Dispensationalism and Oneness Pentecostal Theology
By David K. Bernard
Most Oneness Pentecostals today uncritically accept dispensationalism or important aspects of it. Fundamentalists often use dispensational ideas to attack Oneness Pentecostal beliefs, however, particularly the doctrine of salvation. Is dispensationalism biblical, in whole or in part? Is it compatible with Oneness Pentecostal theology? This paper will address these neglected questions and offer tentative conclusions.
I. Description of Dispensationalism
Historically, many theologians have spoken of various ages in God’s dealing with humanity, but dispensationalism as a distinct theological system began with John Nelson Darby (1800-82), chief organizer and leader of the Plymouth Brethren.’ Early teachers who popularized it in America were C. I. Scofield, editor of the Scofield Reference Bible, and L. S. Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary. Prominent dispensationalists today include Charles C. Ryrie and John F. Walvoord.
For the most part, the emerging fundamentalists of the early 1 900s embraced dispensationalism, and the two systems became almost synonymous. Today many evangelicals, spiritual heirs of the early fundamentalists, have modified or abandoned the system.
B. Definition and Beliefs
Dispensationalism’s fundamental tenet is the separation of Israel and the church. As Ryrie states, “A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the Church distinct…. This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a man is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive.”2 He describes four key beliefs: (1) dispensational ages, (2) progressive revelation, (3) literal interpretation, and (4) the distinction between “God’s program for Israel from his program for the church. Thus the church did not begin in the OT but on the day of Pentecost, and the church is not presently fulfilling promises made to Israel in the OT that have not yet been fulfilled.”3
Millard Erickson identifies four major characteristics, all closely related: (1) a literal interpretation of Scripture, particularly emphasizing that every biblical mention of Israel refers to the physical nation and never applies to the church; (2) “a sharp and definite distinction between Israel and the church”; (3) a distinction between the “kingdom of God” (God’s people throughout human history) and the “kingdom of heaven” (the earthly Messianic kingdom); and (4) the Millennium as “the restoration of national Israel to its favored place in God’s program.”4
Dispensationalism gets its name from the way it divides God’s dealings with humanity into separate ages, called dispensations. Seven are usually identified: innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and the millennial kingdom. Actually, the name is somewhat of a misnomer, because it is not essential to accept these seven ages. 5 The heart of the system is the separation of law and grace. Apparently, the reason why Darby began to distinguish Israel from the church so sharply was to prevent numerous scriptural statements that he regarded as legalistic from applying to the church. 6
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.”7 Ryrie’s definition is more general: “a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s program.”8 Article V of Dallas Theological Seminary’s Doctrinal Statement explains, “The dispensations are stewardships by which God administers His purpose on the earth through man under varying responsibilities…. The changes in the dispensational dealings of God with man . . . are the result of . . . the failure of man under the respective test and . . . ensuing judgment from God.” 9
C. Overview of Dispensational History
Dispensationalists deal very little with the first three ages. Their distinctive views are really seen beginning with the fourth age: promise. According to them, God established an unconditional covenant with Abraham. National Israel inherits the promises of this covenant regardless of their disobedience, just as Christians supposedly have unconditional eternal security.
At Sinai, God instituted a new test: legal obedience. He required Israel to attempt to fulfill all the commands of the law and to atone for their failures by offering blood sacrifices. When John the Baptist and Jesus preached that the “kingdom of heaven” was at hand, they offered an earthly Messianic kingdom to Israel. When they preached repentance, they meant a turn back to the law and its ethical requirements. Jesus gave the rules for the earthly kingdom in His Sermon on the Mount.
The Jews rejected the kingdom, however, and crucified Jesus, so God established a parenthetical Gentile church, which was unforeseen in the Old Testament. In the church age, God no longer requires the same kind of obedience; the new test is simply accepting and confessing Jesus Christ. The teachings of the Old Testament, the preaching of John, and the early ministry of Jesus Christ do not directly apply to the church. Obedience and good works should follow saving faith but may not always accompany it.
The primary purpose of the Tribulation and Millennium will be to fulfill the unconditional Abrahamic covenant and establish the earthly Jewish kingdom. Thus both are heavily Jewish in character. The church will be raptured before the Tribulation. It will be eternally distinct from all other people of God; some say it will exclusively possess the New Jerusalem.
II. Analysis of Dispensationalism
A. Literal Interpretation of Scripture
It is right to insist upon a literal interpretation of Scripture. Unless we do so, we cannot uphold the Bible’s sole authority, determine its objective meaning, and establish doctrinal and practical truth. But the Scriptures, particularly the prophetic passages, do contain figurative, poetic, and symbolic elements, as well as typology and double references. No serious Bible scholar can maintain an absolute literalism, or letterism. 10 For example, even dispensationalists do not say that David will sit upon the millennial throne; they see him as a type of Christ. Ironically, they frequently employ an extreme typology in dealing with Old Testament historical passages, which often approaches the allegorical method that they profess to shun.
