Questions from Revelation: What is Dispensationalism?

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Revelation | May 12 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
May 12
Questions from Revelation: What is Dispensationalism? | Revelation
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor
View Series: Questions from RevelationView Series: Revelation (2023-2024) Download Audio Printable Transcript

Father in heaven, help us now that we might listen, we might learn, we might know something of perhaps a tradition familiar or unfamiliar to us. It would be good informant but You would also by the end have something to say to our hearts as we love, serve, worship, and follow You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Revelation 21, verse 3, is a text, Lord willing, we will be coming to on Sunday morning several weeks, but here’s what we read, and I start here because I want to eventually end here as it will form a bookend to help explain why we are spending 44-ish minutes to talk about this theme tonight.

We have in Revelation 21 this good news in verse 3: “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

There at the end of human history and the beginning of unending ages, we have the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise, which stretches throughout both Testaments, throughout the Pentateuch and the prophets, the poets, the Gospels, the epistles, this great covenant promise that God will be our God and we will be His people. That singular thread stretches throughout the whole Bible, how God plans to save us, and not only to save us, but then to live with us for all eternity. It is that covenant promise that forms some might say the heart, but I think maybe a better analogy is the spine of how we understand God’s unfolding revelation to us.

Our topic for tonight is to look at theological tradition that certainly would love and affirm chapter 21, verse 3 of Revelation, but would understand the Bible in a different way than you would typically get I trust here at a church that has in its title, “Christ Covenant Church,” and has, as I’ve noted many times before, lots of covenant groups and covenant fellowships and lots of this word “covenant.”

Often put as an opposite to covenant theology, and in some ways they have all sorts of things in common, but in some ways they are opposites, is the theme for tonight, dispensationalism. If you are visiting here, you should know this is not what we usually do on Sunday evening. We’re usually going through a book of the Bible or some passage of Scripture, but for these three Sunday evenings beginning tonight, I’m trying to fill in some of the gaps or answer some of the questions that have arisen over the year-long series in Revelation. One of my friends asked me, “Are you having an open Q&A tonight?” Oh, certainly not. But hopefully listening you may have some of your questions answered as we think tonight on this topic, “What is dispensationalism?” This will be a little more lecture and history than the remaining two Sunday evenings.

I certainly did not grow up in the tradition of dispensationalism. Several of you did, some of you may leave tonight and say “I didn’t know that I did, but I guess that I did.”

I have told you this story before that when I preached through Revelation, I preached through the whole book one other time at my previous church in 2006 and 2007, hard to believe that it’s coming up on 20 years, but my very wise mother, she’s watching here, Happy Mother’s Day, said to me, “you know, Kevin, not even John Calvin wrote a commentary on Revelation.” That is a godly mother. So the underlying suggestion was, “Are you sure about this?”

And it’s true. John Calvin did not write a commentary on Revelation.

Now I grew up in a Reformed church and heard sermons on Revelation and it’s very possible that my childhood ears just missed some of these things, but what I recollect are a number of sermons that went through the seven churches in chapter 2 and 3, some that hit upon those glorious scenes around the throne in chapter 4 and 5, and some that would land on 21 and 22 and give a picture of heaven. But not that I recall sermon series and all of those middle sections, all of these complicated end times sections in Revelation.

When I went off to college and was involved in the campus ministry there, but was looking for a good church, and my group of friends gravitated toward a church near campus where there was good expositional, full-throated Bible teaching. It happened to be an independent, fundamentalist, dispensational Baptist church. How do I know that? Because it said all of that on the sign. They were not messing around. This was no sort of cherry blossom fusion church. They were telling you right up front what this was about.

During my time there, and heard lots of good sermons, Sunday morning and Sunday evening, but I heard a number of sermon series on Revelation, on Ezekiel, on Daniel, on the 70 sevens, on all of these timelines and things that had been very foreign to me and it was, I almost said a baptism by fire but maybe that’s not the right imagery, it was plunging me in to the deep end of dispensational theology, something that had been foreign to my experience.

