Salvation and Dispensationalism

Salvation and Dispensationalism

We welcome, once again,  James D. Quiggle, ThM. who brings us an article correcting some misconceptions regarding salvation in Dispensational Theology. It is my hope that this article is helpful to you…

In the previous article, “Understanding Dispensationalism,” I promised to address the criticism that dispensationalism teaches different ways of salvation in each dispensation. This criticism comes from those following a view of Scripture known as Covenant Theology (CT). Covenant theology teaches that God interacts with human kind through various covenants, the most important of which are the covenant of works with Adam pre-sin, and the covenant of grace after Adam’s fall into sin. Understanding how dispensationalism and CT view the means of salvation, versus the basis of salvation, requires a little background information.

Both dispensationalism and CT believe in the apostolic and Reformation doctrine of salvation by God’s grace through the sinner’s faith in God’s testimony that Jesus Christ propitiated God for sin on the cross. Propitiation is a term that means Christ fully satisfied God for the crime of sin by suffering God’s wrath against sin while on the cross. Jesus suffered spiritually for sin (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and he suffered physically for sin (“And bowing his head, he gave up his spirit”). His resurrection out of death demonstrated that he had fully paid the judicial debt for sin. Every person believing God’s testimony concerning the way (or means) to salvation is saved.

If, as is the case, both CT and dispensationalism believe Christ’s propitiation is the basis for salvation from Adam forward to the end of the ages, what is the difference between them regarding salvation? In the previous article I stated, “A dispensation is from God’s viewpoint an economy; from man’s, a responsibility.”[1] Those following Covenant theology believe the differing responsibilities in each dispensation are different ways of salvation. For example, the responsibility of the people in Noah’s time was “believe God’s warning of coming judgment and get in the ark to be saved.” This was not the same as Abraham’s responsibility (Genesis 12:1) or that of the Israelis under the law given through Moses (Exodus 19:8), nor in this New Testament dispensation (e.g., Acts 16:31).

Because the Dispensationalist teaches God changes the means in which he interacts with human kind, continuing some responsibilities, annulling others, and giving new responsibilities, CT believes dispensationalism teaches different ways of salvation. Covenant theology confuses the dispensational view of changes in man’s responsibilities toward God (changes God himself made) as teaching different ways of salvation. This is not what dispensationalism teaches (I will explain below). To understand we must first examine what CT does teach about salvation.

Covenant theology teaches that from Adam forward, salvation was “by grace through faith in Christ.”[2] What Covenant theology means by the phrase “faith in Christ” is that every person in Old Testament times, from Adam forward, was saved because they placed their faith in the yet-future coming Messiah. The covenant theologian believes “it was not mere trust or faith in God, or simple piety, which was required [for salvation] but faith in the promised redeemer, or faith in the promise of redemption through the Messiah.”[3] How did the Old Testament persons come to the conclusion that their salvation depended on belief in a yet-future coming Messiah? Not from the Old Testament Scriptures. Covenant theology says they had supplementary instruction from the prophets or divine illumination from God.[4] “Supplementary instruction” and “divine illumination” means “not written in the Scriptures.” These views, from Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, were stated in 1873, but continue to describe Covenant theology’s view of salvation today.

The Covenant theologian cannot demonstrate his salvation theology from the scriptures. If pressed, CT will point to a few verses, e.g., John 8:56; Psalm 16:11; Job 19:25–26; Genesis 3:15. But, how much did the Old Testament peoples understand? Even a prominent CT (J. Barton Payne) admitted limitations in Old Testament understanding: “That, to satisfy God, God must die, that men might inherit God, to be with God, was incomprehensible under the Old Testament seminal knowledge of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the crucifixion followed by the resurrection.”[5] The CT pointing to Genesis 3:15, often cited as positive proof of belief in a coming messiah, has grave difficulties: the verse does not mention a coming messiah and is never used in the Old or New Testaments regarding Christ or salvation in Christ.

Dispensationalism has always taught one way of salvation. C. C. Ryrie, 1995: “the basis of salvation in every age is the death [propitiation] of Christ.”[6] C. I. Scofield, 1890: “God’s grace to man is always based on the work accomplished by Christ in His death [propitiation] on the cross.”[7] What Scofield taught in 1890 is exactly what Ryrie taught one hundred years later. Although dispensationalism is accused of teaching a different way of salvation in every dispensation, dispensationalists have always taught the basis for salvation from Adam to the end of the ages is the propitiation made by Christ. What does change with each dispensation is the “content of faith” given to each dispensation. Within each dispensation past, present, and yet-future (except the eternal state, in which every human being is saved and glorified prior to entry), God gives mankind a “content of faith” through which a sinner by grace through faith is able to access salvation and bring glory to God.