Literal interpretation does require the physical restoration of Israel and the fulfillment of many prophecies concerning national Israel during the Tribulation and Millennium. At the same time, the New Testament church inherits many promises originally given to national Israel and fulfills them at least in part. The true people of God today are those who, in contrast to the Judaizers, glory in the Cross and rely upon the new birth instead of upon circumcision, and they are “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:1416). Jeremiah 31:31-34 promises the new covenant to Israel and Judah, but Hebrews 8:6-13, 10:15-17, and 11 Corinthians 3:3-18 apply it to the church. Amos 9:11-12 promises the restoration of David’s tabernacle, but Acts 15:13-19 records that the inclusion of Gentiles in the church fulfills this prophecy.”
B. Progressive Revelation
Biblical revelation is progressive. As Bernard Ramm states, “The Bible sets forth a movement of God, with the initiative coming from God and not man, in which God brings man up through the theological infancy of the Old Testament to the maturity of the New Testament.”12 Galatians 3-4, Colossians 2, and Hebrews 8-10 show that the Old Testament in general and the law of Moses in particular were designed to lead humanity into the fuller truth of the New Testament. Dispensationalist Henry Thiessen explains the concept well: “The object of this time of preparation was threefold: to disclose to man the true nature of sin and the depth of depravity to which he had fallen, to reveal to him his powerlessness to preserve or regain an adequate knowledge of God, or to deliver himself from sin by philosophy and art, and to teach him that forgiveness and restoration are possible only on the ground of a substitutionary sacrifice.” 13
While the concept of progressive revelation provides the rationale for having various ages, it actually undercuts the teaching that each dispensation is strictly segregated from the others, that God changes dispensations because of human failures, that the church is a parenthetical entity, and that God will revert to the old covenant in the Millennium. It indicates that God designed each age to build on the preceding age, with the new covenant as the apex. The principles that God taught humanity in preceding ages, such as conscience, human government, and promise, still apply today. For example, God still judges people by the standard of conscience (Romans 2:14-15).
C. Dispensational Ages
The term dispensation occurs four times in the King James Version but not quite in the way that dispensationalists use it (I Corinthians 9:17; Ephesians 1:10; 3:2; Colossians 1:25). The underlying Greek word, oikonomia, appears also in Ephesians 3:9. It means “management, oversight, administration.”14 In Ephesians 1:10 it refers to the fullness of God’s plan and in 3:9 to the church. In the other three verses it describes Paul’s ministry.
A favorite passage of dispensationalists is 11 Timothy 2:15, which says to be “a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” They interpret it to mean that we must divide the Scriptures into various dispensations, being careful to apply certain passages only to certain ages. In the Greek, however, “rightly dividing” is orthotomeo, which means “1. to cut straight . . . 2. dropping the idea of cutting, to make straight and smooth . . . to handle aright . . . i.e. to teach the truth correctly and directly, 2 Tim. ii. 15.” 15
Christendom historically acknowledges at least two distinct ages: the old and new covenants. Five ages can be readily deduced from Scripture: before the Fall, after the Fall and before the law, the law, the New Testament church, and the Millennium. Finding clear evidence for three distinct ages after the Fall and before the law is difficult, however. The Bible does not identify these presumed ages with the names that dispensationalists use. Moreover, it is difficult to define and prove the precise test for each of those ages. For example, what was the specific test, failure, and judgment in the dispensation of promise?
D. The Abrahamic Covenant
The Abrahamic covenant was a mutual agreement between God and man conditioned upon human obedience. God told Abram to leave his home country and follow Him and promised to make of him a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3). A person can only receive the fulfillment of a promise from God by exercising obedient faith. God required Abraham and his descendants to walk before Him, be blameless, and keep the covenant (Genesis 17:1-9). Every male had to be circumcised; those who did not were cut off from God’s people (Genesis 17:10-14). Abraham was to command his children, and they were to keep the way of God, do righteousness, and do justice in order to receive God’s promises (Genesis 18:17-19). God explicitly stated later that He was fulfilling His promises because Abraham “obeyed my voice” and “kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 22:15-18; 26:2-5)
God’s later dealings with Israel did not establish obedience as a new and temporary requirement, but He continued to insist upon obedient faith as part of the original covenant with Abraham (Exodus 19:5-6; Leviticus 26:40-42).
Abraham’s descendants did not automatically inherit the covenant. God confirmed the covenant to Isaac but excluded Ishmael; He later excluded Isaac’s line through Esau (Genesis 17:18-21; 25:21-23). His dealings show that only those who live by Abraham’s faith will receive the promises (Romans 4:12-16; 9:6-13, 31-33). John and Jesus warned the Jews that their relationship with God did not depend upon physical descent from Abraham but on repentance and doing his works (Matthew 3:8-9; John 8:3944).
John stated that God could “of these stones raise up children unto Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). God can cause others to inherit and fulfill His promises to Abraham. In fact, all those who have the faith of Abraham are his children and will inherit God’s promises to him (Romans 4:11-17). In this way Abraham is the “father of many nations” and not just one nation (Genesis 17:4). “They which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). Those who believe on Jesus Christ inherit the blessing of Abraham and are Abraham’s seed (Galatians 3:14, 29). Jesus was Abraham’s physical heir, and as a sinless man He fulfilled the covenant perfectly. By faith, Christians are united with Him, have His righteousness imputed to them, and become co-heirs with Him.
