Introduction and Chapter Ia
By Timothy S. Morton
When a person receives the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior, he, with the Lord, also receives a desire to know more about his salvation and the one who saved him (John 15:26). This desire causes the new believer, possibly for the very first time in his life, to open the Holy Bible in a serious attempt to learn what God has to say. Once in the Scriptures the believer soon realizes that the Bible speaks of much more than just personal salvation and Christ dying on the cross; it speaks of God's whole program for His entire creation from eternity to eternity. It reveals what God wants man to know about God Himself, His creation, and His purpose with His creation. Unless the believer understands this and divides the Bible accordingly (2 Tim. 2:15), he may become overwhelmed by its vast scope and perplexed by its differences. All the Bible's major differences can be reconciled with some study (sometimes very little), but if the believer neglects to study and sort these differences out, he will cheat himself out of understanding not only God's plan and purpose for man in general, but also for himself in particular.
However, even though the Bible is in some areas complex and interwoven, one notable indication that it is the very word of God is the most vital and important subjects found in it are easy to understand. God has purposely made the crucial subjects of sin, man's accountability to God, Christ's substitutionary death, and personal salvation so simple a small child can understand them. He made these matters clear and easy to comprehend so any person wanting the truth about them could by faith act upon them and receive the Lord Jesus Christ as his salvation. These clear yet vital doctrines are referred to as the "simplicity that is in Christ" (2 Cor. 11:3). Though the more complex subjects reveal more of the mind and intentions of God, knowledge of them is not necessary for one to be saved.
Needless to say, the Bible contains both simplicity and complexity by God's direction. He wanted to provide a salvation so simple that a person could understand it and get saved after only being presented with the gospel once (Acts 10:43-44, 16:31, etc.), but He also wanted some other matters more detailed and complex so one would have to labor in the Scriptures a certain degree to sort them out. In this respect some Bible subjects are so mysterious and far-ranging in their scope that no one yet has done much more than scratch the surface of the treasures within them, let alone fully grasp them. Sometimes the Lord even spoke in "parables" to purposely confound those who listen to His words with the wrong "heart" or attitude: those who don't have "ears to hear" (Matt. 13:9-15).
If a person reads the Bible very much at all he is soon confronted with various laws, judgments, ordinances, commandments, doctrines, kingdoms, covenants, testaments, dispensations, gospels, priesthoods, feasts, tribes, churches, etc., and begins to see some of the Bible's complexity. He is further introduced to events known as the Exodus, Israel's Captivity, Daniel's Seventieth Week, the Rapture, the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Tribulation, the Millennium, the White Throne Judgment, the New Heaven and New Earth, etc., that add even more to its broad variety of topics.
Once a reader gets to this point questions usually arise: Where do all these subjects belong? Do they all apply to everyone in every age? Does every precept mentioned in the Bible apply doctrinally to a Christian? What about the doctrines that appear to contradict each other? Is salvation exactly the same in every age? How is one to account for the differences? With this book we will show that the major differences in the Bible can be reconciled by rightly dividing it into dispensations and keeping the different doctrines found in the dispensations in their proper place.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 the Holy Spirit states His word has divisions and the "workman" must "study" to "rightly" divide them. When a believer obeys God's word and with study finds these divisions and applies the truths found in them to their proper place, much of the Bible's complexity disappears and many of its alleged contradictions vanish. Furthermore, many of the different manners, methods, and doctrines in the Bible which often trouble people are reconciled, and the believer begins to see the "big picture" of what God is doing.
Since properly understanding the Bible's divisions is the key to being sound in doctrine and making sense of its differences, failure to do so can lead to dangerous heresies and spiritual chaos. When a preacher or any other believer fails to rightly divide the Bible and discern its differences, he will nearly always end up wresting it. This is one reason there are so many "Christian" cults today. Instead of rightly dividing the Bible, they ignore some or all of its divisions and produce a religious system that is littered with heresies, some of them deadly. When a person takes a precept or doctrine peculiar to one dispensation and forces it to apply doctrinally to another, he ends up with a heresy every time. He may quote several Bible verses to "prove" his doctrine, but it is still a lie once it is divorced from its corresponding dispensation.
