Whenever I take my never ending homiletical tour out on the contemporary evangelical road, I’m finding with increasing frequency that unashamedly identifying myself as a dispensationalist is not a real crowd pleaser. In fact sometimes I feel like I’m put in the position of having to demythologize dispensationalism because of the theological urban legends that tend to get attached to this tradition.
On the other hand, reformed theology, which is often associated with replacement teaching, is promoted and embraced as something which avoids the errors of prophetic speculation and is therefore a more accurate expression of the historic Christian faith. And of course wedged in the middle of this contentious landscape are those who say, “I just want to follow the bible;” as if an over 2,000 year old conversation called church history has nothing to offer about how not to needlessly reinvent a doctrinal wheel!
Over the years I’ve found that these types of discussions are rarely constructive unless key terms are clearly defined and correctly understood. And contrary to popular belief, while some see dispensationalism as obsessively focused on the discontinuities of Scripture to the exclusion of its continuities, the central unifying focus is actually fixed on the grace of God. And so proceeding from that theocentric grace emphasis, dispensationalism is a system of interpretation that actually seeks to establish an underlying unity in the Scriptures.
Here’s the big-picture breakdown: Dispensationalists recognize differing dispensations in the sense of stewardships or arrangements with regard to how God relates to man and how God requires man to relate to Him. This interaction between God and man is connected to the ultimate realization of God’s purposes; which essentially is the magnification of His glory. And so these dispensations are viewed as distinguishable economies in the overall flow of how God is directing history to accomplish His divine objectives.
Now although dispensationalists recognize differing stewardships or dispensations, they teach that the proper response to God’s progressive revelation in each dispensation is faith; which means that salvation is always by grace through faith. And although it’s true that the object and content of man’s faith has differed throughout the dispensations, in every age salvation has been by God’s grace through man’s faith in what God has sequentially made known. The point being, God only holds people accountable to believe what He has revealed up to their point in history.
Dispensationalists arrive at their system of interpretation through two primary principles. (1) Maintaining a consistently literal method of interpretation, a method which unlike other systems also extends to the area of prophetic studies; an indispensable and vital topic which comprises 27% of the entire bible! And (2), maintaining a clear distinction between Israel and the church. And the reason dispensationalism maintains a clear distinction between God’s program for Israel and God’s program for the church, is because again, dispensationalism attempts to recognize the differing economies or dispensations in biblical history.
Is this really such a big deal? Well, as Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Seminary once said, “Unless you’re still bringing a lamb to the altar, you’re a dispensationalist!” Now while that statement is somewhat hyperbolic to illustrate a point, in terms of applicational consistency its underlying premise is true. But for me the bottom line is really this: Dispensationalism is the only theological system which assigns to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel its proper biblical covenantal prominence and significance. And that’s not mythology, that’s a fact!