There still remains a future fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to national Israel (Romans 11). But national Israel will only receive this promise when they submit to the principle of faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 11:23). God will never revoke His call upon national Israel or totally cast them away (Romans 11:1-2, 29). He still offers covenant blessings to them on the same condition as always: obedient faith. In Paul’s day, in fact, a remnant of national Israel, including Paul himself, still participated in these benefits (Romans 11:1, 5).
E. The Kingdom of Heaven
“Kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” are basically equivalent. 16 The former phrase occurs only in Matthew; the latter appears a few times in Matthew but occurs frequently in the other Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles. Parallel passages in the Gospels clearly show that the two phrases are interchangeable.’
The phrase “kingdom of heaven” apparently stems from the common Jewish practice of using a substitute or a metonym for the name of God whenever possible. Thayer explains that among the Jews the word heaven was “used for God . . . influenced by an over-scrupulous reverence for the name of God Himself.” 18 Since Matthew wrote his Gospel with Jewish readers particularly in mind, his wording naturally reflects Jewish thought and usage.
The kingdom of God is the rule of God in the hearts of people (Luke 17:20-21; Romans 14:17). The earthly Messianic kingdom will be a future manifestation of this rule. In a general sense, the “kingdom of God” includes God’s people of all ages; Jesus once used it with reference to the patriarchs and prophets (Luke 13:28). In the New Testament age, however, the phrase specifically refers to those who are born again (of water and the Spirit) (John 3:3-5), for that is how a person becomes God’s child today. In this sense Jesus could say that John the Baptist was the greatest of prophets yet not part of the kingdom of God (Luke 7:28). John and Jesus specifically proclaimed the coming “kingdom of God” from the outset of their ministries (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 16:16).
The postponed-kingdom theory seems to make Christ’s sacrifice an accident of history, but it was actually “foreordained before the foundation of the world” (I Peter 1:19-20). His death, burial, and resurrection are essential to all salvation and to the gospel message. Chafer and Ryrie rightly affirm that if the Jewish nation had accepted Jesus, He still would have been crucified, but S. D. Gordon states, alluding to the postponement doctrine, “There is no cross in God’s plan of atonement.” 49 Some dispensationalists explain that the Atonement was never in jeopardy because God knew the Jews would reject His offer. But this view puts God in the position of only pretending to make an offer or insincerely making an offer that He would not fulfill if accepted. Moreover, it does not take into account the prophecies of the suffering Messiah (Isaiah 53; Luke 18:31-33; 24:44-46). Christ’s very purpose in coming the first time was to die (Mark 10:45), not to establish an earthly kingdom (John 18:36).
Dispensationalists have difficulty in identifying exactly when the offer of the earthly kingdom was withdrawn. Some of them say it was finally withdrawn near the end of Christ’s ministry; others say the offer was renewed even during the Book of Acts. This confusion is serious because it means that the Gospels and possibly Acts contain a mixture of law (which does not apply to us) and gospel (which does apply) up until an unknown or disputed point. Moreover, if Christ withdrew His offer of an earthly kingdom from the Jews and gave it to the Gentiles, why did He not then establish an earthly kingdom for the Gentiles?
F. The Church
Dispensationalism makes the New Testament church a historical accident, a parenthetical age of faith between two legal ages, and a departure from God’s original plan. But God foreordained the church from the beginning (Ephesians 1:4-5; 3:9-11). Although the mystery of the church (the uniting of Jews and Gentiles into one body) was not fully made known (Ephesians 3:111), yet it is contained in the prophets (Romans 16:25-26). From the beginning God intended to include the Gentiles in the church (Isaiah 49:6; 54:5; Joel 2:28; Luke 2:29-32; Romans 9:24-26; 10:11-13,19-20; 15:8-12). If the Jewish nation had accepted the Messiah, God would have still united both Jews and Gentiles into His church.
In actuality, Jewish rejection of the Messiah has been the avenue for Gentile salvation (Romans 11:11). For example, Paul turned to the Gentiles in city after city when the Jews rejected his message. Gentile believers came to the forefront in numbers and influence, taking over the position that Jews had originally enjoyed. Yet Jews today can still share in that position if they believe on Jesus Christ (Romans 11:13-14, 23). Jewish salvation will bring even greater blessings to Gentiles than Jewish rejection of Christ did (Romans 11:12, 15). If the Jews would have accepted Christ from the start, then, the Gentiles would have been blessed anyway and in even greater measure.
The new covenant is better than the old, which is abolished forever (Galatians 3:24-25; 4:21-31; Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 8:6-13). The New Testament church is the culmination of God’s progressive dealings with humanity (Ephesians 1:9-12, 22-23). It is not just another program to be superseded later; rather, in it God provides His ultimate work of salvation for the individual.