Looking back, I can realize that even though I was at a Reformed church, and I didn’t quite see the incongruity at the time, but our youth group would sometimes watch scary rapture videos and things that were coming and it was a mishmash, as often happened in evangelical churches.

So what is this thing, dispensationalism? Let me start with the definition. This comes from Michael Vlach, formerly a professor at the Masters Seminary in California, now a professor at a school called Shepherds Theological Seminary, right in our state in Cary, North Carolina. He is a dispensationalist. This comes from his concise theology article at the Gospel Coalition. He says, “Dispensationalism is an evangelical theological system that addresses issues concerning the biblical covenants, Israel, the Church, and end times. It argues for a literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecies inviting ethnic national Israel and the idea that the Church is a New Testament entity that is distinct from Israel.”

That’s a mouthful, but just notice several things in that definition. He says it is an evangelical theological system, and that is true. In the history of dispensationalism these have often been the people who are at the very forefront, defending the full inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

You also notice a distinctive approach to the end times, which we’ll say more about in just a moment. Dispensationalism is premillennial, that Christ returns and He comes for His saints and then there is a tribulation, that rapture snatches the believers into the air, they go back up to heaven and then He comes down seven years later to reign with His saints. Dispensationalism tends to be very future-oriented in how it reads these passages in Revelation and elsewhere as pertaining to the future and often historicists, meaning that they would see in the front page of the paper or the front scroll of the website, they would see many of these things prophesied in Scripture are being fulfilled right now.

There is an emphasis, you hear in that definition, on the continuing promises to ethnic national Israel and that the Church is a New Testament entity not to be confused with Israel. So a sharp discontinuity, though newer dispensationalists have muted that discontinuity, but historically a very sharp discontinuity between Israel and the Church.

Last year a new book was published, entitled The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism – How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation, by Daniel Hummel from the University of Wisconsin. It’s an academic book. You could go online and get it but it is readable, or if you want sort of the Cliff’s Notes version, Al Mohler did a podcast, his “Thinking in Public” podcast, with him several months ago and you could listen to that over a few drives sometime this week.

But he gives a nice distillation of five key theological ideas.

Number one. At the top of the list of the key theological ideas of dispensationalism is a particular eschatology. Eschatology means the theology of the end times. A dispensational end times theology goes like this, and you’ve heard me summarize it before. An imminent rapture, imminent meaning at any time, at any moment. So some of you grew up with those songs, “Wish We’d All Been Ready,” wish we’d all been ready because at any time the rapture could come and Christians will disappear and be brought up to the sky with Christ. Once the Church is removed, God unleashes His judgments on the earth for seven years. There is a rise of the antichrist, a one world government, the Jewish people will be preserved and successfully evangelized. At the close of this seven year tribulation, Christ returns, He does battle together with His saints against the forces of evil at a final battle called Armageddon, evil is defeated, Satan is then bound for a thousand years, Jesus reigns in Jerusalem for a thousand years as the earth enjoys unparalleled peace and prosperity. After those thousand years the devil is released for one final battle in which he is defeated and thrown into the lake of fire, final judgment, and then the coming of the new heavens and the new earth.

So there is a distinctive view of eschatology. Some of you say, “Wow, that’s all very confusing.” If you grew up with a more amillennial view, where good and bad, Christ is saving people, planting churches, bad things are happening, He’s going to come again, there’s a judgment, a resurrection, the end. It’s all very simple and straightforward. I do think it’s actually something to commend the interpretation.

But if you grew up in this, that brief summary sounds very familiar and you think, yeah, that’s what I grew up understanding from the beginning. This is how the end will happen.

So there is a distinctive eschatology.

A second key tenet is a theory of time. That is to say, history is divided into self-contained units called dispensations. I’ll say more about that in just a moment, but a theory of time that God deals with people in specific dispensations.