In view of this, it is essential that every believer keep in mind that God spoke the words recorded in the Bible in "sundry times and diverse manners" (Heb. 1:1): to different people at different times. Thus the Scriptures were not written only for believers in the present Church Age, they were written for believers (and unbelievers) of all the ages. In short, the Bible was written FOR everyone for their learning (Rom. 15:4) but not addressed TO everyone in every age for doctrine. True, every verse in the Bible applies doctrinally somewhere, but many verses found in it do not apply doctrinally today. Of course, any Bible passage can be used inspirationally in any dispensation to help teach a present truth, but doctrine is another matter. For instance, most will agree the laws God gave to Israel through Moses do not apply doctrinally to Christians. The Israelites had strict religious, social, and dietary laws they had to comply with (Lev. ch. 1-15), but none of these laws, as laws, apply to believers today (Col. 2:14). A Jew at that time even had to have a human priest to work in his behalf towards God; today, every Christian is a priest himself (1 Peter 2:9). If one doesn't rightly divide the word of truth he can't help but wrest it, no matter how "sincere and devoted" he is.
Concerning the dividing of the Bible into dispensations, even the most liberal Bible readers (who often criticize "dispensationalism") will acknowledge at least one division in the Scriptures: the division between Malachi and Matthew dividing to Old from the New Testament. This division is so obvious that even an atheist can find it. Anyone who has read the Bible much at all knows the Old Testament is different from the New Testament and by doing so he admits to two dispensations. This makes him a "dispensationalist" whether he refers to himself as one or not. If these critics would study their Bibles a little more and believe what they read, they would find at least six more important divisions, each one revealing vital lessons.
A very large work would be required for one to try to exhaustively categorize and reconcile every difference found in the Bible, thus this is well beyond the scope of this relatively small book. The main purpose of this book is to present to the reader in a concise manner the principal and most important divisions of the Bible by examining its covenants and dispensations.
In addition, since the subject of personal salvation from sin
is the most important and relevant issue to a sinner in any
dispensation (and also probably the subject that causes the most
debate and controversy among professing Christians today), we will
also look at the dispensations from this perspective. In the first
chapter we will briefly examine each covenant and its accompanying
dispensation, noting the major elements of each; then in the following
chapters we will take on the crucial subject of personal salvation in
the different dispensations and examine the differences between them
in this context.
Over the centuries believers have developed several methods of studying the Bible. Some study it systematically by topic, others use an inductive or deductive method to arrive at conclusions, still others divide the Bible into "stages" or sections to make it more manageable, many study guides outline studies by book, chapter, or topic, and yet others study it dispensationally. Although there is merit in all of these methods, studying the Bible dispensationally with the covenants marking the divisions is the easiest and surest way one can see the various systems God has placed in the Scriptures and get a sufficient understanding of what He is doing. The Bible's divisions do not neatly divide between books, chapters, or subjective "stages," so the best method to get the overall picture of God's program is to study the Bible using its own terms of "covenant" and "dispensation," letting them mark the divisions. A covenant is generally defined as a mutual agreement between two parties. In the Scriptures some covenants are unconditional and continue regardless of the conduct of man, while others are conditioned on obedience. Each covenant God makes with man (with few exceptions) marks the beginning of a new dispensation. The dispensation carries on the doctrines God established with the covenant.
Another word for covenant in the Bible is "testament," thus the 27 books known as the New Testament proclaim the new covenant God has made with man through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Technically, much of the first four books of the New Testament (the gospels) refer to events that occurred under the old covenant of the Law, but the atonement Christ made with his death and resurrection as revealed in the gospels made possible the new covenant of grace in effect today.
A dispensation is usually defined as a "period of time" in which God works with and in His people in a particular way, but this is only partially true. Calling a dispensation primarily a period of time will not bear up under close scrutiny of the Scriptures. In the Bible the term "dispensation" refers to a manner, method, or particular arrangement of dealing with people God has chosen to dispense during a period of time, not the time period itself. Usually the length of time is not emphasized or even mentioned, it is the doctrines God has established to be valid during that time that distinguishes one dispensation from another. In short, a dispensation is a certain mode of testing God has dispensed to man, while a covenant is a contract or promise between God and man.