In a general sense, church (Greek, ekkiesia) can apply to God’s people of all ages. Stephen spoke of “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). In three places the Septuagint translates the Hebrew word qahal (“congregation” in KJV) as ekilesia.20
Jesus spoke of His church in the future tense, however: “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). 21 The new covenant or testament (both KJV words translate one Greek word, diatheke) could not come into effect until after His death (Hebrews 9:15-17). The gospel is His death, burial, and resurrection (I Corinthians 15:1-4). Just before His ascension Jesus said the preaching of the gospel would begin at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47). The Holy Spirit baptism, which is necessary for entrance into the New Testament church (Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:13), did not occur until the Day of Pentecost. Thus that day marked the church’s beginning. John proclaimed its coming but did not actually participate in it (Matthew 3:11; Luke 7:28).
The preceding view does not require dispensationalism, as the views of the following non-dispensationalists show. Augustus Strong teaches the essential oneness of God’s people of all ages (the church in a general sense) but affirms the uniqueness of the New Testament church, beginning with Pentecost. 22 George Ladd says there is one people of God but acknowledges that the church, properly speaking, began on Pentecost with the baptism of the Spirit and that this experience first occurred at that time. 23 Daniel Fuller agrees that only the New Testament people of God are properly called “the Church.” 24
G. Salvation and Christian Living
The new birth experience today is what makes the New Testament church unique. A key factor that distinguishes the new covenant from the old is that God puts His laws in people’s hearts by the Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 11:19; II Corinthians 3:3-18). The old covenant revealed God’s moral law but gave no spiritual power to rise above the sinful nature and fulfill the law; under the new covenant, the Spirit of God imparts power over sin on a daily basis (Romans 7:6-25; 8:2-4; Galatians 5:16-18).
This power comes through the Holy Spirit baptism, a new experience given only after Christ’s ascension (Luke 24:49; John 7:39; 16:17; Acts 1:4-8; 2:1-4, 33; 11:15-17). God’s Spirit did anoint and “fill” some people for specific purposes under the old covenant (Exodus 31:1-5; Numbers 27:15-18; 1 Samuel 10:10; Luke 1:15, 41-42, 67; 11 Peter 1:21), but New Testament saints enjoy a deeper dimension of the Spirit–a permanent indwelling, communion, and empowering. The mystery hidden from the ages but now made manifest is “Christ in you” (Colossians 1:27). Old Testament saints had adequate faith, but they did not receive “the promise”; God provided a “better thing for us” (Hebrews 11 :39-40). They had the same obedient faith and repentance that saints do today; they simply lived before the Spirit baptism was available. Those with Abraham’s faith today do receive the Spirit (Galatians 3:14). The prophets predicted the gift of the Spirit and desired to partake of its glory, but God reserved it for us (I Peter 1:10-12).
Another key distinction between the two covenants is the immediate and permanent remission of sin (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 10:14-18), which occurs at repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). Under the old covenant there could only be a deferral of sin to the future, ultimately to the death of Christ (Romans 3:25). Blood sacrifices were offered continually to roll the penalty of sin forward for a season, but Christ’s sacrifice made remission of sin an eternal reality in the new covenant (Hebrews 10:1-18). Baptism is a burial with Jesus (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), so it came only after the Cross.
The Old Testament saints were justified. Justification does not involve an inward transformation but simply a change of legal standing. God counted them as righteous in anticipation of the Cross, in effect promising future salvation by the Cross. After the Cross, people can begin to enjoy the actual transformation that God’s salvation plan brings, through regeneration and sanctification by the Spirit.
If the new birth as we know it today was an old covenant experience, what is new and better about the new covenant? To what did the Old Testament saints look forward? What did they lack that we have? Why was not Nicodemus already born again? Why were not the disciples already baptized with the Spirit? If the new birth today consists of repentance only, the difference between the two covenants would merely be the optional symbolism of baptism and optional blessings or power.
The present age presents a greater revelation of the principles of grace and faith than ever before, so that we can call it the age of grace or the age of faith (John 1:17; Galatians 3:23-26). Nevertheless, God has always provided salvation only by grace through faith based on Christ’s atoning death.
Abraham (before the law) and David (under the law) were justified by faith (Romans 4:1-9). Even though some Jews thought their salvation rested in the works of the law, keeping the law was never of any value without faith (Romans 2:29; 4:11-16; 9:30-32). Saving faith has always included obedience to God’s commands (Acts 6:7; Romans 1:5; 2:6-10; 10:16; 16:26). Just as the Old Testament saints necessarily expressed their faith by obedience and were thereby justified (Hebrews 11:6-8, 28-29), so people today must “obey the doctrine” or “obey the gospel” (Romans 6:17; 10:16; II Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 5:9; I Peter 4:17). A person may have a degree of faith and still not be saved if his faith does not include complete commitment and obedience (Matthew 7:21-23; John 2:23-25; 12:42-43; Acts 8:12-23; James 2:19). 25
Many statements of early dispensationalists appear to indicate two means of salvation: works for the majority of the dispensations and faith for the rest. 26 For example, Scofield contrasts law and grace: “The point of testing is no longer legal obedience as the condition of salvation, but acceptance or rejection of Christ, with good works as a fruit of salvation.” 27 The Sermon on the Mount is the “divine constitution” of the millennial kingdom and is “pure law.” 28 He says that Matthew 6:12 (“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”) does not apply to us because it has a condition. “This is a legal ground,” he says. “Under law forgiveness is conditioned upon a like spirit in us; under grace we are forgiven for Christ’s sake, and exhorted to forgive because we have been forgiven.” 29
Today dispensationalists try to avoid the idea of two means of salvation. Thiessen says, “Although God has but one plan of salvation, he has had various ways of dealing with man in regard to it.” 30 Ryrie explains, “Salvation is always through God’s grace. The basis of salvation in every dispensation is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith is the true God; but the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”31 But this concession undercuts their original rationale for sharply dividing Israel and the church; there is no need to do so if both are saved by faith.