Third. There is a theory of Israel and the Church. So two distinct groups in two different covenantal arrangements with God. In the older dispensational theology they would refer to the Church as a Mystery Parenthesis, that is to say that God’s dealings were with the Jews and His dealings are still with the Jews but the Church is this Mystery Parenthesis. Now, God is sovereign and He knew about it, it wasn’t a mystery to Him, but it was something unknown in the revelation to His people, this mystery of the Church, a parenthesis. Just that language suggests that the Church is something of a digression off of the main plot line which is what God is doing with ethnic Israel.

So a sharp discontinuity between Israel and the Church.

Fourth key tenet, Hummel says, a biblical hermeneutic. Hermeneutic means how you interpret Scripture. Their particular hermeneutic, as you’ve heard before, is to interpret the Bible wherever possible, literally. Later they would say plain sense, or common sense, but literal wherever possible, and in particular those Old Testament prophecies to Israel should be interpreted literally.

There is also in this hermeneutic, or this interpretive grid, a great deal of importance placed on numbers. So they would tend to have a different reading numbers than I’ve been trying to articulate to you on Sunday morning, that these numbers, very important in the book of Revelation, but have symbolic reference. If you find a dispensational church, the numbers are often in very intricate, almost mathematical formulas, how everything overlays in this very detailed timeline of how the end will play out.

Then a fifth key tenet, he says, is often a particular theory of salvation. Again, this hasn’t been true for every dispensationalist, but for many, in particular in the second half of the 20th century, there was an emphasis among dispensationalists on free grace in a way that said you can have Christ as Savior before you follow Christ as Lord. So sometimes the language was you are a carnal Christian, meaning you’re a fleshly Christian. You’re a Christian who has embraced grace in Christ, so Jesus has saved you, He died for your sins, so you’re saved and you’re going to heaven, but you’re still, you’re a carnal Christian, you’re a worldly Christian. You haven’t yet given over that Christ is Lord. And so that you might be able to be saved as a carnal Christian who has Christ as Savior without bowing the knee finally to Him, Christ as Lord.

So a two-tier level of Christian discipleship.

Hummel also argues that dispensationalism has been a movement of social critique, meaning dispensational writers have often been quick to address, often to condemn, aspects of current politics or culture. It’s also been a movement, we’ll see, of great commercial viability, meaning some of the most popular, pop Christian phenomenon of the 20th century and the bestselling books have been dispensational books.

It’s also, he says, been a dissenter movement with a populist bent. That is to say, it’s usually been outside the intellectual mainstream. So fundamentalists and dispensationalists often gather new networks and new conferences or camps or schools and were often disconnected from the intellectual mainstream, not only the rest of the Christian mainstream, but certainly the broader scholarly mainstream.

If there is a theological opposite of dispensationalism, at least among evangelical Christians, it would be covenant theology. It can be hard to refute dispensationalism or to disagree with dispensationalism, because it is not a matter of one or two doctrinal differences, but is a coherent, self-contained way of reading the Bible. Covenant theology is one self-contained, hopefully coherent, way of reading the Bible and dispensationalism is another.

Now the purpose of this lecture is not going to be to argue for covenant theology versus dispensationalism, though I will land the plane, I will land the plane, I will end with some questions, offering some gentle criticism of dispensationalism, but I figure you’ve had a whole year in Revelation and you’re at Christ Covenant Church, so you’re getting the other side of the story. So I don’t want to just put up a straw man just to knock it down. I want you to try to understand the key theological tenets, and some of the historical development, of dispensationalism.

Like so many movements in Church history, the term “dispensationalism” did not start at the very beginning of the movement. In fact, it initially came from those who were critical of the theology. This often happens. Calvinists didn’t wake up and say, “Let’s be Calvinists.” Lutherans didn’t say, “Let’s be Lutherans.” Those were critical names that were given. Well, you’re followers of Luther, or Calvin. The Puritans didn’t say, “You know what we should be? We’re Puritans.” But it was at first a term of derision.

