Dispensationalism (4)

Shawn Abigail, Ottawa, Canada [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Part 4 of 4 of the series Dispensationalism

To this point we have examined five dispensations; innocence, conscience, human government, promise and law. Each dispensation was a stewardship. In each dispensation God set a test of obedience before His people, and in each dispensation His people failed. God Himself is faithful, but the fault lies with the people. This is the pattern we have seen in the first five dispensations, and we will see it again in the dispensation of grace and the dispensation of the millennium.

At this present time, we are in the dispensation of grace. We freely acknowledge that God has demonstrated grace in every dispensation. From the clothing of Adam and Eve with animal skins to the prologue of the Ten Commandments in, ‘I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’, Exod. 20. 2 – God has always shown grace. But grace is the special distinguishing characteristic of God’s present dealings with mankind. In a new and special way, grace has been demonstrated through Christ’s coming, John 1. 17.

In this dispensation of grace, God again places a test before mankind. This test is explained in many passages, cf. Rom. 5. 15-19; Acts 16. 31; and John 3. 18, but CHARLES RYRIE summarizes our dispensational responsibility well when he said, ‘Under grace the responsibility on man is to accept the gift of righteousness that God freely offers to all’, Dispensationalism.

In this dispensation, the grace of God has appeared in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and accepting that grace is the test that God places before mankind. It would seem that this is the easiest dispensation of all. No more do we need to ponder the dictates of the conscience. No more do we need to concern ourselves that God is working through only one man or one nation. No more do we need to follow 613 commandments, fearful that we have kept all the commandments except one. The fullest expression of God’s love is in front of us, and God’s messianic purpose has been given a name, ‘Jesus’.

So how does mankind respond? In this dispensation, it is not just representatives of mankind that are responding. In this dispensation it is all mankind that is responding to the test, each nation and each individual. So how does mankind respond? ‘Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God’, Gal. 5. 19-21. God holds out the Lord Jesus Christ to a needy world and, after considering this offer, mankind says to God, ‘I love the pleasures of sin more than I love your Son’. And thus this dispensation must inevitably end in an act of God’s judgement.

What is this act of judgement? Some people think the act of judgement is the condemnation of the sinner into the Lake of Fire, but this would be confusing eternal condemnation with the disobedience of a specific dispensation. The righteous who have sought God by faith have always been rewarded in every dispensation, and the unrighteous who refuse God’s gracious forgiveness have been punished in every dispensation. So it is unwise to think of eternal destruction as being a dispensational judgement. However, the Bible does record a period of terrible judgement on all mankind at the end of the church age, often referred to as the Tribulation. This is the subject of the majority of the book of Revelation, and from the beginning of Revelation chapter 4 to the end of Revelation chapter 19 we read about this judgement. And so God unleashes a judgement on mankind who have failed to follow Jesus Christ, and this dispensation too comes to an end.

The Tribulation is not a separate dispensation, but it is the logical judgement on a world that has rejected Christ, and the culmination of the dispensation of grace. Mankind has failed once again. The test of obedience is as simple as having a relationship with God and, even in this mankind has failed. But even now, mankind will attempt self-justification, and one can hear the voices crying out against God for His judgement. ‘But we lived in a world of injustice. We lived in a world of struggle. We didn’t have time to think about religion!’ Maybe some will argue that it was too much for rational creatures to believe in a supernatural being they couldn’t see. And so God will institute one last dispensation in which all mankind will see Christ and experience His righteous rule, and this is called the dispensation of the millennium.

The Millennium is a literal 1000-year period of time when the Lord Jesus Christ will rule on earth, and is described most clearly in Revelation chapter 20. During the dispensation of the Millennium Christ will rule visibly on earth. Mankind will experience a truly righteous government in every country on earth, and the condition for dispensational obedience will be to obey the governmental rule of Christ.

There are also many passages in the Old Testament that describe this Millennium. It will be a time of peace, Mic. 4. 2-4; Zech. 9. 10. It will be a time of longevity, Isa. 65. 20. It will be a time in which mankind will have a full and rich knowledge of the Lord, Jer. 31. 31-34, not only by experience but also by a deep personal understanding, Heb. 8. 11. The conditions under which men live will be very different from that which is experienced. There will be harmony in the natural world, Isa. 11. 6-8, and an abundance of food, Jer. 31. 12-14. Although many of the blessings of the Millennium are for Israel, Gentiles will also be blessed, Isa. 19. 23-25. There will also be a rebuilt Jewish temple, Ezekiel chapters 40 to 46, and a renewal of the animal sacrifices, Ezek. 45. 17.

Some people have difficulty with the prospect of a renewal of the animal sacrifices. They will argue that since Christ’s work of salvation is complete there is no need to have animal sacrifices in a future day. Unfortunately this argument confuses dispensational obedience with salvation, and proceeds from the assumption that people were saved by offering animal sacrifices in Old Testament times. Salvation has been by grace through faith in all dispensations.

One would think that under such perfect conditions, the hearts of all men would respond in obedience to God. But this dispensation will also come to an end. Revelation chapter 20 verses 7-10 shows Christ’s governmental rule on earth coming to an end in a great rebellion, and in the destruction of the rebels. Even in a perfect world, even with perfect knowledge of what is expected, man fails the test. And so the final dispensation will come to an end, human history as we know it will come to an end, and the final judgement at the Great White Throne will be conducted. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, and the righteous will enter the eternal state.

When this point is reached, man’s attempts at self-justification will be ended. In each of the dispensations, God revealed Himself. In each of the dispensations, God gave man a chance. In each of the dispensations, under different circumstances, God tested man. And in each of the dispensations, man failed. So man must confess that God is just, God is righteous, God’s plans are perfect, and God, and God alone, gets the glory. So the great unifying plan of God across the course of history reaches its culmination.

AUTHOR PROFILE: Shawn Abigail was saved while at university. He is married with three young children and fellowships at the Bridlewood assembly in Ottawa. He exercises a teaching and writing ministry in the area and is webmaster of www.brethrenonline.org