Despite this modification, dispensationalists still see a qualitative change in how humanity must respond to God. For example, the New Scofield Bible still tries to evade the literal meaning of Matthew 6:12 and 18:35, which predicate God’s forgiveness upon our having a forgiving attitude toward others, saying that the former verse speaks only of enjoying fellowship and that the latter describes justice under the law. Under the law, dispensationalists say, faith had to be expressed by obedience or attempted obedience, but now faith only means mental acceptance and confession. Obedience is desirable but optional.
But faith without obedience is dead faith, not saving faith. This faulty definition of faith affects every aspect of salvation.
First, repentance loses its biblical meaning. For example, Ryrie argues that repentance under the old covenant, including John’s ministry and Christ’s early ministry, is different from repentance today. Supposedly, the former means an actual change of ethical behavior, while the latter is synonymous with faith and merely means to change one’s mind about Jesus. 32 But biblical repentance is a change of heart, mind, and will and results in an actual turn from sin to God. Just as John preached that true repentance would necessarily result in “fruits meet for repentance” and judgment would come upon everyone who did not bring forth “good fruit” (Matthew 3:8, 10), so Paul preached that people “should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20). Simon the sorcerer “believed,” but Peter said he still needed to “repent” (Acts 8:13, 22).
Next, dispensationalists reject the necessity of water baptism and reject tongues as the initial sign of the Holy Spirit baptism, labelling these doctrines as salvation by works. Yet the Bible teaches that both are part of saving faith. 33 They are not works of man, but of God. Experiencing Acts 2:38 is simply the obedience of faith. Old Testament requirements of obedience, such as circumcision and blood sacrifice, were consistent with justification by faith, and so are the New Testament requirements of repentance, water baptism, and Spirit baptism.
M. R. DeHaan discounts Acts 2:38 baptism altogether. He says it was “the baptism of regeneration which belongs to the kingdom age, and not to this age of grace” and “was essential to have sins forgiven”; by contrast “Christian baptism is a testimony that our sins have been forgiven.” 34 According to William Pettingill, an associate of Scofield, Mark 16:15-18’s requirement of baptism for salvation and its promise of miraculous signs such as tongues are only for the kingdom age (not the church), Acts 2:38’s requirement of baptism for salvation was only for Jews, and of the four Gospels only John presents “our gospel of the grace of God.” 35
We should also note the doctrine of ultra-dispensationalists. They teach that a Jewish church began at Pentecost but was replaced by the body of Christ church, which began in Paul’s ministry, either in Acts 13 or Acts 28. They hold that the only Scriptures written directly to the church are Paul’s epistles-some say only his prison epistles. They usually do not practice water baptism, seeing it as a transitional legalistic ordinance.
Many other opponents of the Acts 2:38 message base their arguments on a form of dispensational thinking. For example, it is commonly stated that the day of miracles, particularly tongues, is over. This is tantamount to arguing for some sort of dispensational change at the end of the Acts, at the death of the apostles, or when the writing of the New Testament was complete. Similarly, many trinitarians concede that-the early church used the Jesus Name baptismal formula but explain it as a transitional formula for the benefit of the Jews, who already worshiped the Father but who needed to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.
Dispensationalists rightly teach that the Spirit baptism is a new covenant experience only. Their opponents say the Old Testament saints were born again; some (but not all) even say they were baptized with the Holy Spirit. 36 Modern dispensationalists concede too much here. They teach that the saints of past ages were born again without the Spirit baptism, while saints after Pentecost are born again with the Spirit baptism, 37 yet they do not expect the distinctive New Testament evidence of tongues when people are baptized with the Spirit. They hold out for a distinction between Israel and the church on a faulty point (two kinds of faith) but yield on a valid point (the experience of the new birth).
Finally, dispensationalists affirm unconditional eternal security and deny the necessity of holiness. For example, they discount the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as legalistic. Although holiness is desirable, to them an insistence on holiness would mean salvation by works.
They falsely categorize all requirements of obedience as legalism. John Gerstner charges them with antinomianism on this point:
The usual way of stating Reformation doctrine is that we are “justified by faith alone but not by the faith that is alone.” That is, we are justified by our union with Jesus Christ by true faith, but that faith is not alone because it bears the fruit of good works. Antinomians say that justification is by faith alone and by a faith that may be alone. The faith ought to bring forth good works but, if it does not, that is not fatal to faith…. Dispensationalism is inseparably connected with antinomianism. Dispensationalism teaches that justification may occur by a dead faith. It is, therefore, an enemy of the central doctrine of the Christian religion-justification by faith alone. It is a champion of possible justification by no faith at all. 38
Most theologians agree that dispensationalism requires pretribulationism, although the reverse is not necessarily true. Darby was the first theologian who clearly taught a two-phase Second Coming and a pretribulation Rapture.
