If you ask the average person in the Lord's church what is meant by the term "dispensation" in the Bible, if he is a preacher or a person who has done personal evangelism, he will probably tell you that it refers to one of the three dispensations or time periods in the Bible, called the Patriarchal Age, the Mosaic Age and the Christian Age. That probably does very little damage, but is an indication of how most of us are accustomed to hear some idea that catches our fancy, and assume that we have learned some valuable Biblical truth.
Many of us have done this with such words as "atonement," "justification" and various other terms. It is said that the basic meaning of atonement is "at-one-ment" showing that we are now "at one" with God. Justification is said to mean, "just as if I had never sinned." Neither of these statements is accurate. It is true that the result of atonement is that we are "at one" with God. If a sinner is justified from his sins the result is that he is treated as if he had never sinned. But the word "justification" does no mean that, for one may "justify God." To justify simply means "to reckon righteous." These errors are not serious enough to accuse anyone of teaching false doctrine nor will they cause some soul to be lost. However, they are a symptom of a serious disease. That disease is a widespread satisfaction with mediocrity and partial truths that come from cursory or indifferent Bible study, or no study at all.
Today, let us examine the word "dispensation." It is found in the following scriptures:1 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." Eph. 1:10, "That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him." Eph. 3:2, "If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward." Col. 1:25, "Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God." It is from the Greek word "oikonomia" which comes from "oikos," a house" and "nomos," a law," and its basic meaning was therefore "the law of the house." However, its derived meaning is seen in its usage where it is translated "stewardship" in Luke 16:2, 3 & 4, which starts, "And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward." The word "oikonomos" is translated by such words as "chamberlain," "governor" and "steward."
It can be seen, therefore, that the word has to do with the type of administration or method of dealing with an individual or group. Of course if one person deals with another in a certain way, he does it for a certain period of time, but the period of time has nothing to do with the meaning of the term.
It is appropriate for us to talk of the Patriarchal, Mosaic and Christian dispensations if we understand that we are talking in a broad general way of how God dealt with persons at certain times. However, if we assume that those divisions of history are the only way we can talk about how God dealt with mankind, we lose sight of some important truths.
For example, in Matthew 10:5-10 Jesus sent His twelve disciples out to preach. He told them not to enter any Samaritan city, but to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and to preach that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. They were to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils, and raise the dead. They were not to take any money with them. The fact that this took place under what we, in the Lord's church, commonly call "The Mosaic Dispensation" does not prove that the command was to everyone who lived in that era. It is certain that we cannot apply those commands to what we call "The Christian Dispensation." The truth is that there was what we commonly call "The Limited Commission" which was a special dispensation or way God dealt with certain people in that circumstance.
The effort of some leading men in the brotherhood to try to make the gospel records a part of the Mosaic dispensation so they can make certain passages inapplicable to Christians today is a misapplication of the truth. If they do not apply to Christians today it is not because they were spoken during the Mosaic dispensation, but because we can show that the thing spoken was limited to a certain person or group. To love the Lord with all the heart and soul is not a command that applied to one dispensation and not another. There are many principles that are eternal. However, the statement of Paul to Timothy to "bring the cloak and parchments" was made during the Christian dispensation, but was limited to that person.
This age is sometimes spoken of as a dispensation of grace, as if God did not act graciously toward people in Adam's day, or during the Mosaic period. God has always been a God of grace. The statement of Paul that "We are not under law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14) does not mean that we are under no law at all, for Paul says, "We are under law to Christ" (1 Cor. 9:21). There are those who teach that when Jesus comes back to earth, He will set up His kingdom and reign for 1000 years in a dispensation of justice. The truth is that the whole plan of salvation is a result of the fact that God must always be a God of grace as well as justice. If God were merely gracious, then He would forgive everyone and save everyone. If He were merely just, He would be forced to condemn everyone. In His present kingdom, His grace is predominant, for as we think of our salvation, we should properly praise and magnify that grace. However, if we forget that He also has to be always just and condemn sin, we do disservice to His revelation and His nature. The fact that He is not now bringing all sin into judgment, and punishing it immediately is not strange. He never did under any broad dispensation. In Noah's day His grace was evident for hundreds of years. In the case of Israel, His grace was evident on thousands of occasions over thousands of years.
It would be correct for us to say that during the days when the Apostles were on the earth, and God was dealing with His people with signs, miracles and direct revelation from their mouths, rather than through the written word, that they lived under a different dispensation than we do. We may still classify it in broad terms as "The Christian Dispensation," but if we do not realize that God had a special way of dealing with individuals and groups then that was somewhat different from what He does now, we will be hopelessly confused.
We recognize that the so called tongue-speakers and miracle-workers of today do not understand that, but we have probably added to their confusion because we have sometimes insisted that there are three and only three dispensations. It is true that in a broad sense God's way of dealing with mankind in general was different in what we call "The Patriarchal dispensation," "The Mosaic Dispensation" and the "Christian Dispensation." However, in each of those broad divisions, there were special ways of dealing with special groups, and that way of dealing with a person or group could properly be called a dispensation. Each one of us is a steward of what God has given us, and in that context, the method of God's dealing with us will be the dispensation under which we live. Small children and mentally incompetent persons living today, though in what we may classify as a broad division of how God deals with mankind, are under a different "house law" than others, and in that sense are under a different dispensation.
T. Pierce Brown
Published in The Old Paths Archive