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What is Dispensationalism, How Many Dispensations Are There, & Why Is It Essential to Studying The Bible in Context?

This article and transcription is brought to you as a ministry of Worldview Weekend and Worldview Weekend Foundation. If you appreciate that fact that we have spent the financial resources to produce this transcription and have made it available free of charge to you, then please consider supporting our ministry with a tax deductible contribution so we can continue to distribute such Biblical resource materials.

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Brannon Howse: So we set up the idea of doing this series here In Defense of Dispensationalism. What is is dispensationalism? For that person who maybe has never even heard that view.

Andy Woods: Well, I think dispensationalism is your starting point, and the reason I’m a dispensationalist is not because I’m out trying to defend a theology. The starting point of dispensationalism is a consistent literal approach to the whole Bible. In other words, I’m not going to interpret the gospel of John with one method of interpretation and then go to Genesis 1-11 or the book of Daniel, or the book of Revelation with a different method. You take things in their ordinary sense, unless there’s an obvious figure of speech. And so once a person moves into that direction, in my opinion they move into what’s called the unearth creationism that this universe in whirlwind has not been here for billions of years as the so-called scientist, philosopher’s masquerading type.

Brannon Howse: So dispensationalism starts coming into, in fact, right at the very first book of the Bible, the very first chapter.

Andy Woods: Exactly.

Brannon Howse: Because you just said if you apply the idea of dispensationalism you’re going to end up being involved in young earth.

Andy Woods: Young earth. And beyond that you’re going to see that God has made certain commitments to Israel. We call those the covenants. And you start seeing that developed in Genesis 12. Really, they’re promises in Genesis 12, but by the time you get to Genesis 15, Genesis 15:18, the formal word covenant is used. It’s the Hebrew word bereath. And it’s almost – well, it would be analogous to a contract. Like a legal contract. God has unconditionally contractually bound himself to certain commitments to Israel. And when you see those promises amplified in Genesis and throughout the Bible, it’s obvious they haven’t been completely fulfilled. So that leads you into a belief that there’s a future for Israel. And if there’s a future for Israel, and that future is not being fulfilled presently, we must be in some kind of pause in Israel’s program, and that’s what we call the age of the church, you know, which is really developed in the book of Ephesians. So those are all a lot of theological ideas, but the starting point really is a commitment to a literal approach to the whole Bible. And once people become committed to this they’ll start to see these other ideas that I mentioned as kind of self-evident.

Brannon Howse: So dispensationalism includes –– and Tommy Ice spoke on this last night, dispensationalism includes a commitment to good hermeneutics.

Andy Woods: Yeah.

Brannon Howse: Studying the Bible in context using scripture to confirm and interpret the scripture. Doing word studies.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: And things like this. Correct?

Andy Woods: Yeah. I mean, hermeneutics, just to let people know what that is, that’s the science and art of interpretation. So even as the two of us are dialoging, we’re using hermeneutics. If we weren’t using hermeneutics and you could define a word one way and I could define it a completely different way, then we couldn’t communicate. It would be like this. So we believe God in his word in the sixty six books of the Bible has spoken. He’s spoken to be understood. So hermeneutics is taking words and phrases in their ordinary sense as they would be used in Biblical times so God’s message could get through to us. We don’t believe God spoke in a confusing way. And the error that we run into is if God says something and we start to edit God and say well, God really didn’t mean that.

Here’s what he meant. If that’s your approach, you’re going to move away from dispensationalism really fast. So dispensationalism is really comes from a commitment to a literal approach not to just some of the Bible. There’s a lot of camps within Christendom that takes some of the Bible literally. We want to take the whole Bible literally. Genesis to Revelation. And I think if people do that, they start to see the concept of the dispensationalism really quickly.

Brannon Howse: And so this leads me to the question of how many dispensations have there been?

Andy Woods: Well, there’s a dispute on that. Dallas Seminary in their doctrinal statement. You know, Dallas Seminary, at one time the leader of dispensational thought, their doctrinal statement about 1929, I may be off a couple of years, but they said there’s basically three. There’s old covenant related to Israel, there’s the present age of the church, and then there’s the future kingdom. So Charles Ryrie said in what he called his sine qua non which is a Latin expression which means without which there’s nothing, meaning these are the bare basics. These are the bare basics you have to believe to be a dispensationalist. You have to believe in these three different economies.

