Q373 : Is Dispensationalism Heretical?

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Q373 : Is Dispensationalism Heretical?


I believe in dispensationalism as it makes the most sense to me and it's clear that the church is different from the nation of Israel. However, with me being a dispensationalist and learning more and more, I've come across a video on YouTube which has been produced by pastors from the NIFB church. The title of the video is called 'Dispensation of Heresy...' and many replacement theologians have sent me this video to tell me all dispensationalists are zionists because Scofield was, and that it's false. I haven't watched the whole video myself but they've mentioned a few dispensationalists and called them unsaved. It's very normal for these pastors who think they hard preach (Steven Anderson, Bruce Meija, etc) to just condemn a person for being dispensationalist or not in agreement with their doctrine. Three names that were mentioned in the video were the following: Clarence Larkin, C.I. Scofield, and John Nelson Darby. I would like to hear your thoughts on this video if you ever get the chance to watch it (DISPENSATION OF HERESY (Full Movie) DISPENSATIONALISM EXPOSED! - YouTube). Also you may have already explained some the verses I'm about to list, but these are some verses replacement theologians use to show that the church is Israel now: Romans 9:1-9, 11:17-24; Galatians 3:29, 4:28-31; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 2:9. Could you please explain to me some of those verses and what it means to be 'the seed of Abraham'?

Thank you for all the good work you do.

A373 : by Tony Garland

The Youtube videos you referred to are typical of the attacks made in an attempt to "debunk dispensationalism." This has been going on for quite some time and it seems "there is nothing new under the sun."

Ad-hominem attacks

These particular critics of dispensationalism reveal their weak position by engaging in ad-hominem attacks. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard the character of various dispensationalists maligned, I could probably retire by now. Most often, those under attack can't defend themselves, having passed from this world (e.g., Larkin, Scofield, and Darby). But ad-hominem attacks are an indication that the critics have weak arguments, because they try to attack individuals rather than accurately addressing the actual issues involved in the view they disagree with.

Moreover, if every doctrine taught by a minister of Christ was to be evaluated based on the minister having a perfect ministry, then nothing any of us teach would have any value. Aside from the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, we'd probably have to throw out most of the New Testament epistles (written by flawed individuals such as Paul, Peter, etc.). If we really want to assess whether a doctrine is taught in Scripture, then we need to divest ourselves from focusing on the individuals God used to help the Church in its understanding (Eph. 4:11) and examine what Scripture itself teaches.

Is dispensationalism heretical?

That critics resort to such strong language, calling dispensationalism a heresy, is a solid clue they can't be trusted as teachers. Either they don't understand what dispensationalism teaches, or they are abusing the word "heresy" and doing a disservice to the body of Christ. This leads to several problems. 1) It unnecessarily divides and inflames an in-house discussion regarding how to understand the Scriptures. 2) By misapplying the term "heresy," the term is diluted and loses significance when and where it should be used — somewhat like the boy who repeatedly cries "wolf."

Is dispensationalism heretical? To know, we first need to understand the definition of "heresy."

Any teaching rejected by the Christian community as contrary to Scripture and hence to orthodox doctrine. Most of the teachings that have been declared heretical have to do with either the nature of God or the person of Jesus Christ. The term heresy is not generally used to characterize non-Christian belief. That is to say, systems of belief such as atheism or agnosticism, or non-Christian religions such as Buddhism or Islam are not technically heresy. The term heresy is generally reserved for any belief that claims to be Christian and scriptural but has been rejected by the church as sub-Christian or antiscriptural.1

To qualify as “heretical,” a teaching has to be outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy — promoting views which undermine the nature of God, the person of Christ, or some other central tenet of the Christian Faith. The flip side of heresy is orthodoxy.