Dispensationalism, the term, can be traced to 1927 and the writings of Philip Morrow, a Christian fundamentalist, who had once believed in these future kingdom teachings, because part of dispensationalism was a reading of the New Testament that said these passages about the kingdom are all in the future. So some of the really early, hardcore dispensationalists would say the Sermon on the Mount, that’s not a sermon for us, that’s a sermon for the kingdom of God, the millennial age to come, that kingdom is entirely future.

So this Philip Morrow was once enthralled with those views but came to reject them and rejected the rapture and all of the distinctive teachings he had once professed and he has far as we can tell was the first to dub this theology dispensationalism.

This first phase of the movement, Hummel, to refer to that book again, calls the new pre-millennialists because up until the early 20th century they weren’t going by the term dispensationalists but they were recovering with certain new twists a premillennial view of the end times.

Now every history of the movement of dispensationalism starts with a man by the name of John Nelson Darby, 1800 to 1882. I apologize the room is too big to have a chalkboard and write up things, but it really would do well if I could have done my best R. C. Sproul interpretation and put some things up there, but you can take some notes.

John Nelson Darby. He was ordained in the Church of England, he renounced his ordination when he was required to affirm allegiance to the crown and he helped establish the Plymouth Brethren, perhaps there’s a few among us who were a part of that church tradition. Based on his study of Isaiah 32, he taught that Israel would experience future blessings different from those that were given to the Church.

So here we have the beginning of this strong dysjunction with Darby, that Israel and the Church are on different tracks, different ways that God deals with Israel and the Church, a different set of promises. Darby also popularized the idea of a secret rapture before the 70th week in Daniel chapter 9. So following this secret rapture, there would be a seven-year great tribulation and then Jesus would return, the temple would be rebuilt, there would be a mass conversion of the Jews to Christ, the kingdom of Israel would be reestablished for a glorious thousand year theocracy. So that was his new twist, this secret rapture.

Darby traveled to North America seven times. He spent all told more than seven years on this continent, the United States and Canada. He wasn’t always that impressed with American Christians, but he did believe that America had a central role to play in God’s plan for the Church. And indeed, dispensationalism has been mainly, not exclusively, but mainly has been an American phenomenon. He went thru America preaching a message of separation, rupture, and rapture, and it took a foothold.

The second main influence in dispensationalism after John Nelson Darby, is a man names James Inglis, I-n-g-l-i-s. He was the editor of a popular prophecy periodical. He contributed to the growth in prophecy conferences. If you at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, if you were to look for, you were an earnest Christian and you wanted to study the Bible, you probably would have found yourself to one of these prophecy conferences. That was the it thing to go. There was no Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, Philadelphia Conference of Reformed Theology, Ligonier. They were prophecy conferences.

Inglis is credited with establishing Darby’s teachings more firmly in America, though he would distance himself from the Plymouth Brethren and from some of Darby’s hard-edged, sectarian, separatist impulses.

The third name to mention is maybe the first one that all of you have heard of, and that’s Dwight L. Moody. He was born in 1837, died in 1899. Born in Northfield, Massachusetts. He moved west in 1856 where he would make Chicago his base of ministry operations. He famously tried his hand first selling shoes, but then found he had a knack for organization and for preaching and that was really what drove his ministry in Chicago. A master organizer and a revivalist.

Now he was not a particularly consistent dispensationalist. Moody was not overly concerned with doctrinal niceties, but he did champion this new species of premillennialism and a higher life Christianity that had this two-tiered Christianity where you would then finally submit yourself and God would give you newfound breakthroughs in your Christian life. He preached a message of sectional, that is s-e-c-t-i-o-n-a-l, sectional reconciliation. He was a staunch union man, but after the Civil War he saw one of his main social messages was to preach the sectional reconciliation in Christ between the North and the South.

