IS THE PRESENT DISPENSATION CALLED “THE DISPENSATION OF THE GRACE OF GOD”?
We read in Eph. 3:2, “if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward. How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery…..”. Most believe that the present dispensation takes its name from this verse, i.e. that the present dispensation is called “the dispensation of the grace of God”. Some in the mid-Acts community even base a good part of their dispensational beliefs on that name. But does this verse really give us the name of the present dispensation? I think not. The reason I do not believe that the present dispensation is called “the dispensation of the grace of God” is because there is nothing in this present dispensation that is in the least bit unique in terms of God’s grace. Why would a dispensation be named for a characteristic that is no way unique to it?
Salvation by grace through faith is not unique to the present dispensation, it has always been by grace through faith. Let us consider Rom. 4:2-6 for the truth of that statement. “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the Scripture? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness’. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 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…..”.
In this context it is abundantly clear that Abraham was saved apart from works (“But to him that worketh not“). But Abraham lived before the Law of Moses was given to Israel. So some would say that when the law was given, faith plus works was required for salvation. But we read in verse 6 that “David also….”. That tells us that what was true of Abraham was also true of David, who, of course lived after the law was given. So Abraham and all those who lived during the dispensation of law were saved, not by works, but by faith.
Some would point to all the Old and New Testament passages that seem to say that salvation was by works, or at least by faith plus works. In order to understand this seeming difficulty let us compare Rom. 2:13 with 3:21-22. We read in Rom. 2:13, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified“. There is no question about it, this verse does say that justification and the salvation that comes from being justified, comes to those who are doers the law, i.e. by works. But then we read in Rom. 3:21-22, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe……”. In this passage Paul seems to say the very opposite of what he wrote in chapter two, i.e. that one is made righteous by faith “without the law”. We know that there are no contradictions in the Word of God, so how can we reconcile these two passages?
I believe that if we carefully consider James 2:21-28 we will have the answer to that question. We read in James 2:21-22. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect”. The Companion Bible suggests that “perfect” means “complete” and this is borne out by the usage of the Greek word. That tells us that works complete one’s faith. This passage does not say that Abraham was justified by faith plus works, it says that Abraham was justified by faith and his works completed his faith.
This passage in James goes on to give other examples of those who completed their faith by their works. And the last verse of this passage explains his point clearly, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also“.
Coming back then to our apparent contradiction in Romans. We can see that there is, of course, no contradiction at all. In chapter two Paul points out the truth that “faith without works is dead”, and in chapter 3 he points out that one is saved by faith “without the law”. If we do not see the truth that works complete one’s faith, we have a very glaring contradiction in these two passages in Romans 2 and 3. But since there are no contradictions in the Word of God, all is clear, i.e. one is saved by faith without the works of the law, and that faith is completed by one’s works.
In point of fact Paul expressed the exact same truth when he wrote in Phil. 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. (The paper on faith and works will prove that Paul’s point was to accomplish your salvation, not, as some have suggested, “show” it).
Having seen that salvation has always been by grace there is nothing unique in the present dispensation in terms of salvation by grace. (The paper on this web-site Faith And Works In God’s Plan Of Salvation will prove from Scripture that faith and works are inexorably connected in God’s plan of salvation even in the present dispensation.)
One other thought is worth considering. God’s punishment of Israel by setting Her aside is what defines the present dispensation. That is to say, it was because Israel was set aside that the calling of the church is to heaven, rather than to earth. It was because Israel was set aside that the signs promised to Israel were discontinued. In short it was because Israel was set aside that all the characteristics of the present dispensation are in evidence today. (Please see the paper on this web-site Are We Asking The Wrong Question? for the Scriptural evidence of this statement.) But grace is the very opposite of punishment. Therefore, how can we call the present dispensation “the dispensation of the grace of God” when it is characterized by those things that resulted from the punishment of Israel? I believe that should make us at least question what this dispensation is actually called in God’s Word.
Until very recently I had thought that the reason the present dispensation was called “the dispensation of the grace of God” was because the law of Moses had been put aside when Israel was divorced. That is to say, “where there is no law there is no transgression of the law”, and therefore no punishment, hence the dispensation of grace. But recently I came to see that that reasoning was flawed because Gentiles never did have the law. Again, because Gentiles, as such, were never under the law there is nothing unique in them not being punished for transgressing the law. Hence there is nothing unique in terms of Gentiles not being punished for transgressing the law, and therefore nothing unique in the present dispensation in terms of God’s grace.
I ask the reader to consider all that has been written above in order so that he/she might ask a very pertinent question. If there is nothing unique in the present dispensation concerning God’s grace, and the present dispensation is characterized by the result of God’s punishment of Israel, how can the present dispensation be called “the dispensation of the grace of God”? This paper will address that question and in doing so will discuss the following:
A STUDY OF THE GREEK WORD TRANSLATED “DISPENSATION”
CONSIDERING THE WORD “OF” IN THE PHRASE “GRACE OF GOD”
AN ALTERNATIVE TRANSLATION
A STUDY 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, “…..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”. So “oikonomia” has the sense of stewardship or managing a household.
