Many Christians have never heard of the term Dispensationalism. However, Dispensationalism is a familiar term to many people in fundamentalist circles, especially amongst the elderly. Likewise, many people may have studied Dispensationalism as part of a lesson on how to study the Bible and not even known it. For this reason, it is important to understand what is Dispensationalism as it relates to the Bible and the church.
What is the common definition of Dispensationalism?
Dispensationalism is an extension of the word dispensation. A dispensation is commonly defined as (1):
- Exemption from a rule or usual requirement; permission to be exempted from the laws or observances of a church.
- A system of order, government, or organization of a nation, community, etc., especially as existing at a particular time. A divinely ordained order prevailing at a particular period of history noun: dispensation; plural noun: dispensations (in Christian theology) Archaic: an act of divine providence.
- The action of distributing or supplying something.
This definition presents the idea of giving or dispensing something. In the first definition, the person is given an exemption from a rule or requirement. In the second definition, an organizational system for the benefit of mankind was ordained or given to mankind. In the last definition, something was given to someone. In all three cases, the person doing the giving exhibited grace to the person receiving the dispensation.
How does the Bible describe dispensations?
The Bible uses the word dispensation in several places as follows:
- 1 Corinthians 9:17 (KJV) “For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.”
- Ephesians 1:10 (KJV) “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:”
- Ephesians 3:2 (KJV) “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:”
- Colossians 1:25 (KJV) “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;”
We see from the context of these passages that God is the person doing the dispensing or giving. In the first example, God gave Paul the gospel. In the second example, God gave a period of time that would conclude with the resurrection. In the third example, God gave Paul a revelation concerning the Gentiles receiving the gospel. In the last, God gave Paul the power to preach the Word of truth to the Gentiles about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What do dispensationalists believe?
Dispensationalism then is the belief that God gives out knowledge, power, order, procedure, and grace in the context of the time of His choosing. For example, God dispensed His grace in ways that no longer apply since the birth of Jesus. Sacrificing Passover lambs comes to mind. Dispensationalists recognize several characteristics of a dispensation:
- Two parties are always involved
- God gives man certain responsibilities
- God determines what defines a failure of man’s responsibility
- God determines what judgment will result from man’s failure
- God determines the time period that each dispensation will last. Examples are as follows:
- Eternity past (Genesis 1:1-27)
- Age of innocence before the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28-3:6)
- Age of conscience from the fall until Noah and the flood (Genesis 3:7-9:17)
- Age of human government from Noah until Abraham (Genesis 9:18-11:9)
- Age of promise from Abraham to Moses (Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27)
- Age of the law from Moses until the death of Christ (Exodus 19-John 19:30)
- The church age from the death of Christ until the rapture and resurrection (John 19:31-Revelation 3:22)
- The millennial age from the resurrection or rapture until the Great White Throne Judgment after the 1000 year reign of Christ on earth (Revelation 4:1-20:15). Some recognize a tribulation period of seven years separately that precedes this period
- Eternity future (Revelation 21-22)
How does Dispensationalism relate to the Bible and the church?
There are about 15 factors that we should consider when we study the Bible. These factors help us properly understand the message of the Bible (2 Peter 1:20-21). One factor involves dividing the Bible into time periods. We see this as follows: Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV)
This verse tells us that several things:
- We are to study the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
- We study the Bible to demonstrate that we are approved or pleasing to God (Romans 14:17-18; 2 Corinthians 10:12-18)
- We study the Bible by rightly dividing the Word
- Dividing the Word means to cut or separate into pieces (Isaiah 28:9-10)
- Studying these pieces in the context of time helps us to know God’s plan for humanity past, present, and future
- We study the Bible by working at it
- We study the Bible so that we will not be ashamed or hesitant to do God’s Work
When there is a proper understanding of Biblical dispensations people will not be deceived when it comes to theological truth. We no longer sacrifice Passover lambs or have to make weekly sacrifices for sin. Yet, many people do not have the discernment to understand why (Ephesians 4:12-14). Likewise, some churches teach that there will not be a time of resurrection, yet the Bible warns us about this too (2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Peter 3:3-9).
Today, we see the signs that this church age will soon be over (Matthew 24). Knowing these signs can help us to share the gospel to people in a way that is relative to current events so they understand that time is running out (Acts 17:29-31; 2 Corinthians 6:1-7).
Dispensationalism is the belief that God gives out knowledge, power, order, procedure, and grace in the context of the time of His choosing. The Bible uses the term dispensation in several places. Dispensationalists generally believe that all of time is divided into specific dispensations according to God’s timing and plan. Understanding these times helps us to study God’s Word in context so that we can discern proper doctrine and practice in our work for the Lord.
Article by Dr. Michael L. Williams
Dr. Michael L. Williams is a pastor, author, Christian educator and Biblical counselor who has served in ministry since March of 2000. Dr. Mike holds under-graduate through post graduate degrees in Christian Education and formerly worked as a nurse. Dr. Mike is the Senior Pastor of Selah Mountain Ministries, which he founded in March of 2010 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA (selahmountain.org). In addition to counseling, he teaches how to overcome life issues Biblically on topics such as anger management, marriage, addictions, and other subjects typically referred to as mental illnesses. Dr. Mike is also a writer at What Christians Want To Know. Dr. Mike lives with his wife Pamela Rose and adult daughter Hollie Rose. He and Pamela have other adult children and several grandchildren as well. Learn more about Dr. Mike at his personal ministry web site Wisdom4Today
Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, King James Version. Williams, Michael, (2013). How to study the Bible. Albuquerque, NM: Selah Mountain Bible Institute. (1) Google. (2015). “Dispensation”. Retrieved from Google, https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=dispensation+define. (2) Google. (2015). “Dispensation”. Retrieved from Google Books: NGRAM viewer, https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=dispensation&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1500&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=7&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Cdispensation%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bdispensation%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BDispensation%3B%2Cc0#t4%3B%2Cdispensation%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bdispensation%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BDispensation%3B%2Cc0