With Moody there, we see the first stronghold of dispensationalism was in the Upper Great Lakes, in Chicago, but also throughout the Upper Great Lakes and into Canada, Niagara Bible conferences, and then over time there would be different pockets that would jump over all the way to California and the West Coast and into the South, in particular in Texas and in Dallas.

From Moody, a fourth name to know in the history of dispensationalism, and one that many of you have heard of, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, born 1843, died 1921. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I bet there are some here, perhaps maybe some of our senior saints, who grew up with a Scofield Reference Bible, which was the most important conduit of these dispensational ideas in America.

Scofield was born in southeast Michigan, where Inglis also pastored. Again, there you see the upper midwest, Upper Great Lakes basin. He grew up, though, in Tennessee. He was trained as a lawyer. He was a Confederate soldier who fought at Antietam, but later became a deserter to the North and then a Kansas legislator and a prosecutor. He was accused of financial irregularities. He eventually lost his marriage and then in 1879, so 35, 36 years old, he converted and became a born-again Christian. He was later ordained in a congregational church in Dallas. He eventually joined the Southern Presbyterian church. He later founded Philadelphia School of the Bible, which through some mergers and name changes is now Cairn University out in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Some notable alumni have come from there. One of my favorite historians, Allen Guelzo, perhaps one of some your kids favorite rappers, Trip Lee, also went to school there at Cairn University.

Scofield was undoubtedly the most important conduit of dispensationalism through the Scofield Reference Bible. It was a study Bible that had an elaborate series of notes, which brought into the mainstream and into so many living rooms across America and churches a very unique dispensational reading of scripture.

I said before that the movement has a unique theory of time. Now we can say more about that, because Scofield delineated seven successive dispensations. He called them Innocency, Conscious, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and Kingdom. There are Bible verses that he has that go along with each one of those. These are successive dispensations in God’s way of dealing with humankind.

Now think for a moment about this very word, dispensation. In English, it can mean two very different things. It can mean an exemption, “Can I have a dispensation from doing my chores today? Teacher, can I have a dispensation from turning in my homework?” That means an exemption. It can also mean a system of order existing at a certain time. We are not, as covenant, Reformed Christians, against the word “dispensation” because I’m sure you’re all thinking, isn’t that in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Pastor? Indeed, it is. The Westminster Confession of Faith 7:6 speaks of one covenant of grace existing under “various dispensations.” You say, well, what’s the big deal? Right there, the Westminster Confession says dispensations. Are we dispensationalists?

Well, not quite, because Scofield meant something different than just a certain economy of time, or a way in which God dealt with His people through these covenants. In particular, he meant, and here’s a quote from Scofield, “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” A period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation.

So he saw these as discrete dispensations. So at first an innocency that God dealt with people and He gave them this command and they broke the command when they ate from the tree. Then there are successive dispensations. Each one is God dealing with His people in a very different way. There’s a mode of testing, then the people fail, and then there is a new age and a new dispensation, so that each one has a specific revelation, a probationary testing, then mankind fails the test, then there’s mercy, and then there’s a new arrangement. So it’s different than saying that God has worked through these various covenants in Scripture with one plan for one people, this one covenant of grace administered in different ways. No, this is saying there are these discrete units of time called dispensations in which God deals with His people in very different ways.

Well, there are many other names we can mention. Let me just mention Lewis Sperry Chafer, 1871 to 1952. He helped Scofield found the Philadelphia School of the Bible. Then he went to help establish Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924, a hundred years ago. President there until his death. And from Dallas Theological Seminary came the wellspring of 20th century dispensational theology. Many notable scholars, perhaps you’ve had some of their books on your shelves at times, John Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie, Eugene Merrill, Merrill Unger. Lewis Sperry Chafer was at times a congregationalist and at times a Presbyterian.