The term "dispensation" is found four times in the Scriptures (1 Cor. 9:17; Eph. 1:10, 3:2; Col. 1:25), and each passage makes it clear that God is dispensing something. In Eph. 3:2 it is "grace" itself that is dispensed, not a period of time called the "grace of God." God revealed through Paul how He was dispensing His grace to all men by making a free salvation available to them in Jesus Christ. This is contrasted with the Dispensation of the Law where God gave mainly law (though grace can be readily found in every dispensation). Under the Law obedience was demanded, obey the laws and live; break them and die (Gal. 3:10-13). In this Church Age of Grace, however, it is not obey the law but only receive Christ to be saved. In a nutshell, God simply uses covenants and dispensations to deal with man in different manners under different circumstances to teach and show him things about himself and his Creator.
Obviously, all things begin with God, and God's dealings with man began the moment He created Adam. Genesis chapters 1-3 tell us God didn't create Adam to only lounge in a beautiful garden, He gave him specific commands to obey and jobs to occupy him. This contract between God and Adam is the first covenant between God and any man; it is commonly known as the Edenic Covenant. In this covenant God supplied Adam with many blessings, among them life, a perfect body, a perfect environment, a world without pain, hunger, sickness or death, and also a wife. All Adam (and Eve) had to do was to keep six conditions God had laid down to keep the covenant in effect with all its blessings. God told them to:
1. Multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 1:28).
2. Subdue the earth for their use (Gen. 1:28).
3. Exercise dominion over the animal creation (Gen. 1:28).
4. Have only a vegetable diet (Gen. 1:29).
5. Dress and keep the garden they were put in (Gen. 2:15).
6. Abstain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:17).
This covenant remained in force until Adam broke it by eating of the forbidden tree. God kept his part but man did not keep his. A trend that will sadly continue through every dispensation.
The Edenic Covenant introduced the Dispensation of Innocence. The doctrines or requirements God established with the Edenic Covenant (above) expressed the kind of behavior He desired from Adam while it was in force. Remember, a covenant is an agreement or contract between God and man, it may be conditional (as this covenant) or unconditional. On the other hand a dispensation is the particular method of dealing WITH man God works under (the doctrines He has dispensed to be valid during that time), and the manner of behavior He requires OF man during the time period which began with a covenant.
The Dispensation of Innocence is so named because Adam was created as an innocent creature and had no natural inclination towards evil or righteousness. Although Adam was not a "sinner" until he ate of the tree of knowledge, neither was he righteous in God's sight. He was merely an innocent, untested creature who had no evil in him to separate him from God, nor any righteousness in him to commend him to God. Before he fell Adam was in a kind of moral "limbo" which God apparently never intended him to stay in long.
Some believers mistakenly believe the condition Adam was in at creation is the position a born again believer has before God in this present dispensation. They think salvation only puts them back like Adam was before the fall; that is, in an innocent state. If this were true a Christian could lose his salvation! Adam fell from his innocent position! This is a good example of failure to properly divide the Scriptures, and the Christians who hold this view are robbing themselves of some of the most precious truths concerning New Testament salvation. More on this later.
With this case of Adam alone we can already see how dispensations differ from each other. There is very little the Dispensation of Innocence has in common with any other dispensation. Nowhere in the dispensations of Family, Law, Grace, etc., does God command anyone to subdue the earth, keep a garden, eat only vegetables, or not eat of a certain tree. These doctrines were valid ONLY as long as the covenant and following dispensation were in force. When Adam broke the covenant, its doctrines were superseded by the next one.
When Adam ate of the Tree of Knowledge he died spiritually (Eph.2:1) and acquired an evil nature, but God in an act of mercy and grace did not yet allow him to die physically. His body did begin on its trek toward the grave, but God quickly made another covenant with Adam which contained a promise of ultimate deliverance.