Even if we establish the pretribulation Rapture on independent exegetical grounds, we should be cautious of uncritically adopting dispensationalist ideas here. For example, how will the Tribulation saints be saved? Some say that only the Jews will be saved. Even if God deals primarily with Jews during this time, why would He deny salvation to individual Gentiles? In the predominately Gentile church age, Jews can still be saved. Some say salvation will come by martyrdom, but this would mean salvation by human works or merit. The actual means of salvation can only be faith, and justification must be an act of God. Others say salvation will come simply by confession of Christ, which is how dispensationalists say it comes today. Oneness Pentecostals who adopt this view may appear inconsistent, however. If John 3:5 and Acts 2:38 describe the present experience of salvation, why and how will the Tribulation change it? Will Tribulation saints receive a new Bible, another new covenant, or another gospel? How will they know that Acts 2:38 no longer applies? Will God institute a new (better) dispensation? Or will He revert to an inferior covenant? Even if the Holy Spirit baptism were no longer available, it seems that faith, repentance, and baptism would still be commanded.
The Millennium will not be a predominantly Jewish kingdom, for all the saints will reign with Christ. The old covenant will not come back in force, for it has been superseded forever by the new covenant. God’s new covenant with Israel will not be like the covenant at Sinai (Hebrews 8:8-9). The Millennium involves more than a restoration of Israel; it is the culmination of God’s plan of salvation for the race and planet (Matthew 19:28). In the Millennium God will restore creation to its original state before the Fall.
In eternity, God’s people will be one. The saints of all ages will enjoy the same benefits, blessings, and status, for God is no respecter of persons (Romans 2:10-11). They all have the same faith and repentance, and the same sacrifice of Jesus Christ has purchased their salvation, so the end result must be qualitatively the same for everyone. The only differences pertain to temporal, earthly experiences. According to Jesus, the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets and the New Testament saints will sit down together in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:28-29). New Testament saints come to “the heavenly Jerusalem” and join “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Old Testament saints) (Hebrews 12:22-23).
Dispensationalism correctly emphasizes the literal interpretation of Scripture, progressive revelation, the existence of various ages in God’s dealings with humanity (at least five, although the term dispensation is not very helpful or accurate), the uniqueness of the New Testament church, and the reality of the Millennium. None of these doctrines require acceptance of the whole system, however, and the dispensationalist description and application of them are not necessarily correct on every point.
Dispensationalism’s strongest point is the uniqueness of the New Testament church. The distinction between Israel and the church in prophecy is not absolute, however. Although national Israel still has a role in God’s plan and will still receive His promises by faith in Jesus, the church also enjoys the spiritual blessings of Abraham and participates in promises originally given to Israel. Moreover, modern dispensationalists are ultimately unsuccessful in developing their insight on the church, for they fail to see how that its uniqueness lies in the new-birth experience.
Dispensationalists are wrong if and when they teach that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, that the kingdom of heaven is not the kingdom of God, that Christ offered an earthly kingdom to the Jews at His first coming, that Gentile salvation (and perhaps even the Cross) occurred only because the Jews rejected His offer, and that God will revert to the old covenant in the Millennium. Dispensationalists’ weakest point, and the one that directly contradicts Oneness Pentecostalism, is their doctrine of salvation. They fail to understand “the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). As a result they define faith and repentance incorrectly and do not teach the necessity of water baptism, the Spirit baptism with tongues, and holiness. Fuller contrasts their faulty view of faith with the biblical “obedience of faith”:
A “work of faith” or the “obedience of faith” presupposes an inseparable connection between faith and resulting works. Since . . . genuine faith cannot but produce works, the Bible sometimes speaks of faith and sometimes of works when it speaks of the condition to be met in receiving the forgiveness of sins or subsequent blessings from God. So there is no need for establishing an elaborate division in Scripture as is done in covenant theology and dispensationalism….
The obedience of faith is sola fide (“by faith alone”), for obedience is impelled wholly by faith and is not something added on to faith as though it were coordinated with it….
Dispensationalism’s real concern is to keep the Church in the grace of God and separate from the supposed legalism of God’s dealings with Israel…. We join with dispensationalists in wanting to reject all works in which men can boast. But we regard distinguishing between the “works in which men can boast” and the “works of faith” . . . as the correct way to do this rather than dispensationalism’s attempt to Ho it by compartmentalizing Scripture. 39
Our analysis suggests that at best Oneness Pentecostals should teach dispensationalism only in a modified form. Many are probably doing so without realizing it. 40 A number of questions need further investigation. Do the biblical doctrines of the new birth and of the church require a form of dispensationalism? Is it logically possible to retain some aspects of dispensationalism and discard others, or does the whole system stand or fall together? What dispensationalist assumptions have colored the interpretation of Scripture, particularly eschatology, and are they valid?
