The Dispensations: Changeless Constants

As mentioned last month, an unfair allegation sometimes leveled at Dispensational Truth is that it artificially parses up human history into segmented periods, rendering God’s communications inconsistent, and providing different ways of salvation for different periods of time. This allegation is untrue. Dispensational Truth in no way attacks the immutability of God, nor does it do injustice to the universal principles that have always, and will always, govern His interaction with His creature man.

The Bible clearly shows a progression in God’s revelation to mankind over successive ages, but there are constant themes and truths that run unmistakably like unbroken threads through every dispensation. Dispensational Truth embraces a God who is ultimately working “all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph 1:11)[1] to manifest the glory of His unchanging character through changing circumstances and progressive developments throughout human history.


God’s righteousness, as with all His attributes, is absolute and unchanging.  There is not one standard for righteousness under law and a different standard under grace. God has not judged sin harshly under one regime and then overlooked sin in another. His righteous standard has remained constant (and will remain constant) throughout every era in biblical revelation, ultimately culminating in the earthly kingdom of Christ when “a king shall reign in righteousness” (Isa 32:1). In every age, man has been measured against this inflexible standard of God’s righteousness. Tragically, every member of the human family has fallen short of this standard, with one glorious exception – the man, Christ Jesus, who stands unique in human experience as perfectly reflecting God’s perfect righteousness.


The current era is often called “the age of grace,” and there is abundant scriptural support for this label. For example, John 1:17 contrasts law and grace by stating, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” Paul writes of “the dispensation of the grace of God” (Eph 3:2) and makes very clear distinctions between law and grace in passages such as Galatians 2:21: “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” Writing to Titus, he states, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (2:11 ESV). But while there is a definite sense that grace is the defining characteristic of this present dispensation, it is abundantly clear that grace is a constant underlying characteristic of all of God’s dealings with fallen mankind. It was grace that brought God to the garden in the cool of the day to call for fallen Adam. It was grace that Noah found in the eyes of the Lord (Gen 6:8), and it was grace that caused God to move repeatedly in kindness and compassion towards His rebellious earthly people. Peter describes Him aptly as “the God of all grace” (1Pe 5:10).


Similarly, faith has always been the basis upon which God dispenses blessing to men and women. No great explanation is needed here – a simple reading of Hebrews 11 makes this point abundantly clear. Reaching all the way back to Abel, the text uses example after example spanning numerous dispensations across Old Testament history to prove that “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Heb 11:6). Any suggestion that under law God recognized “works” but in the age of grace He requires “faith” is a gross misrepresentation of clear biblical revelation and absolutely not an accurate description of Dispensational Truth.


There has only ever been, and will only ever be, one basis for sin to be forgiven and salvation to be enjoyed – the “one sacrifice for sin” that was offered by the Lord Jesus Christ at the cross (Heb 10:12). His blood represents the universal basis on which a holy God can be “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). The sins of people under law were not taken away by animal sacrifices (Heb 10:11) – they were put away by the one great sacrifice for sins that would be offered by the one perfect substitute who “gave himself a ransom for all” (1Ti 2:6).


God’s basic requirement for man has been the same in every age – obedience to divine revelation. Obedience is not a feature of “law” that has been set aside in the age of grace.  “Christian liberty” is not freedom to do what one pleases; it is freedom to obey God. The tragic characteristic hallmark of the very first man was disobedience (Rom 5:19) and, unfortunately, this has characterized mankind ever since. Even in today’s age of grace, God requires obedience – first of all to the gospel (2Th 1:8; 1Pe 4:17), and then from His redeemed people (Rom 6:16; Gal 5:7; Php 2:12).


Hopefully, the above brief overview demonstrates that Dispensational Truth does not artificially parse the Word of God to impose a predetermined system or framework onto its pages and create distinctions and inconsistencies in God’s dealings with man over the various ages of time.  Rather, it recognizes distinctions and differences that are clearly there, while embracing the unchanging, consistent character of God in revealing Himself and His truth to His crowning creature in a progressive way over the unfolding ages of history.

Beginning with the next article, we will look at each distinct dispensation in chronological order, examining its distinctive features and characteristics, and outlining the progressive revelation of God’s plans and purposes as He moves forward towards His ultimate end of glorifying Himself in His Son.

Recommended Readings

Dispensational Truth is the product of a literal-grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation – basically understanding Scripture as meaning what it says in the historical context in which it was originally written. Unfortunately, this hermeneutical approach is not adopted by all Bible scholars, leading to very differing approaches to biblical interpretation and Bible teaching. The following books are strongly recommended as additional resource material on this subject. They lay an excellent foundation for accurately interpreting and understanding Scripture by pointing out the differences between Dispensational Theology and Covenant Theology, defending Dispensational Truth, and providing a solid framework for understanding the overall sweep of divine revelation.

Dispensationalism: Revised & Expanded by Charles C. Ryrie

An excellent overview of Dispensational theology, defining its essential basic tenets and tying it to the literal-grammatical-historical method of understanding Scripture.

The Glory of the Ages: Dispensational Theology Discussed in Language all Christians Can Understand by David Dunlap

As its subtitle suggests, an excellent plain language explanation of Dispensational Truth, and a defence of it as the best method of understanding biblical revelation.

Dispensationalism by Lewis Sperry Chafer

Mr. Chafer was the founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary. This book represents a thesis on the subject, and while some points may differ slightly from those presented by Ryrie, the book offers a concise, thoughtful summary of the foundations of Dispensational Truth.

There Really is a Difference: A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology by Renald E. Showers

An excellent, thoughtful presentation of the key differences between these two prominent theological systems, pointing out that they are not “basically the same, with only minor technicalities separating them.” A solid, thorough defence of Dispensational Truth – particularly timely today when many popular Bible teachers with large followings are operating from a Covenant Theology foundation.

The Dispensations: God’s Plan for the Ages by Mark Sweetnam

If you are only going to read one book on this subject, then let this be the one. Not a scholarly defence of Dispensationalism versus Covenant Theology, but rather a straightforward presentation of Dispensational Truth, and an excellent overview and explanation of the features and characteristics of each of the seven broad eras (or “dispensations”) that span the entire scope of biblical revelation.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.