The doctrine of Dispensationalism has many supporters and many objectors. While some objections are raised on reasonable theological grounds, some are raised on a misunderstanding of what Dispensationalism actually teaches. Some of these objections are really objections to ultra-dispensationalism, and some are objections based upon a misunderstanding of the facts.
Recently, some have raised objections concerning Dispensationalism’s treatment of the Gospel. Some would imply or state that Dispensationalism is a corruption of the Gospel, and that a person cannot possibly be a Dispensationalist and be a Christian at the same time. Of course, this is absolute nonsense, and it weakens the arguments against Dispensationalism to make such ridiculous assertions! In this article, we will address the notion that Dispensationalism teaches different methods of salvation in different dispensations. We will look at some of the real causes of the objections that have been raised. We will see how Dispensationalism is in fact helpful in the presentation of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. And finally, we will have a personal note.
Dispensationalism and Salvation
First, we must deal with the suggestion that Dispensationalism teaches different methods of salvation in different dispensations. We cannot speak for every person who has ever claimed to be a Dispensationalist. Perhaps some have stated of implied such a thing. But this does not represent the mainstream of Dispensational thought, and has not for many years. The words of H.A. Ironside, a well known and much loved Bible teacher, should be sufficient to state the mainline Dispensational viewpoint. Here is what Ironside said prior to 1938 (i.e. over 60 years ago!):
Let one point be absolutely clear: No one was ever saved in any dispensation on any other ground than the finished work of Christ. In all the ages before the cross, God justified men by faith; in all the years since, men have been justified in exactly the same way. Adam believed God and was clothed with coats of skin, a picture of one becoming the righteousness of God in Christ. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. Nevertheless, afterwards he was circumcised; but that circumcision, the apostle tells us, was simply a seal of the righteousness he had by faith. And throughout all the Old Testament dispensation, however legalistic Jews may have observed the ordinance of circumcision and thought of it as having in itself some saving virtue, it still remained in God’s sight, as in the beginning, only a seal, where there was genuine faith, of that righteousness which He imputed. (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, p57,58)
Needless to say, the person who claims that Dispensationalism teaches different methods of salvation in different dispensations completely misunderstands the point of Dispensational doctrine! Dispensationalism is not about the method of God’s salvation, but the methods of God’s testing of man. In each Dispensation, God gives a different set of instructions. The instructions are for pleasing and obeying God, not for obtaining salvation. In each dispensation, man proves that whatever the circumstances, he is unable to please or obey God.
Furthermore, those who claim that Dispensationalists teach different methods of salvation in different dispensations confuse holy living (i.e. simple obedience) with imputed righteousness. Perhaps this is easy to do since in this dispensation, what is required by God of man in the dispensational test is also that which is required by God to provide salvation (i.e. to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour). In most of the dispensations, what is required of man will simply be some form of holy living, but it doesn’t impute righteousness! The only thing that dispensational obedience will do is prevent extra unrighteousness from occuring. In every dispensation, man still carries Original Sin. Dispensationalists understand that obedience in a dispensation does not wipe away Original Sin. We understand that obedience in a dispensation does not impart forgiveness. And we understand that in every dispensation, perfect obedience was impossible. Yes, Dispensationalists believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, in this dispensation and in all dispensations.
Dispensationalism and Calvinism
So we have seen that mainstream Dispensationalism does not teach that salvation is obtained on any other basis than the finished work of Christ, in this dispensation and in every dispensation. So why do some people get so upset about the Dispensationalism and the Gospel? Evidently, some who hold to Calvinistic doctrine have decided that Dispensationalism is somehow linked to Arminian doctrine, thus making our grasp on the Gospel somehow suspect. This is another ridiculous assertion, raised because many churches that hold to a Covenant theological view also hold to Calvinism. In their minds, because they tend to hold both of these doctrines, anyone who opposes one also opposes the other. In other words, this objection is based upon guilt by association! The simple fact is that people who hold to Dispensational doctrine are free to adopt a Calvinistic, Arminian or middle-of-the-road position as they choose. Believing Dispensational doctrine does not force a person into any of these theological camps. I have personally encountered believers who have been very Calvinistic, very Arminian and very middle-of-the-road all in the same church and all holding firmly to Dispensational doctrine.
Dispensationalism and the True Gospel Message
To this point, we have defended Dispensationalism by showing that it teaches a single method of salvation, and is not linked to either the Calvinistic or Arminian theological camps. But what positive effects does it have in the preaching of the Gospel? If we consider the three foundational principles upon which Dispensationalism is built, we will see that far from corrupting the Gospel, Dispensationalism defends the Gospel! These foundational principles are literal interpretation of the Bible, a distinction between the Church and Israel, and an emphasis on the Glory of God.
The first foundation of Dispensationalism is literal interpretation of the Bible. Literal interpretation is absolutely essential for the clear and correct understanding of the Gospel. Consider for moment a few verses of Scripture, and the potential effect if a person does not take them literally:
Romans 3:23 –“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”
Isaiah 64:6 –“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;”
Romans 6:23 –“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Ephesians 2:8,9 –“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
John 3:18 –“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Obviously the Gospel cannot be preached clearly and correctly, and cannot be understood and received effectually unless literal interpretation of the Bible is used. We should be on our guard against any systems of theology that reject literal interpretation!
The second foundation for Dispensationalism is a distinction between the Church and Israel. First Corinthians 10:32 says, “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:”. There is a great distinction in Scripture between the Church and Israel. This has a powerful effect in the content of our Gospel. There are some who are presenting the “prosperity gospel” which in effect says, if you obey God, material blessings will result. Obviously this comes from confusing Israel with the Church. While Israel had spiritual blessings, their blessings were primarily physical. On the other hand, while the Church has physical blessings, our blessings are primarily spiritual. This “prosperity gospel” is taken to ridiculous heights, reducing the Almighty God to not much more than Santa Claus.
Making a clear distinction between the Church and Israel also helps when some would muddy the waters through judaizing (i.e. trying to make Old Testament Law apply to Christians in the current dispensation). Making a distinction between the Church and Israel will help preserve our Gospel message from those who would make Sabbath keeping, animal sacrifice or dietary laws part of the message of salvation.
The third foundation for Dispensationalism is an emphasis on God’s Glory rather than man’s salvation as being God’s ultimate purpose. You may ask, how does this contribute to the Gospel message? First, it helps remind sinful man that he will someday glorify God, either in His Divine Mercy as Saviour, or in His Divine Justice as Judge. This is a fearful and powerful message! This emphasis on God’s Glory also helps lift the burden in evangelism off of us. Oh yes, we are still required to preach the word, to witness, to show forth the way of salvation! But God Himself in the One who obtains the results. A Dispensationalist knows that God is Glorified every time the Gospel is preached, and we do not allow ourselves to become discouraged if we are being faithful in preaching the Good News but go through a “dry spell” when we see few souls saved.
Finally, a personal note. The author of this article has been associated with churches that teach Dispensationalism for almost 30 years. Never once have a heard it stated or even implied that people in previous dispensations were saved on the basis of anything other that the finished work of Christ. Salvation by grace through faith has been the cornerstone of all the churches I have attended. We believe it, we teach it, we preach it and we have staked our eternal destiny on it. To say that Dispensationalism teaches a different gospel, that Dispensationalism corrupts the Gospel, or that a person who holds to Dispensational doctrine cannot be truly born again, not only ignores our doctrine and practice, but is simply untrue.
by Shawn Abigail