore, I mean the kind you're familiar with, the kind first taught by John Nelson Darby in the 1830's, popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, made sensational in the books of Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye, and taught by a pastor I very much admire, Dr. John MacArthur.


Once again: What is Dispensationalism? The first thing to notice is the suffix: Like Calvinism or Communism, Dispensationalism is a system of thought, a way of viewing history, and most importantly, of reading the Bible.

Supporters believe it is read out of the Bible; opponents believe it is read into the Bible. In either event, it is a definable way of understanding the Word of God--or of misunderstanding it.

No one lecture can even name all the details of the system--no less explain them--and so we have to limit ourselves to the Big Idea. What is it? It depends on whom you ask.


A strong critic would say it's about two ways of salvation. Under the Law, people were saved by their obedience; since the death and resurrection of Christ, they are saved through faith.

Why would he say such a thing? It's because that's what CI Scofield taught in the 1909 edition of his study Bible, p.1115--

As a dispensation, grace began with the death and resurrection of Christ. The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as a condition of salvation, but the acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as fruit of salvation.

Fans of the Scofield Bible have long said the note doesn't mean 'two ways of salvation', but the closer you read it, the more it seems to do just that.

If Dispensationalists taught this, I'd have no qualms about calling them heretics. But you have to remember a couple of things: (1) The note was taken out of the later editions of the Scofield Reference Bible, and (2) for a hundred years, people who believe in Dispensationalism have strongly denied believing or teaching any such thing. No one could listen to John MacArthur's sermons, for example, and think he believes the Jews were saved in one way and Christians in another.

This is a canard, not a criticism, and does more to inflame feelings than to open minds. 'Two ways of salvation' is not the centerpiece of Dispensationalism.


If you ask a thoughtful Dispensationalist what the centerpiece is, he's likely to say it's A literal interpretation of the Bible. We take the Bible literally while others spiritualize it.

Dr. Charles Ryrie wrote this in the most authoritative book on the subject, and, with my own ears, I heard John MacArthur say the same thing.

This is nonsense, of course! Both sides know very well that some parts of the Bible are to be taken literally, while others are figurative.

No non-Dispensationalist 'spiritualizes' the Resurrection of Christ, and no Dispensationalist looks for the hinges when Jesus calls Himselfthe door.

This is propaganda, pure and simple, meant to make your side look good and the other side bad. We expect this from politicians, but theologians and pastors are held to a higher standard. 'A literal interpretation of the Bible' therefore, is not the core of Dispensationalism.


Now suppose you found a Christian who had no opinion on Dispensationalism, and you sent him to a conference on the topic. What might he say it's all about?

Chances are, he'd say it's all about Eschatology or the Doctrine of Last Things.

All Christians believe in four 'Last Things': (1) The Second Coming of Christ, (2) the Resurrection of the body, (3) the Final Judgment, (4) Heaven and Hell.

Dispensationalists believe these things too. But they also believe in several other things, such as:

(1) The regathering of Israel, (2) the rapture of the church, (3) the rise of Antichrist, (4) the Tribulation, (5) the Great Tribulation, (6) the Millennium, (7) the rebuilding of the Temple, (8) the revival of animal sacrifices, (9) the restoration of the land to Israel, (10) the loosing of Satan, (11) the Battle of Armegeddon, and (12) the Great White Throne of Judgment.

Many Christians believe in some of these things, but only the Dispensationalist believes in them all and strongly emphasizes them.

So, what do we make of this? On a practical level, there's a lot of truth in it, but this lecture is not about practice, it's about theory, about theology, about the central idea of Dispensationalism. In other words, not just what it teaches about the End Times, but why, what's behind the teaching.

Dispensationalists believe all these things because they believe in something else, a thing that makes all the other things necessary.


Here's what it is: God has two separate peoples, Israel and the Church. The founder of Dallas Seminary, Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote--

The Dispensationalist believes that, throughout the ages, God is pursuing two distinct purposes; one related to the earth with an earthly people and earthly objectives involved, which is Judaism; while the other is related to Heaven, with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity.

