A Brief Argument against Dispensationalism

I received my undergrad education at a dispensational institution, and I am often dismayed when I hear non-dispensationalists bash dispensationalists. The truth is that dispensationalists were holding to the authority of Scripture and other conservative doctrines when much of American Christianity was buying into liberalism. Furthermore, I received a great education in the Bible at a dispensational school, and was personally nurtured in my faith by several dispensational churches, so I owe a debt of gratitude to dispensational brothers and sisters who have loved and nurtured me in “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

However, I do not ultimately find dispensationalism convincing, and here I want to provide a brief argument for why that is. What started my move away from dispensationalism was trying to understand how the NT authors were reading the OT. While some of the OT is fulfilled literally (Matt 2:6, for example), other portions are fulfilled typologically (Hos 11:1 in Matt 2:15, Ps 41:9 in John 13:18 for example). In fact, the NT seems to read the OT in such a thoroughly messianic way that is somewhat foreign to us today. For example, Acts 3:24 says that “all of the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have proclaimed these days” (i.e., the days of the preaching of the gospel in Acts 1-3); Acts 10:43: “to [Jesus], all the prophets witness that, thought his name, whoever believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins.” Furthermore, the author of Hebrews seems to conceive of the patriarchs as having hoped, not in some real-estate in the Middle East, but in a heavenly city (Heb 11:8-16), and when Abraham received the promise of innumerable descendants (Gen 12, 15, 17), the NT presents this as being fulfilled in those who believe in Christ (Rom 4:11-18; Gal 3:29).

However, the dispensationalist usually counters that this is “replacement theology” (which is a derogatory term, so don’t use it when you talk to non-dispensationalists). I would not consider this “replacement,” but “fulfillment.” My understanding is that New Covenant realities were expressed in the form of Old Covenant realities when the prophets wrote and spoke (thus explaining how “all” the prophets spoke of Him; Acts 3:24, 10:43). Graeme Goldsworthy says that following (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 107-108):

“[…] the prophetic words of restoration conform to the already established pattern of salvation history in the past. The redemptive program that has been put in train in Israel’s history, especially from Abraham to David, is the pattern for what God will do when he acts to save his people and bring in his kingdom. […] Thus, the prophets predict, or promise, a new nation consisting of a faithful remnant of the old apostate nation. They speak of a new exodus from exile and captivity, and a new coming into the promised land. There will be a new covenant written on the hearts of people and not on stone. There will be a new Jerusalem, and new temple, and a new Davidic king who will perfectly mediate God’s rule. This new kingdom will be the place to which all nations come to find reconciliation with God. […] [They] couch their message in the terminology of Israel’s past history […].”

Paul expresses it this way in Colossians 2:17: the OT law was the shadow, and the reality that casts the shadow is Christ.

So for example, Paul claims that just being born of Jewish parents and circumcised does not make one part of Israel (Rom 9:6), but rather it is a matter of having a circumcised heart (Rom 2:25-29). Those who received the promise of the Spirit by faith on the day of Pentecost were all Jews, and received the promise of the new heart from Jer 31:31-34. The prophecies of Israel’s restoration were being fulfilled! The Gentiles were subsequently “grafted in” to this reborn people of God (to use the language of Rom 11:17ff).

The NT seems to, consequently, consider believers, whether Jewish of Gentile, as the “true Israel” (Phil 3:3; Gal 6:16) and describes them using terms that the OT used to talk about Israel under the Old Covenant (1 Pet 2:9, 10). And no wonder, since all of the OT promises were ultimately for Christ (Gal 3:16), so that we become participants in the OT promises only because of our union with Him (Gal 3:26-29). Furthermore, to be “Jewish” in terms of circumcision, but without faith, is to essentially not be a child of Abraham in the way that really counts (Rom 2:25-29, 9:6ff; Phil 3:2, Rev 2:9).

Finally I will point out the “New Jerusalem” motif in the NT. All believers are viewed as citizens of the New Jerusalem, which is frequently contrasted with earthly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:21-31; Heb 12:22; Rev 21:9-21, where the New Jerusalem is called the “bride of the Lamb,” which is used for the church elsewhere).

While Paul sees that Israel will be saved in the future (Rom 11:26; and I think the dispensationalist is right not to interpret this is referring to the church), I think this means that a large part of ethnically Jewish people will be converted to Christianity before the end, and receive their part in the promises that Jewish and Gentile Christians are now enjoying in Christ. While one might speculate that this might also include a national restoration, I would be hesitant to affirm a view that necessitates a “literal” reading of OT prophecies, inasmuch as they also foresee things like a future restoration of Temple and sacrifice (Ezek 40-48), which I understand to be fulfilled in the Christian age (possibly in Christ’s sacrifice? I have not totally settled it in my mind in great detail). I would not be open to considering a return to animal sacrifice, since the author of Hebrews clearly teaches that there is no more sacrifice where forgiveness has been received (esp. 10:18, etc.).

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