The Marrow of Dispensationalism
by Glenn Conjurske
There are thousands of dispensationalists throughout Fundamentalism who have almost no understanding of the real marrow of dispensationalism. They hold tenaciously to a program of human history, such as may be portrayed on a chart of the ages, but have no understanding of the principles which underlie those things. They know that there were different divine enactments and requirements in different ages of the world, but understand almost nothing as to the reason of it. They see the enactments of God, but understand not his purpose in it. Consequently, while they profess themselves to be dispensationalists, they are constantly engaged in pursuits which go directly against the principles of dispensationalism. Political action is one of the most prominent of those pursuits.
Now it has often happened that non-dispensationalists have had a much better grasp of the marrow of dispensationalism than their brethren who adhere to the dispensational system. Thus Merle D’Aubigné writes of Oliver Cromwell, “This hero, so affectionate towards his friends, so tender to his wife and children, and then inflexible as death before the enemies of the Commonwealth, is an enigma for which we naturally seek a solution. One solution readily offers itself, and I think it is a true one. We should cease to regard him in his individual character, and look upon him only as a general and a judge,
—-the representative of that inexorable Justice whom the pagans represented with a bandage over her eyes and a sword in her hand.
“There is, however, another solution, which explains not only this famous expedition, but also the whole of Cromwell’s life. The great man shared in the error which the Papacy had held during the Middle Ages, and which most of the Reformers entertained during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He did not make a sufficient distinction between the old and the new covenant, between the Old and the New Testament. He thought that a Christian, and particularly a public man, ought to seek his rules of conduct in the Hebrew theocracy. The terrible judgements inflicted by God’s command on the unbelieving nations in the times of the judges and kings of Israel, appeared to him not only to authorize but to necessitate similar judgements. He thought that, like Moses and Joshua, he might slay Balaam with the sword (Numbers xxxi.8; Joshua xiii.22). It may be that he did not follow this out explicitly; but it was with this prejudice and under this impulse that he usually acted.
“This was wrong. The Jewish theocracy existed no longer; and its rules of conduct had been abolished with it. The precepts which ought to direct the life of a Christian are contained in our Saviour’s sermon on the mount and in other of his discourses, as well as in the writings of the Apostles. But we may understand how men of upright mind easily took for the guidance of their lives all the declarations comprised in the Word of God, even those which are no longer applicable under the change of covenant.”
This strikes very near the heart of the matter, yet still with little understanding of the principles involved in it. It recognizes the fact that the Jewish theocracy no longer exists, but gives us no indication of a reason why there should be a theocracy at one time, and not at another. In the answer to that question lies the marrow of dispensationalism.
To answer it we must begin at the beginning. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” These two spheres figure into all of God’s dealings with the human race. There is a heavenly calling, and there is an earthly calling. The heavenly calling consists of calling man out of the earth, out of its associations and pursuits, and making him a pilgrim and a stranger on the earth, giving him no inheritance in it, but setting his sights upon a future inheritance, reserved in heaven for him. The earthly calling consists of settling man down in the earth, and giving him a present inheritance in it.
The earthly calling of God’s saints coincides with the establishment and maintenance of the rights and claims of God to the earth. Such dispensations are therefore inaugurated with sweeping judgements, and maintained by the strict application of righteous law. The heavenly calling leaves ungodly man in possession of the earth, leaves the scene of corruption alone, taking its course from bad to worse, leaves the claims of God to the earth in abeyance, and calls his saints to separation from it all, walking in the midst of it as pilgrims and strangers, with their hearts, their treasures, and their inheritance in heaven, entirely outside of the earthly scene.
In the earthly calling, therefore, the saints of God become the representatives of the Lord of the earth, with a commission to maintain his rights and claims in the earth. They execute his judgements and maintain his laws. The saints of the heavenly calling leave the affairs of earth alone. They have no commission to rectify the course of things here, for God himself is not doing so, but forbearing in grace and patience with the wickedness of man, allowing his iniquity to ripen and run its course. When that iniquity is full, God steps in and asserts his claims, sweeps the scene clean, establishes his authority over the earth, and sets his saints in it and over it, to enjoy their own portion there, and to maintain the claims of God in it. Thus a dispensational change occurs, and the heavenly calling gives place to the earthly. When the people thus established in the earth, with the passing of generations and centuries, have corrupted themselves and departed from the God who placed them there, he gives them up to go their own way, calling his own to a path of separation from the corrupt mass, walking in the midst of it as pilgrims and strangers, while the iniquity around them ripens again for judgement. Thus another dispensational change takes place, and the earthly calling gives place to the heavenly. Thus we see the heavenly and the earthly callings alternating throughout the history of the world. The fullest expression of the heavenly calling is found in the church of the present dispensation. The fullest expression of the earthly calling will be found in the millennial kingdom of Christ, and the Old Testament examples of it may generally be regarded as types of that.
