WHAT CONSTITUTES A CHANGE OF DISPENSATIONS?
I have read in various writings of those who hold the mid-Acts position that the present dispensation began when Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, or when the message of salvation was preached to the Gentiles, or when any number of other events occurred. These and other views as to what constituted a change from the previous to the present dispensation will be discussed in this paper. But I suggest we first consider the Scriptural definition of the Greek word translated “dispensation”, as it will, in my opinion, answer the question posed in the title of this paper, i.e. what constitutes a change of dispensations.
THE MEANING OF THE GREEK WORD TRANSLATED “DISPENSATION”
The Greek word translated “dispensation” is “oikonomia” and occurs in the New Testament eight times. It is made up of two words, “oiko” meaning “house”, and” nomia” which means “law”. So literally, “oikonomia” means “house law“.
The first occurrences are in Luke 16:2-4 and are translated “stewardship”, “…..How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me unto their houses”. To use the literal meaning of “oikonomia” we might translate this phrase, “Give an account of your house law”. It is clear that “house law” does not easily fit into an English translation. For that reason I believe it would be helpful to find a synonym for “house law”. It is clear that the steward of Luke 16 is managing his master’s household. I would suggest therefore, the word “management” might be an adequate translation of the Greek “oikonomia”. “Management” is a synonym that is easier to adapt to the context of each of the occurrences of “oikonomia” and it means more or less, the same as “house law”. So then, we might translate these verses as, “give an account of thy management“, and “when I am put out of the management“.
Let us consider other occurrences of “oikonomia” to see if “management” is an appropriate translation.
I Cor. 9:17, “For if I do this thing willingly I have a reward: but if against my will a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me, what is my reward then?”. The “of” in the phrase “dispensation of the Gospel” is, in my opinion, the Genitive of Relation, which is defined in the Companion Bible, in part as, “equivalent to pertaining to“. Paul was given the gospel to preach. His reward, pertaining to that preaching, depended upon how he managed the preaching of the gospel. We might translate the phrase, “but if against my will a management or stewardship of the gospel is committed unto me….”.
Eph. 1:10, “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times He might gather together in one all things in Christ….”. There will come a time when God will bring all things together in Christ. At that time God’s management of His household will be in accordance with that fact. Again, I believe the “of” in the phrase “dispensation of the fulness of times” is the Genitive of Relation, “the dispensation pertaining to the fulness of times”. To rephrase that, “in the fulness of times, God will gather all things together in Christ; that is how He will manage His household”. We might translate this verse, “That in the management of the fulness of times, God might gather together in one, all things in Christ”.
Eph. 3:9, “And to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery”. The “of” in the phrase “dispensation of the mystery’ is, in my opinion, again the Genitive of Relation, i.e. pertaining to. So we could paraphrase this verse to read, “…to make all men see what is God’s management of His household pertaining to, or in accordance with, the mystery”.
Col. 1:25, “Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you. to fulfill the word of God”. The “of” in the phrase “dispensation of God” is, in my opinion, the Genitive of Possession, i.e. God’s dispensation. So we might translate this verse to read, “Whereof I am made a minister according to God’s management which is given to me for you…..”.
Let us try to put these verses together in an attempt to clarify the meaning of “oikonomia”. In every occurrence the word “management” may be used to translate the Greek word. Therefore, we may conclude that a dispensation is the management of a household.
WHAT CONSTITUTED THE CHANGE TO THE PREVIOUS DISPENSATION?
The previous dispensation is often referred to as “the dispensation of law”. But that phrase is not found in the Word of God, which in and of itself does not make it incorrect. But let us consider once again the literal meaning of the Greek word translated “dispensation” as “house law”. What is God’s “house” in this context? I believe it is the entire world. But the law was given to Israel which constituted a change in how God managed Israel, but it certainly did not constitute a change in how God dealt with the entire world. Therefore I believe the past dispensation should not be referred to as “the dispensation of law” because the giving of the law did not directly impact the entire world.
