Submitted by Dr. Georgie Porgie
In the study of Scripture, it is most important to understand that scriptural revelation falls into well defined periods, which are clearly separated stages in the progressive revelation of God which constitute a distinctive stewardship or rule of life. Recognition of these divisions and their divine purposes constitutes one of the most important factors in facilitating right division and interpretation of the Scriptures, and probably shed more light on the whole message of the Bible than any other aspect of Biblical study. These different divisions or “dispensations” may be observed in successive periods of time.
Scofield defines a “dispensation” as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God. Three important concepts are implied in this definition;(1) a deposit of divine revelation concerning God’s will, embodying what God requires of man as to his conduct; (2) man’s stewardship of this divine revelation, in which he is responsible to obey it; and (3) a time period, often called “an age”, during which this divine revelation is dominant in the testing of man’s obedience to God.
The dispensations are a progressive and connected revelation of God’s dealings with man, given sometimes to the whole race and at other times to a particular people, Israel. These different dispensations are not separate ways of salvation. During each of them man is reconciled to God in only one way, i.e. by God’s grace through the work of Christ that was accomplished on the cross and vindicated in His resurrection. Before the cross man was saved in prospect of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, through believing the revelation thus far given him. Since the cross man has been saved by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ in whom revelation and redemption are consummated.
On man’s part the continuing requirement is obedience to the revelation of God. This obedience is a stewardship of faith. Although the divine revelation unfolds progressively, the deposit of truth in the earlier time-periods is not discarded; rather it is cumulative. Thus conscience (moral responsibility) is an abiding truth in human life (Romans 2:15; 9:1; 2 Corinthians1:12;4:2), although it does not constitute as a dispensation. Similarly the saved of this present dispensation are “not under law” as a specific test of obedience to divine revelation (Galatians 5:18 cp. Galatians 2:16; 3:11), yet the law remains an integral part of the Holy Scriptures which, to the redeemed, are profitable for “ instruction in righteousness” 2 Timothy 3:16-17; cp. Romans 15:4).
The purpose of each dispensation, then, is to place man under a specific rule of conduct, but such stewardship is not a condition of salvation. In every pass dispensation unregenerate man has failed, and he has failed in this present dispensation and will fail in the future. But salvation has been and will continue to be available to him by God’s grace through faith.” (7)
“The different dispensations are essential if all men are to be proven truly guilty before God. The various testing periods are necessary in order to “stop every mouth.” Man’s relationship to God is not the same in every age. It has been necessary to bring fallen man into divine testing. This, in part, is God’s purpose in the ages, and the result of the testings is in every case an unquestionable demonstration of the utter failure and sinfulness of man. In the end, every mouth will be stopped because every assumption of the human heart will be revealed as foolish and wicked by centuries of experience. Each dispensation, therefore, begins with man being divinely placed in a new position of privilege and responsibility, and each closes with the failure of man resulting in righteous judgments from God. While there are certain abiding facts, such as the holy character of God, which are of necessity the same in every age, there are varying instructions and responsibilities which are, as to their application, limited to a given period. In the dispensations God has demonstrated every possible means of dealing with man. In every dispensation man fails and only God’s grace is sufficient. God’s purpose is fulfilled in the dispensations to manifest His glory, both in the natural world and human history. Throughout eternity no one can raise a question as to whether God could have given man another chance to attain salvation or holiness on his own ability. A knowledge of the dispensations is accordingly, the key to understanding God’s purpose in history and the unfolding of the Scripture which records God’s dealing with man and His divine revelation concerning Himself.” (8)
Paul shows that all men, without exception, are guilty before God (Rom 1:18-3:19) without any references to or need of dispensations. Someone in the second or third dispensation can not plead at the judgment as the rich man in Luke 16:27-31 sought to do on the premise that he did not have as much of an opportunity as someone with the added revelation of the fifth or sixth dispensation. This is because in each dispensation man is responsible, and therefore judged on the deposit of revelation available to him at that time.