Now we don’t think of dispensationalism as being a part of the Presbyterian Church, but it’s true that the two had a curious overlap and intermingling at times. In fact, here is a bit of church history trivia that you’ll all want to tuck away. Where were the first two week-long conferences to discuss the first draft of the Scofield Bible in 1908? The Bible came out in 1909, there were these week-long conferences to discuss the first draft of the Scofield Bible. Those conferences took place at Grove City College.

The third week-long conference was in Princeton, where Charles Erdman, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, was a participant in the conference.

Some of you may know the name Donald Grey Barnhouse, long time pastor in the 20th century at 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and a great stalwart of Reformed theology. He was also inconsistent but premillennial dispensationalist, oddly enough, influenced by R. A. Torrey out at BIOLA, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, which was a dispensational school on the West Coast, now simply known as BIOLA.

So why has dispensationalism been so popular in so many ways over the last 100, 150 years? Well, we should say from the outset that dispensationalists were on the right side of the modernist/fundamentalist controversy. That is, at the beginning of the 20th century, where modernists were jettisoning key doctrines of orthodoxy, the Virgin birth, and then the inerrancy of Scripture and the deity of Christ and the physical resurrection of Christ, all of these key doctrines that were under debate, you could count on the dispensationalists to be among the fundamentalists, to be among those who would absolutely stand for the fundamentals of the faith.

It made for strange intermingling at times with the beginning of Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1920s. J. Gresham Machen, the most famous member of the faculty who established Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He was happy to align himself with fundamentalists if it meant not the modernists, but he himself clearly was not a fundamentalist and not a dispensationalist, and many of staunchest critiques of dispensationalism came from the professors in those early days at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Dispensationalism established a number of key institutions; I’ve mentioned them already. The Philadelphia College of the Bible, Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles. They had popular prophecy conferences. The influence of the Scofield Reference Bible. And, as I’ve alluded to, many of the most popular books in the 20th century were thorough going dispensational books. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and then the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It’s hard for you young people out there to fathom how popular these books were.

Now, Late Great Planet Earth was written before I was born, but I grew up in the heyday of the Left Behind series. Lindsey’s book came out in 1970 with Zondervan and by 1990 it had sold 28 million copies. The New York Times has said it was the bestselling nonfiction book of the decade. No nonfiction book, other than the Bible, they never count the Bible because it would be at the top of every bestseller, but no nonfiction book sold better in the 1970s than Late Great Planet Earth. It was made into a prime time television special and a movie narrated by Orson Welles.

The late 60s and early 70s saw other books predicting an imminent catastrophe, though not Christian books. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb, which never detonated. Lindsey was shaped by and helped create a genre of literature which is still quite popular in the United States, which is part prophecy, part futurism, part spirituality, part political pundit, part armchair foreign diplomat, part entertainment, part adventure story.

The Left Behind series was all of that. The Left Behind series, comprised of 16 books, from 1995 to 2007, many of which hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Did you know between Kevin DeYoung books and the Left Behind series, together we have sold 65 million copies? It’s amazing. I contributed almost none of those. 65 million copies of the Left Behind books. Film adaptations. Spin-offs. Graphic novels. A musical collection. Even a video game. Wildly popular.

Vlach, I mentioned him at the very beginning, this professor in Cary, North Carolina, divides the history of dispensationalism into three movements. I’ve sketched them already. First the classical dispensationalists, then the revised dispensationalists, and here you have the Dallas theologians, like Charles Ryrie, who began to move away from some of the hard edges. So instead of saying literal, they would say let’s take the natural or the plain sense. They backed away from some of the stranger doctrines, like saying the Sermon on the Mount was only for the future millennials reign, or that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven are not the same thing in the Gospels. They began to speak not so much of two peoples of God but rather one with an earthly destiny and one with a heavenly destiny. So the discontinuity between Israel and the Church is always there, but it became less in that revised period, say 1950s through the 1980s.