What then did constitute the change to the previous dispensation? We read in Rom. 1:21-25 of the terrible sins committed by the people of the nations. Then in verse 26 we read, “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections….”. In other words, God no longer had anything to do with any of the nations of the world. I believe logic suggests that it was at this point that God chose Abram to be the father of a nation that God would call His own. And that nation would be a witness to the rest of the world, as we read in I Peter 2:9, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness unto His marvelous light”. So before the call of Abram God had given up the nations of the world, and was not working out His plans and purposes for the ages through them. But with the call of Abram, God had a nation through which He would work.
In short, the previous dispensation was issued in when, after giving up the nations of the world, God called Abram to be the father of His nation which He would use to be a witness to the nations of the world. Now that, in my opinion, is a change of God’s management of His household, i.e. the world.
A DISCUSSION OF THE EVENTS THAT HAVE BEEN SUGGESTED CONSTITUTED THE CHANGE TO THE PRESENT DISPENSATION
THE SETTING ASIDE OF ISRAEL
THE GOSPEL OF SALVATION SENT TO THE GENTILES
PAUL’S CONVERSION ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
THE PREACHING OF A NEW GOSPEL OF SALVATION
A CHANGE FROM SALVATION BY WORKS TO SALVATION BY FAITH
THE SETTING ASIDE OF ISRAEL
We all know that Israel was God’s chosen nation, but we must understand for what purpose they were chosen. We read in I Peter 2:9, “but ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness unto His marvelous light”. We are told quite specifically that Israel was called for the purpose of showing the praiseworthiness of God. To whom were they to show this? Logic dictates that they were to show this to the nations of the world. In other words, through Israel, God showed the world Who He is. For example, when God led Israel out of Egypt and destroyed the Egyptian army He showed the world that He is God Almighty, the only true God.
It is clear that once Israel was set aside God is no longer using that nation to fulfill the role for which they were chosen. That is a very clear and distinct difference in how God is managing His household in the present dispensation. That is to say, no longer is God using Israel to show the world Who He is, i.e. why He is praiseworthy.
Furthermore, because Israel required signs, the signs are not in evidence with the same clarity as in the past dispensation. That is to say, the lack of signs is a visible result of the setting aside of Israel, and a visible result of the new dispensation.
The paper Are We Asking the Wrong Question? discusses all the differences between the past and present dispensations, all of which are a result of Israel being set aside.
I believe that Israel was set aside, i.e. divorced, at Acts 28:25 which is discussed in the paper on the dispensational boundary. That would mean that, in my opinion, the dispensation of the mystery began at Acts 28:25.
THE GOSPEL OF SALVATION SENT TO THE GENTILES
Did the gospel of salvation being sent to the Gentiles constitute a new dispensation? Or to put it another way: did God manage His household, i.e. the world, differently by sending the gospel of salvation to the Gentiles? In order to answer that question, let us consider the Lord’s commission to Paul as told to Ananias. Acts 9:15, “…the Lord said unto him, ‘Go thy way: for he (Paul) is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings and the children of Israel'”. But as we read in Acts 9:19-20, just after Paul received his sight back and was nourished, he was “certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. and straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues..……”. My point is that Paul did not immediately go to the Gentiles, he went to the Jews first.
We have learned that Paul was commissioned to preach to Israel as well as to the Gentiles. Did this commission to preach to the Gentiles constitute a new dispensation? In point of fact it didn’t even constitute anything new as Peter went to the Gentiles before Paul did. We read in Acts 10 the account of Peter’s preaching to the Gentiles. In verse 45 we read, “and they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost”.
Furthermore, Gentiles have always had the opportunity to accept God’s grace in His offer of salvation. “God is no respecter of person” (Acts 10:34). And we read in Rom. 1:19-20, “because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead….” This passage tells us that God makes Himself known to man by the things that have been created. When one believes the message of the nature of God, (i.e. His “eternal power”), as exhibited in “the things that are made”, one is made righteous.
In short, Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles was not new, as Peter had done so before him, and the Gentiles have always had the opportunity to participate in God’s plan of salvation.