Adam’s calling was an earthly one. Heaven was not in his prospects at all. He was set in a garden, which is a portion of the earth, as the possessor and lord of it. Things were necessarily much simpler then, with no population but himself and his wife, and no sin to be dealt with. Still, he was bound to maintain the acknowledged supremacy of the Lord, expressed in a single commandment, the breach of which resulted in the immediate loss of his place and portion.
Information is scanty on the time from Adam to Noah, yet from the general pattern of Scripture we may infer that the saints of that time were partakers of the heavenly calling, walking as pilgrims and strangers, while those who “went out from the presence of the Lord” settled down in the earth, building cities and filling them with arts and inventions and pleasures. (Gen. 4:16-22). The heavenly calling of the saints of that era is confirmed by the translation of Enoch to heaven just before the close of it. God was not asserting his claim to the earth during that time, and so not executing judgement upon the ungodly. Indeed, he set a mark upon the murderer Cain, lest others should execute upon him the vengeance which he deserved. As always in dispensations of this character, we see the forbearance of God with man’s sin, rather than the execution of judgement.
But the divine patience is not inexhaustible, and the time came when God would again assert his claims in the earth. This is recorded in Genesis 6. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” “And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them.” The iniquity of man had come to the full, and the judgement of God interposed and swept them all away, sparing only the few righteous. Thus the earth was purged, and God’s sovereignty over it asserted anew. Following that sweeping and unsparing judgement, man was again settled in the earth as his portion. “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.” (Gen. 9:7, Heb.). And here we see an obvious change of dispensation. Where the murderer was let alone before, now he is to be punished. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” (Gen. 9:6). That is, the righteous claims of God are to be maintained in the earth, where patient forbearance was exercised before.
But as in the former dispensation, man again corrupted himself. This time, however, God did not send a sweeping destruction upon him, to purge the earth as he had done in the flood, but executed a judgement of another sort. He did not destroy man, but gave him up
—-to go his own way without restraint. This took place historically at the tower of Babel, but it is described morally in the first chapter of Romans. “Because that, when they knew God” —-and this can only refer to the days following the flood, when the earth was peopled by Noah and his sons, and their sons. There has been no other time since the flood when it could be said of men in general that they knew God. “When they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, . . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness.” (Vss. 21,24). Again, “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections.” (Vss. 25-26). Once more, “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind.” (Vs. 28, Greek).
Now observe, there was no sweeping judgement here to purge the earth of man’s wickedness, as there had been at the flood. Just the reverse. Man is scattered to the ends of the earth, and given up by God, to go his own way and fill God’s earth with his sin, until that sin is ripe for judgement. Where it is God’s purpose to settle his own in the earth, as liege lord’s of the land, he begins with a sweeping judgement to purge the scene of their inheritance. Hence the flood in Noah’s time. But God had no such purpose at the tower of Babel, for he was not then about to give his saints an inheritance in the earth, but to call them out with a heavenly calling, while the scene around them ripened for judgement.
The judgement of Babel took place in the eleventh chapter of Genesis. In the twelfth chapter he begins anew, with the call of Abraham. But when God called Abraham, he did not settle him in the earth as he had done with Adam and with Noah. He promised him an inheritance in the earth, but did not give him one. “He gave him none inheritance in it, no, not so much as to set his foot on, yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession.” (Acts 7:5). Meanwhile God called Abraham to a life of separation, as a pilgrim and a stranger on the earth. The terms of God’s call were “GET THEE OUT of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee.” (Gen. 12:1). Yet as said, God gave him no inheritance in it, and his faith looked away to the heavenly country. “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” (Heb. ll:9-10). Meanwhile, “These all…confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.” And this is explained by, “now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly.” (Heb. ll:13-16).
