Lordship, Non-Lordship and Dispensationalism
In the first two studies of the Lordship controversy (FJ 6 & 7) I pointed out that this long, painful issue will never be resolved without coming to grips with the warped, twisted theology behind the non-Lordship teaching.
The non-Lordship teaching is just the tip of a theological iceberg. It is merely a small child of the warped, twisted theological system of Dispensationalism. This system is the result of faulty philosophical, and literal hermeneutics (there is a true, literal hermeneutic quite different from the dispensational hermeneutic).
The small child of non-Lordship theology has a father–his name is Arminianism; a mother her name is Dispensationalism; an aunt–her name is Antinomianism (she, like Dispensationalism, does not like the word “law”). There are also many cousins, some of whom will be addressed in subsequent studies.
Let me say at the outset that this dispensational system of theology is diametrically opposed to covenant theology. It opposes all historic Reformed Theology, such as that which is taught in the Westminster Confession, the Old Baptist Confession of 1689, and the Heidelberg Catechism. Dispensationalism would have been declared heresy by the Synod of Dort as was her husband, Arminianism. Arminianism, Dispensationalism and Antinomianism all live in the same theological house (and it is not a Reformed house!).
I say, without fear of contradiction, Dispensationalism is nothing less than a frontal attack on Covenant and Reformed Theology.
In this article I wish to address some of the doctrinal issues which are involved in Dispensationalism.
Perhaps a brief autobiographical background may be helpful. I am very grateful for all the helpful things that I have learned on my way to the Celestial City. I am indebted to many teachers who taught me to revere the Holy Scriptures. The formative years of my spiritual development were spent under the ministries of godly men who were committed to Dispensationalism. It was through them that I was taught the importance of a personal devotional life. I was taught to be missionary minded. I was taught to be a personal witness for Christ. I was taught five fundamental truths: (1) the inspiration and infallibility of the scriptures; (2) the virgin birth of Christ; (3) the miracles of Christ; (4) the substitutionary atonement of Christ; (5) the bodily resurrection of Christ.
One of the first books that had a profound effect on my methods of evangelism was True Evangelism, by Lewis Sperry Chafer. I can still recommend it as being very helpful.
I did not find my way out of Dispensationalism easily. It took time and tears and cost me fellowship with some genuine, committed Christian friends. Some of them thought that I was departing from the faith or going liberal. The inward heart struggle to embrace the historic Christian faith involved not only intellectual conflict but also emotional struggle. The many changes were not made in haste, anger, passion, or ecstasy. It did not happen on a weekend. I spent the first ten years of my Christian life immersed in Dispensationalism. I wore out three Scofield Bibles and the fourth was falling apart. I heard Lewis Sperry Chafer in person. The only systematic theology I studied was Dr. Chafer’s eight-volume set.
My theological change resulted from a serious, exhaustive search to know three things: What saith the scriptures; what do they mean; and how do I apply them to my belief and practice?
I pray that this little history of my own journey will be kept in mind as I attempt the rather difficult task of dealing with principles of Dispensationalism without being disrespectful or unchristian to the many genuine Christians who sincerely hold this view that I now consider erroneous, unbiblical, dangerous and outside the historic stream of Christianity.
Although I strongly differ from my dispensational brethren in their interpretation of scripture, I would defend their right to adhere to their view. I do not wish to separate from their fellowship. However, I strongly believe Dispensationalism to be a departure from the historic faith of our fathers. No Christian wishes to be argumentative, but it is impossible to address this controversial issue without being polemic and somewhat censorious of the system. I must be very candid in saying that I cannot approach this contemporary issue in an unbiased manner.
This unbiblical and unhistorical theology has spawned many serious errors, and we are now reaping some of its fruit–especially in the areas of evangelism and teachings on the Christian life (justification and sanctification).
It is impossible to give a concise, succinct definition of Dispensationalism today because of the many changes among dispensational teachers. There is more than one view of Dispensationalism today. Therefore, the old definition found in the Scofield Bible is no longer accurate or adequate: “A dispensation is a period of time during which a man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God” (Scofield Reference Bible, p. 5, note 4).
Recently I read a review of an excellent book by an able and respected theologian. The book was exposing the errors and dangers of Dispensationalism. The reviewer made an excellent observation that will underscore my premise that it is impossible to give a concise and succinct definition of Dispensationalism.
Referring to Dispensationalism the reviewer said: though the author had done his home-work, he is shooting at a moving target. It is no longer possible to speak of Dispensationalism as a unit. In the earlier days the system had a degree of various offshoots, but if Darby, Scofield, or even Chafer were to return today, they would be bewildered by the widely divergent stances of those still called dispensationalists. The reviewer was certainly correct when he referred to Dispensationalism as a “moving target.” It has been and is a moving target. The question is what the next move will be.
Dispensationalism, Arminianism and Antinomianism wear many masks and there are many degrees, shades, and excesses in all three camps. This is one reason that it is so hard to address.
Although the dispensationalists have many differences among themselves and their theological positions are complex and hard to pin down due to various modifications of the system, I think I am safe in giving the following statement for our purpose in this study.
Dispensationalists divide the course of history into a number of distinct epochs. During each of these epochs God works out a particular phase of His overall plan. Each particular phase represents a dispensation in which there are distinctive ways that God exercises His government over the world and tests human obedience.
It is possible, however, to consider for the purpose of our study three general views of Dispensationalism:
There is what is called hyper-Dispensationalism. One of their distinctives is the teaching that the Church did not begin until the middle of the Book of Acts.
There are those who are called classical dispensationalists. C.I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer and others of the old school would come under this designation. They held that Israel is on earth and the Church is in heaven and the twain shall never meet.