SAUL’S CONVERSION ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS
Let us consider the account of Saul’s conversion as recorded in Acts 9. As he (Saul) journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly “there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?’ and he said, ‘Who art Thou, Lord?’ and the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks'”.
Taking into consideration the meaning of the Greek word translated “dispensation” as “house law” or, “management” and that the “house” is the entire world, we must ask, did Saul’s conversion constitute a new dispensation? Did Saul’s conversion mean that God managed the world any differently than He had before the conversion? I believe we must answer these questions in the negative. Saul’s conversion was certainly part of God’s plans for the dispensation of the mystery in that He revealed that mystery to Paul. But that mystery was certainly not revealed at Acts 9, i.e. at Saul’s conversion, and therefore there was no new dispensation put in effect at Saul’s conversion. That is to say, God did not manage the world any differently after Paul’s conversion than before it.
THE PREACHING OF A NEW GOSPEL OF SALVATION
There are several reasons for my belief that the preaching of a new gospel of salvation does not constitute a new dispensation. One reason is that Abraham and his wife Sarah were justified when each believed different messages and they certainly did not live in different dispensations.
We read in Gen. 15 that God promised Abram that he would be the father of a great nation. In verse 6 we read, “And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness’. In other words, Abram believed God’s message to him and God counted Abram as righteous because of that belief.
We read in Heb. 11:11, “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged Him faithful Who had promised”. We learn in this verse that Sara had believed God’s message to her about bearing a son even though she was “past age”. Because God counted Abram as righteous when he believed the message God had for him, we may conclude that Sara too was counted as righteous when she believed God’s message for her.
In short, Abraham and his wife Sarah believed two entirely different messages, the belief of which caused God to count each as righteous. Surely we cannot believe that because Abraham and Sarah believed different messages that led God to count them as righteous, they lived in different dispensations. We must conclude therefore, that a different message of salvation does not constitute a different dispensation.
A CHANGE FROM SALVATION BY WORKS TO SALVATION BY FAITH
Many believe that in the previous dispensation man was saved by faith plus works. But that is not the teaching of Scripture. It is a misunderstanding of the principle of works completing one’s faith. Furthermore, that is a principle that is in operation just as much in the present dispensation as it was in the previous one.
Because James discusses the place of works in salvation, let us consider James 2:14-26 as it will help us to understand the seeming contradiction between Rom. 2:13-15 and Rom. 3:21. We read in verse 14 of James two, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” James continues this same thought for the next two verses and then in verse 17 explains quite succinctly the point of this passage, “Even so, faith, if it hath not works, is dead being alone“. In other words, faith is completed by works.
Salvation is purely a gift of grace and works completes one’s faith. Let us come back to James 2 to confirm that truth by Scripture. We read in verse 21, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” But according to Romans 4 Abraham was not justified by works, but by faith. The only way to avoid a contradiction between James 2 and Romans 4 is to see that works complete one’s faith. In point of fact, James says this very thing in verse 22, “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?” The Greek word translated “perfect” means “to complete”. In verse 23 James completes his point, “and the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness:’ …….Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone”. But this is not faith plus works, it is faith that is completed by works. In other words, salvation is by grace through faith, works only complete one’s faith.
At what point was salvation a gift of grace apart from works? Let us allow Paul to answer that question. We read in Rom. 4:5-6, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works”. This passage tells us two very important things. It tells us:1) righteousness is imputed by grace through faith (“his faith is counted for righteousness”), and 2) David described the same blessedness. In other words, what was true of Abraham, who lived before the law was given, was also true of David who lived after the law was given.
The concept of works proving one’s faith is just as applicable in the present dispensation as it was in the previous one. Phil. 2:12 reads, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Paul does not mean that one works for his salvation, he means that his works complete his faith, just as in the previous dispensation.
For a more complete discussion of the place of faith and works in God’s plan of salvation please see the paper on that subject.
I have tried to show that none of the acts suggested constituted a new dispensation but one. That one is the setting aside of Israel as God’s chosen nation. Therefore, the present dispensation began when Israel was set aside.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.