THE DISPENSATION OF PROMISE
The fourth dispensation extended from God’s call of Abraham to the giving of the Mosaic Law at Mount Sinai. The Scripture portion which covers this dispensation is Genesis 12 – Exodus 18.
Since man had failed to obey God on the basis of human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, and human government, God started a fourth dispensation by instituting promise as a new ruling factor. The fact that promise began as a significant factor with God’s special dealings with Abraham is made evident by such passages as Galatians 3:15-22 and Hebrews 6:13-15 and 11:8-19. A principle is a ruling factor if it makes a difference in the way that people live. God intended His promises to Abraham and his descendants to make a difference in the way that they would live. Hebrews 11:8-30 demonstrates the fact that God’s promises did make such a difference in the lives of Abraham and his descendants. Thus, promise did function as a ruling factor.
The fourth dispensation had four ruling factors which God used to govern Abraham and his descendants: human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, human government, plus divine promise. Dispensational Theologians have named the fourth dispensation after the new ruling factor, since that is the factor which made the fourth dispensation distinct from the third.
The special revelation which God gave to Abraham and his descendants for the fourth dispensation is recorded in Genesis 12:2-3; 13:14-17; 15; 17:1-22 and 22:16-18. God made personal promises to Abraham – He would bless Abraham, make his name great, give him many physical descendants, make him the father of a multitude of nations, give him the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and would bless those who would bless him and curse those who would curse him.
God made national promises concerning Israel – He would bring Israel into existence as a nation and make it great, give Israel the land of Canaan forever and establish the Abrahamic Covenant with the nation as an everlasting covenant.
God also made a universal promise – He would give blessing to all families of the earth through Abraham’s line of descent (the Redeemer would come through Israel).
The responsibility of Abraham and his descendants during the fourth dispensation was to obey God on the basis of human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, human government and promise. This responsibility subjected Abraham and his descendants to the following test: would they obey God on the basis of these four ruling factors?
Abraham and his descendants failed the test of the fourth dispensation. On several occasions they disobeyed God as the result of lapses of faith concerning the fulfillment of His promises. Abraham fathered Ishmael through Hagar. Twice he lied concerning his wife, Sarah. Isaac lied concerning Rebekah. Jacob was a great deceiver. The Jews did not return from Egypt to Canaan after the famine of Joseph’s time ended. Apparently they forgot that their destiny was related to the land of Canaan rather than to Egypt.
This failure brought divine judgment. Throughout their history the Jews have continued to have problems with Ishmael’s descendants. Through time they were subjected to slavery and were threatened with annihilation in Egypt.
THE DISPENSATION OF THE MOSAIC LAW
The fifth dispensation extended from the giving of the Mosaic Law at Mount Sinai to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Mount Calvary. The tearing of the veil in the Temple in Jerusalem when Christ died indicated that the Law was terminated at that time. The Scripture portion which covers this dispensation is Exodus 19:1 – Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:41; Luke 23:49 and John 20:30.
Since Abraham and his descendants had failed to obey God on the basis of the four ruling factors of the fourth dispensation, God began a fifth dispensation by instituting the Mosaic Law as a new ruling factor.
The fifth dispensation had five ruling factors which God used to govern the people of Israel: human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, human government, promise plus the Mosaic Law. The central core of the Mosaic Law was written on tables of stone outside the people of Israel. The Law inflicted the death penalty upon those who broke a number of its precepts. Thus, the Mosaic Law was a totally external way of God administering His rule over Israel. For this reason, the Apostle Paul declared that the Mosaic Law functioned as a pedagogue (an external moral restrainer – Gal. 3:23-25). Dispensational Theologians have named the fifth dispensation after the new ruling factor, because that is the factor which made the fifth dispensation distinct from the fourth.
The special revelation which God gave to Israel for the fifth dispensation is recorded in Exodus 20 – Deuteronomy. It consisted of the Mosaic Law with its 613 commandments. These gave in detail God’s will for the moral, civil and ceremonial aspects of Israel’s life.
Israel’s responsibility during the fifth dispensation was to obey God on the basis of human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, human government, promise and the Mosaic Law. This responsibility subjected the Jews to the following test: would they obey God on the basis of these five ruling factors?
The people of Israel failed the test of the fifth dispensation. The Jews broke the Mosaic Law repeatedly (Jer. 31:32; Ezek. 16). God was forced to tell them that they had a heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26; Zech. 7:12). This was His way of saying that their inner control center was inflexible. It refused to bend, to conform to the Mosaic Law as an expression of God’s rule over them. Also, during this dispensation Israel rejected its Messiah and had Him crucified.
This failure brought God’s judgment upon Israel. The nation suffered many judgments during the fifth dispensation. Among the worst were the Assyrian and Babylonian Captivities and Israel’s temporary removal from its place of blessing (Rom. 11) and worldwide dispersion as the result of its rejection of Christ.
THE DISPENSATION OF GRACE
Before the sixth dispensation is examined, several important truths concerning the grace of God should be considered. First, in the Scriptures the grace of God deals with far more than salvation from sin. For example, it was by the grace of God that Noah survived the Flood (Gen. 6:8), that Israel was restored to its homeland after the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 9:8) and that the afflicted were sustained in their trials (Prov. 3:34). It is by the grace of God that believers are given spiritual gifts and ministries (Rom. 12:6; Gal. 2:9). Indeed, the grace of God has so many facets that Peter calls it “the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).