The neo-dispensationalist view is promoted by such leaders as Charles C. Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost and Zane Hodges. They hold that the Church and Israel shall come together after the millennium. They differ from the old dispensationalists, in that they teach that saints in the Old Testament were saved by faith.
Each of these views has many distinctives and differences from the others. A careful study of all of them, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
Distinguishing Features of Dispensationalism
Clarence B. Bass,1 in his excellent book entitled Backgrounds To Dispensationalism names some of the distinguishing features of Dispensationalism as follows:
The Nature and Purpose of a Dispensation
The Literal Interpretation of Scripture
The Dichotomy Between Israel and the Church
A Restricted View of the Church
A Jewish Concept of the Kingdom
A Postponed Kingdom
The Distinction Between Law and Grace
The Compartmentalization of Scripture
The Pre-tribulation Rapture
The Purpose of the Great Tribulation
The Nature of the Millennial Reign of Christ
The Eternal State
The Apostate Nature of Christendom
Dispensationalism and covenant theology have differences on many biblical doctrines, such as: Grace of God, Law of God, Church of God, Word of God, Christian life, World and life view, Sanctification, and Eschatology.
Although there are many important differences between the two schools of thought, there are four differences that go to the heart of Dispensationalism. The truth or error of Dispensationalism stands or falls on four main pillars. These could be called the four main roots of the system:
- Their literalism and Jewish understanding of Old Testament prophecy and the Messianic Kingdom.
- The parenthesis theory of the Kingdom and the Church. According to this theory, (and it is only a theory) the Church Age is an unforeseen parenthesis in the Jewish program prophesied by Old Testament prophets. If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, the Jewish Kingdom would have begun at our Lord’s first coming. But, God’s “Plan A” was thwarted, or interrupted, or failed, and the Church age totally unforeseen by the Old Testament prophets was interjected, or, “Plan B” substituted for “Plan A.” The dispensationalists call this the parenthetical Church age. My Bible knows nothing about a God who does not have power to perform His plan. The God of the Bible is sovereign in creation, sovereign in redemption and sovereign in providence. He is all-wise in planning and all-powerful in performing.
We must ask the dispensational teachers the following questions about their parenthesis theory. If the Church is a parenthesis, when did it begin, and how do you know? When will it end, and how do you know?
- The third pillar or root of the dispensational system that most dispensationalists apparently have not seriously examined is the dichotomy between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church. Dispensationalism teaches that the Old Testament saints are not now in the Church universal, which is the body of Christ.
- The fourth pillar or root of this erroneous teaching is on the biblical relationship between the law and the gospel. The Moral Law (the Ten Commandments) to dispensational teaching today is nothing but the cold ashes and the dying fire of the religion of another day. However, the Moral Law carries permanent validity and goes straight to the root of our modern problems. It lays its finger on churches’ deepest needs in evangelism and in the Christian life, namely, sanctification. We live in a lawless age. Lawlessness in the home, school, land and in the church. We must find the same rules for our actions, the same duties required, the same sins forbidden in the gospel as in the law. The law by which God rules us is as dear to Him as the gospel by which he saves us.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, that great preacher and soul winner, in a sermon called “The Perpetuity of The Law of God,” said: “Very great mistakes have been made about the law. Not long ago there were those about us who affirmed that the law is utterly abrogated and abolished, and they openly taught that believers were not bound to make the moral law a rule for their lives. What would have been sin in other men, they counted as no sin in themselves. From such Antinomianism as that, may God deliver us. We are not under the law as the method of salvation, but we delight to see the law in the hand of Christ, and desire to obey the Lord in all things.”
The dispensationalists would not agree with Charles Bridges on the law and the gospel. Bridges wrote the classic book on The Christian Ministry. He said, “The mark of a minister ‘approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed,’ is, that he, ‘rightly divides the word of truth.’ This implies a full and direct application of the gospel to the mass of his unconverted hearers, combined with a body of spiritual instruction to the several classes of Christians. His system will be marked by scriptural symmetry and comprehensiveness. It will embrace the whole revelation of God, in its doctrinal instruction, experimental privileges, and practical results. This revelation is divided into two parts–the law and the gospel–essentially distinct from each other, though so intimately connected, that an accurate knowledge of neither can be obtained without the other.”
The dispensationalists set up a false antithesis between law and grace. Of course when we are talking about how a person is justified there is real antithesis, and every Christian should recognize this. The error of Dispensationalism in this connection is two-fold. First of all, it applies this sharp antithesis to the successive dispensations and interprets the Mosaic Law as exemplifying law in contrast with grace, and the gospel dispensation as exemplifying grace in contrast with law. Secondly, this antithesis becomes a governing principle which leads Dispensationalism into a false view of the law within the sphere of grace. This erroneous view appears very clearly in the Scofield Reference Bible (pp. 999f, 1002) and also in Chafer’s Systematic Theology, (vol. 4, pp. 180-251).
Many true believers, traveling on the road to the Celestial City get very weary and discouraged with the many divisions and controversies. Christian, you must remember that God brings good out of evil. The cross is the best illustration of this principle. The most wicked thing that was ever done by the hands of men was crucifying our Lord, yet, the greatest blessings that God ever gave to us are the blessings that flow from the cross.
We will continue this study in the next issue with some of the history of Dispensationalism in America.
In the meantime, let me encourage you with the word of an old Puritan: “The road to heaven is very narrow, and worse yet, there is a dangerous ditch on either side of that narrow road. On the one side is the ditch of DESPAIR and on the other side there is the ditch of PRESUMPTION, but bless God, in front of the ditch of Despair is a hedgerow of God’s promises and in front of the ditch of Presumption is a hedgerow of God’s precepts.”
1Mistakenly listed as Charles C. Bass in the print edition. Corrected March 14, 2010.