Just to backtrack a minute, the word dispensation comes from the Greek word oikonomía. It’s translated dispensation I think in the King James version in Ephesians 1:10 and Ephesians 3:2. And oikonomía, Greek word, is a compound word meaning two words making up a single word. So it comes from the word oikas which means house, and namas which means law or rule. So dispensation is literally house rules. So it’s literally watching as you go through the Biblical text, not reading it into the text, but observing from the text that the rules change from age to age.

Brannon Howse: In other words, in the Old Testament we had Old Testament prophets, and God was speaking to them. And then we have about 400 years is it where God is silent. And then we start seeing apostles and prophets show up in the New Testament. And then they go off the scene and we have the church age and we have no more prophets and apostles. No basis for reappointing new prophets and apostles, but we have elders and evangelists and deacons, et cetera. So God is the same yesterday, today and forever, but he changes the ways in which he is conducting business with us here on earth. Correct?

Andy Woods: Exactly. The rules change from age to age. For example, you start in Genesis 1 and 2. Obviously by the time you get to Genesis 3 with the fall of man, the rules –– Radically changed. We’ve got death. Pregnancy becomes difficult. The earth, you know, starts to rebel against man. So obviously right there you know, the rules changed. And so there are at least three changes of the rules. You have Old Testament, you have the present age of the church, and then you have the future kingdom.

Now the plan of salvation is always the same, and this is a strawman that is raised against us frequently. People say oh, you guys teach multiple ways of salvation, and that’s not true. Genesis 15:6 says Abraham believed God and it was credited to him under righteousness.

Brannon Howse: So it was by faith.

Andy Woods: By faith. He just looked forward.

Brannon Howse: And we’re looking back.

Andy Woods: And we’re looking back.

Brannon Howse: He looked forward to the cross by faith. We looked back to the cross by faith. Same way.

Andy Woods: Same way. And that’s why it says it was credited to him for righteousness. Credit. We all like credit because we get goodies without payment. So Abraham got a goodie, justification, and it just hadn’t been paid yet by Christ. So he’s looking forward. Doesn’t know the name of the messiah, but he’s looking forward trusting in that word. We’re looking backward by faith just like Abraham looked forward by faith. We do know his name. But you see how the plan of salvation is always the same from age to age. So there are at least three different dispensations. Now someone like myself would say there’s really seven dispensations.

Brannon Howse: Now why is that? You just went from three to seven.

Andy Woods: Yeah. Well, three is the sine qua non, the basics.

Brannon Howse: Okay.

Andy Woods: But I believe that when you back up and you look at the whole Bible you actually see seven changes of rules. So you have innocence. You know, Genesis 1 and 2. And then you have the fall of man, and then God begins to deal with people on the basis of conscience and that takes you through the flood right up to the Tower of Babel. And then man attempts a one-world government and so then God deals with us on the basis of nations when the nation state concept was created at the Tower of Babel. And then God begins to deal with Abraham by promise, Genesis 12 really up to Mount Sinai. And then the longest dispensation is God dealing with Israel under the law, and that really takes you from Sinai all the way to Acts I. And then Acts II, the church starts. And then following the church age which ends with the rapture, the only dispensation left is the kingdom where God is largely making good on the promises he’s made to Israel in the Old Testament. Those promises have to be fulfilled somewhere, and they’re earthly so there’s got to be an earthly kingdom. So John tells us that the kingdom will last 1, 000 years. And then the seven dispensations are over, and man has been tested, and God brings in what I call global warming. True global warming. 2 Peter.

And then he replaces with new heavens and new earth. Now how did I get all that? I just got it by approaching the Bible literally and observing as you go through the Bible how the rules change from age to age keeping in mind that the plan of salvation –– Personal salvation is always the same.

Brannon Howse: Excellent. Now dispensationalism, if you tell someone you believe in dispensationalism, it also means you believe in a pretribulation rapture. It also means you believe in God fulfilling his promises with Israel. It means you would reject replacement theology which says that when Israel denied the kingdom the plan was removed, taken from them, and God cancelled all his promises to Israel and now the church is the one to get these promises, and thus the church has replaced Israel thus the term replacement theology. Dispensationalism rejects all that. Correct?