Protestants generally reserve the term “orthodoxy” for the body of doctrines that are essential to the Christian faith. People who hold to this body of truth may disagree on points of interpretation on subjects that do not materially affect the central truths of God’s revelation. Differences on such matters do not make men heretics. Any list of the essential Christian doctrines that constitute orthodoxy must include the following: 1. One personal, eternal God who exists necessarily in the Trinity*of His sacred persons. 2. The inspiration and authority of the Bible as the very word of God . . . 3. God’s creation ex nihilo of the heavens and earth and all that is in them, and His providential sovereign control of His entire creation. 4. The Person and work of Christ, with particular emphasis on the following: His essential and eternal deity; His incarnation and virgin birth; His sinlessness and obedience to God in His life; His once-for-all vicarious atonement by the shedding of His blood at Calvary; His actual bodily resurrection from the dead; His ascension to God’s right hand to be the great high priest and advocate*of His people; His second coming. 5. The essential and eternal deity and the Trinitarian personality of the Holy Spirit. 6. The historicity of the biblical narrative of the creation of man, his fall into sin, God’s consequent curse of the earth, and the corruption of the entire human race by Adam’s fall. 7. Salvation by free grace without any addition of human merit at any stage in the work. . . . 8. The resurrection of saints and sinners, God’s judgment of all men, followed by the everlasting blessedness of the saints (heaven) and the everlasting punishment of the lost (hell). [emphasis mine]2

Dispensationalism upholds all these key elements of orthodox belief. The critics will no doubt respond that "dispensationalism teaches two ways of salvation," but this has been debunkeda time and time again — only to be incessantly repeated.

If dispensationalism is a heresy, then those who teach it are heretics, including men such as: Charles Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, John Walvoord, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Robert Lightner, C. I. Scofield, Harry Ironside, Renald Showers, Mike Stallard, Michael Rydelnik, Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Merrill Unger, Paul Enns, Randall Price, Robert Thomas, Michael Vlach, and John MacArthur (although a self-described "leaky dispensationalist," MacArthur and The Master’s Seminary hold to dispensational distinctives) — just to list a few of the more well-known teachers off the top of my head who promote a dispensational understanding of the Scriptures.

Passages used against dispensationalism

Regarding the passages you mentioned...

Romans 9:1-9

Those who believe the Church replaces Israel generally take this passage, which contrasts "children of the flesh" with "children of the promise" as denoting Jews and believing Gentiles, respectively. But a careful reading of the passage will show that Paul is describing two categories of Jews.

First, we need to grasp the overall context of the passage. Paul is expressing his anguish over the fact that most of his "countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites" (Jews) rejected their Messiah. Because of this, he is addressing the natural question that will arise in the mind of his reader: "has the word of God taken no effect?" What about God’s promises to the Jews? His answer is about the difference between two groups of Jews: those who believe and those who disbelieve.

In particular, those "who are of Israel" describes a superset: all those who physically descended from Jacob (who is also named Israel). There are no Gentiles in this superset. Those "who are not" Israel describes Jews who do not exercise faith—unbelieving Jews.

He compares these two groups to the children of Abraham. Both Isaac and Esau are physical descendants of Abraham (as all Jews are from Jacob), but only those in the line of Isaac occupy the line of promise. In this comparison, Isaac is analogous to the believing Jews and Esau is analogous to the faithless Jews.

Paul is telling us that God’s Word has not failed in relation to Israel: that election is part of the picture and that there is a believing Jewish remnant among the Jews—and that the disbelieving group does not annul God’s work with Israel in general.

For a more detailed exposition of this passage, see my presentation on Romans 9-11b.

Romans 11:17-24

Those who believe the Church replaces Israel will generally assert that the olive tree represents true Israel and that the unnatural branches (which unquestionably represent believing Gentiles—the Church), having "become partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree" must now form a "New" or "Spiritual" Israel.

But a careful reading of the passage reveals that both the natural and unnatural branches are supported by the same root. If the natural branches are believing Jews, then what is the root? Is it Israel? No. The root is the promises to the fathers of the Jewish faith (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). This becomes clear when Paul states, "Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved FOR THE SAKE OF THE FATHERS" (Rom. 11:28). In other words, unbelieving Jews are beloved because it is their fathers which were custodians of the root which believing Gentiles are grafted into by faith ("sons of Abraham" by faith—not "sons of Jacob,” a distinction which is highly significant). (See my crude, but helpful diagram of the olive tree in the document at this linkc.