God was not at that time ready to lay claim to the chosen land, and establish his sovereignty in it, for, as he tells Abraham, “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” (Gen. 15:16). This was yet the time of patience and forbearance, not the time of judgement. Abraham sojourned in the land of promise as a stranger in a strange land. He left their affairs alone, and let their iniquity run its course, as God himself was then purposed to do. His sojourn in the land left the Amorites in full possession, and in full control of the land of Canaan. He had no commission either to “clean up the country,” or to “save the country,” nor to execute judgement upon it. The latter would surely be done, but the time was not come for it.
The time did come, however, when the iniquity of the Amorites was full, and the seed of Abraham were sent into the land to execute a sweeping and unsparing judgement upon all of the inhabitants, to take possession of the land as their own inheritance, to establish a theocracy in it, and thenceforward to maintain the rule and the rights of the Lord of hosts there. This was of the same character as what took place in the events of Noah’s day, and what will take place at the second advent of Christ. Those events concern the whole earth, whereas Israel’s possession of Canaan concerned only a small portion of it, but in principle they are exactly alike. They were settled down in the earth as their inheritance by the decree of God himself.
Israel, of course, corrupted itself in the land, and after much of the forbearance of God, Israel also was given up, as the Gentiles had been before, at the tower of Babel. This does not mean that there was no salvation for any Israelite, any more than the other meant there was no more salvation for any Gentile. But the fact is, Israel was given up, and dispersed and abandoned by God, the same as the Gentiles had been at Babel. And out of this corrupt mass of humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, known in the Bible as “the world,” God calls his church. He calls us as he had called Abraham, to a life of separation, as pilgrims and strangers on the earth. He calls us to live a life of patience and forbearance, in accordance with his own present purpose.
Thus grace reigns in those dispensations to which the heavenly calling belongs, for this calling occurs during the times of the divine patience and forbearance, while the Spirit of God yet strives with man, ere the sweeping and unsparing judgements of God fall upon the ripened iniquity which fills the earth. So it was in the days which preceded the flood, so it was during the sojourn of the patriarchs in the land of Canaan, and so it is during the present age of the church in the world. But those days of grace have always an end, when God arises to shake the earth and re-establish his own claims in it. When those days of grace have reached their limit, the Spirit of God ceases to strive with man, unsparing and universal judgement is poured out, and God plants his own people in the earth thus purged. So it was when God purged the earth by the flood. So it was when he purged the land of Canaan by the sword of Joshua and the armies of Israel. And so it will be when he purges the whole earth once more by the sweeping judgements of the book of Revelation, by the sharp sword which proceeds from the mouth of him who sits on the white horse, and by the armies of heaven which follow him (Rev. 19).
Meanwhile the world around us goes on ripening for judgement. The day will come at last when it will be said, “the harvest of the earth is ripe.” (Rev. 14:15). When that day comes, it will be further said, “Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for her grapes are fully ripe. And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” (Rev. 14:18-19). But until the sin of the world is come to its full fruition under “the man of sin,” God moves not a finger to execute the threatened judgement. By this of course I do not mean that he never executes any judgement at all. He often uses one wicked nation to judge another, but he does not execute that sweeping and universal judgement which will purge the earth of the wickedness of man, and prepare it for the inheritance of the saints.
Meanwhile what is the worth of the idle dreams of those who think to stop the course of iniquity, or to make the world a better place? The world has been long since given up by God himself, and is now fast ripening for judgement. When its sin is altogether ripe, the Son of Man will appear in his glory, “whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his threshing-floor,” which is the earth, “and gather his wheat into his garner, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matt. 3:12). When that is done, the will of God will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Lord will reign in Mount Zion. The claims and sovereignty of the Lord of Hosts will be supreme in all the earth. The Son of David will rule with a rod of iron. The meek will inherit the earth, and dwell in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places, and lie down in safety, and none shall make them afraid. Then righteousness will reign. During all the present age grace reigns, while righteous suffers.
Those who endeavor now to assert the righteous claims of God to the earth, or some part of it, only betray their ignorance of the calling and purpose of God. Many of them seek to exercise a “dominion” which God himself has abandoned, thus mixing together the heavenly and the earthly callings, endeavoring to mix together the reign of grace with the reign of righteousness, confusing the day of grace with the day of judgement, mixing together the church and the world, mixing together carnal and spiritual weapons, and so introducing general confusion into the testimony, warfare, and character of the church. And alas, the dispensationalism which is generally held today provides no safeguard against any of this. That which is true in it consists of little more than a chart of the ages, which has no effect on the walk and warfare of the church. The marrow of dispensationalism is another matter, consisting of a clear perception of the ways of God, and so conforming the heart and testimony of the church to the divine purpose and program.