How many people here have heard of the term "dispensationalism"?
My short definition of it would be "God dealt with people differently through the ages." However, I don't have the intelligence gained from a Masters of Divinity, so I suspect that won't show up in any scholarly work, whereas this definition from There Really is a Difference!: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology by Renald Showers is a bit more erudite:
In light of the usage of the word for dispensation in the New Testament, the term dispensation as it relates to Dispensational Theology could be defined as a particular way of God's administering His rule over the world as He progressively works out His purpose for world history.1
I don't know about you…but that isn't entirely clarifying to me. Luckily Showers continues:
In order for each dispensation to be distinct from all other dispensations, it must have three essential characteristics. First, it must have a particular way of God's [sic] administering His rule. Each dispensation is characterized by a unique ruling factor or combination of ruling factors. Second, it must involve a particular responsibility for man. Each dispensation makes man responsible to obey God in accordance with its unique ruling factor or combination of factors. Third, it must be characterized by divine revelation which had not been given before. In order for man to know God's new way of ruling and his new responsibility, he must have these things revealed to him. Each new dispensation requires new revelation from God.2
Does it make a little more sense now?
If not, perhaps an example of how history has been divided into dispensations will make it clear.
[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]
Has anyone heard of C. I. Scofield?
Now…I figure if someone is only known by their initials, then they've got to be important in scholarly circles…who knows, maybe some day I'll be referred to as A. R. Fahrner. 🙂
Either way, Schofield was a famous 19 century dispensationalist…you may have even heard of the Scofield Study Bible. The Moody Handbook of Theology says…
Scofield categorizes the dispensations this way.
1. Man Innocent (from creation to expulsion from Eden)
2. Man Under Conscience (from Eden to the Flood)
3. Man in Authority Over the Earth (Noah to Abraham)
4. Man Under Promise (Abraham to Moses)
5. Man Under Law (Moses to Christ)
6. Man Under Grace (death of Christ to the rapture)
7. Man Under the Personal Reign of Christ (millennial reign of Christ)3
Now does dispensationalism make a bit more sense? 🙂
How Did it Work?
Now…I can't say I personally am a dispensationalist…but I do think we can see God working with man in different ways through history. Additionally, lest it come off otherwise, descriptions of dispensationalism seem to put great effort into assuring people that they are not saying that God saved or saves people different ways in different dispensations. Instead, they assure the reader that we always have been and always will be saved by faith through grace.
I think we can say, "Amen!" to that, eh? 🙂
But I do think Scofield's dispensational divisions are a good outline for a sermon about "What Was Tried." We'll skip the last two dispensations Scofield mentions. The very last one, "Man Under Personal Reign of Christ (millennial reign of Christ)," is in the future…and some might argue about exactly when that happens and what that is.
As for "Man Under Grace (death of Christ to the rapture)"…that'll come into scope in the next sermon in the series…and I definitely would argue about the rapture part. 🙂
But that still leaves us with 5.
What did God try in each and how well did it work?
One quick note before we do that though…please remember that right up through Jesus' ascension the Bible, in great measure, is a record of God's dealings with the Jews. Even Genesis, which does tell us where we came from, seems to mostly explain the origin of the Jewish people…we just get sucked in because our DNA also originated with Adam and Eve.
So…although we will look at the effectiveness of the dispensations as defined by Scofield…in many respects "What Was Tried" in Scripture is mostly about Israel…
Having said all that, let's jump in with dispensation #1…
Man Innocent (from creation to expulsion from Eden)
The first is "Man Innocent (from creation to expulsion from Eden)."
Well, we don't need to spend much time on that since that was, in great measure, the subject of the first sermon in the series. If you weren't here for that you can listen to "What Went Wrong" (or review the sermon notes) at Traditores.org or just read chapter 3 of Genesis.
God gave us freedom of will.
We blew it.
End of dispensation #1.
Human track record? Not so good.
Man Under Conscience (from Eden to the Flood)
Next is "Man Under Conscience (from Eden to the Flood)."
During this age of conscience, God doesn't seem to have any elaborate structure for His dealings with man, although it does appear that along with conscience there was a system of sacrifice. Let's take a look at Genesis 4:1-8:
4 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD." 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it."
And…we know how well that worked it…sin ruled over Cain instead of Cain over sin and Abel paid the price.