When Adam ate of the forbidden tree at the bidding of his wife, they both acquired something they before thought desirable but soon turned out to be a curse; that is, knowledge. After Adam ate they both quickly learned the knowledge they obtained was quite different from what the Serpent represented it to be. It was not just "knowledge" for knowledge's sake, but the knowledge of EVIL. Contrary to many not all knowledge is beneficial. There are some things a person should not try to learn or seek after, and the greatest of these is a knowledge of evil (Rom. 16:19; 1 Co. 14:20). It is the knowledge of evil that condemned Adam and Eve to death, and it is the same that separates one child who is accountable for his actions from another who is not. In fact, it is the knowledge of evil or sin that condemns every man as a sinner, and every person born of Adam inherits the capacity for this knowledge. That the Serpent deceived Eve and led her to think all knowledge was desirable is immaterial. Adam knew exactly what God said; he made his choice for Eve knowing they both would die (1 Tim 2:14).
After he ate, Adam knew at least three things he didn't know before. He knew he had eaten of the forbidden tree and would die; he knew he had broken God's covenant; and he knew he was naked. This new knowledge caused him to feel fear and guilt for the first time and these in turn caused him to flee from God's presence. In spite of Adam's blatant sin, God did not abandon him. Though the Edenic Covenant was now broken, God did not cast aside His new creation. By His foreknowledge and grace He made another covenant with Adam, and unlike the first one this covenant was unconditional and is still in effect today. It is called the Adamic Covenant.
Knowing the end from the beginning and the whole scheme of events He would allow to follow, God made such a far-ranging covenant with Adam, including all of his descendants, that it remains fully valid with its effects still felt today. This covenant testifies to all mankind the willing act of disobedience their father Adam performed in a garden so long ago. This covenant, given to Adam and Eve before they were expelled from the presence of the Tree of Life, is composed of several curses and a promise. The curses affect all three parties involved in the sin.
1. The Serpent, which was the fleshy tool of Satan, was
cursed to crawl upon the ground and eat dust (Gen. 3:14). This curse
remains in effect through the Millennium (Isa. 65:25).
2. a. As for the woman, she was to have multiplied conception. One reason for this is because the earth will be harder to fill with people with the entrance of death.
b. She also was to bear children in sorrow. She is going to have more children but will have to bear them in sorrow because she is bringing another "sinner" into the world.
c. Thirdly, the woman will have a desire for her husband and will be in subjection to him (Gen. 3:16).
3. As for the man, first of all the ground that so freely gave forth its fruit was cursed. Man must now till the ground in sorrow and sweat and endure weeds that will choke and weaken his crops. Then, after a life of labor and toil, he must pay for his sin in the garden and physically die, returning to the earth he worked (Gen. 3:17-19).
Man has spent the last six millennia trying to undo everyone of these curses (with drugs, chemicals, technology, etc.) with only superficial success, but, of course, the curse he is most desperately trying to stop is death. Ever since Adam man has sought ways to overcome death or at least delay it for even a short period (Satan knows this well, Job 2:4), but eventually death wins out. The death rate remains 100%. God cannot be beaten, what He has cursed is cursed. These curses will not be completely lifted until the renovation of the earth by fire after the Millennium.
Among these sorrowful curses, however, God has thrown in a precious promise (Gen. 3:15). Its purpose was to show mankind what kind of God the Lord is and to show him He will provide a means of deliverance that can ultimately release him from the curses. The promise (which was actually addressed to the Serpent) was the "seed" of the woman (Christ) would bruise the head of the Serpent (a mortal blow) while the seed of the Serpent (the Beast) will bruise the woman's seed's heel. To Adam (and to those many centuries after him) this likely meant that a future "seed," born of a woman, would somehow redeem them and destroy the Serpent in the process, releasing them from his bondage. This is apparently all that was revealed to Adam about a future redeemer. There is nothing mentioned about a "cross" or a "new birth," all he knew was somebody was promised to come. Anyway, by God's grace Adam now had a hope to look forward to, even though he remained joined to sin and death.