The content of faith for every dispensation is always defined by God’s testimony. In the dispensation concerning Noah’s generation, the content of faith was to believe universal judgment was coming and build an ark to save those of mankind who would believe God’s testimony. In the dispensation of the Mosaic Law the content of faith was not bring a sacrifice in order to be saved. The content of faith under the Mosaic Law was faith in God’s testimony that repentance of sin with confession of sin and a proper sacrifice for sin would result in forgiveness of sin. Mechanically bringing a sacrifice did not save. What saved was faith in God through his testimony, faith which was accepted by God’s grace, faith that was revealed by doing the things God said to do by faith. Near the end of the Tribulation period, when the voices of the saved are almost silenced by persecution and martyrdom, God will give human kind the simplest content of faith: Fear God, and give glory to him” (Revelation 14:7). But the basis of salvation will be the same it was for Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, Peter and Paul, and you and me: Christ’s propitiation on the cross.

Christ’s propitiation-resurrection created a new dispensation, the age of the New Testament church, with a new content of faith: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. For Hebrews and Gentiles practicing Judaism the content of faith changed from repentance, faith, and a proper animal sacrifice under the Mosaic Law, to saving faith in the one and only Savior Jesus the Christ. For the pagan Gentiles outside Judaism the content of faith changed from walk with and worship the God who created Adam and gave the Noahic covenant, to saving faith in the one and only Savior Jesus the Christ, e.g., Acts 16:30–31; 17:30–31. To be saved in the current New Testament church dispensation one must come to God with repentance and confession for sin with the proper sacrifice—Jesus crucified and resurrected—having faith in God’s testimony that Jesus is the only way to be saved in this New Testament church dispensation.

The dispensationalist’s changing “content of faith” approach to the sinner’s access to salvation is not a change in the basis of salvation. The basis of salvation in every dispensation from Adam forward is the propitiation of Christ, and nothing else. Although Christ’s propitiation for sin occurred at a particular historical moment, it was, is, and always will be the only efficient means of salvation. Ephesians 1:4 indicates that in eternity-past God decreed the Son’s propitiation to be the only means by which sinners can be saved, “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Therefore, because “God . . . calls the things not existing as though existing” (Romans 4:17), the historical act of Christ’s propitiation, which was decreed in eternity-past, is efficient for salvation from eternity-past through historical-present into eternity-future. By an eternal decree, the salvific benefits of Christ’s historical propitiation have been in effect from the moment God made the decree, which was before he created the universe. How those benefits are accessed is defined and described for the dispensationalist by the content of faith God gave sinners in each particular dispensation.

In the purpose of God the plan of salvation is the same in every dispensation: always by grace through faith in God’s testimony; always by application of Christ’s merit to the sinner’s spiritual need. The changing “content of faith” is a change in the processes by which salvation is accessed. But a change in the content of faith is not a change in God’s purpose and plans. The “content of faith” in each dispensation is always faith in God through his testimony, whatever that testimony might be for a particular dispensation. The plan of salvation has always been and will always be “God from the beginning chose you to salvation, by grace, in sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth,” 2 Thessalonians 2:13, cf. Ephesians 2:8–9; 1 Peter 1:2. The truth through which sinners past, present, and future access the means of grace and the way of salvation was, is, and always will be God’s testimony concerning the particular content of faith given to them.

Looking to the one way in which God saves in every dispensation from Adam to the end of the ages, Ryrie has developed a dispensational definition of salvation:

The basis of salvation in every age is the death [propitiation] of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.”[8]

Dispensationalism doesn’t depend on extra-biblical knowledge or unknown divine illumination to effect salvation in the Old Testament, as does covenant theology, but on faith in God through his testimony in the Scripture given to each dispensation. So, too, in the New Testament church dispensation and yet-future dispensations. There has been and will always be one basis of salvation: Christ; one requirement for salvation: faith, one object of faith: God.

 

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism  (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995, Rev. ed.), 30.

[2] [http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/reformed-theology-covenant-theology/]; [https://www.gotquestions.org/covenant-theology.html].

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1873, Reprinted, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 2:372.

[4] Ibid., 2:367.

[5] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 114 (emphasis original).

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] C. I. Scofield, Bible Correspondence Course (1890, Reprinted, Chicago, IL:  The Moody Bible Institute, 1960), 5:1244.

[8] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 115 (emphasis original).

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