From the bottom of my heart, I wish this were an extreme interpretation on the fringes of Dispensationalism: but it isn't on the fringe: it's at the heart of the whole system, and explains most of its distinctive features.


The Rapture, for example. Reading I Thessalonians 4, Christians have always believed the saints alive at the Second Coming of Christ will be snatched up to meet Him in the air. But, beginning in the 19th Century, the Rapture was modified in two significant ways:

In the first place, it became a Secret Rapture, an idea that is hard to square with--

A shout from Heaven, the voice of an archangel, and the trumpet of God.

In the second place, it was separated from the Second Coming of Christ, typically 1007 years before the Last Day.

Why did the Dispensationalist find these details in the passage while others didn't? It's because his system required him to find them! If Israel is going to achieve the destiny God promised to Abraham, Moses, and David, the Church has to get out of its way, and that's what the Rapture does: it clears the ground for the Kingdom!

A second example is the Millennium. The Church has viewed the Millennium in different ways, of course, but it wasn't until the 1830's that anyone saw it as a distinctly Jewish Age, featuring the rebuilding of the Temple, the revival of animal sacrifices, and ethnic Israel at the head of the nations.

How come the Dispensationalist saw this while no one else did? Once again, it's because his system made him see it! CI Scofield wrote--

Not one instance exists of a 'spiritual' or figurative fulfillment of prophecy...prophecies may never be spiritualized, but are always literal.

If prophecy can only be fulfilled literally, and if God promised Israel a land stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, among many other blessings, He will keep the promises in the future, and so the Millennium has got to be an age of peace and prosperity--for Israel.

A third example is supporting the secular state of Israel. One of the things I most admire about John MacArthur is how he keeps politics out of the pulpit. I suppose he has decided views on many issues, but I have no idea what he thinks of tax policy, Obamacare, or immigration reform. But when it comes to supporting the secular state of Israel, the man who never says anything about Canada, Mexico, France, or Japan, has a whole lot to say! He doesn't care if we impose sanctions on Russia, but if we did the same to Israel, he'd be sure to quote Genesis 12:3--

I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse.

By quoting the verse, MacArthur shows that, to his way of thinking, supporting Israel is not a political issue at all, but rather, a spiritual matter. It's not a prudential act, but a moral act.

Why does he feel this way? I just told you, it's because of Genesis 12:3. But Palestinian Christians believe the verse as heartily as he does--and they don't support Israel. Why does MacArthur get this out of the verse while many others don't?

Because his system requires it! If Israelis are God's people because they're Israelis, then supporting them becomes a Christian duty--

Touch not my anointed and do my prophets no harm.

Dispensationalists are not stupid! Everything they believe makes perfect sense--if God has two separate peoples, Israel and the Church.


This is the very point I mean to challenge by an appeal to the New Testament, and especially Paul's Epistles to the Galatians.

What was the fundamental problem in the churches of Galatia? It was Legalism. But what kind of Legalism was it: general legalism or a particular kind? Well, what were they fussing about? Drinking, smoking, dancing, birth control, sending your kids to public school?

No. They were fussing about circumcision, holidays, and dietary laws. What kind of Legalism was this? It was Jewish Legalism. The Jewish Christians in Galatia wanted to remain separate from their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, they wanted to act as though...God has two separate peoples, Jewish and Gentile.

Did Paul agree with them? No he didn't! He called them--

Foolish and bewitched.

But he didn't stop with name calling. In chapter 3, he argues that God has only one people--not two--and that the promises made to Abraham and his descendants are inherited--not by people who share his DNA--but by people who share his faith in Christ, vv.7,9--

Therefore, know that only those who are of faith are the sons of Abraham...So that those who are of faith are those who are blessed with believing Israel.

From the day He called the household of Cornelius to faith, God has had one people only--people who believe in Christ, whether they're Jewish or Gentile. As Paul says in another place--

There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord is rich unto all that call upon Him.

Dispensationalists know all this of course, and they very much agree with Paul. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile...now! Both Jews and Gentiles are one body in Christ...at the moment.