In conclusion, it appears that Oneness Pentecostals must significantly modify or replace traditional dispensationalism to maintain logically, consistently, and successfully the doctrines of the new birth and holiness of life.
1. Charles C. Ryrie, “Dispensation, Dispensationalism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 322.
2. Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1965), 44-45.
3. Ryrie, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 322.
4. Millard J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 115-22.
5. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 48.
6. Darby “renounced all efforts to serve Christ out of duty (law), and henceforth rejoiced in Christ’s having done all for him. Thus dispensationalism . . . seek(s) to draw a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel . . . by its insistence on a complete disjuncture between God’s workings with Israel and his workings with the Church.” Daniel Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 16-17
7. C. l. Scofield, ea., The Scofield Reference Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1917), 5. Emphasis in original.
8. Ryrie, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 322.
9. Fuller, 36.
10. For further discussion of the literal method of interpretation, see Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 3d rev. ea., 119-27, 142-48, 241-44, 25369.
11. A few Pentecostals have used a dispensational approach to argue that the church has no promise of end-time revival and that only national Israel does. The foregoing examples show the invalidity of this argument, as well as Joel 2:28, which promises a latter-day outpouring of the Spirit upon “all flesh.” It is always God’s will to grant revival, and the church can always claim it based on passages such as Matthew 7:7, 21:22, John 14:12-14, II Peter 3:9,1 John 3:21-22, and 5:14.
12. Ramm, 102.
13. Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 202.
14. Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (1889; rpt. Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 440.
15. Ibid., 453.
16. Although early dispensationalists such as Scofield taught that these terms were distinct, Ryrie says that it is not necessary to maintain this position and that not all dispensationalists do so today. Dispensationalism Today, 170.
17. For example, compare Matthew 4:17 with Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 5:3 with Luke 6:20, Matthew 13:24 with Mark 4:26, Matthew 13:31-32 with Luke 13:18-19; Matthew 13:33 with Luke 13:20-21, and Matthew 19:14 with Luke 18:16. In the parables of Matthew 13, “kingdom of heaven” seems to have the broader connotation of the visible, professing church, but even so, Luke 13 repeats two of these parables with reference to the “kingdom of God.”
18. Thayer, 465.
19. See Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 163; S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks about Jesus, 116, quoted in F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions (Exeter, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 1972), 192.
20. Joshua 8:35, Ezra 2:64, Joel 2:16. See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 571.
21. Ekklesia appears in only one other verse in the Gospels (Matthew 18:17). There Jesus explained how to resolve disputes. The context is present tense, but He was apparently giving guidelines for the future church, for He could personally resolve all disputes while He was with the disciples. If He meant for His words to have immediate application, then He used ekklesia in the general, nontechnical sense of a body of believers.
22. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 887-90.
23. George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 117
24. Fuller, 181.
25. For further discussion of saving faith and obedience, see David Bernard, The New Birth (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 1984), 31-64; David Bernard, The Message of Romans (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 1987), 61-63, 95-103, 22738.
26. See Fuller, 18-33.
27. Scofield Reference Bible, 1115.
28. Ibid., 999-1000.
29. Ibid., 1002. Similarly, M. R. DeHaan says, “The Lord’s prayer is on the ground of the law and not of grace. For instance, in this dispensation we do not want to be forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us, but rather, we forgive one another because we have already been forgiven. This prayer will fit into the Kingdom age, and particularly into the tribulation.” M. R. DeHaan, 508 Answers to Bible Questions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1952), 219.
30. Thiessen, 202.
31. Ryrie, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 322. Emphasis in original.
32. See Fuller, 150-53.
33. See Bernard, The New Birth, 65-101, 122-55, 186-256.
34. DeHaan, 131.
35. William Pettingill, Bible Questions Answered, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 147-49, 167-68.
36. See, for example, John Gerstner, A Primer on Dispensationalism (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1982), 18; Fuller, 173-74.
37. Erickson, 111, 120.
38. Gerstner, 29-30. Emphasis in original.
39. Fuller, 113, 119, 197.
40. See Frank Boyd, Ages and Dispensations (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1955). Boyd, an Assemblies of God teacher, uses Scofield’s definition of dispensation and his seven ages but rejects the definition of the kingdom of heaven and the postponed-kingdom theory.
By C. H. Yadon
Brother Bernard is to be commended for his extensive research and fair treatment of the different phases of dispensationalism and its relation to the teaching of Oneness Pentecostalism.
I will make no attempt to cover all the interesting points that we have heard from Brother Bernard. I will touch on a few areas that I think will be of interest to all.
It is interesting to see how all of us have been affected by men who lived before us, not realizing the origin of many things we have accepted without question. While we can learn from good men of the past, we cannot accept their views as infallible.
It was many years after I entered into the ministry before I heard for the first time the name of John Nelson Darby. It was Larkin, Scofield, and others whom we studied.
It has been pointed out to us that the teaching of dispensationalism generally was advocated by Darby and others about the beginning of the nineteenth century.
