The Word for today:
The book of Romans is organized into three major divisions. Chapters 1-8 are doctrinal; chapters 9-11 are dispensational; chapters 12-16 are about duty.
Over the last couple of days, we laid the groundwork for today’s brief guide to the basics of dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism has its critics and its shortcomings, but it has been the most helpful system of biblical interpretation that I have found.
It integrates the whole of scripture–showing how each book relates to the whole– far better than other interpretive strategies. For example, Romans 11 (the section of scripture we are reading today) can hardly be seriously addressed by any other interpretive system.
That’s why you’ll notice that many commentators skip quickly from the glories of Romans 8 to the practical applications of Romans 12-16. But God devoted three chapters in perhaps the most important treatise in scripture to dispensational issues. So beware of interpretation that “skips”–deciding for God what is important in God’s own Word.
Note: You’ll hear other commentators make fun of dispensationalists (especially for all their charts and diagrams!) But invariably these critics are the chapter-skippers mentioned above. So to the commentator who pokes fun, may I say that until you yourself attempt to take on every word of God’s Word, your commentary amounts to sweet nothings whispered into gullible ears.
And so we present this brief guide to dispensationalism. It’s one of those words that you never noticed before–until now, when it will start to pop up everywhere.
Dispensationalism is a system of theology which adheres to two primary principles:
1) A consistently literal interpretation of scripture–particularly of prophecy.
Dispensationalists give each word the meaning it would commonly have in everyday usage. They take the words of the Bible literally (not allegorizing or spiritualizing them) unless the context cries out that a passage should be understood figuratively.
There are at least three reasons why this is the best way to view Scripture. First, the purpose of language itself seems to require that we interpret it literally.
The second reason is biblical. Every prophecy about Jesus Christ in the Old Testament was fulfilled literally. Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ death, and Jesus’ resurrection all occurred exactly and literally as the Old Testament predicted. There is no non-literal fulfillment of these prophecies in the New Testament. This argues strongly for the literal method.
If literal interpretation is not used in studying the Scriptures, there is no objective standard by which to understand the Bible. Every person would be able to interpret the Bible as he saw fit. Biblical interpretation would devolve into “what this passage says to me…” instead of “the Bible says…” Sadly, this is already the case in much of what is called biblical interpretation today.
2) A distinction between Israel and the church in God’s plan and program for the ages.
Dispensational theology teaches that there are two distinct peoples of God: Israel and the church. Dispensationalists believe that salvation has always been by faith—in God’s Word (the covenant promises) in the Old Testament; in God’s Son (the incarnate Word) in the New Testament.
Dispensationalists hold that the church has not replaced Israel in God’s program and that the Old Testament promises to Israel have not been transferred to the church. They believe that the promises God made to Israel (for land, many descendants, and blessings) in the Old Testament will be ultimately fulfilled in the 1000-year period spoken of in Revelation chapter 20. Dispensationalists believe that just as God is in this age focusing His attention on the church, He will again in the future focus His attention on Israel (see Romans 9-11).
Dispensationalists understand the Bible to be organized into seven dispensations. (Dispensational schemes will vary slightly from one author to the next. One of the most popular schemes, found in the Scofield Reference Bible, is outlined below.) These dispensations are not paths to salvation, but manners in which God relates to man:
Innocence (Creation to Fall)
Conscience (Fall to Flood)
Human Government (Flood to Abraham)
Promise (Abraham to Moses)
Law (Moses to Christ)
Grace (Church Age)
Dispensationalism results in a premillennial interpretation of Christ’s second coming and usually a pretribulational interpretation of the rapture. (Do not fret if those terms are beyond your range right now!)
To summarize, dispensationalism is a theological system that emphasizes the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy, recognizes a clear distinction between Israel and the church, and organizes the Bible into different dispensational eras.