Q22 : The Beginning of the Present Dispensation

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Q22 : The Beginning of the Present Dispensation

I have been following your answers concerning "Mid-Acts Dispensationalism" and my question concerns your remarks about the beginning of the present "dispensation". When discussing this subject your answer is in regard to the beginning of the Church. You said:

"àthe key to unraveling the mid-Acts dispensationalism labyrinth is found in the definition of the body of Christ."

Why do you seem to think that the "dispensation of grace" started when the Church started? I can see no Scriptual evidence that the beginning of the Church and the beginning of the "dispensation of the grace of God" (Eph. 3:2) are synonymous. In fact, this is what Charles Ryrie (an Acts 2 Dispensationalist) says about the "dispensation of the grace of God":

"In Ephesians 3:2 he (Paul) designates the ‘stewardship [dispensation,KJV] of God’s grace’,which was the emphasis of the content of the preaching at that time"(Ryrie, "Dispensationalism", p.27).

I agree with Ryrie on this point. The "dispensation of God’s grace" is the stewardship given to those in the Church to preach the "gospel of grace". And it is impossible to preach the "gospel of grace" apart from the message concerning the "PURPOSE" of the death of the Lord Jesus at the Cross—how the believer is "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus"(Ro. 3:23). The believer is "redeemed with the precious blood of Christ"(1Pet. 1:18,19).

The members of the Church in the present dispensation are given the "ministry of reconciliation" and the stewardship to preach the "word of reconciliation"(2Cor. 5:18,19).Again,this message cannot be preached without mentioning the "PURPOSE" of the Lord’s death upon the Cross—"when we were enemies we were reconciled by the death of His Son"(Ro. 5:10;see also Col. 2:20-22).

So it is evident that it is impossible to be faithful stewards in the "dispensation of the grace of God" without preaching the "PURPOSE" of the Lord’s death upon the Cross. And if the "dispensation of God’s grace" began on the day of Pentecost then we would in fact see evidence that the "purpose" of His death was preached then. However,the Scriptual account of the day of Pentecost will be searched in vain for any mention of the "purpose" of the Lord’s death. In fact,despite the many accounts in the Acts record of a "gospel" being preached to the Jews,there is not even one instance where there is ever a mention of the "purose" of the Lord’s death.

It is not until Paul was converted that anyone ever preached a "gospel" that is centered on the "purpose" of His death. Therefore,I cannot understand how anyone can say that the "gospel of God’s grace" began before Paul was converted.

Instead of discussing exactly when the present dispensation had its beginnings all we hear is when the Church began despite the fact that the Scriptures speak nothing about a "dispensation of the Church". So again,why do you think that the "dispensation of God’s grace" and the beginning of the Church are synonymous?

A22 : by Tony Garland

The reason that I have continually emphasized the beginning of the Church (Acts 2) in my responses to mid-Acts dispensationalism is to counter what I view to be the most serious error of the view: dividing the essential unity of the body of Christ into an early “Jewish Church” and a subsequent “Body Church.”

You cite Ryrie in support of the idea that Ephesians 3:2 concerns the stewardship of God's grace which concerns the emphasis of the content of the preaching at that time. Yet, as you yourself observe, Ryrie is an Acts 2 Dispensationalist. How is it that Ryrie shares your view concerning the emphasis of grace in Ephesians 3:2, yet still believes the present dispensation began at Pentecost with the creation of the church?

What the ultradispensationalist fails to recognize is that the distinguishableness of a dispensation is related to what God is doing, not necessarilyto what He reveals at the time, and least of all to what man understands of His purposes. It is certainly true that within the scope of any dispensation there is progressive revelation, and in the present one it is obvious that not all of what God was going to do was revealed on the Day of Pentecost. These are economies of God, not of man, and we determine the limits of a dispensation not by what one person within a dispensation understood but by what we may understand now from the complete revelation of the Word. . . . mid-Acts dispensationalists fail to recognize the difference between the progress of doctrine as it was during the time of revelation and the representation of it in the writing of Scripture. . . . The distinguishable feature of this economy is the formation of the church, which is Christ's body. This is the work of God; therefore, the question that decides the beginning of this dispensation is, When did God begin to do this? not, When did man understand it? [emphasis mine]1

Regarding Ephesians 3:2, Ryrie approvingly cites a footnote from Sauer to the effect that the progressive revelation of the mystery which ultradispensationalists want to make Paul's alone was actually to a wider context including the, “holy apostles and prophets” (Eph. 3:5). The full context of Sauer on this matter is as follows:

Here for the first time was manifested historically the principle that God makes no difference between Jew and Gentile (Acts 15:9), and grants to all believers, from both groups, “the same gift” (Acts 11:17), in the “same manner” (Acts 15:11); or, to express it in Pauline language, that “the middle wall of partition,” which separated the two, God had now broken down (Eph. 2:14). Thus the “mystery” which Paul discussed in Eph. 2 and 3 (especially 2:13-3:6) was not first revealed to him but to Peter. As in Jerusalem Peter had opened the door of the heavenly kingdom to Jews (Acts 2), so had he at Caesarea to Gentiles (Acts 10; comp. Mat. 16:19). [emphasis mine]2

We see Ephesians 3:2 (the dispensation of God's grace) as a progressive revelation which was given more widely and earlier than to Paul alone. Paul merely clarified it and declared it with greater fullness according to the Revelation which God gave him.