But, Cain is only one person so it's not fair to grade a whole dispensation as a failure based on his sin…and there were some bright points…for instance:
21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. 22 Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. 24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him (Genesis 5:21-24).
But…it appears from a success standpoint, Cain was far more indicative of "Man Under Conscience" than Enoch, because by the time Noah comes into the picture, Genesis 6:5-8 tells us:
5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them." 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
So…dispensation #1 ends with us getting kicked out of the Garden and dispensation #2 wraps up with:
"Every intention of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually."
No wonder "the LORD regretted that he had made" us.
Man in Authority Over the Earth (Noah to Abraham)
Lucky for us there was at least one righteous guy on earth, and dispensations didn't end at that point. Noah builds an ark, patiently waits for the rain to stop and the water to clear, and our third dispensation, "Man in Authority Over the Earth (Noah to Abraham)" begins. Let's see how that dispensation starts off:
18 The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed.
20 Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. 21 He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside (Genesis 9:18-22).
Our righteous man seems to have had a little bit of a drinking problem…and considering the curse Noah gives after those verses, there appears to be something a bit more significant than Ham mistakenly seeing his dad naked going on here.
But, just like it wouldn't be fair to categorize the second dispensation by Cain's act, the third shouldn't be condemned by Ham's behavior. So, let's look a little further on at a small construction initiative in Genesis 11:1-4:
11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth."
Now…that's really the last we hear about the third dispensation…from that point we get a couple of lists of decedents and then we meet Abraham (or Abram at that point).
But, it seems that at whatever point the Tower of Babel was being constructed our ancestors had, like Eve before them, fallen for Satan's lie and thought they could be like God ("a tower with its top in the heavens")…but at a minimum…they were rebelling against God ("let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth").
Of course, unwarranted pride has a reward…and what they were trying to prevent was exactly what happened.
By the way, before we hang our heads low and head to the next dispensation, perhaps you were wondering why it is called "Man in Authority Over the Earth." If you take a look at Genesis 9:1-3 you'll see:
9 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.
Based on that, perhaps the previous dispensation should have been the Vegetarian Dispensation, and this one the Carnivorous Dispensation. 🙂
Man Under Promise (Abraham to Moses)
We now get to the fourth dispensation, "Man Under Promise (Abraham to Moses)." In Genesis 12:1-3 we see the covenant in this dispensation:
12 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
And, even though he stumbled a couple times…mental note…don't pretend your wife is your sister…Abraham seems to have done pretty well:
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God (James 2:21-23).
But…sadly…we can't judge the success of a dispensation on a single good person any more than we should based on a single bad person…and who can forget the story of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham negotiated God down to only needing 10 righteous people in Sodom in order for it to be saved from destruction.
How did that work out?
No, God did not spare it…and not because He reneged…there weren't even 10 righteous people in that city…and they really showed their character in what they wanted to do to the angels who came to Lot's home. If you need a refresher take a look at Genesis 18:22-19:29.
It's Really About the Jews
To me, however, the Abrahamic dispensation is really just a precursor to the next one, and in some ways we can judge its success on the state of Israel when the next dispensation begins. In some ways, that dispensation begins at the Jew's own request:
23 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (Exodus 2:23-25).
So, God calls and sends Moses…who speaks with Pharaoh…who is none to pleased with the request and decides to make Israel's labor harder…and:
19 The foremen of the people of Israel saw that they were in trouble when they said, "You shall by no means reduce your number of bricks, your daily task each day." 20 They met Moses and Aaron, who were waiting for them, as they came out from Pharaoh; 21 and they said to them, "The LORD look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us" (Exodus 5:19-21).
Seems like the "Under Promise" dispensation didn't lead to too trusting a people, eh? Of course, God didn't choose them because of their righteousness…He chose them because of a promise…and our Lord knew exactly how reliable they were:
17 When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, "Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt" (Exodus 13:17).
And if you take the time to read through Exodus you'll see a people who had grumbling down to a science.
So, "Man Innocent," "Man Under Conscience," "Man in Authority Over the Earth," and "Man Under Promise" didn't work out so well. How about the final dispensation for tonight?
Man Under Law (Moses to Christ)
And that final dispensation is "Man Under Law (Moses to Christ)."