It is also interesting to see the views held by some in the days of the Counter-Reformation. History tells us as the Reformation progressed, the yoke of the papacy was thrown off of many nations because of the proclamation of the Word of God, especially Daniel and Revelation, for the Reformers branded the papacy as the Antichrist.
The impact of the Protestant testimony is stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia: “To the ‘reformers’ particularly the Apocalypse was an inexhaustible quarry where to diginvectives that they might hurl them against the Roman hierarchy. The seven hills of Rome, the scarlet robes of the cardinals, and the unfortunate abuses of the papal court made the application easy and tempting” (vol. 1, p. 598). I have discovered that men shape their thinking not only by what they get from the Scriptures, but by the preconceived ideas that they carry into the Scriptures.
Historians tell us there was a time in the early Reformation when a great turning from Catholicism caused the papacy to call for help. The Jesuits were summoned to aid in the providing of a method of counter interpretation in defense of the church. Jesuit Francisco Ribera of Spain (1537-1591), a scholar, writer, and critic, specialized in Scripture as well as in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. About 1590 Ribera published a five-hundred-page commentary on the Apocalypse, denying the Protestant application of the Antichrist to the Church of Rome. Ribera promoted the futurist system, which asserts that these prophecies refer properly not to the papacy but to some future superman who is yet to appear and who will continue in power for the last three and a half years of this age. Many of these views were first confined to Catholics, but were taken over in the early nineteenth century by a number of Protestants, including Darby.
In view of the voices of the past and the importance of truth for our day, we would do well to heed the words of Isaac Watts (1847), who in the latter years of his life contended for the oneness of God: “Is not God’s truth in the open field of fair, manly, and earnest discussion stronger than anything which erring and sinful man can bring against it?”
It has been pointed out in Brother Bernard’s paper that while there is truth in areas of dispensationalism there are also some danger areas. Overemphasis of God’s different plan for Israel and the church can undermine the work of Calvary and build again the middle wall of partition that was broken down.
The fact of the old and new covenants is not in question, for the Old Testament was the Bible of the New Testament church, and from these Scriptures came the message of Peter at Pentecost. Paul reasoned from the Scriptures (Acts 17:2).
As has been stated, it is difficult to believe, as some dispensationalists teach, that the New Testament church is a historical accident, a parenthetical age of faith between two legal ages, and a departure from God’s original plan.
Every dispensation requires faith and obedience, from Enoch and Noah to the obedience of Abraham who became an heir of the world, not by the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13). To say that under the dispensation of grace all we need is to “believe” on Christ is not the full truth. While Jesus is our object of faith, our obedience to the gospel must follow.
Faith, repentance, and obedience is the real essence of believing on Jesus Christ. This leads us to the path of obedience. Jesus taught His disciples to teach the gospel and then baptize the believers. All true Bible believers were baptized. It is the circumcision of the new covenant. “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12-13). Peter preached repentance and baptism into the name of Jesus Christ at Pentecost (Acts 2:38). Paul told the men of Mars’ Hill that God now commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). Repentance and baptism are part of the foundation experience of the believer (Hebrews 6:1-2).
He who has an ear to hear will find the path of obedience, which is not a point of arrival but a way of life. Believing, obeying, grace, faith, and justification are not contradictions but the means by which we must be saved. To build on the Rock, we declare Jesus Christ as our object of faith. Acceptance of the Word of God is the only criterion for Christian faith and practice; and it teaches complete turning from sin through repentance and confession to God, obedience by baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit according to the Acts pattern.
While it is true that time has been divided into ages and dispensations, we must not forget that God had an eternal purpose from the beginning of the world. “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11).
Paul also told the church of Ephesus that there is another dispensation that will transcend all others: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Ephesians 1:10).
Paul expressed God’s ultimate intention for creation, time, and eternity: “That God may be all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28).
“Wherefore I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 3:7-9).
“Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
In conclusion, we would do well to examine carefully in the light of God’s Word every voice, ancient or modern, that does not center in Jesus Christ.
We can be saved without knowing all the ages and dispensations. It matters not whether we are Jew or Gentile, bond or free, we cannot be saved without Jesus Christ. For there is none other name under heaven or given among men whereby we must be saved.
The greatest challenge facing the United Pentecostal Church is not just the perfection of our theology, but an honest and open attitude to God and what He is doing in this hour. We have not arrived; the race is not over. Let us so run that we may obtain. “He who sleeps in continual noise is awakened by silence” (William Dean Howells).
C. H. Yadon is an honorary member of the General Board of the United Pentecostal Church International and a former district superintendent.
David Bernard is the associate editor in the Editorial Division of the United Pentecostal Church International and the author of thirteen books and booklets. He received the Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude from Rice University, received the Doctor of Jurisprudence with honors from the University of Texas, and studied at Wesley Biblical Seminary. He formerly served as assistant vice president at Jackson College of Ministries.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS TAKEN FROM SYMPOSIUM ON ONENESS PENTECOSTALISM 1988 AND 1990, AND WAS PUBLISHED BY WORD AFLAME PRESS, 1990, PAGES 63-96. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.