This passage underscores the continued difference between the Church and unbelieving Israel. Even in unbelief, Israel has continued significance in God’s plan. The nation remains beloved and elect in God’s plan even while in unbelief, and the calling and election of Israel is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).

Note that the term "Israel" throughout this passage — as everywhere else in the New Testament (indeed the entire Bible) consistently describes national Israel, not the Church. Some within Israel exhibit faith, but the majority at the time of Paul (and even now) do not.

Galatians 3:29

This passage establishes that all believers, regardless of ethnicity, are "Abraham’s seed." This does not declare that believers are "Israel."

A close study of the promises made to Abraham, especially as originally stated in Genesis 12, shows that the promise has several components. One component applies to Abraham’s physical seed (his offspring—especially in relation to the line that leads to Jesus, a Jew). Another component applies to "all the families of the earth" who will be blessed "in you [Abraham]." One component is physical—applies to the descendants of Abraham (and later Isaac, and Jacob)—the Jews, Israel. The other component applies to those who exhibit the faith of Abraham (Gal. 3:6): believing Jews and also believing Gentiles from among the nations.

Dispensationalist agree that all people of faith are "sons of Abraham by faith." But this group is not equal to "Jacob." This can easily be seen in various OT passages which call out Jesus' dual ministry: 1) to Jacob—always denoting Israel; and 2) to the nations—Gentiles. For example: Isa. 42:6; Isa: 49:6 cf. Acts 26:23; Rom. 15:8-12.

Believers are called "sons of Abraham," but never "sons of Jacob, "Jacob," or "Israel." This distinction is important and is related to the two branches of promise given through Abraham. (Even though Abraham is "the father of the Jews" it should be noted that he himself can be considered a Gentile. [Deu. 26:5; Jos. 24:2-3].)

Galatians 4:28-31

This passage is simply distinguishing those who are under the law from those who are free. Paul is, once again, making an analogy. He compares unbelieving Israel to Esau, son of a bondwoman (Hagar) who persecuted Isaac, the child of promise, who represents believers, both Jewish and Gentile.

2 Timothy 1:9

This passage indicates that, before time began, believers are called by God. This has the doctrine of election in view: which uniformly applies to all that ever came to faith, whether Jewish or Gentile.

1 Peter 2:9

Those who believe the Church replaces Israel make much of this passage where Peter applies phrases straight from the Old Testament — in relation to Israel (Ex. 19:5-6) — and applies them to the recipients of his letter. But who are the recipients of Peter’s letter? Jewish believers!

This is not to say that the Church has no relationship to the ideas being expressed (e.g., Revelation 1:6), but it is only natural for Peter, when writing to believing Jews, to remind them of the statements concerning Israel in the Old Testament. For more on why Peter is writing to Jews, see my response to the question, To Whom is the NT Book of 1 Peter Written?d

There are many problems with the idea that the Church replaces Israel — not the least of which: it reads back into the Old Testament "spiritualized" distortions from the NT in such a way that it denudes/changes the meaning of the Old Testament promises.

Understanding the relationship of the Church and Israel requires careful attention to details and consistent application of the terms "sons of Abraham," "Israel," and "Jacob." Most of the passages which replacement theologians appeal to in attempt to make believing Gentiles a "new Israel" are actually distinguishing between believing and disbelieving Jews.

I've put together a Q/A on this—along with what I hope may prove to be a helpful diagram: Who is a True Jew? — according to the Bible?e.

I hope that helps. May God guide you as you seek to understand the factual distinctives (and insights) of dispensationalism from the sensationalist claims of its critics.


1.Ref-1164, 58
2.Ref-1363, 319-320


Ref-1164Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki, Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999). ISBN:0-8308-1449-3f.
Ref-1363Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms: Expanded Third Edition (Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002). ISBN:1-889893-72-2g.

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