Augustine once said, "Distinguish the ages and the Scriptures harmonize." God has divided all human history into ages: "... by whom also he made the ages" (Heb. 1:2 ERV margin). These ages may be long or short. What distinguishes them is not their length but the way in which God deals with mankind.
While God Himself never changes, His methods do. He works in different ways at different times. We sometimes speak of the way God administers His affairs with man during a particular era as a dispensation. Technically, a dispensation does not mean an age but rather an administration, a stewardship, an order, or an economy. But it is difficult for us to think of a dispensation without thinking of time. For example, the history of the United States government has been divided into various administrations. We speak of the Roosevelt administration, the Eisenhower administration, or the Kennedy administration. We mean, of course, the manner in which the government was operated while those presidents were in office. The important point is the policies that were followed, but we necessarily link those policies with a particular period of time.
Therefore, in this lesson we will think of a dispensation as the way in which God deals with men during any particular period of history. God's dispensational dealings may be compared to the way in which a home is run, When there are only a husband and wife in the home, a certain program is followed. But when there are several young children, an entirely new set of policies is introduced. As the children mature, the affairs of the home are handled differently again. We see this same pattern in God's dealings with the human race (Gal. 4:1-5).
For example, when Cain killed his brother Abel, God set a mark on him, so that anyone finding him would not put him to death (Gen. 4: 1 5), Yet after the Flood God instituted capital punishment, decreeing that "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6). Why the difference? Because there had been a change in dispensations.
Another example. In Psalm 137:8, 9 the writer calls down severe judgment on Babylon:
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Yet later the Lord taught His people:
Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you (Matt. 5:44).
It seems obvious that language suitable for the psalmist living under Law would no longer be suitable for a Christian living under grace.
Not all Christians are agreed on the number of dispensations or the names that should be given to them. In fact, not all Christians accept dispensations at all.
But we may demonstrate the existence of dispensations as follows. First of all, there are at least two dispensations-law and grace: "For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). The fact that our Bibles are divided into Old and New Testaments indicates that a change of administration occurred. Further proof is given by the fact that believers in this age are not required to offer animal sacrifices; this too shows that God has introduced a new order.
But if we agree that there are two dispensations, we are forced to believe that there are three, because the Dispensation of Law was not introduced until Exodus 19, hundreds of years after Creation. So there must have been at least one dispensation before the Law (see Rom. 5:14). That makes three.
And then we should be able to agree on a fourth dispensation, because the Scriptures speak of "the age to come" (Heb. 6:5 RSV). This, of course, is the time when the Lord Jesus Christ will return to reign over the earth, otherwise known as the Millennium.
The Apostle Paul also distinguishes between the present age and an age to come. First he speaks of a dispensation that was committed to him in connection with the truth of the gospel and the Church (1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 3 :2; Col. 1:25). That is the present age. But then he also points forward to a future age when, in Ephesians 1: 10, he refers to "the dispensation of the fulness of times." It is apparent from his description of it that it has not yet arrived.
So we know that we are not living in the final age of the world's history.
Dr, C. I. Scofield, editor of the Scofield Reference Bible, lists seven dispensations, as follows:
1. Innocence (Gen. 1:28). From Adam's creation up to his fall.
2. Conscience or Moral Responsibility (Gen. 3:7). From the fall to the end of the Flood.
3. Human Government (Gen. 8:15). From the end of the Flood to the call of Abraham.
4. Promise (Gen. 12:1). From the call of Abraham to the giving of the Law.
5. Law (Exod. 19:1). From the giving of the Law to the Day of Pentecost.
6. Church (Acts 2:1). From the Day of Pentecost to the Rapture.
7. Kingdom (Rev. 20:4). The thousand-year reign of Christ.
In his chart, "The Course of Time from Eternity to Eternity," A. E. Booth sees seven dispensations of human history foreshadowed in the seven days of Genesis:
First day-Man tested with the light of creation-light and promise.
Second day-Government (from the Flood to the dividing of the nations).
Third day-Israel (from Abraham to the end of the Gospels).
Fourth day-Grace (a parenthetic period).
Fifth day-The Tribulation.
Sixth day-The Millennium.
While it is not important to agree on the exact details, it is quite important to see that there are different dispensations. The distinction between law and grace is especially important. Otherwise we will take portions of Scripture that apply to other ages and refer them to ourselves. While all Scriptures are profitable for us (2 Tim. . 3:16), not all were written directly to us. Passages dealing with other ages have applications for us, but their primary interpretation is for the age for which they were written. For example, Jews living under the Law were forbidden to eat the meat of any unclean animal, that is, one that did not have a cloven hoof and did not chew the cud (Lev. 11:3). This prohibition is not binding on Christians today (Mark 7:18, 19), but the underlying principle remains -that we should avoid moral and spiritual uncleanness.
God promised the people of Israel that if they obeyed Him, He would make them materially prosperous (Deut. 28:1 -6). The emphasis then was on material blessings in earthly places. But this is not true today. God does not promise that He will reward our obedience with financial prosperity. instead, the blessings of this dispensation are spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Eph, 1:3).
While there are differences among the various ages, there is one thing that never changes, and that is the gospel. Salvation always has been, is now, and always will be by faith in the Lord. And the basis of salvation for every age is the finished work of Christ on Calvary's Cross. People in the Old Testament were saved by believing whatever revelation the Lord gave them. Abraham, for example, was saved by believing God when He said that the patriarch's seed would be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5, 6). Abraham did not know much, if anything, about what would take place at Calvary centuries later. But God knew. And when Abraham believed the Lord, He put to Abraham's account all the value of the future work of Christ at Calvary.
Someone has said that the Old Testament saints were saved "on credit." That is to say, they were saved on the basis of the price that the Lord Jesus would pay many years later (that is the meaning of Romans 3:25). We are saved on the basis of the work which Christ accomplished over 1900 years ago. But in both cases salvation is by faith in the Lord.
We must guard against any idea that people in the Dispensation of Law were saved by keeping the Law or even by offering animal sacrifices. The Law can only condemn; it cannot save (Rom. 3:20). And the blood of bulls and goats cannot put away a single sin (Heb. 10,4). No! God's way of salvation is by faith and faith alone! (See Romans 5:1.)
Another good point to remember is this: when we speak of the present age as being the Age of Grace, we do not imply that God was not gracious in past dispensations. We simply mean that God is now testing man under grace rather than under law. This distinction will be explained more fully in a future lesson.
It is also important to realize that the ages do not close with split-second precision. Often there is an overlapping or a transition period. We see this in the Book of Acts, for instance; it took awhile for the new Church to throw off some of the trappings of the previous dispensation. And it is possible that there will be a period of time between the Rapture and the Tribulation during which the Man of Sin will be manifested and the Temple will be erected in Jerusalem.
One final word. Like all good things, the study of dispensations can be abused. There are some Christians who carry dispensationalism to such an extreme that they accept only Paul's Prison Epistles as applicable for the Church today! As a result they do not accept baptism or the Lord's supper, since these are not found in the Prison Epistles. They also teach that Peter's gospel message was not the same as Paul's. (See Galatians 1:8, 9 for a refutation of this.) These people ate sometimes called ultra-dispensationalists or Bullingerites (after a teacher named E. W. Bullinger). Their extreme view of dispensations should be rejected.