'But--they say--'When the Church is raptured', ethnic Israel will be what they should have been back in the days of Moses--

A Kingdom of Priests, a Holy Nation.

Ethnic Israel must have a glorious future apart from the Church because God has promised them one. Anyone who takes the Old Testament prophecies 'literally' knows that. That's the argument.

The only thing wrong with it is that the Apostles did not interpret the Old Testament in this way!

For example, the Old Testament promises a Son of David will sit on His father's throne. Peter believes that promise as firmly as the most committed Dispensationalist, but, in Acts 2:29-32, he says it was fulfilled with the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ to God's Right Hand.

The Old Testament promises a revival of the Kingdom of Israel, but in Luke 11:20, Jesus says--

But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you.

The Old Testament promises a rebuilt Temple, but I Corinthians 3:16 calls the church the Temple of God, I Timothy 3:15, The House of God, Ephesians 2:22, The habitation of God through the Spirit, and Acts 15:16, The Tabernacle of David.

The Old Testament promises a purified priesthood, but I Peter 2:9 and Titus 2:14 apply the promises to all believers in Christ.

In a word: the promises made to Israel are fulfilled in the Church--and not just partially for the time being--but fully and forever--

Unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end.

Dispensationalists call this Replacement Theology, but they're as wrong as they can be: it is the Theology of Fulfillment.


This brings up a question, and it's a fair one: If the prophets wanted their people to know God's promises would be spiritually realized in the Church and not literally fulfilled in Israel, why didn't they say so?

Let's start by agreeing with the premise: they didn't say so. When the prophets wrote Israel, land, and Temple, they meant what they said. They meant the Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt and that ethnic Jews would return to the Promised Land where God would make them the head of the nations. This is what the prophets said and what every devout Israelite believed, prayed for, and expected. Knowing what they did at the time, I'm sure Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel would have been Dispensationalists.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Dispensational way of interpreting the Bible. It reads the Old Testament as though it were self-interpreting. It isn't! The message of the Hebrew Bible is only grasped when it is read in light of the New Testament!

No one studied the Scriptures more carefully than Paul, first as a Pharisee and then as an Apostle. As a Pharisee, he thought he understood what they said about Israel's future--and that's why He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews and persecuted the Church.

But when Jesus Christ called him out of the darkness of Judaism into the light of His Gospel, He told Paul something he hadn't thought of before, something he hadn't got out of the Old Testament, in spite of a lifetime of study and prayer. He tells us what it was in Ephesians 3:3-6--

How that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I wrote before in a few words, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy Apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise through the Gospel...

The Old Testament is a mysterious book--Paul says--but not mysterious like a 'murder mystery' where a clever detective reasons his way to 'whodunnit'. In the Bible, a mystery is a doctrine that used to be hidden, but now is revealed. When it comes to the Gentiles, what did the Old Testament hide?

Not that they would come to the God of Israel, but that--when they came--they would become Israelites!

This is what the Old Testament teaches--but the prophets didn't see it. Why not? Not because they were less intelligent or devout than we are, but because--while it was in the Old Testament--it could not be seen without the light of the New Testament.

There's a deep irony in this. 'Progressive Revelation' is one of the hallmarks of Dispensationalists. But, at the key point when the Bible moves forward, they step back. And while I condemn no one for believing in Dispensationalism, I have to say it bears an unsettling resemblance to the Christian Judaism that Paul was at such pains to correct in the churches of Galatia. Without meaning to--I know--Dispensationalism leans in the direction of--

The weak and beggarly elements.


Many good people read their Bibles in a Dispensational way, of course, but Dispensationalism is not a good way to read the Bible.

As I said at the start of my talk: it hinders our understanding of the Bible, distorts our theology, colors our politics, and divides the people Jesus died to unite.

No human system is perfect, but with the Word, Church, and Spirit of God, we can do better than Dispensationalism.

Open thou mine eyes,

that I may behold,

Wondrous things out of

Thy Law.

Amen. Praise the Lord.

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