Second, although the grace of God was functioning throughout Old Testament times, it began to function in some new sense as a result of the ministry of Jesus Christ in His first coming. John indicated this when he wrote: “. . . the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). John appeared to be making this new function of grace parallel with the function of the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law never functioned as a way of salvation (Gal. 2:16), but it did function as a rule of life (a ruling factor). In light of this, John is saying that grace began to function as a rule of life (a ruling factor) as a result of Christ’s ministry in His first coming.
Third, other passages indicate that grace began to function as a ruling factor as a result of Christ’s ministry. Paul wrote the following to believers in the present (sixth) dispensation: “. . . you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). In this passage the function of grace which Paul had in mind is parallel with the function of the Mosaic Law. In other words, grace has now taken over the function which the Mosaic Law had in the previous dispensation. As noted earlier, the Mosaic Law never functioned as a way of salvation, but it did function as a ruling factor. Thus, the function of grace which Paul had in mind in this passage is that of a ruling factor. This is indicated further by the word “under” which implies being under rule.1 Paul was saying that believers in the present dispensation are not under the Mosaic Law as a ruling factor. Instead, they are under grace as a ruling factor. Thus, while grace continues to function as the way of salvation during this present (sixth) dispensation, it has assumed the additional function of a ruling factor as a result of Christ’s ministry in His first coming.
In Titus 2:11-12 Paul indicated that one of the functions of the grace of God is that of “instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” The word “instructing” means to “practice discipline, correct, give guidance.”2 Thus, Paul was saying that grace practices discipline over believers for the purpose of prompting them to reject a godless lifestyle and to adopt a godly one. In other words, one of the functions of grace is that of a ruling factor. Paul stated that the grace of God is functioning as a ruling factor “in the present age.” Grace is the ruling factor which uniquely characterizes the dispensation (way of God administering His rule) during this present age.
The sixth dispensation extends from the death of Jesus Christ to His second coming. (The author is presenting the majority view concerning the time when the present dispensation will end. Although some Dispensationalists believe that the Tribulation Period will involve a separate dispensation, the majority have held that the sixth dispensation will not terminate until the second coming. For a discussion of the relationship of the Tribulation Period to the present dispensation see Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, pp. 54-57.) The Scripture portion which covers this dispensation is Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:50 and John 20:31 through Revelation 19:21.
Israel clearly demonstrated man’s inability to obey God on the basis of the five ruling factors (including the external Mosaic Law) of the fifth dispensation. Thus, God began a sixth dispensation by instituting His grace as a new ruling factor.
During most of its course the sixth dispensation has five ruling factors which God uses to govern people: human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, human government, promise plus grace. It should be noted that the Mosaic Law is not a ruling factor in the present dispensation. God intended it to be in effect only until the ministry of Christ (Gal. 3:19, 23-25; cp. Rom. 6:14; 1 Cor. 9:20). It also should be noted that the restraint by the Holy Spirit will be removed as a ruling factor when it is time for the Antichrist to be revealed near the end of this dispensation (2 Th. 2:78). As a ruling factor for the believer grace consists of two things: a confirmed favorable disposition toward God (the law of God in the heart – 2 Cor. 3:3-11; Rom. 7:22; Heb. 8:8-12) and the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Dispensation Theologians have named the sixth dispensation after the new ruling factor, because that is the factor which makes the sixth dispensation distinct from the fifth.
The special revelation which God gave for the sixth dispensation is recorded in the latter part of the Gospels, the Book of Acts, the Epistles and Revelation 1-19. Unsaved Jews and Gentiles are to receive the gift of righteousness through faith in Christ. The organized Church is to fulfill the Great Commission, to maintain a pure membership, to discipline unruly members, to prevent false teaching from existing within it and to contend earnestly for the true faith. Individual believers are to live sensible, godly lives, to be associated with a local church, to evangelize and make disciples and to use spiritual gifts properly.
Man’s responsibility during the sixth dispensation is to obey God on the basis of human conscience, the restraint by the Holy Spirit, human government, promise and grace. This responsibility subjects man to the following test: does man obey God on the basis of these five ruling factors?
Man fails the test of the sixth dispensation. For example, the majority of unsaved Jews and Gentiles do not accept the gift of righteousness. Organized Christendom does not fulfill the Great Commission, maintain a pure membership, discipline unruly members, prevent false teachings from existing within it and contend earnestly for the true faith. Individual believers do not always live sensible, godly lives, associate with a local church, evangelize and make disciples and use spiritual gifts properly. By the end of this dispensation the unsaved will stage a major revolt against God’s rule (Ps. 2:1-3; Rev. 16:12-16; 19:17-21), and organized Christendom will be very apostate (Rev. 17).
This failure during this present dispensation brings God’s judgment and chastisement. God chastens and even brings premature physical death to some believers for disobedience (Acts 5:16; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 11:27-32; Heb. 12:5-13; 1 Jn. 5:16). He puts some local churches out of existence (Rev. 2:5). Toward the end of the dispensation apostate organized Christendom will be destroyed (Rev. 17:16), God will pour out divine judgments upon the world (Rev. 6-19), and God will crush the revolt of the unsaved (Rev. 19:17-21).
The next article will examine the final dispensation and the key elements of Dispensational Theology’s biblical philosophy of history.
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament (4th rev. ed.; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 851.
- Ibid., p. 608.