Then from the 1980s to the present is a time of progressive dispensationalism. Don’t hear “progressive” as in a political term, but meaning further modifications to the doctrine. It’s usually associated with the theologians Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, who admit that the literal interpretation has developed and sometimes the literal isn’t quite as clear as we think. They would also see continuous development, or progress, that’s where you get the language of progressive, progress across these dispensations. So instead of seeing discrete boxes from one to another, they would see more continuity between the ways in which God has dealt with His people.

They began to speak of Church and Israel as one people of God, one plan of God. Bringing this discontinuity into more relationship with each other. They also broke with the dispensationalism of the Scofield Bible, but insisting that the restoration of national Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple there, the earthly reign of Christ, those things were still to be expected.

Hummel, in that other book I mentioned, calls this later period, he’s thinking more historically than theologically, he calls a pop dispensationalism. There is an irony here, that at the very time that dispensationalism, Late Great Planet Earth, Left Behind series, was at its high water mark in terms of pop culture, say from 1970s into the 2000s, high water mark, pop culture, where somebody at an RCA church in Grand Rapids, Michigan is watching a video about the imminent rapture. At the same time, dispensationalism was in precipitous decline as a theological movement and as an intellectual idea.

Why? Well, critics may point out that there were too many oddities, too many extremes. There was a viral pamphlet called “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Happen in 1988.” That is putting all your chips into the table for a bestseller. Hal Lindsey had a follow-up book about the coming Armageddon in the 1980s. Well, when people come out with these bold predictions of the end and then they don’t happen, people naturally stop trusting.

There was also the fallout from the lordship controversy. Remember some of these dispensationalists emphasized you can have Christ as Savior but not as Lord. There were prominent defectors from that, most notably John MacArthur. He’s called himself a leaky dispensationalist, who took that doctrine of cheap grace, as he saw it, to task in books like The Gospel According to Jesus and said no, that’s not the way the Bible understands salvation at all. Whoever would have Christ as Savior must also have Him as Lord.

So Hummel in his book says by 2004, “Dispensationalism was a movement with no vested national leaders, a scholastic tradition with no young scholars, a commercial behemoth with no internal cohesion.”

It is a warning to any Christian, or really anyone, but any Christian who would say if only we could have the popular acclaim, if only we could have a hit movie, a hit book, if only we could have the musical and the soundtrack. Look, we finally arrived. Look how influential we are, when underneath the surface they didn’t have young scholars. Now they still had some institutions but the institutions were changing. They had no vested national leader. They had great commercial success at a popular level but underneath there was not the intellectual energy, so today you hear much less about dispensational theology than even you would done when I was growing up 30 or 40 years ago.

Now what should we say by way of response in just these few minutes left? As I said at the beginning, I’m not going to offer a substantive critique of dispensationalism. That’s not the point. If you’ve been here, you’ve been getting a very different interpretation of the end times. I don’t need to repeat those arguments.

But let me offer just a few concluding reflections.

First, a very positive note to say about dispensationalists. This comes from George Eldon Ladd, who is a scholar in the middle part of the 20th century, a pre-millennialist, but broke away from dispensationalism and critical of dispensationalism, but he said this in 1952. Maybe some exaggeration here, but a lot of truth. He said, “It is doubtful if there has been in any other circle of men than dispensationalists who have done more by their influence and preaching, teaching, and writing to promote a love for Bible study, a hunger for the deeper Christian life, a passion for evangelism, a zeal for missions, in the history of American Christianity.”

Now the Presbyterian in me wants to say, “I can give some other options,” but it is a good statement, and the dispensational teachers were those at the very forefront to say study your Bible, look carefully at your Bible, do Bible studies, let’s evangelize, let’s do missions, let’s pursue closer walk with Christ and for all of that, they are to be deeply commended.

However, let me leave you with a few questions that I would ask for dispensational friends.