Considering that dispensation ends up with Jesus being crucified by His chosen nation, we could just chalk it up as a failure…but I'm not going to let you escape those pews quite yet. 🙂
That's because I personally could see dividing this dispensation up into sub-dispensations:
- Moses & Joshua
- Return from Exile
- Jesus' Time on Earth
And although we won't look at each of those…let's see at least how the first two worked out.
The grumbling Jews are miraculously delivered from Pharaoh…and not only do they see the Red Sea part so they can cross, but they see their Lord destroy their enemies. I don't know about you, but that would warrant a little trust on my part. However, not too long after they think Moses is a bit tardy returning from Mount Sinai.
Does anyone remember what Israel then did?
That's right…in Exodus 32 we see them create, worship, and dance around a golden calf…
4 And [Aaron] received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:4)
So…this dispensation didn't start off so well, did it?
But I suspect some dispensationalists might say, "Wait…they didn't have the law yet. The dispensation hasn't really started."
Well…God provides Moses with a second set of tablets with the 10 Commandments…and Israel definitely has the law from that point forward. Interestingly enough, while giving a bunch of rules God says something very relevant considering what we find by the time we reach the book of Judges. In Deuteronomy 12:8 He says:
"You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes,
And in Judges 17:6 and 21:25 we learn:
6 In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
Which makes it impossible for me to not note that Proverbs 12:15 says:
15 The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.
How many times have we personally confirmed those words?
And it doesn't get any better once Israel gets the king they so desperately wish for. Even asking for a king…demanding one…was a rejection of God being king over them (see 1 Samuel 8:7). God's warning of exactly how a king will take advantage of them in 1 Samuel 8:10-18 doesn't convince them…they get a king…
And their first king (Saul) blows it.
Their second king (David) does okay.
Their third king (Solomon) is sort of a mixed bag (I personally go with he blew it)…
But from that point forward far more kings than not also blow it. It's some of the most painful reading as I go through all 66. So much potential replaced with so much failure.
And sure enough, the people (in general) follow the king they asked for instead of the king they implicitly rejected. They got what they wanted, and they continue to do what is right in their own eyes.
Carrot and Stick
Ultimately, if "Man Under Law" proves anything it shows how utterly useless a carrot and stick approach works. God gave the very specific rules (the Law)…and promised to reward them if they would follow them. Additionally, if you take a look at Leviticus 26:14-45 you'll see our Lord also promised progressively harsher punishment to try to get them to behave, culminating in a guarantee of exile should they not smarten up.
They did not smarten up…reward or punishment. They ended up exiled…returned…and…
Then crucified the very God they claimed to worship.
Boy we like doing what is right in our own eyes, don't we?!
Is God a Failure?
So…5 dispensations…5 failures…
Innocence didn't work. Conscience didn't work. Dominion didn't work. Promise didn't work. Law didn't work.
Does that mean God is a failure too?
If all that happened in the Garden is that we broke an arbitrary rule, then sure enough…God sure didn't seem to be able to figure out a way to get us humans to follow His commandments.
But, as we discussed last week, sin didn't start with Adam and Eve…and what went wrong, both originally and in the Garden, wasn't that people broke rules.
Breaking rules was indicative of another kind of breakage.
A breakdown of trust.
From the point unrighteousness was found in Satan (see Ezekiel 28:15) the universe was dealing with a breakdown of trust…first with Satan, then with the angels he deceived, and then with all humanity.
If during the various dispensations all God was trying to do is get people to follow rules, then He is an abysmal failure.
But, just like a chessmaster might seem to be nuts by sacrificing his or her queen in order to win a match, our Lord is answering far bigger questions than just how to get idiotic earthlings to do what they are told.
It's not about us. It's about God. It's always been about God.
"Things into which angels long to look" (see 1 Peter 1:12).
And at this point in the sermon would you agree that there is at least one fundamental question that has been answered clearly, leaving no room for argument?:
Can we do it by ourselves? [No] Nothing that depends on us succeeds.
Let me throw in one more question. No matter how often we humans fail…no matter how many opportunities we are given that we as a species blow…does God give up? [No]
And praise God that is true…because that says a ton about the God we worship…and prepares us for next week's sermon, "What Finally Worked."
1Showers, R. E. (1990). There really is a difference! : A comparison of covenant and dispensational theology. Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.
3Enns, P. P. (1997). The Moody handbook of theology (516). Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press.