Andy Woods: Right. I think replacement theology is one of the greatest cases of identity theft in the whole world. It’s the church coming in and looking at Israel’s promises and saying well, those look pretty neat.  We’ll take those. Now they have to get nonliteral because those are earthly involving Jerusalem on planet earth.

Brannon Howse: So now you have to start allegorizing.

Andy Woods: Allegorizing them. Now what’s interesting is replacement theologians leave behind the curses. We never bring those in.

Brannon Howse: No, we don’t talk about those. They don’t talk about those, do they?

Andy Woods: The curses of the mosaic covenant. We’ll leave those behind with the Jewish people. We’ll take all the blessings.

Brannon Howse: But they also don’t want the rules either. So I guess they’re not minding what they eat and what clothes they wear, and they’re not tithing.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: They’re not bringing the first tithe to the Levites and the second tithe for the festivals, the third tithe for the poor.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: I mean, they just kind of pick and choose which ones they want to follow. Right?

Andy Woods: And they’re not bringing the unblemished lamb for the temple.

Brannon Howse: Right.

Andy Woods: On Saturday by the way.

Brannon Howse: Right. Not Sunday.

Andy Woods: So you get very selective. And the only way it works is to get very nonliteral.

Brannon Howse: So it’s a cafeteria plan. They just kind of pick what they like.

Andy Woods: Yeah. Allegorical. And so the church in their minds becomes the new Israel. The church has permanently replaced Israel in the plan of God. It sometimes goes by the name supersessionism, meaning the church has superseded Israel’s place. And so the church sees itself as the kingdom of God on the earth, and that moves into a doctrine called amillennialism, or kingdom now theology. And this is where the church gets confused because suddenly our job is no longer just to reach and teach.

Brannon Howse: So no longer the great commission. Now it’s the great building of the kingdom on earth.

Andy Woods: Right. The great ––

Brannon Howse: So now it’s social justice. Redistribution of wealth. Social gospel.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: Cultural transformation. Which is what Rick Warren and Russell Moore and John Piper and all these guys are you know, talking about. Now all of a sudden they’re into social justice, white privilege. They’re promoting Black Lives Matter.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: Racial reconciliation, which we’re all for racial reconciliation, but they’re now promoting communist groups like Black Lives Matter, and picking up the talking point and masking terms of the communists like white privilege.

Andy Woods: Yeah.

Brannon Howse: And you’ve got guys going to John Piper’s church literally preaching, we have an audio, we’ve got to make the invisible kingdom visible. The invisible kingdom has to become visible on earth. And what would happen, what would the culture of the world look like? Crime would be going down. Rape would be going down. Divorce would be going down. And how we’ve got – we have got to make the invisible kingdom visible. That’s what happens when you’re not a dispensationalist. Right?

Andy Woods: Yeah, the great co-mission becomes the great omission. So you’re no longer focused on individual salvation of people.

Brannon Howse: Collective salvation.

Andy Woods: Collective salvation of nations, and ultimately the earth. Now depending on what your political ideology is, leftwing or rightwing, this becomes a convenient tool to read your own political ideology into what the church ought to be doing.

Brannon Howse: That’s very interesting that you say that, because if you’re on the right now all of a sudden we have to elect all these people to office, we have to moralize, boycott, agitate, you know, everything we can from the right to get control of the system to wrestle it away from the progressives and the liberals so that we can elect enough people to Christianize our governments around the world and set up and establish the kingdom of God. And that goes on with the right. And then you have the New Apostolic Reformation crowd which says with their modern day prophets and apostles that they’re going to scripturally evolve, become sinless, raise the dead, and that they will be the omega children. The manifested sons of God. Joel’s Army. And that the leaders of the world will actually be leaning on these prophets and apostles getting their direction from them on what they should do to establish the kingdom on earth so that Jesus can then be told by God I release you to go and rule and reign.

So these guys actually teach the New Apostolic Reformation that God and Christ are waiting, sitting there waiting for us to get it together and then God will say to Christ I release you. Go, you’re kingdom is for you. And so you can see on the right how the right, the religious right, and New Apostolic Reformation, and the word of faith guys can all work together along with some of the reconstructionists, some of the reconstructionists in their views. The people that would be maybe following Rushdoony and some of those writers. Kind of all got together and that largely started in the 1980s with the rise of religious right.