Number one. Has the literalist hermeneutic of dispensationalism been applied consistently throughout the Scriptures? We’ve been seeing this in the book of Revelation. It’s one thing to say yes, interpret the Bible literally, but you come to passage after passage where we instinctively know we’re dealing with symbols and visions and pictures and metaphors. It sounds like a kind of trump card to say, “interpret the Bible literally until you get a prostitute riding on a beast and then we’re not literalists so much anymore.”

Here’s a second question. Does the Bible warrant such a sharp discontinuity between Israel and the Church? That will be a sermon for two weeks from now, but I put it out there as a gentle critique. Is it rather that we find that God in the New Testament, though not setting aside the Jewish people, has reconstituted what it means to be Israel around the person of Jesus Christ, so that Paul can say in Galatians 6:16 that we, the Church, are the Israel of God. So is dispensationalism right to put such a sharp dysjunction between the two?

A third question. Can the earthly and physical fulfillment of the promises to Israel be maintained when so much of the New Testament clearly considers all of those to be shadows and types? You think about Hebrews, looks at the tabernacle as a pattern, the sacrifices, the priestly rituals, all of these things were a shadow of the substance to come. If all of that is a shadow and we now have the substance, why would we think that those shadows would have yet to be fulfilled in some earthly literalistic way?

A fourth question. I have just five. Fourth. Is it reasonable to think that such an all-encompassing doctrinal system has only been known in the Church for less than 200 years? To be fair, as I said this morning, there are Church fathers who have a premillennial view, but this dispensational twist on premillennialism is less than 200 years old.

Then a final question. Isn’t the Bible essentially one story about one covenant of grace administered in a variety of ways? So we see in the New Testament that the promises of the land and Israel become the promises of the whole world, that the meek will inherit in Christ. We see that the judicial laws in Israel are now applied in their general equity to the Church. We see that the Old Testament language for Israel, a chosen priesthood, a royal nation, this language is given wholesale over to the Church in 1 Peter. We see that the Temple, now we are the Temple of God.

And most fundamentally, and here we land where we started, that covenantal promise, I will be your God and you will be My people and I will dwell in your midst, that promise that shines like a bright star there in Revelation 21, is the promise that is in every part of God’s Word.

Genesis 17:18 – the land of Canaan is before you, I will give it as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you, and I will be their God.

Exodus 6:7 – I will take you as My own people. I will be your God, then you will know I am the Lord your God who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.

Leviticus 26:12 – I will walk among you and be your God and you will be My people.

Jeremiah 7:23 – Obey Me. I will be your God and you will be My people.

Jeremiah 30:22 – So you will be My people and I will be your God.

Ezekiel 36:28 – You will live in the land I gave your forefathers. You will be My people and I will be your God.

Ezekiel 37:27 – My dwelling place shall be with them and I will be their God and they shall be My people.

2 Corinthians 6:16 – We are the Temple of the living God. As God has said, “I will make My dwelling among them and walk among them and I will be their God and they shall be My people.”

Did you see how seamlessly Paul moves from a promise that was for the people of Israel and there it was speaking of land and temple and now Paul seamlessly pulls it and says, “Don’t you know that this is about you, Christians? This is about you. You are the Temple of the living God, and I will be your God and you will be My people.”

When you hear that, and we can multiply it several times, you can hear with new ears that promise in Revelation 21:3 – Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be His people and God Himself will be with them as their God.

How could it be any other way, for the incarnation itself is the fulfillment of that covenant promise? What is Immanuel but God with us? That is the fulfillment and the means by which all of these great glories spoken of and administered in the one covenant of grace, come to be ours because God in fact did become one of us, taking upon Himself a human nature and dwelt among us, that forever we might live as His people for those who belong to Christ and He will say for all time as He looks upon His people with great joy and pride and wonder, “You are My people and I am not ashamed to be called your God.”

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we thank You for the good news of the Gospel, from Genesis to Revelation, and we pray that You would give us such confidence in Your Word that we would find every time that we open it promises that are yes and amen in Christ, and that in Him we would know that You will be our God and we will be Your people, now and forever. In Christ we pray. Amen.