“In studying the seven dispensations, certain principles are essential to understanding this teaching. Dispensationalism is derived from natural, or literal, interpretation of the Bible. It is impossible to interpret the Bible in its normal, literal sense without realizing that there are different ages and different dispensations. A second principle is that of progressive revelation, that is, the fact recognized by nearly all students of Scripture, that revelation is given by stages. Third, all expositors of the Bible will need to recognize that later revelation to some extent supersedes earlier revelation with a resulting change in rules of life in which earlier requirements may be changed or withdrawn and new requirements added. For instance, while God commanded Moses to kill a man for gathering sticks on Saturday (Numbers 15:32-36), no one would apply this command today because we live in a different dispensation.” (9)
Most, not all, dispensationalists generally hold to the seven dispensations outlined below:
“1. Dispensation of innocence-Age of Liberty. This begins at Genesis 1:26,27 and ends at Genesis 3:6.
2. Dispensation of conscience-Age of Human Determination. This begins at Genesis 3:7 and ends at Genesis 8:19.
3. Dispensation of human government-Covenant With Noah. This begins at Genesis 8:20 and ends at Genesis 11:9.
4. Dispensation of promise- Covenant With Abraham. This begins at Genesis 11:10 and ends at Exodus 19:3.
5. Dispensation of law (The Nation of Israel). This begins at Exodus 19:4 and ends at Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost.
In one sense the dispensation of the law ended at the cross (Romans 10:4, 2 Corinthians 3:11-14; Galatians 3: 19, 25). But in another sense it was not concluded until the day of Pentecost, when the dispensation of Grace began. Although the law ended as a specific rule of life, it continues to be a revelation of the righteousness of God and can be studied with profit by Christians in determining the holy character of God. The moral principles underlying the law continue, since God does not change; but believers today are not obliged today to keep the details of the law, as the dispensation has changed and the rule of life given Israel is not the rule of life for the church. Although many applications of the law may be made, a strict interpretation relates the Mosaic law to Israel only.
6. Dispensation of grace (The Church): This begins at Acts 2 and ends at the Rapture of the Church. The dispensation of grace was directed to the church alone. Under grace, however, failure also is evident as grace has produced neither worldwide acceptance of Christ nor a triumphant church. The dispensation of grace ends with the rapture of the church, which will be followed by the judgment of the professing church (Revelation 17:16). The age of grace is a different dispensation in that it concerns the church comprising Jewish and Gentile believers. By contrast, the law of Israel was for Israel only, human government was for the entire world, and conscience extends to all people. In the present dispensation, the Mosaic law is completely canceled as to its immediate application, but continues to testify to the holiness of God and provides many spiritual lessons by application. Although all dispensations contain a gracious element, the dispensation of grace is the supreme manifestation both in the fullness of salvation received and in the rule of life.” (10)
7.To the above C I Scofield adds the Dispensation of the Kingdom (Revelation 20:4). “This is the last of the ordered ages which condition human life on the earth. It is the kingdom covenanted to David (2 Samuel 7:8-17) [when] David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, will rule over the earth as King of kings and Lord of lords for 1000 years.” (11). In this classification of dispensations the Dispensation of the Kingdom or the Millennium is the only future dispensation. From the foregoing, it is obvious that the following dispensations can be classified as past; The Dispensation of innocence/Age of Liberty, which ended at the fall of man, and resulted in man’s expulsion from the Garden inter alia, the Dispensation of conscience/Age of Human Determination, which ended at the judgment of the flood, the Dispensation of human government, which ended at the judgment of the confusion of tongues occasioned by the folly at Babel, the Dispensation of promise/ Covenant with Abraham, which ended with the giving of the law at Sinai (Exodus 19:3), when the Dispensation of law was ushered in. This dispensation began at Exodus 19:4 and ended at Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost.
As stated above we are still regulated by our consciences to some extent (if they are not seared), and by Human Government (Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1-7), and we are blessed especially by the promise of the Covenant with Abraham which results from Christ being Abraham’s seed. Whereas the Dispensation of law is passed, the majority of the world’s civilizations are ruled by
civil laws, which are based largely on those set out in the Mosaic Covenant. Man has thereby conceded that there are no better laws than those prescribed by God-even though he chooses to disobey them.
The current or present dispensation is the Dispensation of grace or the Church Age which is scheduled to end at the Rapture of the Church- the next major event on God’s prophetic calendar. The dispensations involved in the Genesis portion of this study are those of innocence, conscience, human government, and promise.