But then on the left you’ve got the guys who come in and now they’re agitating for bigger government. More government. Now we want to be for bringing all the illegals into our country, and then if we get them here and we are involved in Christianizing them, and we let the mission field come to us, we can win them to Christ, and we can somehow establish some kind of cooperation and stop all this fighting and have harmony and peace and the kingdom breaks out. Correct?

Andy Woods: Yeah. And you get into the Seven mountain mandate.

Brannon Howse: They want to take over the power centers. Law and education, and media. And once they take control of these, they can then use that to basically bring in a theocracy, a Christian nation, or Christian kingdom.

Andy Woods: And it’s interesting when you look at their literature. The thread that runs through it is kingdom, kingdom, kingdom. And I can’t tell you how many churches I hear preaching their message, or I look at their vision statements and mission statements, and the word kingdom is everywhere.

Brannon Howse: And you’re not talking about word of faith or New Apostolic Reformation churches even.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: I know of a southern Baptist church in our community that is so big about the kingdom, the kingdom, the kingdom. Everything is about the kingdom. And I’m thinking you know, where are you going to build this kingdom? How’s this going to look? Who’s going to be – I mean, this is a southern Baptist church that’s pre-tribulation, they would say they’re dispensational, but they use and throw the word kingdom around all the time like this is something they’re building.

Andy Woods: Well, the kingdom if you don’t carefully define it from the Bible it becomes this kind of fuzzy amorphous concept that you can read any personal agenda into it you want. The reality of the situation is that we’re going to get our social justice. Social justice is coming to planet earth. The environment is going to get fixed. Everybody is going to have the perfect healthcare plan. But it’s not going to be established through the church. That’s the confusion. When you interpret the Bible dispensationally, the commitment that God has made to the kingdom relates to the conversion of Israel in the tribulation period, and not until national Israel converts and God fulfills his covenants through her will the kingdom be established on planet earth.

Brannon Howse: And God causes his kingdom to be brought. Daniel 2. It’s brought. We don’t build it.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: So the kingdom is brought. It is not built by us.

Andy Woods: And it’s brought instantaneously.

Brannon Howse: Right.

Andy Woods: Jesus analogizes it to like the flashing of lightning. What God is doing in the church is a gradual construction, which is not the kingdom. It’s the body of Christ. Where we are reaching and teaching, evangelizing and discipling, and we’re winning sons of the kingdom. Matthew 13:38 uses the expression sons of the kingdom. Paul says in Galatians 4:7, if a son then an heir. So we are heirs of the kingdom, but we are not building the kingdom presently. That’s why we’re called Ambassadors. Paul calls us as members of his church Ambassadors. II Corinthians 5:20, what is an Ambassador? I mean, if I’m America’s Ambassador to Iran, I’m representing American values on Iranian soil, but I’m not building America in Iran.

So what we’re doing as members of his church is we represent as salt and light, you know, what kingdom values will be like one day as we live for Christ. But the goal or the responsibility of building the kingdom and bringing the kingdom is totally with God, not with us.

And you know, real quickly Satan is a pretty clever guy. Wouldn’t it be really sneaky of him in the final waning years of the church age to get us involved in a construction project that God never called us to do, and we got distracted from our central calling.

Brannon Howse: Indeed.

Andy Woods: Wouldn’t Satan do something like that?

Brannon Howse: Absolutely. And isn’t that what we see happening? Now you have all these religious leaders running around talking about social justice, social gospel, white privilege, Black Lives Matter. How we can’t criticize Black Lives Matter. While we may not agree with some of their ideas, it’s not helpful to criticize them. John Piper said that. So you’ve got all of a sudden all these guys are appealing to a younger generation and to Pastors teaching all of this, and we’re spending all of our time just trying to mop up their mess to keep from confusing the church so the church can get back to doing its real job, which is equipping and encouraging the saints for the work of ministry and proclamation of the gospel.

Andy Woods: Yeah.

Brannon Howse: But now we’re spending all of our time correcting the mess, all the garbage being spewed by all these guys that don’t have a correct interpretation of scripture. Is that a fair analysis?

Andy Woods: Yeah. And we get involved doing a project that God has not equipped us to do or empowered us to do. And I have a lot of political activists in my church, and I love all of them, but I tell them over and over again, all this political activism that you’re doing, the best you’re doing is you’re holding back evil.

Brannon Howse: Right.

Andy Woods: You’re slowing down its progress.

Brannon Howse: Which is a good thing.