Although the Dispensation of Conscience, began with the Adamic Covenant, it does not last as long as the covenant. It is replaced by another dispensation when Noah departs the ark; long before the end of the Millennium. Here is an important lesson: even though a covenant usually introduces a particular dispensation, the covenant and dispensation do not have to end together. A covenant can still be in effect long after its original dispensation has been replaced. Unconditional covenants can overlap each other or be in effect simultaneously, but by strict definition dispensations can not. This should become clearer as we go along.
The Dispensation of Conscience is so named because during this period man had nothing to guide him but his conscience. God did not give any specific commands to anyone during this dispensation. There were no "thou shalts" or "thou shalt nots;" God just left man to his own heart to guide him. Needless to say, man utterly failed in following his conscience. For the most part he hardened it and became extremely wicked. This wickedness was the cause of the flood (Gen. 6).
Some may ask here, "How could God hold them accountable for being wicked when He gave them no specific laws to keep?" The answer is man has an unwritten law written in his heart or conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). Though this law is vague compared to a written or verbal law, it will still convict a person of guilt when he contemplates evil. For instance, when Cain slew his brother Abel, he did not break any written law against murder because none was yet given, but he did break the law God had written in his heart and was therefore guilty. Like his father, Cain had a knowledge of good and evil, and he willingly chose evil. Every accountable person even today, no matter where he is, knows murder, adultery, stealing, and the like are wrong whether he has heard of the word of God or not. These laws are embedded into every man's conscience, but the conscience imparts no power to keep man from breaking it.
Man's responsibility in the Dispensation of Conscience (and to those in every other dispensation who have had no contact with the Scriptures) was to simply follow his conscience. If one listens carefully to his conscience, it will convict him of sin and lead him to God for salvation (Cornelius, for example, Acts 10). But if he doesn't listen to it and hardens it, all he has to look forward to is judgment. Since the people from Adam to Noah ignored their conscience and followed wickedness, God was forced to bring judgment—the flood. Man fails again.
When Noah left the ark after the flood, God made His third covenant with man; the Noahic Covenant (Gen. 8:20-9:17). Like the previous this covenant is also unconditional and lasts until the renovation of the earth by fire (2 Pet. 3:10). In many ways God is starting over with man. Having destroyed everyone except Noah and his family because of extreme wickedness, God sought to replenish the earth through Noah because Noah found grace in His eyes (Gen. 6:8). Like the others before, this covenant contains promises TO man and responsibilities required OF man. The promises were:
1. God would not curse the ground anymore or smite every living thing
2. He would not flood the earth again and destroy it (Gen. 9:11).
3. The seasons and day and night will not cease (Gen. 8:22).
4. He would set the sign of a (rain)bow in the clouds as a token of His covenant (Gen. 9:12).
These promises are valid and continue regardless of man's conduct,
but God also had some requirements for man to follow:
1. He was to again multiply and replenish the earth (Gen. 9:1,7).
2. They were not to eat blood from any source (Gen. 9:4).
3. They were to exercise capital punishment upon man and beast (Gen. 9:5).
God also made two other statements related to this covenant:
1. Animals would fear and dread man (Gen. 9:2).
2. Animals were now available for food (Gen. 9:3).
Through the great object lesson of the flood, God showed humanity His hatred of sin. Though man often takes sin lightly, God proved He does not and will always ultimately punish iniquity. Also seen in this is God's long-suffering nature. The Lord will sometimes delay punishment to allow space for repentance. This is clear from the grace found in the above promises to Noah. God knows that because of the fall of Adam, every man is born inherently wicked. Because of this He will not smite the earth again in the same manner since He has made His will clearly known about sin with the flood. In the future He will destroy the Antichrist and all his followers at the second advent, but he will not destroy the earth itself until his great scheme of things concerning it is over, and then only with fire.
Much of man's obligations under this covenant are still in effect today and will continue until the elements melt with fervent heat (2 Pet. 3:10). The command against the eating of blood is also found in the New Testament (Acts 15:29) and capital punishment is still God's will even if many today ignore it (Rom. 13:4). Remember, the subject of capital punishment was first brought up by God. There is no record it was ever practiced before God made the command to Noah. It is solely His idea and shows the sanctity of human life and the consequences of taking it with malice. Under the law God gave more details concerning its implementation.