Here is the difference between our stance and that of mid-Acts dispensationalism: what they hold as the beginning of this dispensation—Paul's fuller explanation of the stewardship of God's grace—we see as progressive revelation of information which was given, although in less fullness, to others besides Paul and which was manifestly to be carried forward by the Chuch in this age. We see the most significant discontinuity in the book of Acts to be neither Paul's conversion nor revelation of doctrine, but the coming of the Holy Spirit. This, as Ryrie explained above, marks the beginning of this dispensation and not progressive revelation given thereafter.

You observe,

“It is not until Paul was converted that anyone ever preached a 'gospel' that is centered on the 'purpose' of His death. Therefore, I cannot understand how anyone can say that the 'gospel of God's grace' began before Paul was converted. [emphasis added]

This sounds similar to many statements I've read by mid-Acts dispensationalists —as if the purpose of Christ's atoning work on the cross was never known or proclaimed prior to Paul. This simply is not true. The mystery that Paul was uniquely shown had to do with the creation of the “one new man,” not the purpose of Christ's death. The “good news” of the purpose of Christ's death is set forth well in advance of Paul.

Isaiah declares ( Isaiah 53:4-12):

He has borne our griefs. . . He was wounded for our transgressions, . . . the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, . . . the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. . . . He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. . . He was put to grief when You make His soul [nephesh – which is “in the blood” (Lev. 17:11)] an offering for sin, . . . My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. . . . He poured out His soul unto death, . . . and He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.

It is difficult to believe that Paul preached the purpose of Christ's death any more powerfully than Isaiah. Moreover, Isaiah's revelation concerning the purpose of Christ's death is shown to be effective in salvation before Paul comes on the scene (Acts 8:32-35). The Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah and asks Philip to explain the passage. Scripture records, “Then Philip opened his mouth and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him.” This is the same Philip who had been with Jesus and was taught by our Lord after His crucifixion and resurrection. Are we to believe that Philip preached a gospel which was not “centered on the 'purpose' of His death”? If so, he would have had to abandon Isaiah completely and initiate his own novel presentation of the gospel which seems most unlikely.

Then we have Christ himself, immediately prior to His ascension:

Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem [emphasis added] (Luke 24:46-47)

Here in the great commission, Christ specifically indicates to His disciples that salvation involves His death, the remission of sins, and that this message is to be preached to all nations (both Gentiles and Jews without difference). This is nothing but a continuation of Christ's earlier teaching at the Last Supper:

Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” (Mat. 26:28)

Again, how could it be possible, in light of these very early declarations concerning the purpose of Christ's work on the cross, for us to believe that the specifics of the nature of salvation—by faith in Christ's atoning work on the cross—were never presented and only secondary prior to Paul's conversion? Such a view reads too much into what is not said regarding salvation in the early part of Acts and disconnects the preaching of the early church from all that went before..

But the real problem, in my view, is confusion about what the “dispensation of the grace of God” which Paul mentions in Ephesians 3:2 concerns:

The "dispensation of God's grace" is the stewardship given to those in the Church to preach the "gospel of grace".

The stewardship mentioned in Ephesians 3 does not primarily concern the purpose of Christ's death (reconciliation, propitiation, substitution, etc.). Rather, it concerns the “mystery” which is “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body” (Eph. 3:6). In other words, God's grace was stewarded by Paul to declare the mystery of the Church, not just a deeper understanding of the purpose of Christ's death—which was set forth in great detail hundreds of years before by Isaiah.

Mid-Acts dispensationalists emphasize the lack of explicit statements in Acts concerning the need to trust in Christ's work on the cross for salvation. This is thought to be the deeper gospel which Paul was given and which started the new dispensation. Yet the context of Ephesians indicates that the dispensation concerned the mystery which was made known to Paul and goes on to define the mystery as the new spiritual organism: the body of Christ—the church. Thus, the mystery which Paul is steward of concerns the formation of the body of Christ—that Gentiles can be saved as "fellow heirs" with Jews apart from the Law—not aspects of faith in Christ's atoning work on the cross which are now to be preached for salvation. And since the body of Christ began prior to Paul's conversion (Acts 2), the dispensation begins then—Paul only revealing by progressive revelation what God had already initiated before his conversion.

Thus, the two primary reasons I disagree with the view that the present dispensation began after Paul's conversion may be summarized as follows:

  1. The purpose of Christ's atoning work was set forth in detail in the Old Testament and clearly taught by Christ Himself prior to His ascension. It did not need to be restated in detail in every salvation context to be in effect in the early part of Acts.

  2. The “dispensation of the grace of God” given to Paul in Ephesians 3:2 does not primarily concern what must be preached or believed to be saved, but the new spiritual organism which the redeemed are saved into—the body of Christ. Since the body of Christ began with Spirit baptism (Acts 2), the current dispensation began on the Day of Pentecost.

1 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalisma (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), 202.

2 Erich Sauer, The Triumph Of The Crucifiedb - NT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1977), 73.

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