Andy Woods: Which is a good thing, and I think Christians, you know ––

Brannon Howse: Should do that.

Andy Woods: To some extent should be involved in that. But it shouldn’t _____ ––

Brannon Howse: Consume us.

Andy Woods: Who we are. I mean I vote in every single election cycle.

Brannon Howse: Absolutely.

Andy Woods: I don’t vote for people because I think the kingdom is going to come.

Brannon Howse: Right.

Andy Woods: I’m trying to slow down the antichrist.

Brannon Howse: Right.

Andy Woods: Kingdom from coming to power. And I think our last Presidential election cycle was sort of an outworking of that. Are we going to have globalism or nationalism? So you know, once I saw that I cast my vote for what I thought could slow down the antichrist.

Brannon Howse: And give us more time.

Andy Woods: Right.

Brannon Howse: Broadcasting on radio. Broadcasting on T.V. Being able to broadcast over the internet without hate crime laws, and fairness doctrine. I mean, why not slow things down?

Andy Woods: Yeah. And we know all that stuff is coming.

Brannon Howse: Yeah.

Andy Woods: Hopefully it won’t come in our lifetime. Maybe it will.

Brannon Howse: I mean, eventually I’m going to die probably. Unless the rapture occurs I’m going to die. But why would I not try to take care of myself and live as long as I can. The same thing. Why not keep America alive as long as we can so the church can do its job.

Andy Woods: Right. Yeah. So I tell these activists you know, the best you’re going to do, and I want to encourage you in your activism, but don’t go into this thinking you’re bringing the kingdom to the earth. Go into it as a salt and light kind of ministry slowing down the progress of evil.

Brannon Howse: Absolutely. So dispensationalism, and by the way if you guys want to get a great understanding of the kingdom, here’s a book. The Coming Kingdom, and it’s by our guest, Dr. Andy Woods. What is the Kingdom? How is Kingdom Now Theology Changing the Focus of the Church? And Kingdom Now Theology is also known as dominion theology. The idea we have to build a kingdom of God on earth, which includes changing the Pastor into a social justice warrior or a community organizer and the church into a community organization. Isn’t that right?

Andy Woods: Yeah, and I hear Pastors today preach more about social justice issues, rightwing or leftwing, than they do preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible. And that’s related to the subject I was trying to address in the book. Kingdom Now Theology changes the focus of the church. Because people will look at this and say oh, you guys with your dispensationalism and premillennialism, and pre-tribulation or rapture. It’s just academic. Doesn’t have any relationship to daily life. Well, in reality what you believe about this subject that we’re talking about here controls or dictates what you think the church should be doing, and what you as an individual Christian should be doing during our brief pilgrimage here on earth and our _____.

Brannon Howse: So if you have the wrong eschatology then your eschatology starts driving your theology. And if your idea is that we’ve got to bring the kingdom, that the end will not come until we bring the kingdom, until we Christianize everybody and everything, including the Seven mountain mandates and the Christians take over the media and arts and entertainment, that whole eschatology view of in times begins to start changing our mission of the church. The purpose of the Pastor. The purpose of the church. And so everything starts to get skewed. So what you’re saying is your eschatology is directly impacted by your theology? Is that right?

Andy Woods: Yes. And this is why dispensationalism is attacked over and over again. Because people come into the church with their own ideas of what they think the church ought to be doing. And standing in the way is the Bible. Standing in the way is a literal approach to the entire Bible. So what do you see? You see perpetual attacks against verse by verse expositional teaching. You see perpetual attacks against the literal interpretation of the whole Bible. And you see perpetual attacks against the things that we’re promoting here in this conference. Dispensationalism and everything that goes with it. Because people have an ulterior agenda for the church, and these Kingdom Now people, if they think the church is the kingdom, they’ve got to tear down everything that we’re trying to promote here.

This article and transcription is brought to you as a ministry of Worldview Weekend and Worldview Weekend Foundation. If you appreciate that fact that we have spent the financial resources to produce this transcription and have made it available free of charge to you, then please consider supporting our ministry with a tax deductible contribution so we can continue to distribute such Biblical resource materials.

Stay tuned for our next transcription on what is leaky dispensationalism. 

We are a listener supported broadcast ministry. Thank you for your tax deductible contribution at wvwfoundation.com or by  calling 901-853-8792 or by sending your check to:

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