For a more complete discussion of the meaning of “oikonomia” please see the paper on this web-site Scriptural Definitions Of Terms Having To Do With Dispensational Truths. For now we will consider just one more of the eight occurrences of “oikonomai”. 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?”. We might translate the phrase, “but if against my will a stewardship of the gospel is committed unto me”. Paul was given the gospel to preach, that was his stewardship. His reward, in regards to that preaching, depended upon how he dealt with that stewardship that was given him, i.e. how he managed the preaching of the gospel. As the reader continues in this study, he/she will see that Eph. 3:2 is also a verse which has to do with Paul managing that which was given to him. But for now we will continue with our next topic.
CONSIDERING THE WORD “OF” IN THE PHRASE “GRACE OF GOD”
We read in Eph. 3:2 the phrase “dispensation of the grace of God”. Let us consider the use of the word “of” in both phrases. The grace of God is, in my opinion, the Genitive of Possession which is defined in the Companion Bible as, “It may be said to answer the question ‘whose’. Luke 2:49, ‘ Greek, ‘the business of My Father = My Father’s business’…..”. So we may understand that verse to speak of God’s grace.
Now let us consider the “of” in the phrase dispensation of .…”. The word “of” in this phrase is usually taken to be the Genitive of Character. I believe a few examples will define the Genitive of Character. Ps. 2:6, Heb, ‘the hill of My holiness’ = ‘My holy hill’. The “of” tells us that in this verse, the hill is characterized as holy”. Eph. 2:2, ‘Children of disobedience’ = ‘disobedient children. In this verse the “of” tells us that the children of this context are characterized as disobedient. 2 Thess. 1:7, Greek ‘angels of His might’ ‘His mighty angels’.” In this verse the “of” is used to say that the angels are characterized as mighty.
It is because most understand the “of” to be the Genitive of Character that they understand the verse to speak of a dispensation of God’s grace, i.e. a dispensation which is characterized by God’s dealing in grace. But the Greek does not tell us which Genitive is to be understood. Because, as stated above, the present dispensation is characterized by the results of the punishment of Israel, i.e. Her being set aside, not by God’s grace, I believe that it behooves the student of God’s Word to reexamine what Genitive should be understood in this verse. That is to say, there is reason to consider that the “of” in the term “dispensation of …..” is not the Genitive of Character, but is the Genitive of Origin. So in Eph. 3:2 the “of” in the term ” dispensation of ……” is the Genitive of Origin and is understood as the dispensation that proceeds from God. In order to make this clear I will paraphrase this verse in accordance with the definition of the “of” as stated above. “If ye have heard of the dispensation that comes from God’s grace……”.
In short, because there is nothing unique in the present dispensation in terms of God’s grace in salvation, and the present dispensation is characterized, not by God’s grace, but by His punishment of Israel when He set that nation aside, I believe that the “of” is not the Genitive of Character, but the Genitive of Origin. So the dispensation that was given to Paul proceeded from God’s grace.
Now let us turn our attention to the translation of the word “oikonomia”. Was it the dispensation which proceeded from God’s grace that was given to Paul, or was it the stewardship that was given to him? Let us answer this question from the context. After having defined the mystery that had been revealed to Paul in verse 6, he goes on, “Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God…..”. This gift is grace given to Paul to preach the dispensation of the mystery. In verse 8 Paul explains why this stewardship of the mystery that had been given to him he considered to be a gift proceeding from God’s grace. It was because Paul thought of himself as, “less than the least of all saints”. But even though (or perhaps because) he thought of himself in those terms, he wrote, “is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ”.
There is nothing in the context to suggest that the dispensation was given to Paul. But the context does lend credence to the suggestion that it was the stewardship of the dispensation of the mystery that was given to Paul out of God’s grace.
Bearing in mind that “oikonomia” means “stewardship” and that the “of” in the phrase “the dispensation of ” could be understood as the Genitive of Origin, I suggest the following translation of Eph. 3:2, “If ye have heard of the stewardship proceeding from God’s grace which (stewardship) was given to me for you. How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery”.
In other words, in His grace, God gave Paul a stewardship; that stewardship was the preaching of the mystery. So just as we saw in the passage quoted above from I Cor. 9:17 where Paul was given a stewardship of the gospel (“…. a stewardship of the gospel is committed unto me…..”), so too in Eph. 3:2 Paul was, by God’s grace, given the stewardship of the mystery.
In summary, I believe that in His grace, God gave to Paul, a man who considered himself “less than the least of all saints”, grace to preach the dispensation of the mystery. Just as in I Cor. where we read that the gospel was a stewardship committed unto Paul, so too in Eph. 3 Paul was given another stewardship, i.e. the mystery.
So the present dispensation is not called “the dispensation of the grace of God”. It was the stewardship of the mystery that was given to Paul. It was given him out of God’s grace.
AN ALTERNATIVE TRANSLATION
What is the Scriptural name of the present dispensation? It is given in Eph. 3:9. Let us look at the context once again. In verse 6 Paul reveals what the mystery was that had been hid in God. Verses 7-8 is a parenthetical statement in which Paul explains that he had been made a minister of this mystery and how unworthy he felt to have received it. Then in verse 9, referring back to verse 6 he wrote, “…to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery”. The present dispensation is called in Scripture, “the dispensation of the mystery”. This makes perfect sense because the present dispensation is characterized by the mystery, of course it would be called the “dispensation of the mystery”. For the characterization of the present dispensation please see the paper on this web-site What Exactly Is The Mystery That Had Been Hid In God?.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org