The primary responsibility of man in the Noahic Covenant was to "be fruitful and multiply and REPLENISH THE EARTH," but in this also he miserably failed. The earth's population did rapidly increase after the flood, but all the people stayed near an area later known as Babel. God wanted man to scatter and repopulate the whole earth, not remain in one area. The failure of man to do this brought upon him another judgment.
The descendants of Noah directly rebelled against the command to scatter and sought to stay united around a great city and tower in the plain of Shinar. In a few short years they also abandoned God in all their thoughts like those before the flood, and their greatest fear was not to displease God, but that they would be scattered. They thought safety was in numbers. It appears they built the city, with its tower, to act as a political, cultural, and religious center for them to gather around and become as a group, self-reliant. They thought they did not need any God and could "make the world a better place to live in" by themselves. God looked down and saw how they were one in language and purpose (what man says he strives for today), and how they were on the verge of making their imaginations real (likely with autos, airplanes, spacecraft, computers, or similar), and He decided to scatter them Himself.
God was not yet ready for man to advance in knowledge and technology as much as the people of Babel were capable of, so He did the simplest thing; He confounded their language. There were some vital lessons God wanted man to learn about himself and his Creator over the coming centuries before He would allow them to advance that far. Clearly, God is a segregator. The world at that time was determined to stay united and integrated, but God had other plans. The confounding of their language (certainly Hebrew) and resulting scattering was also a punishment for their disobedience. The different tongues made the respective groups unfamiliar with each other, and each language group became primarily occupied with getting and keeping territory, goods, and wealth from the other, now strange, groups. Building a one world empire was in the meanwhile forgotten. Most of the wars, famines, and other forms of suffering found throughout history are a direct result of the rebellion of the world at Babel.
The Dispensation of Human Government, which ran from Noah to Abraham, made man responsible for governing himself when he did wrong. God gave him very basic principles (listed above) to guide him in this, and man was required to keep them. Since man would not listen to his conscience and let it lead him to God, God made mankind as a whole responsible for punishing the sins of individuals and keeping iniquity in check. Of course, in this also man failed, but now he cannot come to God and say he wasn't given a chance to try! Instead of forming a government that was consistent with God and His commands, man developed one that was directly against him. As the one world, global, universal, United Nations, common market, Babel of today, the Babel of 4300 years ago was more concerned about unity and progress than about their sins and God.
Before we move on there is another covenant-like setup found in this dispensation between God and Noah's three sons (Gen. 9:20-29). After Noah heard the details of the above covenant, he planted a vineyard and became drunk from the wine it produced. While he was in this drunken state his son, Ham, came in unto him and saw his "nakedness." In other words Ham sodomized his father (Gen. 9:24; Lev. 18:6). When Noah recovered from his wine and realized what Ham had "done unto him," he cursed Ham's seed in the person of his son Canaan. He didn't curse Ham himself because God had previously blessed him (Gen. 9:1). Noah then continues to make a series of prophetic statements that may have been somewhat vague to his three sons (the fathers of the three races), but events that have occurred down through history since make them clearer to us.
1. Canaan (Ham's seed) is cursed to be a servant of his brethren (Shem and Japeth). Since the descendants of Ham moved south toward Africa, making him the father of the black race, this curse begins to fall into place. For millennia members of the black race have been slaves to other men.
2. Shem on the other hand is blessed. Noah said "blessed be the Lord God of Shem," and we learn later Shem is an ancestor of Abraham and the Lord Jesus Christ. God blessed the world with a Savior through Shem.
3. Japeth also is blessed, and he was to be enlarged and dwell in the former dwelling places (tents) of Shem. If at no other time, this has come to pass in the last 500 years. Thousands of Japethites (Europeans) crossed the Atlantic into North and South America, into dwelling places of Shemites.
These blessings and curse have come to pass in every detail. Shem is
the religious race (every major religion came from him); Japeth is the
worldly, materialistic race; and Canaan is their servant. Of course
there are many individual exceptions to this, but racially they are